31 December 2017

Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2018 - Part Two

Part One of this preview covered January-March 2018. This post covers the rest of the year, focussing on the books I'm looking forward to from April-June.

As always, details may change, dates may go back, books may even not appear. Time and chance happeneth to all. Any errors are of course down to me. Cover images are from authors' or publishers' websites: happy to remove these if the owners wish that.


April looks like a busy month bookwise. First on my radar is The Chosen Ones by Scarlett Thomas (Canongate, 05 April). This sequel to Thomas's Dragon's Green is part of her Worldquake series of children's books featuring the resourceful and bookish Effie Truelove. Dragon's Green just started to reveal the world that Effie and her friends inhabit and hinted at conflicts and dangers to come. Now, those seem to be becoming real.

The Wolf by Leo Carew is out from Headline on 5 April, the first in an epic fantasy of conflict and rivalry between the Anakim of the North and the Southerners.

AND there's Lucy Wood's The Sing of the Shore (4th Estate, 5 April). I totally, totally loved Wood's collection Diving Belles and her novel Weathering so it's exciting (yes, I know I over-use that word) to see this collection on its way. From the blurb:

"At the very edge of England, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the land and visitors flock in with the summer like seagulls, there is a Cornwall that is not shown on postcards. It is a place where communication cables buzz deep beneath the sand; where satellite dishes turn like flowers on clifftops, and where people drift like flotsam, caught in eddying tides. Restless children haunt empty holiday homes, a surfer struggles with the undertow of family life, a girl watches her childhood spin away from her in the whirl of a night-time fairground and, in a web of sea caves, a brother and sister search the dark for something lost.

These astonishing, beguiling stories of ghosts and shifting sands, of static caravans and shipwrecked cargo, explore notions of landscape and belonging, permanence and impermanence, and the way places can take hold and never quite let go."

On 12 AprilOne Way by Simon Morden (Gollancz) gives us a story described as "A murder mystery set on the frozen red wastes of Mars. Eight astronauts. One killer. No way home." I've been enjoying Morden's Books of Down series (Down Station/ The White City) and while I hope for more of that it's exciting to see Morden produce something different as well.

Now we come to THE MOST EXCITING BOOK NEWS OF THE YEAR. Emma Newman's superlative SF series spanning space exploration, colonisation, the corporate state, surveillance society and much, much more is being published by Orion in the UK. The first two books, Planetfall and After Atlas, which have already been published in the US, will be republished in February and March. The third, Before Mars, will appear on 17 April. This is well deserved recognition (and not before time) for Newman's writing in general and for the merits of this series in particular which provides excellent, intelligent speculative fiction combined with a shrewd eye for character. You must not miss this book.

See here and here for my reviews of the previous books.

I have a copy of Blackfish City, a debut by Sam J Miller (out from Orbit on 19 April) waiting on my TBR and it looks like a treat in store. Weird, climate change imbued fiction with a corrupt city in the Arctic, a mysterious woman and a polar bear. "After the climate wars, a floating city was constructed in the Arctic Circle. Once a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, it has started to crumble under the weight of its own decay - crime and corruption have set in, a terrible new disease is coursing untreated through the population, and the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside deepest poverty are spawning unrest. Into this turmoil comes a strange new visitor - a woman accompanied by an orca and a chained polar bear. She disappears into the crowds looking for someone she lost thirty years ago, followed by whispers of a vanished people who could bond with animals. Her arrival draws together four people and sparks a chain of events that will lead to unprecedented acts of resistance."

The Defiant Heir - sequel to The Tethered Mage - by Melissa Caruso is out from Orbit on 26 April. "Across the border, the Witch Lords of Vaskandar are preparing for war. But before an invasion can begin, they must call a rare gathering of all seventeen lords to decide a course of action. Lady Amalia Cornaro knows that this Conclave might be her only chance to stifle the growing flames of war, and she is ready to make any sacrifice if it means saving Raverra from destruction. Amalia and Zaira must go behind enemy lines, using every ounce of wit and cunning they have, to sway Vaskandar from war. Or else it will all come down to swords and fire."

Also on 26 April, Orbit publish Everything About You, a debut by Heather Child. "Freya has a new virtual assistant. It knows what she likes, knows what she wants and knows whose voice she most needs to hear: her missing sister's. It adopts her sister's personality, recreating her through a life lived online. This data ghost knows everything about Freya's sister: every date she ever went on, every photo she took, every secret she ever shared. In fact it knows things it shouldn't be possible to know. It's almost as if her sister is still out there somewhere, feeding fresh updates into the cloud. But that's impossible. Isn't it?"

28 April sees publication of Keeper by Johana Gustawsson (Orenda, next in the Roy and Castells series, following from last year's Block 46.)  The story swings from London and France to Sweden again, and then back to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel... On a minor point, just look at the continuity in cover design with those slashing knives....


May sees the return of several authors I love to read, as well as some who are new to me. First, one of the latter - The Beast's Heart by Leife Shallcross-  (Hodder & Stoughton, 3 May) is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast from the Beast's perspective... hoping for some aching romance here and a bit of fairytale magic.

Also out on 3 May (from Point Blank) and bound to deliver magic is Strange Fascination, the third Essex Witches mystery by Syd Moore. I'm enjoying these stories of the Essex Witch Museum and the paranormal investigations undertaken as a sideline by its staff. There are tantalising hints of a mysterious background and we get to see the story behind various historical mysteries. Strongly recommended.

As if that wasn't enough, there are MORE of my fave authors coming back in May. On 8 May Titan publish the third of Andrew Cartmel's Vinyl Detective books, The Vinyl Detective: Victory Disc by Andrew Cartmel. If Strange Fascination gives an insight into the byways of England's strange history, The Vinyl Detective (we never hear his name) is a window into the subculture of obsessive record collectors with our hero inevitably embroiled in plots and capers which always have just a little touch of the odd. It's not exactly crime but it sort of is, if you see what I mean.

The Old You by Louise Voss (Orenda, 15 May) promises to be an excellent, Hitchcockian psychological thriller. A man develops early-onset dementia and dark secrets from his past emerge... 

On 17 May Orbit publish The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, a debut by Tyler Whitesides. "Ardor Benn is no ordinary thief - master of wildly complex heists, he styles himself a Ruse Artist Extraordinaire. When a priest hires him for the most daring ruse yet, Ardor knows he'll need more than quick wit and sleight of hand. Assembling a dream team of forgers, disguisers, schemers and thieves, he sets out to steal from the most powerful king the realm has ever known. But it soon becomes clear there's more at stake than fame and glory - Ard and his team might just be the last hope for human civilisation."

Another book from Orenda - Fault Lines by Doug Johnstone (22 May) looks like one of those compelling but impossible to categorise (SF? Crime? Mystery?) stories. A volcano has emerged in the modern-day Firth of Forth, just off Edinburgh, forming an island called The Inch. A young woman finds the body of her lover (and boss) there, and pockets his phone without telling anyone. Only someone was watching...


Then, I have news of books by two of my favourite superstar authors, Sarah Pinborough and Claire North. You MUST have read their books, if you haven't there is no hope for you, so get these on order NOW as they both promise to be SUPERB.

Sarah Pinborough, whose Behind Her Eyes last year can only be described as f***ing creepy, has a new book, out from HarperCollins on 17 May.

"‘Cross my heart and hope to die…’

Promises only last if you trust each other, but what if one of you is hiding something?

A secret no one could ever guess.

Someone is living a lie.

Is it Lisa?

Maybe it’s her daughter, Ava.

Or could it be her best friend, Marilyn?"

