The English Civil War is an era of British history that I've only started to learn more than the bare bones about in the past few years. Reading TheThe English Civil War is an era of British history that I've only started to learn more than the bare bones about in the past few years. Reading The Bleeding Land and its sequel Brother's Fury by Giles Kristian and some of Andrew Swanston's Thomas Hill novels showed me that these decades in the middle of the seventeenth century were pivotal in Britain's history and created massive changes to British society and left deep scars on its populace. It's a fascinating era and Katherine Clements' debut novel The Crimson Ribbon, set in perhaps some of the most dramatic and traumatic years of the Civil War, couldn't fail but catch my interest when it came through the mail. And though it took me over a year to read it, I'm glad I made the time, because Clements weaves a stunning tale.
Ruth Flowers is the narrator and protagonist of the story. Her narrative interweaves her personal journey learning to accept her heart and laying her ghosts to rest with the greater story of the final years of King Charles I's life. Ruth's story revolves around her mistress Lizzie Poole, who takes in Ruth after she loses her mother and her place in the Cromwell household in one night. Ruth transfers her love and loyalty from her mother to Lizzie and comes to love her mistress deeply. Yet, Ruth needs to learn to stand on her own, to depend on herself and to be her own woman. Clements allows Ruth to grow and develop in a beautiful manner, slowly gaining agency and letting the balance of power between the two women grow more equal and in some ways tip over in Ruth's favour.
Lizzie is a captivating character, both to Ruth and the reader, yet she has a dangerous edge to her. There is something ominous to Lizzie's brilliance; her light can blind and burn and once sucked into her orbit, it is hard to leave her. Throughout the novel, the reader is confronted with hints that Lizzie isn't the saint Ruth thinks she is and it is this contradiction between Lizzie-as-saint and Lizzie-as-sinner that creates much of the tension in Ruth and Lizzie's friendship. In fact, Ruth's wilful ignorance was quite frustrating at times. Lizzie's dangerous edge is also expressed in her radical ideas. While The Crimson Ribbon tells the story of those on the side of Parliament, set against the King, Lizzie's views oscillate from too radically egalitarian even for the rebels to too Royalist to not be considered a traitor. The numerous brands of freethinkers portrayed in the novel were fascinating and Lizzie's story showed just how dangerous these new ideas could be.
Though the story very much focuses on Ruth's relationship to Lizzie, Clements manages to infuse a lot of the politics of the time into the novel as well. Told from the point of view of those of the lower classes, The Crimson Ribbon makes a clear case of why they might rebel against the King and his court. The ordinary man wants to have an equal chance and an equal say in how his life and country is run. She also manages to show that Cromwell's rebellion was just as hard, if not harder, on the general populace, as it was on the ruling classes. In a way, Ruth's relationship with Lizzie mirrors the political developments of the war. They go from a traditional mistress-servant relationship, to a more equal friendship and in the end it flips completely around with Ruth being the one 'in power'. And it is only in this middle part that they are at peace and happy.
In Ruth's tale we also have a juxtaposition of blazing passion versus steady love. Lizzie sweeps Ruth off her feet from the first moment Ruth lays eyes on her. It is the kind of love that is celebrated in countless power ballads and romance novels, yet it is a love that burns, flares, and hurts. To accentuate this, Clements gives us Joseph, the soldier who travels with Ruth at the start of the novel and who weaves his way in and out of her life throughout the novel. Their friendship is slow and steady, and while not always easy or without hurt, it is a constant. Joseph is steadfast and loyal and it is his unwavering regard that lets Ruth discover her own wants and desires and to make her own choices for the future.
Katherine Clements' The Crimson Ribbon is a powerful story of friendship and love set in an era that challenged all preconceived notions of how life was supposed to be. There are numerous layers to the narrative and so much to unpack, that I've not managed to touch on half of it in this review. This fascinating novel of a country in turmoil, of a girl set adrift in the world, and of how she manages to reach safe haven in the end, managed to capture my imagination and I was spell-bound until its final pages.
Graham Marks’ Bad Bones is the fourth book in Stripes Publishing’s Red Eye series. I’ve enjoyed the series so far, so I was looking forward to the nexGraham Marks’ Bad Bones is the fourth book in Stripes Publishing’s Red Eye series. I’ve enjoyed the series so far, so I was looking forward to the next instalment. Unlike the previous books, Bad Bones is set in the US, in LA to be exact, which makes for an interesting change of location and possible sets of problems. But while Bad Bones was a fun read, I was a bit disappointed by the narrative and the ending in particular.
The book’s protagonist, Gabe is a likeable sort, though he’s quite a troubled character. It’s hard not to sympathise with his situation and his desire to help his family out. Yet at the same time his anger at his dad – for being in a situation not of his own making, but not seeming to be doing enough to get out of it in Gabe’s opinion at least – and his refusal to talk to him about what is going on both with the family and with himself is annoyingly immature. This might seem a weird complaint, since Gabe’s a teen, but he comes across quite mature in other aspects, such as his sense of responsibility to contribute to the family finances. In addition to his family’s strained circumstances, Gabe also has to deal with the added, and maybe unnecessary, complication of Benny’s demands on him. While I get why Benny, who is the local drug pusher, would see Gabe as an easy mark, I didn’t really get his function to the story, except as being another stumbling block for Gabe and company.
Marks includes some wonderful secondary characters in the persons of Gabe’s best friend Anton, his class-mate Stella, and Stella’s priest Father Simon. I could only wish they had been utilised and developed more, especially Anton. They each of them seem to have an interesting backstory and we only get the barest basics of these histories. I would have loved to have learned more about them since it would have explained their roles in the book more. Also, in the case of Anton’s and Gabe’s friendship it would have been nice to have seen them together more and feel their connection more strongly, because we were mostly told they were best friends and blood brothers, it never actually felt that way.
What did work really well, was the horror element to the story. Gabe’s finding the gold seems to be providence, yet turns into a nightmare and I liked the historical connections Marks made between the gold, the villain and Alta California. Rafael is properly scary and Gabe’s guilty conscience at being responsible for his appearance only adds to the horror. Rafael is clearly evil due to a hunger for power, even if dressed in the clothes of a religious cult, and the link of his appearance to Gabe’s honest and well-intentioned desire to help his family and feel more in control of his life, only adds to Gabe’s feeling of powerlessness.
The ending of Bad Bones felt rather rushed and abrupt and left me altogether unsatisfied. It all felt a little convenient and pat, with everything nicely tied up. Yet despite all my problems with the narrative, I had fun with the book and I found myself rooting for Gabe throughout. Bad Bones isn’t my favourite Red Eye title, but it made for an entertaining read nonetheless.
Deadly Election is book three in the Flavia Albia series and returns us to Rome about a month after the events of the previous book Enemies at Home.Deadly Election is book three in the Flavia Albia series and returns us to Rome about a month after the events of the previous book Enemies at Home. This book was a lot of fun, but in some ways far more about Albia and Faustus than about the case. We learn more about Albia’s role as her father’s representative at the family auction house, about Faustus’ past, and perhaps most importantly and most entertainingly the developing bond between Albia en Faustus.
The case at the heart of the book can be summed up as it’s all about the Julia’s. Once again Davis shows how much Roman life revolved around the family structure and how deeply rooted family loyalty and honour is and simultaneously how deeply families can be torn apart internally when things go wrong. It also showed how complex Roman family life was when people divorced and remarried for advantage, not just love, and those decisions were often made by the head of the family, not the partners themselves. Not to mention how hard this must have been for the offspring of the various marriage and the way their loyalties would be pulled six ways till Sunday. Life in Rome seems to have been a messy business.
I loved seeing more of Flavia Albia the auctioneer’s daughter, instead of Albia the private investigator. The glimpses we got of the day to day running of the auction house was quite interesting and I always love a good auction scene. The fact that Albia gets to wield the gavel was the icing on the cake. The way Falco, and by extension Albia, treat their employees says a lot about their outlook on life. I loved the fact that they got their head porter Gornia a donkey to get around on to accommodate his advanced age. Patchy the donkey was a great element to the narrative, with him consistently showing up and having to arrange for his care being something Albia has to deal with, instead of him just being transportation.
As the title might have given away, there is a lot of political intrigue in the narrative. Set against the campaign for the election of the new aediles of Rome, it turns out that politics actually haven’t changed that much in over 2000 years. Albia is hired by Faustus to dig up dirt on all the various candidates that are running against the candidate he is campaigning for, his childhood friend Vibius. The dirt Albia finds ranges from the somewhat shameful to the tragic. At the same time she is also investigating the dead body found at her family’s warehouse in one of the items they are to auction. The way these investigation intertwine is quite well done and I really enjoyed putting the puzzle together. During the course of Albia’s investigation we finally get to meet Faustus’ uncle Tullius, who turns out to be even worse than he’d been previously described, which made for a very cool confrontation between him and Albia. The one complaint I had about the character list is that there were a great number of similarly named people and if not for the dramatis personae at the start of the novel, I would have had to take notes to keep them straight.
My favourite thing about the book was the slow tango between Albia and Faustus and I absolutely loved its conclusion. There were some lovely touches, such as the dolphin bench that ends up in Albia’s courtyard and Faustus’ worrying about Albia’s health. And Dromo’s commentary on Albia and Faustus made for some delightful comic relief. It’ll be interesting to see how Albia and Faustus will develop their relationship in the next book, and I’m curious whether and to what extent their partnership echoes – or perhaps mirrored is a better term – that of Albia’s parents. Could any of my readers enlighten me on that score?
While this may not have been my favourite case of the three books featuring Albia thus far, I loved the character development in Deadly Election as the Albia/Faustus dynamic is my favourite thing about this series. I’m very much looking forward to reading Albia’s next adventure. If you enjoy a well-written, humour-infused, Roman mystery then you can’t go wrong with Deadly Election and the Flavia Albia series as a whole.
It’s once more unto the breech for Flavia Alba in the second book of her series, Enemies at Home. I enjoyed the first of this series, The Ides of AprIt’s once more unto the breech for Flavia Alba in the second book of her series, Enemies at Home. I enjoyed the first of this series, The Ides of April, but for some reason I never managed to fit in the next book onto the reviewing schedule. With book three in the series released last month, this historical fiction month seemed like a great time to catch up on both of the books. And I have to say I enjoyed Enemies at Home even more than I did The Ides of April.
What bothered me most about the previous book was how modern Albia’s voice felt. This time around, whether because I was now used to Albia or because in the intermittent years I’ve read my books set in Roman times, Albia’s voice didn’t feel like a distraction in fact it was one of my favourite things about the narrative. Albia is distinctive and funny. Her acerbic wit and often somewhat snarky asides never failed to amuse me and I was greatly entertained by her narration of the story.
Albia is still the headstrong, independent, fearless investigator we met in The Ides of April. She’s a very entertaining character and a keen observer of everything and everyone around her. What I like about Albia’s investigative style is that she isn’t given to Sherlockian flashes of genius insights, but to dogged persistence and logical thinking. The wonderful Aedile Manlius Faustus returns and this time he is Albia’s client, giving her the assignment of figuring out who murdered a newly-wed couple. I love the connection between Albia and Faustus, which is flirty and fun, but also based on genuine respect and friendship. In addition to Faustus and several other returning characters, we also meet some new characters. Chief amongst these is Dromo, a slave assigned by Faustus to protect Albia during her investigations. I thought he was a great character and he had some genuinely comic scenes, but also some of the most heartbreaking ones. Through him we learn more about Albia’s background, which might be old news for readers of Davis’ Falco series which is about Albia’s father, but for new readers makes for interesting reading.
While The Ides of April was set in Albia’s home neighbourhood the Aventine, in Enemies at Home the action moves across town to the Esquiline. This meant that Albia is very much out of her comfort zone and lacking most of her usual contacts. The new stomping grounds in the Esquiline mean having to work twice as hard to find clues and figure out what happens and it shows off some of Albia’s strongest skills, especially the way she creates connections with people, other women in particular. There is one specific scene towards the end of the book where an impromptu gathering of women gives Albia the final pieces to solve the puzzle and I really loved the way Davis put that together. It also showed the silent power of Roman wives, be they powerful matriarchs or freedman’s wife. I appreciated Davis’ portrayal of the lives of Roman women and the surprising freedoms they had.
Albia’s case in Enemies at Home is a tough one, that centres on the legal obligations of slaves to their masters and the powerless positions slaves found themselves in. Slavery is always a tough subject, because it is such a heinous institution. I had mixed feelings about its portrayal here, because Albia both acknowledges it is an awful practice, yet at the same time seems to casually accept it and expect the slaves she encounters to be resigned to their fates and serve their time until they are freed for good service, if they are that lucky at all. I found it confusing, though it could be interpreted as an illustration how ingrained the practice was in society and that even if one knows it is wrong and would like to change it, actually changing even one’s own attitude requires a lot of work and constant awareness of one’s thought patterns.
In the end, Flavia Albia’s second outing was better for me than her first and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into Deadly Election, Lindsey Davis’ latest instalment in the series. If you enjoy fun, witty, and smart female investigators, Flavia Albia is a protagonist you won’t want to miss and Enemies at Home is a great introduction to her. In fact, I might even recommend starting with this book instead of The Ides of April as it stands alone quite well and Albia hits her stride from the beginning.
Ayesha Ryder returns in this third instalmentof the Ryder series called Bird of Prey. And with Bird of Prey this series has most definitely entered alAyesha Ryder returns in this third instalment of the Ryder series called Bird of Prey. And with Bird of Prey this series has most definitely entered alternate history territory, even if at times referencing real-world developments directly, mentioning Richard III’s body being found in Leicester and some of the intricacies of EU economic and political problems. While I greatly enjoyed parts of the narrative and I really liked the book overall, Bird of Prey was my least favourite book of the series so far.
