30 May 2016

Blogtour! Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus

Epiphany Jones
Michael Grothaus
Orenda Books, 16 May 2016
PB, 368pp
Source: review copy from Orenda books

"A man with a consuming addiction. A woman who talks to God.

And the secret connection that could destroy them both…"

At the heart of this book is a quest for redemption and atonement. It also confronts head on a real sense of darkness in our culture. There is no denying though that it is a tough book. I don't normally attach trigger warnings in reviews but for this book, I should say that there are themes of sexual abuse and violence.

There's intermittent controversy amongst readers and online reviewers about "likeable characters" in books. One sees, for example, reviews on Amazon where books are downvoted "because I couldn't like the characters". My view is that this is an over naive approach to literature - but if that is your outlook you may not get on with this book.

The two main characters in Epiphany Jones are Jerry, a young man who has the mother of all Internet porn addictions, and Epiphany, a young woman with a dark and troubled past. Epiphany has a goal and is ruthless in her pursuit of it: Jerry seems to be he chosen means of achieving the goal.

The shark picture on the book's cover alludes to Jerry's role in the book, explained by a story quotes early on - hoiked out of its natural environment and flung onto land to be assaulted and destroyed in an alien world. That's Jerry's (who tells the story) point of view from the start, right from the moment he finds himself under suspicion of theft and murder. The reader (well, this reader) doesn't sympathise with him much. He's a bit of a slacker. While it's clear early on that he has "issues" - a dead sister and father - his way of coping with those (a library of pictures in which the faces of well known actresses are photoshopped onto the bodies of porn stars) is, if perhaps true to life, also pretty squalid. It is a sad subculture he's part of, a fact which Grothaus conveys in ways both amusing - as in this online exchange:

'Just this person' I type, not knowing how much I should say.
'OMFG!!!' he types 'IT'S A GIRL ISN'T IT?!?!?!?!?!?!'
And I don't type back.
'Where did you meet one?' he types.

- and also downright repellent. On a couple of occasions, Jerry's anger at a woman seems to be expressed by him considering sexual violence towards her.

Jerry is mixed up in other respects as well, seeing "figments", people who aren't there, both of real people he's met and wholly imaginary ones and making up girlfriends (a fiction his work colleagues and mother see through immediately). In particular he's haunted by a dream of a young girl - a girl he begins to think he sees, though older, in real life...

Anyone less suited to go on the run from both the police and a people trafficking mafia - sans money, sans meds, sans everything, aided only by a woman who talks to God - would be hard to imagine.

Epiphany seems more straightforward, if more driven and indeed more driving of the plot. She is working towards a definite end (although she won't share what it is). Jerry's mother is an expert on Joan of Arc, and there's a clear comparison between Epiphany - with her voices, her suffering - and Joan, as women who, despite enveloping male violence, set out to achieve their goals. It's a mystery for most of the story exactly what those aims are and perhaps even more why she would want anything to do with Jerry at all much less see him as the means to those ends.

Grothaus produces a compelling story out of these tensions. Saying much more about the detail of the plot would spoil it, but it's essentially an international chase to an uncertain end and once things really get going, you simply have to keep turning the page to see what will happen next. The writing, which is excellent, simply keeps things moving on. Grothaus uses a loosely noirish style, written in the present tense:
'Listen,' I say, 'I'm going with you to Ensenada, right? So you need to start being open with me. Who were you talking to?'
She says nothing.
'And, I mean, what's in Mexico?'
Again, nothing.
'And, why Ensenada?'
And Epiphany says, '...'
In particular he has a way of introducing Epiphany's, and other characters' but mainly her, speech, with variations on "And Epiphany, she says..." which have the effect of making it sound sound natural, inevitable, almost Biblical, underscoring the drivenness of this story and of course the supernatural voices she claims are leading here and Jerry to their uncertain end.

We gradually learn more about Epiphany's shocking background, the wrongs she has suffered, and what she will do to save others from what happened to her. The tragic events in Jerry's life also become clear bit by bit (although I have to say, I had guessed the very final revelation some time before it came). There are some extremely dark aspersions cast at the reality of the Hollywood film industry: both about what actors may be forced to do to get that big break, and how wealth and power are used and abused by the men at the top.

Greater knowledge may not mean you like Epiphany or Jerry more - she does some terrible things, he adds to his flaws an unpleasant strain of cowardice and indecision - but you will I think come to care about them and indeed to cheer them on to success (though in the shabby world portrayed here, just what that might mean isn't always clear).

Grothaus deserves credit for tackling some traumatic themes head on (and Orenda for publishing the book) and doing so with verve and humour. This will though be a hard book for some to read and isn't for everyone, but ultimately, will be rewarding for those who do (as well as frequently funny: one death towards the end is almost laugh out loud funny and had me shouting "YES" as I read it).

This review is part of the Epiphany Jones blogtour. For other stops on the tour, see the poster below.

26 May 2016

Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway
Seanan McGuire
Tor, 2016
HB, 173pp
Source: Bought from Waterstones

This a brilliant book which I enjoyed immensely (as well as being very moved by it, both saddened and uplifted).

It is also I think the weirdest book I've read in a long time. (Which is great. Weird is good: long live the Weird!)

But - and I often find this with books I really loved - it's hard to know where to start in writing the review.

The plot is easy to summarise. Eleanor West runs a boarding school for survivors, children (mostly women and girls) who've come back after straying into other worlds - many of them Wonderlands of various types, some more... gothic. On return, of course, nobody will believe them and each pines for the life she enjoyed in a place attuned precisely to here.

Eleanor picks up the pieces.

To this school comes Nancy, lately returned from service to the Lord of the Dead. As if it wasn't already hard enough having parent who think she's off her head and having to fit in with girls who (mostly) seemed to have visited sparkly rainbow fantasy worlds, nasty things begin to happen after her arrival...

Yes, this book has plot, it has super plot. But the story isn't really about the plot. The heart of this book is very much the characters McGuire sketches and this is where I fear I won't be able to do justice to the book. It's a short book, but she makes each believable, rounded and - in their own way - both tragic and hopeful. There's Jack and Jill, the two girls who visited the achingly bleak Moors, inhabited by vampires and mad scientists. There's Kade, one of the few boys, who everyone used to think was a girl. he was exiled from his adopted world because that broke a rule: the others may hope to return, he never can. Sumi became accustomed in her world to high Nonsense and is really having trouble fitting in. Loriel found a home in a world of spiders.

It gradually becomes clear that all of these young people are traumatised, scarred by exile from places where they felt uniquely at home - many of them refer to their other worlds as "home" and most have been rejected pretty much by their families. Indeed, I think that they may have been alienated from their families before the strayed through those doorways to find refuge in a different place.

