31 December 2014

Post Christmas tidy

My son's LEGO collection grew last week, demanding extra space for display.  One set in particular - a glorious '20s style cinema - is rather ominous as it is part of an interlocking streetscape... the first part we have, but I suspect not the last: Lego helpfully provide a range of other compatible models, and I suspect some of these will be arriving in due course. (Son's birthday is a couple of months away). It is an "expert" level set and suggests that he has arrived at a level of Lego mastery - and expense - that will consume shelf space even faster than books do

I share a spare bedroom with Son which we use as an office/ sitting room.  When we moved in two years ago, I arranged my older files on top of an IKEA unit... which it turns out is an ideal site for a LEGO street.  So I've been clearing some space: most of the files and papers weren't needed, really. (To think that in 2004 I would carefully print out online instructions for networking a Mac and a PC, or the online help for "My Mac runs slow" or whatever...)

Anyway, these clearing exercises are never containable and of course I didn't stop till I'd rearranged everything on my desk, everything under my desk, the piles of papers and books hidden under the bookcase and a lot else.  Which brought to light something I thought I'd lost, this little book.

It's an edition of AE Housman's A Shropshire Lad which belonged to my father - although looking at the publication date (1922, Grant Richards, London) I now suspect it was handed down to him, as my father was only born a couple of years before.  My guess is it belonged to his father, who dies in the early 50s.  My father's parents separated when he was small - he used to tell a story of his mother taking the children away to Wales, where they were supported by her in-laws, and him (my father) riding his tricycle round on the platform at Paddington Station while his parents argued.  (Just try that today!)

I don't know what led to this split.  It would presumably have been a great scandal in the 1920s, especially given that the family (both sides) were strict Methodists - but the family were clearly taking his mother's side.  All old history now - I never knew my grandfather (I was born in the 60s)  and I have a faint memory of my grandmother as an old lady sitting up in bed.

Whatever, I'm glad that I found the book.  Apart from the family connection, it is a beautiful object (with, I think, cut pages) and I find these verses - tales of doomed youths awaiting the gallows in Ludlow town or going away to war - very moving, if somewhat sentimental.  It may not be the greatest poetry ever, but is very readable, quotable - and of course has a deep resonance today.

Which may seem a gloomy note on which to end 2014, but I do find New Year's Eve a gloomy (if somewhat sentimental) time.  

Best wishes to anyone reading this for 2015 (if it is 2015 for you)! 

Books I'm looking forward to in 2015

I keep a spreadsheet to track books that are coming out, and I've been reviewing 2015 (need to get those orders in early if I'm not to miss anything!)  I search online (You Know Where) for new books by authors I've already read, and trawl blogs, podcasts and Twitter for advance news.

I find You Know Where is useful as a database for this - it will often tell you whether an author has something new up to two years ahead. It's also a good way to cross check information from other sources (publication dates can change!)  And you don't actually have to buy from it if you don't want to.

So, based on all that, here are some books coming up that I hope to be reading and reviewing next year...

January (6)

Jo Walton's The Just City (8 Jan) comes highly recommended by various SFF podcasts I follow.  I haven't read any of Jo's books before but it sounds intriguing - a marriage of Greek philosophy and fantasy.  Out on 13th is Adam Sternbergh's Near Enemy, a sequel to his Shovel Ready, a lovely cross between fantasy and noir set in a decaying New York of the future.

Weathering by Lucy Wood (due on 15 Jan) is - I think - her first novel.  I absolutely loved her recent short story collection Diving Belles so am keen to read more by her.

Dead Girl Walking by Chris Brookmyre (22 Jan) is... by Chris(topher) Brookmyre!

The Boy Who Wept Blood by Den Patrick (29th) is a sequel to the Boy With the Porcelain Blade, set in excellently imagined, Italianate fantasy that has, I think, dark secrets at its heart.

February (5)

Neil Gaiman has Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances coming out on 3 Feb.  My son and I got terribly excited when Gaiman visited Oxford a couple of years ago promoting The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and signed at our local bookshop.  This is a must, though I have no idea what's in it.  Rook Song by Naomi Foyle is due on 5 February, a sequel to Astra, one of the books I enjoyed most in 2014: a political, ecological saga set in the near future.

Then there's The Death House by Sarah Pinborough - more Sarah Pinborough! Yes! - and Touch, both on 26th, by Claire North.  I found North's earlier urban fantasy, written as Kate Griffin, hard to get into - but then last year she wrote The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I enjoyed immensely (with Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, multiply iterated parallel lives seem to be having a moment...) and I want to see what she does next.

To round off February, we have A Darker Shade of Magic on 27th by VE Schwab.

March (3)

Company Town by Madeline Ashby is out on 3rd March.  Another one recommended on the podcasts, I'm also intrigued by the description.

"They call it Company Town – a Family-owned city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes.  Meet Hwa. One of the few in her community to forego bio-engineered enhancements, she’s the last truly organic person left on the rig. But she’s an expert in the arts of self-defence, and she’s been charged with training the Family’s youngest, who has been receiving death threats – seemingly from another timeline.  Meanwhile, a series of interconnected murders threatens the city’s stability – serial killer? Or something much, much worse..?"

There's a new book by Ian Tregillis, The Mechanical, on 10th March.  His Lovecraftian alt WWII/ Cold War trilogy was entrancing, and then followed up by Something more than Night,  which read as though Milton had turned to writing pulp fiction, so I WANT this.

Finally, on 19 March, there's Glorious Angels by Justina Robson, whose Quantum Gravity trilogy I loved.  Description runs "On a world where science and magic are hard to tell apart a stranger arrives in a remote town with news of political turmoil to come. And a young woman learns that she must free herself from the role she has accepted."

April (3)

Blood, Salt, Water by Denise Mina on 9 April is the latest DI Alex Morrow book, a series which I'm enjoying a lot.

Then there's a new book by Magnus Mills, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, on 23 April  (23/4)  Mills, Magnus.  Like A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, this seems to be a book with historical parallels but not set in actual history, as it were.

Then the next day, 24 April, there's The Machine Awakes, the second in Adam Christopher's SF Spider Wars.  The first book, The Burning Dark, was a wonderfully atmospheric ghost story in space.

May (4)

My most anticipated book of 2015 is A God in Ruins (5 May) by Kate Atkinson. Based in the same world as Life After Life this is apparently focussed on a different character from the earlier book - I'm intrigued how that will be managed amongst the multiple timelines!

May also has Collected Fiction by Hannu Rajaniemi on 12th, and The Last Post by MR Hall on 21st, the next of the Jenny Cooper series.  Cooper is a coroner with a troubled past and a knack for exposing awkward truths, a wonderful character who just gets more and more interesting.

Finally, for the first half of next year, I know nothing at all about Seveneves (19 May) by Neal Stephenson but - Neal Stephenson!

In the second half of the year there is a new Laundry novel by Charles Stross, and The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas, short stories by China Mieville and another book(!) by Adam Christopher.

I don't have so many books on my list as I did this time last year, and more of them are (I think) short story collections, or first sequels to brilliant books published last year - so perhaps 2015 will be more of a year of consolidation than 2014?  Of course there will be lots of stuff that I don't know about yet, so as ever, it will be an exciting year.

Enjoy your reading in 2015.


23 December 2014

Books I Liked in 2014

Looking back at 2014, I see that I read 70 books (using my Amazon/ Goodreads reviews to keep track: I haven't posted everything to this blog).  Which was the best?  I'm undertaken an unscientific enquiry.  First I've arbitrarily divided these according to genre/ sub genre (based on my own judgement - not necessarily how they were marketed) purely to help with this assessment.  That gives the following.

Then, I have chosen the best/ my favourite in each category, and finally, picked an overall winner.

The categories are

The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber), Firefall (Peter Watts), Bete and Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (Adam Roberts), Extinction Game (Gary Gibson), The Long Mars (Pratchett/ Baxter), The Burning Dark,  Hang Wire and Brisk Money (Adam Christopher), Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation/ Authority/ Acceptance) (Jeff VanderMeer), Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome (John Scalzi), Descent (Ken Macleod), Resonance (John Meaney), Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (Apollo Quartet 3) (Ian Sales), A Highly Unlikely Scenario: Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World (Rachel Cantor)

The largest category.  I'd been waiting for something new from Faber for years, and Strange New Things didn't disappoint.  Similarly, Firefall followed and completed (or did it?) Watts' earlier Blindsight (strictly, Firefall contains two books, Blindsight and its sequel, Echopraxia but I've treated as if it was just the latter).  Adam Roberts books are always readable and challenging and I enjoy seeing him find new ways to trash the Thames valley.  Extinction Game was immense fun.  Long Mars was slightly disappointing.  Adam Christopher had clearly been very busy and I found his books engaging and fun.  Descent was challenging and satisfyingly labyrinthine.  The third part of Sales' Apollo Quartet was a slight change in tack from the previous ones, and I didn't enjoy it quite as much, but it was still excellent and I'm looking forward to the final part. Rachel Cantor's book was manic, exciting and fast-paced.

