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D. Harris (Oxford, UK)

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Alice and the Fly
Alice and the Fly
by James Rice
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.94

4.0 out of 5 stars Miss Hayes has a new theory..., 5 May 2015
This review is from: Alice and the Fly (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
She thinks my condition's caused by some traumatic incident from the past...

She thinks I'm not reading enough...

She things I'm not really scared of Them...

But Greg is scared of Them. So scared that one of Them can trigger self-harm, fits, illness. Naturally this doesn't endear him to his classmates. they call him psycho, freak. But he doesn't seem to care. Deep inside Greg there is a nugget of self assurance - nothing can displace it. Not his dance obsessed sister, his social climbing mother or his increasingly absent father. As the family seems set to implode only one thing seems to make an impact on Greg - the girl he follows home from school, dreams about, and writes to...

Told, mainly, Greg's words, set down in the diary that Miss Hayes gives him to try and help him overcome his fears, this is a compelling and chilling story that builds in tension - the occasional chapter of transcript, taken at some later date, of interviews with schoolmates, Miss Hayes herself, and others, points to a looming crisis, while there are hints about what happened previously in Greg's life - references to a mysterious island, to his Nan. It's all nicely mysterious and the characters are believable.

A great debut.

The Vagrant
The Vagrant
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent, readable and absorbing, 2 May 2015
This review is from: The Vagrant (Kindle Edition)
I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher.

The Vagrant is homeless, outcast, a scavenger. And he has a quest. But as he strides through the demon-infested wasteland, the Vagrant also has a baby to care for: to feed (he acquires a goat to supply milk), to clean, to entertain and (when she becomes ill) to find medicine for.

In this debut fantasy novel, Newman doesn't make it easy for himself - or his protagonist - how DO you get out of a tricky situation when you can’t draw your sword for fear of dropping Baby and you can’t talk your way out because you can’t talk? - but the risk pays off. Battling against demons on the one hand (not just scaly monsters from the Abyss, these are formed from an essence, an undifferentiated, fluid contagion that flows through and transforms things, bringing mutations to humans and animals and sometimes congealing dead (or living) bodies to create a new being) and desperate, shattered people on the other, the Vagrant's resourcefulness and compassion are tested again and again. Everywhere, the struggle for survival taints the spirit as the demon-stuff taints the body. The tone and setting reminded me somewhat of a Western: the Man With No Name comes into town, standing up against the outlaws and improbably rallying the townsfolk – but always risks losing his way, becoming one of his enemies.

And like the best Westerns, the book doesn’t deal in black and white. There are no rescuers, no army of eagles or simple, if difficult salvation, only the working through of the Vagrants's struggle among the fallen remnants of humanity. Newman explores prejudice and redemption, the need for compassion set against the drive for survival, even the treatment of refugees (regarded by one side as at best useless mouths, by the other as a source of body parts and slaves).

An excellent debut.

by Jonathan Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars A bit less than the sum of its parts?, 26 April 2015
This review is from: Cannonbridge (Paperback)
While it is an enjoyable romp with an intriguing premise, this book didn't really come together for me.

The main action of the book is in the 21st century ("Now") and follows Dr Toby Judd (I had to keep reminding myself he was Judd not Jugg), an earnest if unglamorous academic in the field of Cannonbridge studies. Judd's great rival (in several respects) is the flashy but shallow JJ Salazar. When Judd has an epiphany - that the renowned and mysterious Victorian writer Matthew Cannonbridge is actually made up - things seem primed for a campus novel focussed on the spiralling animosity between the two men and on the nature of literary truth. But instead, people start dying. Judd has attracted the attention of a powerful and remorseless enemy and has to flee, starting a chase that lasts almost to the end of the book.

The secret behind those deaths is gradually revealed, largely through flashbacks to the 19th century where we see the long-lived Cannonbridge meet Byron and his set in Geneva, Charles Dickens as a boy in the blacking factory, Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle and Dickens (again, as an older man). These episodes are well done and Barnes has a good eye for the different styles of the various literary figures. I enjoyed the fact that these episodes were, in effect, excerpts from the material that Judd, Salazar and so on were studying - Cannonbridge, as an elusive figure with no origin but a shocking end, seems only to be known through these encounters and his own writings.

