27 July 2015

Review: Blood Salt Water by Denise Mina

Blood Salt Water
Denise Mina
Orion, 30 July 2015
HB, 304pp

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

You get old, you get scared...

Years ago I went for a day out in Helensburgh with a friend who lived in Glasgow. We got off the train and then walked along an endless A-road, the loch on one side and a steep, forested slope on the other, traffic buzzing by - till we got fed up and went home. We hoped for something - a tearoom, a beach, somewhere to sit - but Helensburgh wasn't ready to oblige.

Denise Mina gets much more out of the place, of course.  In this, her 5th DI Alex Morrow novel, the town is conveniently placed - close enough to Glasgow for Morrow to follow her enquiries there, far enough away to be a little... different. There are different gangsters, a different crime - some kind of financial scam, Morrow believes - and a different atmosphere: small time rivalries and family divisions.

Morrow herself is, here, more stable and self assured than in the earlier books, though suffering from "anger management issues" (she's been on a course) and still with her gangster brother causing trouble, even though he's locked away.  She and her team are investigating Roxanna Fuentecilla, a mysterious Spanish woman possibly involved in the aformentioned scam. There's rivalry between the Glasgow force and the Met over who should get the seized proceeds - you can almost imagine £ signs in the eyes of the cash-strapped police - so it's unfortunate to say the least when Fuentecilla disappears.

Meanwhile, in the opening pages of the book, a ghastly crime is committed. It's a while before we understand how this links back to Morrow's case: rather, the main impact is to highlight Iain Fraser, small time thug, an awful man in many ways, but it's part of Mina's skill to make you feel for him despite that. Iain's mother is gone, dead while he was away in prison (one of a number of lonely deaths or absences here). She, also, seems to have had a tragic life and as he spirals into chaos following that opening crime Iain hangs on to the first thing she taught him: the best way to remove blood is to use salt water. As with Lady Macbeth, Iain's obsession with his victim and their blood becomes a recurring motif, symbolising his desire to be clean of what he's done ('maybe she wanted him to walk into the salt sea to clean the blood off...') but also his knowledge that he never can be. Already near the edge,  he becomes aware over the following days what his crime means and that it has solved nothing, only brought further trouble down on those he loves.

Mina's writing is great: sharp, pacey, knowing, whether describing Morrow grappling with that anger (to her, 'anger was usually just fear with its make-up on' - worth remembering when when we meet Boyd, who seems to be driven by a relentless anger with his cafe, his wife, his child, his dog) or her dealing with a tedious colleague ('She grunted and Thankless took it to mean - really? Do elaborate, you interesting and knowledgeable man') or even surveying the hills ('Morrow was a city child, most familiar with Scottish mountain views from toffee tins, and looking up at the hills still gave her a hankering for caramels').  She is spot on with observation ('She had... far too much make-up for the hour, or indeed any hour, apart from dress-up night at a social club for clowns') and dialogue (a teenager: 'It was,' Marnie agreed 'Like reallycreepy. She's like "HELLO DEAR!") but keeps the story humming along.

The story is less focussed on Morrow and her personal background that some of the previous books, more on her professional life, making her team work, taking account of a father who needs to be away to a son's hospital appointment, dealing with the politics (all those £).  The personal stuff is more about Fraser, about unfortunate Boyd and his wife Lucy.  Morrow stands to one side, professional, coping: almost as though being rewarded for what she's been through in earlier stories.

It's a tightly wound, compulsive book interweaving Morrow's investigation with the spiralling events in Helensburgh. We can see it all going wrong, but not the cause - that has to wait till almost the last page.  Immensely enjoyable, if not always comfortable reading and with an air of galey, salty seaside melancholy. I would thoroughly recommend this book, perhaps for a windy Bank Holiday by the sea.

20 July 2015

Guest post: Neil White - Where do I get my characters from?

I'm really pleased that Neil White has agreed to write a guest post for the blog.  

Raised in West Yorkshire, Neil flunked his exams and spent a few years drifting and dreaming. In his mid-20’s, he returned to education to study law, swapping a dole cheque for a student grant and giving himself a few more years of avoiding gainful employment. Qualifying as a solicitor at 30, he grew bored of that adventure and started to write. Twelve years of poor attempts and rejection slips led to a contract with Avon in 2006, with his first book, Fallen Idols, published in 2007. He published six books with Avon before moving to Sphere in 2012, with the first of the Parker brothers trilogy, Next To Die, published in 2013. He is married with three children and still practises as a criminal lawyer. He spends his spare time reading, watching films, rugby league and lounging.

