Mar 05 2019

After the Eclipse by Fran Dorricott

Cassie Warren is a hot mess, and for pretty good reason. Now entering her third decade of life, she’s recently lost her job as a journalist as well as her relationship and flat in London, and come back to Bishop’s Green, a town that fully capitalizes off the mysticism of its surrounds, to look after her ailing grandmother. Unfortunately, Bishop’s Green doesn’t exactly evoke the best memories. Sixteen years ago, on the day of a solar eclipse, Cassie’s 11 year-old younger sister Olive went missing during the town’s celebrations. Cassie was supposed to be watching her but wanted to make out with her new-found love, and the entangling of the trauma with her burgeoning sexuality has really done Cassie’s head in. Nowadays she self-medicates with alcohol and sleeping pills, but she’s trying to stay sober as she looks after her beloved Gran.

Trouble is, another little girl has gone missing just as another eclipse looms around the corner. Unable to shake the similarities with Olive’s disappearance, Cassie throws herself into investigating what happened to Grace Butler, extending her journalistic services to the girl’s mother as a sympathetic ear who will focus on amplifying the human costs of the case, the kind of support she wishes her family had had all those years ago. But her involvement soon draws the eye of a serial criminal who will not hesitate to harm the ones she loves in order to deter her pursuit.

I really enjoyed unraveling poor Cassie’s perilous inner state, even as I thought it was silly that, of all the people she felt she had to protect from physical harm, a trained police officer was one of them. Marion was 100% better suited to getting into dangerous situations, Cassie. That said, I did enjoy the way Fran Dorricott laid down the twisting paths that pointed to the guilt of various inhabitants of Bishop’s Green. For the longest time, I was convinced the perp was someone quite different from whom it actually was. And while I enjoyed the ending, I did not at any point in the proceedings care for Cassie’s dad. It’s patently unfair for an adult to blame a 14 year-old for the disappearance of her 11 year-old sister, especially when his anger was clearly fueled by his own guilt. And then to allow her distrust of him to impair their relationship is so much horseshit. Terrible, selfish parenting, especially considering what else Cassie goes through growing up.

Anyway, a promising debut from Ms Dorricott that centers a lesbian protagonist trying to break the violent cycle of the past. Interview with the author to come soon!

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Mar 03 2019

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

My first reaction upon finishing this book was to e-mail the friend who’d sent it to me and ask if she was okay, primarily because this is the latest in a string of sexual assault revenge fantasies she’s been recommending to me. Fortunately, she is alright and the theme has been entirely coincidental, but Elmet is the kind of book to make you look at the rest of your life and wonder whether you should be asking questions.

The best of these questions are, to a certain extent, political. I’ve considered myself a centrist social democrat for years (despite living in America, where the terms together combine to mean “stinking commie” for the average person. They barely even register in the political consciousness of most Malaysians, amongst whom I lived before this,) but Elmet had me leaning quite radically leftward in a “Down With Landowners! Hurray Nationalization!” sort of way given the privations that our main characters, a small family of three, have to undergo. And don’t @ me, I know full well that the real problem is lack of accountability no matter who is in charge: I just very much appreciated Fiona Mozley’s skill in eliciting this reaction.

Anyhoo, after a grade school incident involving Cathy, the daughter, followed by the death of their Grandma Morley, our family ups stakes from suburban life and moves to live off the land in Yorkshire. Cathy is devoted to Daddy, a giant of a man who finances their lifestyle with various illegal but not necessarily immoral pursuits. At the age of seventeen, she is feral and tough and deceptively strong. Her younger brother, Daniel, prefers domesticity over the outdoors, and takes pride in his cooking and decorating. He’s also more attached to Vivien, the neighbor Daddy’s asked to help educate the children, than restless Cathy is.

Their years of idyll are brought to an end when local landowner, Prince, discovers that they’ve built a house on his (untended) property. A corrupt man, Prince prefers to own rather than to lead, and soon sets himself and Daddy on a violent collision course. The chapters leading directly up to the climactic scene of the novel leave you with a sick feeling of oppression, as it looks like our family will be destroyed cruelly and cheaply. Fortunately, this it not (entirely) the case, but I did not find it a fun read and felt the catharsis too small when measured against the misery of the rest of it. Daniel and Vivien’s last few exchanges were especially heart-breaking for me, and I get that people are selfish and don’t change but eh. If I wanted to experience that, I’d just turn on the news.

