The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 19/09/2017

Natasha Pulley burst onto the fantasy scene last year with her stunning debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. This slightly steampunk tale of Victorian London was full of charm and whimsy but also beautifully observed, historically fascinating and populated with interesting characters. Now she follows this up with The Bedlam Stacks, and while one character from Filigree Street, at least, makes a brief appearance, no familiarity with that book is required. In fact The Bedlam Stacks, while in some ways initially resembling its predecessor and  a kind of prequel to it, turns out to be a very different beast. It is the 1850s and the East India Company is desperately trying to find a reliable source of quinine to treat malaria. The Peruvians have a monopoly on the cinchona tree, the bark of which is used to produce quinine. Numerous expeditions to the Peruvian interior have failed to bring back viable cuttings of the plant. The company approaches Merrick Tremayne to lead an expedition into the Peruvian interior. Tremayne is a former employee injured in the opium trade and has family connections to Peru through both his father and grandfather. He is to be accompanied by his old naval colleague…

The Truants by Lee Markham
Fantasy , Review / 05/09/2017

Vampires are back on the streets of London in Lee Markham’s visceral debut The Truants. Just when you thought the vampire mythology could not take another go round, Markham takes this corner of the horror genre and gives is a shake. His stated aim is to create some discomfort for readers and he succeeds.  On a bench facing east the old one waits to die. A long-lived vampire, the old one has decided to end his life by facing the sun. But before he can complete the ritual he is attacked by a street kid after money. The kid stabs him and then escapes with a broken arm but the damage has been done. The knife that is carried away is somehow infused with the spirit of the dying vampire and every person it touches absorbs that spirit. The first two of these are a two year old boy and a ten year old school boy. From there all hell, literally, breaks out.  Markham has crafted a vampire tale for modern times. His vampires are dispossessed of the streets and the tower blocks of London. The baby that the old one possesses early on is living in squalor in a drug dealer’s squat so that it is almost a relief when he is given some agency even with…

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Stephenson and Galland

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O is the new hefty tome from the pen of Neal Stephenson. But this is not a tech or maths heavy read like Seveneves or Anathem. This time he has brought along fellow author Nicole Gallard who manages to considerably lighten the tone. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O can best be described as a romp. It is science fiction that never takes itself all that seriously. Even the acronym provides a cute running gag in the early part of the book. In 1851, witchcraft died in the world. In the present day, a group of American military scientists are trying to bring it back using quantum theory. When they manage to do so, they use witchcraft to send their operatives back in time and manipulate history. And then their problems really begin. D.O.D.O is narrated in a documentary style. Much of it is the memoir of Melisande Stokes, one of the early operatives of the organisation, stuck in 1851 as witchcraft is dying and writing for future prosperity. But there are also plenty of other diary entries, emails, memos and letters and even an ancient Viking Saga entitled “The Lay of Walmart”. There is…

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott
Fantasy , Review / 15/08/2017

The English fantasy resurgence continues with the delightful and strange Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott. A debut which joins the likes of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), Tim Clare (The Honours) and Padriac O’Donell (The Maker of Swans), as another uniquely and intrinsically English take on the genre without resorting to the tired or the Tolkienesque. Rotherweird is a town out of time. Administratively cut off from the rest of England during Elizabethan times to hide a terrible and dangerous secret. The school’s history master disappears after illegally investigating pre-1800 Rotherweird history and strange forces are starting to rise again. The action is precipitated by the arrival of two new ‘outsiders’ to town. Jeremiah Oblong, the new modern history master, a typical English fop in the mould of Arthur Dent, and Veronal Slickstone, wealthy new owner of The Manor. They are surrounded by a colourful bunch of Dickensian characters with names like Orelia Roc, Vixen Valourhand and Sidney Snorkel. The first half of Rotherweird is a delight. Not only doling out small hints of its fantasy setting but also full of comedic set pieces based on Rotherweirdian traditions including the annual coracle race down the river Rother where contestants…

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 03/08/2017

Another day, another apocalypse. In Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, England has been hit with some unspecified catastrophe that involves rising flood waters. The usual post-apocalyptic actions take place: people are evacuated, the military comes out, borders and checkpoints are established. In amongst all of this, the unnamed narrator has her first child, Z, and the story follows Z’s first few years of life in post-disaster Britain.  Megan Hunter’s prose is spare to the point of almost being poetry. Short sentences in short paragraphs, interspersed with quotes. None of the characters have names. This gives a point of difference to a story that has now been told a few too many times. All of the clichés are there – the refugee camps, nasty roadside border guards, saviours with a boat, a short time of salvation on a remote island – but in a poetic form that makes it, to a minor extent, feel new.  The focus of the book is Z’s first few years of life. While growing up in the middle of a crisis, the narrator’s relationship with her son and her observations might well have just been happening in any daycare centre. Z smiles, Z learns how to eat solids,…

