Robyn Reviews: The Once and Future Witches

It’s safe to say that October is one of the best months in book publishing history. First, we had The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – now Alix E Harrow is throwing her own (pointy) hat into the ring with The Once and Future Witches.

It isn’t fair to any of the other books being published in 2020 that they have to compete with this. The Once and Future Witches is one of my favourite books of all time. Reading it is like being immersed of a bath of magic and witchcraft, hopes and dreams, power and joy. Alix E Harrow wields words like a master sculptor creating their pièce de résistance. There’s nothing I can say to adequately sum up how incredible the experience of reading this is, other than it ignites your soul with the fire of all those who have been wronged for wanting to be more than they are.

“She is a woman who understands the value of words, especially the ones they don’t want you to say.”

Once upon a time, there were three sisters. Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood was the eldest, the Crone, banished from her home only to find a new one in the New Salem College Library. Agnes Amarantha Eastwood was the middle sister, the brave one, the Mother, holding a punishing job in the mill where she could avoid having to care about anyone else. James Juniper Eastwood was the youngest, the Maiden, a firecracker of a girl who burned with the injustice of the world and wouldn’t rest until it burnt down and a new one arose in its place. These three sisters were lost – to each other, to their purpose, to themselves – but they would find each other again, and the world would tremble with the power of the three united.

“She crumples the map in her fist and keeps walking because it’s either run or set something on fire, and she already did that.”

Bella was the character I empathised with the most – the planner, the reader, most at home amongst her books and research. Given a problem she went to the library and worked. Bella loved her sisters fiercely but also tempered them, soothing Juniper’s more bloodthirsty elements and prodding Agnes into action when she faltered. Bella would never be the spokesperson, the radical thinker, the ideas generator – but she would always be there giving the ideas roots and branches, turning them from abstract dreams into tangible, inevitable reality. No plan would get anywhere without a Bella.

“Together they dared to dream of a better world, where women weren’t broken and sisters weren’t sundered and rage wasn’t swallowed.”

Agnes was the beating heart of the trio – at first cautious, careful, burned too many times, but later the fierce, clawed figure of a mother protecting her cubs. Juniper saw Agnes as a coward, but really Agnes was the brave one – the one not afraid to say no when everyone else insisted she say yes. I understood Agnes less than the others, but then I’m not a mother – I don’t know what it’s like to hold another life in your hand that you value so much more than your own.

Juniper was all thorny branches and tangled thickets and bloody, scraped knees. Juniper was what happened to a dog kicked once too many times that suddenly scented weakness in its owner. Juniper didn’t know words like restraint, or forgiveness, or subtlety – she answered every question with a fist and a curse hissed under her breath. She was not the swooning Maiden of your fairytales. I loved Juniper – loved how fierce she was, how determined, how she never apologised or thought but simply rushed in with no thought of the consequences. The world would be a very different place with a few more Juniper’s in it.

“All the caring was beaten and burned out of her, and now she’s just hate with a heartbeat.”

The plot is excellent, twisting like smoke, but the three sisters are by far the most important part. This book is moulded on the strength of their characters and the sheer beauty of Alix E Harrow’s writing. The fact that the plot is so clever is merely the cherry on top (and the little references and similarities to The Ten Thousand Doors of January an extra little garnish).

Read this book. Listen to the story of the three sisters and let them speak to your soul. Maybe these words will be the ones you need to spark the will and the way, and change your life for the better.

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 13 October 2020

Book Review: Chaos

Chaos, edited by Anna Johnson, is the most recent poetry anthology published by Patrician Press. Many of the entries have been included in previous collections but have been brought together here as a reaction to various events affecting the UK over the past five years. These include attitudes to: immigration, Brexit, climate change, the current pandemic.

“In difficult times, then, we turn to Art; poetry, in particular, is one of the pithiest ways to process events that seem extreme.”

Many of the poems are provocative – understandable given that the issues being written about have generated controversy yet little in the way of balanced debate. There appears to be an assumption that readers will agree with the points of view of the book’s creators. There is limited exploration of why these views are not held by everyone.

In their introduction, the editor writes

“I hope there is enough in these pages to console, entertain and feed the spirit.”

Sadly, this was not my reaction. While I am appalled by the selfish and insular actions of too many politicians – lining their pockets along with those of their financial supporters and powerful advisors rather than working to help constituents – the issues are more complex than is suggested within these pages. Solutions are rarely as simple as they are made to appear.

