10 December 2017

Review - The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

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

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

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

And it only gets worse from then on...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 December 2017

Review - The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 December 2017

Review - The Things We Learn When We're Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her brother.

A holiday the family took just before things went wrong.

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

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

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

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

3 December 2017

Blogtour review - White Out by Ragnar Jónasson

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

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

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

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

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

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

What really happened to the rest of her family?

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

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

Ragnar Jónasson
Why did Ásta return?

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

What is Thora hinting she knows?

But above all, are those deaths all linked?

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

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

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

1 December 2017

Blogtour - Know Me Now by CJ Carver - Giveaway!

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

Just look:


A thirteen-year-old boy commits suicide.

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

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

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

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

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

'A top notch thriller writer' SIMON KERNICK

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

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

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

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

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