I also didn’t particularly care for the style of Ms Mozley’s writing. While there were certainly lovely bits of woodland prose, there were also ponderous descriptions of, say, how the family cooks lamb chops that were unnecessarily belaboured. And as sex positive as I like to be, I’m pretty sure Daniel was still a minor and not legally able to give consent, no matter how he welcomed certain sexual advances. While I appreciated his seeming obliviousness as to gender, I didn’t think it made any sense that neither Cathy or Daddy asked him if he needed new clothes or a haircut, especially given the amount of time spent describing Daddy’s grooming habits. Also, the entire reaction to what happened to Cathy at school made no goddamned sense. Instead of kicking up a righteous fuss, Daddy just apologizes then essentially runs away? It seems completely out of character with the rest of his behavior.

Anyway, I can see why Elmet was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker but it wasn’t for me. Now to figure out how to say all this to the friend who sent me the novel…

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Mar 02 2019

Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi

There are lots of really great things about this book. The world-building is A++, with an excellent, well-described magic system and a very rich fantasy setting that is gloriously and unapologetically Afrocentric. The plot skips along briskly, and the depictions of rage and righteous anger are both compelling and wholly convincing. I liked that there was discussion as to whether magic should come back to Orisha, but thought, honestly, that some of the arguments against were so facile as to warrant more brevity than they were given. The question of arming insurgents is always a tricky one, but if the alternative is their continued oppression, to the point of eradication, what choice is there? Principles that allow for genocide aren’t moral principles at all.

Anyway, several years ago, the Orishan king managed to both eradicate and outlaw magic, killing all the adult hereditary magic users and stopping their children from being able to access their powers come puberty. Zelie is one of these children, marked with her white hair and dark skin. She, her family and her village are struggling to survive as the king increases taxes on those “harboring” people like her. In desperation, she and her brother, Tzain, travel to the capital to sell a rare fish to raise money for said taxes.

In Lagos, Zelie becomes embroiled in a plot to return magic to Orisha, courtesy of crown princess Amari. Amari’s older brother and heir to the throne, Inan, is sent to recover her, even as he hides a shameful magic-related secret of his own. The hunt to recover Amari and thwart her quest forms the rest of the book.

Much as with Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel Of The Sands, there’s a lot of potential here, but also a lot of “huh, what?” moments. The need to flee Chandomble made no sense given how difficult it was to breach in the first place, and there were a lot of weirdly rushed emotional notes, such as Amari’s final confrontation with her dad. Normal debut stuff (tho I cringed a bit to read that Tomi Adeyemi teaches creative writing,) but that’s part of the trouble: so much perfectly normal, perfectly average YA fantasy shenanigans. Only the world-building truly sets it apart from the other stuff out there. As with Ms Hamilton’s series, however, I’m hoping that this one crescendos to something truly remarkable, and am looking forward to eventually finding out for myself firsthand.

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Feb 26 2019

Last Night (The Searchers #2) by Karen Ellis

This starts out as a stunningly impressive display of teenage emotion, bringing together three kids — Crisp, the biracial overachiever; Glynnie, the privileged white wild child, and JJ, the street kid doing whatever it takes to survive — on a night of reckless camaraderie that turns into a really bad time when adult criminals get involved. The cops looking, at first separately, into the disappearances of Crisp and Glynnie, have their own compelling stories, but for some reason the book gets bogged down about two thirds of the way through, in what was up till then a taut thriller of intertwining narratives. I’m not sure if it has more to do with the muddle of Crisp’s dad knowing Dante, or with the absolute ludicrousness of the up-till-then sympathetic Detective Lex Cole freaking out about his boyfriend’s whereabouts, but it feels like the story spins out of control, at least tone-wise. It’s a little bit like the disorienting feeling of having to go back to one’s responsible daily life after a night-long bender, where you kind of hate everyone and just want the day to be over with so you can finally get some sleep. Somewhat fitting given the events of the book, but not the most pleasant reading experience.

I was actually pretty surprised to dislike Lex after his awesome role in the first book, A Map Of The Dark. Some jealousy is understandable, but his reaction at the end was just petty. I’m hoping the next book features Det Saki Findlay and dives into how her unusual mind works. And I’m really, really glad that the book ends the way it does, because it would have absolutely broken my heart if any of those kids had been damaged beyond repair. Karen Ellis is really good at getting you to care about the kids who are the main focus of this series, and I can’t wait to read more of her stuff.