I asked Neil to where his characters came from - not only the heroes, but the villains too.  Over to Neil:

Getting characters right is the hardest part of writing, because they have to be memorable and interest the reader. Locations can be described but characters have to live and breathe.

Fundamentally, characters come from my own experiences and are an extension of me in some way. To some extent, readers do something similar.

Take my first series.

I wrote five books featuring a crime reporter, Jack Garrett, and a detective, Laura McGanity. The two characters had equal billing in the plots, and they were always meant to be part of a duo.

In my head, however, I always thought of them as the Jack Garrett books, because he was the character I identified as myself, the one I based on myself. My various editors, however, who were all women, saw them more as the Laura McGanity books, and I presume for the same reason, that they identified with one character more than the other. The two characters had equal billing in the plot but we looked for extensions of ourselves.

Heroes in books (and I refer to heroes meaning both genders, rather than using the term heroines) are of two types: there is the reflection of how we are, and then there is the reflection of how we would like to be.

The first type feature in the books I write, in that they are deliberately ordinary people who get caught up in extraordinary events.

The second type, a reflection of how we would like to be, would be a hero similar to Jack Reacher. He is an extraordinary character, brave and strong and heroic. He is how we would like to imagine ourselves, in the same way that every cop would like to be like Dirty Harry. Except we aren’t like that. We have weaknesses and insecurities, so sometimes we need the first type of hero, the one who is more like us and responds heroically when the situation arises. We can fantasise about that, fool ourselves that we would be so brave.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t crossover. For instance, I’m a fairly laidback person and I don’t seek confrontation. When I write a scene involving one of my heroes having a confrontation, I try to imagine how I would respond if I wasn’t so laidback.

The trilogy I have just completed involves two brothers, Joe and Sam Parker, one a defence lawyer and the other a detective. I chose them as I liked the conflict, that they would pull in different directions. In my head, Joe is the main character, because he’s a criminal lawyer, as I am. Joe says the things I wish I’d said when I’d been in court but hadn’t thought of until later. So when I write for Joe, I think of how I wish I could be when doing my lawyer job; a little more ballsy, a little more confrontational.

Fundamentally, writing characters is just about imagining being them, and I don’t really know the science behind it. I just do what seems obvious: I imagine I am them or am with them. What they might say or how they might react.

The hardest part is making the characters interesting whilst avoiding the clichés. Not every cop has to be divorced, or be an alcoholic, but then again, how interesting is the ordinary guy who lives at the end of the street?

The most important thing is hoping the reader roots for the person in some way. Don’t make your hero too weak but don’t make them too horrible. The character has to be a man or woman the reader wants to succeed, if a hero, or fail badly if a villain.

How do I do that? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I find analysing writing very difficult, because it is just about putting down on the page what comes into my head, and that isn’t something I can force in there.

It is perhaps simply a logical process.

For instance, I wanted Joe Parker, the lawyer, to be single, so that he could be consumed by his job more. For Sam, the detective, he had to be married, as police officers like to do the right thing on the whole, not live on the edges. Once you fix on those notions, other things follow. Joe will hang about in bars because he’s a single professional in a big city. He’ll live in an apartment, not a house. He’ll be a little cynical, a little sardonic, because there’s no one in his life to show him the warmer side to life. Sam will live in a cul-de-sac and have a steadier life, and it will become about protecting his family and being happy in his marriage. He’ll be more content, more settled, wanting to keep Joe from doing anything rash.

Villains are the hardest. What makes them villains? Is the plot because of the villain, or the villain because of the plot?

For instance, some of the villains in my books have been very ordinary, with their blandness their disguise, the mask that hides their obsessions, their fantasies. Others have been more obvious, driven by their need to live off fear.

In Cold Kill, for example, I wanted to base a plot around Dennis Rader, a serial killer from Wichita in Kansas who adopted the title The BTK Killer, because he bound them, tortured them, killed them. What interested me was a particular quirk he had of filling the orifices of his victims with leaves and soil and debris, and the reason for this (read the book to find out). Also, he was thoroughly ordinary, the boring man with the moustache along the street. Once I’d decided I wanted a villain like Dennis Rader, I had to craft a plot around the villain.