My favourite? Taking them together, the VanderMeer Southern Reach trilogy which combined beautiful writing with a creepy vision of an alien incursion which was nevertheless so "thisworldly" that I half believe it's true.  Favourite individual book would be Ken Macleod's Descent which does something similar for a new-future Scotland - and that book has my very favourite scene of the year, where the combined armed forces of the civilized world invade and suppress every tax haven.  I can dream.

City of Stairs ((Robert Jackson Bennett), Europe in Autumn (Dave Hutchinson), Smiler's Fair (Rebecca Levene), Broken Monsters (Lauren Beukes), The Boy with the Porcelain Blade (Den Patrick), Plastic Jesus (Wayne Simmonds), A Different Kingdom (Paul Kearney), Bone Song (John Meaney), Liminal States (Zack Parsons), A Man Lies Dreaming (Lavie Tidhar), The Islands of Chaldea (Diane Wynne Jones), The Murdstone Trilogy (Mal Peet).

City of Stairs for the way it tackles a post-colonial world (involving dead gods, of course) in a truly original and yet believable way. Also for one of the best fantasy hero(ine)s I've ever read.  (But Liminal States pushes it close for sheer verve and use of multiple genres in one book and A Man Lies Dreaming for audacity.  And Europe in Autumn has taught me to persist longer when I'm not getting engaged - it blossomed so much in the final two thirds that I nearly missed something very, very special indeed.)

Urban Fantasy
The Ghost Train to New Orleans (Mur Lafferty), Vicious (VE Schwab), Banished (Liz de Jeger),
Something More Than Night (Ian Tregillis).

Vicious, which was violent, refreshing and original. (Actually, they we all violent, refreshing and original, it's just that Vicious was slightly more so...)

Apocalyptic/ Dystopian
Red Rising (Pierce Brown), The Chimes (Anna Smaill), Station Eleven (Emily St John Mandel), Astra (Naomi Foyle), Bird Box (Josh Malerman)

I give up on this one.  They were all so good I can't decide. Perhaps Station Eleven for sheer humanity and a new angle on post-apocalypse. Or Astra for politics.  Or...

Horror/ Ghost stories
Revival (Stephen King), No-one Gets Out Alive (Adam Nevill), Touched (Joanna Briscoe), The Unquiet House (Alison Littlewood), Murder (Sarah Pinborough), The Voices (F R Tallis), Rooms (Lauren Oliver), The Supernatural Enhancements (Edgar Cantero), Blood Kin (Steve Rasnic Tem).

No-one Gets Out Alive.  Left me feeling grubby, and listening for creaking sounds in the night.

Supernatural crime/ espionage
Foxglove Summer (Ben Aaronovitch), The Rain-Soaked Bride (Guy Adams), The Rhesus Chart (Charles Stross), The Severed Streets (Paul Cornell).

The Severed Streets, not only for audacity in use of a real person as a character but also for a well realised and menacing alt-London.  Looking forward, though, to the next Laundry book, which is apparently told form the point of view of a different character...

The Informant (Susan Wilkins), Dark Tides (Chris Ewan), Twist (Tom Grass), The Silkworm (Robert Galbraith), Mr Mercedes (Stephen King), The Girl in 6E (A R Torre), The Axeman's Jazz (Ray Celestin), Glow (Ned Beauman), The Burning (MR Hall).

The Axeman's Jazz was simply in a class of its own, not only in its language and the portrayal of the characters but also in its humanity.

Anthologies/ Short Stories
Dead Funny (ed Robin Ince and Johnny Mains), Dark Entries (Robert Aickman), Rags and Bones (ed Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt)

Dead Funny - horror stories by practising comedians sounds like it ought not to work, but most are brilliant, subtle and some deelpy human and touching.

The Table of Less-Valued Knights (Marie Phillips), Crooked Heart (Lissa Evans), Everland (Rebecca Hunt), Nunslinger (Stark Holborn).

Crooked Heart, for its different take on the myth of the Blitz and the deeply human portrayal of two characters on the edge.

Retreat (Liza Costello), Ajax Penumbra: 1969 (Robin Sloan), Tigerman (Nick Harkaway).

Hardly fair, this one, as the first two are both shorts, and the Harkaway really outguns them, but it's my catch-all for realist, non crime, you know, what might be called "literary", perhaps.  Arguably Book of Strange New Things might go in here as it's not actually very SFnal in feel?)

And my overall winner?

As my favourite over the year, City of Stairs. As the best done, probably No One Gets Out Alive, but it's hard to say a book that creepy is the one you loved most!

22 December 2014

Thoughts on "Red Rising" by Pierce Brown - spoiler warning: thoughts, not a review.

Red Rising
Pierce Brown
Hodder, 2014
Paperback, 282 pages

Bought from my local independent bookshop.

I find it endlessly surprising and fascinating how, in a world of Twitter and blogs, I now find books to read.  "Red Rising" is a good example.  I somehow managed to miss this book despite it getting lots of praise when it appeared earlier this year, but finally picked it up last week in anticipation of the sequel which is due early in 2015.

I only did that because I saw Liz of Liz Loves Books claiming on Twitter that she'd been proselytising in a local bookshop, urging complete strangers to buy the book.  It's always good seeing that kind of passion, and she also mentioned that there is a sequel coming, so I asked if I should give it a try...

Before I go any further, I should warn you, if you haven't read the book, that below THERE ARE SPOILERS.  I could review this book briefly but I really want to discuss it in more detail because at actually made me think.  So, proceed on that basis.

At first, I did wonder what all the fuss was about. The setting - a pitiless, hierarchical society that keeps its most downtrodden, the "reds", slaving in the mines of Mars - is well drawn, but it didn't seem anything special.  We're introduced to Darrow, the main protagonist, one of the reds, who toils in atrocious conditions to produce the minerals that are needed to make Mars habitable. If they strain every muscle and meet their quote, they may get a little more food to share, a few more comforts, and Darrow shows himself bold - almost reckless - in straining to achieve this.  It's all a con, of course, and we pretty soon see that things are rigged to set the different miners against each other and keep the elite - the "golds" on top at all times.

Darrow suffers, having done nothing wrong: his wife is killed and is sentenced to death.  He has no choices but to die or to join a vaguely sketched rebellion.  The rebels want him to infiltrate the Golds' (the ruling caste) elite academy, the Institute, where the cosseted sons and daughters of the rulers are toughened up and turned into future commanders.  The idea is, I think, that Darrow will rise and use his position in the hierarchy to bring down the system.

More about that below, but first I just want to say how brilliantly written and compelling Browns' subsequent narrative is.  Forming the final two thirds or so of the book, this is essentially the story of a war, both between the aspiring Golds and between Darrow and them (and the system they're all trapped in).  Quite simply this part of the narrative rises to a whole new level.  Forget the improbability that Darrow would even get so far, or the scientific implausibility of aspects of the book (mining for helium-3, for example).  The writing simply sweeps all before it.  Darrow is drawn with great mastery; he is among enemies on all kinds of levels.  The stakes are high for him - discovery will lead to a cruel death, not only for him but for his family and clan.  For the sons and daughters of the Golds, losing means disgrace, but nothing more: think The Apprentice with swords.

Or does it?  Things may not be quite that simple and - as becomes clear - things are rigged at all levels.  The world of the Golds is supposed to me "meritocratic", that is, to let the best rise in order to preserve the order of Society: but as we know, power corrupts and those who have it aren't willing to let their own offspring go under.

That brings in a whole level of complications which Darrow must overcome if he is to win - and survive.  But the setting he's in brings more. It's awkward, but he discovers that the Golds aren't all monsters: and perhaps some of the things he has to do and more monstrous than anything which has been done to him.  How is he to pursue his mission - and his revenge? - amongst this?