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Feb 25 2019

All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin

For a number of years, I was worried that Boris Akunin’s English-language publishers (the estimable Weidenfeld & Nicolson) had despaired of finding an audience for the Russian mystery writer’s work, and I would have to read the remaining stories in German and miss out on Andrew Bromfield’s witty translations, or really really really improve my Russian. In 2017, though, W&N returned publishing Akunin’s long-running series about Erast Fandorin, bringing out the eleventh book in the series, All The World’s a Stage. A twelfth, Black City, came out in 2018; two more novels, Planet Water and Not Saying Goodbye, as well as a collection of shorter tales, Jade Rosary Beads, await English translation.

All of which is to say that this deep in the series is probably not the best place to start. The Winter Queen, the first in the series, is probably not the best starting point either. I think that Akunin spent the first book figuring out what he was doing. The ones that come after, are more tightly plotted, better written, more vivid, and slyer. Turkish Gambit or Murder on the Leviathan are where I would start, if I were new to the series. They are also recognizable comments on established subgenres of mysteries, so readers unfamiliar with pre-revolutionary Russia will recognize the contours of the story, even if the settings, actions and modes of address are foreign.

Fandorin is the Russian Sherlock Holmes, with the benefit of a century of development in detective stories, so that the tales are not only interesting in and of themselves, but also for how Akunin addresses the conventions of the genre, and either follows them or subverts them. The author’s name is already a hint that he is going to play around with readers’ expectations. “Boris Akunin” is the nom de plume of Grigory Chkhartishvili (გრიგორი ჩხარტიშვილი, for the Georgian readers out there), and the surname roughly means “bad guy” in Japanese — Fandorin has extensive Japanese connections that are revealed over the course of the series. In Russian, names are often written with just the first initial and the surname; “B. Akunin” compresses to Bakunin, one of the best-known anarchist thinkers in the Russian tradition. Readers are thus forewarned that things are not as they seem.

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Feb 24 2019

Expedition zu den Polen by Steffen Moeller

Steffen Möller’s second genial book about Poland and Germany takes the train ride from Berlin to Warsaw as his frame to share more anecdotes from a life lived in both countries. Möller’s engagement with Poland began more or less on a lark, when he signed up for a language seminar in Krakow in the mid-1990s. Not long after, he returned to teach German to unsuspecting young Poles. Some years later, and after publishing two books in Polish, he landed a role in the long-running soap opera “M jak Miłość,” (L like Love, which ended in December 2018 after 19 seasons and 1422 episodes). He played an immigrant potato farmer who can’t quite find a nice Polish girl to settle down with; the role made him a minor celebrity in Poland, possibly the best-known German who was neither a politician nor an athlete.

Expedition zu den Polen (the title translates literally as Expedition to the Poles, and carries the same pun on polar exploration in German that it does in English) was published in 2012, and Möller opens the book with a series of optimistic observations about Poland’s overall development, how it had weathered the 2008 financial crisis better than most European countries, and how his fellow Germans were largely missing the positive transformation of their neighbor of 40 million people. Möller contrasts Poland’s development with that of his home town, Wuppertal, somewhat tongue in cheek but nonetheless pointedly observing Wuppertal’s loss of population, shrinking public amenities, and general decline. I’ve been to Wuppertal a lot over the years, and it’s not as bad as all that, but the general point is valid: Wuppertal grew on nineteenth-century industry, the end of the twentieth was hard on it, and its path in the twenty-first has been uneven and uncertain.

The book really gets underway when he arrives at Berlin’s main train station for the 0637 Eurocity that runs to Warsaw East, via Berlin East, Frankfurt an der Oder, Rzepin, Swiebodzin, Poznan, Konin, and Warsaw Central. Each of these stops marks a chapter in the book, and for each chapter Möller also lists the distance, the travel time, a particular culture shock, and a Polish word or phrase appropriate to that leg of the trip. These range from “rajzefiber,” travel fever and an exact Polish transcription of the German word, to “super buty,” nice shoes, or “stara bieda,” literally “the old poverty,” but more metaphorically either “the old misery” or “same old, same old,” and according to Möller a common Polish answer to the question of how one is doing.

