14 January 2017

New Year, new Avatar

If you're sharp eyed you may spotted that my avatar has changed.

I originally named the blog Blue Book Balloon after my Twitter (or the Twitter handle after my blog... to be honest I forget which came first). Either way the name arose when one sunny Sunday afternoon we heard a roaring sound in the sky, looked up, and saw this balloon floating by.

Something about it appealed to me - the blue sky, the blue balloon - and I adopted it as an avatar. I've since then used the pic so many times - it's been cropped, resized, converted, uploaded, downloaded that I'm not even sure the one above is the original photo, though I think it is.

In any case, the version on Twitter was distinctive enough to attract the attention of local balloon enthusiasts, one of whom knew who owned the balloon itself. It was a bit embarrassing at first and I got some mistaken follows from people who assumed I'd be discussing weather conditions and the latest advances in lightweight burner technology but I think they soon realised it was mainly books.

Anyway, jumping forward a bit, this Christmas my wonderful family bought me this as a present.

I should say commissioned, because this stained glass Blue Book Balloon is a one-off, specially made by Purple Urchin stained glass. We have bought various pieces from Jackie before, including a Nativity set - they make distinctive ornaments and lovely presents. (Her studio is open during Oxfordshire Artweeks if you're passing this way when they're on).

So - I've updated the various places where I use the balloon to identify myself - my Goodreads, my Twitter and this blog - and generally spruced things up for the New Year.

Well, it's better than a fitness programme...

12 January 2017

Blogtour! The Dry

The Dry
Jane Harper
Little, Brown 12 January 2017
HB 342pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of "The Dry" for review as part of the tour.

This is a well plotted, compelling and immersive crime novel set in a parched rural Australia. (Outback noir? Drought noir?)

It's the worst dry period for a hundred years, and Aaron Falk returns to the small town of Kiewarra, where he grew up for the funeral of a friend. Luke committed suicide: worse, he murdered his family first.

Aaron himself left under a cloud 20 years ago after his friend Ellie drowned, leaving a note with his name on it. He's not welcome - they won't serve him in the shops and the attitude is graphically demonstrated when someone fills his car with shit. But he is a ruthlessly efficient investigator of financial crime, who may just be the person to follow the money and prove Luke innocent. Together with the local policeman, he sets out to discover the truth.

But if Luke didn't kill his family and himself, there's another murderer out there... with unfinished business himself in the town, is Aaron he too close to events to help - is he, perhaps trying to avoid his open past guilt? By returning, will he stumble back into the trouble he avoided all those years ago. And what, exactly, did happen to Ellie?

So many questions. Is it too late to find answers?

I loved this story in so many ways.

There's the setting - the dusty, tinder dry town and its environs, the peeling, closed shops, the shabby school, the desperate farmers, all seem to denote a whole way of life on the inevitable slide whether you blame global warming, the world economy or those Chinese investors buying up land.

And the characters - Aaron, haunted by what happened when he was 16, Luke and Ellie (because Harper darts back and forward in time, giving us different perspectives and teasing with hints of the story).

Above all, perhaps, there is the sheer quality of the storytelling. The evolving relationship between Luke, Ellie, Aaron and Gretchen, all those years ago, is shown with such a well observed dynamic between the teenagers (even if it does lead to tragedy). Harper takes her time to show them growing apart and together then to introduce the family circumstances around that - always with the twin tragedies in view, always returning to the shattering effect of them on Aaron's life - and his attempts to put things right now.

Will interfering just cause more pain and - potentially - lead to a much greater disaster? Read this book to find out.

It's a great read, deep in atmosphere and psychological truth. NOT one to be missed.

11 January 2017

Review: Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars

Image from http://www.4thestate.co.uk/
Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars
Miranda Emmerson
Fourth Estate, 12 January 2017
HB, 304pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via Netgalley.

It doesn't happen often, but sometimes you get a book and read it and think "this is just perfect". Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars in such a book.

Set in swinging London in the mid 60s, on a few snow-bound days in November, it focuses on a small group of characters brought together - metaphorically: they never all meet and one is in the USA - by the disappearance of the actress, Iolanthe Green, then playing in the West End. The Miss Treadway of the title - Anna - is Lanny's dresser. Brennan - or, as he'd prefer to be called, Brandon - Hayes is the young Irish policeman trying to find her. Orla, Brennan's wide, and their daughter Gracie, also appear as does a young West Indian, Aloysius and the owner of the Turkish café on Neal Street above which Anna lives, and his family.

