Seven Devils – Laura Lam; Elizabeth May

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When Eris faked her death, she thought she had left her old life as the heir to the galaxy’s most ruthless empire behind. But her recruitment by the Novantaen Resistance, an organization opposed to the empire’s voracious expansion, throws her right back into the fray.

Eris has been assigned a new mission: to infiltrate a spaceship ferrying deadly cargo and return the intelligence gathered to the Resistance. But her partner for the mission, mechanic and hotshot pilot Cloelia, bears an old grudge against Eris, making an already difficult infiltration even more complicated.

When they find the ship, they discover more than they bargained for: three fugitives with firsthand knowledge of the corrupt empire’s inner workings.

Together, these women possess the knowledge and capabilities to bring the empire to its knees. But the clock is ticking: the new heir to the empire plans to disrupt a peace summit with the only remaining alien empire, ensuring the empire’s continued expansion. If they can find a way to stop him, they will save the galaxy. If they can’t, millions may die.

A group of rebels out to smash the patriarchy in space? A feminist space opera with a hint of Rogue One, a dash of Firefly and a heady dose of bad-assery? A Guardians of the Galaxy type heist, but with way more gay?

Sign me up. A princess, a soldier, a courtesan, a pilot, a mechanic, a leader and a child genius hacker. What could possibly go wrong?

I loved them all. Our motley crew: Eris, Clo, Ariadne, Kyla, Rhea, Nyx and Cato. Each very different, yet together more than the sum of their parts.

It’s a classic tale of the rag-tag bunch of misfits coming together to pull off the job. But it’s not often that it’s done with such style and panache as Lam and May have on display here.

The story stars with Clo and Eris on a mission for the resistance (should that have a capital R?), and it’s not long before they come across the others, and the action ramps up a notch or three as our gang set off to save the galaxy from its new heir.

Glorious fun, with a wonderfully diverse group of characters, Seven Devils is the sci-fi book you didn’t know you needed. Roll on book 2!

There’s even a playlist to accompany the book, curated by the authors.

Seven Devils by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May is published by Gollancz in August 2020. Many thanks to the publisher for the advance copy to review via NetGalley.

The Pull of the River – Matt Gaw

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In a handsome, homemade canoe, painted a joyous nautical red the colour of Mae West’s lips, Matt and his friend James delve into a watery landscape that invites us to see the world through new eyes.

Over chalk, gravel, clay and mud; through fields, woodland, villages, towns and cities, they reveal many places that otherwise go unnoticed and perhaps unloved, finding delight in the Waveney, Stour, Alde/Ore, upper and lower Thames, Lark, Great Ouse, Granta and Cam, Wye, Otter, Colne, Severn and the Great Glen Trail.

I’ve always loved being on, in or near water. Swimming in the sea, paddling in rivers, there’s something magical about bodies of water. So I had little hesitation in saying yes when asked if I’d like to read Matt Gaw’s The Pull of the River.

It’s a glorious meander through our waterways in a borrowed Canadian canoe, in the company of Matt and James. I do love a good bit of travel writing, and this is just that. Full of anecdotes and nuggets of information about the landscape they find themselves paddling gently through, it’s warm, witty and entirely splendid. Life on the water moves at a different pace, and it’s wonderful to spend some time away from the breakneck pace of modern life.

It’s not all paddling though. They come up against a variety of obstacles along their way – some man-made, some more natural (midges and rapids), punctuated with a bit of wild camping along the banks.

Gaw writes with a wit and enthusiasm which is infectious, and an eye for detail that will make you determined to take notice of the little things by the rivers and waterways.

Hugely enjoyable. The only problem I have is that now I want a canoe. You will too. Be warned…

The Pull of the River by Matt Gaw is published by Elliot & Thompson and is out now. Many thanks to Elliot & Thompson for the review copy.

Malorie – Josh Malerman

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In the old world there were many rules. In the new world there is only one: don’t open your eyes.

In the seventeen years since the ‘creatures’ appeared, many people have broken that rule. Many have looked. Many have lost their minds, their lives, their loved ones.

