Mal and the crew take receipt of a sealed crate which they are being paid to transport to Badger, no questions asked. Yet once their cargo is safely stowed aboard, River insists Mal should “space” it out of the airlock, for it contains, she insists, ghosts. With supplies running low, the crew desperately need another pay day, but soon find themselves paralysed by hallucinations of their deepest hopes and desires, so vivid they cannot be distinguished from reality. River is the only one unaffected, and desperately tries to awaken her crew mates, while the fantasies turn sour, and the ship begins to spin out of control.
This is the fourth original novel tie-in to the much-loved and much missed Firefly.
The Ghost Machine takes place between the events of the series and the movie Serenity, and we find Mal and the gang on the planet Canterbury en route to picking up some… slightly dubious cargo from Hoyt Koestler, to deliver to their old friend* Badger.
Things quickly go awry, and hijinks, as one would hope, ensue.
I greatly enjoyed spending an afternoon in the company of our Big Damn Heroes. Lovegrove does a sterling job of nailing the characters, the plot is clever and the action whistles along. We get to see into the dreams of the crew, which lends a nice layer onto what we already know about them.
If you’re a Firefly fan (Browncoats forever!) then I’d highly recommend picking this up. If you’re new to the series, go watch it first! Then come back and read this.
Firefly: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove is published by Titan Books and is out in June 2020. Many thanks to Titan Books for the advance ebook copy to review.
Every book left unfinished by its author is filed away in the Unwritten Wing, a neutral space in Hell presided over by Claire, its head librarian. Along with repairing and organizing books, her job consists of keeping an eye on restless stories whose characters risk materialising and escaping the library.
When a Hero escapes from his book and goes in search of his author, Claire must track and capture him with the help of former muse and current assistant Brevity and nervous demon courier Leto. But what should have been a simple retrieval goes horrifyingly wrong, in a chase that threatens to reshape the boundaries between Heaven, Hell… and Earth.
I’m a sucker for a good library book. Or a good book about libraries. And this one is rather good.
In short, there’s a library in Hell, looked after by Claire, the Head Librarian. Her job is look after all the unwritten books. Shouldn’t really be that taxing. Should it?
Except that some of the characters tend to escape from time to time, and it’s Claire’s job, along with her apprentice Brevity (ex-Muse) to keep things in order. And they’re in the underworld, so nothing is ever straightforward.
Then just as they’re chasing a hero (who decides he quite likes being called Hero), a junior demon turns up and is promptly dragged back to Earth to go hunting for Hero and his book.
Oh, and there’s a fallen angel on the hunt for a book which shouldn’t exist.
What glorious fun they have! Hackwith takes the premise and just runs with it, having an absolutely splendid time along the way. The worldbuilding is marvellous, the action sharply written, and the plot fits together as neatly as an expertly shelved set of books. On a bookshelf. In Hell.
I love Claire so very very much.
The mundane tools of a librarian’s trade included notebooks and writing implements, and the less usual; inks that glimmered, stamps that bit, wriggling wax, and twine. All of them went into a bag that Claire slung across her chest. Pen and paper went into the hidden pockets of her muddled, many-tiered skirts. She’d been buried in some frippery that was dour even for her time, all buttons and layers. She’d chopped the skirt at the knee long ago for easy movement, but Claire lived by the firm moral philosophy that one could never have too many pockets, too many books, or too much tea.
Hackwith’s style is hugely enjoyable- echoes of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next adventures spring to mind here, and if you liked those, then I’m sure you’ll love this.
But this is very much its own adventure, and I highly recommend you dive in.
I was also delighted to discover there’s a sequel coming out later this year. Can’t wait to see what Claire and the gang get up to next.
The Library of the Unwritten, by A.J. Hackwith is published by Titan Books and is out now. Many thanks to Lydia Gittins at Titan Books for the review copy.