Refuge is a Taxi features an immigrant, Basim, who is obviously intelligent and willing to work hard in order to realise his quiet ambitions. His past still gives him nightmares – of the horrific experiences escaped from. He regards his new home as a ‘land of opportunity.’

I found no poems exploring the messier side of immigration – of those who demand the retention of oppressive culture and damaging familial traditions that break the laws of their new homeland. I’m thinking of such practices as: FGM, ‘honour’ killings, forced marriage, rejection of homosexuality. Freedom and safety are not just the rights of heterosexual men.

It is possible to agree with the headline – show compassion, seek understanding – without accepting behaviour that damages those who also deserve protection.

Closed borders are the subject of several poems. In Something Human the freedom offered by a red passport is compared to the plight of refugees.

“I’ve never pleaded with strangers
to let me in to a cold and foreign nation
where I feel unwelcome,
derided and despised for trying
to save my life.”

Ride the Waves explores the removal of freedom that we are currently experiencing within the UK – how it has been so submissively accepted.

“Running away from each other in public
Get back!
We’re too close!
6-foot rule, or 6-foot under!”

The poet ponders if we have already said goodbye to our rights by accepting the ‘sanitised lies’.

Although there are a number of poems focusing on climate change – blame and fear more than a call to appreciate the still beautiful world – I enjoyed the images of nature in Wild Isolation. Birds and mammals continue their daily existence, even amongst the abandoned litter and other human detritus – while people fearfully isolate themselves from the current plague.

“All left in the lurch   to besmirch green and brown –
While squirrels   maintain their slight sordidness
Without being thought – sweet”

Climate change can be hard to discuss pithily. The need to respect the health of the planet – the life support system of all species – may be incontrovertible. How this is currently being approached, especially given man’s innate behaviour, creates unpalatable reverberations. As examples, wind farms kill birds and are a blight on the landscape. They and solar farms – with their tax funded subsidies – add wealth to already wealthy landowners. These poems suggest we may help with small, personal changes. Advocating for these is worthwhile but also of limited impact.

I have found this review hard to write as I fear opprobrium for not always agreeing with good and honourable intentions without reservation.

The writing within the anthology is mixed, as may be expected from a variety of contributors. Some of the poems have a simplistic structure; others require a number of rereads to unpack meaning. Together they are certainly thought-provoking. The issues explored deserve attention and careful consideration.

It is, perhaps, because humans and their behaviour are the focus of these poems that I did not find the consolation the editor hoped to offer. Instead, I found too much polemic – sad reminders of the misnomers now surrounding ‘fact’ or ‘expert’. We undoubtedly need more kindness, generosity and acceptance. We may also benefit from listening more attentively to those outside our echo chambers.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.

Book Review: Real Life

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else.”

The protagonist of Real Life, Wallace, is four years into a graduate degree in biochemistry at a university in the Midwest of America. He grew up in Alabama and had been trying for a long time to leave. He wishes to put his former self behind him – to reinvent how he is perceived. The group he connected with online before arrival at the university – as part of organised orientation – became his closest friends, although still at a remove. He describes them as attractive and, unlike him, pale skinned. Race is an ongoing issue and one he believes they cannot understand. He resents their lack of empathy and interest in this.

Set over an intense and hot weekend, the story told has the vibe of A Little Life. It opens just after Wallace discovers that the lab experiment he has been working on through the summer months has been contaminated, possibly maliciously. Reacting to this, he breaks a habit of keeping his distance, going out to socialise by a nearby lake. Here he admits to his friends that his father died some weeks ago. Although they were estranged, the undercurrent of grief Wallace must process cuts through how he behaves: “people don’t know what to do with your shit, with the reality of other people’s feelings”

There is toxicity in the various relationships described that is brutal in its honesty – biased towards negative aspects. Wallace’s observations of the crowd gathered by the lake are almost cruel – “faces tight in the sort of mean way that fit people carry”, “older people, their bodies and lives gone soft, here to recapture some bit of the past like coaxing fireflies into a jar.”

It is, however, refreshing to read of a group of American students in their twenties rather than of more typical high school or college age – an acknowledgement that learning and personal development continue. The setting is still closed and protected, something that Wallace is growing ever more aware of. In striving to be here, but then not finding the happiness and acceptance he expected, he is struggling with what may come next. He sees racism in how he is treated but cannot articulate this: “people can be unpredictable in their cruelty”

Wallace is gay and, over the course of the weekend, hooks up with one of the men from his friendship group. The sex they indulge in is vividly described – and repeatedly brutal. Despite this, Wallace ponders the possibility of a loving relationship, “an inoculation against the uncertainty of the future.”

