23 November 2017

Review - Artefacts and Other Stories by Rebecca Burns

Artefacts and Other Stories
Rebecca Burns
Odyssey Books, 30 September 2017
PB, 154 pp

I'm grateful to the author for a review e-copy of this book.

Having previously enjoyed Burns' collection The Settling Earth I was keen to read more of her stories and wasn't disappointed. The seventeen here are all, in their different ways, treats. There are stories that find hope in bleak times; stories that leap time, joining moments across the decades through the recollection of a dandelion, a display of hats in a museum, or the gathering of a family after a death.

Many of them come at their point sideways - or, perhaps, they approach it from the margins, from the kitchen, typically, not the front hall. We often get a view from below of history - especially of war, and in particular of the First World War. A soldier home from France mourning the loss of his best mate with whom he shared a death and coat. A last cricket match, the boys taking it slowly, making the afternoon last, before marching off to war.

In keeping with that sidelong viewpoint, Burns often uses food to show what a character is like, where they stand in relation to others. Essential yet often neglected, the meals eaten or a lack of food to eat illuminate lives here.

The first story, The Dandelion, reminded me with something of a shock how controversial the building of the Channel Tunnel once was. We're back in the 80s, pre Tunnel. Monica is travelling to France with her daughter Rachel who's going to study French at a language college. Monica is against the idea and at first seems something of a fusspot, but it's not till the journey stirs painful memories that we understand why - and begin to sympathise with her.

The Last Game, August 1914 has an elegiac qualty, one of a number which examine the impact of the Great War, one hundred years on. It's no less powerful for the fact the War itself is never directly mentioned. Sport as a metaphor for war - and, in England, cricket as a metaphor for life, especially stiff-backed, English imperial life - is a recurring image in fiction from England but Burns does something remarkable and different here, turning the idea inside out. The cricket game being played is at once a rehearsal for the imminent conflict and a means of deferring it. Could we, her characters seem to feel, remain here, now, poised forever in this perfect moment, on the eve of the great catastrophe?

The Bread Princess similarly looks at a series of moments in successive generations in the life of a colliery town through the eyes of the young women chosen to distribute loaves to the poor (they're commemorated in their ceremonial bonnets, displayed in that museum). We see the changing life of the community, families rising and falling, hopes for the future dashed, we see injury, disease and death. From the bits and scraps of stories we can infer the whole sweep of nearly a century in the town. Here we're not trying to remain in a single moment but experiencing history as dynamic, forward moving and vibrant.

Walter Bidelow's Egg sets a change of mood. Rather comic in tone, it chronicles rotund Professor Julian Cramp's attempts to lay hands on a precious dodo egg from what he sees as an obscure Colonial museum. Meanwhile, his wife grows frustrated and his daughter dabbles with Suffragism. Cramp's stomach complains and his weighty breakfasts and dinners act as a fine metaphor here for his (Imperial?) acquisitiveness. But why is this fifty-two year old professor so obsessed with a bird that was notoriously stupid and prone to gluttony?

The Greatcoat returns to the theme of the Great War. A discharged soldier cherishes the coat that sheltered him and his mate on the battlefield (he's supposed to hand it back in within two weeks). A gentle story, teasing out the impact on Jack of four years of war, this is all the more powerful for being low key, understated.

Spark is in the minority here for being set in the present day. Wanda awaits her husband, Ray's, coming come to their house in Alaska. She suspects infidelity. One of several stories that feature women who want, but can't have, children ("the house was a womb of wadded calm") this story also explores a moment in Wanda's life: one where everything seems on hold, waiting, perhaps for a great change - we never find out.

The Waiting Room is another Great War themed story. Here the protagonists - an artist and her brother - have escaped direct consequences, but the preoccupation is still with death and loss, almost more dreadful for being indirect, not a matter of shells and gas but of some more creeping doom. Again, history from the sidelines.

I enjoyed the titular story in this collection, Artefacts, the most of all. Set in 1940, this is the only one with a hint of the supernatural. It revolves around Leah - "the woman in the registry office" - who has a secret ability to "see" things about people by touching their possessions. Following her and a colleague, Patrick, on a date at the cinema, we learn a great deal about Leah and her life with her grandmother. Good on the details, the daily inconveniences, of life in the Blitz, this story is perfectly paced and, I thought, deeply moving. I wanted to know what came next!

In Mayflies of Apollo, Burns agains uses the present day - so many of these stories are historical that those that don't need to delicately imagine the feelings and routines of a century ago almost seem strange, almost seem alien. Daphne hears on TV about a giant swarm of mayflies nearby on lake Erie and, on a whim, goes off to see them. The story works by frustrating the reader, by avoiding what one might expect - some epiphany brought on by the wonders of Nature - when Daphne is unimpressed and leaves in a hurry to take in a new vodka vapour bar.

An Old Man Walks up a Road shows the dangers of keeping family secrets for too long. Families change, it seems to be saying, secrets that might safely be kept at one time grow stale and things need to be shared, and until you're ready to that, relationships will go sour.

Lamb's Lettuce returns to the aftermath of the Great War. Adrian is back in his childhood home. Everything is the same - except that people are older - but nothing is the same. His father's stuffed animals evoke the horrors of war. "The hawk's eyes were black, like drops of ink. No brightness to them at all. And this is how it really is, he thought, remembering figures prone in mud."

In Tide we see a boy and a girl separated by a bridge - more a symbolic than actual barrier but it seems as though they will never be together. As in several of the other stories, there is a moment of choice, a moment of potential change but it's not clear whether it will come to something or just wither.

On This Day shows the dangers of being too drawn into memory, into commemoration. Richard Brakeman sees the past through the events described in one of those "On This Day" books. Starting by recapitulating the start of a Great War attack, he jumps through  variety of personas in an almost Walter Mitty way. But never on a Sunday. In the meantime his life in the here and now, the present, seems to dissolve.

In Cleaning the Gite a woman tends the holiday cottage that she lets out. Why does a baby's bootie, left by a mother who's otherwise been meticulous in clearing up before leaving, move her so? A sort of counterpoint to Spark, this isn a story about a woman who's lost (well, kicked out) her husband, a story of where Wanda may be several years down the line. There almost seems an affinity though between those characters.

Defibrillate gives us a surgeon suspended after an operation goes wrong contemplates her life in a a remote cottage in Scotland. Rather than food metaphors we have the commentary from the surgery to counterpoint her reacquaintance with a figure form her past.

The final story, A Gathering of Relics, features a big, ramified family (the relics of the title). Three generations of women (sisters, aunts, nieces) are gathered for a funeral. (No men - "menfolk always die early") Change may be in the air - Ruth hopes for forgiveness (from who? For what?) Again the story has a sideways feel. A lot is implied, a lot has been going on that no-one wants to state directly: Veronica knows this and uses tricks to bring some of it out in the open. Hovering over all is loss, and secrets and, as with An Old Man Walks up a Road, there is a question about whether those secrets should remain that way, or not.

Overall this is a strong collection of stories. They're all excellent taken separately but the themes that thread their way from one to another - or perhaps, I might say, season them, like a series of dishes prepared in the same kitchen - mean there's a unity and clarity here. Something is being worked out, something about what's missing from lives and how time plays tricks on us all. And Artefacts is well chosen as the title since in that story perhaps we come closest to what Burns is doing here - it's as though she is, like Leah, putting out her hand and touching something significant, seeing the whole in the part - and sharing that insight with the reader,




18 November 2017

Review - The Overneath by Peter S Beagle

The Overneath
Peter S Beagle
Tachyon, 30 November 2017
PB, 336pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

The Overneath is a kind of non-Euclidian, extradimensional connectedness linking certain special places in our world via a ramified set of routes through another - provided you make the right moves. It's discovered by Avram in the story The Way It Works Out And All which is part of this collection and it might function as a useful metaphor for the book. Overneath. "The sub-basement of reality-all those pipes far down under pipes, tunnels beyond tunnels, vast valves and connections, profound couplings and joints and elbows."

Like the imaginary Overneath, this collection joins things up - it will take you to unexpected places. Here be unicorns, and fantasy worlds (well, you might expect that) but also fairytales, urban fantasy, steampunk (of a sort), ghost and horror stories - and a great deal beside.

I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't previously read Beagle but, on the evidence of this book, there is a great range and variety of his work to explore.

