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D. Harris (Oxford, UK)
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The Seed Collectors
The Seed Collectors
by Scarlett Thomas
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ripples spreading outwards, 2 July 2015
This review is from: The Seed Collectors (Hardcover)
I'm grateful to the publisher and author for letting me have an advance copy of this book. I'd been anticipating it for ages - I think Scarlett Thomas blogged the title at least three years ago.

And the wait was worthwhile. While I would happily read a telephone directory authored by Thomas simply for the writing, "The Seed Collectors" is an extremely absorbing, readable book, funny in places, sad in places (sometimes the same ones). Above all it is perceptive, and deeply human.

The story moves between several different viewpoints, mostly members of the rambling Gardener family: Fleur, her lover Pi, Charlie, a botanist with an imaginative sex life, his colleagues Izzy and Nicola, botanist and filmmaker Clem and Skye Turner, a pop star who has risen from humble origins, alcoholic (but coping... kind of...) Bryony and her troubled daughter. These are distinct voices, but the twists of the plot, and the way the characters interact, means that while sometimes it's clear who is speaking, often it isn't (at least, till you catch the rhythm of the novel and see what she's doing) and there are sections in other voices altogether and parts which read as disembodied commentary (commentary, not narration: for example "Somewhere in the world there is a magical book..." or "Imagine one day... who were you, before you forgot"). These might be fragments of the narratives referred to in the book, or the observations of someone else, not in the story: it isn't clear, but the effect is one of layering, perhaps as in a painting, intensifying the reality of the characters even while distancing the text from them. There are even parts in the voice of a garden robin (I know, I know - but really, it's not twee at all, rather it is intense, conveying a realistic personality without any hint of a pseudo "person". )

It's not all "voices". There are letters and other texts and a (long, long) list of essential characteristics for a girlfriend, written, clearly, by an adolescent male and stuffed with pomposity and misogyny and contradiction - but which is then almost heartstopping when it concludes "44. Understands what it is like to lose mother". That is something Thomas does so well in this book - turning the mood of a passage on a sixpence with writing that is sharp, electric, absolutely on the button, often when observing flailing, failing relationships. Another example is the bald statement that Fleur was no bother as a child to her father - because he didn't admit she was his daughter. Or there the description of Holly, Bryony's awkward daughter, as another of her mother's failed projects.

Thomas will follow a shopping trip, a university seminar or a meal in a restaurant, sometimes digressing for several pages to tell us about walking palm trees, tennis tactics, yoga or the failure mode of the Smartguide tooth cleaning helper. But there's always something there, some bit of distracted thought or compulsive behaviour that illustrates a character better than pages of dialgue would. That, combined with the changing viewpoints, the wide assembly of characters and the uncertainty over who's speaking means there isn't such an obvious plot as in some of Thomas's earlier books. Consequently "The Seed Collectors" has a more diffuse air than they do which may not be to everyone's taste - for myself, I loved it: done well, that kind of digressive, sprawling story just takes root in the mind and grows, almost as thought it weren't actually written at all.

This book is done well: the stems have been pruned and carefully trained. What's presented - however much at times it appears incidental - is essential, giving hints about the characters and about the relationships between them, actual and emotional. And despite what I wrote above, there is plot. I said it was diffuse, and that's how it starts, but it becomes clearer: there's almost something holographic about the book, the whole story runs through every moment but the more of it you read, the sharper it becomes. A great deal does happen in this book and has happened - only it isn't described as it happens. We see instead the impact, the ripples, and like a hologram, when you look at those the right way the events come into focus and jump out at you.

Most immediately, at the start of the book the funeral has just taken place of a central character - Oleander, who established Namaste House, a retreat centre with overtones of Eastern mysticism, which Fleur takes over. Oleander's funeral isn't described, instead we see members of the extended Gardener family afterwards, like fragments of debris after an explosion. Similarly, there has been a bequest of rare (poisonous, exotic, perhaps magical, it's never quite clear) seed pods to family members, but this is never directly stated nor is it explained.until much later. Even then, it's far from clear exactly what was inherited: these seeds may not all be same. The terms of Oleander's will are only heard indirectly from a telephone conversation and so only described at second hand. Oleander herself never features either - instead we're given some sideways insight about her. For example, Pi claims that "Imagine you are a squirrel" is the kind of thing she might have said - but this is immediately followed by the narrator/ commentator (perhaps this is Oleander, somehow?) picking up the sentence and meditating on a squirrel's life. Then there are the references to the "prophet" who lives at Namaste House, and who is clearly an important part of the setup - but it's as though knowledge is assumed: nothing is explained. Thomas is though so good at describing one thing through its impact on another, that pretty soon we think we know what's what. So as we see how Namaste House runs and how Fleur regards it, we're nodding along, thinking, ah yes, the Prophet, just like him, that.

