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D. Harris (Oxford, UK)

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Dead Girl Walking (Jack Parlabane )
Dead Girl Walking (Jack Parlabane )
by Chris Brookmyre
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

4.0 out of 5 stars Parlabane is back..., 14 Feb. 2015
I'm at a slight disadvantage reviewing this story - I haven't read any of Brookmyre's previous Jack Parlabane novels, only coming in with Pandemonium, his SF story and then getting into his crime via the DS McLeod/ Jasmine Sharp books. So I don't know how this compares with those earlier books - though I anticipate that long time Brookmyre fans will be delighted to see Parlabane back.

He's a somewhat discredited figure here, having fallen foul of the hacking scandal (there's an ebook only short that fills in some backstory to that, but you won't need it to follow this book) and now taking on work as - effectively - a private detective, tracing a missing pop star, Heike Gunn. Parlabane's story alternates with the journal of another band member, newcomer Monica Halcrow, on her first tour. Halcrow's "outsider" view of the band allows Brookmyre to portray the insecurity, the pressures and the ecstasy of the music scene (including shame and despair caused by the kind of despicable journalism Parlobane's been damned for - though actually he's not guilty of it). It also - slowly - plants the clues and hints that will explain what has happened to Gunn.

As McLeod becomes involved following a grisly discovery and the case touches on corruption in the music industry, Parlabane has to rediscover his unique skillset to unravel the details.

It's an exciting book, especially the parts set in Berlin, with some excellent chase scenes which should definitely not be attempted at home! A very entertaining read and - if typical of earlier Brookmyre (I have to find out!) explains why some fans took a while to warm to some of the post Pandemonium books.

The Invisible Library: 1 (The Invisible Library Series)
The Invisible Library: 1 (The Invisible Library Series)
by Genevieve Cogman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining romp, 14 Feb. 2015
This may not be the greatest writing ever, but it's pure entertainment from start to finish. Cogman introduces her librarian hero, Irene, who is a covert book collector for the extradimensional Library, scooping up unique works from across the multiverse. Irene is intelligent, resourceful and assured - which is good because her latest mission, to a steampunk-y alternate London demands all those qualities.

I found this book that rare thing, a steampunk novel whose setting makes sense rather that just being an aesthetic choice (it's based on a justification about the fae and their relation to chaos, but the details don't matter, the point is that there is some reason to it). That allows the story to be tricked out with many of the usual features - steam driven monsters, a Great Detective, airships - without the reader constantly wondering "why?"

The plot is a collision of treacheries, twisted agendas, politics and rivalry that was hard to follow at times (despite some (perhaps overlong) expository passages - or rather discussions between the characters about what was actually happening) but which didn't distract from the hectic pace of the book. As this seems to be (slight spoiler) the first of a sequence set in the same pseudo Victorian London, I wonder whether future volumes, with much of the worldbuilding done, might be able to go easy on all that?

All in all a promising book which rubbed off on me (literally: the glitter from the spine ended all over my hands - which is much better than ink smudges!)

The Catalyst: The Wars of the Angels Book One
The Catalyst: The Wars of the Angels Book One
by Helena Coggan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars (Magical) Anarchy in the UK, 7 Feb. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is the story of Rose, who's 15. Rose lives in London, attends school, is close to her father, obsesses over a boy, is good at lessons - especially Combat. All the usual stuff (except for the Combat).

And she can do magic.

In Rose's near future world, something has happened, dividing humanity into those who are Gifted and magical... and those who aren't. As you might expect, this division changed the world. It led to the War of Angels, to the need - the perceived need - for rigid social control - and to Rose's dad being a leading figure in the Department, the ruthless authority that keeps the lid on things.

Then it all starts to go wrong - secrets begin to be exposed, war resumes and Rose is at the centre of desperate struggle not only for her own survival, but to save the world from anarchy.