With this third book you can see the Ryder formula emerging: historical detective work ala Indiana Jones – a connection I hadn’t yet made, but which one of the characters made for me by referring to her Indy hat – combined with political conspiracy, one part romance – of the not-so prim and proper variety – all wrapped around the character development of Ayesha Ryder and her history. And like in the previous two books Ayesha has new sidekicks to help her in her investigation, but hopefully the ones she found in this book will stick around for more adventures, they certainly seemed positioned for it.
Ayesha’s development in this novel is wonderful. Pengelley reveals more of her past through flashbacks and more cracks in the walls she’s built around her heart. The things revealed about her past and especially her family are heart-breaking, even more so with later revelations in the book taken into account. It makes the cracks in Ayesha’s walls particularly interesting. At one point she is thinking about Niobe, one of the characters she meets, and the predicament they are in and she wonders whether she’s found another friend, because she’d like one. This to me is the best example of how Ayesha is changing and allowing herself to feel.
The new friends Ayesha makes in Bird of Prey, her sidekicks, were great and I really hope that both of them return in future books. Ayesha’s first new friend and sidekick is Joram Tate, the librarian of The Walshingham Institute, is fabulous, though I might be biased, because I love kick-ass librarian characters. I loved this suave and competent character, who reminded me a lot of a more action-oriented Rupert Giles, he of Buffy fame. Their powerful attraction added some interesting spice to the narrative, though at times Ayesha was a little distracted at inappropriate times, like in the middle of a gunfight. The second sidekick, Niobe Bagot, is just as cool, an archaeologist with an interest in the era of King Harold and the Battle of Hastings, she joins in Ayesha’s and Joram’s quest to find his grave. I really liked her and the big, fat nod to Indiana Jones she implies. And as in the previous books, the recurring characters – Susannah Armstrong, Dame Imogen and her husband, Lady Madrigal and Tatiana – are always a joy, so I’m hoping Tate and Niobe will be part of them from now on. Of the villains the only one to stand out was Bebe Daniells, the rest were somewhat vanilla due to their vagueness.This vagueness was understandable for plot purposes, but it also made them hard to connect to on more than a superficial level.
The plot is as action-packed as the previous books and a great mix of political intrigue and historical mystery. I really liked the Maltese Falcon angle, which beyond the book title and the Bogart film I didn’t know anything about, but that made it all the more interesting. In fact, the historical bits are my favourite thing about this series. Pengelley manages to drop lots of interesting tidbits into the narrative, which had me reaching for Wikipedia more than once to learn more about it. And that is a thing that always makes me happy. Add to that a secret warehouse of old books, a connection to a famous order of knights, and a fantastic siege scene and the history in this book completely won me over.
The one thing I actually disliked about the book was the way Pengelley dismissed Milton Hoenig, Ryder’s partner from the previous book. I really liked them together and I was rather sad that he was gone without any explanation at all. The other thing that bugged me was the role of the Dom/Sub relationship in the plot. This felt off to me from how I’ve seen it discussed in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey. As far as I’m aware any BDSM relationship has to be based on consent and trust, which didn’t seem the case here. That seems to be the point Pengelley was working towards given the twist created around Bebe Daniels and her past, but it didn’t come together as seamlessly as it could have, if only because the dom/sub relationship as depicted in the book read more like an abusive situation than an actual consensual partnership without anyone actually calling it that.
Still, despite all of this, I had a fun time with Bird of Prey and I can’t wait for the next one, which looks to be just as fun with added T.E. Lawrence to boot if the hook at the end of the story is any indication. If you’re looking for an exciting read for a rainy afternoon inside or even a sunny one outside, this one will definitely do the trick.
The Axeman’s Jazz has been languishing on my TBR shelves for a year. I’d originally planned to read it for last year’s historical fiction month in conThe Axeman’s Jazz has been languishing on my TBR shelves for a year. I’d originally planned to read it for last year’s historical fiction month in conjunction with my interview with its author, Ray Celestin, but the best laid plans and all that. Thus I decided that The Axeman’s Jazz should be my first book read for this year’s historical fiction month. And it ended up making me kick myself for not reading it last year, because it was a fascinating read.
Celestin tells his story within an interesting structure that has three main investigative teams all investigating the Axeman murders. It’s a different way to tell the story of the investigation as it allows Celestin to give the reader all of the puzzle pieces, while still making his characters have to hunt for the truth. Instead of lessening tension as might be expected, it actually cranks it up when the protagonists go into danger unknowingly, when the reader knows what is waiting for them and can only read on and hope all will be well.
The three investigative teams are all equally compelling, but each for a different reason. First and the only one officially assigned to the case is Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, who is supported by a young constable called Kerry. They are the official arm of the law, but this is not the police force as we know it. Corruption is rife with many officers on the take from the local mafia and means being limited. While Michael and Kerry are straight arrows, they need to work within this crooked system and within the murky politics of the city that is New Orleans. I found it interesting to see how divided along nationalities and race everything was at the time. I’d expected the race segregation, this the South in 1919 after all, but I hadn’t expected the other nationalities, such as the Italians, Irish, Creole and French to still be as divided and on tense footing as they were.
The second team gives an entirely different view of the city. Ida Davis and Lewis, or Louis as he’d be later known, Armstrong are both black, which makes their options for investigating and the contacts they can utilise quite different from the others. Ida is octoroon, a term I hadn’t encountered before, which means that she is one-eighth of African descent and can often pass for white, a fact she often uses in the course of her investigation. Celestin uses this difference between Ida and Lewis to emphasise how arbitrary and unjust racial segregation is and even how some situations were more dangerous to Lewis than to Ida, all because of the colour of their skin. As Ida, a secretary for the Pinkerton Agency, is investigating the Axeman murders without official approval, she has to do everything on the sly and I really loved her spunk and her determination to see it through to the end.
The last investigator is Luca D’Andrea, an ex-detective, just released from prison and pressed back into service by the local mafia to solve these Axeman murders as they are impinging on their ability to do business. Luca is a tragic figure. A man who has done bad things, but whose time inside has given him perspective and even reformed him up to a point, Luca doesn’t want to go back to his old ways. Yet getting away from the family isn’t as easy as that and so he thinks he is striking a deal: catch the killer and go free. I liked Luca and his storyline a lot and the eventual resolution of his arc left me saddened for his fate.
All three groups conduct their investigation within the parishes of New Orleans and in some ways the city and its love of music is its own character in the book. The atmosphere oozes off the page as does the music that powers the city. I’m no great jazz connoisseur, so much of the people mentioned in the book flew right by me, except for Louis Armstrong obviously, but there was a lot of heart for this style of music in the writing. The story is set in 1919 and that is a very different time than ours. I confess that I flinched every time the word negro was used, which in context shouldn’t be seen as offensive, but to me was hard to decouple from its modern day reception. Throughout the narrative, in addition to the looming threat of a new Axeman murder, there is also a storm coming, with continual rain already causing problems throughout and the final storm which mirrors the climax of the mystery, was reminiscent of scenes I’d read about in connection to Katrina. It was an effective way to create additional tension to an already fraught situation.
The Axeman’s Jazz is a fantastic story and a wonderful debut. I can definitely see why it won the CWA Best Newcomer Award last year. If you like your historical crime fiction atmospheric and written in a wonderful voice then you should most definitely check out The Axeman’s Jazz. I loved the time I spent with this novel and I’m looking forward to reading Ray Celestin’s next offering.
Last year Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise, the first book in this series, surprised me with the insane amount of fun it was. I loved the effervesceLast year Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise, the first book in this series, surprised me with the insane amount of fun it was. I loved the effervescent Wydrin, the conscientious Sir Sebastian, and the troubled Lord Frith. This meant I was very much looking forward to returning to these characters in The Iron Ghost. And Williams delivers on the promise of the first novel with this second book. The Iron Ghost is just as much fun as The Copper Promise, while upping the drama and narrative stakes. Wydrin remains brilliant, but I liked the more pronounced roles of Frith and Sebastian in this outing.
One of my main hopes for The Iron Ghost was that we’d learn more about the brood sisters, the unexpected dragonkin we met in the first book and discover more about their connection to Sebastian. My wish was granted in full, as we get to spend a lot of time with just Sebastian and the brood sisters and these passages were as fascinating as I could have hoped. The way their development influences Sebastian’s development over the course of the book was wonderful and tied very neatly into his arc from the last book. Ephemeral in particular was a lovely character to follow. I really liked Sebastian’s story arc in this book in general. Sebastian once again finds himself stuck in a moral quagmire and finds himself wondering whether someone’s nature is something that can and should be overcome. This question recurs in several different incarnations throughout his story allowing the reader to see his changing perspective develop clearly.
But Sebastian isn’t the only one facing moral quandaries; Frith faces several of them as well and is forced to make the hardest choices. Frith’s was the most compelling storyline in this book for me. His development as regards his feelings for Wydrin and his magic and the dilemmas he’s faced with were fascinating and I really liked how Williams approached them. Frith is a man who has to rediscover not just himself and his place in the world, but also whether he wants to return to his old life or perhaps build a far different, happier one. Frith’s scenes with Joah and their essential mirroring of each other were compelling; I kept hoping that Frith might even redeem Joah and take the story in a different direction, even if Williams never hints at this possibility.
Joah Demonsworn was freaking scary, especially as he’s so human in his desire for a connection to another living being. If you thought Y’Ruen from The Copper Promise was a scary villain, she had nothing on Joah and his demon sidekick Bezcavar. I loved the partnership between Joah and Bezcavar, as Williams is constantly shifting the balance of power between them, which keeps their dynamic interesting throughout the book. Williams not only presents a great set of new villains, she also adds some wonderful new allies for our intrepid trio, in the forms of Nuava, one of the inhabitants of Skaldshollow, Prince Dallen of the Narhl, and Mendrick, one of the Skaldshollow werken. The latter is a truly unexpected character and one that I found very appealing, while the former two are just lovely characters who not only have great interactions with the main characters, but who also have interesting arcs of their own.
The Iron Ghost had a far less fix-up novel feel than the previous book. The Copper Promise was a collection of four previously published novellas, which meant that the transitions between parts of the novel sometimes felt somewhat abrupt and disorienting. The transitions between parts in The Iron Ghost was far smoother and it didn’t feel as if the stories could be read separately, which did seem possible in the previous book. I don’t know how well the story would work standalone without having read The Copper Promise, since there isn’t necessarily much explanation for happenings in the first book. While it would probably still be an enjoyable book, the story might be a tad frustrating in places as it isn’t as easy to understand what happened and what is happening now in the story without knowing what happened in The Copper Promise.
Despite this last caveat though, The Iron Ghost is a criminal amount of fun layered over an exploration of right versus good, decorated with liberal scatterings of sneaky zombies, some crazy mages, a flock of wyverns, and a staunch set of heroes. Williams doesn’t pull any punches with her characters and no one is safe in this rollercoaster ride. I loved The Iron Ghost and I’m really hoping that one day we’ll get to travel with the Black Feather Three again. Recommended for all fans of adventurous fantasy and good sword and sorcery romps.
Of all of the sub-genres grouped under the umbrella term of speculative fiction, horror is the one I’m least at home in. After an early experiment reaOf all of the sub-genres grouped under the umbrella term of speculative fiction, horror is the one I’m least at home in. After an early experiment reading Carrie and a rather disastrous encounter with It, it has only been in the past few years that I’ve slowly stuck my toe in the pool that is horror fiction to test whether I dare get in the water. And I’ve mostly enjoyed those first few steps into the pool to stretch the metaphor a bit. Still, my first reaction when offered a horror title for review is always caution, because “I’m not a horror reader.” This year I decided to try and read more of it so I could broaden my knowledge of what horror is exactly, so Dark Screams: Volume Two was a great way to introduce myself to five new horror authors and five different flavours of horror.
Robert McCammon - The Deep End McCammon’s story about a father convinced that his son’s drowning in the local community pool wasn’t accidental and bent on revenge, is both heart-breaking and chilling. With Calder positioned to be the perfect unreliable narrator, torn apart by grief as he is, the story retains a flavour of uncertainty as to whether there truly is a monster in the water right up to the end. I liked the way McCammon developed the tension in the story and keep it going until the end.
Norman Prentiss - Interval While I really liked the premise of Interval, I can’t really discuss it as it would completely spoil the story. What I can comment on some of the other elements that bring the horror to the story. Any plane crash is horrific, and though I was very confused by what actually happened to the flight at the centre of the story – did it actually crash? If so, why? – Prentiss manages to convey the uncertainty and fear of the people waiting for its passengers palpably. What I found horrible as well was the way the man in charge of communications with the survivors fumbles the ball, not telling anyone anything, keeping people out who should be allowed in – I found the refusal of the man who was there to pick up his (same-sex) partner especially infuriating – and basically just mishandling the entire situation. Interval made for an interesting read and was quite self-contained.
Shawntelle Madison - If These Walls Could Talk If These Walls Could Talk is perhaps at first glance the most traditional of these horror stories, containing some of the most classic tropes in the genre. Eleanor, the story’s protagonist works on a show called America’s Mysterious Hotspots, which in itself is fertile grounds for a horror story, yet Madison takes it in a completely different direction. I really like the twist she put on the story and while discussing it more in depth will only lead to spoilers, I can say that this one might be my favourite of the bunch.
Graham Masterton - The Night Hider Masterton’s The Night Hider left me somewhat conflicted. I loved the premise of the haunted antique piece of furniture, in this case a wardrobe, but the reason for that haunting and the way the story resolved fell somewhat flat for me. Still, I really enjoyed the book until the last couple of scenes and the idea of the wardrobe was just very cool.
