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D. Harris (Oxford, UK)
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The Death House
The Death House
by Sarah Pinborough
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

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."

Or

"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.


Touch
Touch
by Claire North
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

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...


The Mechanical: Book One of the Alchemy Wars
The Mechanical: Book One of the Alchemy Wars
by Ian Tregillis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Clockmakers Lie, 12 Mar. 2015
I'm grateful to the publishers for letting me have a copy of this book on NetGalley.

I'd been looking forward to it coming out - I previously read Tregillis's alternate history of the Second World War where the British conjured demons to fight against unnaturally enhanced Nazi supersoldiers, and his noirish detective mystery about angels trying to unpick the nature of reality.

Now he's onto clockwork robots, powered by alchemy, in a world where Holland is the main power, relying on those robots, which an outclassed French regime-in-exile (think "Dangerous Liaisons" with epoxy bombs...) resists from North America. The book is great fun, has an incredible zip to it, and fits in some fairly profound debates about both freewill and the duty we owe to sentient life, if we create it.

Jax is a slave, a "clakker" owned by (or leased to) a banking family in Amsterdam. He must obey his owners' orders (and those of humans in general) or suffer a dreadful, burning pain from the unfulfilled "geas". There is a hierarchy of demands (geasa) here: orders from the Queen take precedence, of course, then the commands of the feared Guild of Clockmakers who built the unfortunate mechanical men (and women). There are standing rules to not harm a human, and more requiring any rogue clakker to be denounced. It's a skilful and inspired take on Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics but asking the question, what would it mean - how would it feel - to be chained by those laws?

Pastor Luuk Visser is outwardly a respectable Dutch clergyman. In reality, he's a papist agent, an asset of the mysterious Talleyrand, French spymaster extraordinaire. In this reality, France itself has been conquered by waves of soldier clakkers, leaving an exiled court in North America dreaming hopelessly of an eventual return to their lands and titles.

Berenice is a young woman at the French court. While ostensibly set in the 1920s, the social set-up here is much more 18th century (as in Holland where availability of clakker labour has preserved an older, hierarchical society) and life at Court is a deadly game with serious rule. But Berenice is well up to that...

As the book gets under way, the three characters embark on a series of deadly chases and escapes, all the time seeking to learn exactly what is going on and how to resist the Guild and its deadly Stemwinders. The stakes are very high - clakkers can, it seems, escape the compulsions of the geasa, and become free. But nobody seems to know how it happens. The French are ambiguous allies, portraying themselves as friends of the downtrodden clakkers - but are they more concerned with getting mechanical slaves themselves than with the ethics of the Dutch ones?

It's an immensely enjoyable book, launching what is clearly going to be a fun new series that should probably be described "something-punk" but I'm blessed if I can think of the right something (clock? Alchemy?) which possibly shows that this is pretty convention-defying and worth getting into.

Just remember: clockmakers lie!


The Distance (Charlotte Alton 1)
The Distance (Charlotte Alton 1)
by Helen Giltrow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping from start to finish, 7 Mar. 2015
I was given a copy of this book, which intrigued me from the start, for review:

"They don't call her Karla any more. She's Charlotte Alton: she doesn't trade in secrets, she doesn't erase dark pasts, and she doesn't break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she's been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn't officially there. It's a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.

So why can't she say no?"

The first thing to say about the book, then, is: it lives up to its promise and piles up the tension to thunderstorm levels. There were many points where I wanted to know what happened next - but still almost didn't dare turn the page. And when I had finished it I had to put down very carefully, untense myself and breathe calmly. (Apologies to the other passengers on the 17:50 from Marylebone). Giltrow knows how to tell a story, winding and winding away at the pressure on her characters till you almost expect the book to go pop.

What's it about? As alluded to above, Karla is the cool, self-controlled boss of a crime racket. Put simply, she makes people disappear. If you need a new identity, or to be smuggled in - or out - of the country, she'll oblige - for a healthy profit. She doesn't much care what you're done or might do: she's all about the money. In her Docklands flat, attending the opera, rubbing shoulders with bankers and politicians, Charlotte she seems a long way from the backstreet garages, rubbish strewn lanes, and empty warehouses where Karla's trade is carried on - but she knows exactly how to move through both worlds without leaving a trace (or rather, only leaving the exact impression she wants).