I was impressed by Brown's command of the realities of the situation here.  Darrow is bound to be compromised.  For example, he falls for a girl, one of the other competitors, who turns out to have close connections to the worst of his enemies.  He discovers that another is also a Red is disguise - and has to kill him.  (Shades, perhaps, of GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday in which the Central Council of Anarchists is entirely composed of police infiltrators.  I have a hunch that many of the most powerful Golds may be disguised Reds, and that this may even be winked at as a means to recruit the strongest, most driven new talent as a counterweight to the corruption caused by ingrained privilege).

The story of what happens in those "games" is, in short a lesson in power and a lesson in division: the structure of the mines is repeated at all levels, with friend set against friend, brother against brother (and sister). It's a compelling springboard for the second and third volumes in the trilogy, where I hope to see some of the paradoxes of Darrow's rebellion explored - quite simply, "change will not come from above" and I don't see how command of a starship, or a fleet, is going to allow him to topple the rule of the Golds and bring his fellow Reds up form the mines.

I wonder how long it will take him to learn that?

 Or whether he will manage to avoid the dead end and achieve what he really wants?

Whatever, this is a trilogy where decisions matter, where there are real consequences and you can feel the reality of the choices.

I am so glad that I listened to Liz and got this book!

20 December 2014

Review: Nunslinger by Stark Holborn

Stark Holborn
Hodder, December 2014
Paperback, 614 pages

I was sent this book by the publisher through Bookbridgr.

I've never been a great reader of Westerns, and I'd find it hard to say what attracted me to this book in the first place, but I'm really glad I tried it.

Set in 1864, against a background of the US Civil War, this is the story of Sister Thomas Josephine, a nun sent on the dangerous journey West to join a convent in Sacramento.  When the waggon train she is travelling with is attacked, she is abducted by the notorious outlaw Abraham C Muir.  The two are a mismatched pair, but as they bicker their way through the wilderness, a real friendship seems to form between them.  Will it survive brushes with the law, hunger and cold, and the rapacious spirit of greed abroad in the Frontier towns?

Forced by circumstances to take up arms, Thomas Josephine finds her beliefs challenged and is forced to take up arms.  As the "Six-gun Sister" she becomes a terror across the west - and has  a bounty set upon her head. With every shooting, every encounter with law or army (whether North or South) it seems less likely she will be able to find peace and security as she wishes, still less the life of prayer and good works that she has been trained for.

The book was fun to read, has a relentless, page-turning rhythm and, as the blurb promises, serves up cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger.  Perhaps a little too much so - it's not long before the reader knows full well that Thomas Josephine will escape (more or less) intact from every dire situation.  While this diminishes the tension somewhat, Holborn has set out a broad enough canvas that he's continually able to find something to surprise with and as the book draws to its climax we begin to learn what has really been going on and how what seem like random, picaresque adventures have something of a guiding hand behind them.

This isn't a book for the squeamish: there's a great deal of violence (visited on both guilty and innocent alike) and the most pleasant seeming of characters can turn rapidly bad. Thomas Josephine is at the centre of things, both morally and in terms of action, struggling to keep her vision alive, to walk in right paths and to escape the notoriety that has engulfed her (girls in the  towns she passes through are soon playing at being the Sister).  How far she achieves this is unclear, but the ending feels right for the spirit of the book.

3 December 2014

Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber
Canongate, October 2014
Hardback, 584 pages 

I bought this book from our local independent bookshop.

I have been looking forward to reading more Michel Faber for years and years.

Like his last book, The Fire Gospel, published in 2009, "Strange New Things" has an ostensibly religious theme.  Peter is a missionary, recruited by the inscrutable USIC organisation, a private company or foundation carrying out space exploration.  We never learn what the initials stand for, or much else about USIC, except that it seems to have very deep pockets, having bought out NASA's former assets following a worldwide financial crash.  USIC send Peter to a far planet to minister to the planets's indigenous people.  It isn't immediately clear why USIC wants a missionary - though we do learn eventually that it's not a "Bible in one hand, gun in the other" situation: the Oasans (or at least, some of them) have demanded a replacement for Peter's predecessor.  They are keen to hear more of the Book of Strange New Things (which is what they call the Bible). Again, we are (eventually) told why, but for much of the book it's a puzzle; Peter seems to have just too easy a time as a missionary with his willing and receptive flock and a supportive "employer" (the crew on Oasis are ordered to give him pretty much whatever he wants).

In other ways, he doesn't have such a good time.  The crew are cooperative, but emotionally distant.  Peter seems abstracted, continually forgetting what he has been told or done. Due to his forgetfulness, we're sometimes placed into situations cold, adding to the sense of weirdness that Faber skilfully applies to his alien planet - as if rain that gently explores one's body, or a featureless planet where the only landmarks seem to be regular, predictable storms weren't odd enough already.  Mysteries abound - why did the Oasans (who are friendly and happy to trade with the humans) up sticks and move their settlement 50 miles away from close to the human base?

On Earth, where Peter's wife, Bea, is left behind, things are even worse.  A string of disasters unfolds - earthquakes, tsunamis, more financial collapse, food shortages - which we only hear of secondhand through her messages to him.  (No answer is given as to whether these disasters are somehow related). There are also personal crises and tragedies. The USIC people at the base seem to be screened from these, and show little interest when Peter tries to tell them: but he also loses interest quickly, absorbed by his work among the Oasans - which takes him away for weeks at a time from the machine that mediates between him and Bea. (And why is this device limited to text messages? Why won't cameras work on Oasis?)

So a gulf grows between husband and wife, with Bea's messages increasingly perplexed, angry and despairing and Peter's increasingly cold.  He appears, in fact, very much a cold fish altogether and of the two it is Bea I found easier to relate to, Bea who I wanted to hear more about, Bea who is, frankly, more interesting.  She appears both more active than Peter - we hear a lot about the people she is helping, the difficulties in her daily life, the plans she is making.  Peter, in contrast, mooches off to stay with his congregation without even considering that he might need to take supplies with him.  Frankly, he appears selfish. Not a likeable protagonist at all - yet an interesting one.  I don't think I was ever sure whether he is desperately sad but suppressing his feelings in order to serve God; whether he is really as shallow as he seems; or whether he is playing a manipulative part (from snatches of information about Peter's earlier life this seems distinctly likely).

It's an intriguing book, a great slab of what comes over as very realist SF.  We hear almost nothing of how the spacecraft can reach Oasis; as I said above, the disasters are never explained and while the alien civilisation is imagined very well there's almost no context, no setting: we have no idea where Oasis is.  There is a here and a there. Oasis and Earth, that's all.  Is it even a new planet?  The description of the journey, the limited communications, constrained information, did make me wonder if the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, set up in a warehouse somewhere on Earth.  But the Oasans don't really fit that idea, even before one considers their bizarre language, represented in the book by its own symbols.

It isn't always an easy read.  One block for many will be Peter's (and Bea's) evangelicalism. What is Peter actually doing on Oasis and what does he think he'll achieve? I'm a Christian, but not that kind of Christian. I found myself wanting to shake him and ask "Look at what you're losing! Look at all you could be doing at home on Earth! What is the point?"

Peter's mindset is more alien to me, frankly, than that of the "alien" Oasans.  So Faber has aleady created  distance there.  I think it's brave of him to write something that uses religion as a motivating factor like this given how secular society is now. Like "the Crimson Petal and the White" there is a sense of Victorian-ness about the outlook. (Of course, The Fire Gospel also took religion seriousness, and Under the Skin set up an encounter with aliens that was in many ways a diabolical inversion of Peter's gentle preaching).

There's so much more I could say about the book - from its sheer physical beauty (the white dustjacket, with gold embossed patterns and the title also embossed on the board cover, resembles a wedding or baptism Bible) to its length (plenty to get stuck into but the pages fly by) to the enigmatic hints about Peter's and Bea's troubled early life - but I will I think just end up gushing.  This book simply bowled me over, and you should read it, if you like strange new things - and who doesn't?

23 November 2014

Review: Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

I bought this book from Waterstones

Foxglove Summer
Ben Aaronovitch
Gollancz, October 2014
Hardback, 394 pages (Waterstones edition with extra short story)

In this fifth Peter Grant book, Aaronovitch is on top form, as is Peter. Two girls have gone missing in Herefordshire, and Grant heads out of the city to investigate any Folly-related aspects of the case. It's a refreshing change from London, for us and him, and a nice departure in a sub-genre where - implicitly or explicitly - serious business ends at the M25.

