29 March 2015

Review: The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

The Death House
Sarah Pinborough
Gollancz, 2015
Hardback, 273pp

I bought this book from Goldsboro Books in London

In a near future world, perhaps 100 years from now, children are testing and those who fail are taken from their parents, brought to a remote house and kept there. One by one, they fall ill and disappear, always at night. They're attended by "nurses" and "teachers" but we never learn the names of these adults: they're distant, uninvolved, cold.

The survivors wait their turn for the trolley in the night...

Against this bleak background, Sarah Pinborough has created a story of love, humanity and hope. We follow Toby, seized from his family just as he was about to go to a party with the girl of his dreams. At the Death House he has frozen, afraid to care for anyone or anything. Until new girl Clara arrives.

If that sounds like the lead up to a rather hackneyed teen romance, it really isn't. Pinborough shows us her characters with great skill and gives them real depth: the keynote is struck, perhaps, when, early on, we see the kids are studying "Lord of the Flies" I've always regarded this book as depressing and pessimistic, as Golding makes his plane-wrecked schoolboys bear the weight of the world's evil, falling into superstition and terror. That would be the easy path here, perhaps, but Pinborough doesn't take it. She shows, first, how fear and loss have paralysed the "Defective" kids, bearers of the "Defective" gene - but then, how they cope, in their different ways. None are perfect - there are bullies, there is shunning of those coming down with... whatever it is...

But there is also humanity, there is heart, and at the centre of the story, there is Toby and Clara's unexpected love. Details of the "Defective" ones are patchy - they are described at one point as a remnant of the past, a past that nearly destroyed the world: they are certainly feared and perhaps hated - but that is secondary to the situation they're in. What is made clear is that their lives will be cut short, their future is a blank, and they have been left to face this alone with no love, no care, no support. To me, the doomed children suggested not a vaguely SF future one might expect 100 years in the future but the world of 100 years ago where many of their forebears would also have faced death and tried to keep alive life and hope despite the odds.

It's a difficult read in place, the implacable logic of the story driving forward when you would rather it halted, giving a respite, a delay, but always involving, compassionate and true.

Oh, and the writing is, in places, sublime as well. For example

"...the night is like a black sea and I creep up the stairs through it, treading carefully to avoid waking the wood and making it creak with surprise at my weight."


"Daniel may not be destined to grow up, but he's already the shadow of the man he would have become."

I've read Sarah Pinborough before as a horror writer and as a wicked reteller of fairy tales, and her Victorian murder mysteries are chillingly readable but this is something different yet again. Simply brilliant.

21 March 2015

Review: Touch, by Claire North

Claire North
Orbit, 2015
Hardback 426pp

I bought my copy of this book from Goldsboro Books in London.

Following last year's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, North has written another book based loosely around the theme of multiple lives. This isn't a sequel or a prequel, or explicitly in the same setting: but some of the preoccupations are similar, as is the deftness with which she explores the concept - and the absolute humanity of her approach.

While Harry August was based on repeated, looping lives lived one after another, and so might be characterised (if loosely) as a "time travel" book, Touch follows "ghosts" who are able to occupy - possess - a body, replacing the personality and knowledge of the "host" with their own. Not such a bad thing if it simply means you lose a few minutes on the Tube or perhaps a couple of hours of a long train train journey.  More of a loss if the "ghost" "wears" you for ten or twenty years, during which you marry, have children, and grow old - before being shed like a warn out set of clothes.

I'd characterise the basic theme here as being more vampiric: it's about time stolen, missing relationships, youth taken away, lives eaten up.  That's no less true for the central character (we never learn their original gender) being likeable and, on the whole, well intentioned.

Kepler (not her/ his real name) has lived - stolen - many lives.  As the book opens, he/she is Josephine Cebula, holidaying in Istanbul.  Josephine is a willing host, giving up six months of her time for a payment which will set her up and make a new life.

Except it won't, because someone has murdered Josephine. Someone is hunting Kepler down. So begins a thriller like no other I've read, a chase across Europe worthy of John Buchan at his best, as Kepler tries to find who is targeting her/him, and why.  Along the way we learn about Kepler's past ("Kepler" is the assassin's codename for the "entity" that narrates the book - we never hear what his/her real name is) - from "birth" as  ghost in a dark London alley, to life as an "estate agent", researching bodies for other "ghosts" to wear, to lost loves, lost lives and - always, always - guilt and regret at what Kepler must do to survive.  But it's repressed guilt, one senses, because what is the alternative?

Other ghosts find a way out, whether through madness or seeking death: one inhabits only the bodies of the terminally ill, but can never, quite, dare to stay in residence to the end, another rejoices in blood and slaughter.  What does Kepler want to be? "Do you like what you see?" he (or she) repeatedly asks - or is asked - confronted with another strange face in the mirror, another set of unknown relatives, friends, colleagues, acquaintances. Do you like what you see, and who are you? Really?