Wallace appears incapable of giving anything of himself except as a vessel to be used and abused. He then struggles to contain the internal anger generated. The reader will come to understand this better as more of Wallace’s backstory is revealed. “Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life.”

Much of the action described involves people brushing up against each other, never really knowing the other, translating interactions vaguely. Friends who believe they are close grow irritated when behaviour is not as anticipated. Wallace’s view of friendship is grimly tainted, “a pantomime of intimacy, a cult of happiness”

Personal dramas – the issues they raise – are explored through dialogue and the dissection of responses to what is being said. There are repeated references to the senses, particularly how Wallace perceives the smell and taste of people and place. His friends accuse him of being selfish while he regards himself as always giving – behaving in a way that will make his dark skin more acceptable.

The writing style is rich and evocative but the relentless savagery in thought and behaviour remains disturbing. Settings feel claustrophobic. Characters seek personal happiness amidst thwarted expectations. Although well structured and paced, I did not find the story compelling. I learned lessons on the sociology of academia, and on the challenges faced by someone who looks obviously different to those he mixes with, but the lives of all the characters are portrayed as lonely and facing little prospect of improvement given described attitudes.

Any Cop?: I can understand why this made the Booker shortlist and would be neither surprised nor disappointed if it were to win. I would, however, think carefully before recommending such a dark depiction of life to certain readers.

Robyn Reviews: The Phlebotomist

The Phlebotomist is part medical sci-fi, part dystopia, and part fantasy novel. It’s audacious in scope and full of brilliant ideas, but they don’t always work cohesively together. The twist in the middle was shocking and completely unexpected, but the sudden tone and genre change didn’t work for me in the way I wanted it to.

Before reviewing this, I feel like I should give a disclaimer – I have a medical background. I’m always going to be pickier with medical sci-fi than any other genre, because I’m familiar with the theory behind it. It’s clear from the first page that Chris Panatier has done his research, with everything he includes more-or-less grounded in science, and I’m very impressed with the whole idea of a society segregated by blood type. There are a couple of inaccuracies (for example a reference to an O antigen, which doesn’t exist), but overall Panatier does a great job at incorporating medical science facts as springboards for science fiction.

The story focuses on Willa Mae Wallace – a Reaper for Patriot, the blood contractor that more or less rules society. The world has been ravaged by nuclear weapons, producing Grey Zones – areas full of people suffering from radiation sickness and other injuries who desperately need blood. With jobs mostly performed by robots, the main way for the populace to earn money is by donating blood – with the best price gained for O negative blood, which can be donated to anyone. Those with O negative have become rich, whilst those with AB positive live in slums, as their blood can only be donated to each other. Willa is AB positive, and has only dragged herself out of the slums by gaining her job as a Reaper (or phlebotomist). However, after witnessing an accident at work, Willa finds herself privy to Patriot’s biggest secret – and they’ll do anything to keep it from getting out.

Willa is an intriguing character. For one thing, she’s a grandmother – an unusual choice for a sci-fi protagonist – who’s been left completely bald, choosing to wear a wig of bright pink hair. Everything she does is to protect her grandson Isaiah. She’s got strong morals and a kind streak a mile wide, but – whilst she regularly reminisced about the past – she doesn’t always read her age. She’s an active lady with no age-related complaints, and I wish a little more had been done to make her seem like an older lady – or else she’d just been written as Isaiah’s mother.

While Willa is the majority point-of-view character, we get occasional chapters from the perspective of Everard, the member of a group of blood-hackers. These are interesting but mostly unnecessary – they never do anything to further the plot. They also do nothing to flesh out Everard as a character – while Willa gets some backstory, most of the other characters are little more than names on the page. This makes it hard to care when bad things happen to them, and lowers the stakes in what should be tense, dramatic moments.

My main issue with this book is more of a personal one than any flaw with the book itself, and that’s that it turned into something very different to what I expected. I went in expecting sci-fi dystopia, but by the end this was more of a fantasy novel with a sci-fi backdrop. I love fantasy, but I see so little medical sci-fi that I just really wanted a novel that explored the potential of that, rather than falling back on fantasy to add intrigue. My rating is purely based on personal enjoyment, and I really think that many others will love the direction it takes. I would prefer this as two separate books – one sci-fi dystopia, and one with the intriguing fantasy elements.