So, here, while Peter is very much "of London" and the strapline on the cover - "Two missing children. One lost copper" - hints that he may be out of his depth - he isn't fazed by being in the countryside, and instead shows the same professional approach to policing (natural and supernatural) as in the previous books, getting himself attached first to the missing girls' families as a liaison officer and then working methodically as part of the enquiry. I always enjoy Aaronovitch's refreshing alternative to the "lone gun" stereotype of crime fiction (or for that matter, the "lone wand" model of supernatural fiction!)

As a reader of Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series (about a vicar who investigates mysteries in her role as diocesan exorcist) which are set in the same area, I did wonder if there'd be any crossover... and indeed, at one point Grant is told he should talk to the local vicar... but, probably wisely, this doesn't go any further (Ben/ Phil - maybe though, one day, we could have short story...?)

The book is to some degree also fairly standalone within its series, with little need to have read the previous books (though Beverley Brook does turn up to help Peter). Given events in Broken Homes, Lesley Sharp is off the scene and Nightingale is tied up at the Folly. So there's not much development of the ongoing "faceless man" theme (though we do finally discover what actually happended at Ettersburg).

In all, a good addition to the series, broadening its range and showing that Aaronovitch still has a great deal to do with these characters - it's far from running out of steam (indeed the climax rather depends on it).

15 November 2014

Review: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

I was sent a copy of this book for review by Amazon Vine.

Crooked Heart
Lissa Evans
Doubleday, November 2014
Hardback, 288 pages

I loved Lissa Evans' previous novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half.  Like that book, "Crooked Heart" is set in Britain during the darkest days of the Second World War - and again, it follows the lives of ordinary people through that time, against the background of the London Blitz. Evans is good at describing the lives of people caught up in, or affected by, terrible events but without, directly, addressing those events: a refreshing approach, I find.

Ten year old Noel has been brought up in Highgate by his eccentric (though rather wonderful sounding) godmother, Mattie. She was a suffragette, and brings him up in a take-nothing-for-granted, fight -for-what-you-believe-in fashion. However, as war comes, bringing changes such as the erection of an anti-aircraft battery nearby on the Heath, Mattie becomes stranger and stranger - and one day, Noel finds himself quite alone. he has to leave his home and move in with his stuffy uncle and aunt (there is a slight frisson about just who Noel really is) before being evacuated from London to St Albans and placed in the care of Vee.

Vee is something of a chancer: she is already struggling to keep her family together -  a useless lump of a son and a Starkadder-like mother who had a nasty shock years before and never speaks who Vee  runs herself ragged keeping fed and clean.  Hard enough at the best of times, but a nightmare in wartime when you can queue for an hour at the fishmonger only to find that all the hake is gone at the end of it.

Noel and Vee are an ill assorted pair; it's clear Vee has taken him on for the sake of the ten shillings a week provided to foster parents, and for his ration book - while Noel is all closed in on himself, missing his godmother. The book shows very movingly, though, how the two grow together and begin to support one another, at first of necessity, but later - as things get darker and darker with an edge of real menace - from real affection and feeling.

The wartime background to this book isn't quite the one we're familiar with from countless cheery, we-can-take-it films and history books. Yes, we CAN "take it": everyone, it seems, is "on the take", stealing or creaming off what they can, some just to make ends meet, others with profit in mind. There are scams to avoid the call up, thefts by air raid wardens from empty homes, dodgy dealings with stolen fuel, fake charity collections, false identities... with the ceaseless bombing, queueing and shortages becoming almost like the weather, just something going on out there, to be accepted with a shrug.

That background does, though, suddenly loom terrifying close, demanding a response from both Vee and Noel. This all feels very real to me - people aren't heroes, at least not most of the time. And when they are, it's in the most unlikely ways.

A wonderful book.

9 November 2014

Review: Dark Tides by Chris Ewan

Source: I bought this book at Blackwell's

Dark Tides
Chris Ewan
Faber & Faber, October 2014
Hardback, 448 pages

Presumably aimed at the Hallowe'en market, this book follows events taking placed among a group of six friends on 31 October - Hop-tu-Naa on the Isle of Man which we're told is the local version of Hallowe'en.  Early on, we get a glimpse of a mother determined to inculcate the local traditions in her daughter, though I couldn't for the life of me see much difference (or any, really) between these and the wider trick-or-treating of the English speaking world.

What is different here is the private rite of the six friends, who adopt the habit of a yearly dare on that night itself, taking turns to specify what is to be done. Of course, the dares become more complicated - and more dangerous - and they become especially personal to Claire, whose mother vanished years before on Hop-tu-Naa.  Is Claire's desire to know what happened that night deluding her about the dangers she is running, or will solving that mystery save her as things begin to take a deadly turn?

Ewan doesn't tell his story sequentially: while all the action takes place on - or around - a Hop-tu-Naa, they aren't presented in order. While that maintains the mystery to a degree - we don't know all of what Claire knows till the very end - it inevitably lessens some of the tension since we can keep checking what the date is and inferring that she will escape more or less unscathed from the current hazard...

Until that last Hop-tu-Naa, of course...

This is a pacey and engaging thriller, where the real mystery is less what has happened (though that features) but what will happen, who, if anyone, will survive and how damaged they will be if they do. Definitely one to be read on a dark winter's evening, and I suspect it wouldn't get the wholehearted endorsement of the Manx Tourist Board.

2 November 2014

Review: A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

A Man Lies Dreaming
Lavie Tidhar
Hodder & Stoughton, 23 October 2014
Hardback, 288 pages

Source: Purchased from my local independent bookshop

In this book, as with his earlier Osama, Tidhar plays games with an alternate version of a real monster. This brilliant, haunting book raises many questions about guilt, evil and redemption but gives few answers, instead, it leaves the reader to ponder.

In another time and place, it is November 1939. Down-at-heel German émigré Wolf is a Chandleresque private eye living in squalid Soho among prostitutes and posturing Blackshirts. In this reality, The Nazis never came to power in Germany, but fled when the Communists took over. Wolf once was a Somebody, now he is a nobody, eking out a living as his old comrades prosper.

And, as befits a Chandleresque fantasy, one day, a dame walks in to Wolf's shabby office, a dame with a problem.

We soon learn that Wolf, too, has a problem - his client is Jewish, but he is an anti-semite, indeed, an ex-leader among anti-semites. So slternating between his diary entries and third person narration, we see him struggle with this case, a case he is forced to take on to stay alive in that very cold winter, but a case with which he becomes strangely absorbed.

The questions, of course, come straight away. Wolf, in the manner of PIs in Chandlerseque novels, is warned off, attacked, arrested, released and beaten again. He - the real Wolf, the man who rose to power - was an evil monster, so this must be deserved, surely? Yet the Wolf of the story, while vile, isn't that monster, is he? He took the first steps to monsterdom but never made it to the summit. Instead, here, in a swipe I think at current times, we see other monsters - Mosley and his followers - speaking of a country being "swamped" by foreigners, while Wolf sees the nationalist rhetoric turned against him and his Germans. We see American agents, proponents of "regime change". We see a murderer, watching from the shadows and killing those same prostitutes whom Wolf despises, but never harms.

If you're the sort of reader who has to have "sympathetic" characters, don't even start this, you simply won't get it. Nobody in London, 1939 - except perhaps one or two minor characters - is "sympathetic". They live in a tainted world, where the night has eyes, and all choices are bad ones.

Yet there are sympathetic characters in the book. Interleaved with Wolf's story are fragments of lives in the camps, where Shomer, a writer of Yiddish pulp tales, labours for his tormentors. Is Shomer dreaming Wolf? Yes, to a degree, though of course the detail of Wolf's life, the politics of 1939 England, the life Wolf lives is beyond what a Shomer would know. is Wolf, perhaps, dreaming Shomer, as he - Wolf - haunts a 1939 that seems to foretell 2014, with ghostly outlines of modern London and ghastly, hate filled rhetoric from a vile and bigoted politics.

How to write about the Holocaust? Tidhar asks this question explicitly and returns to it in his endnotes (which meticulously document what's true both in the camp narrative and in Wolf's life). Like this, is his answer. Compellingly, vividly, keeping those big questions of guilt, memory, good and evil in clear sight but never supplying glib answers.