The central, defining event of the book is very much part of this pattern, something that happened years before and which isn't described until a fair way into the story (and then at second hand, and who can you really trust to tell you the truth in a book like this?) when three members of the family vanished searching for those seed pods. This is I think the root of all that happens: children are left coping (badly) with loss, and not knowing what happened, setting of trains of events down (and across) the generations. There's a lot of low self-worth, leading to overeating and compulsive behaviour: drinking, eating, shopping, sex. Grandchildren pick up the vibes and go adrift. But it's all protectively, fiercely, managed in a very English middle-class way - that indirectness again, not stating what's right in front of you but hinting, assuming, coping.

A lot of this seems to fall on Bryony, who is an alcoholic - in a fearfully knowledgeable way, as though the fact that the wine she has waiting for is her is good wine, named wine that cost £30 a bottle, means she is, really, in control - and compulsive shopper (ditto: she knows all the brands, but she has an "e-Bay room" full of stuff she bought and has no use or desire for - shopping is, as Thomas says, like a drug in its effects). Thomas is really good at describing Bryony's relationship with food, her mind an endless fight between the intention to diet and the overwhelming will to eat, crystallised in a stream of thought that's half guilt, half justification, as well as her shopping: "Bryony has taken off and is now moving around the display of handbags like a large tornado moves around the east coast of the USA. She's only about seventy per cent predictable, and could arrive anywhere without warning..."

Bryony is a magnificent creation, sympathetic and horrible at the same time. However, this entire family seems pretty dysfunctional. While a lot of what they're going through might attract the hashtag #firstworldproblems - they're all fairly well off, nobody is homeless or even poor (in contrast with most of Thomas's earlier protagonists) - they seem oddly unfit to actually cope with the pressures of the modern world. Bryony even has trouble working a telephone at one point. Others take refuge in syncretistic mysticism or food faddism (Charlie - when he's not having or imagining weird sex).

This inability to cope isn't limited to the Gardners. The main non family member who features, Skye Turner, is a pop singer struggling with fame and money who comes into their orbit after having a You-Tubed meltdown on a train. Skye shows symptoms of the same malaise. When she and Fleur take off for the Hebrides (the family has inherited a remote hunting lodge from Oleander) Thomas has a gentle dig at their Ab Fab lifestyle - Skye and Fleur are sitting by the emergency exit, the very worst people imaginable to have control of it, ...these lipsticked, ponytailed disasters...")

So, the Gardeners stumble through their lives, getting a few things right but a lot wrong, learning something - but not everything - about that disappearance. There's a suggestion of an enlightenment there, for some of them, but it's not I think a central thing - when that blessed state is reached (or not) Thomas in effect takes a device that other writers might base a whole story round, picks it up, examines it, then simply puts it to one side and gets on with the book. Like so much else we're left to speculate about what actually happened, based on the impacts. It's nothing like a tidy or happy ending, but it is though very entertaining getting to that untidy ending, and there is some brilliant writing too - I'll just quote one more example: Bryony, standing picking sunflowers for her husband observes that they "stand in the field like a row of Marilyn Monroes..."

That's exactly right, isn't it? Something I never saw before.

So maybe there is some enlightenment in here, after all.

This is, for me, far and away the best book I've read this year, and the best I expect to read for a long time.


The Hunter's Kind: Book II of The Hollow Gods
The Hunter's Kind: Book II of The Hollow Gods
by Rebecca Levene
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Daring, original fantasy, 2 July 2015
I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book through Bookbridgr.

When I discovered that Levene's Smiler's Fair was to have a sequel, I was delighted but a bit nervous. (I should warn you now that there are spoilers below for Smiler's Fair - if you haven't read it, stop now, get a copy and read it. Then come back and carry on... here.)