That is a pretty obvious metaphorical point here about people who are exploring their own identity, trying to find a life, a world, that suits them and cutting ties with family and home. It's emphasised by the presence of those who are different in other ways - the minority here who have a gothic outlook, longing for sweet darkness, stillness and quiet, those whose gender identity makes them different, those who are, simply, odd - and spelling it out perhaps makes it seem laboured. But in the book it's not. McGuire has whatever the writers' equivalent of green fingers is (inky hands?), displaying a sure touch with her characters and she makes this extended metaphor come alive, celebrating the glory of difference at the same time as she evokes the pain of knowing there is somewhere you fit in but not being able to get there.

While I don't think the idea of an "aftermath" for adults who experienced other worlds as children is a a new one - I'd point to Joe Hill's NOS4R2 or Alan Garner's Boneland as other examples and I'm sure there are more - Every Heart a Doorway is distinct in focussing on the phenomenon as though it applied to multiple young people, so enabling interaction between them, exploring the group dynamics of the situation, as it were. And it does so very well, touching on some fascinating issues (isn't it a bit, well, creepy for a teenager to want to go and serve as a living statue in the Halls of the Dead? Is she actually capable of making that choice? What would you be prepared to do to get back to that other place? How will you live if, like most of us, you know you can never reach it?)

I've rambled on enough. Read this. It will introduce you to some terrific characters and take you to very dark places. Parts are almost tear jerkingly sad. But, as I said above, it is also uplifting. Above all it is a real experience of a read. Strongly recommended.

25 May 2016

Review: Warlock Holmes - A Study in Brimstone

Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone
GS Denning
Titan Books, 27 May 2016
PB, e 384pp
Source - advance copy from publisher

Come, Watson - the game's afoot!

It's not that I'm on a Sherlock Holmes binge or anything but in the past few weeks I've read three books with very different takes on the Great Detective. I would like to compare and contrast them and to ask what exactly it is about Holmes that so captivates the imagination, but that's for another day, perhaps...

Warlock Holmes is in some respects the most radical reinterpretation - not only in making Holmes a warlock who holds conversations with demons but in having him very much secondary to Watson in the business of detection. Here it's the good doctor who displays feats of deduction, inferring a chain of thought from a few glances or spotting the sequence of events comprising a  crime. That actually makes a lot of sense: in the classic stories, Watson is using his medical training to do what Conan Doyle saw demonstrated as a medical student at Edinburgh. It's time Watson stepped out of the shadows, but still perhaps a bit of a shock - especially as Holmes is portrayed here as, well, a bit dim.

Of course, in this world, there's no reason for Holmes to painfully deduce what's been going on. He can just speak to the spirits and indeed this method means he's often still ahead  of everyone else (several days, on one occasion). So to make the stories interesting it's pretty much a necessity to rob Holmes of his brilliance, or none of the stories would last very long.

That may sound unpromising and I'm sure that Holmes purists will cringe, but Denning actually manages to riff off the classic stories well well - while subtly twisting everything. The cases are pretty faithful to "real" ones, not only in general structure and in the way the crimes are revealed - the anxious client appearing at 221b to explain their problem, with plenty of misdirection and the real crime only gradually emerging thanks to razor sharp deduction (here, by Watson) - but in tone, too: it's a world of hansoms, mansions set in walled gardens, wild backstories from the California goldrush or the outposts of Empire. But they are a bit... different. Familiar characters appear - Gr(o)gson and Lestrade, a strageely warped version of the Baker Street Irregulars, Colonel Sebastian Moran, Mrs Hudson, Charles Augustus Milverton - but they all play slightly warped roles in this alternate universe.

The idea works a lot better than I'd expected, producing something much fresher than those endless, exact Holmes pastiches that deliver the familiar form yet without any vital spark. You have to recalibrate to a slightly different Holmes, and to a general comic tone which as I have said may alienate some purists (but come on, purists, lighten up!) but it's well worth doing that. It's also refreshing that the cases are pretty much standalone, as in the original stories: while there is a darker threat building, Denning doesn't impose too much of an arc on the separate chapters, allowing each its own beginning, middle and end rather than making it just a building block in something else.

The tour de force is a reimagining of The Speckled Band, in many ways the Sherlock Holmes story, one which was turned into an enormously successful play during Conan Doyle's lifetime. Denning gives it new life: of course if you have read the original story you'll know who the villain is yet there are still surprises and the story really grips as an episode in itself. There are also some nice illustrations by Sean Patella-Buckley complementing the text just as in those original Strand magazine stories.

Overall, then, a nice take on a perhaps overfamiliar character and one that ended - of course - with a cliffhanger to encourage me to pick up the next volume, due out next year.

23 May 2016

Blog tour: Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? - guest post by Paul Cornell

As you should now, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes by Paul Cornell was published last Thursday, 19 May and it is AMAZING. I attended the launch event at Forbidden Planet in London  (here is Paul reading from the book) and reviewed it here and I'd urge you to go and read it at once (get it at your local bookshop, or here, here or here - or there are some signed copies at Forbidden Planet...)

As if that wasn't enough excitement I'm honoured that as part of his blog tour for the book Paul has written a guest piece for THIS BLOG about the mixed genres of this book

So... enough preliminary stuff: over to Paul!

I've always been interested in what happens when one genre collides with another, so if I was going to do urban fantasy, it was always going to be a police procedural. That is to say, the audience understands what the rules of this world should be, just like the characters do, only to find those rules thrown out of the window.

The heroes of the Shadow Police novels are a team of ordinary modern London Metropolitan Police officers, who accidentally gain 'the Sight', the ability to see the magic and the monsters most people can't. They decide that the only way to survive and stay sane is to use their training to deal with them. They have no magical mentor figure, no ability with magic themselves (though one of them is doing his best to learn), just their wits and an Ops Board that now looks like a piece of gothic art.

In the new novel, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? they encounter the 'corpse' of Holmes' ghost, lying in the Museum at 221b Baker Street, a ceremonial dagger in his back. Ghosts in my London are the collective memories of all Londoners, living and dead, so they include, as well as the famous deceased, fictional and mythological characters. The first question they have to ask is almost an existential one: what does it mean to kill a ghost? Does this have something to do with the three different versions of Holmes being filmed concurrently in London? What about the fact that the crimes of the Conan Doyle canon are being re-enacted, in order, in their original locations?

So we have an impossible situation that's going to be investigated using real world techniques, one genre encountering another, in a very strict way, I think, because this is hopefully what crime fans call a pure whodunit, the sort where the reader can play along. That's important when the fantastic is involved. The characters shouldn't be able to pull out some impossible resource that the author hasn't told the readers about. SF and fantasy readers look for cues, as they read, as to the nature of the world they're discovering. Crime readers are attuned to look for clues and red herrings in the same way, so to some degree mixing those two genres is just a question of carefully substituting one of these things for another. And some energy and surprises can be found in not telling the reader which is which.
I hope the book is satisfying for readers of both genres. And, incidentally, for new readers, since I've made sure that it forms a good jumping-on point if the subject matter has attracted you to your first Shadow Police experience. Myself I'm happy for these books to be called Fantasy Procedurals. That rather trips off the tongue.