There are thirteen stories here, including The Way It Works Out And All. Each is briefly introduced by Beagle. Thus, for example, he informs the reader who hasn't yet encountered Schmendrick the Magician, one of Beagle's most popular characters, of his place in the wider canon before, in The Green-Eyed Boy, we read his "origin story". Schmendrick is apprenticed at an early age to a magician who takes him on almost, it seems, to prove his father wrong to dismiss him. It seems to be a rocky start to an illustrious career, with many mistakes. Part comedic, part fond, the story looks at a boy on the cusp of growing up, and at what that might mean when he has powerful, if ill-controlled, magical abilities.

Then, in Schmendrick Alone, we see the first adventure, in which he confronts an arrogant lord ("His voice had the sound of boot heels in it") and eventually summons something unpleasant that he can't control. Schmendrick isn't the first young and inexperienced wizard to have done this (I thought of Sparrowhawk in Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea), but Beagle's story really captures the reader's attention and shows us why he did what he did (it involves a girl, of course).

The Story of Kao Yu is the first in this book that reflects a recurring theme of unicorns. Set in China - or in a Chinese fantasy mileu - it features a rigidly honest judge who travels the country trying cases and comes up against something he never expected to, something even the unicorn that sometimes shows up in the courtroom to help him out may have trouble with. My Son Heydari and the Karkadann is another unicorn story. The karkadann is a destructive, implacable Near Eastern variant of the creature, modelled on the rhinoceros but is sadly dying out at the time the story is narrated. This is a fact the narrator rather rejoices over, since one karkadann in particular has caused trouble for him and his son - but we feel that it may actually have led the boy to something better.

The Queen Who Could Not Walk is very much a fairy story, with a curse and a quest, love, loyalty, revenge and consequences. Featuring the oft used trope of a king and queen who lose their royal privileges, it shows have true love may still endure.

In a brisk change of mood, Trinity County, CA: You'll Want to Come Again and We'll be Glad to See You reads to me as urban fantasy (although Beagle doesn't use the phrase). I loved this story which examines what might happen if dragons were real, and common, in our world. Who would deal with them and how? Under-funded and hard pressed, it focuses on the D patrol, who police the backwoods of California. At the same time realistic and fantastic, it is very convincing and fun.

Also set in the modern world - but in, perhaps, an SF vein - Kaskia is a strange, haunting story in which a supermarket manager acquires a miraculous laptop. We'll all recognise his nervousness at invoking a feature we don't understand or can't control ("There were keys he carefully avoided touching, software settings he never once changed... areas of the screen where he never let the mouse wander...") but in this case the consequences go far beyond lost data or unfriendly account settings, they place Martin in contact with something that draws him in...

Great-Grandmother in the Cellar is, I think, more of a horror story, if an amusing one, and set in one of Beagle's fantasy worlds. A solid merchant family is confronted by a (one suspects) slightly deranged witch-boy who wants his way with the daughter. Father's away - how will they defend themselves, what resources might have to be called upon, and what will the price be? Creepy, funny, convincing, this was my favourite story in the collection. While not sequential I'd pair it  with The Very Nasty Aquarium which I think is firmly a horror or ghost story and reminded me of M R James classics such "The Haunted Doll's House" or "The Mezzotint". When Mrs Lopsided purchases a pirate figure to place in her new aquarium, she's struck by how keen the shopkeeper seems to be to get rid of it. Maybe she should have paid more attention, as it begins to transform her fish tank into something darker. This story is notable for introducing the redoubtable Mrs Bascomb ("She had taught junior high school English, and feared nothing") who steps in to help.

With Underbridge we return to the fairy story, perhaps, yet in a modern world. A variant on the troll legend, this is the story of a jobbing academic and his obsession with a very unusual troll. Notable for pairing Richardson's gradual slide into despair of ever getting a safe university position with his growing obsession and loss of restraint this story grounds a horrifying and creepy narrative in a modern setting.

Music, When Soft Voices Die is a strange story. Beagle confesses in the introduction that he's got no background in steampunk (a point he then illustrates perfectly by mentioning William Gibson - confusing "cyber" and "steam"?) yet this was an attempt at such a story. Thankfully he eschewed brass goggles and airships and instead produced a rather effective alt-Victorian tale (I think that is the essence of steampunk?) set after a UK-Turkish war which went badly for Britain ("Ramadan came early that year"). Four slightly Bohemian young men occupy a flat in Bloomsbury, where one of them embarks upon a series of experiments. Again almost a ghost story, I felt that this skilfully blended its Western and Turkish themes, as well as - without labouring the point - exposing the casual racism beneath the surface of the Imperial power.

The final story, Olmert Dapper's Day, stands out slightly as it is, while still fantastical, a historical tale, set mainly in New England and based on an actual recorded sighting of a unicorn by Dr Olfert Dapper in 1673. How cool is that? We want to know, however, who Dapper was, how he came to be in Maine, what became of him - and how he met a unicorn. Beagle sets out to answer these questions in what is a beautiful little tale.

Altogether an exceptional collection, a beautiful introduction, as I've said, to Beagle's writing.

One note of warning. The Overneath may be a convenient way to travel, but it doesn't always get you exactly where you expect, and you may find yourself attracting attention from what dwells there. venture in, and eyes will be one you. You may not be the same when you come out.



16 November 2017

Blogtour review - Blood Rites

Blood Rites
David Stuart Davies
Urbane Publications, 9 November 2017
PB, e 288pp

Today we join the blogtour for Blood Rites by David Stuart Davies, the third book featuring DI Paul Snow. You can see all the dates on the tour below.

I'm grateful for an advance copy of this book as part of the blogtour.

This is a short book and a spare one. Despite covering five grotesque murders and going deep into the character of investigating police officer DI Paul Snow, Blood Rites doesn't have the level of detail - or the baggage - of a typical police procedural, or the accumulation of clues, red herrings and deductions of a mystery. (Indeed, I guessed who the murderer was going to be pretty early on - this is not, I think, a "whodunnit?")

Rather, Davies uses the story of the murders to counterpoint the isolation of his protagonist, Snow (the name itself suggesting coldness, and indeed the book does have a socially bleak atmosphere, concluding in suitably wintry weather). Paul Snow is a gay man, a gay police officer, in 1980s Huddersfield. It's not a forgiving time, with Clause 28 and the moral panic in the background - despite being only 30 years ago, it is a bit of a shock to be reminded how things were.

Accordingly, Snow has ruthlessly suppressed his sexuality in order to survive in the Force and in the town. Indeed, Davies flags this a couple of times by having Snow refer to his 'proclivity', rather than his sexuality or orientation - a cold, distancing term if ever I saw one, but accurate in that he's been rigidly celibate for years.

David Stuart Davies
Snow's denial of his nature means he is truly alone. He is not in touch with anyone else who is like him or who might understand. He's begun to cultivate a relationship with a woman - though whether primarily as a smokescreen (he has a boss who 'likes my officers to be married') or as a way to overcome the loneliness, isn't really clear. But even this paradoxically isolates him, as she wants it to develop in ways which, he begins to understand, aren't what he really wants.

Ironically, the story is then a study in how Snow becomes more lonely, more isolated, both personally and professionally, as he attempts to solve a baffling series of murders which seem to have nothing in common bar the weapon used.

As if that wasn't bleak enough, in setting up the crimes, Davies shows us a whole slew of truly desperate people, living far from hope; the girl raped by her father, the despairing single mother, the wife abused by her husband, the young woman so desperate for a few pounds that she'll go home to a seedy flat with an ex-con who picked her up in a bar...

A lot to pack in to what is, as I said, a fairly short book, and it leaves no space for detective theatrics or elaborate theories. Rather, the focus is on Snow's gradual unravelling and on the motivations of the murderer. Of these, I felt that Snow was the more interesting and - not surprisingly - sympathetic.

This was a very different sort of detective fiction from what I'd have expected, more of a book about isolation and corruption than it is a crime or mystery novel. It is truly, exceptionally, dark and atmospheric.


For more information about the book or David, you can visit his website at 

http://www.davidstuartdavies.co.uk/ or

http://urbanepublications.com/book_author/david-stuart-davies/

You can follow David on Twitter @DStuartDavies

Buy the book at Hive here, at Waterstones here or from Amazon here.