The ending feels a bit rushed in places – so much happens in a short space of time that it stops being as dramatic as it should be – but sets the book up for a potential sequel. Given that I’ll know what to expect, I might pick up a sequel if it appears – the world is excellent, and I’d be interested to see if Panatier explores beyond the boundaries of what we see here.

Overall, this is an ambitious book that didn’t quite work for me, but that I expect many people will love. If you’re a fan of genre-crossing sci-fi and fantasy, kickass grandmothers, and taking down evil corporations, this might be a book for you.

 

*Thank you to NetGalley and Angry Robot Books for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review*

 

Published by Angry Robot
Paperback: 8th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Angel of the Crows

‘The Angel of the Crows’ is a very clever book, and enjoyable to read, but I’m not sure it quite diverges enough from its source material to stand up as a separate novel.

The premise is simple: a retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, still set in Victorian London, if the supernatural also walked the Earth. Angels, vampires, werewolves, hellhounds, clairvoyants, curses – these are all part of everyday life. Dr Doyle – this book’s Dr Watson, in clear homage – has just returned from Afghanistan having been grievously wounded by the Fallen, a band of fallen angels. Seeking somewhere quiet to live, he bumps into Stanford, an old friend from medical school, who happens to know of someone else seeking shared lodgings. Enter the angel Crow – somewhat ostracised by his fellow angels and looking for a flatmate for a certain 221b Baker Street. From here, the stories proceed as we know them, with the addition of supernatural elements.

The writing feels uncannily like Conan Doyle’s style, which is very clever of Addison – I reread A Study in Scarlet for a direct comparison. I completely believe that this is how Conan Doyle would have written had he chosen a fantasy version of his stories. Similarly, the characters of Dr Doyle and Crow are much like their counterparts in the originals – although Dr Doyle is noticeably smarter and more perceptive than Dr Watson, and Crow, ironically, much more human than Sherlock Holmes. There are cameos from several other notable characters from Conan Doyle’s stories, and they too feel mostly authentic – with one exception, who I hope is developed further should this ever get a sequel.

I love the supernatural element. The mythology of the angels is clever and well-explained, with tidbits dropped in throughout. Each new being is introduced subtly, without a great deal of explanation, but this helps to their presence seem entirely normal. I would have been interested to see how their presence changed the development of London – and, indeed, of the world – but that isn’t the intent of this novel, and it isn’t required. Several of the supernatural beings are discriminated against – mostly illogically – and this is explored well, adding an extra dimension to the society created.

My main issue with this book is the choice to use the first few Sherlock Holmes stories as the plot. They’re cleverly rendered, staying very close to their source material with just a few adaptations to give a supernatural spin – but these stories have been adapted so many times it makes the book predictable. The setting is exceptional with the scope for far more interesting, fresh mysteries in the supernatural sects of London. I wish that Addison had chosen to create new mysteries rather than relying on paths well-trodden. To be fair to her, she did include one new plot element – capturing Jack the Ripper – but this has also been extensively written about before. None of these issues affect the enjoyment of the book, but they do give it a strong fanfiction feel rather than that of a published work.

Those who enjoy Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the BBC’s Sherlock (or at least the first two seasons), Lucy Liu’s Elementary, or any other adaptation will likely enjoy this. Similarly, those who have never dived into the Sherlock universe but like a good urban mystery or urban fantasy will probably love this. It’s very well written and a strong addition to all the adaptations out there – I just feel like there’s potential for it to be more than that.

Thanks to NetGalley and Rebellion for providing both an eARC and a finished copy of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Rebellion
Hardback: 17th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

addie

Some books are impossible to capture in mere words. It’s ironic – after all, words are all that form the book in the first place – but no other words can quite create the same brilliance, the same beauty, the same resonance. How do you capture transcendence with twenty-six little letters? VE Schwab has found the answer – but I can’t fathom how to possibly do her work justice.

‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue’ is the best book VE Schwab has ever written. It’s a masterwork – a feat of wordcraft so exquisite it’s hard to imagine creating anything better. Every sentence is gorgeously constructed, every metaphor lands true, and every word is heartbreaking – heartbreaking because it brings you closer to the end. Addie has made a deal with the devil to live forever, and books like this show you why we all fear the curtain coming down.

“Were the instants of joy worth the stretches of sorrow? Were the moments of beauty worth the years of pain? And she turns her head, and looks at him, and says ‘Always’.”