Emmerson has a deceptively simple style, very cinematic, in which she'll follow one character till they someone else, then switch to them, then to a third person. Sometimes she'll take someone's thoughts back to explore their earlier life, as with Orla, trapped at home by the burden of childcare and almost a stranger to her husband, showing how things came to be.

And there is a great deal to be explained. Several of these characters have mysteries about them. It slowly becomes clear that Lanny has been inventing and reinventing her life. Who are all the people she is paying money to? What happened to her parents? But you might expect that of an actress. It's more of a surprise to learn - gradually - of the other inventions and reinventions going on here. Brennan has a adopted a more English name to fit in among the Met Police, and ways to accompany it - looking the other way when a "coloured" man is arrested for no reason, beaten, traduced or when a girl is brought in for no crime worse that being out late at night in a short skirt. Ottmar, the café owner, has morphed from being a serious journalist back home on Cyprus to a driven supplier of exotic refreshments. Orla has changed. Anna has changed. Aloysius came to London expecting to be a gentleman like those he read about in Waugh and Christie - but now sees that he and his society aren't in those books.

Everybody is busy reinventing or rediscovering themselves, consciously or not, playing with identities, in a society that seems, almost visibly, to be delivering itself of its own future - from the music playing in the "coloured" bars to the memories of wars, of internment, to the stars "said to drink" in those Soho bars and clubs.

But just as you begin to think this is all about rose tinted nostalgia for the 60s, Emmerson pulls out her cosh and whacks you on the back of the head. There are desperate women, who will be ruined or be unable to cope if they have babies. There is casual racism, not even winked at by those in authority, simply accepted. There are all kinds of people dreaming of a better world but creeping round the edges of this one, trying not to draw attention, from the gay men in the top flat to Lanny herself who's buried on the edge of several kinds of ruin.

While the thread that draws this novel together is Lanny's disappearance and the search for her, and we might think at the start it's going to be a crime story or a detective novel, it isn't. There is detective work, yes, and some danger, but really, it's an exploration both of a very distinct time and place and of some brilliant characters who comes across very much as real people, making their way, living with regrets, looking backwards or forwards and trying to puzzle out who they are and where they're going. (And who everyone else is and where they're going to - with cues of class and accent and race studied and acted on and outsiders spotted and excluded: "Nothing can ever be too English, can it? Nothing can ever be too pure.")

There is some brilliantly sharp characterisation - Anna's tendency, for example, so see men as obstacles, as something awkward, potential problems, dangerous: it's a long time till we find out why. Or Aloysius saying sadly "I want the world to be a gentler place than it is... I don't think that is a many sentiment to have." The 'white person nod'. Two lovers who first met at a funeral and fell out of love when a child came along.

It is, simply, a breathtakingly beautiful, heartbreaking and evocative book. Buy it, read it, get it for your friends, family and workmates. Do it now. Go on!

Blogtour! Tell me a Lie by CJ Carver

I'm welcoming CJ Carver to the blog, as part of the blog tour for her new book Tell Me a Lie which is published TOMORROW by Bonnier. It's the next gripping international thriller in her brilliant Dan Forrester series.

An aging oligarch in Siberia gathers his henchmen to discuss an English accountant...

It's Dan's wife...

As part of the celebrations, CJ has written some top tips on how to use a country’s culture in your writing. Today, she's covering how having an awareness of social systems thickens the plot.

Over to her...

First, the swearing.

Profanity is second nature to Australians. It’s regularly used to express frustration, for effect, or for humour. For example, “bastard” is usually a term of endearment in Australia and isn’t considered swearing.

I used the word “bastard” a lot in Blood Junction, and where I was commended by the Sydney Morning Herald on my authentic dialogue, the British press called it “strong.”

Secondly, the history.

I didn’t set out to write about what is now called the stolen generation, but when I sent my character, journalist India Kane, to Australia looking for her roots, this ugly history began to make itself known through an Aboriginal policeman who befriends her. I used it as a sub-plot to enrich the story and (hopefully) inform as well as entertain.

Thirdly, the xenophobia.