The titular fair had knitted together a large number of characters as it travelled the lands of the Sun and the Moon, some of them delightful, some horrible, none perfect - or utterly evil - all very human. However, most of them hadn't crossed paths and some - like the boy Eric - had been spirited far away from the main action. I was concerned that it would be difficult to keep up the unity of the story once the Fair ended up in ashes. (I warned you - spoilers!)

I needn't have worried. Levene picks up the story exactly where she left it - in the cooling embers of the Fair - but drives it forward with, if anything, even greater verve and unity than in the first book. And while that was largely an introduction to her characters - Krish, goat herdsman/ missing king turned moon god, Dae Hyo, drunken warrior, Nethmi, a bride who stood up against an abusive husband and killed him, Olufemi, the mage who started it all off, and many others - here... here stuff gets read and they really begin to be. We also get some new characters. There is Cwen, one of the Hunter's hawks. I don't think I can easily convey how amazing Cwen is: she takes nonsense from nobody but is also miles away fro the archetypical "strong female character". There are sister and brother Algar and Alfreda, a pair of itinerant metalworkers who have invented something Very Important... and more.

Mix them up - the lost prince, the mage, the warrior woman. Add some fantasy tropes: the Prophesy, the reawakened gods. Stir. Invert. make something new and different. You can see it happening but, like the best magic, you can't see how it happens. Before the reader's eyes, the characters come alive and shape their world. Krish is supposedly the reincarnation of the god Yron, the Moon, who was vanquished millenia ago by his sister Mizhara, the Sun. His dark creatures haunt the land, his underground servants haunt mines and caverns, killing and eating any humans they find (so metals are scarce and expensive). Cwen and the other Hawks hunt them down without mercy.

Yet despite the evil Krish is a real person, a good person. he hasn't asked for the role of god, has no idea what to make of it and it's not his doing that half the continent wants to destroy him because of it. (The other half wants to destroy him because he happens to be the heir to a great empire, whose king - his father - he's prophesied to kill. But that's not his doing either).

All this was there in Smiler's Fair, but here the consequences start to pile up. The book deals in shades of grey. Both "sides", if there are "sides" here, are trying to do their best: there are no fantasy Dark Lords or White Riders. Though there is plenty of darkness, it is a more human, recognisable darkness. Slavery. Poverty. Religious fanaticism. The slaughter and rape of the Brotherband as they pillage their way across the land. These things aren't just part of the background ("that's just how it is in fantasy"), they raise questions, pose challenges to the characters (especially to Cwen and Krish). What is one to do when one's trusted allies are slavers? What is one to do when calling together forces to win a battle leaves distant villages exposed to the Brotherband?

The book is full of forced, least worst choices, attempts to keep some morality, some light in an ever darker world.

Very much, I think, a book for now. A magnificent, brave book, showing what fantasy can and should be - a mirror to the world, but a dark mirror.


Seveneves
Seveneves
by Neal Stephenson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.10

5.0 out of 5 stars An Epic..., 29 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Seveneves (Hardcover)
The first thing to say about this book - and it's the first thing you will notice - is that it's long. Massive. An 861 page whopper. If you find that daunting, it's understandable, but let me try and persuade you to try it!

For me, nothing Stephenson writes can be too long. Seveneves in particular, though, deserves its length. In this book - and it's not a spoiler - it is established early on that the world ends, and (almost) everybody dies, following the fragmentation of the Moon into a cloud of enormous rocks. Jostling against one another, these break up into ever smaller pieces in a runaway process, which fall to Earth (the "Hard Rain"). This rain of destruction doesn't just destroy directly, but heats the earth, making life impossible. And it lasts 5000 years. So, a bit subject: destruction of the human race, survival of a few but at a cost, and how those few might evolve in the far future.

The drama, then, in this first section - about one third of the book - is the reaction to the inevitable destruction: saying goodbye to all that has been, to friends, lovers, family, while building something for the future. This comes to a climax in that rain of fire, with final accounts transmitted to space where the remnant of humanity take shelter. And of course there is also selfishness, chicanery and attempts to carry the rivalries and flaws of Old earth into the future.

Stephenson builds up a lot of momentum with this first part of the story which he carries into the next section, where the orphaned human race - several hundred of them - must survive. It's very much a story of space derring-do, with some surprises, especially from the continuing vein of old-Earth politics. At the end, in a scene of almost religious weight and significance, the survivors make plans for the future and choose the fate of their descendants.