Richard Christian Matheson - Whatever Whatever is a great story, but to me it didn’t exactly feel like a horror story. I loved this alternate history/reality telling of the rise and fall of the super band in the vein of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It was fun to catch all the references to real people and bands and seeing how Whatever would have fit right in there. The structure and telling of the story was fascinating, in that the story is a collection of notes from a reporter that haven’t really been ordered into a proper article and as such the story jumps around in time and in the form of recording—sometimes its notes, sometimes transcriptions. Whatever is also very much a sketch of an era, of the way the music scene was in the late sixties and in the seventies, which I very much enjoyed.
Of these five stories Shawntelle Madison’s If These Walls Could Talk was my favourite, just edging out Richard Christian Matheson’s Whatever, due to the latter’s tenuous (to me) horror status. Overall, Dark Screams: Volume Two is an interesting collection of horror stories and an entertaining read for those interested in the horror short form and those looking for new authors or trying out a new genre to read.
**spoiler alert** Last year, Sarah Hilary burst onto the British crime writing scene with her debut Someone Else’s Skin. I was blown away by the boo**spoiler alert** Last year, Sarah Hilary burst onto the British crime writing scene with her debut Someone Else’s Skin. I was blown away by the book, falling in love with its main character, DI Marnie Rome and her main DS, Noah Jake. I’ve been impatiently waiting for the moment that I could read the next book in the series, as I couldn’t wait to spend more time with Marnie and Noah and to see what sort of intricate case Hilary would come up with to follow up her fantastic debut.
If I was surprised by the psychological depth to her previous novel, instead of the straight police procedural I was expecting, I was just as surprised by No Other Darkness. While I was prepared for the degree to which Hilary explores the psychology of her perpetrators and victims, not to mention her detectives, what took me by surprise in No Other Darkness was how much horror was included in this exploration and how closely elements of the case align or even interfere with some of the issues at work in our protagonists' lives. Point in case, Clancy who reminds Marnie so much of things and people in a past she’d rather forget.
Hilary spends most of the book on the active case under investigation, yet manages to slip in lots of character development at the same time. We learn more about Marnie and Noah's home lives with their respective partners and learn more of their families. I loved seeing Noah both with his partner Dan and with his brother Sol, who isn't exactly the easiest little brother to have, but who provides a window onto Noah's past, his parents, and the things Noah had to deal with as a youth. Sol's role in the narrative and Noah's life is quite illuminating with regard to Noah as a person, but also with regard to how he looks at the case and the people involved in it. I liked how we're shown that both Noah and Marnie have a support system to go home to, but that this support can take wildly different shapes. Dan lets Noah decompress and get his mind of things by taking him dancing, while Belloc lets Marnie think things through just by listening and giving her the space she needs, while at the same time being there for her.
Marnie is still fiercely driven in her work, because she feels the obligation to try and provide the closure for the families of victims she so sorely lacks in her own life. We learn more of Marnie’s youth, about how she may not have been the easiest teen either, just like Clancy. Her foster brother Stephen remains an enigma, though we do learn more about his background, before he was fostered by Marnie’s parents. Marnie is still haunted by the question why Stephen turned on her parents and it'll be interesting to see how fast or how slow Hilary will provide Marnie with the answer if at all.
[Edited to add: This next paragraph could be regarded as entering spoiler territory. If you want to remain unspoiled, best skip over until the last paragraph!]
The case at the heart of the book is an awful one — murder is always awful, but this one hit harder than most, due to its victims. Two small bodies are found in an abandoned, hidden bunker, two little boys left alone to die. Just the idea chills my heart. Yet it was hard to feel only antipathy towards their killer, who was suffering from a postpartum psychosis (PPP), which is like the more evil version of postpartum depression. Hilary shows us the horror and fear this mother and her family went through, especially as it seems she was ill-served by her doctors and the authorities, who didn't identify the severity of her affliction. Hilary creates this sense of empathy, or perhaps more appropriately pity, through chapters from this woman's point of view. At the same time these chapters are filled with misdirection and sleight of hand, much like the rest of the narrative. Hilary is very skilled at providing the reader with clues that can be put together in several different ways while still making sense, which often means the reader ultimately comes to the wrong conclusion. The focus of the case changes around midway through the book, when things escalate quickly and what had been a cold case becomes a race against the clock.
With No Other Darkness Sarah Hilary proves she’s here to stay and that Someone Else’s Skin wasn’t just a one-off success. Marnie Rome is one of my favourite DI’s out there and she’s surrounded by equally interesting people. No Other Darkness delivers a dark, complex, and disquieting narrative that grips the reader and never lets go. Lovers of police procedurals and psychological thrillers alike will find something in this book to satisfy their cravings. I’m already hungry for my next serving of DI Marnie Rome and DS Noah Jake. Highly recommended.
Peter Newman's debut novel The Vagrant was one of my most anticipated books for the first half of the year. Already familiar with his work on the TeaPeter Newman's debut novel The Vagrant was one of my most anticipated books for the first half of the year. Already familiar with his work on the Tea and Jeopardy podcast, I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with a longer fictional work. When the cover was released and I spotted that baby on it, along with the blurb, I was hooked, I had to read this book. After a bit of a cold start The Vagrant made for very compelling reading.
I’m not sure whether the cold start was due to the shift between my previous read (Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor) and The Vagrant, since they had radically different tones and styles, or whether there was something inherent to Newman’s writing I just had to adjust to. Newman’s writing is interesting. My first instinct was to call it lyrical grim, as the setting is a war-torn, post-apocalyptic, and ruined landscape and the tone is grim, but the prose can be quite lyrical in places, even when describing dark things indeed. Newman also does something interesting with the naming of his characters. The main character and many others are only known by a sobriquet or a title, which initially put them at something of a remove and in some cases kept them that way. It’s made me conscious of how important proper names are in human interaction and how much harder you have to work to humanise a title instead of a name. Newman’s use of flashbacks to explain how the characters got to where they are and how the Vagrant got to be walking around with a baby was well-executed, though there is still plenty of background left to reveal, especially as it concerns the happenings in the Shining City during the previous eight years.
The world-building was interesting too, though I had a hard time visualising distances and relative locations; I guess being spatially challenged, maps are my friends. The Vagrant’s world is post-apocalyptic secondary world setting, which I hadn’t encountered in this way before. Usually fantasy books that seem to have such a setting, turn out to be a far, far future Earth. Not so here. I liked the fact that the demonic invaders are incorporeal and thus have to possess people or at least their corpses to be embodied, which was rather creepy, especially as some of them don’t actually possess a corpse, they just use them to build their own corporeal form to contain their demonic essence. The taint the demons spread is interesting in its manifestation, as it seemed to be as much spiritual as physical. It also made the purging described later in the book interesting, if horrifying, as I wondered how much would be left of a person if they just cut everything that is tainted out. What if it takes something essential spiritually, without impeding physical survival? What would that do to a survivor? Hopefully we’ll learn more about this in the sequel.
Of course an interesting setting demands interesting characters and Newman hands us those in spades. First of all there is the titular Vagrant. A mysterious figure to start out with, he remains somewhat so throughout the novel, even if we learn more and more about his past as the story goes on. One of the things that remains unexplained is the fact that the Vagrant is mute. He isn’t incapable of speech as we do have evidence of him singing, but he can’t speak. Yet for all that he is able to express himself eloquently anyway. There is a sense of relentlessness in the Vagrant’s progress to the Shining City and I loved his power of endurance. He is also a good person, sometimes despite himself, stopping to help even if he knows the smart thing to do would be to move on and let it go. His is a pure spirit.
The Vagrant doesn’t travel alone. From the first he is accompanied by a baby, who initially is only referred to as it and the baby, but who eventually grows into a personality and name of her own. I really liked how Newman incorporated the realities of caring for a small child into the narrative. Seriously, there is nappy changing in this book, people. I also liked how Newman developed the baby’s character. It starts showing in little ways, how she’ll notify the Vagrant of her desires, how she plays and interacts with him – the eyebrow-waggling game is the most adorable thing ever – and increasingly becomes clearer when she starts crawling, then walking and talking. To feed the baby the Vagrant acquires a goat, which brings with it a whole new set of problems. Because this goat? This goat has all of the stubbornness available to her species and then some. She is one of my favourite things in this novel and often brings a humorous note to the narrative without descending into Disney Animal Sidekick territory.
However grim the world is, and even if the Vagrant and his companions encounter a lot of grief and suffering, there is also a lot to the narrative to generate hope. This is clearest in the arc of the Vagrant’s third travelling companion Harm. When we first encounter him he is hired muscle, a part of the rebel group in Verdigris, and a man set to violence. Yet inexplicably, he attaches himself to the Vagrant, finds new sides to himself and becomes a second parent to the baby. His is an arc of redemption. I loved his friendship with the Vagrant, where both of them have to consciously make the decision to trust each other and to believe that the other is well-intentioned towards them. During the course of the novel the friendship becomes deeper and more ingrained almost. And if there was ever a fanfic waiting to happen, it is one exploring the depths of this relationship further.
The other example of the power of compassion is the Hammer’s arc. One of the first humans to be thoroughly tainted by the Usurper, she is known as the Usurper’s daughter. She’s seen as a total monster and when she is sent to hunt the Vagrant and the Malice, as the sword he carried is called by the demons, it seems as if she’ll be just another demon to be despatched. Yet Newman turns that expectation completely on its ear by having the Vagrant and Harm befriend her and returning some of her humanity to her. It was such a powerful arc and its conclusion was perfect, even if it broke my heart.
The Vagrant is a fabulous debut for Peter Newman, one that surprised me with its voice and its setting, even if it took me a little to get used to it. Newman writes a dark and grim tale, but infuses it with surprisingly light notes in the form of humour and wonderful characterisation. The Vagrant caters to both those whose like grim and gritty narratives and those who like their books to leave them with hope. That’s a fine line to tread and Newman does it with aplomb.
After seeing mostof my friends, and much of the SFF blogosphere, geek out over Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor, I knew I needed to read it at sAfter seeing most of my friends, and much of the SFF blogosphere, geek out over Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor, I knew I needed to read it at some point. A few weeks ago I finally got the final push to actually read it (Thank you, Justin) and then the book was nominated for a Hugo, which clinched it: I was reading this book ASAP. And I’m glad I did, because The Goblin Emperor was brilliant and addictive. I just wanted to keep reading this book, even if I had to put down the book because life. I couldn’t wait to go back to Maia’s tale and find out what happened next.
What sets The Goblin Emperor apart from its contemporaries in the field is its tone. In a publishing environment where much of epic fantasy has taken a decidedly dark and grim direction in the past years, The Goblin Emperor offers something quite the opposite. That doesn’t mean that Maia’s story is all sweetness and light – because it isn’t – but it does mean that the narrative is hopeful and optimistic, trying to see the best in people and acting accordingly. When I was asked to describe the book to my husband, the first thing that sprang to mind was that the book was a weird sort of slice of life epic fantasy, where the events impacts an entire empire, yet the narrative is oddly intimate and very much moves day to day, only speeding up towards the end.
Maia is a fascinating protagonist. While not completely naive of the realities of court politics, he is inexperienced in how to survive them, due to his isolated upbringing by a disgruntled courtier who fell from the Emperor’s graces around the time Maia’s mother passed away. Due to this much of Maia’s arc is concerned with learning to navigate around the court and to handle the intrigues surrounding him. As I love me some political intrigue in my fantasy, this aspect of the book was absolute catnip to me. I really liked that much of what made Maia an effective ruler was due to his following his sense of common decency and justice. His developing relationships with not only his nohecharei, his bodyguards, but also his secretary are wonderful; I loved how Addison let them illustrate the tension between the (emotional) needs of Maia the person and the rules that bind Maia the Emperor.
While political intrigue forms much of the plot, I loved that the plot is moved forward through Maia’s forming relationships with those around him, instead of him defeating his enemies ‘on the field of battle’. The connections he forms with those around him and the loyalties they inspire and the alliances they create, are what saves him in the end. I especially liked how Addison had Maia relate to the different women of the court. His reaching out to his father’s first wife was beautifully done and gained him a staunch ally. I also really liked his fiancée, who is more than he first thinks and I loved the way Addison developed not only her character, but also their relationship. Plus Csethiro just kicks ass! Addison litters her narrative with interesting women, who are interesting both because they are women and because of their achievements. However, one thing that niggled me, in hindsight, is that their achievements or rather the acceptance of their achievements – Vedero’s astronomy studies or Kiru’s being selected as nohecharei – is used to showcase Maia’s exceptionality, not theirs.
Addison took some risks in her writing style. The most eye-catching of these, is her use of pronouns in dialogue. In the world of The Goblin Emperor, in addition to the majestic plural we, people use we in all forms of (reasonably) formal speech. In fact, dropping into first person is seen as very personal and shockingly informal. I thought this was a gutsy move, especially as these nuances are hard to convey organically, without resorting to overt info dumping an explanation, yet Addison managed it quite smoothly. Stylistic choices that didn’t work as well, at least for me as a reader, were the overly complicated family names and the apostrophised titles. I kept stumbling over them and back-tracking to get them correctly. Yet ultimately I found I did not care; in the end I just garbled the names and as long as I garbled them consistently everything made sense and the story was so good it drew me on regardless of my stumbles.