I had mixed feelings about this book. It's not technically perfect: several times Coggan has Rose - or other characters - in real trouble which then has no real consequences. By the end, then, any sense of peril has pretty much drained away, rather undermining the ending which is otherwise dramatic and twist-y. There are other implausibilities (granted a world where magic is real and 15 year olds are accepted in a super sensitive agency: it would be silly to argue for gritty realism!)

However. However. Any deficiencies are more than offset by the verve and confidence with which the author handles her story. It zips along, effortlessly vaulting those incongruities and hooking the reader, who will be desperate to learn the next plot twist and see what Rose does next. This is all about Rose: she's a confident and capable hero, easily besting the adults around her(what's wrong with a bit of wish fulfilment?)

And Coggan adroitly sidesteps what could be a Hogwartsish setup (magic, school, prejudice) once the basic worldbuilding is done

I think Coggan is a born storyteller. That's the most important thing. The book's not perfect, she may have some stuff to learn, but if she keeps writing books as compelling as this, all thge rest will follow, she'll grow an audience and legions of fans will be waiting impatiently for the next Coggan.

Definitely an author to watch...

Near Enemy (Spademan 2)
Near Enemy (Spademan 2)
by Adam Sternbergh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Second hit from Sternbergh, 28 Jan. 2015
Following Shovel Ready, published last year, Sternbergh has returned to a wrecked near-future New York and his antihero Spademan.

Spademan is - and there's no evading this - a murderer. He makes his living carrying out contract killings - no questions asked. Disposal of the bodies is easy: Spademan's an ex garbage collector for the city.

When did it all go wrong for him? Probably the same day it went very wrong for New York - when the dirty bomb took out Times Square, and Spademan's wife died. Now the city is bankrupt and those who remain and who have any money use it renting the equipment they need to live in "the Limn" - a virtual reality which leaves their physical bodies decaying slowly in real life, tended only by nurses. Like the Nurse who features in this book, and whose clients seem to attract trouble in the Limn...

Add a subplot involving Persephone, the woman Spademan rescued in Shovel Ready but who's now being hunted by members of her father's corrupt church; a Mayoral election (even the corpse of New York provides rich pickings); the possibility that a terrorist attack in the Limn may be imminent, and you get a heady, if slightly bitter, mix, told in a laconic, noirish style - and we see here that Spademan may be consciously adopting that style, and why:

"Next morning. Sun comes knocking.
Check the clock again. 6 a.m.
I sit up. Bed's empty. Nurse is dressing in the doorway. Tugs her crepe-soled shoes on, over white stockings.
Morning, Spademan. You hungry?
I find my shirt. Tell Nurse.
I am. I know a place. You like waffles?
Who doesn't like waffles?
I have to admit. I'm really starting to warm up to this Nurse."

There's no shortage of graphic violence. Spademan's New York is a dog-eat-dog place, and he's no saint. But I think we do see a softer side here. Not only has he a sort-of family to fight for, in place of seeking revenge for his wife's death, but we get some clues about his early life and the chances he missed - which now make him seek redemption by saving another.

An excellent sequel, easily as good as the original, and I think setting up the possibility of a further sequel.

Well worth a read, if you like alt-noir.

Golden Son: Red Rising Trilogy 2 (The Red Rising Trilogy)
Golden Son: Red Rising Trilogy 2 (The Red Rising Trilogy)
by Pierce Brown
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars And there was war in heaven..., 24 Jan. 2015
I absolutely loved this book to bits. I enjoyed every word of it, and read more and more slowly as I approached the end, because I didn't want it to finish. ('Morning Star', the third and final part of the series, is due next year).

But that doesn't make for an easy review. Not only is 300 word of gush offputting, but this is a big, meaty, complex book which deserves a decent discussion - I hope I can do it credit.

'Golden Son' picks up several years after 'Red Rising ends. Darrow, the lowly born Red who, in the previous book, infiltrated the ranks of the privileged Golds and stormed to victory in the Institute, has signed up to serve Nero, the tyrannical governor of Mars - and the father of the Jackal, who attempted to cheat his way to success. Nero seems to bear no ill will to Darrow for his success. In the Society of the Golds, power and success are their own justification. But woe betide Darrow if he stumbles for even a moment...