That side of the story is rather creepy. However I thought that they, and the initial setup, were rather wasted by the eventual revelation of what has actually been going on. Without giving away specific details, the theme of the relationship between what is true and what is invented is rather overtaken by what Judd discovers on an obscure Scottish island. The revelation of the island's true nature is in many respects the most jarring feature in the book, although there are others - for example the description of a Satanic ritual by a group of Victorian dabblers which doesn't really seem to key in to the rest of the text, or the elderly archivist in the Cannonbridge library outside Edinburgh who, we learn almost in passing, Knows Things but whose significance never really becomes clear.

So - a great premise that, like Cannonbridge himself perhaps, in the end escapes from its author.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold
The Field of the Cloth of Gold
by Magnus Mills
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Field of Dreams, 23 April 2015
The real Field of the Cloth of Gold was where, in 1520 the kings of England France (Henry VIII and Francis I) met to negotiate peace in Europe. It was a lavish affair, with a desire by both monarchs to impress.

Despite the name of the book, this isn't a historical epic about the 16th century - Magnus Mills isn't, I think, after a slice of Hilary Mantel's readership. Rather this is another of his books which have very little concrete connection with any real place or time - just as his last, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, was set in a kingdom vaguely located, this focussed exclusively on the Great Field itself. We learn nothing of the surrounding landscape or where or when the story takes place. The field is, simply an area, indeed rather a mundane place (though several times different characters tell us that the field is somewhere special, "the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition" (one character had envisaged "a vast sea ofd tents billowing in the breeze,with flags flying and pennants fluttering aloft").

The field does, perhaps, resemble its historical model in one respect - it hosts, clashes of will between self-aggrandising potentates, if on a local rather than international scale, as to the field come a number of characters - the (never named) narrator, Hen, the man of the West, Brigant, Isabella, Thomas and more - to pitch their tents. They claim their places, and they wait. (For what?). They watch each other (a great part of the book is observations, first hand or reported, of what the other characters were up to). They bicker over which part of the field is superior (one declared scornfully that the northern part is best and that those living in the southern part are "soft"). Priority is contested (who really arrived first?) Here is that vagueness again - though the book only spans a few weeks (I think) the characters forget the earlier parts and reshape their memories to suit current politics in the field, a [process that reaches its climax on the very last page.

Not all of the settlers in the field are solitary. The pecking order is disturbed early on by the arrival of a small advance party, followed by a larger contingent, a militarized group with "marvellous organizational skills, iron discipline; proper plans and surveys; spacious thoroughfares; sophisticated drainage systems; monumental earthworks; communal kitchens; bathhouses with hot water freely available..." However, after building a ditch and embankment across the field, this group departs in haste: in their place come less sophisticated boat borne settlers...

It's fairly clear, I think, that events are loosely modelled on British history - the arrival of the original inhabitants, followed by later settlers and then that disciplined military force, the Romans who don't, though, stay and are in turn replaced by waves of Saxons and Vikings. But it's all scaled down to the one field, all - apparently - dialled down from bloodthirsty combat to irritated bickering and sulks: as though a group of children were playing at "history of Britain" in the summer holidays. That impression is heightened by some of the detail - there is precious little mention of food, for example, apart from milk pudding and biscuits - all very nursery.

I don't think, though, that this book is meant as an allegory. While some of the correspondences are very close, you would be hard pressed to make exact correspondences throughout between book and history (perhaps Mills is playing a game of his own here, challenging us to interpret the copper bath, the missing spades, the coming and going of Isabella and so on as historical when these details may be there for quite different reasons, or none).

Whatever, it's a fascinating book - and beneath the apparent whimsy and those distracting details there is a steely core to the plot that only slowly becomes visible. In the end, it seems, momentous events may indeed be unfolding and coming to fruition - but not necessarily pleasant or glorious ones.

It's a great read, very different to anything else you're likely to come across - and I'd strongly recommend it.

A Few Words For The Dead
A Few Words For The Dead
by Guy Adams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Haunted by the past, 21 April 2015
Warning - this review contains spoilers (and some speculation about the writing you may prefer not to see before you read the book).

This is the third volume in Guy Adams' Clown Service series, based on the activities of a branch of the British security services dealing with arcane and supernatural threats to the realm.

Like the first book, The Clown Service, the book turns on the past of August Shining, head of Section 37 - indeed for most of the story he's being debriefed on events that too place in Berlin 30 years before. Meanwhile, Toby Greene and his new wife Tamar are on honeymoon. They have dealt with the Rain Soaked Bride, featured in the second book, but its creator has raised a new demon to destroy them.

Into this gap comes an old enemy of August's. Long ago he promised it something, and now it wants to collect...