Even Karla, though, might baulk at trying to get a killer into the "Program". A vast open air prison, it's where criminals are left to fend for themselves - where the strong grow fat, and the weak would be better in hell. Now, though, one killer is already in there - and another has been hired to go and finish them off. Karla must make it possible.

Weaving between the lives of Charlotte and Karla, and of the killer Johanssen and occasionally others, this is a slow burning, very chewy psychological thriller that questions everyone's motives. Charlotte/ Karla is getting out of the identity game - why does she listen to that proposals of "one final job"? The killer in the Program has entered hell on Earth: what is so bad that one would seek refuge there? And what is the role of the assured Security Service man, Powell? It tells you enough to convey how much is at stake, but the detail of what (or who) each of the main characters has lost, killed or had taken builds slowly, only really becoming clear right at the end after which I saw the book in quite a different light.

Throughout the story, I was torn between horror at what had happened (it's not for the squeamish), dread of what might happen next (you have no idea...) and a gradual, building sense of unease at where it was all going. I'd say that Giltrow handles all this expertly for a first novelist, but that sounds patronising: there's no sense in which you need to make allowances for this book, it's simply a thrilling, gripping read from start to finish, and Charlotte/ Karla is a wonderful character.

In the end we don't find out that much about her life or her background, but I do hope for more, I really do.


Weathering
Weathering
by Lucy Wood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Midwinter, but not bleak, 24 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Weathering (Hardcover)
If you read and enjoyed Wood's collection of short stories, Diving Belles, you'll recognise the smell and taste of this book. Or rather, the smell and taste are different: while Diving Belles was all about the salt-sea and the sand, Weathering is imbued with cold and muffling snow. Wood has moved inland, upriver, to where the water is fresh. But like the earlier book, the elements are almost like characters or plot, defining the shape of the story (born in Autumn, carried away, at the end, on a Spring flood) and setting limits for the protagonists.

The boo is about three women, mother and grandmother Pearl, mother and daughter Ada, daughter and granddaughter Pepper, At the start, Pearl finds herself in the river. She wants to get back into her house, where Ada and Pearl have arrived, but that pesky river keeps carrying her away.

Ada walked out years ago, leaving Pearl, not in a drama but at the same time, intent on getting away, living a life. Now she has come back, with strange Pearl - who can't settle at school, doesn't get on with the other kids - to clear out the cottage. Not to live there: she'll only be around a few weeks. Good thing too - the roof leaks, the log burner is spiteful, the electricity intermittent. Perhaps she can get something for the house from Ray, he of the thin smile.

And there we are. Ada and Pearl make a home, temporary, like all the other places where they wash up. The story drifts back and forward in time, meandering a bit, showing how Ada grew up and how Pearl declined. Unlike Diving Belles, there's nothing magical (though the way the story's told might reflect the supernatural - or it might not...) but it has the same clarify of focus, the same flow, the sense of watching ripples in the river, as that book. Also, the same magical use of language, close observation of the world and sympathy for its characters: they are human, they manage as best they can, what can you do, it seems to say. The heron will be here next year, whatever. The snow will melt, the flood will rise, everything will be rinsed away down to the sea.

It is a captivating, magical book, to be read slowly and appreciated. Buy the print version, not the e-book - there is a beautiful, tactile cover: simply holding it is a pleasure.

What a terrific writer: I'm really, really hoping for more from Lucy Wood.


Dead Girl Walking (Jack Parlabane )
Dead Girl Walking (Jack Parlabane )
by Christopher 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
The Invisible Library
by Genevieve Cogman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining romp, 14 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Invisible Library (Paperback)
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 Catalyst
by Helena Coggan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars (Magical) Anarchy in the UK, 7 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Catalyst (Hardcover)
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 - this is all about Rose - she's a confident and capable hero, easily the better of the adults around (what's wrong with a bit of wish fulfilment?) And she adroitly sidesteps what could be a Hogwartsish setup (magic, school, prejudice) once the basic worldbuilding is done

I think that Coggan is a born storyteller. That's the most important thing. She may have some stuff to learn, but if she keeps writing books as compelling as this, she will grow an audience and all that will come.

Definitely one to watch...


Near Enemy (Spademan 2)
Near Enemy (Spademan 2)
by Adam Sternbergh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

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.


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