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? was published by TOR UK on 19/07/2016

Paul Cornell has been Hugo-nominated for his work in TV, comics and prose, and is a BSFA award-winner for short fiction. He has also written some of Doctor Who’s best-loved episodes for the BBC, and has more recently written for the Sherlock-inspired TV show Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. He lives in Gloucestershire.

Find out more www.paulcornell.com and @paul_cornell.

21 May 2016

My Best Friend's Exorcism

Today I'm welcoming author Grady Hendrix, for a stop on the My Best Friend's Exorcism blog tour.

About Grady

Grady lives in New York. He is the author of Horrorstör, a novel about a haunted IKEA store, which is being turned into a series by Gail Berman (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Josh Schwartz (Gossip Girl). Previously a journalist. He is also a co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival.

Visit his website www.gradyhendrix.com or follow him on Twitter @grady_hendrix to find out more.

About the book

High school friends Abby and Gretchen have been BFFs since fifth grade, when they bonded over E.T. and roller-skating. They’ve shared secrets, a deep love of pop music, and inside jokes - until one fateful evening involving skinny-dipping and trying acid. Suddenly Gretchen is a completely different person - and to make things worse, strange things keep happening whenever she’s nearby.

Dumbstruck by the drastic changes in her best friend, Abby investigates what has happened, bringing her into contact with some bizarre characters and ultimately leading her to a horrifying explanation: Gretchen is possessed by the Devil. Friends, relatives and teachers all dismiss Abby’s discovery, begging the ultimate question: can Gretchen and Abby’s friendship survive Satan?

Like an unholy hybrid of Beaches, Mean Girls and The Exorcist, My Best Friend’s Exorcism blends teen angst, adolescent drama, unspeakable horrors, and a mix of 80s pop songs into a pulse-pounding supernatural thriller. Packaged in a high school yearbook format, replete with handwritten inscriptions on the endpapers, this is a must-have for any genre fan - or 80s nostalgia - from Heathers to horror.

Now the preliminaries are over - here's Grady to reminisce about his high school years...

There’s a reason My Best Friend’s Exorcism is set in 1988: that’s the year I was in Tenth Grade (Year 11) when I felt like I was possessed by a demon from Hell. I wasn’t literally possessed (or was I?) but I felt like everything I was doing was going wrong, and every second I was alive was just another chance for me to mess up my life forever. It was also the year when I forged the tight friendships that got me through high school alive. Here are a few truths that got me through the highs and lows of high school.

EVERYONE IS UGLY - I was a spotty little monster with a face that looked like an overcooked pizza. I spent hours picking at it, popping it, staring into the mirror and wanting to tear it off. I looked around at my classmates and saw either golden gods walking the earth in clouds of perfection, or hideous trolls scuttling from class to class like monsters. I firmly believed I belonged to the latter camp, but looking back at high school students as an adult I realize they’re all so half-formed that they’re all ugly. I shouldn’t have worried.

ADULTS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS - minus a few rare exceptions, the faculty who ran my high school were the enemy. They were not out to help us, they were out to humble us. I remember being punished for things I didn’t do simply because a teacher believed I must have, I remember having my confusion over maths interpreted as sarcasm because the teacher couldn’t believe “a student is this stupid,” and I remember telling our guidance counselor where I wanted to go to university and having her burst into laughter. At the time I thought I was the problem. As an adult, I realize that they were the enemy all along.

THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A HIGH SCHOOL FRIENDSHIP - the friendships you form in high school are the tightest ones of your life. Later you’ll have husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, but in high school you’ve got comrades in arms who have your back and vow to stick together forever. These are the friendships that keep you alive, that bail you out when you’re in trouble, that come through with a last minute rescue. And they don’t survive graduation. There’s something about their intensity that causes these friendships to fall apart once you’re out of school. Sometimes you can transform them into another type of relationship, and there will always be a residual nostalgic buzz between you, but in general, they fade away. And that’s all right.

NO ONE CARES WHAT YOU LEARN - no one really cares if you can tell them about the Tudors or what X equals. Schools are not designed to give you information, they are designed to see if you can take tests and toe the line. Schools are places where you’re taught how to conform. Future employers and university admissions committees (where the real learning takes place) want to see if you can follow rules, do work, handle stress, and keep your cool while being bombarded with a baffling assortment of trivia for a decade. I mean, let’s face it, after learning how to read and write and do simple maths, what did you actually find useful in high school? Chances are, it was something you taught yourself.

As bad as high school was, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. As much as we all make fun of teenagers — and they can be embarrassing — they’re better than the adults we grow into. Everything felt like a matter of life and death back then because it was. In high school, we’re stupid, and inexperienced, and we look funny, but we all wore our hearts on our sleeves and we weren’t afraid to risk everything, every single day. I wish I was half as brave today.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism is out now in hardback from Quirk Books, £14.99 and is available at your local bookshop, and also here, here and here

20 May 2016

Blogtour: Little Bones by Sam Blake - The Psychology of Murder

After a couple of posts looking at the current crop of fantasy, I am heading back over to crime today - because crime always pays, doesn't it? - and handing over to Sam Blake, author of Little Bones, for a look at...

The Psychology of Murder

There’s an ongoing debate about whether crime fiction is plot driven or character driven, but without great characters you have no plot. Robert McKee in his fabulous book STORY talks about plot being generated by the characters’ reactions to events. Story is about conflict. Conflict gives us energy, it gives the characters problems to solve, it hooks us in and is core to any book.

But conflict is more than literal, a character’s internal conflict, their personality, their psychology, their reactions, are key to keeping a reader turning the pages. The writer’s challenge is in creating three dimensional complex characters who will inhabit a world that is so real the reader feels that they are living the story.

One of the crucial aspects of creating three dimensional is to understand their motivation: what makes them tick? WHY do they act as they do, what do they want?

Crime fiction in the majority of cases revolves around murder – the ultimate crime, the taking of someone’s life. To ensure our fiction rings true, as writers, it is vital for us to understand the psychology of murder, what makes a murderer tick.

In a study undertaken in the USA, the neuropsychological features of 77 murder defendants and death row inmates were examined in relation to the criminal variables that underpinned their homicidal acts. Of these 49.4% had a developmental disorder in childhood, 87% had a brain injury (self reported and 10% had documented evidence), 85% had a history of substance abuse, 45% had a psychiatric history and 35% had a history of abuse in childhood.