Alongside Darrow's need to demonstrate assurance and military prowess as a Gold, he is also part of a rebellion led by the enigmatic Ares, aiming at the overthrow of the Golds. But Darrow has heard nothing from Ares for years, and is left to do the best he can, unsure of what, if any, role he is meant to serve in the rebellion.

And as if that isn't complicated enough, there's Darrow's ambiguous relationship with Mustang, Nero's daughter, who helped him defeat her brother in Red Rising - but who he won't let himself get close to because of the memory of his wife Eo, executed by order of Nero.

This book reminded me in many ways of Frank Herbert's Dune, which used a similar background of warring noble families under a Sovereign, of space, treachery and power plays and also a universe where pity, kindness, fellowship and liberty are frowned on. But I actually think that Golden Son is better, because in the character of Darrow, Brown gives it such heart. He is an outsider, not a noble: if his secret became known his 'friends' would turn on him at once. He is driven by hate - for those who killed his wife - and love - of her, and of what she taught him. In the course of the book he learns of things that will make him both hate, and love, more and that puts pressure on him, as does the dual life he lives. The book makes no bones about the fact that part of Darrow enjoys the strength he's got, the power and the glory that he earns. Part of him would make a good Gold. At the same time, all this is just a front and the wars he fights - for Nero, against other Golds - the sacrifices he demands of both Gold friends (there is a high body count) and of lower born Blues, Greys and Obsidians) are really a sham, directed at a cause he doesn't believe in and intends to betray. Out of such crooked timber, how can anything true be made?

The book is well written, Brown using language easily whether describing an individual Gold in words that seem to echo the heroic cadences of Beowulf:

'With them, shorter than the rest but more glorious, is the Protean Knight in her golden gear'

Evoking the chaos and destruction of a space battle

Fire and lightning rule space. Behemoths of metal belch missiles back and forth, silently pounding one another with all the weapons of man. The silence of it, so eerie, so strange. Great veils of flak explode around the ships, cloaking them in fury, almost like raw cotton tossed into the wind...'

Or making sly references to contemporary SF, thereby heightening the sense of reality of his universe:

'"He's hiding. Unless he teleported." He spits that bit of science fiction.'

'Railgun ordnance smashes into our hull, though we do not feel the reverberations here on the bridge. Our equipment does not spark. Wiring does not fall from overhead compartments...'

It isn't perfect. At times I found myself wondering just how Darrow, raised at the bottom of the heap and a miner, would have been able to learn so much, so quickly. (At one point he recognises, tattooed on the arms of a starship captain 'the Larmor formula. Maxwell's equations in curved space-time. Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory...') More fundamentally, I still don't understand why all those Red miners are need to extract 'Helium 3' from under Mars - one would have thought that surface drill-rigs could do the job.

But that's to quibble, and possibly to miss something deeper about the universe that Brown has created. This future isn't a necessary or likely evolution of the society we live in. The books make very clear - Golden Son gives more details - that this is a very deliberately constructed Society, designed to afford its rulers particular advantages but at the same time trapping them in a cycle of rivalry and conflict. All of the lesser roles in that world are as deliberately planned, with Red society, for example, designed to be very patriarchal and the soldier Obsidians manipulated via their shamans. It is this that Darrow sets himself against - and one fears that the designers have foreseen and even require rebellion, as an essential part of the whole. What Darrow is heading into with the third book, I can't even imagine, but I'm waiting eagerly for it...

The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train
Price: £4.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling, 15 Jan. 2015
I am grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book. It is though going to be tricky to review - much of the information is hinted at, has to be inferred, only emerges after a degree of teasing. There’s a lot of potential for spoilers.