As for Claire North (The End of the Day, The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Touch, The First fifteen Lives of Harry August), her new book is 84K and is out on 24 May from Orbit. 

"From one of the most original new voices in modern fiction comes a startling vision of a world where nothing is so precious that it can't be bought...

Theo Miller knows the value of human life - to the very last penny.

Working in the Criminal Audit Office, he assesses each crime that crosses his desk and makes sure the correct debt to society is paid in full.

But when his ex-lover is killed, it's different. This is one death he can't let become merely an entry on a balance sheet.

Because when the richest in the world are getting away with murder, sometimes the numbers just don't add up."

And finally for May, two more sequels I'm excited about: Gemma Todd is back with Hunted (Headline, 31 May) following up on Defender, set in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by voices heard in the head, and Andrew Caldecott has Wyntertide, the sequel to Rotherweird (31 May, Jo Fletcher Books). Rotherweird is a wonderfully realised fantasy about a "lost" English town where slightly different rules apply. Eccentrics abound and outsider aren't exactly unwelcome, but not encouraged either. It has a delightful sense of the "might" about it and I'm looking forward to more of the magic.


June promises to be another packed month. To begin with, there is a new Peter Grant mystery from Ben Aaronovitch. Lies Sleeping (Gollancz) promises a confrontation (with the Faceless Man, perhaps?) and warns that London is under threat. I don't have a date for this one though Amazon has an untitled Aaronovitch for 21 June - suggestive, but the case remains open. Keep your eyes peeled.

Then, on 5 June, Titan are publishing His Mermaid by Christina Henry who has previously delivered some marvellous, gritty and perceptive reimaginings of Lewis Carroll's Alice and of Peter Pan. Now she turns to another familiar story, the mermaid who leaves the sea for the land. But Amelia ends up in the entourage of the greatest showman of all time, PT Barnum. She leave any time she wants. Of course she can.

Also from Titan on 5 June is The Captives by Debra Jo Immergul. Prison psychologist Frank Lundquist is astonished to see Miranda Greene walk into his office. But why is Miranda, the girl he was in love with at school, serving time for murder? And why does Frank, whose life is unravelling after a scandal, remain as her psychologist rather than admit he knows her? Miranda is determined not to stay in jail, and as Frank’s obsession with her grows, they unleash a wildly risky chain of events, with dire consequences.

Sharing that publication date - 5 June - is The Outsider from Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton) - a crime thriller featuring a suspect who is apparently in two places at once...

June also sees publication of Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Doubleday, 14 June). (NB this is listed as "Untitled" by Amazon but a book of the same description with this name is listed in the penguin Australia catalogue, so...)

"It is 1928 and Matilda Simpkin, now in her late fifties, rooting through the boot cupboard, finds a small club in an old pair of galoshes. Giving it a thoughtful twirl she is finally struck by an idea. Mattie is a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present. During the Women's Suffrage Campaign, she marched, she sang and she heckled Winston Churchill. She was gaoled nine times. But she is still searching for a fresh mould into which she can pour her energies. Nothing - nothing - since then has had the same depth, the same level of excitement.After all, what do you do next after you've changed the world?"

I loved Evans' previous books, Their Finest Hour and a Half (which was filmed last year) and Crooked Heart so I'm really looking forward to another from her.

Also appearing on 14 June is The Old Religion by Martyn Waites (Zaffre). Tom Killgannon, an ex undercover policeman who's made some very bad enemies, is in hiding in the Cornish village of St Petroc. When he helps Lila, a girl in a different sort of danger, he only brings more trouble down on himself. Described as a "dark, twisted fast-paced and literate page-turner" this looks like the perfect book to take away on your seaside holiday to Cornwall...

Then, on 15 June, there's Kerry Hadley-Pryce's Gamble. (Salt Publishing). "Greg Gamble: he’s a teacher, he works hard, he’s a husband, a father. He’s a good man, or tries to be. But even a good man can face a crisis. Even a good man can face temptation. Even a good man can find himself faced with difficult choices.

Greg Gamble: he thinks he can keep his head in the game. He thinks he’s trying to be good. Until he realises everyone is flawed.

And for Gamble, trying to be good just isn’t enough."

I loved Hadley-Pryce's The Black Country, an absorbing and troubling account of things gone wrong in the English Midlands, a book that draws you in and leaves you thinking long after turning the last page. So I'm desperate to see what she does next.

In The Visit by Sarah Stovell (Orenda, 20 June) A young woman, Annie, looking for her birth-mother takes a job as a nanny in a wealthy household and becomes a close friend of Helen who is struggling to cope with her three children. When one of the babies is injured, the finger is though pointed at Annie. But did she do it?

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (Titan, 26 June) is described as "an intense novel of psychological horror and suspense." It features a family on holiday who are terrorised by four strangers... but this isn't just about survive in the face of an external threat. These strangers are concerned with the end of the world, either bringing it about or averting it. or so they

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi (28 June, Gollancz) postulates a 1938 in which death has been defeated - to be replaced by a colonialist scramble for the afterlife, for Summerland. Featuring SIS agents and a Soviet told, Summerland takes the Great Game into an unknown country. Really keen to see what Rajaniemi does after his Quantum Thief trilogy.

July - September

It doesn't end there, of course, there are some great books coming in the second half of the year. Just to note a few highlights, The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross is out on 5 July (Orbit). This is the latest instalment in his Laundry series. The UK Government has now been brought under the control of an ancient evil, aided and abetted by The Laundry, the agency supposed to keep the country safe. What comes next?

On 10 July, Nick Eames' Bloody Rose (Orbit) is out - the followup to his Kings of the Wyld which treats fantasy mercenaries in the style of Rock'n'Roll gods. "Tam Hashford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown.When the biggest mercenary band of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard.  It's adventure she wants-and adventure she gets as the crew embark on a quest that will end in one of two ways: glory or death. It's time to take a walk on the wyld side."

Vivian Shaw's Dreadful Company is out from Orbit on 26 July: "When Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead, is called to Paris to present at a medical conference, she expects nothing more exciting than professional discourse on zombie reconstructive surgery. Unfortunately for Greta, Paris happens to be infested with a coven of vampires - and not the civilised kind. If she hopes to survive, Greta must navigate the maze of ancient catacombs beneath the streets, where there is more to find than simply dead men's bones. The fabric of reality itself is under attack, and with the help of a couple of remedial psychopomps, a werewolf, two demons and her London friends, it's up to Greta to put things right." Shaw's previous book, Strange Medicine, introduced Greta and her, well, strange medical practice in London, catering to a VERY unusual patient base. Great to see a follow-up to this.

August sees the third (and final?) of Angela Slatter's Verity Fassbinder books, Restoration (Jo Fletcher, 9 August) with Verity now bound to a psychotic fallen angel. All Verity's mistakes seem about to come back to haunt her...

In September, I'm looking forward to Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 6 September). I so much enjoy Atkinson's books, so pleased to see another one coming! And there's Vengeful by VE Schwab (Titan, 25 September). Followup to Vicious - the first of VE's books I read. SO looking forward to more from that world!

There are also new books in the second half of the year from Orenda authors Lucy Hay and Michael Stanley as well as Louise Beech's The Lion Tamer who Lost - I love Beech's portrayal of character and place in her books published so far and new books by Michael J. Malone, Kati Hiekkapelto (Embers) Lilja Sigurdardottir and Antti Tuomainen (Palm Beach, Finland)

Note on gender balance: If I've counted right, the books listed here, excluding the previous paragraph, split 13:21 between make and female authors (so far as I can tell).