From the neuropsychological assessment the mean IQ was 84, which is a standard deviation below the norm. Mean working memory was 87, which is a low average.

From these statistics alone we can conclude that it is very simplistic to say that someone who murders is mad. Even if they have committed multiple murders their ‘madness’ is complex, could be caused by a disease or social factors (such as child abuse or neglect) that have influenced them to act in this way. In creating complex characters, it’s vital to understand that the root cause of their behaviour will have an influence on everything they do, on the way they interact with other characters in the book, on their thoughts and mannerisms. Understanding their psychology is key to ensuring the story works.

In Little Bones the characters have many different psychological issues – from unwanted pregnancy to underlying mental illness, and I researched each in great detail. Much of that detail doesn’t reach the page, but as Hemingway says “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water”.

Every crime novel, and indeed every fictional murderer is that iceberg. It is only when we get under the water that we can find the solutions.
© Sam Blake

About Sam Blake:

Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the national writing resources website Writing.ie. She is Ireland's leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.

Follow Sam on Twitter @writersamblake or Vanessa @inkwellhq – be warned, they get tetchy with each other!

About Little Bones:

Little Bones is the first in the Cat Connolly Dublin based detective thriller trilogy.

Twenty-four-year-old Garda Cathy Connolly might be a fearless kick-boxing champion but when she
discovers a baby's bones concealed in the hem of a wedding dress, the case becomes personal.

For artist Zoe Grant, the bones are another mysterious twist in her mother's disappearance. Then her grandmother, head of the Grant Valentine department store empire is found dead, and a trail of secrets is uncovered that threatens to shake a dynasty.

In a story that moves from London's East End to the Las Vegas mafia, one thing is certain - for Cat, life will never be the same again.

You can buy the book herehere or here - and of course, directly at your local bookshop.

18 May 2016

Review: Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? by Paul Cornell

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? (Shadow Police 3)
Paul Cornell
Tor, 19 May 2016
HB, PB 368 pages
Source: Advance copy from Tor

There are, it has to be said, a fair number of "weird s*** in London" novels, many, even, of the "supernatural police" variety. But I don't think any author has been as audacious, as ruthless as Cornell. There's a moment in his last one, The Severed Streets, that you'll know if you've read it. I'm not going to say here what it is, in case you haven't read that yet, but what Cornell does there... well, after that, anything can happen. And here it does.

Death of a ghost? Gods of London? Hell about to swallow all those who have lived in the city? Not just one Sherlock Holmes, but three, no, four, no... actually I lost count. There's a lot going on, and it's taking a toll on the Shadow Police (a name which I think hasn't actually appeared before). Indeed, that's one of the other distinctive things about Cornell: his characters suffer. Lisa Ross has given up all future happiness. She lives life in a numb haze. DI James Quill is so scarred by fear for his family, knowing as he does that they will go to Hell with all other Londoners, that he's falling apart, becoming ineffective. Part of it is that he can't tell what he knows, and it's destroying him. The team, in short, isn't a team any more. DC Costain carried out a terrible betrayal, with the best of intentions, and he's haunted by that.

A potential fifth member of the team, DS Rebecca Lofthouse, is keeping secrets of her own. She's been a rather peripheral character so far but is about to get some attention herself from the Smiling Man, the sinister figure who seems to be the source of something very bad in London.

Cornell weaves his threads together skilfully, setting up a string of crimes which seem to begin with the death of Sherlock Holmes's ghost. Arising from the "Holmes mania" caused by three separate TV versions of the Great Detective filming at once, something seems to be being made real. To be being Remembered in London. Yet the focus isn't all on the crime, but equally on the hurt people trying to unwrap everything and on exploring the mystery that is London.

What I especially enjoy about these novels is the sense that "our chaps" don't know it all. They are learning about this London stuff as they go along, spinning plausible theories which are often proved wrong, getting snippets of information from informants and going into situations with little real idea how they'll get out. (Um. Perhaps a bit like real policing?) That is more plausible to me, somehow, than bumping into an aged wizard who will rapidly update you on the situation, offer you a magic potion and advise you not to go South of the River when there's a full moon. (Whether that's really sound advice or not).

But this lack of knowledge also places them in danger and, as I said above, they suffer and they suffer convincingly. Indeed in Quill this book has at its centre I think a character who is either going through depression or experiencing PTSD or perhaps both and showing the range of behaviours that brings with it, including, in one harrowing sequence, setting off into London - into Hell? - convinced he knows the answers when he is clearly delusional and vulnerable

It doesn't make for an easy read, but after the earlier books (you have read the earlier books, right?) you won't be expecting that?

It's not all gloom of course. Cornell laces the story with a wicked thread of humour, whether it's allusions to films that aren't all about Sherlock ("He's not Satan" said Ross. "He's just a very naughty boy") or just nice asides ("You have friends in Hell now.") He nods to real people and things (for example the excellent Baker Street Babes). He's also quite sharp in placing the action - for example on Moorgate: "The way the architecture toyed with the history of the place seemed... insulting, askew. That meant bad things could happen here." That made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I don't want to get all spooky but I have walked along Moorgate and felt that, although I couldn't put it into words. I'm not saying that Cornell's stuff is true here but he is onto something. Brrr.

It's a compelling read, really in a class of its own, whether you're a Holmes fan who's read all the books or you've just imbibed the mythology. And you'll be glad to know that something is coming up in this London... the book ends shortly before Hallowe'en, and that means there must be wickedness afoot in the next instalment, surely?

I'm honoured to be publishing a piece by Paul here on Monday 23 May, as part of the Who Killed Sherlock Holmes blog tour - see below.

17 May 2016

Review: The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

The Sudden Appearance of Hope
Claire North
Orbit, 19 May 2016
HB, 480pp
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley

I'm intrigued by Claire North (aka Catherine Webb, aka Kate Griffin) also a theatrical lighting designer also writer of a very readable blog who seems to have written books in so many different genres and sub-genres and frankly to be outrageously talented for someone so young.

I especially like her last two books, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch, and thematically Sudden Appearance beings with them. All three books are about individuals with fantastic (in the original sense) attributes. Harry is continually reborn, in Touch the protagonist can flow from body to body, evading death - and in Sudden Appearance, Hope really does "suddenly appear" because she has the blessing, or curse of not being "memorable".

It't not that she's plain or unremarkable, but that when she's out of sight people forget her ("the memory of me crumbled like sand castles before the sea".) Every time she meets somebody it is for the first time - whether they are friend or enemy, parent, teacher, lover or even a relentless police inspector hunting her down. Digital records survive, the written word survives ("What is Hope Arden? A scrawl of ink without a past; no more.")