It is a book full of sympathy and heart, exposing the price an immortal creature (I think we must assume Kepler and his kind to be immortal, for so long as they can bear to be alive) would exact, and the price it would pay.

It is also chilling and compelling - more chilling than any vampire story, either of the classic or modern type, and more compelling then any mere thriller.

A fine book, read it now!

14 March 2015

Review: The Last Days of Disco by David F Ross - Part of Last Days of Disco Blogtour

The Last Days of Disco
David F Ross
Orenda Books, 2014 (e), 2015 (pb)
268 pp

One of the nice things about writing reviews is people offering me books that are outside my usual reading range. I tend to be fairly SFF and crime focussed, and without diligent friends (thank you, Liz!) sifting and suggesting it would too easy to miss nuggets like this.

Set in at the unfashionable end of the 1980s (which, I hear you ask is that?  The beginning, of course, when 1984 hadn't happened and we all thought that if we just closed our eyes the 70s would be back) the action takes place in South West Scotland, mainly following the lives of a couple of schoolboys trying to make it as mobile DJs for local discos.

Unfortunately for Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller, the Ayrshire disco scene (as well as several others) is already owned by "Fat" Franny Duncan, a small time gangster who doesn't want any competition. As the boys innocently(?) try to muscle in on his turf, while coping with girls, family problems and schoolwork, events threaten to get out of control.

Meantime, at the other event of the world, events definitely HAVE got out of control as Britain and Argentina fight the most unexpected war of the last century for possession of the Falkland Islands (which nobody in the UK had heard of beforehand: I can remember the sense of surprise on learning of their existence, let alone that they had been invaded).  Bobby is directly affected: his beloved elder brother, Gary, recently joined the Army and is soon on his way south.

It's a strong premise and Ross handles the two threads skilfully, stepping backwards and forwards to follow the disco conflict through the local corridors of power.  Strings are pulled, favours - desired or not - delivered and, after a particularly hilarious (and disastrous) evening at the local Conservative Club, Bobby, Joey and their roadie are left at the mercy of a (slightly bent) local police chief, who has history with Bobby's father.  I enjoyed the way that the author steps back or sideways, as it were, to sketch in some family history or point the significance of a passing character: perhaps in places this could have been a bit more show, a bit less tell, but these episodes (for example, the story of how Bobby's parents met at a Hogmanay dance 20 years before) add depth and humanity to his characters

And always, always there is the music, a stream in which Bobby and Joey live, move and have their being.  Rather as Jonathan Coe does with the 70s in "The Rotters' Club", Ross celebrates the music of the early 80s through the commitment and passion of Bobby and Joey to their favoured bands. I think there's always a risk in writing about someone who has such passion - will it leave the non-believers cold? - but Ross easily brings it off.

Is the book perfect?  No. There are moments where we only ever hear half the story - for example, Bobby and Gary wake from an almighty drinking session at the start of the book during which Bobby has picked up Fat Franny's phone number, and something else. Given subsequent events this seems pretty important, but we never hear exactly what happened, or all the consequences. Maybe this is something that Ross is saving for a sequel?  I do hope so, because I'm sure there's a lot more to be said about these characters...

10 March 2015

Review: The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

The Mechanical
Ian Tregillis
Orbit, March 2015

I'm grateful to the publishers for letting me have a copy of this book on NetGalley.

I'd been looking forward to it coming out - I previously read Tregillis's alternate history of the Second World War where the British conjured demons to fight against unnaturally enhanced Nazi supersoldiers, and his noirish detective mystery about angels trying to unpick the nature of reality.

Now he's onto clockwork robots, powered by alchemy, in a world where Holland is the main power, relying on those robots, which an outclassed French regime-in-exile (think "Dangerous Liaisons" with epoxy bombs...) resists from North America.  The book is great fun, has an incredible zip to it, and fits in some fairly profound debates about both freewill and the duty we owe to sentient life, if we create it.

Jax is a slave, a "clakker" owned by (or leased to) a banking family in Amsterdam.  He must obey his owners' orders (and those of humans in general) or suffer a dreadful, burning pain from the unfulfilled "geas". There is a hierarchy of demands (geasa) here: orders from the Queen take precedence, of course, then the commands of the feared Guild of Clockmakers who built the unfortunate mechanical men (and women).  There are standing rules to not harm a human, and more requiring any rogue clakker to be denounced.  It's a skilful and inspired take on Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics but asking the question, what would it mean - how would it feel - to be chained by those laws?

Pastor Luuk Visser is outwardly a respectable Dutch clergyman.  In reality, he's a papist agent, an asset of the mysterious Talleyrand, French spymaster extraordinaire.  In this reality, France itself has been conquered by waves of soldier clakkers, leaving an exiled court in North America dreaming hopelessly of an eventual return to their lands and titles.

Berenice is a young woman at the French court.  While ostensibly set in the 1920s, the social set-up here is much more 18th century (as in Holland where availability of clakker labour has preserved an older, hierarchical society) and life at Court is a deadly game with serious rule.  But Berenice is well up to that...