Contrast that with Dead Silent, the book that preceded Cold Kill. Jack Garrett was a crime reporter, and I had this notion that the ultimate scoop for a crime reporter would be to locate Lord Lucan. So I based a book around a Lucan-type character, the premise being that the character contacts Jack and says that he will come out of hiding provided that Jack can prove his innocence first.

The point is that the plot and the villain were created by Jack’s character as a crime reporter, not the plot created by the notion of a killer.

One of the main advantages of writing characters, however, is the ability to use real people in them, even get revenge. A lot of my supporting characters are based on people I know, with traits exaggerated, just a way of having some private fun, my own little sneaky shot.

Neil's ninth book, The Domino Killer, is the final book in the Parker brothers trilogy, with the second in the trilogy, The Death Collector, released in paperback in July 2015. His books are translated into French, German, Russian and Polish.

17 July 2015

Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson
Seveneves (Borough Press: London, 2015)
ISBN: 978-0-00-813251-4,
861 pages, Hardback.

I bought this book from Wallingford Bookshop.

The first thing to say about this book - and it's the first thing you will notice - is that it's long. Massive. An 861 page whopper. If you find that daunting, it's understandable, but let me try and persuade you to try it!

For me, nothing Stephenson writes can be too long. He takes the space he needs for the story, no more: the length isn't due to padding, it lets the characters and plot and themes breathe and develop. Seveneves in particular, though, deserves that length. The second thing to say about Seveneves is that in it, the world ends, and (almost) everybody dies. That's not a spoiler - it is established early on that this is going to happen, and the focus of the story is then the reaction to this.  It's like one of John Wyndham's apocalyptic thrillers: there is no possibility of averting what's coming, the point is to work out how the human race can survive it, and how they must adapt to do so. And that is a serious subject that deserves to be treated at length. Here we have a planet full of people knowing that they will soon die, and a small group knowing that they may live. How will that play out? How will those who may be saved react to seeing their loved ones consumed? How will it all affect the surviving human race centuries, even millenia, on?

The threat to Earth is from the destruction of the Moon.  Stephenson suggests a couple of mechanisms for this (a singularity left over from the Big Bang, exotic matter, alien action - my money's on the latter) but the "why" isn't important, we just have to take it as given that the Moon fragments into a cloud of enormous rocks.  Jostling against one another, these break up into even smaller pieces in a runaway process, which fall to Earth (the "Hard Rain"). This rain of destruction doesn't just destroy directly, but heats the earth, making life impossible. And it lasts 5000 years.

Fortunately, a small group of humans is already. literally, above all this, in the International Space Station. And doubly fortunately, we get a couple of years' warning of what is to happen. So there is a (short) time to prepare - for the combined space science and industrial resources of Earth to design a lifeboat and begin launching people to it. This part of the story is, for me, the most impressive, the science and engineering worked out in credible detail - as well as the inevitable tensions between different schools of thought, different nations, governments and private interests. At its heart - that is at the heart of the story and of the ISS - are two women, Dinah MacQuarie and Ivy Xiao and I enjoyed the way they are portrayed here, the way their friendship is allowed to develop even as the rest of the world tries to frame them as rivals (in an age of social media even the destruction of the Earth and the plans to overcome are an issue of controversy in cyberspace).

The drama, then, in this first section - about one third of the book - is the reaction to the inevitable destruction: saying goodbye to all that has been, to friends, lovers, family, while building something for the future. This comes to a climax in that rain of fire, witnessed by Dinah's father at his remote mining camp in Canada and by Ivy's fiance before his nuclear sub dives beneath the ocean.  In between we have the heart rending "Vigil for the End of the World" from Notre Dame in Paris where musicians play continually until the sky, literally, falls in.

And of course there is also selfishness, chicanery and attempts to carry the rivalries and flaws of Old earth into the future.  In a grimly credible scene, Ivy is replaced as Commander of the International Space Station because... well, because she's not a man.

Stephenson builds up a lot of momentum with this story which he carries into the next section, where the orphaned human race - several hundred of them - must survive.  It's very much a story of space derring-do, with some surprises, especially from the continuing vein of old-Earth politics that has infected the Cloud Ark. At the end, in a scene of almost religious weight and significance, the survivors make plans for the future and choose the fate of their descendants.