If, like me, you commute by train I'm sure you will have gazed out of the carriage window into the back gardens of houses beside the line. Often, the track is raised up, and you can see right into the garden, or even the house. Though people are protective of their privacy at the front, nobody seems to realise just how much you can see from the train - the weed choked gardens, of course, the neat gardens, those with trampolines and sandpits... the house with a pair of deck chairs on a flat roof, the bike stored on a fire escape, posters in the bedrooms… what Hawkins has done is to imagine how much you might see if you really looked, if you saw the people as well (which, to be honest, you generally don't at eight in the morning, as they're probably also on their way to work too).

That idea of peering into someone else’s life is very powerful.

But of course lives seen like could be very deceptive.

Rachel travels into London every day, looking out of the window, observing the gardens, the couple she calls "Jason" and "Jess", weaving happy little daydreams about them. We sense something a little strange about Rachel: but what it is, the book only reveals slowly. Likewise, only gradually do we learn why she is paying such close attention as the train passes that particular row of houses

Hawkins shows great delicacy and skill as she hints at Rachel's problems. The focus is on the situation she's looking into, not on her. But drawn into that situation she is: there are natural comparisons with Hitchcock, perhaps. "Stranger on a train seeing what she takes to be evidence of a crime" is an obvious one, but there are others, too (spoilers!) as the book digs deeper into the relationships between the various couples who live beside the railway track.

I loved the way here that Hawkins makes it oh so plausible for Rachel to be trying to find out about what has happened. She comes to believe she is involved, and that only by filling gaps in her own past (if there are gaps) will she solve the crime (if there was a crime) and only by solving the crime will she fill those gaps. So far, so logical, but Rachel is damaged, blundering, both a threat (so some) and, perhaps, herself in danger. While she is not immediately sympathetic, Rachel is a complex and engaging character who wins over the reader, especially as it becomes clearer what has happened to her. By the end I guarantee you'll be cheering on (though perhaps cringing at what she may do next).

It is an absorbing read, perhaps a little slow to get moving - but if you commute regularly you'll be used to sitting waiting. It's all part of the journey, and can be put to good use.

I once lived in a house by the railway, in a town an hour from London. We could hear the station announcements from our back garden. We could see the garden from the train, just for a moment. I don't travel that way now but sometimes I take the train from Paddington and I spot that garden, wonder who lives there now, are they happy… perhaps I should take that train more often, and watch more closely, get to know them better...

The Liar's Chair
The Liar's Chair
by Rebecca Whitney
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Recommended, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The Liar's Chair (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The chair belonged to teenage Rachel. When things got too bad, she'd hide in the airing cupboard in the corner of her bedroom, padlock the door form the inside, and sit on her chair.

Years later, as an adult, Rachel has her fears under control. She's married to David. They have worked hard, their TV production company is successful, and they have all they could want.

Yet all of this is fragile. Driving home one night, Rachel does something terrible, something she tries to cover up. The stress of this, however, undermines her hard won self assurance and she begins to fall apart... or at least, that's how David might put it.

This book is in many ways a painful one to read. We're firmly with Rachel all the way, despite what she's done, and it's harrowing to see her begin to lose herself to guilt, fear and bullying. Whitney includes just enough backstory to help the reader understand how Rachel came to be as she is - it's less about specific events than about the atmosphere, the situation that surrounded her childhood. The reader - any decent reader anyway - will want Rachel to turn around and defy her tormentors (whether in the 1970s flashbacks or the "now" parts of the story) - but that would be untrue to the reality of the mess she's in, I think.

Not that Rachel is a mere passive victim. She knows what's going on, and does what she can to protect herself, but she's under attack not only from her own past and actions but from her husband, whose behaviour in the present is pretty monstrous. This was the only point where I felt that Whitney lost her touch slightly - we understand why Rachel is like she is, but David appears as something of a caricature of an abusive husband, with very little insight given about his past. And his rapid development from tyrannical husband and TV producer to local crime boss was a bit hard to swallow.

Setting that aside, this is an extremely readable and tension- laced psychological study with a real and developing sense of menace. Not a happy book, but a thrilling one.