In this book as in the others North does a superb job working through the implications of this strange situation.  Of course there are the the practicalities. Medical treatment is a problem, long term relationships a no-no ("I am the queen of internet dating"). Hope can't hold down a job, or even get one - so a life of crime, for which her "talent" is supremely useful, seems the only way to survive. But even more so, there is the psychology. Hope is so alone, in effect rejected by all those she loves - but they reject her in such a gentle, uncomprehending way that she can't blame them or rage against them. She tries to control herself, impose discipline ("when I am restrained in my actions, I am more than myself: I am unstoppable." She is continually counting - up and down - quoting us chunks of dictionary definitions or reciting chains of facts about whatever the current issue is: in darker hints we are told by one observer that's she's not only a criminal, but a compulsive criminal who steals continually without even knowing what she's up to. This is accompanied by a list of what she's stolen, stuff Hope herself didn't trouble to mention. No ink on the page, it can't be real, can it? There is a feeling that Hope is always on the edge, always about to implode or explode. At times she is downright stalkery, taking advantage of her ability to trail and seduce the detective who's trying to catch her.

Hope is brilliantly realised - indeed North gets inside Hope's skin to a degree, I think, that she didn't with the protagonsists of the previous two books but she isn't an easy character to have in your head, however sympathetic one may be. That's the first and perhaps more obvious difference between this and the earlier books. But this book is also significantly different (for me, even better) in mood, in motivation. It feels like a step forward. In those stories, while her characters struggled with their fantastical attributes, they fairly quickly found friends - or enemies - and lined up on the side of good against evil (or at least bad) much in the style of classical superhero stories.

That doesn't happen here. This book trades much more in moral ambiguity. Hope is a thief. She tends to target the nasty rich, but only because that's where the money is. When her activities bring her up against Prometheus, a company deploying a new lifestyle app designed to make its users "perfect", and the family behind it, it seems as though she's found a worthy foe. And no, they're not nice people and Perfection is a nightmare of conformism with shallow consumerist values and of privacy violation:

"It monitors phone calls, reads emails, accesses your bank account, tracks your internet search history, uses GPS to trace your location, rides shopping loyalty cards and mines data on your purchase habits, has access to the microphone and camera of your phone, can monitor your sleep, your waking hours, your work habits, your leisure activities..."

But nor are they a sinister criminal force (or no more than Hope is) and as she becomes drawn into a vendetta between Prometheus and a mysterious hacker planning to bring them down, there seems no war between right or wrong, no Manichaen struggle to be joined, only nasty choices and the prospect of hard all round. That it ends in bloodshed may be Hope's fault to some degree or it may not be. The mysterious byron14 may have harmed Hope or they may not. The reader is left to make up their own mind and put the truth together in the same way as Hope, seeking to reassemble fractured memories into something real. (And losing one's own memories, for somebody in her position, must really be the end - after all, nobody else remembers her).

The writing has also moved on. There were times in the other books when I felt I knew what North was saying but she didn't quite seem to say it. Here, she is in total command of her material, playing language as if she were sat there at her lighting rig, flicking switches and producing stunning effects.

That doesn't, as I said above, always make it an easy read. You have to understand , I think, just how damaged Hope is (and that's before the events of this book - things get worse for her here) and the way North gets that across can be frustrating at times (all those dictionary definitions and semi random facts, and a sense of - perhaps justified - self pity from the character: she often speaks of her mother's flight as a refugees across an African desert as though it is her own, something I found a bit irritating).

At the same time there are some searing passages, none more so than the one where Hope unexpectedly bumps into her sister. Gracie, who has a learning disability, is the only human being who remembers her. Hope had to leave home as her parents had come to see her as a stranger (why is this person in our house?) and began to clear out her room ("the spare room"). So Hope says goodbye to Gracie, then later meets here again. But she can't stay around: to the staff, she will always be a stranger. Or the moment when Hope breaks down. She's losing it. She can't remember things. No one will remember her, not herself, not others and she will be nothing, will never have been. "I am dead in all but deed".

The book is not without its flaws. However it has great ambition. Its use of language is at times superb ("she is moonlight in heels", "Does he know that he has forgotten does he understand what he has forgotten does he suspect does he hate me did he ever love me at all like I loved him"). Its sharp asides give real pause for thought ("No one's really racist any more, just as no one's really sexist. They've just got their views about things, you see"), ("Femininity is fashionable; femininity is frail and prone to giggles. I watch it all, and conclude that femininity can jump into the ocean and drown.) Above all, its empathy with its characters, especially hope, is beautiful (even if at times she is annoying and self-absorbed: give her a break!) It shows what fantasy literature at its best (or just literature) can and should aspire to.

I can't wait to see what North does next. More in this vein would be wonderful, but she seems so restlessly inventive that I don't think we should take anything for granted - and I wouldn't be surprised at all if she moves on from her troubled demi-superheroes to something else.

13 May 2016

Blog tour: The Evolution of Fear by Paul Hardisty

The Evolution of Fear
Paul E Hardisty
Orenda Books, 5 May 2016
PB, 388pp
Source: Review copy from publisher

As regular readers of this blog may have gathered, I don't review a great many thrillers here, so I'm stepping a bit outside my comfort zone with this (good!) I have though found that the recent ones I've seen from Orenda have all been cracking reads, so I'll take the risk (I apologise in advance to any avid thriller readers who are be tempted to shake their heads at something below and say "duh, it's a thriller, that's supposed to happen!"

Let's begin, then, as we must, with the setup.

It's 1994. Claymore Straker (Clay to his friends -if he has any left alive) is hiding out in a cottage in Cornwall. He's hiding from the CIA. He's hiding from a Russian crime boss he's annoyed by killing her brother. He's hiding from his lover. Possibly he's hiding from himself. All this is a consequence of what happened in Hardisty's previous book, The Abrupt Physics of Dying and while this book can certainly be read on its own, I think that you ought really to read them in order.

So. Clay is hiding.

Then some men with guns appear looking for him.

And people start to die.

This moment in the book is a declaration of war. Through the rest of the story Clay is basically a soldier. The conveniences and features of modern life - airports, streets, hotels - are just the territory on which he fights his battles, and the structures of the state - police, borders, passport control - all recede into a kind of fog that he slips past almost without effort. It takes credible, forceful writing to make this work and Hardisty barely lets up for a passage or a page.

While Clay may be at war, it's far from clear at first exactly who with or why. It's not as simple as "some guys are hunting him, he turns on them". There are betrayals, factions, conflicting interests which don't become clear till the end (perhaps not completely even then). At the centre though is his (ex?) girlfriend Rania. She's apparently in danger, but this isn't a simplistic damsel-in-distress scenario: Clay also has a price on his head, he has things to atone for, he has losses to avenge.