There is then a jump - those 5000 years! - to see what the choices came to, with earth being recolonized but humanity, in the meantime, comfortable settled in a space "habitat ring" around the planet. I've seen some reviewers confess to difficulty with this jump, and of course one does then have to pick up new characters, indeed pretty much a new story, the story of Kath Two, an explorer who teams up with a representative cross-section of the human races (the descendants of each of those ancestors) to investigate a mystery on Earth.

For my part, I found this fairly easy at the story level. The new characters are engaging and Stephenson lays enough plot trails in the first two parts of the book to reward the reader for spotting connections and consequences, while back some real surprises about how things turned out (I'll just say that not everything in the future is rosy). My enjoyment was slightly diminished by a nagging feeling that the first two parts had only been written as a set-up for the third, and that the ending just couldn't be substantial enough to justify that. However, in the end I think that Stephenson manages to pitch the later part of the story at just the right level - there is less science and more action in this part, which is mainly set on Earth itself - and delivers a thrilling conclusion. (It was also fun to see some signature  features from his earlier books, such as the beneficient secret society that thinks it has an inside track on history, recur.  I wonder if he might be setting up a sequel?)

To sum up, this is an excellent, enjoyable read. It's long but by the end you'll wish it was longer.

1 July 2015

Review: The Hunter's Kind by Rebecca Levene

The Hunter's Kind
Rebecca Levene
Hodder & Stoughton, 2 July 2015
HB, 468 pages

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book through Bookbridgr.

When I discovered that Levene's Smiler's Fair was to have a sequel, I was delighted but a bit nervous. (I should warn you now that there are spoilers below for Smiler's Fair - if you haven't read it, stop now, get a copy and read it. Then come back and carry on... here.)

The titular fair had knitted together a large number of characters as it travelled the lands of the Sun and the Moon, some of them delightful, some horrible, none perfect - or utterly evil - all very human. However, most of them hadn't crossed paths and some - like the boy Eric - had been spirited far away from the main action. I was concerned that it would be difficult to keep up the unity of the story once the Fair ended up in ashes. (I warned you - spoilers!)

I needn't have worried. Levene picks up the story exactly where she left it - in the cooling embers of the Fair - but drives it forward with, if anything, even greater verve and unity than in the first book. And while that was largely an introduction to her characters - Krish, goat herdsman/ missing king turned moon god, Dae Hyo, drunken warrior, Nethmi, a bride who stood up against an abusive husband and killed him, Olufemi, the mage who started it all off, and many others - here... here stuff gets read and they really begin to be.  We also get some new characters.  There is Cwen, one of the Hunter's hawks. I don't think I can easily convey how amazing Cwen is: she takes nonsense from nobody but is also miles away fro the archetypical "strong female character".  There are sister and brother Algar and Alfreda, a pair of itinerant metalworkers who have invented something Very Important... and more.

Mix them up - the lost prince, the mage, the warrior woman. Add some fantasy tropes: the Prophesy, the reawakened gods. Stir. Invert. make something new and different. You can see it happening but, like the best magic, you can't see how it happens. Before the reader's eyes, the characters come alive and shape their world.  Krish is supposedly the reincarnation of the god Yron, the Moon, who was vanquished millenia ago by his sister Mizhara, the Sun. His dark creatures haunt the land, his underground servants haunt mines and caverns, killing and eating any humans they find (so metals are scarce and expensive).  Cwen and the other Hawks hunt them down without mercy.

Yet despite the evil Krish is a real person, a good person. he hasn't asked for the role of god, has no idea what to make of it and it's not his doing that half the continent wants to destroy him because of it. (The other half wants to destroy him because he happens to be the heir to a great empire, whose king - his father - he's prophesied to kill. But that's not his doing either).

All this was there in Smiler's Fair, but here the consequences start to pile up. The book deals in shades of grey. Both "sides", if there are "sides" here, are trying to do their best: there are no fantasy Dark Lords or White Riders. Though there is plenty of darkness, it is a more human, recognisable darkness. Slavery. Poverty. Religious fanaticism. The slaughter and rape of the Brotherband as they pillage their way across the land. These things aren't just part of the background ("that's just how it is in fantasy"), they raise questions, pose challenges to the characters (especially to Cwen and Krish). What is one to do when one's trusted allies are slavers? What is one to do when calling together forces to win a battle leaves distant villages exposed to the Brotherband?

The book is full of forced, least worst choices, attempts to keep some morality, some light in an ever darker world.

Very much, I think, a book for now.  A magnificent, brave book, showing what fantasy can and should be - a mirror to the world, but a dark mirror.