11 November 2017

Review - Jade City by Fonda Lee

Image from http://fondalee.com/books/jade-city/
Jade City
Fonda Lee (maps by Tim Paul)
Orbit, 7 November 2017
HB, 498pp

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

Jade City is an extremely readable, smart - and violent - account of life and street power. The setting might, I'd guess, be somewhere, in South East Asia based on the historical background (military occupation some decades ago; a liberation struggle during the "Many Nations War"), culture and atmosphere but the country names, politics and religion make clear that this is a fantasy world.  Not being set in another retread vaguely Northern Europe fantasy kingdom gave it all a distinct freshness. Every detail (the names of cars, models of sub-machine guns, foods) of the intricate, convincing worldbuilding adds something and - since there's a lot of this book - Fonda Lee has the space to do it properly, digressing to give us religious myths, fragments of the history of Kekon, the island where the story takes places, and information about the codes of the families who run the city of Janloon. The map of Janloon itself is a marvel - it could have come straight out a Rough Guide.

It's not only the little things, but the power structures here convince. Take those families. "Family" is a good word, isn't it? Families are warm, nurturing places to be. But the word can have other connotations. As the cover proclaims

Family is Duty. 
Magic is power. 
Honour is Everything.

If that (barring the magic) reminds you of, say The Godfather or perhaps of Dune, you aren't far wrong. At the heart of Jade City is a struggle between rival families for control of the city. It's not a pretty sire, but makes for a captivating read with real tension. In its intricate plots, manoeuvrings, betrayals and - above all - outbreaks of bloody slaughter, the book has an irresistible dynamism, a sort of tragic momentum. We know it's going to end badly but we still watch enthralled as each move and counter-move plays out. Yes, I know that sounds as though it's a film, not a book: it's a very visual book, OK?

Two noble families, alike in dignity, former allies in the struggle for national freedom, descended to the level of mobsters, carving up the city between them, accommodated by a weak and corrupt political class. They were The Mountain, and No Peak. We see the story mainly from the perspective of No Peak, a clan whose aged boss is sinking into senility. The grandson, Lal, is the new Pillar of the Clan; his brother Hilo is the Horn, the military leader, while sister, Shae, groomed to manage the business side as Weather Man, is absent, having rejected the life and left to study in foreign Espenia. The tensions and history between these three will drive much of the action: Lee has provided a triplet of deeply believable, flawed yet human characters and shows is enough of their history to show just where they're coming from, and likely to end up.

It's not only these three who convince. Almost everyone in the book, you might meet on the street or in a bar (though you probably wouldn't want to). In particular there's Anden, the adopted sone of the clan who's at the Academy honing his magical abilities but whose internal conflict - where does he belong? Does he really want to wield the jade? Can he handle it? - is key here

One might almost include the jade itself as a character. How to explain the jade? "Bioenergetic jade", it's described as in one place - by an outsider - and it only exists on Kekon. A focus for power, addictive to those who are sensitive, it can consume its users, enabling the six forms of magic used by the Green Bones, adepts who have learned to control it. (In passing, the author has designed a lovely way of referring to these powers. A character will "jump Lightly" or a bullet will "meet her Steel" meaning that she's used the ability to become nearly weightless, or to deploy an impenetrable barrier against missiles).

When a Green Bones is killed by another, the victor takes the loser's jade. The more you wear, the more dangerous you are - and the more danger you're in. Trade in the gemstones is lucrative, a faultline for clan rivalries (alongside more traditional mob businesses such as gambling or girls). Jade is central to the history, moral system and religion of the Kekonese people - and those who don't have it, like young hoodlum Bero, can hunger for it almost to the point of madness.

With jade, Fonda Lee delivers, I think, a metaphor for corruption, temptation and hunger for power such as I've seldom seem before. Perhaps, as I hinted above, the place of spice in the Dune books is similar, though less extreme: jade is much less a commodity, much more a way of life. It's hard to overstate its importance to the lives of these characters: whether they reject it, like Shae, or want more, like Bero, it's jade that rules here, whatever clan you belong to. Do what you will - dress it up in codes of honour, limit the quantities available as the KJA cartel tries to do, or train yourself to master it - you'll end at the same place.

Even as a reader, I'm hungry for more jade - this book stops at a natural pause in the war that has broken out, but it's not over; "a Mountain is not easily pushed into the sea", we read towards the end. I'm eagerly looking forward to more corruption, violence, good intentions gone awry, and honour bleeding out on the streets of Janloon.




9 November 2017

Review - Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Places in the Darkness
Chris Brookmyre
Orbit, 9 November 2017
HB, 403pp

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

Chris Brookmyre is well known for his successful series of crime novels featuring journalist Jack Parlabane and for his Jasmine Sharp trilogy. Among these, he has also published SF (Pandemonium and Bedlam) and I was interested to see how Pandemonium in particular seems to have divided the fanbase. Look at the Amazon reviews - some baffled crime fans there wanting to know why their favourite author is suddenly writing SF.

Places may have a similar effect, because it's heavily SF influenced (A space station! In space! Mysterious advanced technologies! World governments!)

...but it may not, because it's also a murder mystery.

The hero, Nikki Freeman (aka Nikki Fixx, who can make any problem go away, for the right consideration) is a detective on futuristic Ciudad de Cielo (as Spanish is the majority language in the US, much of the nomenclature on Seedee is Spanish influenced). Nikki is a player, cynical, connected and in the sights of morality campaigners like Helen Pititjean. So having to team up with the straitlaced Alice Blake to investigate the gruesome murder of gangster Omega (the first murder ever on CdC) is not her idea of a good career move.

So far, perhaps, so stereotyped. Nikki is the partner with the street (or rather Seedee) knowledge), Alice the senior, by-the-book cop. We know it'll be Nikki's role to bring the realities home to Alice, show here how things really work. And, yes, there is a big gap on Seedee between the public version - what the four corporations of the Quadriga, who run the place, want everyone to believe - and the reality which is rather, er, seedy. Drinking dens, sex clubs and fighting holes are the least of it.

And Alice will show Nikki that rules are there for a purpose.

So, a run-of-the-mill setup, despite the location and futuristic background?

NOT AT ALL.

I don't think Brookmyre could do run-of-the-mill if his writing hand depended on it. There is so much more here.

First, the relationship between the two women is a novel in itself. Of course there is stuff in both their backgrounds which slowly emerges - and mysteries about their present (why do both keep forgetting stuff?) but that aside they're both, from the start, seriously competent (in different ways) and on top of their jobs. Brookmyre sketches enough of the political background to show how much depends on their success, and how they are invested in their different viewpoints (Alice starts with an almost puritanical zeal: Nikki has a fire of righteous fury in her about the treatment of CdC's more disposable citizens) but he does this subtly and allows us to see the multiple levels of the relationship.

Secondly, there is just enough unreliability in what we're shown that almost until the end of the book, multiple perspectives are plausible. (A quantum novel?) I liked Alice, but suspected there was more to her than she - or Brookmyre - was letting on. I liked Nikki, but I didn't trust her. A lot of the book focuses on memory technologies, ways to assist and manipulate the brain, and I felt Brookmyre was up to a fair amount of that himself. Yet when all(?) does become clear, he had, I think, played fair with the reader. The risk, and temptation, of SF-detective fiction, is that a previously unmentioned technology was responsible for everything. That would be cheating, just as it would in a classic detective story if it turns out to have been a twin who did it all. Brookmyre knows his rules, I think.

Finally, the location is gloriously realised and imagined. From the two Wheels spinning round the Core to the space elevator itself, this is a very plausible city in the sky, large enough to require its own Metro and broken enough to have its own underclass and its own dodgy neighbourhoods (and posh suburbs). There's more than a dash of the noir here though, obviously, no rainstorms. I only found one aspect a little hard to swallow - I don't think rotating cylinders create artificial gravity in the way Brookmyre describes. But that's still a good deal less absurd than the typical Star Trek episode, so let's not quibble.

But beyond that - this book simply has heart. In their different ways, Alice, Nikki and CdC - and its people, especially the forgotten ones - aren't being what they could be they need (different types of) healing. And that isn't going to happen while the four corporations, the Federation of National Governments, who oversee the who thing, tussle over control.

That's even before we factor in the others who have a role here, out in the darkness, who have their own plans - which Nikki and Alice may be part of, whether they want to or not.

Cracking the case will take the two women to the heart of this deeper mystery, to confront a threat they could never imagine.

This is a lovely book, pacy, intelligent, fun, and, as I said, with a big heart. If you read SF, you'll love this. If you don't, you should still love it.






2 November 2017

Review - Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Image from www.nickharkaway.com
Gnomon
Nick Harkaway
Penguin, 2 November 2017
HB, 684pp

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

This has been a hard book to review. I find this is surprisingly often of true the very best books, say the ones you'd give six out of five stars to if you could. The main reason is that while not a short book, it's very compact, the very least it needs to be to reshape the reader's mind and make something new. So it's impossible to distil it any further and present the essence.