It's an enthralling book, filled with violence, depravity, lots of graphic sex, humour (Wolf runs into his old friend Leni Riefenstahl, who's starring in a film about a little bar in a war-torn North Africa: "We'll always have Nuremburg" she sighs) but above all with intelligence and an unflinching view of history - both what it was and what it might be.

By far and away the best book I've read this year, confirming Tidhar, in my view, as a towering writer not just (just?) of fantasy but of literature.

22 October 2014

Review: No One Gets Out alive

No One Gets Out Alive
Adam Nevill
Pan, 23 October 2015
Paperback, 627 pages

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

This is a dark book - very dark indeed.

As with Nevill's previous book, House of Small Shadows, and some of his short stories, the book is a masterclass in creating a creepy atmosphere by layering ordinary, everyday seediness - that flyblown shop you avoid going into, the dodgy looking flat you decide not to rent (if you have a choice) - with a sense of roiling evil.  It's all damp plaster, clinging smells, scuzzy bathrooms and tacky lino.  And dust, lots of dust - but not clean, bookish dust: no, it's sticky dust, the kind the collects behind the cooker like a kind of growth, perhaps.

Stephanie Booth is down on her luck, poor, almost homeless, struggling to survive on bits and pieces of temporary work, having left home because of a violent (and possibly abusive?) stepmother.  She has no choice but to take what's offered at 82 Edgehill Road, Birmingham, even though it comes with a leering, sneaking landlord, Knacker McGuire, who seems to have his own plans for her.  Once Stephanie has handed over her deposit money she's basically trapped, unless she wants to sleep on the streets, and has to put up with the filth, the strange night time noises and bad dreams.

Stephanie's plight is authentic and convincing: this isn't one of those books where the protagonist ignores all the warnings and still visits the old, empty house to be haunted and driven out of their wits. There's no artificiality here, and the book gets very dark even leaving aside the supernatural, exploring misogyny, human trafficking and abuse, and even the antics of a twisting and distorting media.

Indeed, it gets so dark, and Stephanie is in such jeopardy in this respect, that I worried halfway through at the way that the author seemed to be following a rather well worn trope here.  However Nevill successfully avoids this, immediately by keeping his supernatural threat in play even as we are see very harrowing levels of actual violence and ultimately by tracing the origin of the McGuires and their predecessors to that supernatural angle.

It's a fairly long book, at over 600 pages, and while it begins as apparently a conventional ghost story (those noises in the night) which is frightening enough, it soon develops into both a mystery (what are the McGuires really doing, and why?) and a fight for survival - a fight which lasts right up to the final page.

The story is engaging - you'll really need to know how it ends up - though harrowing and difficult in places. In the McGuires, Nevill has created a couple of the most brutish villains I've read for a long time, although even then he remembers they are people, and the eventual revelation of what is behind them almost makes one pity them.

This is a book that will stick in my mind for some time, I think...

12 October 2014

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven
Emily St John Mandel
Picador, 10 September 2014
Hardback, 384 pages

I received a copy of this book through the Amazon Vine programme. Although I got a proof copy  free to review, I liked it so much that I went out and bought a copy.  Although the hardback comes with a little bit extra, this isn't something I'd normally do...

I really like it when an author messes with the template.  In this case, the collapse of civilization: how does a representative cross section of humanity (well, Western, technological humanity) cope?  This kind of thing is often the excuse for dog-eat-dog survivalist posturing; for showing off deep learning about how to service a generator or bootstrap agriculture; even for setting out theories about society or religion.

The master of that kind of thing was of course John Wyndham - indeed he was so good at it that, for all the datedness of his books, more recent attempts always seem to fall short.  But Emily St. John Mandel takes this hoary old idea and.. kind of.. rotates it out of the page.  So, while her flu-borne plague is credible, her aftermath compelling and its reality certainly gritty, we don't get a lot about exactly how people survive. Instead we get (for example) a beautifully told account of a bunch of travellers caught in an airport as things fail.  They start as bored, stranded passengers.  They emerges as survivors.  How does this happen?  What chnages does it cause in them?  At what point do they stop following instructions, leave the lounge, and start poking around in the off-limits areas? How long does that take?

Perhaps the book has its flaws: it might be nice to know a little more about how people survive. But, frankly, you can work that stuff out for yourself if you really want to.  what makes this story work is people - the marvellous characters who fill the book.  It is, in the end, about people.

An excellent book which has been well praised but, for once, deserves the hype.

In other places, the book is reticent.  We are told, for example, that eight year old Kirsten, who is on stage as a child actor when the crisis occurs, doesn't remember the first year travelling with her brother.  It's implied that the memory was too awful for her: but Emily St John Mandel isn't interested in dwelling on that (no doubt dramatic, no doubt compelling) awfulness.  Instead she shows what kind of person Kirsten has become, how resourceful and confident she is - but for Kirsten it's more important that she continues to act, with the "Travelling Symphony", that she searches for further installments of the comic book, Doctor Eleven, that she obsesses over the famous actors, Arthur Leander, who died that first night.

Though he doesn't survive in the new era, Leander's life frames and guides the story.Many of those we follow knew him, or were his family or associates.  Some of them survive, some don't, but their paths continue to cross (in credible ways).  St John Mandel uses this connectedness as a device to pan from character to character, back and forward in time, using (but not commenting) on the connectedness of the world - which is both a strength (most people don't collapse into savagery and violence but try to make lives amid the ruin) and a weakness (all those links are brittle).

Again, this genre is often cursory about the backstory, just telling you enough to make it plausible who's going to be the heroic leader, who the weak traitor.  But more than half - I think - of this book takes place before the disaster.  It's not just establishing life histories: it's part of the narrative, telling you about the survivors (and some of the non-survivors).  Because in the end it's a story about real (fallible) people.

4 October 2014

Review: Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver
Hodder & Stoughton, 25/9/14
Hardback, 339 pages

I was sent this book for review by the Amazon Vine programme.

There is a house.  It is haunted.  Someone inherits and comes to the house and is scared...

I don't know how many times I've read this story.  Sometimes the story is scary, sometimes it's not.  Sometimes the focus is on the mystery - where did the ghost come from? - and how the protagonist can solve (and save himself or herself).  Sometimes, it's more of an excuse for a frightfest.

So I had some reservations about this book.  Lauren Oliver triumphantly inverts the template in "Rooms".

Yes, there is a haunted house.

Yes, people arrive.  Richard Walker has died, and his estranged family (mother - alcoholic Caroline. Daughter - Minna. Son - tortured teen Trenton. Granddaughter - oblivious Amy) come to Coral River settle up.  But rather than being terrorized by the ghosts (needy, prim Alice: blowsy Sandra) the Walkers bring their own issues, their own histories with them and catalyse a healthy dose of self-reflection by the house's occupants.

The story is told in a rather lovely counterpoint, in the voices of successive characters both living and departed, focused in turn on each of the rooms in the house.  As well as exploring it in space, we also go backwards and forwards in time, to see both the earlier lives of the Walkers, and the origin of the ghosts themselves.  This is a haunting told, at least in part, from the Other Side: we see the shock of Alice and Sandra as they recognise the children, grown up and gauche, no longer the little angels they knew. There's a great deal of sadness - both Alice and Sandra have their secrets, their regrets, and some of these emerge as the Walkers explore the house, turning up evidence of this and that.

We also see the family - especially Caroline - trying to come to terms with their own past.  The ghosts are trapped by their history, with no possibility of escape: will the newcomers escape that fate?  Will Caroline be able to put aside her drinking, Trenton... just grow up (I liked Trenton, he's a wonderful evocation of a moody, uncertain teenager, but oh is he annoying at times!), Minna stop chasing anything in trousers (the mailman; the funeral director; even the policeman who calls in to ask about a missing girl)?

It's a marvellous way to explore a web of family relationships, all made flesh in the substance of the house itself, the same house which gives reality and form to the two ghosts.

A completely different take on the ghost story,  and a great read.

Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train
Paula Hawkins
Transworld, 15/1/15
316 pages

I am grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.  It is though going to be tricky to review - much of the information is hinted at, inferred and only emerges after a degree of teasing.  There’s a lot of potential for spoilers.