Not all Aussies are xenophobic – some are immensely proud of their melting-pot culture - but there are plenty who are. When I read about refugees interned in remote outback camps sewing their and their children’s lips together in protest at their treatment, I knew I had another rich sub-plot.

Each time I look at setting one of my books overseas, I start looking for profound aspects in the country I’m studying.

For example in Tell Me a Lie, the main plot is driven by Russia’s social system. The people’s need for a great leader even if he imprisons, exiles or executes millions of people without due process. Take President Putin. He’s a ruthless, cold-blooded, corrupt ex-KGB officer but the majority of Russian’s revere him for being a “strong man” thanks to being brainwashed by the media which is, needless to say, controlled by the government.

As I got to know Russia better, another sub-plot began to emerge. This one was to do with the psychology of its people. Russians are deep thinkers. They love to laugh, talk and share stories. They love to gossip about mutual friends when they’re not around. They can be blunt to the point of rudeness. But above all, Russians are passionate and fiercely loyal to their country. It was this immense and all inspiring devotion that helped drive the book to its finale.

The third thread I used was Russian spies. Ever since the Soviet era, organised, clandestine agents have operated in the West with daring and ingenuity. A top British intelligence official has recently warned there are now more Russian spies working in Britain than during the Cold war. What better story hook could I want than having a sleeper agent in Moscow demanding a face-to-face meeting with Dan Forrester, my hero?

© CJ Carver 2016

Tell Me a Lie | CJ Carver | Bonnier, 12 January 2012 | PB, 496pp

You can buy Tell Me a Lie from your local bookshop, or here, here or here. Next stop on the tour tomorrow is Crime Thriller Hound.

CJ Carver is the bestselling author of seven crime fiction novels including Blood Junction. She has won the CWA debut dagger and the Barry Award for Best British Crime Fiction.

CJ was born in the UK and grew up on one of the country's first organic farms, before a holiday in Australia at age 22 turned into a ten-year stay.

She has been a long-distance rally driver and is also the founding judge for Women’s World Car of The Year. Her mother, Mary Seed, set the Australian land speed record in 1957.


10 January 2017

Review: Under a Watchful Eye by Adam Nevill

Under a Watchful Eye
Adam Nevill
Pan Macmillan, 12 January 2017
HB, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via NetGalley.

Seb Logan is being watched. He just doesn't know by whom.

When the sudden appearance of a dark figure shatters his idyllic coastal life, he soon realises that the murky past he thought he'd left behind has far from forgotten him. What's more unsettling is the strange atmosphere that engulfs him at every sighting, plunging his mind into a terrifying paranoia.

To be a victim without knowing the tormentor. To be despised without knowing the offence caused. To be seen by what nobody else can see. These are the thoughts which plague his every waking moment.

Imprisoned by despair, Seb fears his stalker is not working alone, but rather is involved in a wider conspiracy that threatens everything he has worked for. For there are doors in this world that open into unknown places. Places used by the worst kind of people to achieve their own ends. And once his investigation leads him to stray across the line and into mortal danger, he risks becoming another fatality in a long line of victims...

Under a Watchful Eye is at first sight a return to a more conventional sort of horror than Nevill's last novel, Lost Girl, where the supernatural was backgrounded. In many ways though, Watchful Eye builds on the atmosphere of the previous book, featuring as it does a raddled, stinking and emaciated shaman-type who has purchased dreadful knowledge at a fearful cost, and a murky sect trucking in such knowledge. There's also a seaside location, with the horror made more fearful by its contrast with the clean natural beauty and (in places) daintiness of the South Devon coast.

The book opens in a very conventional, almost MR Jamesian way, with the appearances of that dark figure, seen only in glimpses or from the corner of an eye. The figure seems to be getting closer and to be inducing animation in Seb's surrounding - in a flapping bit of laundry or a sun umbrella - that are suggestive of something with intention (I won't say, "suggestive of something alive").

Soon, Seb begins to relate all this to a former flatmate from his university days, the dishevelled, drug using dropout Ewan Alexander who haunted Seb's earlier life, drawing him into a smelly, tawdry life among bags of rubbish, unwashed clothes and mouldy walls. A student life, perhaps, dialled up to eleven. Alexander has turned up from time to time seeking money or help and despite all of Seb's protestations, clearly speaks to something from his younger days. So when Ewan does turn up it's not a surprise that Alex doesn't immediately shoo him away but listens to the man hauling two stinking binbags full of crazed, mystical scrawlings which he wants turned into a book.

Seb is, it happens, a successful horror author - though clearly one more conventional than Nevill himself as he remarks later in the story that he couldn't have conceived of a plot as weird as what happened to him.

At one level it's a familiar enough kind of story, as the horrific reaches out into the holiday sunshine of  Devon and lays its grimy fingers on Seb, drawing him back to darker places and showing a terrible reality behind the bright days and salt breezes. Ewan Alexander got involved in something truly dangerous and dark and now it seems to be infecting Seb, as he first starts to doubt his sanity then realises he has a much, much worse problem. As he begins to cut himself off from his (admittedly few) human contacts - a girl who seems to fancy him, his agent - other, shadier figures start to take over his life - until finally, a proposition is put to him - a proposition he has no choice but to accept.

By now we've long left behind the Jamesian antiquarian harassed by clean, straightforward monsters and we're into a a fringe world, inspired partly by '60s theories of expanded consciousness, part by '20s charlatans and showmen. All harmless fun and games until someone loses an eye.

Nevill has a real talent for conveying true, gripping malevolence, not least by reflecting it in the seamier corners of the modern world: "A hint of gas blended through raw sewage. The must of ancient dust under floorboards, mingled with what dirty shoes had left on carpets, where they existed. Cat piss despite there being no cat..."

Always the smell of unwashed bodies, that sticky dust - not the wholesome, hallowed dust of ages from a church or manor house but greasy dusty, dust that infects and in its motes, rises to engulf and stick to you. This is the atmosphere that Ewan brings back into Seb's neat, clean modern house. Later in the book, a suggestion is raised that Seb is - in his latest book - working through issues about cleanliness and the body by writing in this vein, I think it's brave of Nevill to plant the seed of that idea in what may be seen as a partly autobiographical book - featuring as it does, a writer (for Pan!) writing a horror book at the same time as investigating another author of fringe horror.

I'm sure Nevill isn't saying here that he's ever been hooked in by a bizarre 60s ere cult. But you do perhaps get a sense, reading this, of how dwelling among imagined horrors - if only for the sake of writing a book - can prey on the mind. I recall Nevill having said of his last but one book, No One Gets Out Alive, that writing and researching it took him to some very dark places indeed. If the essence of SF (and I'd add fantasy and horror to that) is to take a metaphor and make it actual, then perhaps that's what is going on here with the domination of a horror author by the truly evil.

Under a Watchful Eye is a compelling piece of horror, excellently written and hitting that sweet spot (or in the case of this book, perhaps, foetid spot) between having to know what happens next and not daring to look. I haven't said too much about the later parts of the book because Nevill is playing some clever games here too, which only add to the mood and the implied commentary on horror writing. But you might pay attention to the chapter titles...

7 January 2017

Review: Defender by GX Todd

GX Todd
Headline, 12 January 2017
HB, 450pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

What if the voice in your head didn’t belong to you?

What if it had a purpose of its own?

And if it asked you to kill. Would you?

This is the story of 16 year old Lacey and of Pilgrim, a man who stops his motorbike one day at her lemonade stall and agrees to do her a favour in return for a drink. Together they leave Lacey's cosy house and set out on a trip to find Lacey's sister and niece.

So begins a book that will, I think, beg comparisons with post apocalyptic masterpieces such as The Road. In Lacey and Pilgrim's world, Voices appeared seven years ago. Whispering their sweet corrupt stories into human minds, they provoked sprees of sabotage, murder and suicide, quickly bringing civilisation down. All that's left are scavengers rooting through the detritus - and hunters, preying on the weak.

So Lacey's decision to leave her house with Pilgrim is a great act of trust, reminding me of Robert C O'Brien's haunting Z for Zachariah in the strength and tension of the central relationship as well as in the resourcefulness of Lacey and of Alex.

It's not a book for the fainthearted. Apart from the grimness of a ruined America - burned out shopping malls, corpses stacked up in heaps by the side of the road, dogs roasted whole and unskinned, grim accounts of the killings brought about by the Voices - there is some pretty direct and horrific violence from those human predators, who are ready and willing to capture, torture, use and kill anybody they take a fancy to.

And, in turn, from Lacey as she is forced to defend herself.

As if that isn't enough, Pilgrim has a Voice....

I just loved this story. Lacey, especially, is a fantastically well realised character and her relationships with Pilgrim and with Alex, a woman they meet on their journey, are well portrayed. That with Alex is especially well written and tender, but the writing is of a high standard overall, whether describing a costly battle, the transition from desert scrub to the greener land by the river, or a magnificent ruined city which Nature is quickly reclaiming.

Here's a scene that readers everywhere will connect with, I think. While on the run, Pilgrim has stopped the team at a library to look for books. He doesn't know which ones, but he'll know them when he sees them .

Lacey is aghast: "'You're kidding me, right? You don't even know which books you're looking for?'"

Pilgrim is relaxed. "The mustiness of old books wafted out to greet him, and he inhaled deeply..."

I think we've all been there...

Todd manages to move between little moments like this, extreme violence, and the developing relationship between the characters without missing a beat. She also begins to drop hints of a bigger purpose behind the Voices - and some of their hosts - which I'm sure will be revealed in future books - something to look forward to!

At times, perhaps, Lacey seems to know a little too much for her age and upbringing - raised from age 9 by her grandmother in an isolated house, she's been sheltered from much of the destruction but also from much of modern life, so I think she is occasionally used to provide context she wouldn't have - but that's a small point really.

Overall, this is a great read and promises to be the start of a wonderful series. A superb debut novel.

2 January 2017

Review: All of a Winter's Night

Image from http://atlantic-books.co.uk/
All of a Winter's Night (Merrily Watkins #15)
Phil Rickman
Corvus, 5 January 2017
HB, 487pp

Even if I wasn't married to a Church of England vicar and living in a country village, I'd still be obsessively keen on these adventures of Merrily Watkins, diocesan deliverance advisor and keeper of secrets. As I am, I love sifting over the ecclesiastical politics and spotting what's plausible and what's less so (it's fiction - of course it embroiders in places!)

I also love the writing, of course, and in this latest instalment, Rickman is on cracking form, with Gomer Parry back (fans will rejoice) and a juicy mystery that occupies not only Merrily, Jane and Lol but also Frannie Bliss and Annie Howe. The fun, as ever, is seeing how the apparently separate events unfold and join up - and how close Merrily comes to ruin and disaster in the process.

I felt that the balance between the two aspects was better here than in Friends of the Dusk, with Merrily playing more of a part and dealing with some real spiritual issues, although these were less of the classically horrifying Exorcist style and more knotty pastoral problems with a potential spiritual - supernatural - dimension. Indeed, her biggest problem here is arguable the presence of an interfering rationalist priest with his own agenda. The interplay between Merrily's concerns, Lol's career worries and Jane's personal life is as ever very well done - Rickman creates characters you'd just love to pop down the the pub for a drink with, at the same time as portraying an utterly modern England beset by employment, housing and development concerns.

The atmosphere is also well done, making use of all those nighttime, befogged  trips between Ledwardine, Hereford and various remote rural churches. Rickman has a knack, fully exploited here, of writing place as character, picking up on all those subtle cues that make somewhere seem right... or not...

And speaking of remote churches, it's when one of those crops up that the story becomes positively numinous. Rickman's ability for conjuring meaning and story from the carvings or ambience of the silent building is second to none. (And, yes, I used the word "conjure" deliberately...) This author knows how to tread the fine line between reality and fantasy. We are never told for sure exactly how far the supernatural is real here, only the different perceptions of Merrily, Lol and Jane - and their rationalisations. Yet their reactions are enough to distinguish these books from mundane crime fiction, or event, say, from something like Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries where we're tantalised by a suggestion of the supernatural which is always then explained away.

Rickman is also I think unusual in understanding and in sympathising with Christian, Pagan and (as we see here) other spiritual outlooks, appreciating where they may reinforce and where they may contradict. His writing is a long way from setting up simplistic oppositions - except, perhaps, where it comes to Annie Howe whose disdain for "superstition" is intact as ever. But, as we know (but Merrily doesn't!) Annie has her own contradictions and secrets.

So - excellent, taut, intelligent detective fiction with just a bit of a twist, nice midwinter spookiness and time spent with some characters I've come to know and love. A good start to 2017!