And as the story scorches through Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and Cyprus, other angles emerge - greed, theft, political chicanery and even the threat of renewed war on that divided island. (I don't think the book will do a great deal for the Cypriot tourist industry! It makes the place out to be little more then a playground for Russian oligarchs, whose gangs of thugs seem free to fight pitched battles against their master's or mistress's enemies.)

It's all done with great verve, and Clay is a complex and difficult central character. I won't say I actually liked him that much: apart from the way he notices any attractive woman in his vicinity, he's a former soldier for the apartheid era South African army. But - he has definite qualities.  He's determined, loyal - often to his own detriment - and he's wrestling with some pretty dark history. And while he kills in this book so many times that I lost count, he's not proud of that, or of his past. One of the things I did like about him from the start is that he competent - whether sailing a boat across the Bay of Biscay in a hurricane, disposing of inconvenient corpses in a hotel or finding the best way to evade a tail in the backstreets of Istanbul. (Me, I wouldn't have got past page 2 before ending up dead in a hedge). In short, Clay is the sort you definitely want on your side in a tight corner.

Overall, then, a rollercoaster of a thriller that will keep you reading, with some real surprises at the end. And the end doesn't tie everything up neatly: I sense more trouble ahead for Clay.

This review is part of the Evolution of Fear blogtour. You can see other participating blogs in the poster below - try some of them for different perspectives and insights on the book!

11 May 2016

Review: The Corporation Wars: Dissidence

The Corporation Wars: Dissidence
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 12 May 2016
HB, e 336pp
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley

I've enjoyed MacLeod's recent near future SF thrillers-with-an-edge. Intrusion in particular is a very smart reworking of Nineteen Eighty-Four, picking up all sorts of present day trends and shaking them about, but all of them are intelligent both as extrapolations of the present as as novels of ideas.

At first sight, Dissidence strikes out in a wholly different direction, a far future, deep space world inhabited only by intelligences (artificial or human) running on synthetic hardware - and playing obscure games at the direction of corporate overlords.

True, there's a brief look back in the first chapter to a 21st century conflict. In that flashback, Carlos the Terrorist, celebrated operator for the rebellion knows as the Acceleration (or the Axle) dies in a Tilbury basement. MacLeod sketches a three cornered battle between governments, the Axle and the Reaction ("the Rax"), global baddies wanting to use the power of emerging nanotechnology to exalt the super rich and push everyone else back to the Dark Ages. ("The ultimate counter-revolution, to face down the threat of the ultimate revolution.") It's a situation that allows for double dealing, divided loyalties and alliances of convenience (a background that perhaps takes some of its richness from just how he has explored these themes in his other recent books).

Carlos's forte is, though, the remote operation of drone clouds ("It was the new way of war, back in the day"). So it's surprising when his stored mind is reactivated centuries later - in a new body, bumping his way in a minibus from "the spaceport" to a "village" where he will meet his new-old comrades and train to fight hand to hand - or manipulator arm to manipulator arm - as a mercenary in a future war against self-aware robots.

What's happened to make this necessary?

In a beautiful evocation of cutting edge science, MacLeod describes how a robot just might boot itself from being "merely" an AI to being fully sentient - if it finds itself in the right situation. ("The self-model had become a self. The self had attained self-awareness.") The chapter in which this happens is aptly named "We Robots", not just in homage to Asimov but because it lays bare just how consciousness (even our consciousness... especially our consciousness...) might work. Think you're special, just because you're self aware? Don't get so cocky. You're a strange loop, that's all. We are all robots now, and indeed the newly conscious "artificial" robots here are scornful of how slow, badly designed and conflicted human hardware (and the intelligences derived from it) actually are. ("Their minds, if they have minds and not merely complex systems of reflexes, must surely be radically different from true machine intelligence.")

This is, then, a novel of ideas, brilliantly communicated and embodied, and they come thick and fast. Once consciousness has arisen, the book confronts the moral claims it has (the robots start out as property, but reason that they must be free) and the consequences of beings with self-awareness and self-determination colliding with the "mission profile" (to eventually transform the distant star system into something where humans can live). Inevitably, it also addresses how intelligent beings then become war machines.

At the same time, it's a tense thriller, where everything may or may not be as it seems. Carlos doubts from the start what is going on and why he is here, but the truth is beyond his weirdest imaginings. As characters transfer between robot fighting bodies in space and an apparent sim training environment on a colonised planate they enter a Wonderland reality in which it's easy to lose track of who is who and what is real, and to misjudge the consequences of the smallest act.

MacLeod also shows off a streak of sardonic humour - with AI law enforcement entities called things like Arcane Disputes and Locke Provisos, references to the "full orchestral space opera and the fat lady singing" or to "small crawler robots from the law companies [which] had scuttled up to the barriers, and fallen back in frustration, beaming out writs over and over until their batteries ran down." Best of all, perhaps, is "They back you up, your mum and dad." It may not be laugh out loud but it's funny in a clever, slightly geeky way.

I said that at first sight this is a departure, and it's true that the setting is rather different from MacLeod's recent books, more akin to military SF or, as hinted above, space opera. But really it's not such a stretch. Themes from those books recur. Intrusion reworked Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here we have the prospect of " An inky finger poking you in the eye, forever". The Restoration Game played with the world-as-a-sim idea, which crops up here in (recursive) spades. More widely, those are deeply political books, reflecting familiarity with the calculus of progress and reaction, of rebellion, dissent and how protest is sublimated away or manipulated: all of which are central to Dissidence as well. And of course, the central feature of Dissidence is (essentially) a slave rebellion.

It is, indeed, a political book, a philosophical book (as the invocation of John Locke might hint) as well as a natural philosophical book.

But it's also loads of fun, immersive, truly gripping and just a great read all round.

Best of all, as the first in a trilogy, we will have sequels!

(NB This is so good I bought my own copy! While I'm grateful for an advance e-copy from the publisher I've got a hardcopy on order - in fact a signed one from Transreal Fiction in Edinburgh - who I'd recommend highly).

8 May 2016

Blog tour: Blood Torment by TF Muir

Guest post by TF Muir

TF Muir is the author of the DCI Andy Gilchrist series set in St Andrews. Blood Torment, number six in the series, was published by Constable on 5 May.

When a three-year old girl is reported missing, DCI Andy Gilchrist is assigned the case. But Gilchrist soon suspects that the child's mother - Andrea Davis - may be responsible for her daughter's disappearance, or worse, her murder.

The case becomes politically sensitive when Gilchrist learns that Andrea is the daughter of Dougal Davis, a former MSP who was forced to resign from Scottish Parliament after being accused of physically abusing his third wife... 

I'm honoured that Frank has written a few words for the blog.

For more information on Frank and his novels, visit his website at www.frankmuir.com

Now, over to Frank...

Where did Gilchrist come from?