If, like me, you commute by train I'm sure you will have gazed out of the carriage window into the back gardens of houses beside the line. Often, the track is raised up, and you can see right into the garden, or even the house.  Though people are protective of their privacy at the front, nobody seems to realise just how much you can see from the train - the weed choked gardens, of course, the neat gardens, those with trampolines and sandpits... the house with a pair of deck chairs on a flat roof, the bike stored on a fire escape, posters in the bedrooms… what Hawkins has done is to imagine how much you might see if you really looked, if you saw the people as well (which, to be honest, you generally don't at eight in the morning, as they're probably also on their way to work too).

That idea of peering into someone else’s life is very powerful. 

But of course lives seen like could be very deceptive.

Rachel travels into London every day, looking out of the window, observing the gardens, the couple she calls "Jason" and "Jess", weaving happy little daydreams about them.  We sense something a little strange about Rachel: but what it is, the book only reveals slowly. Likewise, only gradually do we learn why she is paying such close attention as the train passes that particular row of houses

Hawkins shows great delicacy and skill as she hints at Rachel's problems.  The focus is on the situation she's looking into, not on her.  But drawn into that situation she is: there are natural comparisons with Hitchcock, perhaps.  "Stranger on a train seeing what she takes to be evidence of a crime" is an obvious one, but there are others, too (spoilers!) as the book digs deeper into the relationships between the various couples who live beside the railway track.

I loved the way here that Hawkins makes it oh so plausible for Rachel to be trying to find out about what has happened.  She comes to believe she is involved, and that only by filling gaps in her own past (if there are gaps) will she solve the crime (if there was a crime) and only by solving the crime will she fill those gaps. So far, so logical, but Rachel is damaged, blundering, both a threat (so some) and, perhaps, herself in danger.  While she is not immediately sympathetic, Rachel is a complex and engaging character who wins over the reader, especially as it becomes clearer what has happened to her.  By the end I guarantee you'll be cheering on (though perhaps cringing at what she may do next).

It is an absorbing read, perhaps a little slow to get moving - but if you commute regularly you'll be used to sitting waiting.  It's all part of the journey, and can be put to good use. 

I once lived in a house by the railway, in a town an hour from London.  We could hear the station announcements from our back garden.  We could see the garden from the train, just for a moment.  I don't travel that way now but sometimes I take the train from Paddington and I spot that garden, wonder who lives there now, are they happy… perhaps I should take that train more often, and watch more closely, get to know them better...

28 September 2014

Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 2/10/14
Hardcover, 400 pages

My copy was bought (yes, it was ahead of UK publication date: I think I got lucky...)

Sometimes, as I approach the end of a book, my reading slows. I don't want the experience to end. I want to stay immersed in the world, accompanying the characters. I just want it go on. This was such a book, such a world; these were such characters. Robert Jackson Bennett has created a wholly believable yet utterly strange setting, peopled by diverse, interesting, maddening yet - above all - credible individuals.

The action takes place in the city of Bulikov, on the Continent (the names of people and places on the Continent are vaguely East European: Vohannes Votrov, Vasily Yaroslav, Pitry...) Bulikov was the chief city of the Continent, location of the Seat of the World where the Divinities would meet together. But it - and much of the Continent - was ruined when enslaved Saypur rose up, slaughtered the gods and enforced the Worldly Regulations, which ban even the mention of a divinity, miracle or other supernatural thing. So the Saypuri are hated by the Continentals for erasing their history: and the Saypuri hate and fear the Continentals for their cruel enslavement before the revolt.

This isn't a mouldering, legendary background.  It all happened within living memory: the events that almost every looks back to - from different perspectives - are as real to them (gods included) as Western colonialism or the Cold War to us.  It's a powerful background, which naturally motivates a story of murder, spying and revenge.

A Saypuri historian, resented by the locals for his explorations of Continental history (history forbidden to those who should own it) is murdered. Shara Thivani, secret operative - spy - for the Ministry of Foreign affairs, arrives to investigate. From that moment, the story become a blend of a Le Carré-esque thriller, a theological meditation on human and divine nature, and a techo-thriller (for certain, miraculous values of tech). If that sounds like a jumble, it really isn't.  The story is compelling: Thivani is a marvellous protagonist, experienced, successful, cynical (she exposed corruption at home and has been exiled from Saypur for sixteen years) - and torn. Torn between justice for Saypur and justice for the Continent. Between duty to her illustrious family and to her country. Between her faithless ex-lover and her murder investigation. She's just wonderful, as is her sparring partner, Governor Turyin Mulaghesh, military ruler of the city. Together the two women grumble and clash and work together to face down plots, violence and nameless horrors. It's great fun, moving, and frankly unputdownable.

Confidently, unselfconsciously, the book challenges the whiff of gender and racial prejudice that still haunts corners of the science fiction and fantasy universe. The setting isn't the stereotyped proto-European fantasy world: Saypur's people are brown, not white.  Unremarked on, women fill central roles: the closest we get to an acknowledgement that some may find this strange is the occasional aside (Shara and Sigurd meeting in an alley to hunt for an elusive piece of magic: "Does it only work for men, not women? No, of course not, don't be absurd", or Mulaghesh, grinning as Sigurd strips naked and covers himself in lard before plunging into icy water: "There are times", she says "when I kind of like my job").

The book has a vein of wayward humour. Under its Divinities, the Continent ran by "miracles" - magical tricks and artifacts created by the gods. With no gods left, many of these have stopped working. The rest are outlawed - but by a bureaucratic quirk this means they weren't destroyed, but rather confiscated, catalogued, and stored in vast warehouses (think of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.) So we have lists of items, reading a bit like a handbook for Dungeons and Dragons:

"356. Shelf C4-145. Travertine's boots: Footwear that somehow makes the wearer's strides miles long...

357. Shelf C4-146. Kolkan's carpet: Small rug that MOST DEFINITELY possesses the ability to fly...

358. Shelf C4-146. Glass window. Originally was the holding place of numerous Ahanashanti prisoners, trapped inside the glass. When Ahanas perished, the panes bled for two months - prisoners were never found or recovered. No longer miraculous..."

The book also has darkness. The vision of the "knuckle-man", the "voice under the cloth" with its many jointedness, mockery and voicelessness, was disturbing, as were the visions and actions of some of the fanatics, devotees of dead gods.

The dark centre of the book is, perhaps, the theme of lost history. The Saypuris suppress anything divine (for fear that the gods may return? from a desire to forget their oppression? simply for revenge?) But to do this, they need to know what they're suppressing. So we have the catalogues, the warehouses, the historians.  Shara knows more about the divinities than most Continentals are allowed to. She can say things they're forbidden. In turn, the Continental resistance movements, the religions fanatics, have gaps in their knowledge, so they are effectively following a faith they have made up rather than inherited. This spiritual hole echoes the messed-up geography of Bulikov, broken when the gods died (but unremarked, lived with, because to comment on or recognise it would be to mention the divine, and that's forbidden).  The book is a bit Nineteen Eighty-Four in the way history has been rewritten. And we eventually see that this... contagion, this loss of facts, of truth, doesn't just affect the Continentals - there are things the Saypuri conquerors would rather not know as well.

It's a terrific read, compulsive, persuasive and thought provoking. One of my favourites, so far, this year.  And there's a sequel coming!

19 September 2014

Review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff Vandermeer
Fourth Estate, 2/9/14
Hardback, 352 pages

Warning: this review has mild spoilers for the earlier books "Annihilation" and "Authority" - if you haven't read those yet (and why haven't you?) don't read any further.

In the third part of the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer seemed to have set himself an impossible task, both to match the standard of the previous books and to draw the narrative to a close despite having pretty well established his "other" - that baffling Area X - as unknowable, ineffable. It's a sign of just how good the writing is that he manages the latter at all, let alone, as he does, giving new insights into his characters, creating a pacey, gripping story and leaving the reader with a LOT to think about.

This is a more complex book (structurally and thematically) than the other two. "Annihilation" followed a single, disastrous expedition into Area X, a mysterious, impenetrable region somewhere on the southern flank of the US. "Authority" was apparently a more conventional (...for some value of "conventional"...) story of administration and espionage set in the Southern Reach, the organisation overseeing Area X, which documented the attempts by a new Director ("Control") to grasp what exactly was happening. "Acceptance" dots backwards and forwards, now following Control and Ghost Bird returning to Area X after the events of "Authority", now now following the former Director, now going back to Saul, the lighthouse keeper, before the creation of Area X or to the previous Director and her dangerous plan to... well, that would be telling.