There is then a jump - those 5000 years! - to see what the choices came to, with earth being recolonized but humanity, in the meantime, comfortable settled in a space "habitat ring" around the planet. I've seen some reviewers confess to difficulty with this jump, and of course one does then have to pick up new characters, indeed pretty much a new story, the story of Kath Two, an explorer who teams up with a representative cross-section of the human races (the descendants of each of those ancestors) to investigate a mystery on Earth. For my part, I found it fairly easy at the story level. My enjoyment was only slightly diminished by a nagging feeling that the first two parts had only been written as a set-up for the third, and that the ending just couldn't be substantial enough to justify that. However, in the end I think that Stephenson manages to pitch the later part of the story at just the right level - there is less science and more action in this part, which is mainly set on Earth itself - and delivers a thrilling conclusion.

To sum up, this is an excellent, enjoyable read. It is long - but by the end I wished it was longer.


Silma Hill
Silma Hill
by Iain Maloney
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Devilish goings on, 29 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Silma Hill (Paperback)
If you pressed me to sum this book up in a few words, I'd say "modern gothic". Or perhaps, to make it absolutely clear, modern Gothick. There is an air about it of one of those tales where monstrous, freak events abound, people are buffeted and baffled and heroes tested.

The story is set in mid 18th century Scotland, somewhere on the west coast. Abdale is a remote village on the banks of a sea loch, set under Silma Hill with its circle of ancient standing stones.

The leading light of the village - or so he would like to think it Burnett, minister of the village. Mr Burnett is the minister of the village. Widowed, he lives with his sixteen year old daughter Fiona, whom he treats like a servant.

Though living in a backwater, Burnett has dreams of scientific glory, wishing to join the "Society" in the "capital" and contribute learned papers. (It's one of the marks of this book that while in one sense the setting is clear, in another, Abdale appears a bit placeless, or timeless, only loosely anchored in history: it's definitely an unusual place in religious terms with a - presumably ancient - cross at the centre of the village, and prayers for the departed). His opportunity comes when old Sangster, digging for peat on Silma Hill, finds an ancient wooded statue: Burnett determines to study this - even after Sangster drops dead and villagers begin to mutter about idolatry.

For me one of the best aspects of the book was the slow burn, the way that events - and accusations - then slowly take hold, gossip spreads, old rivalries and grudges are engaged. Maloney doesn't make it completely clear what is really at the bottom of it all - like that giant armoured head in The Castle of Otranto, the reality may be too big to grasp. Rather it's the reaction that he focusses on, or, I might say the overreaction - while some pretty strange events do take place, I'm not sure there's anything that is actually threatening or harmful. I was also absorbed by the character and contradictions of Burnett - preaching a loving God but beating his daughter; supposedly the voice of religion in his tiny parish while yearning for the scientific world of the "Society", rationalism and the enlightenment; forced by his office to lead the investigation of "witchcraft" which neither he (nor, apparently, any of the others involved) actually believes in.

While Burnett is not an admirable person his self-justifications are understandable and recognisably human, as are the no less ignoble reactions of the villagers at large. So we get denunciations, panic and a spiral of hatred. That part of the story seems more modern than anything (while this book is described as "historical", Maloney doesn't make it read as ye olde tyme speech, he's happy enough to throw in an "okay" or talk about "tuning in" to a conversation - making the whole thing more immediate, even if it might offend purists).

Overall, an enthralling and thought-provoking tale, especially once the story really gets moving. There were a couple of strands that I thought could have been given more detail - for example, the bad blood between Burnett and the local Sheriff, Dawkins, which isn't really explained although it is an important factor in what happens, and the shift in old Mrs Sangster from an almost bardic teller of ancient pagan tales to an accusing denouncer of witchcraft. However these are fairly minor points in the story overall.

Recommended.


We Shall Inherit the Wind (Varg Veum Book 1)
We Shall Inherit the Wind (Varg Veum Book 1)
Price: £3.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Impressive, 5 Jun. 2015
I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have a copy of this book to review.

This was the first time I'd heard of Norwegian private investigator Varg Veum, hero of a series of noirish detective novels. he's apparently famous in his adopted home town of Bergen where there is even a statue of him. One mark down for English insularity, then, and I'm glad Orenda Books have now made some of these available in the UK.