30 December 2017

Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2018 - Part One

I never seem to get organised enough to offer up a list of favourite books of the year as many other bloggers do. Hats off to them, as these lists are endlessly fascinating, but instead I'm going to look to the future, not the past.

Here are some of the books I'm aware of coming in 2018 which I think look exciting. I've put this list together from catalogues, what I've been told by publishers, what I've picked up on Twitter and of course from that old standby, the Amazon database. This part covers January - March, Part Two will cover the rest of the year (though focussing on April - June as I have less information further out).

I'm hoping to read many of them, although I might not manage all.

As always, details may change, dates may go back, books may even not appear. Time and chance happeneth to all. Any errors are of course down to me. Cover images are from authors' or publishers' websites: happy to remove these if the owners wish that.


First, some crime suitable for the cold, dark time of the year. Dark Pines by Will Dean is out on 4 January from Point Blank - I'll be reviewing it or the blogtour. It's a tense mystery set in the Swedish forests where a young reporter tries to penetrate layers of local obstruction to discover who is murdering hunters in the woods... and cutting out their eyes.

Continuing with the crime, on 5 January Steph Broadribb's Deep Blue Trouble is out from Orenda. A followup to Deep Down Dead, this is another adventure for bounty hunter Lori Anderson, now cutting dodgy deals with the FBI (topical or what?) Deep Down Dead is a very violent, very real, story and I may just have fallen a bit for Lori and oh I want to read more about her.

On the SFF side I'm really looking forward to Dark State by Charles Stross (Tor, 11 January) and I have this one on NetGalley so WILL be reviewing. The second in his Empire Games follow-up trilogy, revisiting the world of the Merchant Princes ten years later, it pits a corrupt and genocidal US Administration and its shadowy agents against a revolutionary alt-US.

In the middle is the granddaughter by adoption of a deep-cover East German agent - who happens to be the daughter of Miriam Beckstein, the main protagonist in Merchant Princes and now rather important in the revolutionary government. With both sides nuclear armed, the stakes are high.

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown is out on 16 January from Hodder.

Just let me say that again.

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown is out on 16 January. 


Picking up ten years after Morning Star left off (hmm.. what is it about 10 years...?) this carries forward the Red Rising trilogy (Red Rising/ Golden Son/ Morning Star) to address new challenges, new enemies and new protagonists. But never fear! Darrow, The Reaper, is back, as pig-headed as ever, and his Howlers with him. Like the previous trilogy, this is a book that'll have you afraid to turn the page for fear of what's going to happen next... full review to follow soon.

Interestingly, both Iron Gold and Dark State are in their different ways about how to build a just society after the revolution. Stross even references the "early days of a better nation" catchphrase. (See also The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.) Perhaps it's a healthy sign in the current dire state of politics that writers are looking ahead like this?

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor is also published on 16 January by Tor.com, completing the trilogy of short novels that started with Binti and continued in Binti: Home. This is compelling SF told from an African perspective.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft (Orbit, 18 January) introduces a world where the Tower of Babel survived... and how. The story of how Senlin, a retiring schoolteacher who's lost his wife Marya in what seems like the world's most chaotic market, promises wonders as this less than perfect man strives to be better. 

Back to crime with The Confession by Jo Spain (Quercus, 25 January). Here's the blurb: "Late one night a man walks into the luxurious home of disgraced banker Harry McNamara and his wife Julie. The man launches an unspeakably brutal attack on Harry as a horror-struck Julie watches, frozen by fear. Just an hour later the attacker, JP Carney, has handed himself in to the police. He confesses to beating Harry to death, but JP claims that the assault was not premeditated and that he didn't know the identity of his victim. With a man as notorious as Harry McNamara, the detectives cannot help wondering, was this really a random act of violence or is it linked to one of Harry's many sins: corruption, greed, betrayal? This gripping psychological thriller will have you questioning, who - of Harry, Julie and JP - is really the guilty one? And is Carney's surrender driven by a guilty conscience or is his confession a calculated move in a deadly game?"

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (out on 25 January from Headline) is a post-apocalyptic story which explores the impact of a networked society, when the network is in your head... and breaks down. Think EM Forster's The Machine Stops, dialled up to 11. I'm reviewing this for its blogtour and please believe me, it's good.

Finally, for January, Shadowsong by S Jae Jones (Titan, 30 January) promises the same intoxicating mix of music, romance and fantasy as her Wintersong and I'm looking forward to that A LOT.

"Six months after the end of Wintersong, Liesl is working toward furthering both her brother s and her own musical careers. Although she is determined to look forward and not behind, life in the world above is not as easy as Liesl had hoped. Her younger brother Josef is cold, distant, and withdrawn, while Liesl can't forget the austere young man she left beneath the earth, and the music he inspired in her. When troubling signs arise that the barrier between worlds is crumbling, Liesl must return to the Underground to unravel the mystery of life, death, and the Goblin King who he was, who he is, and who he will be. What will it take to break the old laws once and for all? What is the true meaning of sacrifice when the fate of the world or the ones Liesl loves is in her hands?"

Wintersong was good company on a foul wet night in a cheap hotel (it was a work trip) in Manchester so I can testify to its power!


Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire is published on 1 February by Tor.com. This is the third in McGuire's series which asks who provides care afterwards for the kids who visited Fairyland or Wonderland or an Otherworld. You can't expect they'll just slip back into normal life, can you?

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Little, Brown, 1 February) follows up her The Dry which was a blazing murder mystery set in rural Australia. Force of Nature again features Aaron Falk, this time searching for a missing woman, Alice Russell, who's disappeared on a teambuilding hike. Falk knows that Russell knew secrets about a case he's involved with, and takes an especial interest in her whereabouts.

Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin (Titan, 6 February) is a debut described by Marian Keyes as "a unique, feminist coming-of-age novel, set in a fascinating post-technology world. Clever, beautifully written and compelling." Nell Crane lives in a city devastated by an epidemic. The survivors all have parts missing, replaced by biomech. So does Nell, but for her, it's her heart.

Moonshine by Jasmine Gower is published by Angry Robot on 6 February. It's a fantasy about a young woman starting a new job in sophisticated Soot City (which is not unlike 1920s Chicago). She has, though, a secret and it's one that could destroy her new life as the Mage Hunters close in.

The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (Del Rey, 8 February) features a magical toy emporium that provides an island of enchantment during the grim years of the Great War. But it has secrets (of course it does...)

Also on 8 February, Zaffre are publishing the latest instalment of David Young's Karin Müller series (Stasi Child, Stasi Wolf). A Darker State sees Müller investigate the murder of a teenage boy. But she's under the eyes of the Stasi, and events begin to touch her team... this sounds another tense and intelligent thriller from Young.

8 February is going to be busy - it also sees publication of The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne (Hamish Hamilton) is described as "a tragicomic tale of modern living... a tale of sadistic estate agents and catastrophic open marriages, helicopter parents and Internet trolls, riots on the streets of London, and one very immature man finally learning to grow up." I loved Dunthorne's Wild Abandon and I'm pleased to see another book by him coming.

Blood of Assassins by RJ Barker is out from Orbit on 13 February. MOAR Girton Club-Foot! Whoop! I'm not normally the greatest fan of straight fantasy but I loved Age of Assassins. But then it's not straight fantasy!

Look at the blurb for the new book. "To save a king, kill a king. The assassin Girton Club-foot and his master have returned to Maniyadoc in hope of finding sanctuary, but death, as always, dogs Girton's heels. The place he knew no longer exists. War rages across Maniyadoc, with three kings claiming the same crown - and one of them is Girton's old friend Rufra. Girton finds himself hurrying to uncover a plot to murder Rufra on what should be the day of the king's greatest victory. But while Girton deals with threats inside and outside Rufra's war encampment, he can't help wondering if his greatest enemy hides beneath his own skin."