All these are enthralling narratives, sparely told. Though much remains baffling and unclear, we learn a lot about what has been happening - Central's brutal attempts to manage the expeditions, to manage the Southern Reach, even, one suspects, to manage reality itself ("[she] has been operated on, reconditioned, broken down, brainwashed, fed false information that runs counter to her own safety, built back up again...") Control's family and their links to Area X are explained as is the role of the "Seance & Science Brigade", even, at one level, the nature of Area X itself. We learn enough to close the narrative as a story, if that's waht we want to do. 

But on another level, these books aren't - at least I don't think they are - so much about "what happens" that as about the challenge of Area X. 

 Faced with this impossible anomaly, this utterly alien infestation, how do we respond? What do we do? How do we cope with the unstated threat, the uncertainty?  In VanderMeer's trilogy, the guiding hand behind much of the "official" response turns out to be Lowry, portayed almost as an evil genius, with his underground bunker, manipulating, hypnotising, seeking, almost, a way to smuggle a weapon into Area X. he is a spymaster, a planner, a bureaucrat using Cold War tools.  Define the tools, perhaps, and define the threat?  But we saw in Authority how that ended. (Or perhaps not - at the end of this book it's far from clear what really happened).

But there are other responses to Area X. We see Saul's, developing even before Area X's existence. We see that of "the biologist" Annihilation (the account of which I found truly moving). And Control's. In the end, I think they do all - differently - find acceptance (except Lowry, we never learn what becomes of him).  That is the point of the story - not how Area X came about (we find out, but I don't think it is particularly significant).  There is a sense in which the "story", the expeditions, are secondary to this group of characters and their responses.  It is, in the end, all a "long con" - VanderMeer writes of "grifters" and "marks", there is an implication that the Southern Reach, the attempts to understand, contain and control Area X are an elaborate deception - even a self deception - on the part of those involved.

This is a haunting book, a laden book, to be read and thought about. It shouldn't be read quickly and will, I think repay rereading (as would the previous volumes). At first I wished all three had been published together - they are a whole - but I'm now glad they weren't, as for me the tempation to read them in one go would have been too great to resist. And they do need to be read slowly and carefully.

This trilogy and deserves to be recognised as a classic.

10 September 2014

Review: Extinction Game by Gary Gibson

Extinction Game
Gary Gibson
Tor 11/9/14
Hardcover, 400 pages

I’m grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

Life is fragile.  In a many-worlds universe, where everything that can happen, does happen, there are so many ways to end civilization

Volcanoes can lob billions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, triggering an ice age.  Asteroids or rogue moons can set the world on fire.  Disease can rage, whether natural or created by humans.

Sometimes, the people just seem to disappear.

Jerry Beche has seen all this, and more. It wasn't enough that he was left alive, the last man in the world. He was then recruited by a shadowy Authority as a “pathfinder”, employed to loot those myriad, desolate alternate Earths for weapons, technology and data.  This book is his story, and that of his colleagues, survivors like him, who have proved themselves up to the task. But people like that don’t just do as they’re told, they aren’t good team players.

Gibson is scarily good at conjuring up apocalypses, ways for the world to die, whether natural or the result of human tampering.  As Beche explores these, we gradually learn what happened to his own – our own? How would you tell? – world, what he went through, and what he lost. I’m impressed that Gibson uses Beche's history mainly as backstory - there is enough there to make a novel in itself.  But he is reaching further than just-another-apocalypse.  While the interplay between multiply-iterated global disaster and the rivalries and squabbles of the pathfinders is also striking, there is still much more going on here than there seems at first.  

The pathfinders are a ragged group, truly diverse in ways that science fiction and fantasy are often accused of overlooking (again, Gibson is good at delineating their personalities and backgrounds). This brings conflict with the Authority, which is revealed to have pretty bigoted, narrow-minded views.  The core of the book, then, is a cross between a spy thriller (who is on which side? What even are the sides? Who can Beche trust? Why do they react so strangely to him?) and a kind of John Wyndhamesque, survivalist nightmare.

Exactly what the Authority is up to, where it came from and how it threatens the future of Jerry and the others - all this does becomes clear, slowly.  It is a compelling story, difficult to put down and pretty much action packed throughout. Gibson evokes a deep sense of unease.  Not only is Jerry alone, amongst strangers who – while human – literally come from different worlds to him, but the very premise of the story emphasises the fragility of the Earth and of life on it. 

That’s backed up by what we’re not told.  Mysteries abound.  Why are so many Earths empty, with no sign of what happened to the people?  Is there something out there even more horrible than artificial diseases, than global winter, than the beebrains?  Lots of ends are left loose, and I hope this means Gibson will follow up with more - even though after reading this I'll see all those routine news stories about spreading disease, global warming and possible asteroid strikes in a different light... 

9 September 2014

Graham Joyce

This evening I heard the sad news that Graham Joyce had died.  Although I came to his books fairly recently, he'd become an author whose new books I'd always be waiting for.  It was a shock to learn last year that he was ill and, though I never knew him other than as a reader, I am sad at his death:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

So, as an inadequate tribute, here is a review of one of Graham's books, Some Kind of Fairy Tale (Gollancz, 2012).  If you haven't read the book, you should.

A few months ago, a Channel 4 series ("Gods and Monsters") presented by Tony Robinson (of Time Team and Baldrick fame) examined the history of superstition. It told the story of Bridget Clary. In 1895 she was murdered by her husband, who believed she was a changeling, that is, not his wife at all - the real Bridget having been stolen by the fairies. Graham Joyce's novel uses this theme, postulating a similar "abduction" in 21st century England. There is a strong and intriguing opening, when Tara Martin knocks on her parents' door just after Christmas. Tara disappeared 20 years ago at the age of 16, and it was assumed that she was murdered in the mysterious Outwoods. When she reappears, insisting that she has only been absent for six months, and she doesn't seem to have aged a day, there are challenges for everyone - her now elderly parents, her brother Peter who has "grown up" since, and her ex boyfriend, upon whom suspicion fell. The book deals with the consequences of the situation.

Joyce weaves together Tara's own story of her experience (white horse, seductive young man, strange, fey land which she cannot get out of) with a very matter-of-fact account of everyday life for the left behind (work, pubs, children, casual police brutality). He grounds the comings and goings to the mysterious otherworld very credibly in a specific English locality, the Charnwood forest, where three counties meet (so, a border place - good for crossing into the Otherworld) which overlies a geological fault. (Those interested in "Earth mysteries" sometimes speculate that spooky experiences may be linked to the influences of gases and vapours seeping up from below ground, as with the oracle at Delphi. Equally, of course, those "stolen" away were thought to be somehow taken underground).

This is done very well. Joyce creates well drawn and believable characters, and the plotting is excellent: I sat up well past midnight to finish this, I simply couldn't stop till I found out how it would finish (without giving too much away, there's a delicious sense that it might NOT have finished).

The chapter headings recount various scraps of lore concerning "fairies" (though we're advised not to call them that - they don't like it) including the tale of the unfortunate Bridget. I smiled to see Joyce introduce thoughts from William Heaney among these. Heaney, also known as Graham Joyce, was the "author" of Memoirs of a Master Forger and the reference - passing though it is - is appropriate in this book, with its themes of truth and falsehood, and how we judge them. (Bridget died because of the accusation that she had "visited" the fairies, though she says she hadn't: Tara suffers because she claims she has, though nobody will believe her).

In all, this is the best book I've read so far this year.

(Review originally published on Amazon.co.uk, 28 January, 2012.)

21 May 2014

Review: The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

This is the second of Cornell’s series featuring James Quill and his team of paranormally aware London police officers – or rather, the fact that there is a second volume means, I suppose, that now there is a series.  “London Falling” certainly deserved a follow up, and this is as good or better.  There is a bit of recapping at the start, necessary because details from the earlier book matter quite a bit here, but Cornell prevents that making the story drag – rather we’re into violent action from the start, with the team racing to stop a supernatural killer who acts very much like Jack the Ripper – except that his victims are not poor women but rich men.

This tales place against a background of cuts, austerity and protest. Even the police are about to down truncheons and strike. London is suddenly full of demonstrators dressed (and masked) as “Toffs” – among whom the killer can slip unnoticed.