In this book, Varg is asked to investigate the disappearance of Mons Maeland, a businessman interested in bringing windfarms to a small island in the west of Norway. Mons has family troubles, there is oppositional from environmentalists to the windfarms, and also a fundamentalist religious faction on the island that looks upon such developments with dour disapproval.

For me, this mix of social and personal issues was fascinating. I don't know much about Norway and it's easy to assume that some very lazy Nordic stereotypes will apply - liberal, easygoing people, consensus on environmental issues and lots of pine furniture. So it's jarring and unexpected to see Veum asking, for example, whether "Dancing was allowed then?" and getting the answer "Not in all circles, of course". Or to see environmental campaigners resort to violence to stop wind turbines (of all things!)

Other aspects of the book are more familiar, perhaps - dodgy business deals, family tensions and inheritances.

It's less unsettling, but equally stimulating, to see cultural references such as to "the Havamal, an old Norse poem" or to the "potato pioneering priests of yore" establishing the book's atmosphere as very different from a crime novel set in England, Scotland or the US. This is a land of fjords, islands, bridges and ferries. Travel invariably requires a ferry or a boat. And our detective isn't an ex policeman but a retired social worker - but don't let that give you the impression he's any kind of pushover. "Varg" means "wolf" and Veum bares his teeth serveral times in the book, including facing up to a thug with the memorable phrase "Tell your mongrel to stay on its mat!" which I am determined to use myself one day.

In discovering what has happened to Maeland, however, Veum's greatest strength is his patient ability to unpick what he's told by wife, children, friends, the inhabitants of Brennoy and those militant environmentalists. The picture builds up, step by step: there are no blinding flashes of deduction or revelations from the forensics lab.

Veum's greatest weakness, perhaps, is his inability to leave things alone, which leads to disaster - indeed there are foreshadowings of that disaster through the early part of the book, from simple feelings of unease to the comment that a blind has been drawn has been drawn as Veum passes, as if to shut out evil.

Not having read any previous books about this detective I don't know much backstory, beyond the little given away here (an account of how he met his girlfriend and a tally, towards the end, of injuries he's suffered). This did mean I wasn't particularly invested in Veum as a character, seeing him more as a narrator, perhaps. However while not telling the reader a great deal, Staalsen hints a lot and I would imagine Veum has a distinctly chequered past which I look forward to reading more about

A good addition not just to the roster of Scandi detectives but also to the range of crime writing available in English. More please...

(NB I think the description above - "Varg Veum No 1" - is wrong, I'm pretty sure this isn't the first in the series, as I say in the review. Happy to be corrected on that if I'm wrong!)


The Way Out
The Way Out
by Vicki Jarrett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars The light and the dark, 27 May 2015
This review is from: The Way Out (Paperback)
I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

The way out contains 22 of Jarrett's (sometimes very) short stories. There are many gems: they reminded me of those moments when a glimpse of sunlight brightens a dull day... or when the cloud suddenly darkens a sunny one.

Sometimes this is literal, as in the first story where a papergirl on a rainy, dreary morning gets an unexpectedly straightforward, sunny welcome. Then she's back to a depressing life - we don't know if the glimpse of sunshine will sustain her, but hope exists. In others it's more a mood: for example in Home Security 1 and Home Security 2, which form a whole, there's an unwanted presence in the house that darkens the mood of a young woman - then she plays the same part herself for another.

We see heedless husbands and mothers, missing that moment of clarity or joy in the life of a child (How Not to Get eaten by Tigers, Rubble). We see the moment as one of gentle or not so gentle triumph, as in White Pudding Supper or (my favourite), 10 Types of Mustard where a waitress communicates perfectly - but wordlessly - with the girlfriend of a boorish customer. And we see in in gentle friendship as in Bingo Wings.

There are desperate people here - predominantly women - suffering loss, bereavement or simply being ground down. There is as much darkness as light, but between the two, Jarrett illuminates the world in a jumpy, flickering sort of way, like one of those 19th century animated toys. It's a kind of view that gives intense focus to small details which then prove to contain the whole.

These are delicious stories, if not always easy reading.


The Machine Awakes (The Spider Wars 2)
The Machine Awakes (The Spider Wars 2)
by Adam Christopher
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars The Spiders are coming!, 18 May 2015
Readers of Christopher's The Burning Dark and the e-only Cold War will know broadly what to expect - the setting is a thousand years in the future, with humanity, gathered together under the Fleet, fighting the alien hived-minded AI Spiders. Fighting, and slowly, relentlessly, losing.