In that time, Malorie has raised her two children – Olympia and Tom – on the run or in hiding. Now nearly teenagers, survival is no longer enough. They want freedom.

When a census-taker stops by their refuge, he is not welcome. But he leaves a list of names – of survivors building a future beyond the darkness – and on that list are two names Malorie knows.

Two names for whom she’ll break every rule, and take her children across the wilderness, in the hope of becoming a family again… 

Malorie is the much anticipated follow-up to Josh Malerman’s brilliant Bird Box. I loved the first book. The movie was pretty good too, though as with all such things, the book was better.

I must admit I was a little surprised to see a sequel, and a little concerned – could Malerman pull off the double?

Well, I really enjoyed Malorie. It was tense, pacy and with a similar feeling of dread to the original book. The creatures are still an ever-present deadly menace to anyone who dares to steal a glance. Malorie is still fiercely protective of her kids, and Olympia and Tom (no longer Boy and Girl from the first book) are growing up.

Short version – if you read the first book, you’re going to want to read this one. I rattled through it in a day. And if Sandra Bullock is up for the film, I’ll watch that too.

Great stuff. Recommended.

Malorie by Josh Malerman is published by Orion and is out now.

Hinton Hollow Death Trip – Will Carver

It’s a small story. A small town with small lives that you would never have heard about if none of this had happened.
Hinton Hollow. Population 5,120.
Little Henry Wallace was eight years old and one hundred miles from home before anyone talked to him. His mother placed him on a train with a label around his neck, asking for him to be kept safe for a week, kept away from Hinton Hollow.
Because something was coming.
Narrated by Evil itself, Hinton Hollow Death Trip recounts five days in the history of this small rural town, when darkness paid a visit and infected its residents. A visit that made them act in unnatural ways. Prodding at their insecurities. Nudging at their secrets and desires. Coaxing out the malevolence suppressed within them. Showing their true selves.
Making them cheat.
Making them steal.
Making them kill.
Detective Sergeant Pace had returned to his childhood home. To escape the things he had done in the city. To go back to something simple. But he was not alone. Evil had a plan.

Well now. Will Carver’s first two books, Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Today were phenomenal. Indeed, I said of the first book that I sat and stared at a screen for a good half hour, trying to work out how best to come up with a coherent review. It was dark (oh so dark), then along came book 2, which made the first look like a little ray of sunshine on a bright spring morning in comparison.

And so we find ourselves with book three – Hinton Hollow Death Trip. Carver has clearly looked at the dials marked ‘Dark’, ‘Disturbing’ and ‘Weird’, laughed in his best Bond villain style, and promptly whacked them all up to 11. Or possibly beyond.

DS Pace has returned to his childhood home following the events of Nothing Important Happened Today, to get away from the city, to get back to a simpler life. But nothing is ever as simple, is it? And this is no cosy little village mystery, oh no.

The thing which marks out Hinton Hollow Death Trip from the norm is that it is told from the point of view of Evil itself. And what a fascinating perspective that is.

You see, it takes just a small nudge to this person here, a gentle prod to that person there and before you know it, chaos ensues. And boy, does chaos ensue. Carver ramps up the body count in this one, and fair warning, mothers and their children are on the list.

This then is not an easy read, by any stretch. I said with the first two books that they were quite unlike anything I’d read before, so I’m even more impressed that Will Carver has pulled off a hat trick here. Easy it might not be, but an utterly compelling delve into the human condition it is.

One of my books of the year. Solid five stars.

Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver is published by Orenda Books in August 2020. Many thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and for the review copy of the book.

The Big Chill – Doug Johnstone

Haunted by their past, the Skelf women are hoping for a quieter life. But running both a funeral directors’ and a private investigation business means trouble is never far away, and when a car crashes into the open grave at a funeral Dorothy is conducting, she can’t help looking into the dead driver’s shadowy life.

While Dorothy uncovers a dark truth at the heart
of Edinburgh society, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah have their own struggles. Jenny’s ex-husband Craig is making plans that could shatter
the Skelf women’s lives, and the increasingly obsessive Hannah has formed a friendship with an elderly professor that is fast turning deadly.