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
Review , Science Fiction / 28/07/2017

Lavie Tidhar, an Israeli-born author living in London, has won acclaim and more than one award for his fantasy novels. Central Station, his latest novel, is straight down the line science fiction and was shortlisted for the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award. Central Station explores the lives of a group of connect characters who live in and around a launch pad for intersolar travel in the middle of a future Tel Aviv. The front of the novel has a map of the area but the action never strays far from the base or the insides of the Station itself. The story opens with Miriam “Mama” Jones who runs the local shebeen and her adopted vat-grown son Kranki, who come to wait for the passengers of the ships that dock at the Station. When an old lover and friend, Boris Chong, returns to Earth to see his dying father a chain of events is kicked off which reveals a little more about their world. Despite the setting being constrained to the world just around the Station, Tidhar manages to use this as an entrée to a much broader universe that includes settlements on Mars and throughout the solar system. This includes,…

My Name is Nobody by Matthew Richardson
Review , Thriller / 07/07/2017

There comes a point in every fictional spy’s life when they have to go off the reservation. Where their organisation has disavowed all knowledge of them and they need to work outside the system to uncover a mole or other rodent within their organisation. For Solomon Vine, the opportunity to do this comes around page 10 after he is accused of shooting Ahmed Yousef,  suspected terrorist mastermind minutes after he reveals to Vine that he has a secret “that changes everything” and that he will have to be set free. Fast forward a few months and Vine is suspended and facing being drummed out of the Service for his supposed involvement in the shooting. He is brought in ‘unofficially’ by his old handler when his colleague and sometime rival Gabriel Wilde, who was also there the day Yousef was shot, is kidnapped. Something is fishy and it revolves around a potential mole in the organisation only known as “Nobody”. The identity of Nobody is the secret which Yousef was shot for and he is still alive, in a coma in a London hospital. My Name is Nobody is perfect fodder for fans of espionage TV shows like Spooks. Solomon Vine…

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

The first book of Ian McDonald’s Luna series, New Moon, started slowly but ended with a bang, an all-out attack on one of the five families that control the Moon. After this, readers might have expected McDonald to rest a little on his laurels, calm the pace down, and perhaps slowly build to another climax. But Wolf Moon is not that book. Early on is another massive destructive/action scene which blows any supposed status quo out of the water. And from that point things only get more intense with numerous pay-offs, twists and developments. As the reader keeps being reminded – there are a thousand ways to die on the moon – and McDonald seems intent on exploring all of them. McDonald’s Luna continues to be a masterful piece of world building while being respectful of his fictional predecessors there – particularly Robert Heinlein. Luna is a frontier, an “economic colony” where pretty much anything goes so long as the resources keep flowing. McDonald’s developing world sensibility continues to shine through the polyglot influence on Lunar culture of the five families who controlled those resources – Brazilian, Ghanaian, Russian, Chinese and Australian. McDonald explores this milieu through a large cast…

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter, explores the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine and the impact on its Jewish population by focusing on one small village.  There is always a question whether we need more books set in World War II. But in an age of continuing Holocaust denial and ongoing genocidal wars, reliving, remembering and investigating this time becomes more and more important. When the book opens two small boys are running through the night, it will be some time before Seiffert catches up with them again, by which time they will be truly on their own. The next morning, the SS and the Ukrainian police round up all of the Jews in the village and march them to a holding area. In keeping with the sharp focus of this book, the process is told through the eyes of the elderly school master and his elderly mother who are beaten as they are herded through the town. The rest of the local populace does nothing but watch through shuttered windows as their former neighbours are taken from their homes. Seiffert’s narrative ranges across a diverse cast of characters. One is Otto Pohl, an engineer who has been employed by…

The End of the Day by Claire North
Fantasy , Review / 29/05/2017

It is a brave author who will take on the personification of Death after Terry Pratchett. Claire North almost sidesteps the issue by instead focussing on the Harbinger of Death, the one who goes before as a courtesy or a warning, currently an ordinary Englishman called Charlie. Charlie is a bit of a cipher. A non-threatening English everyman who seems to be able to relate to (and communicate with) practically everyone he meets and tends to look at the bright side of life (and death). It seems a bit limiting for Death to only have one, human, harbinger in a world of seven billion people but while there is a backoffice to support him, there is no suggestion that Charlie is part of a bigger team of harbingers fanning out around the world. As with earlier North novels, The End of the Day is a bit of a travelogue. Charlie finds himself in Greenland, Mexico, Russia, Syria, Nigeria… to name a few. Charlie is sent to these places carrying particular meaningful gifts for those he visits. Not all of those people die. Some of them can take the visit and the message behind the gift as a warning and change…