Now, after the events of The Burning Dark, that failure is coming home to the Fleet. On Earth, dissident groups stir: a group of religious fanatics calling themselves The Morning Star worship Lucifer, the Fallen One. Crime syndicates flourish and assassins strike. Trying to keep the lid on all this is the Fleet Bureau of Investigation, whose Commander, Laurel Avalon, apparently has a family name to live up to. (We're not told exactly how: a satisfying piece of assumed backstory in Christopher's well-imagined universe).

The presence of Avalon and her Bureau signals from the start that, unlike the previous book, which was more of a ghost story, this is a mystery - though like The Burning Dark there is a good dash, too, of military SF with U-Stars (massive spaceships), battles against the Spiders, psi-Marines and that unrelenting, wartime feel. The move from an obscure and distant start to Earth - itself ravaged by the Spiders - shows how far humanity has been militarised: the Fleet doesn't just protect the human race, it IS the human race.

So when the highest in the Fleet is threatened, Avalon calls on her best agents - von Kodiak, under deep cover in a Casino Royale effort to take down a gambling concern, and Braben, his partner - to investigate. We see the story from their point of view and also from that of Cait, a young psi-Marine cadet who has gone on the run after her brother died fighting the Spiders. Cait is in many ways the heart and soul of this book, driven to the edge by what she's been through, manipulated, kidnapped, accused of murder but always fighting back on her own terms. A magnificently realised character, in fact the book does tend to lose pace slightly when it's not following her - but perhaps that is needed since there is simply so much action here.

A good successor to The Burning Dark, I'm really. really looking forward to the final part of the trilogy now.


Dreams of Shreds and Tatters
Dreams of Shreds and Tatters
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars le roi jaune vient, 17 May 2015
I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an e-copy of this book via Netgalley.

"Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa..."

Before HP Lovecraft, there was Robert W Chambers whose short stories featuring the Yellow King manage both to be spine chilling and to drip with a fin de siècle decadence that Lovecraft's later stories dropped in favour of out and out cosmic horror. In returning to the spirit of Chambers, and jettisoning much of Lovecraft's gambrelled language, Downum has created an impressively scary, world-weary narrative. While it's not perfect, this is a great read.

The story follows a group of artists - another Chambers trope that occurs in both his horror and other stories. It opens at Hallowe'en. There is an atmosphere of costume, of masks, of carnival. We're introduced to Blake and his partner Alain, two of the artists, and their mentor, Rainer. Downum skilfully portrays the tensions within the group and hints - with the appearance of those shadows - that more may be going on than simply artistic rivalry. And so it proves, and Blake's old friend Liz Drake, worrying because she hasn't heard from him for a while, arrives in Vancouver to investigate.

From that point the narrative is pretty much breakneck, involving devils, angels, ancient gods, a crime syndicate, the mysterious drug 'mania' which apparently gives access to a dreamworld that Liz has walked before, and much, much more. There is a cast of supporting characters - Liz's partner Alex, Rae, the mysterious Lailah - and my one criticism of the book would be that at times it can be hard to remember who is who: for me, Rae and Antja, Rainer's girlfriend, were too similar in character and motivation, to keep clear in my head, at least to begin with. But Liz in particular is so well realised that didn't really matter much. She's the one who has to perform the hero's quest, penetrate to the centre of the labyrinth and rescue the sleeping prince in a story that mashes up the tales of Theseus and the Minotaur, Orpheus and isis and Osiris with Chambers' original hints about the Yellow King. With regard to the latter, Downum successfully avoids saying too much about the King - much of the power of Chambers' stories is in hints and fragments and I've read other stories that totally ruin the effect by giving too much detail.

Another mistake she avoids is letting the story go too far into urban fantasy - which would, I think, make the supernatural enemies seem too neatly categorised and therefore not scary enough. There was a moment when I thought is was going that way - when we are told that 'like many younger cities in the new world, Vancouver lacked entrenched magical order...' and a Brotherhood is mentioned, but Downum handles these elements carefully as part of a whole which really works well.