Adeline LaRue is born in rural France in 1691. She’s a dreamer, a free spirit, always looking beyond the borders of her village – but she’s a girl, and girls are not allowed to dream. Girls must go to church, and obey their betters, and learn to be wives for their future husbands, and look after their households, and bear their children. Bound to a future she doesn’t want, Adeline looks for escape – but every dream has its price, and she doesn’t know the true cost until it’s too late.

Adeline can have her freedom – but only by giving up herself.

“The last, brittle thread to her old life has broken, and Addie has been set well, and truly, and forcibly free.”

Addie is the perfect protagonist. Sharp and quick, she’s the girl who dreams of more – and is also stubborn and determined enough to find it. Forced into dreadful situations, she still manages to find a light in the dark; a reason to go on. More than that – even as her life is treated like the plaything of others, she digs in her heels and wrenches it into the shape she needs. Addie will never back down, never admit defeat, never give up control. She has moments of weakness, of despair, of fear – but she knows that there are many better days to come, and she holds out for them like an old tree, bent and battered by the storm but still standing when the sun returns.

 “If she must grow roots, she would rather be left to flourish wild instead of pruned, would rather stand alone, allowed to grow beneath the open sky. Better that than firewood, cut down just to burn in someone else’s hearth.”

Henry is the opposite – the man who feels too much, and doesn’t know what to do with all these emotions that refuse to let him be. He’s the perfect counterpoint – the racing hurricane to Addie’s steadfast tree, the raging fire to Addie’s cold pool. He’s a dreamer too – but where Addie’s dreams are a tether, his are a maze. Addie’s response to running out of time is to find more of it. Henry’s response is to do more, always more, falling into a panicked spiral until everything falls apart.

Addie’s devil? He’s the dark shadow following you home at night. The menacing maw of the corridor before you flick on the light. He’s endless, timeless, and just when Addie thinks she knows him he demonstrates just how far from a mere human evil he is. She can name him, claim him, blame him – but the darkness cannot be tamed. When everything else fades, the darkness is all that remains.

“You think it will get easier. It will not. You are as good as gone, and every year you live will feel a lifetime, and in every lifetime, you will be forgotten. Your pain is meaningless. Your life is meaningless. The years will be like weight around your ankles. They will crush you, bit by bit, and when you cannot stand it, you will beg me to put you from your misery.”

The plot marches forward like the inexorable march of time. The perspective alternates – Addie now, in New York, versus Addie as she was, learning to navigate her strange half-existence – together weaving a narrative so vibrant, so emotional, you never want to leave. This is a book that could be read over and over and adored more every time. Several of the twists I guessed, but this didn’t lessen their impact – if anything, it highlighted it, their direction as inevitable as the ticking of the clock, the passing of the seasons. Everything comes crashing down eventually – all good things must end.

This story has worked its way into my soul. Calling it a favourite doesn’t even do justice to its impact. It’s less a book and more of an experience – a temporary passage to somewhere greater than here.

If you want to read a story that speaks to your soul, read this book. Read it, and marvel how much beauty can be created with simple words.

“She leans back against him, as if he is the umbrella, and she is the one in need of shelter. And Henry holds his breath, as if that will keep the sky aloft. As if that will keep the days from passing.

As if that will keep it all from falling down.”

Published by Titan Books
Hardback: 6th October 2020

Book Review: Orfeia

“There’s wisdom in an old wives’ tale, and magic in a story.”

Orfeia, by Joanne M. Harris, is the third of the author’s folklore-inspired novellas. Like the previous two – A Pocketful of Crows and The Blue Salt Road – it is beautifully illustrated throughout by Bonnie Helen Hawkins. Based on two Child Ballads – Ballad 2: The Elphin Knight, and Ballad 19: King Orfeo – it is also a reworking of the Orpheus myth.

The protagonist is Fay, a widowed mother who is now grieving the death of her daughter, Daisy. The story tells of her journey through modern London to London Beyond and then London Beneath. She seeks an audience with the Hallowe’en King.

While out running one evening, Fay is shown a vision of her daughter, asleep in a bed of bluebells. She enters a liminal world, where strange songs seem familiar and guises change. Whatever the warnings, she will risk all to travel to the Kingdom of Death to barter for Daisy’s release.