The Goblin Emperor made for absolutely addictive reading. I couldn’t get this book out of my head; I even dreamed about it. Was it flawless? No, not really, as illustrated above. But it was completely and utterly immersive and the reading experience was like falling into a warm bath: welcoming and very soothing. I was quite saddened to learn that The Goblin Emperor is a standalone novel, because I definitely would love to return to Maia’s court and see how his life develops. The book ends in a good place, but consistent with my impression of it being a slice of life epic fantasy tale, it also feels as if it could continue on without a hiccup and still be satisfying. “Always leave them wanting more” is an old adagio in many contexts and Katherine Addison certainly held true to that maxim here. I definitely want more of Addison’s writing and hopefully there’ll be much more to come in the future....more
The tagline to Oskar Jensen’s The Yelling Stones is ‘A Viking tale of myth and magic.’ Of course, this is catnip to my inner nine-year-old—who am I kiThe tagline to Oskar Jensen’s The Yelling Stones is ‘A Viking tale of myth and magic.’ Of course, this is catnip to my inner nine-year-old—who am I kidding? This is catnip to thirty-five-year-old me! To add to the must-read-this-now factor of the book, The Yelling Stones has a heroine and a hero who doesn’t fit the traditional Viking mould. The story was every bit as fun and adventurous as its cover indicates, yet it isn’t as straight-forward an adventure romp as it would seem either; there is some true tragedy in the book and some quite serious themes.
At the core of the story, the thing that animates the plot, is the advent of Christianity in Viking territories, replacing the traditional worship of the Norse gods. This conversion was done by hook or by crook. Whether through preaching or by the sword, people were converted to the “White Christ” as the Vikings called him, and sometimes people didn’t have a choice, because their king commanded them to follow him in baptism. Obviously, this didn’t happen without strife and caused a lot of upheaval. Jensen not only shows this upheaval, he also shows that in many cases was a political decision, not one of true faith. I also appreciated the fact that some, if not most, of the people cleaving to the old ways are really and truly faithful to their gods.
One of those faithful to the old ways, is our heroine Astrid. Her parents and eldest brother are all of the old faith as well, while her other brother has converted to Christianity. Through Astrid we get a close up view of the struggle between faiths. But Astrid not only struggles with this and with how to follow her heart, but she also struggles with the expectations her parents have for her. They want her to be a proper lady, to stay home and manage a household, marry to political advantage for the kingdom, all of them things her free spirit can’t abide. Especially the threat of a political, distasteful marriage becomes immediate when the Bishop Folkmar comes to visit the court and lets his eye and possibly more fall on her. I loved Astrid’s spirit and the choices she makes, some of them foolhardy, some of them brave, but all of them hers.
Leif, on the other hand, is already familiar with faiths other than the old one, because he’s encountered them in his home town. In fact, he is of mixed parentage, his father having been a muslim trader. Apparently, it wasn’t unheard of, or even rare, for muslim traders to visiting Viking settlements to trade, or for Vikings to travel to Islamic trade centres such as Constantinople. I like that Jensen chose to have Leif be other than your run of the mill blond-haired, blue-eyed Viking boy. Instead, he’s visibly different, but he’s also set apart due to his skill with words; a skald had a very protected position in Norse society and could rise to be quite powerful, no matter his background. But that will only be true at a pagan court.
Additionally, Leif seems to be spirit-touched, communing with the elemental beings that pre-dated the worship of the Norse gods, who ask him to prevent the coming of the White Christ and their complete erasure. The fantastical elements enter into the book in this guise. The old spirits, the Norse gods, and even beings from Christian teachings enter the fray and all try to gain or keep their place in the hearts of the Viking people.
The partnership between Astrid and Leif was my favourite part of this book. I love that Astrid is the more gutsy, action-oriented one, while Leif is the one who faints, fights with words and is more timid. In fact, when it becomes clear that Leif needs to be able to protect himself, it is Astrid who teaches him swordplay. Yet both are equally brave when it comes down to it. They take risks and do what they need to do to stand by their beliefs and each other. The ending to the book was perfect in this regard, showing both their bravery and their mutual loyalty.
The Yelling Stones is exactly the kind of book I would have gobbled up from the library when I was a youngster, as it is the perfect blend of fantasy, myth, and history. If your middle grader is into Vikings and myths, then this is a perfect read for them. The Yelling Stones is a great debut for Oskar Jensen and I look forward to reading more of his work.
The title for Dawn McNiff’s latest offering immediately caught my attention as I’m very mucha worrier by nature and I’ve had to learn to curb the tendThe title for Dawn McNiff’s latest offering immediately caught my attention as I’m very much a worrier by nature and I’ve had to learn to curb the tendency to be able to function. So the idea that worrying might have a magical application was intriguing. But while Courtney’s worry magic is never discounted outright, at least not all elements of it are explained, Worry Magic is very much a contemporary middle grade novel, not a fantasy.
Courtney worries about a lot of things and she has the kind of magical thinking common to children, that as long as they’ve thought of a possible bad thing, then it won’t happen. This leads to her endlessly going over everything trying to think of every permutation of an event; an exhausting prospect for anyone, but when Courtney’s life becomes increasingly worry-ridden due to her parents’ failing marriage, her gran’s hospitalisation, and her best friend’s seeming drawing away, Courtney’s worrying spins out of control. The issues Courtney worries about are not just relatable to the book’s middle grade audience, but to all readers.
I related very much to Courtney’s sense of responsibility for making things all right and taking care of everyone, as I had similar feelings at the time of my own parents’ divorce—I’m sure I’m not the only one who shares that experience. As such Worry Magic was both a really easy book to read and a really hard one. It was an easy read, as it offered recognition and I think that is important for any child in a similar situation, showing them that they are not responsible for the adults in their lives. What simultaneously made it a hard read, for me at least, was the fact that it was hard to keep my own experiences out of the reading and my judgement of the various characters, especially Courtney’s parents.
What made Courtney’s parents hard to deal with for me, was their complete obliviousness to how their fighting affected their children. An effect that was exacerbated by the fact that Courtney’s gran, the person who is usually able to deflect some of it, is in the hospital. This obliviousness is most clearly demonstrated through their assumption that Courtney’s anxiety attacks are due to worrying about her gran, not her parents’ fighting. Instead it is Courtney’s big brother Kyle who sees what’s happening to Courtney and in his own way tries to help her. I loved the relationship between Kyle and Courtney. They might fight as all siblings do, but there is a deep and abiding love even if they never actually say it. Kyle’s reaction to their parents’ fighting is also the opposite from Courtney’s; where she tries to intervene every time, he retreats, first into his games and later literally to his room. They need each other to balance this out—Kyle learns to intervene and Courtney needs to learn to let go. I loved the siblings’ arc and to me they were the most wonderful part of the book.
What I found troublesome is the depiction of Bex, Courtney’s rival for her best friend Lois’ affection, who is portrayed as a mean girl and a bully. While I understand that making Bex a clear adversary is the fastest way to explain Courtney’s fear of separation from Lois, it felt a little easy. Learning that friendship isn’t a zero sum game is something that everyone has to learn at some point and usually this isn’t because the new party is a bully. It would also have made Courtney’s perceptions of Bex a little less reliable, which would fit in with her general narrative in the book and would avoid the stereotype of the bitchy mean girl.
There is a humorous tone to McNiff’s writing even when dealing with difficult, emotional issues. Yet the narrative, told from Courtney’s first person POV, is also a little unreliable. Because while Courtney believes she can actually influence events by her worry magic, how truly magical is it? Or is it more a case of people reacting to her anxiety attacks? Adults and older teen readers will pick up on the subtext quite quickly, before Kyle spells it out for Courtney later in the book. Which leaves much of what we read up to the interpretation of the reader, how much is truth and how much is Courtney’s perception? Is her mother the bigger problem in the marriage? Is Bex really such a mean girl? Does Kyle truly not care? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others.
Worry Magic was a good read. Charming and relatable, Dawn McNiff tells a wonderful story of a girl learning she doesn’t have to shoulder the world’s problems on her own and that sometimes asking for help is all you can do. This is a great book for middle grade readers and young teens, especially those who tend to be worriers themselves. I know I would have devoured Worry Magic when I was Courtney’s age. In fact, I devoured it even if I’m far past Courtney’s age.
Natalie Whipple's Fish Out of Water rather caught me by surprise. I’d been interested in the book based on the publisher’s marketing copy, so I requesNatalie Whipple's Fish Out of Water rather caught me by surprise. I’d been interested in the book based on the publisher’s marketing copy, so I requested a review copy and I’d expected to be at least entertained by the book. What I hadn't expected, was that the book drew me in to the extent that I actually stayed up until half three to finish it. (Thank you Wiebe for pulling morning duty and let me catch up on sleep the next day—well, later that day.) Mika's summer was completely engrossing and I just had to know how it would end.
Mika is just a wonderful character. Her relationship with her parents is warm and loving, but not without conflict. Mika’s father is American and her mother is Japanese and her mixed heritage definitely affects Mika’s childhood and upbringing. While the conflict between Mika and her parents is seemingly due to Mika feeling cheated out off her perfect summer plans – and more – due to her parents’ decision to take in her grandmother, even here racial issues are indirectly responsible for the tense situation that arises. I like that Whipple clearly communicates the difficulties facing people of mixed race. She doesn't sugar-coat it and especially once Mika's grandmother Betty is added to the mix it becomes a clear theme in the book. Betty's open bigotry, which is hard to miss and is the more familiar depiction of what a racist is, is reflected by the reactions of Dylan's friends and family when they realise he and Mika are a couple. Far less 'in your face 'about their judgements as Betty, they represent the far more insidious problem of systemic racism, which is so ingrained in society that it's not as easy to spot as Betty's loudly proclaimed slurs.
Mika's reactions to these prejudices and (micro) aggressions are a mixture of teeth-gnashing resignation, hurt, and anger. Mika is a far better person than I in the way she moves past her grandmother’s horrible behaviour and words; not letting the Alzheimer’s excuse Betty's behaviour, but softening the impact, and by finding out what lies behind her grandmother's animosity and racism coming to a place of love and forgiveness. Though while Mika seems able to forgive, those around her still stand up for her, something I thought was really important and how Whipple wrote those particular scenes was quite touching.
The trouble and opposition facing interracial, and even inter-cultural, relationships is furthermore explored through the story arc of Mika’s best friend Shreya, daughter of immigrant parents from India, who have held closely to their traditions and who plan traditional futures for their children. They even go as far as disowning one of their children and shunning them when they bring home a white partner, threatening to do the same to their other children if they contact their ostracised sibling. Shreya’s fear, hurt, and inner conflict about how to proceed are heart-breaking. Shreya was perhaps my favourite character after Mika and I loved her story arc.
Of course, Fish Out of Water is not just about family, prejudices, and friendships, there is romance as well; quite an adorable one at that too. I really liked how Whipple developed the rapport between Mika and Dylan. This certainly wasn’t love at first sight and perhaps not even at thirtieth. They both have baggage and need to do some growing up, but I liked how they were real with each other from the start even if they didn’t share everything about their lives from the get go, which only made it more realistic to me. And it made the ending even sweeter. Dylan, like Mika and Shreya has an interesting development throughout the novel, one that I really enjoyed as well.
Fish Out of Water was a highly entertaining story, but one that touched on hard themes as well and did so with grace. Mika’s story shows the importance of family, by blood or by choice, and that loving them and being loved by them isn’t always easy. Fish Out of Water was my first Natalie Whipple book, but hopefully it won’t be my last.
Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May had crossed my radar a number of times in the past, but as is so often the case with long running series, I was heChristopher Fowler's Bryant and May had crossed my radar a number of times in the past, but as is so often the case with long running series, I was hesitant to start in the middle. 2015 is a year of reading dangerously (well, sort of...), so when I got the chance I jumped at reading and reviewing The Burning Man, which is the twelfth book in the series. Fortunately, the book stands on its own very well and I'm glad I took a chance, because it was just so much fun.
A crime novel obviously has to have a crime at its core and the case at the heart of The Burning Man is strange and weirdly wonderful, as Fowler pulls the wool over our eyes from the start. This was facilitated by the peculiar narrative construction, which took some getting used to. Fowler writes from shifting perspectives – not just from those of Bryant and May and their team members, but also that of the killer – interspersed with short pieces from what seems to be an omniscient narrator. As some of the switches were rather abrupt, without any typographical sign posting, this felt somewhat disorienting until I got used to Fowler's writing style. Though, to be fair this may also have been caused by the layout of my eARC, it might not be a problem in the finished copy.
But to get back to the nature of the case, I really enjoyed the mystery there. For not only is it unclear who is the murderer, it is also unclear why these victims are murdered. Any consideration of motive is also muddled by the fact that the murders take place within an almost apocalyptic atmosphere in the middle of the worst riots London has seen in decades—in fact, the riots seem to be jointly inspired by the 2011 London riots and the Occupy Movement that was active later in that same year. The riots make it unclear whether the murders are crimes of opportunity, where they were inspired by the riots, or whether the perpetrator just cleverly used the riots as a cover. It made for an interesting puzzle and I really liked how Fowler painted his scenes and the way the protesters' anger was depicted. It felt very much like social commentary on the events in the financial sector of the last half decade, not least because Arthur Bryant is vocally supportive of the protesters' cause.
The crew of the Peculiar Crimes Unit was fantastic. They’re such a mixed bunch, which is just wonderful to see. You sometimes hear that it would come off forced to have broad representation in what is essentially a limited cast, but Fowler proves it’s quite possible, with added intersectionality as well. I adored Bryant and May. They are absolutely wonderful characters. Quite eccentric and very stubborn, I loved their interaction with their team, but especially with each other. The bond between them feels so solid and genuine that the ending of the book truly tore at my heart. Bryant’s struggles with what at first just seems old age catching up with him in combination with just being Bryant, but which turns out to be far more nefarious than that. His confusion and fear at times was so tangible and I really felt for him. My other favourites were Janice and Meera. I loved their arc and their mutual support. Both Janice and Meera need to discover what they truly want out of life and whether they’re willing to give up their jobs at the unit to please their loved ones. I really liked how Fowler handled this and was cheering for both of them.