Nevertheless, I want to persuade you to go and get this book and to read it next, before the heap of other books you doubtless have waiting. So here goes.

Gnomon is unusual.  It reminds me at times of Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, at other times of Umberto Eco. The structure encapsulates the subject, is recursive and ramified; it is preoccupied, I think, by what is real - which is explored by setting up alternate viewpoints that the reader can only accept if some of them aren't, at some level, real.

Starting with the death of a suspect in custody in a near future UK (after 2040, but it's not clear exactly when) the story follows the investigation of Diana Hunter's life and death during her final interrogation by Inspector The Witness. - an AI supported nightmare of future surveillance policing - all for our own good, you understand.

Hunter was, it seems, a dissident, living off-grid, her home Faraday-caged, her past mysteriously firewalled. As Inspector Neith is drawn deeper into trying to understand her, one question dominates: what did Hunter think she could achieve, resisting interrogation, retreating further and further into her own mind? What was she running from? What was she running towards?

The book makes use of several loosely related sub-narratives, revealed as characters in Hunter's interrogation. Living, experiencing the records of that interrogation, Neith discovers these layers of stories. Are they stories true, within the structure of the book? Do they encode deeper information? Are the subjects real (and at what level?)

The stories begin as fairly self-contained with their own themes and concerns. Then resonances and connections appear. The separate tales begin to outgrow their framing. While there is an explanation within the context of the continuing narrative, rooted in Hunter's mysterious aims, the stories evolve and their protagonists become something more, acquiring deeper purposes and doing things that echo in the (that is, Neith's) 'real' world. But they don't, didn't, exist in that world, as her enquiries show. Just how powerful was Hunter's ability to fox The System? is she foxing us, too? (Almost certainly).

At the centre of the book is a concern with all that data. The System is benign, we are told. It is there for us. Democratic checks and balances are included so that the technology serves us, not the other way round. Yet the result is sinister, Harkaway brilliantly hinting at the doubts that even a loyal and successful member of society like Neith might hold, at the shadows behind the reality. 'All this technology flowed in its earliest days from America. With it came the political and social assumptions of a small number of engineers and entrepreneurs, predominantly male and white...'

There's beautiful writing here ('a lonely detective pursuing or fleeing a killer along a film noir alleyway whose shadows were cast not by dressed net-gothic stone but by the steel and glass of tomorrow's Skid Row'). There's humour ('Here I am, a Greek in a sack, in the back of a truck... It does slightly seem as if it might be a very violent Dr Suess book...')

And there are secrets.  Perhaps the key is a throwaway comment that something is 'like reading a book where all the stories are jumbled up and there's just a line of numbers at the beginning to tell you where to start'.

The stories in this book are jumbled up.

There is a line of numbers at the start...

A fuller review will be published in Shiny New Books later in November - but I didn't want to let publication pass without some thoughts on this remarkable book.





1 November 2017

Review - Malice of Crows by Lila Bowen

Image from www.orbitbooks.net
Malice of Crows (Shadow, 3)
Lila Bowen
Orbit, 2 November 2017
PB, 344pp

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

Following directly on from Wake of Vultures and Conspiracy of Ravens, Malice of Crows picks up Rhett Walker's story immediately after Conspiracy ends. He's defeated the necromancer Trevisan, who was using gruesome magic to control monsters like Rhett - ordinary men and women with the ability to transform into animals, both mundane and esoteric - and compel them to labour building his railroad.

Yes - Trevisan was defeated, but fleeing he possessed the body of six year old Meimei, sister to Cora the healer (who is able to become a dragon when she wishes). Now Rhett - in his persona as The Shadow, avenger of wrongs and slayer of what needs to be killed, must track down Trevisan and free Meimei. Thus the story is really one long chase through the barren wastes of Durango Territory, with Rhett's posse confronting ever more daunting threats (not going to give details because spoilers).

Walker is a Durango Ranger and proud of it. It's his identity, given to him by his beloved Captain. But we learn more in the course of this book about what that means. Rhett's pride in this status takes a hammering: it seems the Rangers aren't all he believed. Not just slayers of monsters, they are a weapon of the 'civilized' world, driving out the native people - and Rhett happens to be one of those himself. In many dialogues with Coyote Dan and his sister, Winifred, Rhett seeks to come to terms with who he is and what his destiny will be. In another sense, he is learning who he is from Sam. Beautiful, golden haired Sam, who he has loved since Rhett was called Nettie Lonesome. The story of Rhett and Sam gives the book a whole different dimension though there are some heart stopping moments when it seems Rhett may give away his former identity. What will happen if Sam discovers how old Monty, his (and Nettie/ Rhett's) former mentor, actually died?

There are secrets here, and complicated identities jostling against each other: in other hands it could all seem overcomplicated but Bowen (Delilah S Dawson) knows just what she's doing and she makes Rhett, Sam, Winifred, Cora, Earl so alive, and drives them along through such a pacy series of fights, flights, escapes and puzzles, that characters and story just leap from the page.

Gradually Rhett becomes more comfortable with his identities both as man and as monster. Bowen animates her story by making the 'outsiders' into so-called 'monsters' who are at the same time the most human of the characters. At one point a frustrated Rhett shouts out that he's 'unnatural': his friends help him see that isn't true at all. But Rhett is a monster and Trevisan, for all his necromancy and murder, isn't a 'monster', he remains just a man. Being able to pass in polite society, wield power and money and claim the protection of sheriffs - and Rangers - is no guarantee of a good heart.

I loved this book. As a continuation of Rhett's story it has the same epic storytelling as the earlier volumes, but I think it explores his personality more throughly and shows him growing. The book is proudly, obstinately diverse, on a number of different dimensions while at the same time being a sharply written, exciting and in some ways endearingly old-fashioned Western, albeit one set in a slightly parallel world with magic - and monsters - acknowledged. Whether you like action, fantasy, a bit of tender romance or just a well-written, entertaining story, you'll find them - and more - here.

The author very kindly answered some questions about the books for me last year - you can read what she said here.



28 October 2017

Review - The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Beautiful Ones
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Thomas Dunne Books, 24 October 2017
HB, 323pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

Moreno-Garcia's new novel is an engaging fantasy-romance with a hint of magic. It's set in Levrene, a country like... well, perhaps a bit like somewhere in central Europe, on a planet a bit like Earth, around the turn of the 20th century. While clearly an imaginary world, many of the place names, both local (Loisail, Montipouret, Luquennay) and remote (Port Anselm, Yehenn, Carivatoo), evoke that, as does the atmosphere of carriages, telegraphs and newly built railways.

Despite these stirrings of modernity it is still a ferociously traditional society, not to say patriarchal, with women's roles in particular fiercely constrained by the rules of etiquette and the fear of what Society will make of any scandal. A woman's only asset is, it seems, her reputation.

Against this background we follow the lives of Antonina (Nina) Beaulieu, a young woman from the country in the capital for her first Grand Season and Hector Auvray ("a castaway who had washed up on a room of velvet curtains and marble floors").

Nina would rather be at home collecting beetles and exploring the woods. She'd certainly prefer not to be under the dominion of her martinet Aunt Valérie. Valérie despises Nina and takes delight in being cruel to her: Nina, young and inexperienced, chaffed at the restrictions imposed on her and unknowingly torments Valérie with visions of what she has lost.

Hector is a performing magician - and here we meet the first feature that makes this book a little different. Hector can, in reality, perform magic - he can move objects by thought alone and has made a spectacular career of this. The place of magic in this book is well thought out - it's not high fantasy, we have no duelling mages here, and on the whole, "Talents" as they're called are accepted, if treated with a bit of suspicion. But there's no doubt Hector is an outsider to the carefully modulated social set who call themselves The Beautiful Ones.

This isn't only because of his abilities - Hector is of humble birth and that isn't forgotten, but he has amassed a fortune, and The Beautiful Ones do crave money for the upkeep of their ragged castles and their lavish lifestyles. ("Nothing matters more than money to us, the proper people who walk down these city streets in pristine gloves and silk-lined garments").