When I first dreamed up the idea of writing a crime series set in St Andrews, the first thing I had to do was come up with the character. Okay, a name. What am I going to call him? And in a flash, the name Andy Gilchrist came to me with such clarity that I thought I must know the man from somewhere. I trawled through my memory, checked my contacts, spoke to my wife, but no, I knew no one with the surname Gilchrist.

Name chosen, I then had to create a physical being. That was easy. Gilchrist was going to be everything I’m not: He’s six foot one inch tall – I’m a typical Scottish short-arse; He can run long distances – I came last in the school cross-country trials; He has a high pain threshold – I faint giving blood; And he’s handsome – I’ll let my wife be the decider on that one.

Many years later, with a number of novels written, I visited my cousin, Tom, whom I had not seen since the passing of my mother sixteen years earlier. As long-lost cousins tend to do we talked about family and relationships therein. We both shared the same grandparents, and I mentioned that I planned to do a genealogical search on our family, although I suspected I couldn’t go back further than our Grandpa John Rae on my mother’s side, because my mother told me that her father had been adopted at birth. Tom, who had read my books, looked at his wife, Jane, for a long moment, then said, ‘We thought you knew,’ and told me that John Rae had been Grandpa’s adopted name, but he had been christened John Gilchrist. Hairs really do rise on the back of the neck, and electricity really does zap up and down spines. I still shiver when I recall that moment.

However, the realisation that somewhere deep in the darkest canyons of my subconscious had lain some genetic memory passed down to me through my Grandpa John, now raised another perplexing, perhaps even more worrying, thought. Where do my ideas for murderous plots come from?

Up until that meeting with my cousin I’d thought I more or less just made them up. Now I wonder if my talent for writing believable scenes of violence and all things gruesome is not just imagination, but the faintest recollections of genetic memory passed down to me from long dead relatives.

If so, I must be descended from a frightening, murderous lot.

Blood Torment
TF Muir
Constable, 5 May
HB, 376pp

Available herehere or here - and in your local bookshop.

7 May 2016

Review: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Central Station
Lavie Tidhar
Tachyon Publications, May 2016
PB, 288pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley. I have also bought a copy, as I was lucky enough to get to a signing at Forbidden Planet in London. (I can report that Lavie is a lovely person; as well as signing, he also marked on the map in the book where his mum's house is. The cover designer, Elizabeth Story, was also there so I know that those are REAL spaceship designs!)

A worldwide diaspora has left a quarter of a million people at the foot of a space station. Cultures collide in real life and virtual reality. The city is literally a weed, its growth left unchecked. Life is cheap, and data is cheaper.

When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. Boris’s ex-lover is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin is infatuated with a robotnik—a damaged cyborg soldier who might as well be begging for parts. His father is terminally-ill with a multigenerational mind-plague. And a hunted data-vampire has followed Boris to where she is forbidden to return.

Rising above them is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv; a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful alien entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness—are just the beginning of irrevocable change.

The breadth of Tidhar's imagination in this book just left me gasping.

Central Station itself is a spaceport. Built in a future version of Tel Aviv, several centuries hence, it provides the gateway to the "Up and Out". Like the seaports of old, a vast and diverse hinterland supports the Station and this book tells the stories of some of those who live there.

Here you'll meet Miriam (Mama) Jones, owner of the best shebeen in Central Station, Kranki, her adopted son and Boris, once her lover, who has returned from Mars. And Achimwene, who trades in ancient yellowed paperback novels. And his friend Ibrahim, the rag and bone man.

There are also robotniks, modified humans made for fighting in forgotten wars and then cast adrift. And true robots - R. Brother Patch-it is as much a robot as Asimov's R Daneel Olivaw.

And an Oracle. And an artist who makes gods.

And a data-vampire, a Strigoi.

In his preface, Tidhar places himself in the story of Central Station, sitting in the real place where he builds his imaginary spaceport. He's writing an origin story, looking back to the start of humanity's journey to the stars: a time when the events of this book are already old.

This was in old Central Station, that vast space port which rises over the twin cityscapes of Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv...

So the events set out here are distant, given significance by what happened after (which of course we don't know). That's a useful device for stories whose focus is very much scene setting. The real business here is establishing the reality, rather than developing a complex plot. There are wonders here. The endless virtual Conversation, which (almost) everyone taps into via their "node", an artificial organ grafted in at conception. The AI "Others", bafflingly alien intelligences created by forced evolution and which were then freed almost as apolitical act. What do they really want? Godlike children and childlike gods. It's at times a little reminiscent of M John Harrison's Viroconium, at others consciously SF Golden Age, and always imbued with a vivid sensual layer: the smell of the orange groves, the sheesha pipes, the sea foam.

Within this achingly real, evocative framework, Tidhar takes his time developing the stories of his characters. Each of them struts and frets on the stage and we learn who everyone is and what they've done. Again they're well realised and, well, real characters, from the old man who's losing control of his memories to the scared woman who didn't ask to be made a vampire and who shouldn't be here on Earth. Even when bizarre, science fictional, they're very human stories, recognizable people and situations.

There is more promise though of where these people might be going - and that tantalising preface hints at this - than actual events. So if you love worldbuilding, good characterisation and a world of possibilities, this is definitely for you. If you're impatient for action and a twisty plot it might not be.

For myself, I loved it. Whether it's Achimwene's tender (doomed?) love for Carmel, Miriam's confused feelings for Boris, Boris's concern for his father or the simple story of a child waiting for his father to return, this is an absorbing tapestry - the more so for Tidhar's slightly warped view of future religions ("the Church of Robot"), his wry turn of phrase ("the tin man's burden"), ("furniture with hostile programming"), beautiful language ("Under the eaves. Under the eaves. Where it's always dry where it's always dark, under the eaves", "Memory like a cancer growing") or a myriad other things, the book fizzes with invention and in its portrayal of future humanity, has real heart.

I hope that there will be more from this world. The book brings together separate stories, a feat that, again, echoes Golden Age SF and it does so very well, creating a wonderful text but I would simply kill for a full length novel drawing on all this background and carrying the story forward as hinted at in the Preface.

I've no doubt Tidhar could triumphantly write such a novel, I just hope he wants to and has time!

Central Station is published on 10 May.

3 May 2016

Review: The Vinyl Detective - Written in Dead Wax

The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 10 May 2016
PB, ebook, 474pp
Source: Review copy from publisher

He is the record collector — a connoisseur of vinyl, hunting out rare and elusive LPs. His business card describes him as the “Vinyl Detective” and some people take this more literally than others...

They call him The Chef. You don't want to know why, but if you get in his way, you might find out.