Ravaged by environmental disaster, greed and oppression, our planet is in crisis. The future of humanity hangs in the balance – and one woman can tip it over. Despite increasing restrictions on the freedoms of women on Earth, Valerie Black is spearheading the first all-female mission to a planet in the Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for human habitation. It’s humanity’s last hope for survival, and Naomi, Valerie’s surrogate daughter and the ship’s botanist, has been waiting her whole life for an opportunity like this – to step out of Valerie’s shadow and really make a difference. But when things start going wrong on the ship, Naomi starts to suspect that someone on board is concealing a terrible secret – and realises time for life on Earth may be running out faster than they feared…
Reader, I loved this book. It’s smart, on-the-button near-future sci-fi with a cracking cast, a plot that goes from zero to escape velocity pretty much on page one, and doesn’t let up.
Earth is, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed. Environmental issues and overpopulation have pushed her past the tipping point and humanity has maybe thirty years left. Luckily humans have one last hope – an exploratory ship going out to Cavendish, an exosolar planet in the habitable ‘Goldilocks’ zone around a star ten light-years away.
At the last minute, the all-female crew are replaced by men (rampant misogyny abounds in the future here, all too plausibly, alas), but lead by Valerie Black, the hand-picked crew promptly steal the spaceship and go anyway.
And what hijinks they are. Valerie Black and her crew are up against it all – criminals in the eyes of the men in charge back at home, but a shining beacon of hope for humanity, they must steal the Atalanta out from under the nose of NASA and embark on a perilous voyage, first to Mars, then on into interstellar space.
I loved it. Loved the dynamics between the women on board the Atalanta, loved the meticulously researched science, the climate science, botany, cryonics feel really… real. The blurb compares the book to The Martian in that regard, though Goldilocks‘ Naomi Lovelace is less ‘look how smart I am’ Watney, and hugely more relatable for it.
For all its sci-fi stage dressing (and immaculate dressing it is), Goldilocks is, at heart, hugely character-driven, and ultimately hopeful. It would make a brilliant film. Netflix, if you’re out there, get on it.
Superb. Highly recommended.
Goldilocks by Laura Lam is published by Wildfire on 30th April 2020.
Many thanks to Wildfire Books for the advance NetGalley copy to review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.
Laura Lam is the author of several science fiction books, including Radio 2 Book Club selection False Hearts. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies such as Nasty Women, Solaris Rising 3, Cranky Ladies of History, Scotland in Space, and more. Originally from California, she now lives in Scotland with her husband, and teaches Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University.
Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable world. A world where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly vines and seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will.
Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He knows the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture beyond the walls.
What he doesn’t know is – what happens when you aren’t given a choice?
I’m a bit of a fan of Mr Carey’s books. The Girl With All The Gifts was splendid, and The Boy on The Bridge even better. Someone Like Me was astonishing.
And here we have The Book of Koli, the first part of his new Rampart trilogy. And boy, is it good. Koli is a young man on the cusp of adulthood, in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where nature is out to get you. He’s lived in the (relatively) safe haven of Mythen Rood, a small walled settlement in the Calder valley in Yorkshire. Ruled over by the Ramparts, the few select people who can make the old tech respond to their touch, they’re cut off from the world.
I love a good post-apocalyptic dystopia, and Carey is particularly good at them. Koli’s exploration of what it means to become a man in such a world are fascinating, and I loved his unique voice in this story. It’s a slow, gentle start but the action ramps up after the first third and you’re soon rattling along at breakneck pace.
I’m glad that books 2 and 3 of the trilogy are being published this year, as I can’t wait to follow Koli on his adventures in the world, dangerous as they are.
The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey is published by Orbit and is out now. Many thanks to Nazia Khatun at Orbit for the advance copy of the book to review, and to Tracy Fenton for inviting me onto the blog tour.
Fairy tales take a weird twist in this anthology compiling stories from an all-star cast of fantasy writers, including stories from Neil Gaiman, Charlie Jane Anders and Alison Littlewood.