But something even more sinister emerges when
a drumming student of Dorothy’s disappears, and suspicion falls on her parents. The Skelf women find themselves immersed in an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves?

The Big Chill follows on from the wonderful A Dark Matter in which we met the Skelf clan – Dorothy, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah, proprietors of a funeral home and also private investigators on the side.

A rather… unusual mixture of professions to say the least.

I have to say that it’s an absolute pleasure to be back in the company of the Skelfs again. Johnstone’s writing is, as ever, a joy to read and the intricate, interwoven plots a delight to untangle.

The action kicks off with the death of a young man driving a car, gatecrashing the funeral Dorothy has organised, and ending up as both client and case, the former for the funeral business and the latter for the detective agency, as Dorothy is determined to get to the bottom of who he is and why he ended up in someone else’s open grave.

Dorothy also has to contend with a missing drumming student whose parents seem rather less bothered than you’d expect. And Hannah is trying to work out the circumstances behind the death of a professor at her university. And Jenny has the ominous presence of her abusive ex-husband to deal with on top of everything else.

This book is so layered, so nuanced – it’s not just about solving the mysteries and the bodies, but a real character piece in which our trio bounce to life off the page, full of life, death, regrets, issues, love and loss. Oh, and embalming fluid. I love the way we see the story (or rather stories) from the viewpoints of the three women and watch them play out alongside each other.

Book 2 can be a tricky one to pull off well, especially following such a strong start with A Dark Matter, but Doug Johnstone is a safe pair of hands and has delivered another corking adventure for the Skelf ladies.

Here’s to book 3! Hugely recommended.

The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone is published by Orenda Books in August 2020. Many thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for the review copy.

Random Sh*t Flying Through The Air – Jackson Ford

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Teagan Frost’s life is finally back on track. Her role working for the government as a psychokinetic operative is going well and she might even be on course for convincing her crush to go out with her. But, little does she know, that sh*t is about to hit the fan . . .

A young boy with the ability to cause earthquakes has come to Los Angeles – home to the San Andreas, one of the most lethal fault lines in the world. If Teagan can’t stop him, the entire city – and the rest of California – could be wiped off the map.

Random Sh*t Flying Through The Air is the followup to The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind by the enigmatic Jackson Ford. I really enjoyed the first book, with its wall-to-wall shenanigans and Teagan Frost’s snarkiness and wise-ass internal monologue, so I was greatly looking forward to the sequel.

Then it transpired that Jackson Ford is actually Rob Boffard, author of some of my favourite kick-ass high-octane sci-fi, Tracer, Zero-G and and Impact. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have guessed. Awesome female lead, cracking action and a plot that just won’t quit.

Anyhoo. Having discovered Jackson Ford’s secret identity, this left me wanting to read Random Sh*t even more.

And reader, I was not disappointed. Ford takes everything we loved about book 1, cranks all those dials firmly up to 11 and lets rip. Book 2 is even bigger, even better, with all of our favourites back in action.

And they’re on the hunt for the most terrifying four year-old you’ll ever have the misfortune to cross paths with. Seriously, this kid is bad news. You thought temper tantrums were bad. Just wait until you get a genius-level child who revels in destruction. And I’m not talking about smashing up lego here, this is some serious earthquake action going on.

Sit back, strap yourself in. Teagan and the gang are going to take you on a wild ride.

Solidly recommended.

Random Sh*t Flying Through The Air by Jackson Ford is published by Orbit Books. Many thanks to Nazia Khatun from Orbit for the review copy.

Blood Red City – Rod Reynolds

A witness with no victim. A crime with no crime scene…

When crusading journalist Lydia Wright is sent a video of an apparent murder on a London train, she thinks she’s found the story to revive her career. But she can’t find a victim, much less the killers, and the only witness has disappeared. Wary she’s fallen for fake news, she begins to doubt her instincts – until a sinister call suggests that she’s not the only one interested in the crime.

Michael Stringer deals in information – and doesn’t care which side of the law he finds himself on. But the murder on the train has left him exposed, and now he’ll stop at nothing to discover what Lydia knows.