The gossamer world created is both fabulous and fearsome. Fay cannot know who to trust, nor what price must be paid for the answers she seeks. There is beauty in abundance, to delight each of the senses, but it is used as a distraction by those whose aim is manipulation. The Kings Fay encounters may not be entirely cold-hearted but their aims remain selfish.

Fay’s nebulous grasp of how to navigate through the world of Fae is made more difficult when her memories start to fade. To conclude her quest she must answer riddles, harness the power of music, and unravel dreams. The concepts of time and reality grow ever more equivocal.

The writing style is perfectly calibrated to weave the world of a modern fairy tale whilst retaining the darkness inherent in the genre’s long history. Unlike many contemporary equivalents, moralising is limited to understated warnings over consequences. The language is rich with a plot that remains compelling.

The book is beautifully bound and contains artwork that deserves full attention.

Imaginative and uncanny, this is a tale of a mother’s love – and its cost – from a consistently adept storyteller.

Orfeia is published by Gollancz. 

Book Review: London Incognita

London Incognita, by Gary Budden, is a collection of interlinked short stories that explore the revenants and mythical beings that lurk in the shadows of our capital city. The people populating each tale conjure up nightmares of strange beasts that appear in a reality only they may be able to experience. Although rarely talked of, these creatures – in a variety of forms – have long existed.

When woven together, the collection is also a story of friends who frequented the underground music scene – rebelling against a culture of money making and populism, yet revelling in their inverted elitist clique. The stories explore the inevitable descent (or should that be ascent?) from youthful conviction, and the fiction of memory.

“Alex wondered when he and Sally’s experiences became memories, when those memories became myths, and when those myths would be forgotten.”

The book opens with a short tale that introduces the reader to the author’s tenebrous writing style. This is followed by Judderman – previously released as a novella published by The Eden Book Society and reviewed here. Set in the 1970s, the protagonists, Gary and Danny Eider, are relatives of Melissa – an artist and author who features in several of the following stories, many with contemporary settings. She, her musician brother, and the group of friends they have hung out with, from two decades previously, form the core of the collection. Not all survive.

Each of these characters has an interest in what they refer to as London Incognita, ‘a place half-seen, misunderstood but very real’. In describing the creatures they encounter – always unsettling experiences – there are references to fictional authors and their legendary works. This blending of what exists and what is from Budden’s imagination adds depth to the foundations on which these stories are built. The reader is encouraged to accept a shaded world beneath the widely accepted reality in which we, the faceless masses, are assumed to exist.

In their youth, the friends came together in support of the underground music scene, believing themselves arbiters of taste beyond popular appeal.

“music that endured the decades, music that was too weird or too aggressive for the current fashions that found their inspiration in arch irony and depressed hedonism.”

Decades later, after battling addictions and hollowly surviving, one of the men in the group is trying to recapture the time when his interest in this music felt authentic.

“PK needed to redocument himself, pin down what he loved and why”

The London portrayed is home to the homeless – druggies and ghosts. Graffiti and rubbish abut closed off building sites, keeping the discarded from areas now shiny and gentrified. Beneath are the sewers, where giant rats gorge on fatburgs, and a mythical queen lures urban explorers.

My Queen is a brilliantly grotesque account of a man seeking the fantasy of the old city – the dark energy being drained by ‘the vampires of capitalism’. He desires a connection with history, albeit one played out for clicks on social media.

“At times, he feels he’s nothing better than a high risk Instagrammer; what’s the difference between his photos of a sluice gate beneath the streets of Bruce Grove and some idiot’s selfie in front of a popular London tourist attraction? Nothing. All there is is the burning and futile desire to prove we exist.”

Melissa created a zine when she was nineteen, initially chronicling the music scene her brother was a part of, then going on to include works of fiction. The zine grew in popularity, becoming a classic, with early copies now sought by collectors. The final story, You’re Already Dead, is a multi faceted tale, set as she prepares an artistic retrospective focusing on the zine’s history – and, deliciously, promoting a book she has written. It neatly pulls the threads of each tale in the collection together.

“two decades documenting the world I inhabit, or perhaps the fish tank I swim in”

“These days there are zines about pretty much anything, most of them twee and pretty dreadful in my opinion […] but, like with anything, the good stuff survives and persists while the chaff falls away. This is what distorts our view of the past, I realise.”

There is a poignancy to the contemporary characters as they look back on their younger selves, when they were so contemptuous of the type of people they have inevitably become.

“I burned with nostalgia for times that never really happened. This older London we fetishised.”