Möller is enough of a regular on the Berlin-Warsaw Express that he knows the conductors by name, and the Polish conductor on this train, Pan Mirek, becomes a regular character in Möller’s anecdotes from the trip. On the train, everyone has a reserved seat, but Möller spend most of his time in the dining car, where he strikes up conversations with various people as they pass the time there, or remains content to observe and listen to others. He tells his stories in short sections, seldom more than three or four pages and often less than two, so that the book glides by as swiftly and easily as the north European plain between the two capitals. They relate either incidents from one particular Berlin-to-Warsaw trip or more generalized observations about aspects of life in Poland, with a leavening of background about particular stops gleaned from other trips and stories from other parts of Poland. He’s not averse to the occasional, brief, infodump (a page and a half about Adam Michnik) or embedded listicle (matching Polish license tags with area of origin, or the canon of literature that Polish high school students should have read).

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Feb 22 2019

A Map of the Dark (The Searchers #1) by Karen Ellis

Insofar as flawed protagonists go, this was a surprisingly satisfying novel. At “only” 290 pages, it isn’t a dense novel, which works in its favor, honestly, as it keeps the plot moving. I can’t help but compare and prefer it to Tana French’s mystifyingly overrated Dublin Murder Squad series. Sure Ms French has moments of delightful prose, but her mysteries, when she bothers to solve them, feel inorganic, and the actual procedural parts are so annoyingly bad as to be almost laughable. Her characters are also lamentably stupid. Flawed is one thing, dumb as hell quite another.

Karen Ellis isn’t quite as good a prose stylist as Ms French, but she’s 100% better at story and characterization. A Map Of The Dark follows FBI Special Agent Elsa Myers as she’s pulled away from her dying father’s bedside to consult on the case of a missing girl. The police officer who originally caught the case, Detective Lex Cole, has specially requested her expertise, as something doesn’t feel right to him about Ruby’s disappearance (and let me tell you, it’s super duper nice to read of different jurisdictions coming together with very little friction to stop criminals and save lives. For this and quite a few other reasons, Lex is awesome.)

Elsa tries to focus on the case, but her father’s illness and the recent sale of her childhood home are bringing up unwanted memories of the abusive mother she adored. Her relationship with her younger sister Tara and her niece Mel are also tested as Mel insists on helping to find Ruby, even as the stress of the situation begins to affect both Tara and Elsa in ugly ways.

I really enjoyed how Elsa’s past was slowly revealed as the search for the missing girl progressed, and how the kidnapper’s own hideous childhood came into play. Elsa’s conflicting feelings were moving and wholly convincing. I did have qualms about what she did in her showdown with the kidnapper, but the final revelation as to her past went a long way towards explaining her drastic and highly illegal reaction. I also enjoyed the authorial tricks with perspective, even if I couldn’t call myself truly surprised by any of the plot twists. Still, a very entertaining novel that is more than competently written, and honestly head and shoulders better than some of the more acclaimed thrillers out there. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel soon!

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Feb 21 2019

An Interview with Gareth L Powell, author of Fleet Of Knives

Q. Every series has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did the Embers Of War series evolve?

A. The initial idea came when I was reading an article about the Titanic disaster, and idly started wondering what would happen if a star liner crashed in a distant system. Everything else grew from there.

Q. Fleet Of Knives is a novel that focuses on war and the elimination thereof, bringing to mind various conflicts of our own Earth’s past. Were there any particular ones that you referenced while writing the book?

A. There are some obvious parallels between Alva Clay’s experiences crawling through the sentient jungles and the war in Vietnam. Around the time I was writing the first book, I was re-reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which is a book of extraordinary short stories set during the conflict. Beyond that, I guess my main touchstones were the US bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Can such a monstrous crime really be morally justified because the perpetrators believe it will end the war and save more lives than it takes? And what would the weight of that responsibility do to a person? And what further horrors might they be willing to unleash in order to prevent another war?

Q. Will we see Laura Petrushka in the third novel? Please? Pretty please?

A. I’m afraid Laura’s tale has been told.

Q. Do you write with any particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will
connect with this story?

A. I hope the series will connect with people who enjoy the space opera of Iain M Banks, Becky Chambers, Peter F Hamilton and Ann Leckie.

Q. What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”

A. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but the first book that made me think I could really do it was William Gibson’s Burning Chrome, which took the action away from the super competent space captains and brought everything down to the level of the street. It made me realise everything didn’t have to be white and shiny like Star Trek, it could be dirty and relatable too.

Q. What made you choose speculative fiction, and particularly military sci-fi, as your means of expression?

A. I’m not sure I would class the Embers series as military sci-fi, as the term seems to come freighted with various expectations. But I’ve wanted to write sci-fi since the first Star Wars movie came out. I was six years old at the time, and there was no going back.

Q. How did you learn to write?

A. I studied English at O Level and A Level, and then studied creative writing as part of my course at university. Then, once I’d been out of academia for seven or eight years, I realised I had to jettison everything I’d learned and start from scratch if I wanted to develop a clean, engaging style of my own.

Q. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?

A. I write when I feel like, but as often as possible.

Q. Are you a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter?

A. I usually have a two- or three-page outline covering the general points of the plot. Everything else evolves
organically as I write.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. At the time of writing this, I’m reading Aliette de Bodard’s excellent novella, The Tea Master & The Detective, and I highly recommend it.


Author Links

Gareth L Powell



Fleet Of Knives was published in the US on February 19th 2019 and may be found at all good booksellers. My review of the book itself may be found here.

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Feb 20 2019

Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

There’s a lot of ick in the ten tales that comprise Pump Six and Other Stories. Most of the settings are dystopias of one sort of another — mostly near-ish future, mostly Asian-inflected, mostly involving some sort if environmental collapse — and most of the characters in the stories are either horrible people in and of themselves, or wind up doing horrible things. Over time, I have read rather a lot about the history of Germany, Russia, and Central Europe, so I have more than a passing familiarity with how horrible people can be to each other; perhaps I should have just set the book aside as Not For Me and let it go at that.

The stories were originally published between 1998 and 2008; five of them first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, two in Asimov’s, and the rest elsewhere, except for the title story, which is original to the collection.

“The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man” share a setting with Bacigalupi’s first novel The Windup Girl. In that world, natural crops have collapsed globally, and the only remaining crops that can provide sustenance are tightly controlled by multinational companies that effectively determine how many calories each person can have. The fossil-fuel economy has also fallen apart, and energy is provided by newfangled (and slightly handwavy) clockwork, sometimes wound by genetically recreated mammoths. It’s a striking setting, and probably a fun one to write about. “The Calorie Man” is also interesting for being set in the remains of the United States but told through the eyes of characters who escaped disaster in India and rebuilt their lives in New Orleans. I don’t think the setting works economically, but it’s probably not fair to poke quite so hard at a world that’s clearly devised as a warning.

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Feb 19 2019

Fleet of Knives (Embers of War #2) by Gareth L. Powell

Oh, man, Book 3 cannot come fast enough!

I readily admit that I don’t remember a whole lot from the first book, which was an intriguing novel of ideas that somehow lacked an ability to engage me emotionally. Fleet Of Knives certainly doesn’t suffer from that problem! We open with Captain Sal Konstanz on a pilgrimage of sorts, with her ship Trouble Dog on overwatch. Sal is trying to patch things up with security officer Alva Clay after the events of the last novel, and the two women reach a sort of tentative peace even as they become aware of the suspicions that the rest of humanity hold against the Marble Armada, as the unmanned fleet that Sal, Alva and Trouble Dog discovered is now known. They soon have more immediate things to worry about, however, when their bosses at the House Of Reclamation send them to the edge of alien Nymtoq territory in response to a distress call from human starship Lucy’s Ghost.

Lucy’s Ghost is captained by Lucky Johnny Schultz, a rogue trader pushed to the limits of legality to pay his crew. To this end, he’s decided to have them raid an abandoned, if still venerated, Nymtoq generation ship, but finds that their passage through hyperspace has brought along unwelcome visitors.

Elsewhere in the known universe, former poet Ona Sudak has been found guilty of war crimes, and is set to face execution. But the Marble Armada has plans that will set her on a collision course with Trouble Dog, even as she plots to save the Human Generality from itself.

This book was such a ride, switching quickly and smoothly between points of view to present a really terrific space opera. The personalities of all involved felt so alive, even as everyone worked towards their different ends. Gareth Powell plots deftly, and writes with an eye for both action and humor. When I hit the last page, I nearly jumped out of my seat with outrage: I want to know what happens next, and now! That said, it’s a good ending — I hate when books feel incomplete and this one certainly doesn’t. I’m just impatient for the rest of the story! FoK also contains the best two-word chapter I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.

Interview with Mr Powell himself to come soon!

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