When their paths collide, Lydia finds the story leads through a nightmare world, where money, power and politics intersect … and information is the only thing more dangerous than a bullet.

I’m a huge fan of Rod Reynolds’ books, and loved his Charlie Yates books (Cold Desert Sky being the latest of these) which have a regular spot on my books of the year lists and are pitch-perfect 40s Americana. So it was with some excitement that I discovered he was writing something more contemporary, and closer to home. But will the new book capture the magic of the previous stories?

Enter Blood Red City. London, present day. Sweltering in the summer heat as only London can.

Journalist Lydia Wright is sent an anonymous video showing what appears to be a shocking murder on a London train. But all attempts to investigate come up blank. There’s no missing person, no body, and the witness is nowhere to be found. Who sent her the video, and why?

Reader, I loved it. Definitely a shift in gears from the Yates books, but Reynolds shows a deft hand at the modern-day thriller, and this is a cracking example. It’s gritty and brutal and falls firmly into the ‘just another chapter’ which you just know will mean a few too many very late nights!

Not only do we have Lydia doing her investigative journalist bit to try and track down the murdered man, but also in play is the enigmatic fixer Michael Stringer, adding a lovely (if that’s the right word) sense of menace to proceedings.

The trouble with a lot of thrillers is that they tend to be a bit… predictable after a while. There’s often a reliance on the coincidence, the ‘oh look at this thing that happened’ that a lazy writer might drop in to get character A from here to there to solve a particular problem. Happily Reynolds is having none of that, and delivers a splendidly twisty, yet utterly plausible and real plot which stands head and shoulders above most others.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love a book with a real sense of place, where the location feels as much a character as the walkers and talkers. And here present-day London does loom large over proceedings, the summer heat sweltering off the page. Again, it feels solidly authentic and adds yet another layer to the story

I can’t help but wonder what Charlie Yates would have made of modern-day London, mobile phones and the internet when it comes to tracking down the bad guys!

Solid five star read, Rod Reynolds is one of those authors where I’ll read anything he does, because he does it so well. You should too. Blood Red City is a prescient, page-turning thriller. Superb. Go buy it.

Blood Red City by Rod Reynolds is published by Orenda Books and is out now. Many thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for the advance copy of the book to review.

We Ride The Storm – Devin Madson

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War built the Kisian Empire. War will tear it down.

Seventeen years after rebels stormed the streets, factions divide Kisia. Only the firm hand of the god-emperor holds the empire together. But when a shocking betrayal destroys a tense alliance with neighboring Chiltae, all that has been won comes crashing down.

In Kisia, Princess Miko Ts’ai is a prisoner in her own castle. She dreams of claiming her empire, but the path to power could rip it, and her family, asunder.

In Chiltae, assassin Cassandra Marius is plagued by the voices of the dead. Desperate, she accepts a contract that promises to reward her with a cure if she helps an empire fall.

And on the border between nations, Captain Rah e’Torin and his warriors are exiles forced to fight in a foreign war or die.

As an empire dies, three warriors will rise. They will have to ride the storm or drown in its blood.

We Ride The Storm is a big, chunky epic fantasy told from three viewpoints. Rah e’Torin, the warrior. Cassandra Marius, prostitute/assassin. And Princess Miko Ts’ai, sister of the would-be heir to the Emperor’s throne.

It took me a little while to settle into the switching narratives, coming as they do from such utterly different viewpoints. Rah and his Swords, exiled from their home and forced to fight against their will had a gritty, brutal feel, whereas Princess Miko’s story was all court intrigue, double crossing and politics with a strong east Asian feel.

Then we have Cassandra and the mysterious voice inside her head, possibly my favourite of the three. I found myself turning the page wanting to read more about her and her quest to find the means to find silence.

All three of the protagonists, whilst very different, are all engaging and their stories just as strong.

The story is properly epic, wide-screen fantasy, with the three protagonists going along their own tracks for much of the book before inevitably converging in the final act. It’s fun trying to work out how and when their stories might overlap in this giant, war-torn tale.