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (picture by Martin Dee)
In fact, the quest for money via an advantageous marriage is ever present in this book, giving distinct echoes of Austen: Aunt Valérie in particular wouldn't be out of place in a drawing room weighing up newly arrived officers and considering which daughter should pair off with which. But there's more to Valérie than that - a tragically romantic past that has marked her life and drives here still. It wouldn't be too much to say she's the presiding spirit of this book, setting much of the plot in motion and pulling strings behind the scenes to get what she wants. It's a chilling, at times frightening role that makes one both hate and pity her. Warped by having had to conform herself and enter a loveless, childless marriage ten years, she's something of a cross between Lady MacBeth and Anna Karenina, she's now determined to inflict the same on others, her own hatred a measure of the love she believes she could have had.

I enjoyed the way that Moreno-Garcia makes Valérie both the voice, and the victim, of the stuffily rigidity society. It's a very character-driven, people-focussed story - beyond names and cultural trappings we don't learn a great deal about wider society, we don't see ordinary people at work or see anything of the politics (apart from learning, in a couple of throwaway lines, that there is a King). Yet by skewering that one one aspect - the position of women in the more privileged layer - we can I think infer the rest.

A very enjoyable read, with characters who felt real to me and about whom I found myself caring a great deal, and gripping to the very end.



25 October 2017

Review - Weaver's Lament by Emma Newman

Weaver's Lament (Industrial Magic, 2)
Emma Newman
Tor.com, 17 October 2017/ 1 Nov2017
e, PB 160pp

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

If it wasn’t for the weavers, what would you do?       
You wouldn’t have your clothes that’s made of wool
You wouldn’t have your coat of the black or the blue
If it wasn’t for the work of the weavers

- Chartist song (see http://thejovialcrew.com/?page_id=1639)

Another adventure for Charlotte Gunn, following Newman's Brother's Ruin, published earlier this year, and again in novella form as is becoming increasingly popular in SFF.

This time, Charlotte's off to Manchester, Cottonopolis, seat of the Industrial Revolution, where vast profits are to be made by the mill-owners. In Newman's world these mills are driven by magic, not steam, so we can expect less smoke in the air, but the workers are nonetheless sweated by their overseers, put up in filthy, cramped conditions and doing fifteen hour shifts in stiflingly hot, dangerous conditions. And they face other threats, too, as looms shatter and the overseers wield their straps to maintain discipline.

Charlotte's brother, Ben, has summoned her to this living hell (what's the quickest way out of Manchester? Drink) to assist him. Once again, she puts love for her brother first and agrees to go undercover in the mill to investigate the nest of Socialists he believes responsible for the damage. But Ben is working for Ledbetter, the magus who Charlotte knows has dark secrets.

This book was great fun, if that's possible in something that also sets out grotesque inequalities and cruelties that are often lost in the soft focus, Hovis-ad language of drama and storytelling. In particular, fantasy, whether epic, pseudo-medieval fantasy or its edgier urban cousin, still too often sees curation of the social hierarchy as the greatest good. In contrast, what Charlotte discovers here will, I suspect, drive her to seek the otherthrow of the hierarchy. It remains to be seen if she will carry her brother with her in that - I fear not, Ben comes across as something of a milksop, a man keen to ingratiate himself with the bosses, wanting his own mill to run.

I'm even doubtful of Charlotte's mysterious ally/ tutor, Hopkins, who pops up Gandalf-like to give advice a couple of times. Is his heart really in a challenge to the authority of the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts or does he have an agenda of his own? (Charlotte certainly has an agenda of her own when it comes to Hopkins, even if she hasn't realised it yet, one her stuffy fiance George may not like much - I can see some of that absent steam reappearing before long...)

In short - and this is quite a short book - this is an eminently readable and at time unflinching view of the Industrial Revolution, blended skilfully by Newman with a dose of magic. Charlotte's awareness of the world around her is developing and she's pitted against a particularly nasty form of exploitation.

I will look forward to the new Industrial Magic, hoping, though, that Newman will be able to write some full-length stories set in this world. The novella form is great but it would be wonderful to let these stories breathe a bit more.



17 October 2017

Review - Shadowblack by Sebastien de Castel

Shadowblack (Spellslinger, 2)
Sebastien de Castell (illustrated by Sam Hadley)
Hot Key Books, 5 October 2017
HB, 352pp

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

Shadowblack takes up Kellen's story from Spellslinger soon after his flight into exile from his homeland and the haughty magicians of the Jan'Tep, accompanied by the mysterious Argosi woman Ferius (whose real name, we learn here, is The Path of the Wild Daisy) and the thieving squirrel cat Reichis.

The story is rather simpler, rather more pared down than that of Spellslinger, which introduced not only the Jan'Tep and their magic (most of which Kellen has been blocked from) but their world (and especially the freespirited Argosi).  It's all about the shadow black, the demon-haunted marking which has cursed Kellen and caused him to be exiled. Others are beginning to show the signs too. is this the start of a plague? If so, Ferius's fellow Argosi, Rosie, maintains that the ominous-sounding Way of Thunder may need to be invoked. Kellen, Ferius and Reichis must investigate.

The book is well written and the story fairly rattles along, presenting Kellen with successive challenges: combat, new forms of magic, and, perhaps, the stirrings of romance when he meets Seneira (the scene where Ferius tries to teach Kellen how to be "handsome" is both funny and touching). Like Spellslinger, it consciously has some of the atmosphere of a Western - most obviously in the outlaw setup and in Ferius's drawling language, but also in Kellen's response to his surroundings: "I might have found the landscape pretty if people here would just stop trying to kill me". Unlike Spellslinger that comes across as... perhaps if I say it's a bit purer? We don't have the Jan'Tep ritual magic setup, we open with the outlaws attempting a heist and move on quickly to them riding the scrub and sage of the Seven Sands. The theme seems clearer, perhaps (not that I'm saying Spellslinger isn't great, it is, but I think Shadowblack is slightly better).

The secondary characters here are also well drawn, from Seneira and her father to Dexan, another spellslinger who knows the trials kelley's going through and offers help - at a price - and the Whisper Witch, about whom I'd like to know a LOT more. They people this world convincingly, and present kelley with new kinds of challenge and as has to ask himself what path he will follow. That of the Argosi? Of the spellslinger? of the student, with people of his own age and background?

Kellen is starting to grow up, to become more confident in his power and in who he is. he is still angry at what has been done to him and at the danger his friends and family are placed in, but we can begin to see him mature into somebody who will be able to do things about that.

I can't wait for Charmcaster, due next May.




14 October 2017

Review - A Long Day in Lychford by Paul Cornell

A Long Day in Lychford (Witches of Lychford 3)
Paul Cornell
Tor, 1 November (PB), 10 October (e)
144pp

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

This book is a continuation of the Witches of Lychford series, but it's rather different from Witches of Lychford and The Lost Child of Lychford.  The change of approach may put some readers off: I felt it makes this book decidedly the best of the series so far.

The story again revolves around Autumn, Judith and Lizzie, shopkeeper, wise woman and Vicar, collectively the Witches of Lychford, protectors of that ancient Cotswold town from outside supernatural threats. Except that, in this book, they're not. Not exactly.

That's where the review gets tricky because I don't want to give too much away. I'll just say that this is a more psychological book, more internally focussed, more driven by the character and experiences of the three and especially, of Autumn. Indeed, Autumn's identity as the only woman (indeed person) of colour in the town is key, here, to understanding what happens. In a story that cleverly hooks into threats in the wider outside world - the divisions caused by the Brexit referendum, the evil banality that is Trump - we see the impact on what are now well-loved characters.

That political angle may alienate some, like Cornell's last book, Chalk, which picked up on the Thatcherite 80s, although of course that is further off and less relevant, perhaps, to non British readers. But it gives the book a real sense of groundedness.

The other respect in which this book is different is that - to a degree - it challenges some conventions of fantasy. For example - and relevant to Autumn's experience - the use of the word "dark" for "evil" is questioned (by Lizzie). And in a story that's pointing up real-world developments around control, exclusion and access, the role of the Witches in "guarding Lychford's boundaries" raises some discomfort. Does this whole outlook not come uncomfortably close to the "let's build a wall and keep them out" rhetoric that we're now seeing?

Cornell isn't so presumptuous as to provide answers to all this, but in a short novella, he certainly raises issues and that gives this story a freshness and interest. No, some may not like it, but I think this is nonetheless an important book in its genre and more widely.

Excellent, and with the seeds, clearly, of further stories planted, I'm looking forward to more.

11 October 2017

Blogtour review - Blue Shift by Jane O'Reilly

Blue Shift (The Second Species Trilogy, 1)
Jane O'Reilly
Piatkus, 5 October 2017
PB, e 327pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of this book and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

This is the story of Jinnifer Blue, privileged offspring of Senator Blue, child of the protected Dome, and of dread pirate Caspian Dax, scion of the squalid Underworld.