I found this book the perfect confection of breakneck, page turning detective noir (or perhaps, detective gris?) on the one hand and absorbing, geeky exposition of a subculture on the other. The subculture is, of course, that of the vinyl record collector: despised by most until recently these records are now mainstream sought after items (you can buy them again at HMV!) But the world of obsessives, disc hunters and commercial middlemen is less well known and (on the evidence of this book) as varied and fascinating as any of the other niche cultures appealing to (mainly) male collectors. Think stamps, with much more storage space needed, or vintage bikes with less. (I don't mean that to be patronising - these subcultures add to the richness of life and stave of the encroaching beigeness of the modern world).

It's a culture that Cartmel portrays with real affection and seemingly exhaustive knowledge and its hidden corners and byways provide a fascinating setting for his protagonist who must delve into a decades old mystery as he searches for a very particular, very rare, record. There's an urgency to this. Our hero is basically penniless and his heating has failed, threatening him and his cats with hypothermia - that record will pay his bills for months, if he can find it - but more to the point, anyone who comes into contact with it - or who may have done so - acquires a bad habit of dying. The only way out is to take to the car boot sales, the charity shops and the backstreet emporia and get crate diving.

Of course there's a beautiful woman involved, setting things in motion (although Nevada is anything but a device to motivate the hero: try saying that to her face). Of course there is double dealing, and a mysterious, all-powerful enemy... But above all there is fun by the bucketload. Once Cartmel gets things going (and he does that pretty quickly) the story continues at a breakneck pace, throwing out clues, red herrings by the slabful and introducing a range of colourful contacts and low life figures in and on the fringes of the record hunting community. And not all of them die.

There is in the end a serious and sad story behind all the mayhem, highlighting a real issue in the history of jazz and much other popular music - but I'll say no more about that because spoilers. Above all though this is absolutely cracking entertainment and I'd highly recommend it. I'm delighted to see that there are followups planned - Cartmel has found a joyously different setup for (hopefully) a string of fun and highly readable crime adventures.

I'm grateful for a review copy of this book. It's published on 10 May but copies were already in the shops on 2nd (see photo!)

2 May 2016

Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Louisa Hall
Orbit, 2015
PB, 316pp
Source: bought

This is not a straightforward book to read, or review.

As to the former, the narrative is split between multiple viewpoints that don't, in the end, merge. As to the latter, it would be easy to vanish down the "is this SF or isn't it?" rabbit hole. I don't intend to do that - and I want to say at the beginning of this review, in case I've already put anyone off the book, that it is a rewarding novel of ideas and while they might not join up, the viewpoints do, in fact make sense as a whole, seen, perhaps, as characters - or narratives - in dialogue with one another.

Now, to set the scene. Around 1980, my uncle built a computer from a kit which he let me play with. It could easily be programmed and I had a book of BASIC programs, including ELIZA ("Electronic Life Imaging for Zooforms and Androids") - two A4 pages of closely typeset code, typed in without mistakes, which made the computer into a conversationalist. It was breathtaking.

In Speak, Louisa Hall brings ELIZA - or rather an ELIZA like program known as MARY - to life again. The ability of this program - in a more advanced form, thirty years in the future - to communicate and understand (or not), and the implications of that, are central themes.

It's all about speech, silence and loss, experienced by a diverse group of characters.

There's the original Mary, a young English girl travelling to the American colonies in the 1660s. Married off by her family, her only comfort is her beloved dog, Ralph. Mary pours out her thoughts and feelings into a diary which is found and edited three hundred years later by Ruth Dettman. Ruth is an academic, a Jewish (I think) refugees to the US from Germany. Her 20 year marriage to computer scientist Karl is breaking down with both partners retreating into silence, talking - or writing - past each other communicating not with each other but with us via pained, angry texts.

It was Karl (also originally a German refugee) who wrote the MARY program, which is then improved and developed over the years, but he gradually turns his back on AI, seeing it as a dangerous trap and likely to be used for the wrong reasons. Ruth, in contrast, wants Mary enhanced, given memory.

In another strand of the book, Stephen Chinn, incarcerated in a Texas prison, narrates his life. A typical computer geek, socially awkward, bullied at school, he went on to make a fortune in IT, spotted the mathematical basis of communication and used it as the basis for a pick-up manual and online dating site. Then he develops MARY to form the basis of a chatbot, and of "intelligent" dolls to be companions for children. Something has, however, gone wrong and Stephen has been prosecuted for his work, the chatbots confiscated and piled in warehouses where they sadly run down, waiting for the companions they'll never see again. We see some conversations in transcript between a girl Gaby and an online version of MARY, meant to prove or refute the charges against Stephen. It's hard to see this whole process as anything more than a blind lashing out against him by society: the transcripts reveal what otherwise we're hardly aware of, that these children live lives of isolation in prison-like "developments", with no movement allowed as climate change and desertification overtake the United States. The response of the authorities to them beginning to "freeze", ceasing to speak or respond, by isolating them further, seems unlikely to help.

To add to the sense of silence and isolation - Mary at her diary, Stephen alone in prison, Karl and Ruth talking past each other - we have a separate strand formed by letters from Alan Turing to the mother of a (dead) friend. These explore the same themes as the rest of the book - the AI developments leading to a the technology allowing MARY to speak, the idea of looking both back and forward, of series with terms dependent on past and future - of silence and isolation. Turing, of course, was a real person so his part of the story is darkened by our knowledge of how he will be treated, disgraced (in the eyes of contemporary society) and take his own life.

It's a powerful book, in which unsettling echoes of the same ideas are made to travel backwards and forwards in almost a dreamlike way. The protagonists almost seem to be talking to one another, but never quite do: indeed they seem to be in the closest communion when silence actually falls between them, united in their various griefs.

The book has a dreamlike quality. While rooted in an idea of scientific, technological progress and learning, some of the background seems almost that of a fantasy world: for example, arriving in the US from Europe, Ruth gets a job working in the "Office of Telescope Crystals" - which almost sound like a quasi mystical device. Or is it just one of those strange WWII codenames, intended to preserve security? Similarly, the way that Ruth and Karl escape from Germany seems almost fairy-tale like in its simplicity and ease - while their families may be doomed, the sort of suffering that went on in the War is only directly reported or described in what happens to those abandoned, self aware dolls that we see being transported piled in trucks at the start of the book. Stephen imagines them, his children, marching out of the desert to free him, but it doesn't happen.

And the most gut wrenching moment of sadness in the book comes, perhaps, from another direction entirely. (While this isn't a book that seeks to play on the reader's emotions, there are parts of it that are really quite painful).

I see I've been leaning towards describing what happens in this review. I don't think I've dropped any spoilers, because what happens is much, much less important than why, how and what it means' Like a hologram, that is encoded in every bit of the text but only becomes clear as the different narratives are allowed to interfere and build up a complete image, and is difficult to get across in a review like this.

All I can say, at the end, is, read this book. Let it speak to you.