Here in this book you’ll find unique twists on the fairy tale conceit of the curse, from the more traditional to the modern – giving us brand new mythologies as well as new approaches to well-loved fables. Some might shock you, some might make you laugh, but they will all impress you with their originality.
I jumped at this anthology as it had stories from some of my favourite authors – Michael Marshall Smith, Jen Williams, Mike Carey, to name but a few. But also a ton of other authors that I’d heard of, but not read, and some new-to-me names.
There are a lot of really good shorts in Cursed. There are a couple which are exceptional, one which made me go hmm, and only one which really didn’t work for me. Overall, I really enjoyed this selection of twisty takes on the fairy tale.
My favourites from the selection on offer:
At That Age, by Catriona Ward.
Strange Stepford-esque twins appear in a school class, showing off a life of wealth and parties, and quickly ensnare a young lad into their… unusual lifestyle. A dark, unsettling story about consequence, mixing folklore into a distinctly modern setting.
Listen, by Jen Williams.
It’s not often with a short story that you get a scope quite so epic in scale. Erren plays her pipes for anyone who’ll listen, albeit reluctantly. She plays for the villagers, for royalty, but the music reveals things that the listeners would rather left unsaid. You think from the start you know where it’s going, but Williams has you caught up in her own clever tune. It’s just wonderful.
Henry and the Snakewood Box, by M. R. Carey.
Ah, I really enjoyed this one. A demonic box who enjoys toying with his owner is a fun premise, and Carey clearly enjoys seeing how far it can go. Wishes are tricksy things, and you don’t always get what you want, even if it’s exactly what you wished for.
Fairy Werewolf vs. Vampire Zombie, by Charlie Jane Anders. My absolute favourite of the collection. I’ve not read any of Anders’ other books, but will be doing so shortly! A bar where our magical cousins go to knock back a cold one gets a new singer with a rather unusual secret. The writing is fun and zippy and the characters bounce off the page, with some great action scenes. I could happily read more adventures of Rachel, the bar owner.
Those four in my opinion are worth the price of admission alone. That’s not to say the others aren’t good – I also enjoyed Troll Bridge by Neil Gaiman, for example. But it felt like I knew exactly where that one was going, and was a solid Gaiman telling of a story. It was good! Just not as delightfully original as the others.
Of the stories which didn’t quite work, we had Michael Marshall Smith’s Look Inside. I’m a huge fan of his books and short stories (and boy can he tell a short story) but this one had a note which just didn’t quite sit with me – a woman finds out that someone has been in her house, but doesn’t seem particularly concerned. She thinks about calling the police, but doesn’t, shrugging it off as just an intruder. This note felt…wrong, and undermined the otherwise excellent story.
The other one which bothered me was Skin, by James Brodgen. A man makes an unpleasant comment to his date, and ends up being cursed to see his own imperfections, with horrific results. But then lays blame on the woman for his curse (brought on by his own faults). And she agrees that the consequences of his actions are her fault. Did not like, though the writing itself was good, and nicely creepy and atmospheric, the misogyny was jarring.
Overall though, those are just two out of twenty. The other 90% of the stories are very good, and with a collection of short stories you’re never going to like everything.
So, with the caveat about those two, I heartily recommend this anthology.
You’ll need to make your own mind up though!
Cursed: An Anthology of Dark Fairy Tales, edited by Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane is published by Titan Books and is out now. Many thanks to Lydia Gittins at Titan Books for the review copy.
You can’t save someone that doesn’t want to be saved . . .’
For some people, trouble just finds them . . .
Thirty years ago, Vincent King became a killer.
Now, he’s been released from prison and is back in his hometown of Cape Haven, California.
Not everyone is pleased to see him.
Like Star Radley, his ex-girlfriend, and sister of the girl he killed.
Duchess Radley, Star’s thirteen year-old daughter, is part-carer, part-protector to her younger brother, Robin – and to her deeply troubled mother.