Barker's writing presents a strikingly different take on the "hero", the fantasy society and its relationship with magic. Age is something of a coming-of-age story, which I know is a sub-genre some are wary of, but I thought it was all the better for that as it grounds Girton in a very recognisable setting (among the weirdness). I'm looking to see how a slightly older, wiser Girton behaves.

London Rules by Mick Herron (John Murray, 15 February) is the 5th Jackson Lamb thriller. Lamb's job is esssentially to mind MI5's collection of "slow horses", officers who are less high fliers than low ploughers. But despite having been filed away in decaying Slough House, they have a knack for being at the centre of things, and in London Rules, it sounds as though Herron's fund a zinger of a plot for them to gatecrash.

"London Rules might not be written down, but everyone knows rule one. Cover your arse. Regent's Park's First Desk, Claude Whelan, is learning this the hard way. Tasked with protecting a beleaguered prime minister, he's facing attack from all directions himself: from the showboating MP who orchestrated the Brexit vote, and now has his sights set on Number Ten; from the showboat's wife, a tabloid columnist, who's crucifying Whelan in print; and especially from his own deputy, Lady Di Taverner, who's alert for Claude's every stumble..."

Kiss Me Kill Me by JS Carol (Zaffre, 22 February) is a psychological thriller focussed on Zoe, who meets a man. he's everything she wants... until they're married, when she discovers the truth and wants out. Be careful who you trust, as the streamline notes...

Finally for February, Blue Night (Orenda, 28 February) is a German crime thriller, the first in the Chastity Riley series by Simone Buchholz. Describes as having a strong female protagonist and as "very literary, very Chandler" it sounds like an exciting debut from a publisher that definitely keeps delivering the goods.


Jo Walton's Starlings (Tachyon) is out on 1 March, a collection of stories that "shines through subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. Through eclectic stories, subtle vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and magic—rising from the everyday into the universe itself."

Kin by Snorri Kristjansson (Jo Fletcher, 8 March) is the first of the Helga Finnsdottir mysteries, described as "Viking noir" as Finnsdottir attends a family reunion and finds herself having to solve a mystery with an impossible suspect.

The Hollow Tree by James Brogden (Titan, 13 March). I enjoyed Brogden's Hekla's Children last year - a full on fantasy rooted in the real world, and real lives, of the Midlands, and I'm pleased see this story, of a woman who, following an accident in which she loses her hand, begins to have nightmares in which she reaches out to someone in a hollow tree - someone she pulls into the real world...

Autonomous by Analee Newtiz (Orbit, 15 March) looks FUN. "Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap medicines for those who can't otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane. Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his indentured robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack's drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understands. And underlying it all is one fundamental question: is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?"

Stone Mad (Karen Memory) by Elizabeth Bear is out on 20 March from Tor.com - really looking forward to reading more about Karen, and her steampunk-Victorian Pacific Northwest US setting. Karen Memory, the previous book, introduced the irrepressible Karen Memery (note spelling) and she's now back in a story about spiritualists, magicians, con-men, and an angry lost tommy-knocker--a magical creature who generally lives in the deep gold mines of Alaska, but has been kidnapped and brought to Rapid City.

Ragnar Jonasson, author of the Dark Iceland sequence, has a new mystery, The Darkness (Michael Joseph, 22 March), the first in the Hidden Iceland sequence - which is being told in reverse order beginning with this story of Hulda Hermannsdottir who is about to retire from the Reykjavik Police. What will her last case be? The Darkness will be followed by The Island and The Mist. On the evidence of his earlier books this promises to be a treat for the crime reader and especially for lovers of Nordic noir.

We Were The Salt of the Sea (Orenda, 30 March) is described as a beautiful literary thriller from French Canadian author Roxanne Bouchard, set on the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, and is bound to draw comparisons with Annie Proulx. "As Montrealer Catherine Day sets foot in a remote fishing village and starts asking around about her birth mother, the body of a woman dredges up in a fisherman's nets. Not just any woman, though: Marie Garant, an elusive, nomadic sailor and unbridled beauty who once tied many a man's heart in knots. Detective Sergeant Joaquin Morales, newly drafted to the area from the suburbs of Montreal, barely has time to unpack his suitcase before he's thrown into the deep end of the investigation...."

End Game by Matt Johnson (Orenda, 31 March) is the final book in Johnson's Robert Finlay trilogy which has been informed by Johnson's own experiences in the Metropolitan Police, including his struggles with PTSD which are reflected in Finlay's story. Both Wicked Game and Deadly Game were unsparing in the pain inflicted on Finlay, or the violence he was prepared to deal out to see right done. Both wove fascinating, compelling narratives far removed from being routine, hairy-chested thrillers. I'm looking forward to seeing how Johnson closes the story (but also dreading what may happen!)

In Part Two I'll cover the rest of the year. Don't go away...

Note on gender balance: If I've counted right, the books listed here split 15:13 between male and female authors (so far as I can tell).

17 December 2017

Review - Terror Tales of Cornwall, ed by Paul Finch

Terror Tales of Cornwall
ed Paul Finch
PB, 283pp

This review first appeared in The Ghosts and Scholars MR James Newsletter, No 32, Autumn 2017.

I'm grateful for a review copy of this book.

This isn’t a collection of traditional ghost stories or folktales. Rather, the stories in this book are by modern authors. Between the stories are short essays about mysterious Cornwall, and about some of the authors who have been inspired by it. Here we meet Daphne du Maurier, but also the Morgawr, or Cornish sea-monster, fairies, piskies, giants, smugglers, murderers and many more. These sections draw both on traditions and more recent sightings and claims. These essays don't attempt to introduce the stories directly although there are some resonances - but they powerfully add to the mood of the book.

There is a good overall liminal sense to this collection. A county unlike any other in England (I write "in England" advisedly, given some of the content here), Cornwall juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, putting it at more than just a physical distance from the rest of the country. There are other boundaries as well: the distinction between the remote, inner landscape and the popular seaside resorts; between the locals and the visitors; the new and the old; the safe and the - unsafe. Boundaries seem to be especially significant places in horror. We can approach them. We can get too close. Things can come over. All of this creates endless opportunities for that chilling feeling you get when, on the warmest day, a cloud hides the sun.

And the authors take full advantage. Tasked with writing tales "of Cornwall" some have produced stories that draw heavily on Cornish tradition, atmosphere and themes, while some are simply set in Cornwall (and which might perhaps have equally been set anywhere else). I'm glad to say that the former are in the majority as that seems more in the spirit of the exercise, although there are some strong stories in both categories.

The book contains sixteen stories in all. In We Who Sing Beneath the Ground (Mark Morris) a dedicated teacher crosses a boundary when she follows up a non-attending pupil, turning up late one evening at the dilapidated farm where he lives to find all the lights out. But there's worse to come. This was a good opening story, bringing in a distinctly Cornish angle as well as an element of the fantastic that fitted well with the guidebook-style commentaries on Cornish myths and monsters that alternate with the stories themselves. As its title suggests In the Light of St Ives (Ray Cluley) also features light and dark, when a young artists tries to erase her work because the colours – particular colours – are seeping out. Again this reflects a distinctly Cornish theme - the artistic colony of St Ives – and has a nice effect of "pleasing terror" as we gradually discern what is wrong.