The House of Susan Lulham (Kindle Single)
The House of Susan Lulham (Kindle Single)

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Restless, 1 Jan. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
In 2014 Oxfam published a book of short crime stories, Oxcrimes, which included "The House of Susan Lulham" by Phil Rickman. This featured Merrily Watkins, his much loved Vicar/ diocesan deliverance consultant who has featured in a series of longer novels. But much was left unsaid in that story, and now Rickman has returned to it at greater length.

Susan Lulham ("Suze") killed herself several years ago in the titular house, and it's been hard to sell or let it since. And the current resident now reports disturbed nights, strange writing on the mirror and a sense of... something. But is she telling the truth, or just out to make a name on social media? Merrily - often teetering on the edge of scandal before - has to choose whether to step away or risk ridicule in a secular-minded world.

This is a full story, not just a little extra material, and well worth reading even if you have "Oxcrimes". The story there ended abruptly: it wasn't clear how Merrily would get out of the mess she'd stumbled into, or what had really happened in the House. Here, we learn more about its history - background which Merrily herself wishes she'd unearthed herself in the first place. More than that, it brings us up to date on Merrily, alone without Jane or Lol, and (I hope) promises more about her in future.

A spooky read for midwinter. Buy it!

Cold War: A Tor.Com Original
Cold War: A Tor.Com Original
Price: £0.83

4.0 out of 5 stars Prequel to Spider Wars, 26 Dec. 2014
This is a simple little story, really no more than a taster for Christopher's Spider Wars series, the first of which, The Burning Dark, appeared earlier this year.

Humanity faces slow destruction by the Spiders, mechanical aliens which can consume a planet. Standing against them are space marines, and psi marines. This brief episode introduces us to that setup, as a mission to rescue a Special Ops team goes badly wrong on a frozen planet.

We're introduced to some of the themes of The Burning Dark - hidden agendas, and the uncanny ability of the enemy to distort human comms and even (perhaps) thinking. That book combines a ghost/ horror story with military SF: here the story is much more straightforward.

I think that, lacking this wider context, the US reviews linked to treat this story unfairly. It is only a taster, meant to whet the reader's appetite for the rest of the series. It's difficult, coming to it after reading the later book, to judge how effectively it does this - but I think it comes over as a perfectly good standalone work.

Red Rising
Red Rising
by Pierce Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written, involving adult dystopia, 22 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Red Rising (Paperback)
I somehow managed to miss this book despite it getting lots of praise when it appeared earlier this year, but finally picked it up in anticipation of the sequel which is due early in 2015.

At first, I wondered what all the fuss was about. While the setting - a pitiless, hierarchical society that keeps its most downtrodden, the "reds", slaving in the mines of Mars - is well drawn, it didn't seem anything special. Then Brown did... something... and the book seemed to rise to a whole new level.

Darrow, the main protagonist, is one of the reds, who toil in atrocious conditions to produce the minerals that are needed to make Mars habitable. If they strain every muscle and meet their quote, they may get a little more food to share, a few more comforts, and Darrow shows himself bold - almost reckless - in straining to achieve this.

It's all a con, of course, and we pretty soon see that things are rigged to set the miners against each other and keep the elite - the "golds" on top at all times. So Darrow turns rebel, at terrible cost, and sets himself against the hierarchy. The rest of the book is then a thrilling description of how, in the "Institute" he is forced to play deadly power games with the sons and daughters of the elite in order to rise and win the power that will - perhaps - one day be used to free his people.

The story of what happens in those games is, again, a lesson in power and a lesson in division: I don't want to give too much away to anyone who hasn't read this yet but we see - as one might expect - that the structure of the mines is repeated at all levels, with friend set against friend, brother against brother (and sister). It's a compelling springboard for the second and third volumes in the trilogy, where I hope to see some of the paradoxes of Darrow's rebellion explored - quite simply, "change will not come from above" and I wonder how long it will take him to learn that? Or whether he will manage to avoid the dead end and achieve what he really wants?

An excellent read.

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