I found it really difficult to sum this book up. At one level it is, I think, the most successful of the Clown Service novels - bringing together an atmospheric trip back to the Berlin of Le Carre and Deighton with a chilling dash of the occult, and wrapping up a number of loose threads from the previous two books (could this be the last of the series, or at least mark a pause?) The story is tight, the action scarcely lets up and you could easily devour it in one session of reading.

However, there is a problem which I wasn't able to get round (this is where the spoilers come in). About half way through the book, the antagonist goes on a killing spree, scything through those August knows and relies on. It's a calculated act of revenge and provocation that makes sense within the terms of the plot. But. But. As part of this a woman is bludgeoned to death in a fridge. I stopped here and debated with myself whether Adams intended an overt reference to "fridging" (killing sympathetic characters to give the hero motivation for revenge). I'm pretty sure he did, but either way, it bounced me out of the story. You may not have heard of this particular trope and it may not trouble you - or may not have before I laboured over the point - if so, I apologise.

Thinking this over afterwards I wonder, though, if there isn't a deeper problem here. The book is very polished and the plot done very nicely (see if you spot how things are going to work out - I didn't!) with distinct echoes of classic British horror alongside the spy stuff. But without that killing spree it would essentially come down to Shining telling his old story, and then... and then, what happens after. I sense that the other thread is there, as much as anything, simply to provide another thread to the story with that fridge stuff simply Adams' way of saying "I know what this looks like". Really not sure what to think about that (and 3 star marking reflects this: I may be being over harsh).

To set against that, there are some really well written, creepy parts - for example, the puppet theatre: I'd challenge anyone to read that without a glance over the shoulder and a shiver. So, for me, successful but also not successful.

by Kirstin Innes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars sometimes funny, always well written, 18 April 2015
This review is from: Fishnet (Paperback)
I'm grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this book.

This book - Innes' debut novel - is thoughtful, sometimes angry, sometimes funny, always well written, and deserves a wide readership.

Fiona Leonard, a young Glasgow office worker, splits her life between work and caring for six year old Beth. Hovering over the family is the unspoken presence of Rona, Fiona's younger sister who disappeared several years before. Neither Fiona nor her parents have come to terms with this, but the time is now coming when Rona could be officially declared dead. So Fiona's chance discovery of news about Rona offers her a last opportunity, perhaps, of tracing her sister.

Fiona doesn't imagine a lovey-dovey family reconciliation. She wants to confront Rona, make her realise what her absence has cost the family, what - as Fiona sees it - she has taken on for Rona, what she has given up: "That world I missed out on whilst living someone else's middle-age."

It's a complicated situation, made more so - as Fiona renews her search for Rona - by what she discovers. Rona had been a sex worker. The fact makes Fiona hyperaware, of course, of all those signs around her that she would normally screen out, of the ordinary details of a side of life she would choose to ignore. At the same time, Fiona's employer, a construction firm, wins a contract to redevelop a building used as a drop in centre for sex workers. She has both a reason to find out more, to try and locate Rona, and an opportunity to ask questions.

This is where the book's political purpose comes to the fore. That's not meant as a judgement, Innes has written a passionately committed book which argues strongly against shaming, stigmatisation and criminalization of sex work, against the assumption that it is inevitably degrading that participants are victims. She uses the events around the redevelopment, around what is for Fiona a journey of discovery, to illustrate the theme and give voices to those involved. There's always a risk when a book takes a strong position like this of a book coming over as preachy, propagandistic, of the story and characters being made to serve the message but Innes avoids falling into this trap. She draws convincing, three dimensional characters and has constructed a plot that hums along and draws the reader in, taking various viewpoints and moving back and forward through events (mostly in paired narratives: now/ then, public/ private, back/ forth and so on). And the writing, as I said above, is excellent, coupled with razor sharp observations on work, life, women and men.

As you would expect given the themes the book is fairly explicit in places but - and this perhaps shouldn't need saying but I will anyway - doesn't set out to offend or titillate: it is about something that happens, deal with it, and get on, don't judge is the message (both implicit and explicit).

An enjoyable, even uplifting, book.

A Darker Shade of Magic
A Darker Shade of Magic
by V. E. Schwab
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Red, white and grey..., 2 April 2015
VE Schwab's new book is action almost from the start, introducing two spiky, resourceful and confounding protagonsists who rampage through London - indeed all three Londons - on a quest combining self preservation, revenge and discovery, ending in an epic battle.