She's also pretty erudite - we get chunks of Beowulf quotes as a sheer breadth of vocabulary which kept my Kindle looking up new words (Liz is a linguist, so this really makes sense). I now know what limerence, Deucalion, Utnapishtim and lagniappe are: I didn't manage to get a specific answer on witch boots but that one I can guess. There are also sly allusions to Lovecraft (the café Al Azrad, references to planes and angles) beyond the obvious subject matter. But apart from games like that, Downum can write - describing a "voice veined with smugness" or Liz's arrival in the dreamworld:

"...darkness ebbed, washing Liz ashore like so much driftwood. Her limbs were heavy, her head soft and dull and dream-sticky. Cold stone gouged her shoulder blades and leeched the warmth from her flesh: her hands and feet were numb. Her skin was tender and sunburn-raw. The rush of her pulse deafened her."

Downum generally manages though to avoid over-purple prose and has a nice way of brining her characters back down to earth (or whatever planet they're on). Liz "wore the T-shirt and underwear she'd fallen asleep in. Tourists never knew how to dress fot the local weather."

In short, this book is readable and engaging, with a well realised setting, good use of language and a driving, relentless plot. Strongly recommended.


Rexel Ice Popper Wallets A3 Clear (Pack Size 5)
Rexel Ice Popper Wallets A3 Clear (Pack Size 5)
Price: £14.75

5.0 out of 5 stars Robust product, 13 May 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Like another reviewer I was sent the A5 rather than A3 sized wallets, but I would assume the quality and design is the same across the range.

These are good no nonsense products with nice fastenings and seem very sturdy. The A5 size would be useful for storing photographs, Christmas cards or letters (if you still have those on paper!) - obviously less useful for transporting business or school papers due to dimensions.


All That Outer Space Allows (Apollo Quartet Book 4)
All That Outer Space Allows (Apollo Quartet Book 4)
Price: £2.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent SF, 10 May 2015
I'm grateful to the author for sending me a preview e-book copy of this. I will be ordering the hardback from his website as soon as it's available - from which you'll not be surprised to hear that I really, really enjoyed it.

This is the fourth part of the Apollo quartet, which draws on the real US space programme to explore alternate realities and counterfactuals. The books have become increasing wide ranging. The first saw a group of astronauts in a prolonged Apollo programme stranded on the Moon, while the second reached out to Mars and beyond with the neatest and most logical solution to the Fermi paradox I've ever seem. The third part returned to Earth and branched out to look as deep sea exploration, a comparable endeavour to landing humans on the Moon, but also at the 1960s US female astronaut programme, a little known part of the space effort that wasn't allowed to get far in the face of all that Right-Stuff 50s and 60s testosterone.

In a sense, the final book continues this theme. It focuses on Ginny, the wife of a (fictional) astronaut who Sales slots into a real mission, Apollo 15. It is a very clever book, grappling both with 60s gender expectations (Ginny is expected to do everything to be a perfect helpmeet to her husband: it's hinted that his chance of getting on a mission will be reduced if she doesn't) and also with the development and history of the SF community. It is, therefore, very much a part of the current argument over diversity in SF and illustrates precisely how a book whose immediate preoccupation is not with spaceships, alien planets and derring-do can nevertheless reflect humanity's place and future in the universe.

I realise that saying a book is "clever" may be seen as damning it but I'm not doing that! It is well written and has a subtle, layered structure following Ginny's life as both astronaut's wife and SF writer. Because in this version of the 1960s, science fiction is mainly written by, and read by, women (and consequently despised, plus ca change...) to the extent that male authors may need to adopt a female writing name. So Ginny's cramped, controlled life contrasts with the leaps of her imagination and we seen her both plotting stories (some of which will have familiar echoes) and engaging in communication with the wider SF community. We even have one of her stories. (In pre-Internet days, this is done by post of course).

At the same time there is some commentary on Ginny's writing via inserted material but this is from yet another reality, in which, as in our world, SF is assumed a largely male preserve. I'd argue that despite the apparent absence of overt SF features, these layers - and there is also an authorial commentary which makes no bones about the fictional nature of the story, and even discusses the choices behind the plot (Ginny's husband was previously stationed in Germany, so she's unaware of certain things such as the Mercury female astronauts, for example).

There is a lot more than this to the book, indeed there is a remarkable amount in its 158 pages. It is in many respects a monument to the achievement of women as part of the science fiction community, and a rebuke to those who are pushing back against diversity in the genre today. But it's also beautifully written and closes off the arc of the Quartet stories in a truly satisfying way.


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