Of course outside of the crew of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, the book’s biggest protagonist is London itself; Fowler shows the city in all of its glorious, brutal, strange, mysterious, and wonderful essence and his and Bryant’s love of the city just oozes of the page. My favourite scenes were those where Bryant seemingly goes off on a historical tangent only to bring it back around to the case. As such I loved his walk with the son of one of the intended victims, where he shows him the Ripper murder sites and tells the story of the Ripper investigation and posits that we’ll never know the truth of who did it and why. It was a poignant and fascinating passage and I loved how he used it to gain the boy’s trust.
The Burning Man is a wonderfully quirky novel and while I had to get used to its style I had a complete blast with it. According to Fowler this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Bryant and May, but I’m glad to know that even if there might be only a limited number of stories left to tell, I have the eleven previous books to look forward to. Very much recommended.
Ken Liu is mostly known for his prolific output as a short story writer. He’s also an author that rarely disappoints; I’ve liked, if not loved, all ofKen Liu is mostly known for his prolific output as a short story writer. He’s also an author that rarely disappoints; I’ve liked, if not loved, all of his stories I’ve read. When Saga Press announced they’d snapped up his long-awaited novel it immediately went on my must-read list. Grace of Kings is an epic Silk Road fantasy with added -punk elements; it combines traditional Chinese story elements with a Pacific Ocean islands locale and some clever technological inventions that feel organic to the setting. In other words, once again Liu didn’t disappoint.
What immediately sets Grace of Kings apart is Liu’s writing style. Of course the story is written in his usual beautiful prose, but he adds interesting stylistic choices in the form of recognisable story-telling elements from differing oral traditions. For example, he employs the repeated descriptive terms for people or places familiar from the Classical epics that served the bards of Greece and Rome as mnemonics and also kennings as used in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Undoubtedly, Liu incorporated more of these, but those are the ones I was already familiar with. Together they create the sense that Grace of Kings falls in the tradition of the classic epic poems meant to be recited and told around the fire on a number of consecutive nights, but with far more modern attitudes to societal development. The pacing of the narrative, the location hopping and the sometimes rather abrupt exits – temporary or very much permanent – for various characters all add to this impression. The plot can seem somewhat sketchy, in the sense that there isn’t a strong, linear plot going from A to B, which might be off-putting to some readers, but which I found mesmerising.
There is so much to talk about with this book; I don’t even know where to start. Liu throws in everything and the kitchen sink at his story and somehow it doesn’t just stick, it works beautifully. First of all and perhaps most clearly, there are the intricate politics at the heart of the plot. While Kuni does fight outright battles, most of his battles are fought in the political field and through good governance. In fact, we see several forms of governance being implemented from a feudal system, to a federation of states, to a straight-out dictatorship and all of them have their pros and their cons. The philosophy of governance that Liu explores in the book is fascinating. But it’s not just serious philosophy, some of it is honestly hilarious, for example the scheme Cogo and Kuni come up with to ensure that merchants don’t cook their books and evade taxes. I also liked that one of the most successful generals in the Empire’s army wasn’t actually a military commander, but the chief tax collector and finance minister, whose managerial skills are what make him successful, not his prowess with a sword.
I also really appreciated Liu's treatment of his female characters. The main female characters, Jia, Gin, Kikomi, Mira and Risana all had agency. True, two of them sort of get fridged—I mean their fates serve to spur one of the protagonists on, but they choose their ultimate fate themselves, so perhaps they were semi-fridged? Yet all of them find strength in their own way, whether it is Kikomi who learns to wield her beauty as a weapon or Gin who wields an actual sword in battle, they all have their strengths and goals they attain. Jia, Gin, and Risana all advocate for equal opportunities for women in a proactive way, which I really enjoyed, especially how startled the men are when their suggestions actually work. Jia also has the strength to recognise that since she and Kuni can’t be together, they should have other loves and in fact there seems to be a form of polyamory in the book, especially once Kuni, Jia and Risana are all reunited. It’ll be interesting to see how this situation develops in the future, whether they can build a harmonious household with the four partners and the children or whether it becomes a power struggle between the two women to be first in Kuni’s affections.
Before I go on to Kuni, Mata and some of the other characters, I have to mention how awesome the gods of the Islands of Dara are. Liu incorporates them into the story in an active role, having them show up in the narrative itself and in little insets, where they comment on events that went before, actually taking stock and declaring wins and losses for themselves. These scenes were brilliant and often also quite funny. What I really liked about their inserting themselves into the action, was that at one point I found myself distrusting or suspecting different characters of being incarnations of the gods and being surprised when they weren’t or vice versa when someone who I hadn’t suspected was revealed to be an avatar.
Liu’s characters are wonderful and very compelling. My favourites were Kuni, Jia, Luan, Gin, and perhaps surprisingly, Marana. What I liked about these characters was that they were unexpected; whether they were unconventional in their choices, surprisingly suited to a task they were given or just rising far beyond what anyone could have foreseen, they all do things that surprise even the gods. There are also no good guys or bad guys here. While Mata perpetrates horrible atrocities – and those are never excused in any way in the narrative – we’re also shown that he doesn’t do these things because he wants to do evil, but because he wants to do what is right and honourable. Similarly, Kuni is a decent man with a compassionate heart, but circumstances force him to make horrible decisions and order his troops to perform despicable acts knowing that they are awful, but the right thing to do. The book is filled with philosophical dilemmas and none of them are easily answered.
I loved Grace of Kings. I loved the sprawling breadth and depth of the narrative. I fell in love with the characters and the Islands of Dara and I can’t wait to spend more time there. Liu brings something fresh and new through channelling classical traditions. If you love epic fantasy I can’t recommend Grace of Kings highly enough.
Margi Preus’ latest novel Enchantment Lake is a departure from her previously published books as it is a YA mystery novel and not historical fiction.Margi Preus’ latest novel Enchantment Lake is a departure from her previously published books as it is a YA mystery novel and not historical fiction. I’d read and loved her Shadow on the Mountain, a WWII novel set in Norway, so I was interested to see her take on the mystery narrative. And I wasn’t disappointed; Enchantment Lake is a fun, adventurous romp of a story, which very much evoked the atmosphere of classic YA detective novels such as The Famous Five and Nancy Drew, but updated to our own time.
The detective on roster for this story is Francie, short for Francesca. In fact, Francie isn’t actually a detective, she only played one on TV, but everyone in Enchantment Lake, Minnesota – with a little encouragement of her aunts – believes she is an actual detective and treats her accordingly. I loved this conceit, as Preus exploits it to the utmost and Francie’s eventual resignation to the situation and her giving up on trying to explain that actually no she isn’t a detective, she’s an actress was very funny. I also liked how later on in the book she utilises her ‘fake’ experience to figure out what to do next; it’s a creative twist on life imitates art that I enjoyed.
Francie is an interesting character. An orphan for all intents and purposes – her father drowned in an accident when she was in her early teens and she never knew who her mother was and whether she is still alive – she’s being raised by her grandfather, but lives on her own in New York pursuing her career as an actress. Even while trying to figure out who is behind these suspicious deaths around the lake, Francie never forgets her dream of making it as an actress, pursuing every opportunity to get an in with industry professionals. I liked her tenacity in this regard. It is a tenacity that is reflected in her investigation into the weird events in Enchantment Lake. The other thing that stood out about Francie’s character were her unresolved feelings about her parents, her grief over losing her father and the nagging conviction that his death somehow wasn’t accidental and the huge question mark that is her mother. I actually hope there will be more answers about these two mysteries in the next book, because while Francie solves the mystery behind the murders, these don’t get answered.
The murders that draw Francie back to Enchantment Lake are only one of the clues to the mystery of Enchantment Lake. Francie, drawing upon her reputation as a detective, even if unearned, quickly dives into the investigation aided by some unexpected characters. I especially loved Nels, the summer intern at the local lawyer’s office, who is not just dashingly handsome, he’s also a dab hand in a tight spot. The chemistry between Francie and Nels was lovely, though never overstated. And Francie’s great-aunts and grandfather were amazing. I loved these eccentric parental figures to Francie and the genuine love and affection between all of them was wonderful to read.
Enchantment Lake was a lovely read, with a fun heroine who has a strong, humorous voice. Preus packs a lot into this actually slim book and its pages just flew by. I really hope we’ll see more of Francie’s adventures in the future and learn more about her parents. If you like old school YA detectives then this book should be right up your alley.
When I was handed the advanced review copy for How I Lost You my first reaction was “This book is going to make me cry, isn’t it?” In fact, it didn’t.When I was handed the advanced review copy for How I Lost You my first reaction was “This book is going to make me cry, isn’t it?” In fact, it didn’t. Instead it kept me reading way past my bedtime and completely glued to its pages. How I Lost You is a gripping story, with characters it’s hard not to love.
The core of the story is Susan. She finds herself in a horrific situation, being accused of killing her infant son and not even remembering that she did so. And while initially convinced that she couldn't have done it, during her trial and her consequent incarceration, she slowly comes to believe that she did do it while in a psychotic state caused by an untreated post-natal depression. This slow, but inexorable erosion of not just her belief in her own innocence, but also her self-worth was heart-breaking. Through witnessing Susan trying to put her life back together after being released from jail, we also see how going to jail has affected her and her relationships with her loved ones. She's not just lost her son, she's lost everyone, her husband, her father, her friends and not all of them through their choice. She feels as if she's a taint on their lives, so she excises herself from them. When her dad comes to visit she refuses to see him and she mostly wants him to forget. This aspect of the narrative was fascinating to me, especially as I have lots of feelings about what we tell expectant parents to expect, but I’ll spare you the ‘it isn't all sunshine and rainbows'-rant!
Of course, Susan doesn't go it completely alone in this book. She's got a rock in the form of her former cell mate Cassie, and of course there is Nick, the journalist who joins Susan in figuring out what exactly happened four years ago and whether her son is truly still alive. I loved Cassie, she is a staunch and loyal friend and their friendship is the kind that is almost unconditional—there may be harsh words said, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about each other. Cassie also takes responsibility for her crime unflinchingly, without being flippant about it, though she’ll mock everything and everyone else. Nick was a brilliant character, I loved how we follow Susan’s narrative of who and what he is without question. While I really liked him and the chemistry between him and Susan, I found myself wondering about his motivations.
The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks, which confused me at first, but they started making sense once I figured out who Billy Shakespeare was and they made for an interesting second mystery strand. While I loved the resolution to the mystery, which ultimately links to Susan’s quest, it sometimes felt a little too much Hollywood flick; if I thought about it too deeply, it might fall apart as implausible. Then again, life is often stranger than fiction and I might be the only one who felt this way upon reading the book.
Despite my qualms about the big conspiracy at the heart of the mystery, I absolutely adored the way the book wrapped up, with both a happy ending and a realistic take at how it would look. Nothing is magically resolved; the characters are left with hope for the future, but knowing they’ll have to do a ton of work to make it truly happy. Jenny Blackhurst’s debut psychological thriller How I Lost You is a strong narrative with compelling characters and managed to surprise and delight me.
Urban Legends is the final instalment in Helen Grant’s Forbidden Spaces trilogy. When I started reading the series I was wondering how her writing wouUrban Legends is the final instalment in Helen Grant’s Forbidden Spaces trilogy. When I started reading the series I was wondering how her writing would translate to a longer series instead of the standalone stories she’d written so far. It worked quite well, with separate mysteries in each book, but a central story arc that is wrapped up in Urban Legends. Due to the nature of the series and this being the final book, spoilers for the previous books are unavoidable, so you have been warned.
In Urban Legends Veerle is back in her home town after a year in Ghent, determined to get her life back on track and retake her final year of secondary school at her old school. Veerle is changed. She’s no longer the teenager we met in Silent Saturday, she’s grown into a young woman who is no longer convinced of her own immortality and while not completely cured of her adventurous streak, she’s grown to be far more cautious. This caution doesn’t just stretch to the risks she takes physically, it also means she’s more protective of her heart. While officially still together with Bram, she knows her feelings for him aren’t as strong as his are for her and she is not sure whether she can be his girlfriend, especially since she can’t get Kris off her mind after the events of Demons of Ghent. However, she doesn’t make any split decisions, instead going back and forth on what and who she wants. Yet, when she makes her mind up early in the novel, she does so with conviction, even when things get complicated by circumstance.
In many ways Grant brings the series full-circle with Urban Legends; we’re back in the place we started, even revisiting some familiar haunts, and the murder that is hunting Veerle and Kris is eerily familiar. The Hunter seems to have returned from the dead to finish what he started in Silent Saturday, with Veerle’s adventures in Ghent in the second book being more of a side-step than a straight-on sequel to the previous book. One could even argue that Urban Legends is far more closely linked to Silent Saturday than Demons of Ghent. You can certainly read Urban Legends without having read Demons of Ghent, but not without having read Silent Saturday. Not only do we get the true answer to who killed the Koekoeken in the first book, we also learn what exactly happened all those years ago on that faithful Silent Saturday when Veerle first met Kris and they saw a murderer from the bell tower. The way Grant resolves these was ingenious and very well conceived. Veerle and Kris’ investigation was exciting and I loved the people they visit in its course, especially Mrs Willems.