Kell is a young magician, one of a very few who can cross between the worlds, between "Grey" London (our world, bare of magic, enchanted "Red" London and bone- hued, dying "White" London. As a magician, he serves the King, carrying messages between the worlds. And he dabbles in carrying other things, too, which is where the problems begin.

Lila is a swashbuckling heroine, a thief and would-be pirate stalking nighttime Grey London in male attire and running rings round the constables.

When Lila and Kell meet, she attempts to rob him - but robbing a magician isn't easy, and Lila only steps into the trouble following Kell. Together they have no choice but to face potentially world destroying magic and hellish enemies

This was a refreshing story, told with verve and pace. While the physical detail of the fictional world is perhaps scanty, its moral and magical landscape is well mapped. As a result, from the start - even before they meet - there's a sense that Kell and Lila walk in shadow, that part of them is somewhere elsewhere, so it hardly seems surprising when they attract attention from... but that would be telling. At the same time Schwab makes them real characters - understandable, infuriating at times, but always real. They dominate the plot of the book (which in many ways is basic: sort of what Lord of the Rings might have been if the Fellowship was only two and they had hours, not months) and drive events, rather than bein g puppets in the hands of the author.

An excellent read, and I'm glad to see that there will be sequels.

The Death House
The Death House
by Sarah Pinborough
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, moving and true, 25 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Death House (Hardcover)
In a near future world, perhaps 100 years from now, children are testing and those who fail are taken from their parents, brought to a remote house and kept there. One by one, they fall ill and disappear, always at night. They're attended by "nurses" and "teachers" but we never learn the names of these adults: they're distant, uninvolved, cold.

The survivors wait their turn for the trolley in the night...

Against this bleak background, Sarah Pinborough has created a story of love, humanity and hope. We follow Toby, seized from his family just as he was about to go to a party with the girl of his dreams. At the Death House he has frozen, afraid to care for anyone or anything. Until new girl Clara arrives.

If that sounds like the lead up to a rather hackneyed teen romance, it really isn't. Pinborough shows us her characters with great skill and gives them real depth: the keynote is struck, perhaps, when, early on, we see the kids are studying "Lord of the Flies" I've always regarded this book as depressing and pessimistic, as Golding makes his plane-wrecked schoolboys bear the weight of the world's evil, falling into superstition and terror. That would be the easy path here, perhaps, but Pinborough doesn't take it. She shows, first, how fear and loss have paralysed the "Defective" kids, bearers of the "Defective" gene - but then, how they cope, in their different ways. None are perfect - there are bullies, there is shunning of those coming down with... whatever it is...

But there is also humanity, there is heart, and at the centre of the story, there is Toby and Clara's unexpected love. Details of the "Defective" ones are patchy - they are described at one point as a remnant of the past, a past that nearly destroyed the world: they are certainly feared and perhaps hated - but that is secondary to the situation they're in. What is made clear is that their lives will be cut short, their future is a blank, and they have been left to face this alone with no love, no care, no support. To me, the doomed children suggested not a vaguely SF future one might expect 100 years in the future but the world of 100 years ago where many of their forebears would also have faced death and tried to keep alive life and hope despite the odds.

It's a difficult read in place, the implacable logic of the story driving forward when you would rather it halted, giving a respite, a delay, but always involving, compassionate and true.

Oh, and the writing is, in places, sublime as well. For example

"...the night is like a black sea and I creep up the stairs through it, treading carefully to avoid waking the wood and making it creak with surprise at my weight."


"Daniel may not be destined to grow up, but he's already the shadow of the man he would have become."

I've read Sarah Pinborough before as a horror writer and as a wicked reteller of fairy tales, and her Victorian murder mysteries are chillingly readable but this is something different yet again. Simply brilliant.

by Claire North
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Do you like what you see?, 21 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Touch (Hardcover)
Following last year's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, North has written another book based loosely around the theme of multiple lives. This isn't a sequel or a prequel, or explicitly in the same setting: but some of the preoccupations are similar, as is the deftness with which she explores the concept - and the absolute humanity of her approach.

While Harry August was based on repeated, looping lives lived one after another, and so might be characterised (if loosely) as a "time travel" book, Touch follows "ghosts" who are able to occupy - possess - a body, replacing the personality and knowledge of the "host" with their own. Not such a bad thing if it simply means you lose a few minutes on the Tube or perhaps a couple of hours of a long train train journey. More of a loss if the "ghost" "wears" you for ten or twenty years, during which you marry, have children, and grow old - before being shed like a warn out set of clothes.