But in trying to protect Star, Duchess inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will have tragic consequences not only for her family, but also the whole town.
Murder, revenge, retribution.
How far can we run from the past when the past seems doomed to repeat itself?
Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of how much I love Chris Whitaker’s first two books.
Tall Oaks kept me up until nearly 3am to be finished in a single sitting. It’s a beautifully wrought tale of small-town America, shot through with a deft line in wit and with what were to become some of my favourite characters in a book, ever. Manny and Abe, I’m looking at you.
His sophomore novel, All The Wicked Girls was just as good, if not better. Deep and complex, harrowing and heartbreaking, a story of a young girl’s hunt for her missing sister in a small southern bible belt town. Chris Whitaker does small-town America really really well, though he was born in London and lives in Hertfordshire.
So now we come to We Begin At The End. Reader, I was really really looking forward to this book, and I was enormously fortunate to get my hands on an early copy, which I started reading on December 31st, 2019. And finished at 1.30am on January 1st.
Which puts We Begin At The End in the rather unique position of not only being the best book I read in 2019, but also the best I’ve read in 2020.
Reader, it’s just so, so good. Whitaker’s skill at evoking small town Americana, polished and honed over the course of the first two books, absolutely shines here. I loved the characters in the first two books, but here we meet Duchess Day Radley, the outlaw. And she’ll take over your heart. At once older than her years, yet still a vulnerable young girl, she’s strong and fierce, and carries this book on her shoulders magnificently.
Then there’s Walk, the police chief. Vincent King, his friend who went to jail for the murder of Duchess’s aunt Sissy. Star Radley, Duchess’s mother. All brilliantly drawn, flawed, rich characters in their own right.
Whitaker’s ability to create these unforgettable characters, coupled with a story so achingly beautiful and utterly brilliant that you’ll struggle to find better.
We Begin At The End should be on your reading list for this year. And it should be on all the award shortlists. Whitaker is a phenomenal writing talent, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
I’d give this six stars if I could, and it would deserve every one of them and more.
Hugely recommended. I will pester you to read this book.
We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker is published by Zaffre in April 2020. Huge thanks to Zaffre for the review copy.
Suspended from duty, Detective Frølich is working as a private investigator, when his girlfriend’s colleague asks for his help with a female asylum seeker, who the authorities are about to deport. She claims to have a sister in Norway, and fears that returning to her home country will mean instant death.
Frølich quickly discovers the whereabouts of the young woman’s sister, but things become increasingly complex when she denies having a sibling, and Frølich is threatened off the case by the police. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that the answers lie in an old investigation, and the mysterious sister, who is now on the run…
Sister is the 9th of Kjell Ola Dahl’s Olso Detectives books, following on from the events in The Ice Swimmer, which I loved. I’m a big fan of Dahl’s books, and it’s good to see our friend Frank Frølich back in action and taking more of a lead role this time round. Suspended from the force, he’s struck out as a private investigator. Then he meets the mysterious Matilde who might just have a job for him.
The case is, at face value, simple enough. Find a missing woman. So far, so standard. But this woman is the titular sister of an asylum seeker who is about to be deported. And she came to Norway years ago, changed her name, and disappeared into the system.
Coupled with the investigation into the sinking of a ferry some thirty years previous, the two cases appear unconnected. But are they?
Dahl’s plotting is as deft as ever, and whilst the story might not be quite as dark as with The Ice Swimmer, it’s just as good. I do love a good slice of Nordic Noir, and Dahl never fails to deliver. The pace is measured and never rushed, but still the tension is ratcheted up notch by notch as the investigations proceed to their entirely satisfying conclusion.
Translation is once again handled by Don Bartlett, delivering Dahl’s punchy prose. I’ve started getting used to Dahl’s style, with his short, snappy sentences, and was hooked from the off.
Sister, by Kjell Ola Dahl is published by Orenda Books at the end of April. Many thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the review copy, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.