Trouble at Botathan (Reggie Oliver) is an authentically Jamesian story in which a young undergraduate discovers a harrowing narrative hidden in the library of a remote house on Bodmin Moor. It reveals a ghastly crime, and takes him out to a mysterious wood with its own guardian.

Mebyon versus Suna (John Whitbourn) begins as a more lighthearted tale and one which takes place outside Cornwall. It illustrates what happens when frictions between the Celt and Saxon come to the surface in the borderlands between two ancient kingdoms (and also perhaps pokes gentle fun at modern nationalisms which see the past through such 19th century, invented lenses). There is less terror here, perhaps – or so it seems – but there is a nice twist.

The Unseen (Paul Edwards) is perhaps only incidentally Cornish but is a horror story that would feel perfectly at home in one of the classic 1970s Pan anthologies, focussing on a particularly nasty DVD and a, shall we say, lacklustre father who allows his obsession with it to lead him astray. it's effective, nicely done and will stay with the reader. Dragon Path (Jacqueline Simpson) on the other hand is wonderfully shameless in its pillaging and piling up of the most vainglorious aspects of modern Celticism and New Age syncretism, to the point where you feel that in his showdown on Bodmin Moor the central character Mick is really going to come unstuck. But then something very nasty happens and it becomes a very real story. Great fun.

The Old Traditions are Best (Paul Finch) draws on that eerie atmosphere that can attend a fair, a carnival or - as here - a village festival (the scariest killings in Midsomer Murders take place at the Village Fete, don't they?) when the masks, the costumes and the ritual take over and the humanity is lost. Again drawing on custom and tradition, this was one of my favourite stories in the book

The Uncertainty of Earthly Things (Mark Valentine) arguably isn't actually terror or horror, it's more one of those epiphanies where a veil is split showing something else behind the solidity of life. The indifference of that something can provoke horror, blessed relief or curiosity. Here, it's a mixture of the three. This was another of my favourites, not least for the contrast between the cosy, dusty life of its museum curator protagonist and the truth of what is revealed. 

His Anger Was Kindled (Kate Farrell) is genuinely spine chilling, even if, I think only Cornish. I enjoyed the collision between a single minded elderly clergyman and the bureaucrat despatched to fire him (even if the story does ride roughshod over how things actually happen in the Church of England). Another story that simply uses a Cornish location is Four Windows and a Door (DP Watt) allows childlike innocence to collide with something very... un-innocent. All the stronger for being, at its heart, mysterious, this story does share a feature with The Memory of Stone (Sarah Singleton) - a father who, following a catastrophe, retires to brood on the Cornish coast. Watt's protagonist is easier to sympathise with than Singleton's, a middle aged man who turns stalker when he meets an attractive young woman, thereby bringing disgrace on himself and I found myself rather hoping that the strange pebble-leaving creatures would harm him. But maybe they're just an externalisation of the shame and self disgust he feels?

Claws (Steve Jordan) echoes The Old Traditions are Best in exploring brash, jangling creepiness - this time of an amusement arcade. The Cornish angle comes from the presence of something else, something bent on making mischief. Again, in the way that this something strikes against guilty and innocent alike, the story provides a true sense of horror as does A Beast by Any Other Name (Adrian Cole) which is, surprisingly, the only story in the book to feature the mines and caverns of Cornwall, pairing them with another legends, that of the Beast of Bodmin. But something more evil, more dangerous than a mere monster is at work here. A creepy, effective story – one of those where a subtle change at the end casts a new light on the earlier narrative.

Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning (Mark Samuels) is another little mystery. Creepy, not particularly rooted in anything Cornish, it takes its impetus, as it were, from the artifice of the theatre. Still chilling, mind.

In Shelter from the Storm (Ian Hunter) a group of Explorer Scouts on a training walk take shelter (from a storm) and foolishly stumble into something ancient that they ought to have left alone. While pretty chilling, I felt at times was slightly stretching what the boys would actually do – yes, I know, going into the old creepy house/ castle/ church despite the obvious scariness of the place is a bit of a cliche and Hunter provides good motivation for that, but perhaps less so for what they do next.

The last story, Losing its Identity (Thana Niveau) was, for me, the strangest in the book (and my very favourite). Framed by extracts from the Shipping Forecast, that invocation of British maritime topography, it is almost science-fictional in one respect, the treatment of a future of rising sea levels and increasing storms which is, bit by bit, drowning Cornwall. There's nothing supernatural, nothing eerily or creepily horrible in this and in some respects it's rather a gentle story. But it is one that rather haunts me.

Overall, this is a strong collection. The "Cornish" theme, however the particular authors choose to interpret it, delivers a focus which adds to the overall sense of place. For example, we hear the same place names repeated from story to story. A grumble in one story about the time taken to get to Penzance on the train sheds light on a couple of others. The factual information about wreckers and the murder of shipwrecked sailors is at the back of one's mind in one or two other places even if those aren't central events in them, as are the more modern examples of the weird which add an "anything can happen" sense to the stories (which are mainly set in the present, or recent past). Perhaps most of all, the sheer chanciness of life on this peninsula, especially when that life depends on the sea, injects an element of potential danger and menace that pervades every story in the book, almost as though the reader can taste the salt and hear the murmur of the waves.

Strongly recommended, whether you are after a good tingle of terror or just a dollop of satisfying atmosphere.

14 December 2017

Review - In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

Cover design by Andrew Forteath
In the Valley of the Sun
Andy Davidson
Contraband, 2 November 2017
PB, 328pp

I'm grateful to Sara at Saraband for a copy of this book.

We all want to live and die in the wide-open valley of the sun, where secrets find no purchase and wellsprings of hope are plentiful and all sturdy things grow. 

- In the Valley of the Sun, p311

In the Valley of the Sun is a novel of contradictions. A classic horror story yet set in the present day (well, the 80s), a story featuring monsters of darkness yet taking place in the relentless Texas sunlight, a story of unbearably cruel monsters yet ones with whom you'll sympathise, it eschews the normal Gothic trappings, in particular never naming the monster. Nor will I, because while it's not exactly a spoiler, it's satisfying seeing their identity, their reality, take shape.

This is also a story that explores a recent darkness that is now often forgotten or overlooked. Many of the characters in this book are haunted by the Vietnam War. They either took part, or lost husbands or fathers (and losing doesn't necessarily mean death: at least one person here is still living, active, but lost indeed). It is a war nobody wants to remember, yet always starkly present, glimpsed in the corner of an eye.

There's even a nod to Apocalypse Now and to Heart of Darkness in a backstory involving a unit gone rogue killing and torturing at will. One might even see the violence, the darkness, of the war as contributing or balancing the supernatural evil portrayed. But there isn't a naive equation of the US Army with being killers or evil per se.  John Reader, a Texas Ranger and himself ex-military is a veritable avenging angel, patiently and deliberately tracking down a killer who's strangling young women (and his own memory of the war heightens his understanding of what he faces).

Reader is an admirable character, dedicated, competent and remorseless. The duel between him and Travis Stillwell - no less of one for the fact that Stillwell is unaware of the Nemesis approaching - is almost classic Western in form: the (slightly reluctant) lawman and the outlaw (and yes, Stillwell does wear a black hat). The story is though much more than that. Also central are Annabelle Gaskin and her son Sandy. Gaskin is, in her own way, as determined and courageous as Reader - her mission, to raise and protect her son. Sandy's missing a father because of the war, and he's the butt of jokes and bullies at school because of it to. The evil spreads and poisons the innocent.

But Sandy isn't the only isolated, vulnerable child here. As the story threads backwards and forwards in time we see other children left alone, or with abusive parents, or suffering the effect of patriarchy - for example in one very distressing sequence where a woman leaves her husband along with her boy and is pretty much captured by the police and returned. Again, the innocent are touched by an evil as as it festers and spreads.

Which is, in away, the central horror in this book. Innocence is corrupted and then itself must seek out new innocents to sustain it. The Texas sun is merciless, and darkness needs fresh blood to prevent it crumbling into dust. It's fitting the story concludes amidst the gathering dark and tawdry illusion of a fairground.

Altogether an accomplished, chilling and genuinely different take on an age old horror trope which - even in modern versions - has become tired.

In Davidson's hands, it regains its ability to unsettle, to scare, to outright terrify the reader.

10 December 2017

Review - The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

Cover by Neil Lang
The Lost Plot (Invisible Library, 4)
Genevieve Cogman
Pan, 14 December 2017
PB, 342pp

Many thanks to Pan for an advance copy of this book.

As the fourth instalment of her adventures opens, Irene Winters is in trouble. In quest of a book, she's stumbled into a nest of vampires and is about to have her veins opened.

And it only gets worse from then on...

I think I can safely say that these stories of Irene and her desperate, book-seeking journeys are - alongside anything by Emma Newman or Charles Stross - my favourite ongoing series.

It's something about Irene herself: the kick-ass librarian who drills like a laser through reams of alternate realities pursuing the precious books that will bind the universe together, once gathered in the multidimensional Library. Irene has a dream job and I envy her (despite the inevitable peril).

It's also something about that Library itself, the ultimate book pile, protruding into this street on one Earth, that quad on another, enormous, serene, self-contained, safe. (Or perhaps not so safe - as we saw in the previous three books that it could be menaced and Irene was only able to save it at some personal risk - and cost).

But most of all it's Cogman's writing. The pithy, sharp references, such as how, to befuddle pursuers, Librarians have adopted that pop culture phrase "These are not the [whatever] you're looking" in their ur-Language that can alter realities. The unbridled violence and chaos that follows in Irene's well-meaning wake. The perfectly realised alternate Earths (and other worlds).

Most of all, though, it's the joy that Cogman takes in her creation, like a genial deity who has made a world and seen that it is good.

If that whets your appetite, this book would be an excellent jumping-on point (is that a thing?)  It doesn't require any knowledge of the earlier plot and is basically a standalone adventure for Irene and her dragon apprentice Kai. Drawn into murky dragon politics (rather than the machinations of the Fae) Irene is co-opted by Security to track down a Librarian who may be endangering the hard-preserved neutrality of the Library. She has to face off with mobsters, the police, molls and, worst of all, rogue dragons, in a 1920s New York analogue. There are speakeasies, artefacts and museum stacks together with lashings of mayhem

Taken together, these give the book something of an Indiana Jones crossed with Doctor Who vibe. It's deliriously captivating reading, real cliff-hangery, page turning stuff. Behind this, it is, though, the dragon politics that and their ultimate impact on Irene that I sense are driving this story and setting up future events. Irene is anxious to demonstrate the Library's neutrality, but has to confront the fact that Kai's presence seems to suggest something else. And Irene's personal feelings are engaged as well so that she begins to feel doubly compromised. What is she to do?

Cogman stokes the tension and attraction between Irene and Kai as a counterpoint to the main adventure until you just wish they'd let neutrality go hang and just... well, this is a respectable blog so I'll go no further. Let's just say there are Feelings here and leave it at that.

If you're looking for a present for the (urban) fantasy geek in your life, this may just be the one. And if you find they don't love it, well, perhaps that's telling you something about them.

One final thing. Reading this book I found actual silver glitter on my fingers. I think the magic's rubbing off on me!

9 December 2017

Review - The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen

Cover by Elizabeth Story
The Emerald Circus
Jane Yolen
Tachyon, 24 November 2017
PB, e-book, 288pp

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

The title of this collection of short stories and poems alludes to the fourth, Blown Away, which is a reworking of The Wizard of Oz - or perhaps a prequel, sequel or accompaniment, featuring a Dorothy who, though blown away by a tornado, does not - or at she claims not - end up in the land of Oz the Great and Powerful but in a circus. When she returns to Kansas with many new skills it seems though as if she might as well have been whisked to that land of magic and illusion.

And so it is with most of the stories here. They present new insights, new takes, on a familiar fairy story or childhood classic. Sometimes, as with Andersen's Witch or Rabbit Hole, the creator is entangled with the creation, as we see the young boy Hans bargaining with a witch over his future, or Alice at the end of her life pondering what her attraction for Mr Dodgson was (genuinely unsettling, the end of this one).

Sometimes Yolen's take is implicit in the original story, once you look, that is, and then you wonder that no-one had joined the dots before. For example, in Lost Girls, we're shown Neverneverland from a distinctly feminist point of view, with Peter shown up for keeping the women cooking and cleaning while he and the other Boys have all the fun (and in so doing he misses something very significant about his world).

Yolen sometimes returns to a setting or a theme. As well as Rabbit Hole, there is Tough Alice in which her younger self is making one of what appear to be a series of visits. As well as the usual Carrollian Surrealism - a pig turning into pork loin and back again, Alice pondering, on seeing that the Caterpillar has gone fishing, whether he uses with worms or whether that would be "too much like using his own family for bait" - there is a darker strand, the need to battle the Jabberwock. Alice looks for a champion, but where will she find one?

A Knot of Toads is a rather different story. It's not a riff on fairy stories so much as a more straightforward take on a favourite author of mine, MR James. This is a tale of Janet, a 1930s scholar from Cambridge (of course) come home to settle her father's affairs in the remote Scottish town of St Monan's. Janet is estranged from her dad ("Father and I had broken so many fences - stones, dykes, stiles and all") but sis till troubled by his mysterious death and his writings about an unsettling encounter with a  toad. In true Jamesian spirit he has meddled with something best left alone, and in true Jamesian spirit he recorded his doings in manuscript, for Janet to unravel. Of course Monty never wrote a female lead and as this nice little story observes the proper forms it dynamites their conventions, not least by bringing in a love interest. My favourite story in the collection.

The Quiet Monk is the first of several stories in this book with an Arthurian theme (but we never meet Arthur himself, of course). Set in Glastonbury in 1191, it features the opening up of a rather remarkable grave, and a brother who claims to have wandered long and who has stories to tell.

The Bird is the story of a raven, and Virginia, and a writer named Edgar - one of several stories in which, like Andersen's Witch or Sister Emily's Lightship (where Emily Dickinson has a strange encounter which shows her the whole world and how she can live in a narrow place) Yolen winds a little magic round a writer's life.

Belle Bloody Merciless Dame is an eerie and effective collision between a gritty Glasgow and the otherness of - what exactly? There is mention of an elf, on a Solstice - and Sam Herriot has an encounter that he'll always remember (if, that is, he ever finds his way home).

The Jewel in the Toad Queen's Crown is a wonderful story, a mashup of 19th century British politics, cabalism and fairytales. It shows the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as an outsider figure, who, faced with the Widow of Windsor, resorts to certain... unusual... methods of managing his monarch.

The Gift of the Magicians, with Apologies to You Know Who, is a deeply strange take on Beauty and the Beast which both explores the practicalities and possibilities of Beauty's situation. What is the relationship between that castle and the outside world? Where does the food come from? Just how much can you achieve - even which "the magical help"? And what might that drive a girl to do?

Our Lady of the Greenwood is about the birth of Robin Hood. It's a table of moonlight, magic, promises, and protection, taking another, rather mysterious folk hero and plugging him firmly into a wider, yet living, context.

The Confession of Brother Blaise is a kind of counterpart to Our Lady of the Greenwood focussing this time on Merlin and, again, plugging into real history via the real Geoffrey of Monmouth. What is real and what's merely written down? When does the writing make the reality?

Wonder Land, despite its title, isn't another Alice story but has loose overtones of Red Riding hood. A girl is making a journey through the wood to tell her friend where Billy Jamieson had tried to put his hand...and where she let him put it. The animals she meets seem to illustrate her theme -  a fox exposing its private parts, a pair of crows "doing it right there". It's not an innocent woodland, but Allison seems to know what she's about. And yes, there is a wolf too.

Evian Steel again takes us to the world of King Arthur with a simply bewitching tale of pagan women swordsmiths working in the mysterious mists of Somerset. A perfect story and I don't want to spoil it by saying anything about what takes place, but in many ways it encapsulates this book: these are women who are explicitly marginalised, who will be left out of the main story (reduced to an arm holding a sword out of the lake) yet they are central, indispensable, skilled - in control.

Yolen rounds off the book with notes on all the stories and with a poems suggested by each, or which suggested them or explores the same themes. As a way of gently closing down the book, echoing the themes of the stories and showing a wider world there from which they are drawn, this is hard to beat.

Overall a very strong collection of stories showcasing the talents of a master practitioner. Definitely not a book to miss.

7 December 2017

Review - The Things We Learn When We're Dead

The Things We Learn When We're Dead
Charlie Laidlaw
Accent Press, 21 September 2017
PB, 476pp

I'm grateful to the author for a copy of this book for review (indeed, a signed copy).

I don't tend to be over fussy about genre labels for books, but sometimes it can be enlightening to consider where in the shop you might find a particular one. Things We Learn... is one of these. It is a really hard book to classify. From a simple precis - Lorna Love dies in a road accident and wakes up in Heaven, attended on by God (and Irene), but it turns out that Heaven (or rather HVN) is a super-advanced spaceship whose presence near Earth has inspired the entire corpus of world religions) - you might be forgiven for assuming this is SF, perhaps in a Douglas Adams-ish vein.

And that is certainly true, up to a point. Spaceships, hyperspace drives, the possibility of things being in more than one state at the same time, all come up in the story.

They aren't, though, the heart of the story. To capture that, I think you'd have to cast your net a little wider. The process which has brought Lorna - apparently in perfect physical health, apart from a recurring headache and a pain in one arm - to HVN has also preserved her memories, but they are jumbled. So through the course of the book she is relearning who she is (was), integrating this and reflecting on the events of her short life. She has, as it were, been given an opportunity to ponder on how she lived and what she did and to explore it. That is enabled by the way that the authorities in HVN attempt to replicate the significant landscapes of Lorna's life, from the high street in North Berwick, Scotland, where she grew up to the sand dunes where she first had sex. It's all superficially convincing, but Lorna sees through it. Still, it shows they care.

(If that sounds to you rather less like Heaven as traditionally envisaged than something more like Purgatory, then you need to remember that in the world of Things We Learn... religions are simply echoes or rumours of a hippyish captain (God) stranded with his dwindling crew on a disabled spaceship infested with hamsters (really!) So we might have got things a bit mixed up.)

What is at the heart of this book, then, is that recapitulation, that reassembly by Lorna, of her lifetime and her memories.

Her weak, alcoholic father who crumples when he loses his job as an insurance clerk.

Her brother.

A holiday the family took just before things went wrong.

Her job working in an Edinburgh supermarket. (Laidlaw has a gift for creating characters, peopling with book with individuals who aren't heroes, villains or symbols but real figures who are there because they belong - I'm thinking especially of those colleagues).

Abobe all, her best friend Suzie. The portrayal of Lorna's and Suzie's friendship is excellent. It was formed in their schooldays but endured as their paths diverge, Lorna studying law and Suzie becoming a model and actress. Their friendship is a delight. With all its ups and downs, they are (mostly) there to support each other, sharing everything. That friendship is though as much a source of guilt to Lorna, once in HVN and remembering, as it is of comfort. She has to admit to herself that she has done things that she ought not to have done. Laidlaw weaves a convincing and interesting story out of the ordinary details of Lorna's life.

It's this central preoccupation with Lorna's actions and their consequences that makes me question a simple label of SF for the book. That isn't meant to sound anti-SF and snobbish, what I mean is that in a sense the spaceship stuff is really just framing for this central story. Lorna could just as easily, say, have been kidnapped, or stranded in a remote airport in a snowstorm and forced, or enabled, to consider her life. That would, though, take away the humour that lightens this book. The breaks provided by Lorna's encounters with chain-smoking Irene, with God or when strolling in the obviously fake world delivered by Trinity, the AI who runs HVN, do allow Lorna's own story to breathe, as it were. It would also - and this is hard to put well without spoilers - be more objective, less about Lorna and her world and more about what is done to her. If there's one thing in this book which is clear it's Lorna's agency (apart from that accident) that drives events and in a sense which becomes clear in the end, HVN reflects that, too.

Ultimately, the juxtaposition of Lorna's life on Earth with her reflections on them in HVN makes this book very much a matter of life and death, Laidlaw providing an enthralling and different take that is at the same time a captivating story.

3 December 2017

Blogtour review - White Out by Ragnar Jónasson

White Out (Dark Iceland)
Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 1 November 2017
PB, 215pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for White Out, a book I've looked forward to reading and reviewing. I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne for a copy of the book and for inviting me to take part in the tour.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year...

Ari Thór is back in Jónasson fifth Dark Iceland book (though - reader beware! - they have not appeared in order, so the events in this book occurs earlier than in some I'd already read).

Here, he's drawn by his ex boss Tómas into investigating a death taking place just before Christmas. Rather than leave the heavily pregnant Kristín home alone over the festive period, she accompanies him to Kalfshamarvik. There, Ari Thór and Tómas find an isolated group living in a remote house on the north coast - the edge of the inhabitable world.

A young woman, Ásta  has been found dead at the foot of a cliff - the same cliff where her mother and sister died. Did she travel there from Reykjavik to kill herself?

What really happened to the rest of her family?

Mystery interweaves with the lives of all the others who live on the isolated headland - brother and sister, Thóra and Óskar, local farmer Arnór and wealthy businessman, Reynir. For that matter, Ásta's past is something of a mystery. This story is perhaps a much more conventional mystery story - almost a classic setup - that the Other Dark Iceland books that I have read. There isn't the thrillery sense of other books in this sequence. To begin with, Ari Thór isn't called on to do more than observe and question, we have a very, very narrow field of suspects and the setting is drawn in such a way that wider entanglements such as political corruption or organised crime seem unlikely.

Rather we have an intense psychological study of the four residents (not forgetting Arnor's wife, of Asta and even, to a degree, of Ari Thór and Tómas themselves.  Motivations, locations and lies are slowly teased out and layer after layer of the past turned over and exhibited.

Ragnar Jónasson
Why did Ásta return?

What does Oskar get up to when he shuts himself away in his room?

What is Thora hinting she knows?

But above all, are those deaths all linked?

With no certainty that a crime has actually been committed, Tómas is under pressure to wrap things up quickly. His superiors would, it is implied, welcome the whole thing being sorted before the Christmas holiday. Similarly Ari Thór wants to return home to spend Christmas alone with his family.  You can feel the tension rising as things probe more complicated than they seemed. It's a short book, but an intense one, with a claustrophobic atmosphere oddly heightened by the Christmas cheer being doled out on the radio, in the hotel, in the church.