There’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of blood shed in this book. There’s some great little bits of worldbuilding on show, with Rah’s horse-based culture and their tradition of removing the heads of the fallen to free their souls. There are a lot of heads removed from their bodies in this – and not all by Rah! It’s a brutal, no-holds-barred kind of world, and I’m looking forward to reading more in the next book.

Recommended.

We Ride The Storm by Devin Madson is published by Orbit Books. Many thanks to Nazia Khatun at Orbit for the advance copy of the book, and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

The Waiting Rooms – Eve C. Smith

Decades of spiraling drug resistance have unleashed a global antibiotic crisis. Ordinary infections are untreatable: a scratch from a pet can kill. A sacrifice is required to keep the majority safe: no one over seventy is allowed new antibiotics. The elderly are sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms.’ Hospitals where no one ever gets well.
Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, Kate begins a search for her birth mother, armed only with her name and her age. As Kate unearths disturbing facts about her mother’s past, she puts her family in danger and risks losing everything.
Because Kate is not the only secret that her birth mother is hiding. Someone else is looking for her, too.

Let’s not beat about the bush. Reading a book like this whilst in the grip of a worldwide pandemic was a little challenging at times. It’s an intense, gripping read which is all too topical.

I particularly enjoyed the jumping timelines. The nervous present where a simple infection can mean death, the over 70s are left without any antibiotics by law and the government has cracked down on hygiene security. No-one thinks twice about wearing a mask outside, or checking their temperature regularly. Hygiene is king.

Then there’s the before, set when tuberculosis infection rates are just starting to rise and the hunt is on for a miracle cure.

The story is told against this backdrop from the viewpoint of three protagonists. Lily, a woman on the verge of her 70th birthday in a care home, who thinks she’s seen a face from her past. Kate, a nurse who is looking for her birth mother after her adoptive mother dies. And finally Mary, whose story is set years before the current crisis in South Africa, on the hunt for the drug that might save humanity.

I do love a good timeline hopping story, and it’s fascinating to see how the lives of these three women interact across the years, coming to an entirely satisfying conclusion.

It took me a little while to get into the book, given the current climate. But what I found was an intriguing ‘what if?’ story which hits all too close to home. Strong characters, great writing and a chilling setting make this book an easy recommend.

Now go wash your hands. Stay safe.

The Waiting Rooms by Eve C. Smith is published by Orenda Books and is out now. Many thanks to Orenda Books and Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and for the advance copy of the book to review.

The Truants – Kate Weinberg

Jess Walker, middle child of a middle class family, has perfected the art of vanishing in plain sight. But when she arrives at a concrete university campus under flat, grey, East Anglian skies, her world flares with colour.

Drawn into a tightly-knit group of rule breakers – led by their maverick teacher, Lorna Clay – Jess begins to experiment with a new version of herself. But the dynamic between the friends begins to darken as they share secrets, lovers and finally a tragedy. Soon Jess is thrown up against the question she fears most: what is the true cost of an extraordinary life?

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a slow burn of a novel, based around a university campus and a group of friends with a charismatic, enigmatic tutor. It’s very much character driven, with plenty of layers to unpick as you’d expect in any good mystery.

And given the tutor’s course is based around the works of Agatha Christie, we can also expect a lot of did-they-didn’t-they along the way, though the mystery parts of this book don’t really show themselves until late in the second act. When it does though, you realise that the clues have been there from the outset, and it’s fun trying to figure them all out. Naturally I failed to do just that, but enjoyed this coming-of-age tale a great deal.

It’s a story about consequences, of unhealthy obsessions, of young love and betrayal. Weinberg has a deft ability to get you into the heads of the young students, their lives and loves and lusts, and there are shades of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, albeit in a small university campus in Norfolk, and more recently, M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains (though with Christie instead of Shakespeare) are clear, and if you enjoyed either book, then I think you’d enjoy this. I found the plot engaging and fascinating, and would recommend this.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg is published by Bloomsbury and is out in paperback now. Many thanks to Bloomsbury and Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and for the copy of Kate Weinberg’s book to review.

Kate Weinberg was born and lives in London. She studied English at Oxford and creative writing in East Anglia. She has worked as a slush pile reader, a bookshop assistant, a journalist and a ghost writer.

The Truants is her first novel.