It's set in a not so distant future where climate collapse - though cooling, rather than heating - is rapidly making Earth uninhabitable. While some colonies have been established nearby on asteroids and the like, the future of humanity lies in the stars - if we can get there.

And if the aliens whose territory lies in the was allow transit.

It's a harsh, almost dystopian, world that O'Reilly describes, one where the privileged have it easy while the poor suffer. It's grim in other ways, to, from the conditions on the prison ship A2 to the routine use of sexbots for pleasure to a trade in Underworld children to the political machinations behind the plot of the novel. Blue's, and Dax's, stories intertwine as they rightly shouldn't - she a pilot for the Security Service, he a bold outlaw - but they also come to the attention of powerful people.

I was impressed by the way that O'Reilly creates convincing worlds on the variety of space stations, mining bases and craft. It's very much written in tones of industrial grime. These are used settings, not the pristine, optimistic colonies and ships of a 2001 or a Star Trek. In these settings she deploys pretty much non stop action - both combat, and, in a couple of scenes, some very steamy sex, making the descriptions of both effective in driving the plot forward.

For all that, my favourite character in this book wasn't either of the main human protagonists but the intelligent droid, Theon, whose cool, slightly detached humour often lightens the writing and provides a contrast to both the passion and the violence of the humans. He has history with Dax and I'd like to hear much more about this.

The story is very much the first part of a trilogy, with things ending on a cliffhanger: I felt they'd perhaps been somewhat pushed into that, perhaps slightly against the way I'd understood the characters - but it might equally be I hadn't understood how damaged Dax has been by her mother's attempts to control her. The remaining volumes will, I hope, shed more light on that.

For more about the book, see here. You can buy it here, here or here.



9 October 2017

Blogtour - Fox Hunter - Q&A with Zoë Sharp

Today I'm hosting the blogtour for Zoë Sharp's new book, Foxhunter, the latest adventure for her hero Charlie Fox:

Charlie Fox is sent to Iraq to find her missing lover, Sean Meyer, and her mission is clear: to find Sean Meyer and stop him. By any means necessary.

Her boss at the New York-based close-protection agency spells it out chillingly: "If he can't be reasoned with, he must be stopped …"

Zoe has very kindly answered some questions I put to her about her writing and her life. So  over to you, Zoe!

BBB: What inspired you to write in the first place (particular books, something that happened...) —how did you get started writing?

ZS: I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to write. I do recall starting an awful lot more stories than I ever finished, though. I suppose there must have been some short stories, but it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I managed to sustain a plot idea to its logical novel-length conclusion. I still have that manuscript somewhere, but am determined it will never see the light of day. I’m grateful, looking back, that there was no real opportunity for self-publishing back then. Some apprentice pieces are never supposed to be widely shown to anyone.

My first experience with the publishing industry convinced me that I ought to seek an alternative way of working with words, so I started writing non-fiction instead. First came reports for a local classic car club newsletter, then articles for the classic car magazines, and then I branched out into freelance writing for the motoring press in general. I seem to remember giving up my day-job to write full-time on the strength of one accepted article and the promise of more work to come. That was in 1988. I haven’t had a ‘proper’ job since.

It was during the years I worked as a photojournalist (the photography rapidly followed the initial words-only commissions) that I received death-threat letters. They were proper cut-out-of-newspaper things, like a ransom note, telling me my days were numbered and they knew where I lived. It was scary at the time—particularly as the police never pinned down who sent them—and my way of dealing with this unresolved threat was to write through it. So, I started on the book that became KILLER INSTINCT. I finished that book in 1999, and by the following year had an agent and a publisher.

I think that in many ways it’s easier to get into writing now—anyone can start a blog, or indie-publish short stories or a novel—but in other ways it’s harder to earn a living doing so. As I said, anyone can do it, and so many people are that it’s difficult to make one voice heard among the many. The arts are an area where the quality of what you do has absolutely no bearing on how successful you might be.

BBB: ... and what did you expect from it? How did it compare with what you expected?

ZS: I supposed I hoped, like anyone, that writing would be self-sustaining. It has never been simply a job for me—it’s a compulsion bordering on obsession. The idea that I might be able to make a living doing the thing I loved best was a very attractive one. And yes, there are days when I seem to have to fight for every full-stop and comma I get onto the page, but these are balanced by the other (occasional) days when the words just flow, apparently channelled from the ether.

While the business side of things has often proved very frustrating, and the amount of criticism an author can face on a daily basis would make a rhino weep, overall I can’t envision a time when writing would not be an important part of my life. The wonderful thing is, it can be done anywhere I can plug in a laptop and access the internet. I’ve just been crewing on a yacht in the eastern Mediterranean, researching a possible book, and managed to get part of the current work written while I was out there. What’s not to love about that?

BBB: I'm always interested to ask authors if the protagonist came first, or emerged from the story. You write in the endnote to Fox Hunter that the idea of Charlie as a "tough, self-sufficient heroine" had been with you for some time—but was it any more specific than that? Did she change much as you wrote her?

ZS: The protagonist came first, definitely. Charlie Fox arrived more or less fully fledged right from the start. I sometimes joke that she walked in out of the blue one day, pointed a gun to my head and said, “I have a story to tell. You’re going to listen. And you may want to write this down …”

I remember writing the very first piece featuring her, years before I started on the first book. It was a scene of her over-reacting to a close-protection training exercise. At the time I had no idea where that scene might be going, or even quite where it had come from. Eventually it made its way, almost wholesale, into the third book, HARD KNOCKS, which is set at a bodyguard school in Germany. Charlie goes in undercover to find out what happened to a previous trainee, and has to try to play down her skill-set in the face of what proves to be overwhelming provocation.

Yes, she has changed over the course of the series—after all, FOX HUNTER is book twelve. Either you choose to let the character evolve as the series goes on, or you try to keep them forever frozen in time, like an insect in amber. I knew right from the beginning that she was going to change, and although I didn’t plan it, the books have fallen naturally into a series of trilogies as her life and circumstances have altered. The first three are her amateur period; the next three have her working for Sean Meyer’s UK-based security agency; then the following three see her and Sean working for Parker Armstrong in New York, and include major upsets in Charlie’s life. The last three have Charlie coming to terms with the aftermath of that turmoil. And, without giving any spoilers, the next book will be the start of a new period, with new challenges up ahead.

BBB: You've written a string of books now about Charlie. Do you ever find her taking over—or are you firmly in control as you write?

ZS: It’s a nice theory that writers are in control of the world we create, but in practise I find I’m usually just along for the ride. I think this is partly down to the way I plan a novel. I don’t write by the seat of my pants, but neither do I try to work out every tiny detail before I begin. I plan the main structure of the story, the dramatic high points of the plot, but I leave the reactions of the characters to those events to coalesce in a more organic fashion.

Likewise, I don’t do complicated character biographies for new characters in each book, but rather I like to leave them to introduce themselves to me on the page. Some have turned out very differently to the way I originally envisioned them—usually for the better, I hope …

BBB: Is it difficult working with a long-running series and characters?

ZS: I think the difficulties with a series are twofold. How to keep presenting fresh challenges for the protagonist is the first of these, but I suppose the same could be said of any author writing standalone crime novels. I’m always trying to think of a new take on a plot—an approach or a scenario that I haven’t explored before.

In the latest book, FOX HUNTER, Charlie’s role is more that of a detective than a straightforward bodyguard. She is trying to protect Sean, certainly, but by finding out who is really responsible for the crimes he is suspected of committing rather than putting herself physically between him and any dangers he faces. At the same time, it contains elements of the hunt the title suggests—before she can protect Sean, first she has to find him. And she’s not the only one on his trail.

The other difficulty is far more closely related to the fact this is indeed a long-running series, and that is how to present backstory in a new and engaging way. For a start, Charlie’s got history—history with Sean; history with their boss in the New York security agency, Parker Armstrong; and history dating back to when she was still in the military. I try to include a slightly different facet of the story so it will build up into a cohesive whole over a number of books.

With each instalment, I need to get all that across for the benefit of new readers, without labouring the point for people who’ve read the previous books. And in this case there’s also explaining Charlie’s relationship with recurring characters who appeared in earlier books and have popped up again now. Plus, I like to insert something in an earlier book that I know—or at least have a feeling—will come in useful at a later date. Nothing too cryptic, but a nod for those who’ve followed Charlie’s story from the beginning.