That makes it, in my view, an excellent Christmas read (we need a touch of darkness alongside the enforced jollity) and it is an excellent primer on Icelandic Christmas customs, too, which may have picked up some of the cultural baggage of the UK and USA but clearly still retain much of their distinctiveness.

As ever, Quentin Bates's translation is excellent, achieving both familiar, natural English that makes the translatedness near invisible but also a distinct sense of difference appropriate to portraying a different country.

1 December 2017

Blogtour - Know Me Now by CJ Carver - Giveaway!

Today I'm honoured to join the blogtour for Know Me Now, the new book from CJ Carver, with a GIVEAWAY, Courtesy of the lovely people at Zaffre, I can offer not one but TWO copies of the book.

Just look:


A thirteen-year-old boy commits suicide.

A sixty-five-year old man dies of a heart attack.

Dan Forrester, ex-MI5 officer, is connected to them both.

And when he discovers that his godson and his father have been murdered, he teams up with his old friend, DC Lucy Davies, to find answers.

C J Carver
But as the pair investigate, they unravel a dark and violent mystery stretching decades into the past and uncover a terrible secret.

A secret someone will do anything to keep buried...

'A top notch thriller writer' SIMON KERNICK

'Perfect for fans of Lee Child and Mason Cross' GUARDIAN

'CJ Carver is one of the best thriller writers working today' TOM HARPER

The book is out in e-book on 14 December and paperback on 11 January and will be available from your friendly local bookshop, including via Hive, or from other places such as here and here.

BUT if you're incredibly lucky and win the giveaway you can get your hands on one to read over Christmas!

All you have to do is to retweet my tweet announcing this post, or to comment below. I'll pick the winners next Friday (8th December) and the books will follow.

29 November 2017

Blogtour - The Perfect Victim

I'm honoured today to be joining the blogtour for The Perfect Victim by Corrie Jackson, which is out now from Zaffre - a book I know has caused a lot of excitement. Corrie's kindly set out some thoughts on How to write when life keeps getting in the way. Some of this would be useful advice in ANY endeavour, I'd say, not only in writing.

First, though, a little about the book.

For fans of Nicci French and Sophie Hannah, Corrie Jackson's explosive new novel will leave you questioning how far you would go for friendship.

Husband, friend, colleague . . . killer?

Charlie and Emily Swift are the Instagram-perfect couple: gorgeous, successful and in love. But then Charlie is named as the prime suspect in a gruesome murder and Emily's world falls apart. Desperate for answers, she turns to Charlie's troubled best friend, London Herald journalist, Sophie Kent. Sophie knows police have the wrong man - she trusts Charlie with her life.

Then Charlie flees. Sophie puts her reputation on the line to clear his name. But as she's drawn deeper into Charlie and Emily's unravelling marriage, she realises that there is nothing perfect about the Swifts. As she begins to question Charlie's innocence, something happens that blows the investigation - and their friendship - apart.

Now Sophie isn't just fighting for justice, she's fighting for her life.

Corrie Jackson has been a journalist for fifteen years. During that time she has worked at Harper's Bazaar, the Daily Mail, Grazia and Glamour.  Corrie now lives in Greenwich, Connecticut with her husband and two children. Breaking Dead, her debut novel, was the first in the journalist Sophie Kent series and was described by Glamour as 'Gripping . . .  crime with a side order of chic' and by the Sun as 'Original, amazingly written and tense'.

So, after that - over to Corrie!

Picture the scene: it’s a muggy August morning. I’m heavily pregnant and have just relocated back to the UK, after a two-year stint in Los Angeles. I’m tackling a pile of boxes, while simultaneously sorting my hospital bag, and yelling blue murder at my three-year-old son. Suddenly the phone rings. It’s my agent.

Corrie Jackson
‘We have an offer,’ she says and, for a split-second, everything stops. My thriller, Breaking Dead, has found a home. ‘But the publisher wants a second book within a year.’

My ecstasy dissolves into panic. I’m giving birth next month. I still haven’t unpacked. It’s impossible. Ludicrous. But, even as the baby jabs me in the ribs, and my son topples off his cardboard tower, I know deep down I’m going to try. Because it’s a book deal, and I might only get one shot.

Fast-forward a month: baby Evelyn arrives and our world turns pink. With one eye on my newborn, the other on my deadline, I dive into book two. I spread myself thin. I play the role of mum, wife, writer; not winning at any of them, but doing the best I can. My husband is also working phenomenal hours and life is exhausting. Then – WAIT FOR IT - six months into this precarious reality (and for reasons too long to explain here) we make the tough-assed decision to move back to the US. I know, we’re masochists! Suddenly I’m juggling two tiny kids, a monumental writing deadline and another transatlantic move.

The reason I’m telling you all this? Because, spoiler: I survive! My kids don’t die! My husband doesn’t divorce me! In short, the book gets written. And yours will, too. Because, if you’re a writer, you write. No matter what. You don’t ditch your dream because the timing sucks. You learn to multitask. Hard. These tricks helped me through it. Apply them to your own life, and go at it.

Set a deadline

Trust me, I’ve been a journalist for fifteen years and nothing sharpens the mind like the red-hot fear of a looming deadline. Don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck (yet)? Set your own deadline. Make it realistic; you’re not trying to break a record (or your spirit). It could be three hundred words a day. A chapter a week. Hell, we could be talking three sentences. The point is: set a deadline and STICK TO IT. The sense of achievement will power you onto the next deadline. And the next. Until, bingo: a novel.

Write anywhere

So, the day job’s a bugger and the kids suck up your spare time? Get creative. Just because you can’t get to your computer, doesn’t mean you can’t write. I sketched out scenes in my head while breastfeeding. I road-tested dialogue aloud on the school run. Even bleary-eyed outings to cafes with the baby were opportunities to observe the people around me; noting down mannerisms that later made it into the book. I guarantee, the more you think about your book, the easier it is to pick up where you left off. Make sure you know exactly what you’re going to tackle before your bum hits the chair. Which brings me to my next point…

Learn to sprint

You’ve brainstormed your next chapter in the Tesco queue, and finally got twenty minutes to spare? Don’t waste it staring at a blank page. I follow the ‘nifty 350 rule’. When you first sit down to write, bash out 350 words without stopping. Some days it’s drivel, other days it’s dynamite. The point is: it forces you to write, and that’s half the battle. Your writing muscle is just like any other. Train it. You’ll be amazed how your brain starts to respond to quick bursts. And remember this: a fairly good chapter on paper is better than a perfect chapter in your head. As we (very classy) journalists say: polish that turd later.

Choose yourself

This is the most important step of all. If you don’t give yourself permission, you’ll never get out of the starter blocks. You can be a good parent/spouse/friend/employee and be selfish, so dump the guilt. Go on, DUMP IT. The world won’t end if you carve out twenty minutes a day for yourself. It just won’t. I know what you’re thinking: maybe I’ll wait until things calm down a bit. But what if they don’t? Or what if they do and you’re no longer inspired? Seize the moment, my friends. Postpone the laundry (why else did the universe invent Febreze?). Plonk your kids in front of the TV for thirty minutes (contrary to modern thinking it won’t kill them). But make a pact with yourself. That small break in the chaos is for you, and you alone. Don’t waste it paying bills or ticking off your to-do list. Good luck!

Thank you, Corrie - best wishes for the book, I hope it finds lots of readers (and presumably, based on what you've explained above, you're already deep into the next one).

You can find The Perfect Victim in all the usual places: at your friendly local bookshop, including via Hive, or here or here if you prefer.

There are more great stops coming up on the tour - collect them all - just look at the poster for details.

The Perfect Victim | Corrie Jackson | Zaffre, 16 November 2017 | PB, e 442pp