As the book gets under way, the three characters embark on a series of deadly chases and escapes, all the time seeking to learn exactly what is going on and how to resist the Guild and its deadly Stemwinders.  The stakes are very high - clakkers can, it seems, escape the compulsions of the geasa, and become free.  But nobody seems to know how it happens. The French are ambiguous allies, portraying themselves as friends of the downtrodden clakkers - but are they more concerned with getting mechanical slaves themselves than with the ethics of the Dutch ones?

It's an immensely enjoyable book, launching what is clearly going to be a fun new series that should probably be described "something-punk" but I'm blessed if I can think of the right something (clock? Alchemy?) which possibly shows that this is pretty convention-defying and worth getting into.

Just remember: clockmakers lie!

8 March 2015


I've just finished reading, and hope to review shortly, The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis.  The first books of his I read were a kind of alternate history of the Second War War where the British conjured demons to fight against unnaturally enhanced Nazi supersoldiers.  Then he went on to write a noirish detective mystery about angels trying to unpick the nature of reality.

Now he's onto clockwork robots, powered by alchemy, in a world where Holland is the main power, relying on those robots, which an outclassed French regime-in-exile resists from North America.  The book is great fun, has an incredible zip to it, and fits in some fairly profound debates about both freewill and the duty we owe to sentient life, if we create it.

Next weekend I'm also hoping to do a review of David R Ross's The Last Days of Disco, as part of another blog tour.  It's a really funny, effecting and, at time, sad account of boys growing in 1980s Ayreshire, against the background (and occasionally, the foreground) of the Falklands War.

The book's getting plenty of attention from some great blogs... as well as this one.

Then... well... I have to go to Paris for a few days for work. (Tough, but somebody had to, and I can actually be quite assertive when I try) so I'll get a bit of reading time on the Eurostar - and I just happen to have this copy of the new Kate Atkinson book, A God in Ruins, companion to her Life After Life.  So THAT IS GOING TO GET READ and then I will let you know what I think.

Then... maybe the new V E Schwab book, A Darker Shade of Magic, or those Neil Gaiman short stories... so may books, so little time!

7 March 2015

Review: The Distance by Helen Giltrow (part of The Distance Blog Tour)

The Distance
Helen Giltrow
Orion, 2015
Hardback, 389pp

I was very excited to be sent this book - out now wherever you you buy good books - to review, not only because it is the first time that this blog as been part of a tour, but also because the summary drew me in (which they don't always):

"They don't call her Karla any more. She's Charlotte Alton: she doesn't trade in secrets, she doesn't erase dark pasts, and she doesn't break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she's been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn't officially there. It's a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.

So why can't she say no?"

The first thing to say about the book, then, is: it lives up to its promise and piles up the tension to thunderstorm levels. There were many points where I wanted to know what happened next - but still almost didn't dare turn the page.  And when I had finished it I had to put down very carefully, untense myself and breathe calmly.  (Apologies to the other passengers on the 17:50 from Marylebone). Giltrow knows how to tell a story, winding and winding away at the pressure on her characters till you almost expect the book to go pop.

What's it about?  As alluded to above, Karla is the cool, self-controlled boss of a crime racket. Put simply, she makes people disappear.  If you need a new identity, or to be smuggled in - or out - of the country, she'll oblige - for a healthy profit.  She doesn't much care what you're done or might do: she's all about the money.  In her Docklands flat, attending the opera, rubbing shoulders with bankers and politicians, Charlotte she seems a long way from the backstreet garages, rubbish strewn lanes, and empty warehouses where Karla's trade is carried on - but she knows exactly how to move through both worlds without leaving a trace (or rather, only leaving the exact impression she wants).

Even Karla, though, might baulk at trying to get a killer into the "Program". A vast open air prison, it's where criminals are left to fend for themselves - where the strong grow fat, and the weak would be better in hell.  Now, though, one killer is already in there - and another has been hired to go and finish them off.  Karla must make it possible.

Weaving between the lives of Charlotte and Karla, and of the killer Johanssen and occasionally others, this is a slow burning, very chewy psychological thriller that questions everyone's motives. Charlotte/ Karla is getting out of the identity game - why does she listen to that proposals of "one final job"? The killer in the Program has entered hell on Earth: what is so bad that one would seek refuge there? And what is the role of the assured Security Service man, Powell?  It tells you enough to convey how much is at stake, but the detail of what (or who) each of the main characters has lost, killed or had taken builds slowly, only really becoming clear right at the end after which I saw the book in quite  a different light.

Throughout the story, I was torn between horror at what had happened (it's not for the squeamish), dread of what might happen next (you have no idea...) and a gradual, building sense of unease at where it was all going.  I'd say that Giltrow handles all this expertly for a first novelist, but that sounds patronising: there's no sense in which you need to make allowances for this book, it's simply a thrilling, gripping read from start to finish, and Charlotte/ Karla is a wonderful character.

In the end we don't find out that much about her life or her background, but I do hope for more, I really do.