The story’s circular frame is echoed in how the narrative is structured. Veerle’s point of view is interspersed with chapters showing the gatherings of these urban explorers who tell each other urban legends in the locations they explore. We start and end with urban legends and in most of them we recognise someone or something from previous books. I loved the way Grant used the concept of the urban legend and the need people have for a boogeyman. The Burnt Guy boogeyman of many of the legends told clearly connects to the Hunter and Veerle. It also mirrors how Joren Sterckx has become Veerle’s personal boogeyman and the way most people think her believing he’s out there is her reaction to trauma instead of actually true. The question of whether Veerle’s beliefs about the Hunter are delusional or whether they will be vindicated, however impossible they may seem, is at the heart of the narrative and Grant exploits it well.
Grant’s pacing in Urban Legends is impeccable; the build-up of narrative tension is gradual, but relentless, with several big spikes that left me with my heart hammering and turning on some extra lights. I loved the final scenes in Brussels’ sewer system, which were nail-bitingly scary and just a perfect ending to the series. I’m sad to have to say goodbye to Veerle and Kris, but I like the place we leave them in. If you enjoy thrillers with a touch of the supernatural and bit of a scare factor, I can’t recommend Urban Legends and its predecessors highly enough.
Last year I read a great many rave reviews for Daryl Gregory's Afterparty and We're All Completely Fine. I'd also heard Jonathan Strahan mention HarriLast year I read a great many rave reviews for Daryl Gregory's Afterparty and We're All Completely Fine. I'd also heard Jonathan Strahan mention Harrison Squared as one of his books to look forward to in the coming months, so my interested was already piqued when a review copy arrived. The story sounded really cool, even if I know almost nothing about Lovecraft’s work other than that it’s problematic (to put it mildly) and it features tentacly monsters of the Deep. And while I still don’t feel very motivated to go and read Lovecraft’s work, I enjoyed Gregory’s interpretation of it tremendously and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for his work in the future. What made Harrison Squared so great?
There were many elements that made the book a wonderful read. Firstly and most importantly, there was Harrison himself. At sixteen, Harrison is very much both a teen and an adult. In first chapter we see him both take care of his mum and be angry with her for having to do so. He’s very self-sufficient and while not quite resentful of the fact, he does sometimes chafe at the need to be that independent. As his mum is a single parent often liable to go into Absent-Minded Professor mode, or AMP-ing as Harrison calls it, he’s learned to do things for himself. Yet their mutual love, loyalty and affection is clear from the scenes they share on the page and I really loved the bond between them.
Harrison’s lost both his dad and his leg in what he thinks was a freak boating accident when he was three and Gregory incorporates both of these in an interesting way. Harrison is severely afraid of open water since losing his dad and it comes into play beautifully here, as he needs to manage his fear to be able to search for his mother. He’s also got a temper which is suggested is due to the trauma of the accident. I love how Harrison deals with his flaring temper; he takes stock of himself, analysing what his body is doing and using this as a way to control his emotions. This awareness of his body stretches further into the plot through his absent leg. The fact that Harrison has a prosthetic leg is just a natural part of who Harrison is, it is not an issue to Harrison, even if it sometimes is to others. It doesn’t limit Harrison in what he can do, but Gregory does ‘use’ elements of the consequences of missing a limb to further the plot. Not just in the way people react to him, but more importantly and more subtly through the phantom pain Harrison experiences at points throughout the book. I really liked Gregory's approach here.
Of course Harrison isn’t alone, he has a cast of supporting characters. My favourite was Lub, a young Dweller of the Deep. I loved his sense of adventure, his quirky humour and his insatiable curiosity. Also Lub discovering comics and manga was priceless. Due to his nature, Lub is of necessity a mostly secret ally, but Harrison does have a friend from school, who becomes the third in their little band: Lydia. A scion of one of Dunnsmouth’s oldest families, she is Harrison’s window into this strange community he’s found himself stranded in. Lydia is also his introduction to the Involuntaries. I loved, loved the concept of the Involuntaries and the fact that Harrison is confronted with his own assumptions about the students around him. The finger cant they use, is so cool! It reminded me of the Drasnian secret language a lot. Gregory cleverly mirrors the adults’ secret society in the Involuntaries and I loved their covert resistance.
After his mother’s disappearance Harrison’s Aunt Selena travels down to Dunnsmouth to stay with him, while the search for his mum is ongoing. Selena is fantastic, she exactly the sort of cool aunt any teen would want and her interactions with Harrison, but also with Salem, the local taxi chauffeur who drives her around the area. She’s funny and has some bite to her, but she clearly has a good heart and cares for Harrison and his mum. While the emotional focus of the book is on Harrison and his mum and his friendship with Lub and Lydia, there is also a little romance in the book, but not where you’d expect it. I really liked the romantic elements Gregory slipped in and they made me smile every time they were ‘on screen’.
The setting of the novel is bleak and very atmospheric. The little town of Dunnsmouth is completely creepy with its dreary architecture and somewhat spooky inhabitants. The local boogey man the Scrimshander was absolutely terrifying, especially when he actually turns up and his powers are fully revealed. He made for a compelling villain and a frightening one. While the narrative is filled with haunting places and spooky locations, the school was absolutely terrifying, from its labyrinthine layout, to its dreary interior, its dreadful cafeteria, to that cave-like pool room. While the story and monsters were scary, it was the setting that made it truly chilling.
The one downside to Harrison Squared is the number of questions I was left with after finishing the book. Will there more? There has to be more; I mean I have so many questions left. Will Harrison’s mum be fine? What the hell is Isabel? What have the Deep Ones and the Voluntaries unleashed? I’m really hoping Gregory is working on a sequel, because I want to know what happens next. Harrison Squared isn’t YA, despite its teen protagonists, but it is definitely suitable to teen readers though and it has much crossover potential. If you like the spooky stuff and a good old tale of mystery, then I can’t recommend Harrison Squared enough.
In the second Jamie Sinclair novel, The Kill Shot, the reader is reunited with Jamieand Barrett, but interestingly, The Kill Shot is not a straight upIn the second Jamie Sinclair novel, The Kill Shot, the reader is reunited with Jamie and Barrett, but interestingly, The Kill Shot is not a straight up crime thriller. In fact, to me Nichole Christoff's sophomore outing read more like a spy novel. I was surprised by this shift in flavour to the narrative, though the general style of the book is very much the same as its predecessor. Jamie remains a kick-ass heroine and I really enjoyed reading about her next adventure.
After The Kill List, I was looking forward to learning more about certain secondary characters from the previous novel, such as Jamie's assistant Matty. Unfortunately, other than Barrett and Senator Sinclair the secondary characters from the previous book were largely missing from The Kill Shot. Instead, Jamie is enlisted by her father and sent on a mission to London, where we get to meet an entire new set of characters. My favourite of these was Ikaat Oujdad, a young woman from an unnamed Middle Eastern country, who Jamie is supposed to help defect to the West with her father. I loved her spirit and her dreams; her joy at being able to do what she longs to do in peace and in the open, without fear of reprisal due to her gender, was lovely and was transmitted on the page very well.
Ikaat's father Armand, was interesting too, but more in his role as Ikaat's father and as a figure who reinforces how people will do anything for those they love most, than in and of himself. That sense that people will do anything for those they hold most dear, be they a child, parent, spouse, potential partner, or friend, is I think the major theme of this book. It invades all the story lines and character arcs, from Armand and Ikaat, to Jamie accepting her mission for her father's sake, on to Barrett, and the other two new characters, the State Department Courier Katie DeMarco and British Foreign Office official Philip Spencer-Dean.
While I enjoyed Katie as a character – she had a great connection with Jamie – at the same time I found her storyline the weakest, as it felt somewhat predictable. On the other hand, Philip’s arc didn’t feel predictable at all, if you leave out the inevitable triangle with Jamie and Barrett. Philip is the suave, British gentleman, almost Bond-esque in ways and he’s the one that could have been the one in Jamie’s past. The one who’s such a close friend that the risk of moving them out of the friend zone and having it fail is too painful to contemplate. While I liked the dynamics and chemistry between Jamie and Philip, I never felt as if it might truly happen, because as a reader I was already too heavily invested in Jamie/Barrett (should we call them Jarrett, is this a thing?) and additionally, I found Philip’s behaviour towards Jamie almost bordering on the creepy, as he essentially doesn’t take no for an answer and keeps pushing the issue. And while there were some testosterone displays between the two men, Barrett seems far more respectful of Jamie’s capabilities and letting her decide for herself.
If doing anything for those you love is a major theme in The Kill List, then Jamie’s arc is a direct outflow from this. The only reason she takes on this mission is to gain her father’s approval and it’s his silence she feels most when in London. Yet while we learn more about the why of Jamie’s daddy issues, we also get to see a softer side to Senator Sinclair, one that shows that the martinet has a softer heart than previously publicised. I also liked the other aspects of Jamie’s character development, mostly focusing on her inability to fully trust anyone with her feelings, including herself and her fear of becoming involved with anyone to the point that they might hurt her. But she acknowledges to herself at least that one day she might want just such an attachment and she realises she’ll need to grow to be able to do that, which I found interesting to see.
In a way, The Kill Shot is typical for an on-going crime series, it’s not so much about the cases as it is about the characters and in my opinion, Nichole Christoff writes her characters very well. I couldn’t help but root for Jamie and Barrett, but I found myself caring about Katie and Ikaat as well. There is still much for Jamie to do and learn in her road to a happy ending, with or without Barrett, and I for one look forward to reading her journey and whatever scrapes and adventures she’ll get into along the way.
Sentinel is the first book in Joshua Winning’s YA fantasy trilogy and it was the cover combined with the blurb that persuaded me to accept this one foSentinel is the first book in Joshua Winning’s YA fantasy trilogy and it was the cover combined with the blurb that persuaded me to accept this one for review. I’m glad I did as I really enjoyed Sentinel, reading it in two sittings. Nicholas makes for a sympathetic character and his story, while certainly filled with familiar tropes – orphan boy, check; grand destiny, check; magical companions, check – is enjoyable and interesting. The book isn’t flawless, but the good definitely outweighed the flaws.
My main problem with Sentinel was the lack of communication between characters. A running theme in the story is the fact that everyone is trying to protect Nicholas by not telling him what is going on, leading to massive misunderstandings, frustration, and Nicholas doing exactly what he shouldn’t, while trying to find out what is going on. Though I understood that this was a way to parse out exposition and to let Nicholas and the reader discover this hidden world together, for me it was an exercise in frustration, because I thought Sam, Jessica and the rest should just tell him what was going on already.
This limited form of exposition results in a mixed bag of world building as well. Winning actually does some interesting things with his world, but as the reader is just thrown into the deep end in the parts told from Sam’s viewpoint, the explanations for what is actually going on and who’s who that we are supposed to get through Nicholas – which come later and aren’t very complete – serve to make things feel more confused and like there is so much more that we are missing. Since Nicholas ends the book as a true Sentinel-in-training, my hope is that this problem will be resolved in the next book when Nicholas hopefully will learn more about the true nature of the Sentinels, the Trinity, and the Dark Prophets.
Yet despite those expositionary problems, the book kept me reading and drawing me on to discover what would happen next. I wanted to know more about the Sentinels and about Nicholas’ place among them. I also cared about Nicholas as well. I though Winning drew him very well, from his shocked retreat into himself after he loses his parents, to his sullen anger at the world later on, and his throwing himself into figuring out this Sentinel business to push away thinking of his parents. I really liked Nicholas and found it easy to root for him. Sam, an elderly friend of his parents and the one who arranges for Nicholas’ care, was equally sympathetic and felt as the more active character of the two. He’s the one that makes decisions and arranges things, for Nicholas and for others, of all of the characters he felt like the one with the most agency.
My favourite character, however, was Isabel. She is just so much fun and such a great foil for Nicholas. This seemingly cantankerous old woman is the only one who takes Nicholas at face value and tells him what he needs to know. I really liked her and I’m really excited to know that she’ll have a large role in the next book as well.
The plot is well-paced and leaves both Nicholas and the reader time to assimilate events and information by giving them moments of calm within the storm. Still, it also feels as if Sentinel is only the barest beginning and that the true over-arcing challenge will only become clear in the second book Ruins. As such, while Sentinel can be read as a standalone, it doesn’t form a fully satisfying story on its own.
Sentinel has its problems, but on the whole I very much enjoyed it. Winning certainly knows how to hook his reader and I look forward to discovering more about the Sentinels and their world in the next book, Ruins, which will be released in May.
After very much enjoying the first two instalments of Stripes’ Red Eye series, I was really looking forward to reading the third one, Simon Cheshire’sAfter very much enjoying the first two instalments of Stripes’ Red Eye series, I was really looking forward to reading the third one, Simon Cheshire’s Flesh and Blood. It was a fun story, well fun in a gory, scary kind of way, but one I enjoyed a lot. Set in what seems to be a small, typical suburban community under the smoke of London, Flesh and Blood tells the tale of seventeen-year-old Sam, who discovers that instead of moving to suburban paradise, his family has moved straight into the cul-de-sac from hell.
The story is told by Sam and I really enjoyed the narrative form Cheshire chose to let him tell his tale in. Sam has ambitions to be a journalist, which is what gets him into trouble in the first place, and they reflect in the way he tells his story. Told in the past tense, looking back from the ending of the story, Sam sometimes sounds as if he is writing a personal essay for English class and at other times his style is a bit more mature and polished. He also editorialises, commenting on his actions and planting clues as to what is coming up. I really enjoyed the way Cheshire built up the narration and I kept wondering who Sam was writing this piece for, the revelation of which was a great twist.
As a protagonist Sam is sympathetic. He’s a good kid, good grades, well-behaved, mostly suffering the usual teenage woes with his parents until they move to Hadlington and everything changes. There is the usual new kid at school stress, compounded by the discovery of a murder victim right in front of the school gates on his first day. But there is also some of the fun of starting anew, such as discovering new friends. He quickly becomes friends with Liam and Jo and I loved the dynamics of this threesome. The scene where Liam introduces Sam to Jo and they discover their mutual nerdiness was adorable. Yet however important Liam and Jo and Emma Greenhill are, none of them becomes as vivid and well-rounded as Sam is.