So, the brand new Honda FireBlade motorcycle Charlie receives for professional services rendered at the end of HARD KNOCKS, for example, enables part of the storyline of book five, ROAD KILL. A character in ABSENCE OF LIGHT returns to play an important off-stage role in FOX HUNTER. Something that happens in DIE EASY: book 10, will return in the next in the series, so watch this space!

BBB: I can see from Fox Hunter that there's more to come—can you drop any hints about what's next for Charlie?

ZS: Next for Charlie is a change of direction. She’s been changing over the course of the series, as we’ve already discussed, but within the world of close protection. Now she’s going to step slightly outside the safety of that zone. She’s going to move from a profession that is, by its nature, re-active, to something that’s a little more on the pro-active side. More than that, I’m not prepared to say at the moment …

BBB: The book reflects your travels in Jordan—do you normally do a lot of research (and travel!) for the books? (That sounds to me like a great perk of being a writer!)

ZS: I try to do a huge amount of research for the books … and then I try to leave as much of it as possible out of the story. Research is necessary for flavour, atmosphere, and authenticity, but at the same time I am acutely aware that I’m writing a book designed to entertain, not to lecture. It’s not supposed to be a travel guide, or a textbook. But, people love to feel they’ve been privy to trade secrets and otherwise hidden bits of detail, so those are the snippets I try to include.

Besides, there’s a limit to how much you can glean from outside sources—sometimes you are in danger of merely repeating the errors of others. Yes, you can do an enormous amount of research from books, or over the internet, but at the end of the day there’s no substitute for being there if you can make it happen.

Q: You mentioned that you have a book locked away that you wrote when you were 15. Is there any chance of it seeing the light? Or will it get the Terry Pratchett steamroller treatment? (I suppose that's a roundabout way of asking—are you on the side of those who always want to know more about the writing process, or do you think a line needs to be drawn?)

ZS: Oh, the steamroller, ever time! I love insider notes—I’m one of the only people I know who loves to listen to the director’s commentary on movies and TV episodes on DVD, and watch the making-of documentaries, but I don’t necessarily want to see all the outtakes where the actors cracked up, fluffed their lines, or tripped over their own feet. I may want to know how the magic is created, but that doesn’t mean I want it destroying before my very eyes.

BBB: Where do you stand on genre (every time I look there seem to be more of them…)—useful in writing or just a marketing label?

ZS: I’m a bit ambivalent about genre classifications, I have to confess. They’re useful as a general guide, but I think these days there are more books that fall outside the traditional boxes than are contained within them. And authors do try to stretch the definitions. Everyone wants to think they’ve written a page-turning story that is hard to put down, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a thriller in the general sense of the word. When asked this question, I usually quote the one category that caused me the most confusion: cutting-edge cosy. Anybody care to explain that one to me?

Readers do want—and deserve—to know what they’re getting, however. If you invest time and money by purchasing a book, you want the confidence before you begin that it’s going to fall within your sphere of enjoyment, on all kinds of levels. If you start reading what seems to be a straightforward police procedural about a serial killer with seemingly superhuman strength who exsanguinates his victims, you want to be able to trust that you’ll be wowed by how the criminal has been carrying out his crimes and how the detective put together the clues to catch him. You don’t want to find out at the end that the killer is a vampire and the detective used their heightened werewolf senses to hunt him down. If you wanted and were expecting a supernatural element, great. But if not …

I understand there have recently had to be more classifications for erotica, in order to make it clear to both retailers and readers what they might be getting into. Books containing certain taboo themes will find very few retailers prepared to stock them, and I can’t say I’m surprised by this. Just because you can now write and publish a book about any deviation under the sun, that doesn’t mean you should do so.

BBB: Finally, a question that isn’t (directly) about the books. You’ve stumbled into a devious plot while researching a new novel, as a result of which you’re trapped in a lonely forest tower. A rescue party is on its way but will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food and water, and you can have one book with you. Which would it be?

A: Ooh, that’s a tricky one. Besides, I’m already off down the road of wondering what the devious plot that I’ve stumbled into might be, and what the interior of this lonely forest tower might look like or contain, and what perils the rescue party might be encountering on its way to me. And …

Anyway … one book, huh? A dictionary. Preferably a very large and comprehensive one, that not only gives the meaning of words and phrases, but their original derivations and altering usage as well. I love words in all their forms, and strolling through such a dictionary of treasures would keep me occupied no matter what obstacles were put in the path of my plucky rescuers. Maybe even long enough for my hair to grow so they could climb up into my tower? Nah, who am I kidding? Soon as their couple of days was up, I’d improvise some weaponry out of ordinary household items and fight my own way out.

Zoë, thanks for those answers, which shed a lot of light on your writing and on Charlie Fox in particular. Before I go off to ponder what "cutting edge cosy" might be (razor sharp knitting needles?) can I remind you that you can buy the book through Zoë's website (link below) or from various flavours of Amazon - and to catch the other stops on the blogtour (see poster for details).

Zoë Sharp’s criminal tendencies were predisposed when she was born in Nottinghamshire within sight of Robin Hood’s hangout in Sherwood Forest. She opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and blames her lowbrow sense of humour on spending far too long hanging round with mechanics. She believes life should be lived the same way as riding a motorcycle—with one knee on the deck and the throttle wide open. www.ZoeSharp.com


7 October 2017

Review - Strange Sight by Syd Moore

Image from https://oneworld-publications.com
Strange Sight
Syd Moore
Point Blank, 5 October 2017
PB, 369pp

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

This is the second in Syd's new series about "witches, magic and Essex Girls". My review of the first, Strange Magic, is here and a piece she kindly wrote for the blog, about Essex Girls and Essex witches, is here.

Another adventure for museum owner and Benefit Fraud investigator Rosie Strange and her curator and sidekick, Sam Stone. Barely having drawn breath from the events of Strange Magic, they're contacted by erstwhile hardman Ray Boundersby who's having a spot of bother at his restaurant.

Psychic bother.

Ray's not a man you say no to - at least, not if you're fond of your kneecaps - so Rosie and Sam pack up their (well, his) spookhunting equipment, leave the Essex Witch Museum, and begin to ask questions. Of course, by the time they do this we know - from the rather gripping prologue - that there is rather more than a few ghostly knockings in play here. Murder has been committed, murder of a specially gruesome kind, and Ray's daughter Mary is in the frame...

Moore's pair of investigators - not, please, "ghostbusters" as they keep telling everyone - are well placed here, in pursuing their own enquiries, to also unravel the murder mystery - a perennial difficulty for modern-day amateur and private investigators in crime stories. And make no mistake, this is a crime story - whether or not the perpetrator turns out to be living flesh and blood. But it has other aspects too, of course and indeed one of the things I enjoyed about this book was the sharp way that the investigation bobs to and fro between criminal and psychical investigations, with information often relevant to both sides.

Another was the personalities of Moore's two main characters. I have to be honest and say they might not appeal to everyone - neither is exactly likeable: Strange is, well, a strange combination: excellent good at reading others (except for Stone) and ultra confident, but often almost clunkingly un self-aware. As a result her narration is very funny at times, but you might well not warm to her (I did!)

Stone is more enigmatic, but then we don't get his viewpoint, only Strange's perception and this is - I think - distorted by the fact that she fancies him but doesn't ever quite come out and admit to herself. Yes, I think I see where this going but I hope Moore keeps them apart for a few more books because it's more fun that way.

The story takes Strange and Stone out of Essex into London, where the restaurant "La Fleur" stands, just off Fetter lane, north of Fleet Street. (Weirdly I was walking past that corner only yesterday). The spooky goings on require them to delve into the nastier side of London't past and, indeed, present. While that was very interesting I felt the book slightly lost its distinctiveness there - a LOT of UF has been written in the vein of "London's past comes back to haunt us" and one of the things I liked about Strange Magic was that it wasn't drawing on London.

Nevertheless, Moore does an excellent job here of highlighting a real historical scandal with echoes in the present day and this also means the story is a bit more grounded than Strange Magic was so I think the visit to London pays off - I just hope our heroes are back in Essex soon. I think they will be, because alongside the main plot, Rosie's been learning more about her family background and that, also, screams MYSTERY in 36pt flashing neon gothic. So while there was perhaps less in this book concerning the Museum, and Essex, we have some pointers that more is to be learned about both.

Overall, then, a good followup to the earlier book, keeping things moving nicely, baffling the reader as to just how much of what's going is supernatural, and setting up an intriguing mystery for the future. Not all the loose ends from the crime were tied up (why the flour?) but I can live with that as long as I've got plenty of Rosie and Sam to distract me.







5 October 2017

Review - The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

The Crow Garden
Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books, 5 October 2017
HB, 366pp

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

In Littlewood's latest horror story we are back in Victorian England, visiting that quintessential Gothic location (second, perhaps, to the ruined Priory), the lunatic asylum.

Dr Nathaniel Kerner has taken up a post at Crakethorne Asylum, described most encouragingly in the opening chapter: a brooding, chilly building beset by wind and haunted by the crows after which it is named (Grey stone was unleavened by lightness or decoration") and presided over the Dr Chettle who, we soon learn, has little interest in his patients and spends most of his time pursuing phrenology - even then, a marginal and quackish science. Kerner has tragedies in his own past and is driven to earn the (posthumous) approval of his discredited father, indeed one might think he's not the most stable and suitable of characters to be treating the "insane" (as they're labelled).

Despite this, Kerner's ideas of treatment by talking seem modern and enlightened compared with the regimes of blisters, bleeding, electric shocks and cold baths apparently in vogue at the time. The book is sharp in its perceptions, discussing what's almost a hierarchy of establishments practicing more or less modern or primitive treatments, and of the way this plays into the choices made by those responsible for committing unfortunate relatives to their "care".

In particular, Kerner's life is to become entangled with that of Mrs Victoria Harleston, committed for shrinking form performing her "wifely duties". Mr Harleston is eager that his wife be brought to obedience and presses Kerner and Chettle to do whatever is necessary. The scenes in which Littlewood exposes the situation of a woman at the mercy of the (male) law and society are some of the most chilling I've read in fiction, supernatural or otherwise - but that isn't the end of this story. Rather there is much, much to be told with Victoria herself emerging as a fascinating, passionate and contradictory character - especially compared with poor Nathaniel who's mostly two steps behind her. (indeed, as a viewpoint character he can become a bit tiresome at times, with his assumptions about women's fragility and a rather touchy ego to boot - at others his pomposity becomes almost endearing).

Littlewood uses a clever motif to explore Victoria and Nathaniel's relationship, quoting from Byron (for her) and Robert Browning (for him). These are their preferred poets (the good Doctor rather huffily confiscating her book of Byron's verse which he declares unsuitable and likely to make her delusions worse) and indeed as the story proceeds they take to referring to "my poet" or "your poet", the subtlety of the relationship marked by Kerner's beginning to see more passionate depths in his Browning that he had realised before. The whole effect has something of the Gothic romance - and claustrophobia - of Wuthering Heights combined with the menace of Wilkie Collins or Dickens exposing the cruelty of the Victorian mental health system. At the same time, this system is contrasted with short but spells that do, indeed, promise "asylum" from the darkness without, moments when the reader does begin to hope for some good resolution.

Reading over this I realise I have said anything about the supernatural elements in the book - well, they are there, contributing especially to the brooding menace of the final part but in this story the burden of the horror is, I think, really borne by darkness that emanates from humanity. The questions the story raises - about sanity, madness and evil - are independent of whatever it is those restless crow spirits may be up to, and in the end, it's man (or Man) who is the monster here, I think.

An excellent, chilling, autumn read, all about the dangers of power, obsession, and guilt, this is sure to be another hit from Littlewood to follow up The Hidden People.




4 October 2017

Review - Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng

Under the Pendulum Sun (A Novel of the Fae)
Jeannette Ng
Angry Robot, 5 October 2017
PB, 400pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

Under the Pendulum Sun is a remarkable book. It's at once gothic, literary, magical, and comfortable with the viewpoint of a mid-Victorian world of missionaries and Christianity (whilst equally comfortable dissecting their viewpoints).

To begin with, the story looks as though it is going to be a variant on the Heart of Darkness/ Apocalypse Now myth: a White Man has disappeared or gone rogue in Native Country and must be tracked down, at some peril. Here the White Man is missionary Rev Laon Helstone, and the would-be rescuer his sister Catherine. We see Catherine at the start travelling to a far country by ship and the story is largely narrated from her point of view 9others being introduced only as diary readings or quotations).

The twist is that the far country is the country of the Fae, Elfland, or as it's called here, Elphane, or Arcadia. Through some colonialist triumph the British Empire has secured rights to "open up" Arcadia to trade and influence just as it did countries like China and India: exactly how isn't ever clear and doesn't really matter. Laon, as a dutiful son of the Church of England, has travelled to convert the heathen ("those that languished in the grim epires without word of the Redeemer") - but nothing has been heard from him and so his worried sister obtains the blessing of the missionary society to seek him out.

We discover in time that there's more too it than that, of course, and so the story begins...

Arcadia itself is a well realised, fantastical and gruesome creation, spread out as it is under a sun that is, literally, a pendulum. Ng makes this deeply credible, emphasising not the magical nature of the pendulum but its obedience to physics, with the period constant even as the amplitude changes over the seasons. The idea is curious but works and counterpoints the even stranger nature of Arcadia's moon.

The inhabitants of this unknown country are convincing, too, from Mr Benjamin the gardener (and the only convert) to Miss Davenport the changeling to the frightful Queen Mab, who has taken an interesting in the missionaries and their doings. Then there are the less structured residents such as the "ethereal sylph faces" glimpsed in the mist and the "gnome forms" with a gait "like that of a strutting Lancashire moonie". There are strange beings such as the Salamander, cook to the mission, and the court of Queen Mab with its clockwork revellers

Most of the story is set in a remote house, ominously named Gethsemane ("...more of a castle than a manor, a knot of spires and flying buttresses atop a jagged hill...") which has been granted to the mission. Here Ng is able to indulge in all the trappings of Gothic - from that spiky first glimpse, to the mysterious Lady in Black to the Door to Empty Air which will keep opening in the night and letting bad dreams in. In case this sounds over the top, it's actually marvellously grounded through such details as the salt "from human hands" which must be sprinkled on food to make it safe ("Captain Cook and his crew, the first British explorers to reach Arcadia, were said to have perished because of their misdealings with salt"), or the marvellously convincing chapter headings: Ng quotes equally from real 19th century texts (including some wonderfully pompous hymns and religious tracts, which she does amend somewhat but I couldn't see the joins), from the "journals" and writings of her characters and from fictitious histories. The effect is very convincing, and - although you don't spot this until some way on - she's also laying a trail of breadcrumbs that, with hindsight, shows a little of where the plot came from. I've rarely seem such careful or effective worldbuilding, with the reader never feeling that there's an infodump going on.

All this creates an increasingly menacing atmosphere as the mysteries deepen. Where is Laon? What is the nature of the relationship between him and Catherine? There are hints that it is very intense for a brother and sister. ("I had been taught to tame my wild impulses" she remarks at one point and "I remembered the curve of his ears agianst my lips") In passing, the details of their early life seem rather Bronteish - the remote moorland background background, writing fantasy stories about toy soldiers, dead siblings ("...the very idea of ghosts both enthralled and repulsed us. We had buried so many in our youth.")

Above all, what is the real nature of Arcadia, and what part to Laon and Catherine have to play there? In a world which is all shifting mist, surface glamour and illusion, what is there to hold onto? Will faith serve, or are Catherine and Laon they so far from the face of God as to be cast adrift? What are they even doing there? I think it's a notable achievement to write a work of modern fantasy that takes seriously ideas such as the soul (do the Fae have them?), transubstantiation and the proper interpretation of parables (Mr Benjamin is troubled and raises many questions about the Bible with Catherine: she doesn't have the answers).

If you think seem rather dry, Sunday-schoolish questions, that couldn't be further from the truth. This is in many ways a deeply sensual book - not only in the more obvious sense ("I leaned into his touch... at some point he had dropped the rag and it was his hands that traversed my body...") but in its focus on the nature of the body, the soul, its characters' real sense of sin, of shame, of temptation: the possibility of literally going astray in this strange land (at one point we visit the Goblin Market, where anything can be had, for a price). Identities, and with them, whole systems of values, shift - almost as though Arcadia is a furnace of the self, melting down and reforging the very self and calling forth strange, grotesque behaviour (This was not the innocent games of our past selves, even as I wondered how innocent our games had been").

Ng's writing is first rate and this is an enjoyable, immersive book that is able both to take seriously the perspective of its Victorian characters and to show their worldview under assault from a cultural encounter for which they're wholly unfitted. It's a haunting, intricate book which is like nothing I'd read before. I'd strongly recommend it.