The White Road by Sarah Lotz
Literature , Review , Thriller / 25/05/2017

The White Road is a hard novel to pigeon hole. Part adventure novel, part slacker comes of age novel and part ghost story. Sarah Lotz plumbs the depths and scales the heights in a book that is not for claustrophobes or those with vertigo. The book opens with slacker Simon Newman preparing to do a caving expedition in Wales with a dodgy guide. Together with his friend Thaddeus, Simon is creating a website of odd things. The caves, known as Cwm Pot, have been closed since four cavers died but Simon wants to go through and get footage of the bodies for the website. The caving trip is nail bitingly tense. Lotz pulls out all stops to bring home the claustrophobia and terror of being stuck underground as the waters rise. When we next meet Simon he is on a mission to climb Mt Everest. He is following in the footsteps of Juliet, a climber whose unedited diary is included in the text. Thaddeus has booked him a space on the trip by lying about his climbing experience. Again, his secret mission is to film the dead, abandoned on the mountainside. During the expedition Simon befriends Mark, who has a…

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole
Crime , Review , Thriller / 11/05/2017

In a short author interview at the end of Ragdoll, Daniel Cole explains how he put the novel together. He wanted something that was less po-faced that the run of the mill British television crime drama but something not as cheesy as American television crime drama like Castle. And while he has partially succeeded in Ragdoll, he does end up leaning very heavily towards the cheesy/contrived end of the spectrum. Ragdoll opens with the trial of the Cremation Killer – a man known for burning his young, female victims. The trial goes south and police investigator William Oliver Lawton-Fawkes, aka the Wolf, unable to take this miscarriage of justice, attacks and almost kills the defendant. When he is later proved right, Wolf is reinstated to the Force so that four years later when a body is found composed of the body parts of six different people he is on the case. The body, nicknamed the “ragdoll” has been left in such a way that it points towards the flat in which Fawkes in living. And when the head of that body turns out to be the Cremation Killer, connections to that earlier case start to haunt the current investigation. Things become…

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter
Review , Science Fiction / 19/04/2017

If you are going to call your book The Massacre of Mankind there had better be a massacre or you might find yourself up for false advertising. And while Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds has a second, bigger invasion and plenty of battles between man and Martian, this is not a book (thankfully, for mankind at least) that really lives up to its title. Massacre is written as a Wellsian, early-twentieth century sequel to the original. While it would not have been characterised as this back then, in modern terms it could be seen as a steampunk alternative history (where the branch is the unsuccessful 1907 invasion of England by Martians). Set in the 1920s, Massacre charts the second Martian invasion interrupting a war between Germany and Russia which Britain, scarred by the first invasion, has stayed out of. The setting comes complete with zeppelins, advanced technology based on stolen Martian knowhow and a supporting cast of luminaries including Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, George Patton and Wells himself (although never named). Besides Martians, Baxter also introduces beings from other planets including water-dwelling Venusians (shades here of last year’s far superior Radiance by Catherine Valente). Unfortunately,…

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 21/02/2017

After a sojourn in the country, PC Peter Grant returns to the heart of London and back into this series’ central mystery in The Hanging Tree. Once again, Ben Aaronovitch manages the entertaining high wire act of police procedural, urban fantasy, wry social commentary, and geek Easter egg hunt. Lady Tyburn, one of the river goddesses of London, asks Peter to help her daughter Olivia who has been found at the scene of a death by drug overdose. Along with Olivia, the victim, Christina Chorley, is one of a group of ultra-rich school girls looking for thrills and trouble. The plot allows Aaronovitch to explore the wealthy side of London – he stages an action scene in Harrods and PC Grant gets to visit country estates and London terrace houses with subterranean swimming pools straight out of Grand Designs. Aaronovitch also spends some time expanding his universe further with a group of special forces American practitioners (wizards) appearing on the scene, hereditary witches who have no truck with the patriarchal wizarding world and a deeper dive into the demi-monde. In amongst these new players, Peter is once again tousling with his old foe the Faceless Man and his old colleague…

The Girl Before by JP Delaney
Review , Thriller / 01/02/2017

It might be a little artificial to identify a sub-genre just from book titles. But with the success of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, there is definitely a trend emerging for domestic thrillers with the word “Girl” in the title. The presence of the word in the title does not denote the often cosy romantic worlds of chick-lit but a harsher, page turning reality. They are usually narrated (at least partially) by a woman (or the ‘Girl’ of the title), that narration is often suspect to the point of being completely unreliable, and there are violent or abusive men but it is often hard to tell who is the manipulator and who is the manipulated. Part of the pleasure of these thrillers is the constantly shifting power dynamics (even if the nature of the narrative is often that it is only the reader’s perception of these dynamics that is actually shifting). Into this mix comes a potentially big novel for 2017 – The Girl Before. The Girl Before ticks all of the Girl book boxes in spades. It has two unreliable female narrators, a supporting cast of abusive and potentially violent men and plenty of domestic thrills….

Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 30/01/2017

Steph Swainston burst onto the modern fantasy scene back in 2004 with the first of the Fourlands novels The Year of Our War. While there were some familiar elements, Swainston, much like fellow English fantasy authors like China Mieville, created a new type of fantasy world that was undeniably modern. There were no orcs, no elves, no dwarves and no dragons. Instead, the main character was a drug addicted immortal with the ability to fly, wore t-shirts and jeans and helped to fight a centuries long war against an implacable, insectile enemy. Now, ten years after the last main narrative book and five years after a backstory prequel, Swainston explosively returns to the Fourlands. Following a funeral, the narrative drops straight into the most recent push on the insect-dominated Paperlands. Fifteen years have passed since the events of The Modern World, and after a fair gap, even those who have been following the series probably need a reminder of the key elements of this world, although it’s uniqueness makes these details easier to remember. Swainston and her main narrator Jant, also known as Comet the messenger, acknowledge that it has been a long time between drinks and drop in refreshers…

The White City by Simon Morden
Fantasy , Review / 02/12/2016

Simon Morden returns to the magical world of Down for second time in The White City. He rejoins the survivors of Down Station (reviewed here) as they try and come to terms with events and the world they find themselves in. They came to Down, Narnia-like, through a doorway in a disused tube station as London burned around them. They found a dangerous world populated by people who came through different doorways from London at different times in its history. That first book ran very much along lines of some classic fantasy – people find themselves in a magical world and have to learn to use the powers that they gain there to survive. The White City turns out to be a very different proposition to the first book in this series. With the rules established in Down Station, Morden sets about not only exploring those rules but also breaking them apart, digging deeper into the world and revealing depths that were only very vaguely glimpsed in the first volume. There is a bit of a quest element to this book as the characters travel to the White City, reputedly the only permanent city in Down, where answers may be found that may…

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 30/11/2016

Thinking about it afterwards it was kind of obvious that pairing new weird novelist China Miéville and with surrealist movement was perhaps inevitable. The Last Days of New Paris not only celebrates Surrealism but brings it to life in a way that only the imagination and verve of Miéville could possibly achieve. New Weird and Surrealism, a match made in heaven, which, of course, as this book posits, also implies the existence of Hell. It is 1950 and, as a result of the detonation of an occult weapon in 1941, the war still rages in Paris. The bomb – “the weaponised soul of convulsive beauty” – made real the Surrealist dreams of Europe on the streets of occupied Paris. The landscape of Paris has been remodelled in line with a Surrealist thought experiment and manifestations of Surrealist art (known as ‘manifs’) wander the streets. To stop this strangeness spreading, Paris has been walled off from the rest of the world and so the Second World War rages on between the Germans and the French on its streets. The story centres on Thibault, a member of the surrealist resistance, who is caught up in stopping a German plot to harness the…

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Crime , Review / 28/10/2016

In his latest book Anthony Horowitz tries have several cakes and eat them all. The fictional work Magpie Murders is an Agatha Christie-style golden age detective novel that is embedded in a novel that is itself a bit of a homage to golden age detective novels. And while being two murder mysteries in one, it is also both a critique and a celebration of the public’s love of cosy English-style murder mysteries. All of which is no surprise coming as it does from the pen of the author who brought us on TV the likes of Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and Poirot and recently in novel form loving reconstructions of Conan Doyle (House of Silk and Moriarty) and Ian Fleming (Trigger Mortis – reviewed here). Novelist Alan Conway has delivered his ninth Atticus Pünd novel to his publisher. As we learn in the cute frontpieces to the novel in the novel, Pünd is a famous literary detective in the mould of Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. We get an introduction from Susan Ryeland, the editor of Magpie Murders, before the first six parts of the novel, a murder mystery set in the quaint English village of Saxby-on-Avon….

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
Crime , Review , Thriller / 14/10/2016

Under the Harrow is a short sharp psychological thriller in which a woman investigates the murder of her sister and in doing so needs to confront the secrets of their shared past. The book practically opens with Nora finding the bodies of her sister Rachel and her dog brutally murdered in their house in a small village outside of Oxford. Not able to fully trust the police, Nora decides to stay in town and try and uncover the murderer herself. There are secrets in the sisters’ shared past. Rachel was beaten by a stranger on her way home from a party when they were in their teens. When no assailant was found the two girls kept watch over all similar assaults and haunted the courts of North Yorkshire, trying to identify the assailant. Despite Nora warning her off, it seems that many years later Rachel was not only still looking but also living in fear that the man will return. Nora at first comes across as one of the many cut-out domestic thriller protagonists currently appearing across crime fiction. She has issues with alcohol and finds herself losing her identity as she immerses herself in her sister’s world. But she…