As with the previous book, the investigation has Quill’s team – Ross, Sefton and Costain – strained to the limit (or way beyond).  They have the Sight, the ability to see that other, magical London, but they’re not wizards, they can’t control it or protect themselves or others except by applying their policing skills, working methodically and deductively – and putting themselves in the line of fire.  There is a real feeling of danger in this book, of sulphur and brimstone, as the team take risks.  Probably, some of them go too far.  The plot they’re investigating is a heady mix of politics, ancient power, mixed motives (not least from some of the team themselves) and a clash between old and new ways in the magical community.  Cornell holds this together superbly, conveying the sense that there is order to what’s happening, there is a pattern, it’s not just one thing after another, even when events get very bizarre indeed.

It is becoming clear that behind the immediate events of the books there is a deeper story unfolding, involving the Smiling Man who turned up in London Falling.  Something is wrong in London, connected with the absence of the “Continuing Projects Team”, leaving the magical side of things unpoliced.  Quill’s team, answering to the enigmatic Lofthouse, seek to fill this gap, but they don’t know the rules – a tricky situation for police to be in.

It’s a superb story which builds tension and gets harder and harder to put down. I’m looking forward to the next!

8 May 2014

Review: "Murder" by Sarah Pinborough

"Murder" is a sequel to Pinborough's Mayhem, and it is a worthy sequel. (If you haven't read Mayhem - and why on earth not? - be warned there are spoilers below for that book, and you should look away now, go and get a copy and read it first).

The earlier book manages to simultaneously about crimes (the Ripper and Thames Torso killings in the 19th century) but not a crime novel, Victorian and dark, but not a gothic pastiche, and horror-laden, but not a Bram-Stoker-a-like. It is also thoroughly modern in sensibility, forging soemthing quite new and I think unique in tone and outlook.

Well, "Mayhem" isn't unique now because Sarah Pinborough has done it again - indeed I think she's surpassed the earlier book, whose hero, Dr Thomas Bond, could seem slightly stilted, compared with his foil, the fantastical Jewish Russian refugee Aaron Kosminski. Here, Bond is more fully realised, more human and very much the centre of the story.

Several years have passed, and the evil that menaced London - which was ended when Bond murdered James Harrington, in league with Kosminski and the mysterious Argentine priest - has faded. Bond has finally lost the air of dread that overtook him, and Juliana, Harrington's widow, is bringing up their son in peace. Bond even has hopes of marrying her, despite the difference in their ages. But the past will not lie. The ripples of Harrington's cursed life spread outwards, and an old friend of his comes calling. Then Pinborough does something very daring, and quite brilliant - while steaming horror slowly cooks in the depths of the book (hinted at by the various press cuttings reporting gruesome discoveries and deaths), on the surface a love triangle plays out with dollops of jealousy, duty and - yes - sensuality which get all mixed up with the horror underneath.

There's no pastiche Victoriana in this book. While absolutely rooted in the time and place described, and convincingly so, the author is happy to use "modern" terms or have her characters behave in "modern" ways where it suits her (and where it suits the story). It might annoy the pedants (what doesn't?) but it works surprisingly well - perhaps, as I said above, even better than in the first book, possible because Bond is here a much more rounded character, and the centre of things. Again, he is forced to confront the possibility of the supernatural - or the alternative, that he's losing his sanity - but there are no easy answers, no Van Helsing to sort things out.

It's a rattling good read, though parts aren't, perhaps, for the squeamish.

7 May 2014

Reviews: "The Voices" and "The Axeman's Jazz".

I seem to be following a vein of horror reading at the moment, having been lucky enough to be sent a copy of FR Tallis’s new book “The Voices” by the publisher and to pick up a copy of “The Axeman’s Jazz” by Ray Celestin from Amazon Vine.  (Axeman isn’t really horror, it’s crime, but the steamy New Orleans setting and the slightly surreal nature of the plot give it elements of horror).

Both of those books are reviewed below: to complete the trinity, I’m now reading Sarah Pinborough’s “Murder’ – more horror! – which I’ll report on soon, but it is deliciously scary, sensual and creepy.

FR Tallis’s new ghost story The Voices is set during the notoriously long, hot summer of 1976 – when roads melted, reservoirs dried up and it was impossible to sleep at night under one’s nylon sheets.  Against this background – and amid rumbles of economic failure and national crisis – a small, apparently gilded group of trendy artists suffer their own, more private crisis.

There is Laura Norton, ex-model and trophy wife to the older Christopher. He was an avant-garde musician who found fortune (if not acclaim) writing music for films.  Christopher seems to be getting tired of Laura; she is wondering is there’s more to life than being Christopher’s wife and baby Faye’s mother, and beginning to discover feminism.

Then there’s Simon and Amanda.  Simon, who kept the faith and is now a “serious” modernist composer, a power at Radio 3. Amanda, who retains 60s-ish, hippy leanings. The group face a changing world which they don’t much comprehend: we see Christopher’s agent commend him for not getting involved with that obvious trainwreck of a film, Star Wars and – amusingly, after a scene in which Simon heaps praise on prog rock as a coming movement, there is an uncomprehending encounter with an early punk.

All this is helpful in setting a scene of unease and showing how fragile are the lives – lives of some comfort and ease – which the main characters share.  So that at first, the threat that begins to develop – whether in voices heard over the baby monitor by Laura, sounds recorded on tape by Christopher in his studio or the distress of Faye – is unfocussed, out of shot, so to speak.  Some of the elements may be conventional – the house which has stood empty for years, the strange collection of junk in the attic, the cryptic figure of a stage magician who seems to be important – but Tallis uses them skilfully.  By keeping them mostly in the background and making the centre of the story a very 70s one of infidelity, depression, sexism (that patronising doctor!) he’s able to produce real frights and shocks when the supernatural erupts, as it inevitably does. 

He also cleverly leaves just enough unexplained – we know what has happened, but not quite how or why, and a few mysteries remain.  What exactly does Sue know, and how?  What is the reason for Loxley’s sudden interest in Maybury?  Does somebody, somewhere understand more than poor Laura and Christopher?

This is a book that was hard to put down, great entertainment, with a great sense of reality.
The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin is  debut novel that completely beguiled me.  Set in New Orleans in 1919 it focuses on a real series of murders by a killer who terrorised the city that summer.

Assigned to investigate the killings is Lieutenant Michael Talbot of the city police. Talbot needs a success: he is unpopular in the force, after exposing a corruption racket years before, and his personal circumstances also make him vulnerable.

Also looking into the crimes are Luca d"Andrea, recently released from prison, and Ida, a young secretary at Pinkertons detective agency, who dreams of moving on detective work and hopes that cracking the Axeman case will make her name. Ida is assisted by her musician friend Lewis (later known as Louie) Armstrong.

The three investigations run in parallel, rarely intersecting (although there is some interaction between Luca, working for the all-powerful mafia, and Talbot). Celestin manages to tell three tales in one, as each of the three "detectives" finds a solution of sorts to the deaths - though only we, the readers of the book, get to see the full picture and understand how the various forces at play in New Orleans have combined to create the demon Axeman and set him loose.

It's a compelling story, blending racial prejudice (between white and black, Irish and Italian), political and police corruption, child trafficking and abuse, the legacy of slavery and the machinations of the Mob into a rich mixture of a book. Nobody in this book is wholly innocent - the crimes of the Axeman arise from a corrupt past, but they are manipulated and used by a corrupt present with which it's impossible not to collude. As the city fills with vagrant ex-soldiers back from the Great War, and Prohibition looms, there seems to be no way to release the building pressure that Celestin skilfully evokes. The city is subject to "a system of organised malice" with a degree of racial separation comparable to that of apartheid, and even though Armstrong is applauded wildly when playing in his band on the riverboats or in the clubs, he can be set upon the next night for being in the company of a white woman.

It's a great book, on many levels, and without being over didactic, draws some nice parallels between New Orleans then and now. Perhaps the only respect in which it didn't (perhaps) quite fulfil what I expected was that while the title of the book perhaps hints at some kind of musical aspect to the Axeman's terror, there isn't one. There is a sympathetic and mature exploration of the early life of Armstrong, including a marvellous sequence where his music really catches fire, and there is an episode where, in response to a taunting letter form the Axeman, the desperate citizens "jazz it up" en masse to avoid "getting the Axe". But the rhythm of the murders and the dance of the Axeman himself come from something else entirely, so the music isn't as central to the story as the title might suggest. But that is a small quibble really.

Perhaps the last word should go to the corrupt mayor, speaking after a hurricane has brought chaos to the city: "The Mayor finished his report by promising residents that this type of disaster would never befall New Orleans again". Indeed...