The horror elements of Flesh and Blood go beyond the gore factor; the setup of the town with the estate at the periphery and the constant stressing of the fact that there is gang activity there make Elton Gardens seem somewhat ominous. Yet the pervasive hold the Greenhills have on the community is far scarier as it created a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia, as it seems as if everyone is watching Sam and reporting back to the Greenhills. All of these elements fuel Sam’s own considerable self-doubt, no one doubts Sam’s theory about the Greenhills as much as Sam himself does. Watching Sam investigate the matter and the slow build up of clues and evidence was fascinating. The inexorableness of the investigation’s results and the rising panic that suffuse the latter part of the book were well done, though the ending broke the tension rather brusquely. While the ending was very well executed, I actually didn’t like how the book concluded. It felt as if it came to a crashing halt, since the last third or so of the book drives the tension constantly higher, so that when the resolution appears it feels rather abrupt.
Despite my quibbles with its ending, I enjoyed Simon Cheshire’s Flesh and Blood. If you like your horror gory and tense and you heroes earnest and straightforward, then you should definitely pick this up. Note however that the book carries a warning about its suitability for younger YA readers and in this case I think that’s a valid warning, so parents might want to read along with their younger children.
The Raven’s Head is Karen Maitland's latest historical novel, one that I'd been very much looking forward to reading. I have enjoyed Maitland's writinThe Raven’s Head is Karen Maitland's latest historical novel, one that I'd been very much looking forward to reading. I have enjoyed Maitland's writing on The History Girls blog and have wanted to read her work since reading reviews for Company of Liars. Earlier this week I read her previous novel The Vanishing Witch, which I really enjoyed, and I was interested to see how much of the unique style of that book was particular to that story and how much was part of Maitland’s authorial voice. Based on the sample I've read so far (n=2) Maitland definitely has a distinctive and consistent writing style, one that really suits my reading tastes.
The Raven's Head is a thriller set in the early thirteenth century, partially in France, but mainly in England. The narrative features multiple points of view and is told in both the past and the present tense. I really enjoyed these interwoven narrative modes and I found the way they developed the characters and my response to them quite interesting. For example, Vincent – one of the main characters and one of the three primary viewpoints – tells his story in the first person, but in the past tense. This created a bit of a remove for me unconsciously, as it was obvious that Vincent would survive whatever danger he encountered in the novel, which made my worry for him less immediate. Additionally, Vincent was a bit of smug git, particularly early on, which meant it took me a while to warm up to him.
In contrast, the other viewpoints are told in third-person present tense and they felt far more immediate, especially since Maitland never hesitates in killing off characters. I found the juxtapositions between viewpoint and tense interesting, since present tense is far more often used paired with a first person narrator instead of a third and you’d expect to feel closer to a first person narrator than a third person viewpoint, but it certainly didn’t work that way here.
Though I took a while to warm up to Vincent, he certainly grew on me, even if he never becomes a saint. Vincent is very much a flawed human being, one who does what he has to in order to survive – lie, cheat, steal, and more – but one with an uncanny grasp of human nature and an ability to zone in on those who are vulnerable to his brand of trickery. His understanding of the power of stories, the need to tell tales to explain things away and the power of gossip coupled with the callous willingness to create rumours he can then solve for his clients, is powerful, but also land him in trouble more often than not. Vincent takes care of Vincent, unlike Gisa who has a huge heart and wants to do right by everyone. I liked Gisa a lot, though she lacked agency a little until she discovers one of the Abbey boys in distress and decides to save him. In many ways the boys at the Abbey were my favourite characters in the book. Maitland writes them very well and Regulus is just lovely; I absolutely loved the bond that developed between him and Felix. I thought the way the boys’ views of events at the abbey both served to explain some of the mysteries in the book and deepen the horror and pathos was wonderful. A word of warning though, children’s deaths play a prominent role in the book. It’s never graphic, but it is there and I know that I find children dying harder to swallow since becoming a mum, so just be aware they are there.
As always in Maitland’s books the supernatural plays a large role in the narrative. In The Raven’s Head it appears in the form of alchemy. What makes alchemy so fascinating to me is the curious mix between superstition and science. Alchemists applied scientific principles to what was – and is – considered magic at best and witchcraft at worst. Apart from the alchemy and the otherworldly things that accompanied it, the most overt and unexplained supernatural entity in the book is the titular raven’s head, which Vincent names Lugh. Mysterious, creepy, and curiously nebulous in its nature, I kept oscillating between thinking it a benign talisman or a cursed idol; a question that is never completely resolved, as once again there is a more than a modicum of unreliability to the narrative, though far less so than in The Vanishing Witch.
I loved The Raven's Head, perhaps even more than I did The Vanishing Witch. It’s a bit quicker paced and has a wonderful narrative structure. Maitland creates a vivid world rich in small details, such as the implicit competition between the apothecary and the village doctor and the cleverness of Master Gaspard’s ink recipe. However, Maitland seemingly doesn’t do ‘happily ever after’ conclusions to her tales. While The Raven’s Head ending is not truly an unhappy one, it certainly ends on an ominous note. It’s a brilliant ending, but one that left me worried about what will befall our protagonists from here on out. Those with a hankering for a gripping, early medieval tale should definitely pick up Karen Maitland's The Raven's Head.
I’ve wanted to read Karen Maitland’s work for years, ever since I read reviews for Company of Liars,but as often happens in a reviewer’s life, IneverI’ve wanted to read Karen Maitland’s work for years, ever since I read reviews for Company of Liars, but as often happens in a reviewer’s life, I never got to it. This made me doubly excited when this ARC for The Vanishing Witch appeared in my mailbox, but it was a big book – 688 pages in my proof copy – and it languished on my To Be Read pile. Now with the paperback for The Vanishing Witch out tomorrow, not to mention Maitland’s latest The Raven’s Head, this seemed a good time to read it. It was a wonderful read, super atmospheric and very much what I expected Maitland’s writing to be based of what I’ve read of her non-fiction articles on The History Girls.
Set in Lincoln around the time of the Peasant’s Revolt, The Vanishing Witch is an interesting story of love, lust, riches and intrigue seasoned with some supernatural elements. Maitland uses an interesting narrative structure, switching points of view between a number of characters and an omniscient narrator who sometimes interjects passages at the beginning of a chapter. It is only this unidentified narrator and the two female points of view who are written in the first person, the other (male) viewpoints are written in the third person. This not only allows her to show us all angles of the story, the reader is also presented with the mystery of the narrator’s identity and lets her introduce some uncertainty in the form of two unreliable narrators.
Even if the book is titled The Vanishing Witch Maitland never comes right out and confirms or denies whether there truly is witchcraft in the book or whether it is all done with the power of suggestion. I thought this was masterfully done and I enjoyed puzzling over it. There is certainly a sense of the supernatural to the narrative due to the unidentified narrator being a ghost, yet the magic in the book could theoretically all be reasoned away with more mundane explanations. Maitland manages to keep the possible identity of the titular witch nebulous too, leaving the reader to decide whether the women in the book are all or none of them witches.
At the heart of The Vanishing Witch is the family of Robert of Bassingham. His infatuation and eventual marriage to the Widow Catlin sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to heartbreak, death and grief for his entire family. While Robert isn't a bad man in essence, he lets himself be blinded by Catlin and go through what is essentially a mid-life crisis. He was a sympathetic character, but also very frustrating. His sons Jan and Adam as far more easily likeable and I enjoyed the way Maitland developed them, especially Adam. My favourite members of the original Bassingham household, however, were the servants Beata and Tenney. Through their long service with the family there seems to be a strong sense of loyalty and belonging on their part, which was echoed in Adam's trust in Beata. On the other hand, Maitland takes care to show the huge gap that existed between merchants such as Robert, people in positions of what we’d call middle management such as the overseer Fulk, and the regular workers like the boatmen, who while freemen are subject to the whim of their masters, demonstrating that the class system was already deeply ingrained in society and had already created fertile ground for the poll tax that seeded the Peasants' Revolt.
The new additions to Robert's family, Catlin and her children Edward and Leonia are simultaneously cast as victims and villains depending on whose point of view we're in. Robert only sees the good in them, at least in Catlin and Leonia, while Jan, Beata, and Adam are deeply distrustful of them. Maitland skilfully employs Catlin's point of view to keep the reader in suspense as to her true intentions, only revealing Catlin's full hand late in the game. The character in the book I found most disturbing was Leonia. Ostensibly a beautiful, innocent young girl on the cusp of womanhood, she has many secrets and is far more cunning than any fourteen-year-old should be and her treatment of Adam and Robert was quite creepy at times.
While the main story deals with Catlin and Robert, I found the chapters dealing with the boatman Gunter and his family very compelling and I really felt for Gunter. Here is a man who tries to do everything right, to care for his family and be a decent human being and he’s being worked over by the system left, right, and centre. It was his tale that made the reasons for the Peasants’ Revolt tangible and immediate. The poll tax and the way the commissioners double-checking the entrants abused their positions, especially as regards the young girls in a household, felt so unfair and made people so powerless, it is hard to see how they couldn’t have risen again the ruling class. The Peasants' Revolt is a fascinating event in English history and it made a wonderful backdrop for Maitland's story, interweaving the supernatural and historic, letting the latter serve as plausible explanations for what would otherwise have to be designated witchcraft.
The Vanishing Witch is set in a fascinating era and Karen Maitland tells a fabulous story. I really enjoyed The Vanishing Witch; it offered drama, pathos, and more than a hint of mystery. If you like the intersection between historical fiction and the supernatural, this is a story you definitely shouldn’t miss.
Sarah Pinborough is not only one of the more prolific British SFF writers, she’s also a very varied writer who switches between sub-genres with remarkSarah Pinborough is not only one of the more prolific British SFF writers, she’s also a very varied writer who switches between sub-genres with remarkable ease. Fantasy, racy fairytale retellings, science fiction, YA, she writes it all. When I heard about The Death House I was immediately intrigued. A dystopian YA story set at a boarding school from which no student ever graduates, it sounded but creepy and fascinating. Because why are they there and what is this disease that condemns them to be inmates of The Death House? Pinborough gives us some of the answers, but mostly she delivers an exquisite exploration of life and love in the face of death.
The book is set at a country manor that serves as a combination of boarding school and hospice for teens who have tested positive for the genetic markers indicating a mysterious illness. Once tested positive, they are taken away from their families and kept at the House until death. The House’s location remains undisclosed and none of its inmates know where they are exactly. Add in the fact that they are cut off from contact with the outside world, no internet, no telephones, no contact at all and what is already a scary situation, becomes even more oppressive, both for the characters and the reader. In a way, the House becomes a character too, with its nighttime noises, its loud elevator that is always an ominous sign for someone, and its many empty spaces.
The book’s main character and narrator is Toby. At seventeen, he’s one of the older boys at the House and one of its senior residents left. He’s the leader of his dorm, by dint of age and the length of his stay and the boys of Dorm Four look to him for guidance and reassurance. I loved how Toby looked after his dorm-mates, even if he doesn’t particularly like all of them. Especially his care for Will and Louis was touching and his worry for them when disaster strikes, forcing Toby to take some really hard decisions, completely broke my heart. Toby’s grim existence is lightened by the arrival of Clara at the house. At first resentful of this new intruder into his peaceful nights roaming the House, he quickly falls under the spell of her vibrant personality and soon after falls in love. Pinborough develops this relationship beautifully, letting them explore love and each other to the fullest. Yet for the reader it is a bittersweet love, since there is definitely an expiration date on their romance; they haven’t been brought to Death House for nothing after all.
The group dynamics within the House are fascinating and well-explored. In this microcosm of a society there is still a struggle for supremacy in the hierarchy. It is visible in the way Toby squares off to Jake, the oldest boy of Dorm Seven and in the way they ‘keep score’ on which dorms are still complete and who have had more people disappear into the sanatorium. In a way it is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, especially given the isolated nature of the House. Pinborough acknowledges this with a wink, with Toby being set Golding’s book as a reading exercise in class. This pack mentality is only displayed more clearly when new inmates arrive at the House. The resentment at these ‘interlopers’ and their subsequent quick assimilation into the pecking order was fascinating to witness.
My one complaint with the book would be that there is so much we never learn. I would have loved to have learned more about the how and the why of the Death House? What is this disease they’ve tested positive for? What does it do? Why does it necessitate isolating these kids to the degree they are? But Toby and the rest don’t know, so the reader doesn’t know. On the other hand, it is this uncertainty – the unknowable future and the fear of any and all possible sniffle signalling the onset of the end – that lends The Death House its sense of dread and foreboding. No one is safe and despite all of them having a death sentence hanging over them, none of them want to be the next to be taken to the sanatorium. Even in a place where no one will get out alive, there are many secrets.
The Death House is a powerful character study, showing teens put in an untenable situation and still finding things to live for in each other and themselves. Toby faces love, life, and death with an unflinching regard and a brutal honesty. Pinborough ends Toby’s tale in a spectacular fashion, that left me shattered and sad, but also strangely hopeful. The Death House is a gorgeous book and if you haven’t yet, you should definitely read it.
Those Above had to have been one of my most anticipated reads for not just the first six months of 2015, but for the entire year. Daniel Polansky's prThose Above had to have been one of my most anticipated reads for not just the first six months of 2015, but for the entire year. Daniel Polansky's previous trilogy, Low Town, was just amazingly good and its ending just floored me, and I mean flat-out, ugly-crying floored me. So to see where he would go next was very exciting. It also made it hard for Polansky to live up to my expectations, because the bar was set high. But he delivered the goods and he did so in style. Those Above was amazing.
