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D. Harris (Oxford, UK)

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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: £15.52

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.

Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction
Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction
by Hannu Rajaniemi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable, dazzling both in range and skill, 8 May 2015
I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have a preview copy of this book from Netgalley.

I'd previously read Rajaniemi's three Jean le Flambeur novels, but I was aware that he'd also written short stories so - now that Flambeur is completed - it was good to see these collected and have an opportunity to explore what else this writer has done.

They are impressively wide ranging. While some cover similar territory to the novels - far future advanced tech transcending any division between "real" and "artificial" intelligence, others explore horror, the supernatural and even fairytales. There are also a couple of experiments in writing, including a story in blocks that can be read in different orders (these were originally selected for the reader via a brain activity monitor) and a collection of Twitter sized "microstories".

Far from being mere expositions of technological futures or other tropes, the writing, as a whole, display a real facility for developing and conveying characters. For example, "Deus ex Homine" is set in a near future where an AI plague can give people godlike powers and the urge to express these capriciously. While a war rages against the "godplague", love and desire still flourish among both changed and unchanged humans. "Elegy for a Young Elk" shares this background, I think, developing the theme of humanity and human-ness continuing in an apparently alien setting. "The Server and the Dragon" is another beautiful, if sad, story that explores what happens when a self-aware but lonely relay beacon makes a fried.

Other stories have something of a fairytale atmosphere, for example "Tyche and the Ants" which focuses on a young girl growing up on a moonbase surrounded by a crowd of imaginary (?) friends. The titular "ants" - metallic, robot intruders - disturb this life, forcing her to grow up very quickly. And "His Master's Voice" follows an intelligent self-aware pair of animals - a dog and cat - whose master has been imprisoned. Apart from the pun in the title - the dog has a singing career and name which echo the famous HMV logo - the story is played straight, and Rajaniemi manages to make both animals authentically animal but also more, reflecting the enhancements and changes that have been applied to them. "The Jugand Cathedral" is another markedly SF story, but like the others in this volume, it has real heart, exploring how restrictions on the use of technology to help a woman with disabilities might be creatively flouted.

"The Haunting of Apollo A7LB" is either a ghost story, or science fiction, or probably both. Apollo A7LB is a space suit displayed in a museum, and it seems that it's not as empty as you'd think.
"Ghost Dogs" is, as the title suggests, very much another ghost story but it's left teasingly unclear who the ghosts are and what has produced them

"Fisher of Men" is a haunting yet satisfying story drawing on Finnish myth (as do a number of the others in the collection - an interesting contrast to the stark futurism of the three novels). "The Viper Blanket" is another in the same vein, as is "The Oldest Game" which describes what happens when a young man, running from trouble, seeks death.

"Invisible" Planets, inspired by Italo Calvino, is composed of tales, fragments of descriptions of varied worlds collected by a "darkship" on its travels. Why, and what they amount to, only becomes clear when the ship itself interrogates its memories and allows them to transform it.

"Paris, In Love" is simply a delightful love story - in which the City of Love herself falls for a young man. Not an admirer you would want to spurn, or provoke to jealousy. Rajaniemi handles this idea brilliantly, making what happens both weirdly improbably and deeply believable at the same time.

Those are just some of the highlights of this volume. Impressive in both its range and sympathy, it's also - where required - devastatingly hard in its SF. The stories stand up in themselves and are extremely readable, yet it also serves as a dazzling introduction to the author's range and capabilities.

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: £13.59

3 of 4 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

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.

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