What Never Was is a beautifully rendered tale of futures that might have been, and pasts forgotten – moulding photographs consigned to a skip.

Sky City pulls together characters who pass by briefly. It is not just imagined creatures lurking in shadows that affect lives.

Bookended by Judderman and You’re Already Dead, the collection also contains Staples Corner, and How We Can Know It, which was published as part of An Unreliable Guide to London – reviewed here. This is written from the point of view of the author, thereby adding himself to the cast of characters. These meta aspects, scattered throughout, work well.

There is a great deal of drug taking. Younger characters regard themselves as outside accepted society, better than the office workers who appraise them with equal disdain. Two decades later they can acknowledge what was conformity to a type – punk as a fashion statement.

“the pretentiousness and certainty and self-centred seriousness of young adults who think they have found an answer to the world. It’s painful when you realise the solution is not a solution at all.”

All of this is told in tales redolent with a darkness that can stalk anyone – predators threatening mostly through imagined dangers. When the Judderman and the Commare are unmasked towards the end, after what I feared would be some, perhaps ironically, twee development, it felt like a punch in the gut – all credit to the author for pulling that off.

I have read several, excellent non fiction books about urban explorers and psychogeographers seeking out the mostly unregarded aspects of well traversed spaces. This short story collection does this masterfully, with the addition of melancholy wraiths and the Londoners whose lives they change. It is a dark love story to the city – chilling tales to curl up with as the nights draw in. It is also an acceptance that time cannot be halted, even by death. People and places change.

“London is never finished”

“Build and destroy and repeat”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink Books.

Robyn Reviews: The Devil and the Dark Water

‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ is part mystery, part horror story against the background of a trading ship in the 17th century. An eclectic group of people – the governor general of Batavia, the world’s greatest detective, a loyal bodyguard, the greatest navigator in the East India Trading Company, a healer, the last Witchfinder – have all ended up on the Saardam, a ship travelling from Batavia (now Indonesia) to Amsterdam. However, their voyage appears cursed – and as demonic symbols and strange events start to strike the ship, they must all band together to solve the mystery before it kills them all.

The key part of any mystery novel is the reveal at the end, and whilst this is very clever – it’s difficult to guess the key players right until the end, with red herrings left right and centre – the final chapter isn’t entirely convincing. Nonetheless, this is a great read filled with solid characters, and the narrative spins in different directions throughout. There are plenty of historical fiction tropes – forbidden romance, clever women stifled by men, the seductress wanted by every man she meets – but they’re written well, adding to the narrative rather than detracting from it.

The highlights are undoubtedly Arent Hayes – the gruff bodyguard of renowned detective Samuel Pipps, who is heading to Amsterdam in chains to face judgement for an unknown crime – and Sara Wessel, the wife of the governor general who hates her husband with the ferocity of a wildfire. Arent is a genuinely good man, one who became a soldier out of a lack of options but is now so good at it he doesn’t believe he’s good for anything else. Sara is a smart woman who knows there’s no place in the world for smart women and will do everything in her power to keep her even smarter daughter out of harms way. This unlikely pair lead the search for answers – Arent with his fists and his sword, and Sara with her brains and sheer determination. It’s impossible not to root for them both, and to feel deeply for how they’ve been scarred.

The ship makes an excellent setting for what, at its heart, is a locked room mystery. It’s filled with stark divides – rich and poor, passengers and crew – and these dynamics deeply affect each part of the novel. The look into life at sea is fascinating, if regularly horrifying. Stuart Turton never flinches from the stark reality of sailors’ lives, and the imagery he creates is visceral.

Overall, this is a solid historical thriller with an intriguing and varied cast, brought to life by its setting and the vivid language. The ending could have been more satisfying, and some of the characters more original – but this is still a great story. Recommended for all fans of historical fiction and closed-room mysteries.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for providing an eARC – this in no ways affects the content of this review

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Monthly Roundup – September 2020

Six months into lockdown and I remain amazed at how readily so many have adapted to imposed restrictions. September started with what looked to be a relaxation of mandated measures but ended with threats of hefty fines for non-compliance with stricter rules – rushed through laws applied without balanced debate. I have needed to be outside regularly to remind myself that the world is still a beautiful place.

With the passing of the autumn equinox the changing colours on the trees can be admired. I crunch through fallen acorns and horse chestnuts on many of the local trails I frequent. I have continued my thrice weekly gym visits for strength training – cycling to town and back whatever the weather. I was grateful for our Indian Summer, although the marked increase in car traffic suggested others were going further afield to enjoy the sunny days.