Set on a world where humanity is governed by a race of long-lived, exceptionally beautiful people, who have put us under their heel and do not intend to let us up out of the mud, Those Above mainly focusses on two locations. One is The Roost, the city where the long-lived ones, generally called Those Above, reside and the other is the capital of Aeleria, a Romanesque Empire, which is heading for open conflict with Those Above at breakneck speed. We see some of the other territories in the human lands, but only as it pertains to our Aelerian characters. I really liked these locations and the way Polansky goes about setting them up, especially The Roost. Aeleria is mostly interesting for its politics and society, but The Roost is interesting for its physicality.
The Roost is literally a mountain in the middle of the continent. Those Above reside at its top in a place that is described by its residents as heavenly. Yet when you travel down the mountain from what is known as the First Rung, you travel through different societal strata of human servants to Those Above, until you arrive at the Fifth Rung, which comprise the worst of the slums, much of the criminal element of The Roost, and the docks that are the gateway of all goods arriving in the city. It is here that we see the cost of the perfection Those Above in the First Rung enjoy. The inhabitants of the Fifth Rung are constantly surrounded by the noise of the suck, the system of pipes that pumps water to the top of the Roost. There is a large net of waterways that covers the Roost, but only Those Above are allowed to use them, so everyone else is forced to trudge up and down and around the mountain to get anywhere. The Roost is the physical representation of the stranglehold Those Above have on the humans in the surrounding lands. People, Those Below and the people living in the lands that are part of the dominion of Those Above, are terrified of them as they are ruthless and very skilled warriors.
Polansky tells his tale through four different viewpoints. They provide a wide scope; there are two male and two female viewpoints, two are located in the Roost and two are Aelerian. We have Aelarian matriarch Eudokia, Aelerian general Bas, First Rung servant to one of the most prominent members of the Roost, Calla, and Fifth Rung street rat Thistle. They’re all fascinating characters, but I admit that I'm mostly smitten with Eudokia. I just loved her conviction and her ruthless manipulations of the great game of politics in Aeleria. She’s always three steps ahead of everyone and rightfully a bit smug about that. Her’s is a tale of revenge and the desire to avenge her losses, of her husband and the future she’d imagined, upon Those Above. Bas is an Aelerian war hero because of the previous war against the masters of the Roost and while he isn’t afraid to fight them, he isn’t raring to go off to battle either. I liked his gruff, world-weary acceptance of his fate and his full expectation to die in his harness so to speak. He shines in his interactions with his men, however, and I really liked his officers, especially Hamilcar. A Dycian, a survivor of the war that made his nation a part of the Aelerian Empire, he has sworn allegiance to Bas, but is still somewhat of a loose cannon, genius, but unpredictable. I loved his raucous humour and his quick wit.
Hamilcar is also one of a number of PoC explicitly identified as such, which I liked. Polansky creates a diverse cast of characters, with the majority being of a darker complexion than the standard Northern European we often get in epic fantasy. In fact, the only main character that is clearly labeled as blond and blue-eyed is Calla, High Servant to the Aubade, one of the most prominent members of Those Above. Calla is also the one whose privilege is explicitly challenged and who has to come to grips with the fact that she is actually greatly privileged and that the world is a far darker place than she had ever imagined. Her mirror is Thistle, our last viewpoint. He lives on the Fifth Rung and it is through him we see how awful and alien Those Above truly are. While I love Eudokia and Hamilcar, Thistle and Calla’s story arcs are perhaps the more powerful and this made them quite compelling as characters as well.
I absolutely loved Those Above. Polansky created a cracking story; one that at times moves – a tad too – slowly and builds up the politics brilliantly, before unexpectedly moving into brutal action. But not only did he create a great story and wonderful characters, Polansky does so in a style and prose that is incredibly well-crafted. Polansky is a skilled word smith and, in my opinion, one of the most underrated authors currently active in the field. Those Above is a brilliant start to the Empty Throne duology and I can't wait to read its conclusion. I devoured Those Above and I wouldn't be surprised to find it high on the list of favourites at the end of the year.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise wasone of my anticipated reads for the first halfof 2015. The concept of the speculative elements in the form oSilvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise was one of my anticipated reads for the first half of 2015. The concept of the speculative elements in the form of magic fuelled by music was cool and the setting, both temporal and physical, were intriguing. The Eighties was an interesting time in history and though we often mock the stylistic choices of Eighties music stars, it’s undeniable that they also produced some fantastic classics. I was completely unfamiliar with Mexico City and true Mexican culture only having seen the Hollywood representations of both on TV and I doubt these are completely accurate. So I was interested to learn more about both through Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel. And while I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the novel and much of the story after finishing it I was largely left with a bit of a meh feeling. I wanted to love this novel so much more than I did and it’s hard to pinpoint why I didn’t. I just didn’t connect to it very strongly and I spent just as much time being annoyed with Meche, the main character, as I did rooting for her.
Meche is a complicated character. We meet her both as a teen with a troubled home life and as a grown-up woman who has escaped her less-than-happy youth and has made a life for herself on the other side of the world far away from her family. I found Meche-the-adult easier to relate to than Meche-the-teen, though as an adult she still has the rough traits that make her less than sympathetic as a teen. Given her situation at home, with a demanding and distant mother and a father who Meche worships, but who finds himself disillusioned with the life he’s found himself living, it’s no surprise that Meche is a less-than-happy teen, yet there is a darkness and ruthlessness to Meche that I found hard to swallow. The way she treats her best (and only) friends is painful to see and I just wanted to shake her out of it. In fact, I liked Sebastian and Daniela far better than I did Meche, which was unfortunate since Meche is the main viewpoint character.
However ambivalent I felt about Meche though, she did feel like a very honest portrayal of what it means to be a teen girl and I found Moreno-Garcia’s depiction of teens and their inner life very real. The awkward tension between Meche and Sebos’ close, comfortable friendship and the possibility of that friendship developing into more was exquisitely drawn. I loved how both of them wrestle with the question if they even want it to become more and that it is Sebastian who is so certain of his feelings. They also show that those we love best are also the ones we can hurt the most. I liked how Moreno-Garcia moved the resolution for this situation from the past to the present timeline and had Meche not only come to terms with her unresolved feelings for Sebastian, but also make peace with Daniela and sort out her issues with her parents and her father in particular.
All of this is set against the backdrop of Mexico City, which paradoxically didn’t feel like one of the biggest, most-densely populated cities of the world, but felt like a busy, mid-sized town, with a strong sense of community. I also liked the different liturgical traditions. I’m familiar with Catholic services here in the Netherlands, yet I’d never heard of the tradition of saying novenas for the departed. I’m used to a wake and a mass and that’s it. Also, the food! Signal to Noise has lots of food in it and it all sounds delicious. It’s weird, because I usually don’t notice food that much in books, but in this case I did, perhaps more than warranted. I wonder whether that was because it was set in a (culinary) culture I’m largely unfamiliar with or because I was just hungry when reading it or due to other reasons.
Signal to Noise is filled with music; Meche’s father is a radio DJ and is working on a book about music history, Meche is just about fused to her headphones, and of course music is the main source of magic in the book. I’m a child of the 90s, so in my student days we had tons of bad Eighties-themed parties and I was familiar with much of the English-language songs, though the Spanish-language bands were unfamiliar. Luckily Moreno-Garcia created a playlist of the most important songs in the book so even those unfamiliar with any of them could get a feel for the music. I loved the love of music that Meche exuded and the bond this provides between her father and her. I also liked that the music the trio use to create magic often reflects not just the stated desire they put into the spell, but also the true intent in their hearts. I also enjoyed that the book’s magic is never a truly neutral force, there always seems to be a malign edge to it.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel Signal to Noise is one that left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was a bit disappointed with the book, because I’d wanted to love it so much and I didn’t, not as much as I wanted. Yet on the other hand, I was quite entertained by the book, enough so that I’ve managed to write over a thousand words of review on it, which is on the long side even for me. Signal to Noise is a very well-written, literary fantasy dealing with growing up and forgiving others for not being who we want or need them to be. While the book didn’t work for me one hundred percent, I think that for those who do connect strongly to Meche this will be a killer read and I’m certainly glad to have read it.
A new Neil Gaiman book or collection is usually greeted by lots of cheers of readers all over the world. When his third short story collection was annA new Neil Gaiman book or collection is usually greeted by lots of cheers of readers all over the world. When his third short story collection was announced, this was readily apparent all over the internet. And then the title was announced and things got a little less cheery. Gaiman decided to title his collection Trigger Warning: short fiction and disturbances. For various reasons people were unhappy about this. The announcement came at a time when mainstream discussion on trigger warnings and whether to include them on prescribed reading lists at universities and colleges was turning heated and the discussion was quickly co-opted by the 'feminism is ruining everything'-crowd. In his introduction to his collection Gaiman explains that he was fascinated by the phenomenon of trigger warnings in an academic environment and his thoughts on the subject led him to decide to slap some trigger warnings on his own fiction before someone else did.
In a piece for SciFi Now Kameron Hurley reacts to the title and this introduction, explaining why she feels the choice for this title is irresponsible, and she puts into words a reaction that ran across many online spaces when the title was announced. I'd also like to point you to this review by Mavesh Murad on tor.com, not just for the well-written review itself, but for the comments as well, which encapsulate many of the arguments and are quite respectful and friendly compared to the awful, vitriolic comments below the SciFi Now article. If I hadn't been interested in reading this collection of previously published stories before this discussion broke loose, I was after, because I was interested to see Gaiman's take on the matter and to see whether people had cried foul too quickly. Unfortunately, I think the masses were right, in that to me it felt as if Gaiman underestimates how awful experience being triggered can be for those who suffer from PTSD, even if he doesn't make light of the phenomenon. In my opinion, Trigger Warning was a poor title choice, one that detracts and distracts from the stories held within the collection's covers.
Because those stories? They were a solid collection. Not all of them worked as well for me and I’m notable for my under-appreciation of most poetry, so the poems didn't strongly resonate with me either, but there were some gems in this book. There were three stories that just didn’t work for me. The first, Orange, had a format that I found hard to parse – it was just the answers to an interview, no questions – which left me more removed from the story than drawn in. The story Feminine Endings just creeped me the hell out. The premise was intriguing, but I found the stalkerish behaviour of the narrator unpalatable. Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairytale was a reworking of Diamonds and Toads, which is closely linked to one of my favourite childhood fairytales Frau Holle, and the ending just fell flat for me. This is exactly the kind of story I normally love, but I just didn’t in this case, which surprised me.
That wasn’t the only surprise of the collection, however, as I was completely charmed by Nothing O’Clock. That’s quite odd, since I actually don’t care about Dr Who at all – I just don’t get it – so to read a Dr Who story that made me consider that I might actually enjoy reading Dr Who tie-in fiction was unexpected. A story I had expected to enjoy as I’d read and loved it before was The Sleeper and the Spindle, a Sleeping Beauty/Snow White mashup that blends the two tales and sets Snow up for a totally different happy-ever-after. The Case of Death and Honey was a fantastic Sherlock Holmes tale that has Holmes go up against death itself. Told alternatingly by Holmes and an old Chinese apiarist called Gao, it’s an interesting look at the fear of mortality. Click-Clack the Rattlebag is a really creepy story, but creepy in a good, shiver-inducing way. My favourite story of the bunch though was Black Dog. A story set in the American Gods universe and dealing with Shadow’s stay, this story made me want to pick up my copy of American Gods post-haste and finally read it.
Overall, Trigger Warning was a solid collection despite its unfortunate title. I do suspect I like Gaiman more when he writes long form than when he writes short stories, as I enjoyed his novels I’ve read far more than his short fiction. Still, Gaiman fans will want to read this for the Black Dog story alone and for those new to his work, this is certainly a great introduction to his work.
I don’t know that much about New Zealand, other than it’s where the Lord of the Rings was filmed, there was a huge earthquake a few years ago and it’sI don’t know that much about New Zealand, other than it’s where the Lord of the Rings was filmed, there was a huge earthquake a few years ago and it’s where the kiwi bird is from. Oh and they have a lot of sheep. So when the author approached me about reviewing her collection of historical short stories set there, I was interested at once. Additionally, while I’ve been reading more SFF short fiction, I’d never yet read any historical short fiction, so I was interested to see whether short fiction in that vein would work for me.
The Settling Earth is an interesting collection. It is a slim book; the stories are short, but still tell a greater story by virtue of being interconnected. As such, the verdict on whether historical short fiction works for me is still out, as while these are short stories, which can standalone, once read in a collections they don’t actually feel as truly separate stories.
Some of the stories are heartbreaking, as we see several women put in untenable positions, due to their station in society. Also, the white man does not come off well in these stories. The main ones featured being either racist, abusive, self-centred, controlling, or a combination of any of the above. The Settling Earth offers a stark look at the reality of life as a settler wife or a woman on her own. The collection also shows the impact the settlers have on their surroundings. The collection offers a welcome added viewpoint from a Maori perspective in the story written by Shelly Davies, a writer of Maori descent, which I loved. Her male main character is by no means a saint, but his view of the people who have invaded his land is revealing of their nature and I love the active hand he takes in resolving the awful situation of some of them.
These ten stories form an interesting collection looking at nineteenth century life in a land we don’t hear enough about here in the Northern hemisphere. With The Settling Earth Rebecca Burns shows us a side of New Zealand we usually don’t see, looking beyond the green hills and the sheep. If you are at all interested in learning more about the settler experience in New Zealand, both for those who came to settle and those who were already there, The Settling Earth is a good place to start.