I'd characterise the basic theme here as being more vampiric: it's about time stolen, missing relationships, youth taken away, lives eaten up. That's no less true for the central character (we never learn their original gender) being likeable and, on the whole, well intentioned.

Kepler (not her/ his real name) has lived - stolen - many lives. As the book opens, he/she is Josephine Cebula, holidaying in Istanbul. Josephine is a willing host, giving up six months of her time for a payment which will set her up and make a new life.

Except it won't, because someone has murdered Josephine. Someone is hunting Kepler down. So begins a thriller like no other I've read, a chase across Europe worthy of John Buchan at his best, as Kepler tries to find who is targeting her/him, and why. Along the way we learn about Kepler's past ("Kepler" is the assassin's codename for the "entity" that narrates the book - we never hear what his/her real name is) - from "birth" as ghost in a dark London alley, to life as an "estate agent", researching bodies for other "ghosts" to wear, to lost loves, lost lives and - always, always - guilt and regret at what Kepler must do to survive. But it's repressed guilt, one senses, because what is the alternative?

Other ghosts find a way out, whether through madness or seeking death: one inhabits only the bodies of the terminally ill, but can never, quite, dare to stay in residence to the end, another rejoices in blood and slaughter. What does Kepler want to be? "Do you like what you see?" he (or she) repeatedly asks - or is asked - confronted with another strange face in the mirror, another set of unknown relatives, friends, colleagues, acquaintances. Do you like what you see, and who are you? Really?

It is a book full of sympathy and heart, exposing the price an immortal creature (I think we must assume Kepler and his kind to be immortal, for so long as they can bear to be alive) would exact, and the price it would pay.

It is also chilling and compelling - more chilling than any vampire story, either of the classic or modern type, and more compelling then any mere thriller.

A fine book, read it now!

Last Days of Disco, The
Last Days of Disco, The
by David F. Ross
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Dancing the nights away..., 21 Mar. 2015
I'm grateful to the publisher for giving me a review copy of this book.

Set in at the unfashionable end of the 1980s (which, I hear you ask is that? The beginning, of course, when 1984 hadn't happened and we all thought that if we just closed our eyes the 70s would be back) the action takes place in South West Scotland, mainly following the lives of a couple of schoolboys trying to make it as mobile DJs for local discos.

Unfortunately for Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller, the Ayrshire disco scene (as well as several others) is already owned by "Fat" Franny Duncan, a small time gangster who doesn't want any competition. As the boys innocently(?) try to muscle in on his turf, while coping with girls, family problems and schoolwork, events threaten to get out of control.

Meantime, at the other event of the world, events definitely HAVE got out of control as Britain and Argentina fight the most unexpected war of the last century for possession of the Falkland Islands (which nobody in the UK had heard of beforehand: I can remember the sense of surprise on learning of their existence, let alone that they had been invaded). Bobby is directly affected: his beloved elder brother, Gary, recently joined the Army and is soon on his way south.

It's a strong premise and Ross handles the two threads skilfully, stepping backwards and forwards to follow the disco conflict through the local corridors of power. Strings are pulled, favours - desired or not - delivered and, after a particularly hilarious (and disastrous) evening at the local Conservative Club, Bobby, Joey and their roadie are left at the mercy of a (slightly bent) local police chief, who has history with Bobby's father. I enjoyed the way that the author steps back or sideways, as it were, to sketch in some family history or point the significance of a passing character: perhaps in places this could have been a bit more show, a bit less tell, but these episodes (for example, the story of how Bobby's parents met at a Hogmanay dance 20 years before) add depth and humanity to his characters

And always, always there is the music, a stream in which Bobby and Joey live, move and have their being. Rather as Jonathan Coe does with the 70s in "The Rotters' Club", Ross celebrates the music of the early 80s through the commitment and passion of Bobby and Joey to their favoured bands. I think there's always a risk in writing about someone who has such passion - will it leave the non-believers cold? - but Ross easily brings it off.

Is the book perfect? No. There are moments where we only ever hear half the story - for example, Bobby and Gary wake from an almighty drinking session at the start of the book during which Bobby has picked up Fat Franny's phone number, and something else. Given subsequent events this seems pretty important, but we never hear exactly what happened, or all the consequences. Maybe this is something that Ross is saving for a sequel? I do hope so, because I'm sure there's a lot more to be said about these characters...

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