Daughter came home for a short visit at the beginning of the month, when we were still hopeful of a return to greater freedom. We ate out at the Prezzo in our local market town and had a pleasant evening, despite the restaurant greeter’s demand that we sanitise our hands on entering. At least there were no ‘masked bandits’, as my son refers to them. Food and service were good and we talked of returning. Our options have been reduced with business closures increasingly prevalent – and now, of course, only likely to accelerate. We will not be going out to eat while masks must be worn between door and table – I’m at a loss as to what that new rule is intended to achieve.

The promise of cooler weather made it clear that I needed a few additions to my wardrobe. Goods were ordered online with delivery to a town outlet – the only way to achieve free delivery and returns for the various sizes and styles I wished to try on before choosing what, if anything, to keep. Thus I had to enter a shop wearing my mask exemption lanyard – stressful, but the staff were lovely and I suffered none of the feared abuse from customers, who I ensured I distanced from.

Confidence boosted, I decided to shop for a new bookcase at a store owned by a local family – I like to support their business. Here the staff wore masks, which felt strange as I regularly pass them in our village. I still find these face coverings disturbing but, thankfully, I was able to choose what I needed quickly and leave. I am pleased with all my purchases but shopping has become an anxiety inducing activity and will remain limited.

I suffered a foot injury when I accidently bashed my toes into furniture mid month. This has made walking any distance painful – my stout boots press against the swollen digit. I continue to run, perhaps foolishly as the foot is not healing as quickly as expected. There seems little point seeking medical advice with current restrictions on contact. I’m not sure what we are expected to do if we require the expertise of doctor, dentist or optician – services previously taken for granted. I fear lockdown will be the catalyst for a significant increase in the privatisation of healthcare.

Younger son should have been preparing to leave for university but what they will want him to do remains uncertain. This lack of clarity means he has had to keep paying for the expensive accommodation he hasn’t used since March – alongside tuition fees for a course that may remain entirely online. With the current media tales of students confined to their tiny flats, unable to socialise or attend teaching, he would now prefer to stay home and access remote learning. What is needed is a decision for the academic year – and a get out clause if rental contracts are no longer needed through no fault of the students. I realise this is unlikely as landlords will want their income.

When not out exercising I am still reading, albeit slowly as I struggle to concentrate amidst so much uncertainty. I posted reviews for 6 books (2 novels, 1 short story collection, 1 poetry collection, 2 works of non fiction). Happily, all were good reads although I would say the weakest was my choice from the Booker longlist – so much for major literary prizes offering worthwhile recommendations. It is, however, pleasing to note that every book I reviewed this month was published by an independent press.

Robyn continues to read voraciously and contributed 15 reviews. These included one for Mordew by Alex Pheby, a book I have previously posted my thoughts on but wished her to read as it is her favoured genre – fantasy fiction. I was interested in her views, and hope other readers will be too.

You may click on the title below to read the review, and on the cover to find out more about each book.

 

Fiction


The Nacullians by Craig Jordan-Baker, published by époque press
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook, published by OneWorld

 

Short stories


Postcard Stories 2 by Jan Carson, published by The Emma Press

 

Poetry


London Undercurrents by Joolz Sparks and Hilaire, published by Holland Park Press

 

Non fiction


Unofficial Britain by Gareth E. Rees, published by Elliott and Thompson
Dead Girls by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), published by Charco Press

 

Robyn Reviews


Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, published by Wednesday Books
Queen of Volts by Amanda Foody, published by HQ


A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington, published by Quercus
Divine Heretic by Jaime Lee Moyer, published by Quercus

 
The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas, published by Macmillan Children’s
The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus, published by Transworld


The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart, published by Orbit
Five Little Liars by Amanda K Morgan, published by Simon & Schuster


The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry, published by Titan Books
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman, published by David Fickling Books


The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty, published by HarperVoyager
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, published by Bodley Head


The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, published by Gollancz
Mordew by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press


A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, published by Del Rey

 

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased or received a number of hard copies – including a surprise copy of a book she is now offering as a giveaway (do check her Twitter feed).

I also made several purchases to add to the review copies publishers kindly sent. These included another Booker Prize contender – will it be more impressive?

I was a guest on Shelf Absorption, a blog that enables readers to check out other people’s shelves. I reblogged the post here. The stack of books pictured on the floor now fills my newly purchased bookcase.

 

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx