Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Short Break

 Hi everyone,

Apologies, but we're holding posts for a few weeks, while one of us is in the hospital.

We intend to be back as soon as possible!

Thanks for all your support and understanding.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax - Andrew Cartmel

 The Vinyl Detective is a mystery and a lifestyle all in one. The protagonist is a man interested in obscure jazz. And vinyl. Someone whose hobby has not consumed their life as much as become an integrated part of it. Someone for whom digging around in second hand bins at charity shops in search of that one elusive release with the limited run slip, or a B-side that nobody’s seen in thirty years.

It’s natural then to turn that hobby, that lifestyle, into a job. And Cartmel does that for us perfectly, with the eye of an expert. With affection, tinged with wry humour that shows that our interests are shaping us even as we define them. There’s a love here, a warmth for collectors and hobbyists of all kinds. In a lot of ways, the story is like a cup of hot tea on a cold winter evening. It leaves you with the same sense of contentment and satisfaction, and it fits around you like a well-fitting shoe, or washes off the page into the soul like, well, some particularly good Coltrane. There’s a mystery, and we can talk about that too, but the heart of this feels to me like a blend of domesticity and discovery. Of taking joy in the small things, in searching out that 1920’s vinyl you’ve never seen before, of finding hidden treasure between blank covers - and taking it home, and putting it on the player, just to see what it sounds like. There’s a quietly human transcendence to those moments, and so to this story, which captures them so well. 

The story, well, that’s something else. Our nameless protagonist is approached by a mysterious woman, on behalf of an even more mysterious patron, to find a rare record. Why someone wants that particular record, and why they’re willing to pay quite so much to find it, is at least initially unclear. Things quickly spiral out of control, as our hero discovers that other parties are also in search of this record, and are prepared to do anything, including kill, to keep hold of it. And their own patron is of dubious reliability at best. But it’s a great adventure piece, which makes digging through record bins at flea markets into high adventure, and blends that prosaic joy with the simmering tension of a noir investigation, and the occasional explosion of gunfire. Over the course of the story, the central mystery unfurls, and its all, just, rather a lot of fun. While there are revelations, and while they can knock you for six and turn your head, they never feel unfair. The reader may be one step behind the protagonist, but they have as much of an opportunity to put all the pieces together. And all the pieces of the mystery lock together into a satisfying, cathartic conclusion. 

In the end, this is a fun, cozy mystery with an innovative premise, which it uses well in service to a compelling story. If you dig this sort of thing, it’s going to be a good read.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind - Jackson Ford


The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind not only has a great title, it’s a fun sci-fi adventure, filled with banter, explosions, and a delightful found-family set of character dynamics. Oh, and a girl who can move shit with her mind. It’s a fun-filled mystery, a thriller, an adventure, and, did I mention, there’s a girl who can move shit with her mind? It’s well paced, compelling without being frantic, a page turner, but it’s the sheer ebullient fun  of it all that kept me coming back.

It helps that it’s written by an author whose stuff I’ve always enjoyed, but this is a new series, and one you can come to fresh.

Teagan Frost is the Girl of the title. And I have to say, I have time for her. Teagan is smart, and knows what she wants. Which is, basically, to live a normal life. Eat great food at nice restaurants. Maybe watch some trashy television. And learn to cook. Teagan has dreams which are at once prosaic and vast. The only known telekinetic, she doesn’t want to rule the world, or form a league of superheroes. Teagan would like to run a restaurant. And be normal. And that sheer urge to be normal, to have the life she can see on television, and in the city all around her, is heartbreaking and wonderful at once. Because Teagan’s life isn’t set up to be normal. She’s an involuntarily black bag operator for the US government, saved from being experimented on only by her willingness to go out and do whatever she’s told - stealthily bugging drug lords, for example. The juxtaposition of Teagan’s desire for a normal life with the work she actually does, and the powers at her command, is one of the most wonderful parts of the story. You can feel for a woman who would just like to go open up a place that makes really good Bahn Mi, but has to be an Operator instead, and isn’t overly happy about it.

Teagan is the everywoman we need, struggling with memories from her past that she’d rather forget, trying to make a decent future for herself, despite the situation she’s in. A reluctant heroine, to say the least, and she certainly doesn’t think of herself that way - wanting to be left alone to cook and listen to her tunes, rather than save the world.

And helping her do the latter, rather than the former, is her team. They’re all part of this black ops squad for different but similar reasons. Somewhere along the line, they made a mistake, and had their feet pulled from the fire in exchange for access to their special set of skills. Or, to be fair, they enjoy being paid large sums of money. Themselves sarcastic, opinionated, and constantly rubbing their rough edges against each other, the team is mismatched, often hostile, and struggling to work together effectively as the story begins. Still, they’re the human element, believable in their pettiness, in their struggles, in their effort to shape their own destinies. ANd there’s a pearl at the heart, a sense that the group could come together to be something really special, if they were willing to try. That energy, that dynamic, the affections and the bickering, make the group real, make you care.

I’ll say this, too. The author knows how to write a city. I’ve never wanted to go to LA, but seeing it through Teagan’s eyes made me feel, just for a little while, like I’d seen its soul. There’s bright lights and dark thoughts, but also an energy, a crackling in the soul, that you can see in the restaurateurs, in the gang members, in the police response, even. There’s love and faith and broken hearts, betrayals and moments of true hope. And the city weaves its way through it all, from traffic-clogged highway to charming public library and glistening office skyscrapers. The heat, the shade, and the search for truth are there in LA, the moral ambiguities and the need for justice. You can feel it in the city as it breathes - and that the city feels this alive is impressive, and marvellous.

I won’t touch the story, except to say that it’s a lot of fun. There’s explosions, fast cars and chases of all sorts. There’s villains of various degrees of sympathy. Stuff blows up real good. And in the quieter moments, in between all the things, ha, flying through the air, we can think about the people we are, the people we want to be, and how to bridge the gap between the two. But there’s a heck of a lot of thrills and spills on that journey, for sure. And this is a story that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat, keep you turning pages to see what happens next, and keep you caring about it, too. It’s a great start to a series, and one I want to read more of - and I bet you will, too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The House of Styx - Derek Künsken

The House of Styx  is, at its core, a tale of family. It’s about the arguments which divide us, the shared moments which bind us together. The traits that we pick up from our parents, our siblings, our children. The ideals and the flaws that we pass on, or that we absorb through osmosis. It’s a story of one family, doing extraordinary things to survive, and maybe changing the world.

It’s also, and I can’t forget this, a story about Venus. Because that’s where our protagonists are, hanging in the cloud belts of Venus. Their bedraggled, run down, on-the-edge-of-perdition craft teeters from layer to layer, resource harvesting giving the means for a subsistence living, albeit one with at least the illusion of freedom.  Family is the narrative centre of the story, but the heart of it is Venus. Every decision, every moment, is shrouded in actions which the environment makes necessary. The howling acid storms leave each individual very alone against the night, and find families hunkered together in tight knit universes of their own construction. Each craft in this Venusian society, this colonial society, is surrounded by a world which is trying to kill them, and won’t even notice if it succeeds.

Künsken’s prose is evocative, and shapes a Venus which is wonderful and terrible in equal measure. The cloud layers are all different, and the Venusian surface is a sight rarely visible. Being on that surface, rarer still. With its hostility, its searing winds, crushing pressures and generally horrifying weather, it’s still somehow a place that feels alien and new. A stark and unknown sea, with desolation yes, but also a kind of stark and lethal beauty. This is a Venus which feels like an entity in itself, brought to life by Künsken’s vivid descriptions as we walk alongside some compelling characters.

And they’re an odd bunch, that’s a fact. Colonials, descendants of Qubequois, sent out to scrabble on the scraps of the solar system nobody wanted. The settlers in turn separated from the separatists, and now Venus is their own. And beneath both these layers of stubborn independence and anti-colonialism, live our family, whose choices decades before have doomed them to the margins of a marginal society. From the adolescent struggling with their identity, to the father so stubbornly ensconced in his own skin of old grudges, around to the elder siblings, living life in the shadow of their parents tragedies and choices, and around to the eldest, whose life was the hardest choice of all - they all have something about them. An essence, a humanity. So many weaknesses, and destructive tendencies, and rages and misunderstandings, yes. But also a love that is less transcendental than bred into the bone: family first, always. The family of deep diving Venusians speaks to us, and in its loyalty, in its bonds that creak across generations and across old wounds, it says that there is truth and honesty in love and family, and in not just the family you’re born to, but the family you find and grow yourself.

The story is...well, I won’t give it away! But it’s rather clever, a story of engineering, of getting around the towering depths of Venus. Of taking up that once chance you might have to change the world. And while doing that, trying to keep out from under the nose of a government who are, themselves, trying to keep out from under the nose of the Banks, who everyone must owe. It’s a science fiction story, in that it asks big questions about colonialism, and about gender, and about family, but it does so within the bounds of an imaginatively crafted world, where crafting poetry to shape the soul of Venus lives alongside the hard engineering problems needed to survive within its body. There’s something for everyone here - the romantic and the pragmatist married in one story; those here for the characterisation will be delighted by the protagonists, while those who love their world building will struggle to find anything as convincing as Künsken’s Venusian skies. And the story, well, it left me reading at 2AM, trying not to cry and determined both to finish the book, and that it couldn’t end this way, that I wanted more.

So I can recommend it in good conscience; it’s a marvellous book, and well worth your time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Trouble With Peace - Joe Abercrombie


The Trouble With Peace
, the latest book in the First Law universe, is both brilliant and bloody. 

I’ll start here: fans of Abercrombie will not be disappointed. The masterful characterisation, the whip-smart dialogue, and the thick vein of cynicism traced with capillaries of hope, are all immediately evident. As is the world, as broken as ever, as treacherous as ever, and as full of chances for redemption, truth and love, as ever. Also, if you’re here for people sticking sharp bits of metal into other people, for battles where you can feel the dirt underfoot, quail at the cannonades, and realise the existential futility of the whole thing while messily taking someone apart with an axe - well, then this is the series for you.

This is a world that is, in theory, at peace. Just this once, the Union isn’t at war with anyone. Which is novel. It does have rather a lot of enemies, but who doesn’t? And just this once, the North isn’t at war with anyone. And neither is the protectorate of Uffrith, which is sandwiched between them, and is definitely not very nervous about that. Everyone is rebuilding from the last war, and just wants to be left alone. In theory. In practise, the court of the Union is a seething nest of vipers. They’re torn between social climbing, cutting each other dead at parties, oppressing their workers, and high stakes politicking. Pressures are coming to bear on the Union from all sides. Workers are rising up against their chains, against working a fourteen hour day for an unlivable wage. Nobles are determined not to sacrifice any of their privilege. Parts of the Union, now that the wars are over, are manoeuvering for advantage, questioning why their taxes are so high, or talking about why they’re in the Union at all.

Peace, for the Union, is merely the absence of armed conflict. It’s a complex system, limping along on the dream of what it should be, and the brutal control of the levers of power exercised by those at the top of its systems. Of course, those who would like to break off those levers aren’t often very nice themselves.

Still, Adua, the capital of the Union, is a thriving city, filled with as much light and life and technological advancement as it is with misery, oppression, and sudden disappearances at the hands of the secret police. A study in contradictions, Adua sees itself as the height of civilisation, whilst also acting with a pragmatic and ruthless brutality when it feels threatened. Adua, indeed, the Union as a whole, is a system. One of the key tensions in the text is between systems and individuals. The king of the Union is one of our viewpoints, as, indeed are other prominent worthies - and its notable that they all struggle to manipulate, drive or change the system, and all lament the inertia and expectation which causes so many of the worst excesses. They live in a systematised world, which cares less and less for the individual, and not a lot more for the aggregate - it merely exists to perpetuate itself. That said, even as it does this, it produces marvels alongside horror, though of course, horrors alongside marvels.

The North, by contrast, is as familiar and as strange, and equally broken. The North is filled with space, with sprawling valleys, with Named Men leading bands of warriors. It’s populated by reputation, and by the ideal of honour. It’s more rustic, trading uniformed armies for berserkers, and cannons for the terrifying mystery of unknowable sorceries. But the North puts aside its virtuous pursuit of honour in the name of pragmatic ruthlessness when required. Reputations are built on being bloody and brave, but kingdoms are built from betrayals, or swift knives in the kidney. Still, you can feel the room, feel the ice water in the lakes, the culture built on loyalty to people, not to institutions. The contrast to Adua is beautifully done - as our characters move from one end of the world to the other, we can see that each system has its own strengths, and that hypocrisy and moral turpitude are as common as bravery and courage in both cases. Both societies may try and fool themselves into some superiority over the other, but they share more similarities than anything else.

In any case, the sprawling emptiness of the North, its strange majesty and desolation, stand as beautifully drawn and cunningly crafted as ever, alongside the bustling cities of the Union, even if the latter have traded in their horse-dung carts for the smoking towers of industry. These are societies on the cusp of change, and that, as well, is one of the tensions in this story. The Union is being driven to industrialise; its workers are renegotiating their relationship with the traditional capital using fire and steel, while the new owners of the mills respond in kind. The Lords of the Union are grumbling under the autocracy of the Closed Council, and the King is trying to find a way to do the right thing, whilst navigating all of these varied (and often malevolent) interests.

One of the beautiful parts of this book is that it so expertly threads the needle of motivations. The systems which people act in cause them to do ruthless things, bad things, and arguably, necessary things. But each of our viewpoints can be seen to be making a good case for what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. Some of them are fooling themselves more than anyone else, that’s for sure. But when you can see both sides of the question as the heroes of their own story, it’s an absolute joy. In creating and sustaining this ambiguity, Abercrombie has proven to be a masterful storyteller. Everyone is not a shade of grey, a moral swamp of grimdark awfulness. No. They are, in their own lights, heroes. Doing the necessary thing, and often the right thing. That we can switch views and immediately see them as the opposition, as enemies to be crushed, is a marvel. It showcases the reality that each of these characters is not an ideal of heroism or villainy, but just someone trying to get stuff done. To build a better world, or hold what they have, or improve working conditions, or keep their family safe, or, or, or. As much as we all do, these are people who have hopes and dreams, lives, aspirations. That they all feel so human is a wonder, and in making their shared humanity cut across their antagonistic goals, we’re left asking questions about conflict. About why the choices we make are the right, or wrong ones. About whether there are any simple answers. About how the system drives people to do terrible things, or how individuals outside the restraints of the system do them anyway.

This book is poetry. It’s the poetry of errors. Of mischance. Of bureaucracy. Of armies tramping in the mud, to kill men with whom they share far more than the leaders who drive them. The poetry of leadership trying to do the right thing, in a world where nothing is certain, and where certainties are a trap. It’s a song about the sheer, bloody minded brilliance of people, who can be knocked down and get back up again, always reaching out for something better, always asking themselves how to make their dreams reality. It’s a story of how reality meets songs, and the compromises that means have to be made, and about refusing to accept compromise.

The Trouble with Peace is a page-turner. It less grabs your attention than walks up, slips a stiletto of narrative into your gut, and demands your attention. It’s smart. It’s witty. It has things to say about government, about systems, about finance, about power and the circumscriptions of power. And it also has things to say about the price we’re willing to pay for comfortable lives, and when saying enough is enough is the right thing to do. And about what happens when the right thing to do meets a different right thing, but more heavily armed. There’s battles, and politics, and some genuinely heartfelt emotional moments which made me choke up,and betrayals, reversals and revelations which will hit like an anvil, and in one memorable case, made me swear loudly in disbelief.

This is an absolutely top-notch work of fantasy, which deserves to be on everyone’s shelf. If you’ve made it this far, and you’re still wondering: yes, you should absolutely read this series, and if you’re reading this series, yes, you should absolutely buy this book. Thoroughly recommended.