Review of A Still Life, by Elliott Wink

A Still Life, Elliott Wink

This is a simply beautiful little sci fi novelette. The telling of the short story is deft, menacing and bittersweet, and will leave you wanting so much more.

We are introduced to 180 years into our future, to an old fashioned (even for our times) hotel of faded grandeur in Bay Area San Francisco. The staff now consists solely of receptionist, Addie, and cleaner, Lydia.

There are no guests at this once popular, bustling hotel, and haven’t been any for decades. Addie and Lydia steadily repeat their tasks day after day, unable to break free from the routine, Addie amusing and educating herself with a diet of television shows from the past, in between checking for bookings and voicemails.

There are flashbacks to Addie’s earlier life interspersed with the growing feeling that something is very wrong with the present day.

There is such hope and humanity woven through this brief glimpse into Addie’s world, I hope one day the author returns to it and allows us to explore further.

Review of Eight Detectives, by Alex Pavesi

Eight Detectives, Alex Pavesi

Whilst I love a whodunnit, I’m always terrible at working out who did it.

To be fair for this book, I didn’t even try, I let the story wash over me like I was watching a lush BBC adaptation; set on a beautiful sun-bleached island, where I recline in the shade of a tree, with a glass of local wine, watching the author and the editor of the story talking quietly, with the occasional raised word, at a table nearby.

The narrative through the book swaps back and forth between the island home of self-isolated ex-professor and author Grant McAllister, and a series of murder mysteries written for a book called The White Murders twenty years earlier in the 1930’s. Julia Hart has come all the way from the UK to visit him, to discuss editing a new edition for an independent publisher, with a preface written by Julia herself.

The murders range over a variety of settings; a strange family trapped in a stultifying stately home, burning buildings, an extensive yet stuffy Spanish villa, the English seaside, and a posh London courtyard residence. Many and varied places to die and for suspects and detectives to gather.

To say much more would run the risk of venturing into spoilers, but I enjoyed the twists and turns, and the eventual resolution was both shocking and satisfying.

Review of The Ghosts of Thorwald Place, by Helen Power

The Ghosts of Thorwald Place, Helen Power

A supernatural, satisfying, unusual murder mystery.

I haven’t read a story about a ghost for a while, I forgot how much I enjoy them. It’s no spoiler to note that the main character of this novel becomes one in chapter two. The central conceit of the elevator environment really works, both allowing and restricting the narrative and acting as a jump cut more than once.

There is a varied cast of decidedly odd characters, not all pleasant, and some with whom your sympathies come and go as secrets steadily and inevitably leak out. I did want to give Rachel a good shake once or twice, for being a bit feeble, but then she had been through a lot!

It cleverly blends the supernatural elements with more prosaic dangers, so you are never quite sure what’s genuinely spooky and what is a human someone being awful. Also it’s refreshing to have a book set in Canada for a change, rather than in Generic, USA, or London suburbia.

And fittingly for a story where the protagonist is trapped inside, the author named the building itself after Lars Thorwald in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

I will be looking for more by this author, after enjoying her debut immensely.

Review of Inhibitor Phase, by Alistair Reynolds

Inhibitor Phase, Alistair Reynolds

I do love a good space opera. It can be daunting though, looking at the shelves of thick Peter F Hamilton books, all the many Culture novels from Iain M Banks, and Mr Reynolds himself has a huge oeuvre of Revelation Space-set stories.

Which is why I like a novel that whilst set in a pre-existing universe, with nods to other worlds, events and characters, can be read and enjoyed entirely standalone. It saves you having to Wikipedia the bibliography and work out what order you should read in, indeed if the book you are considering will make any sense to you at all.

I honestly could not put this down. I had it on my phone’s Kindle app and would find myself flicking to it to get another chapter in when I should have been doing something else!

The characters are well drawn, likeable, funny, utterly hateful, and fallible. The physical environments are detailed; you feel the claustrophobia and stress of people rubbing along together trapped inside Michaelmas. The strength and fear of travelling in a powerful but not infallible spaceship, looking over your shoulder in not quite empty enough space. The cloying tectonic gases, the chill of shadows, beautiful planetscapes, and horrible smells. You will squirm with visceral horror, and tip your head back and laugh.

There is an element of the Arthur C Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” running through this book, but I found each weird and wonderful thing was treated so matter-of-factly at the time by at least some of the characters, that it didn’t push you out of the story. It was just how it was and that was that. You don’t have to understand something to benefit from it, or be endangered or changed by it.

I will definitely now read the next of his books that I have sitting on my shelves, waiting.

Review of Bad Apples by Will Dean

Tried to combine the Hallowe’en, forest and pumpkin themes running through the book with a literal evil apple… so yes, that’s permanent marker badly applied to a fruit, with a mini Christmas tree.

I’ve not read any Will Dean before, so this Tuva novel is my introduction to his work. I can only say wow, and start looking for the first Tuva in the series! It seems the Swedish winter (Dean himself lives in the forest so the descriptions of sights and smells are amazing) is hugely conducive to a dark and chilly crime thriller.

Having the focus of the story on a journalist rather than the usual hard-boiled detective is a refreshing angle. Tuva Moodyson is a little brittle, often acerbic and funny, usually grumpy, and very tenacious. She has great instincts. She’s also deaf, and her life with hearing aids is a wonderfully personal element to the character.

The people in the two towns the book focuses on are drawn beautifully; many are deeply creepy or haughty and awful. Or indeed both! This is definitely a book to read on a dark frosty evening, well wrapped up, with a big mug of comforting hot chocolate, preferably with a pet on your lap, and the lights on. And the doors and windows locked.

You certainly won’t look at self storage in the same way again.

Review of Liquid by Mark Miodownik

“Liquids are the alter ego of dependable solid stuff.”

This is the most fascinating book I’ve read in a long time. Mark’s also written Stuff Matters, which I’d read a while ago and reading Liquid I had not realised it was the same author. He is the Director of the Institute of Making, at UCL. Their work involves understanding how liquids can behave as solids.

Liquids are everywhere. From the huge leap in technology that is your ballpoint pen, to the source of earthquakes; your glass of Chardonnay and the development of lab-on-a-microchip testing, they play an important part in our lives and we rarely find ourselves even noticing this huge variation of forms that liquids take.

Liquid is built around the author taking a flight from London to San Francisco, to a sustainability conference, and discussing and meditating on types of liquids as he flies, as he looks around the plane and describes the properties of kerosene, how alcohol affects us, and aircraft glue . It really is so very interesting and wide-ranging.

As Mark himself says in the introduction, he can “promise you a strange and marvellous trip.”

Review of The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

With the news that QI Elf and No Such Thing As A Fish podcaster Andrew Hunter Murray has a new novel out next year (The Sanctuary), I was reminded that I read this gem on Kindle around the same time I read his fantastic first book, The Last Day.

Both books took the slowing of the Earth’s rotation as the basis of the story, but whereas The Last Day is set largely several years later and the world is still going (was going to say turning…), at least after a fashion, a good slice of it anyway, The Age of Miracles is set right at the start of the slowing of the Earth’s rotation.

It centres around a teenage girl at high school, it’s a YA book, which I didn’t realise until I’d finished it, and it just shows what teenagers can take, in the pretty hard hitting treatment of the subject and the characters. I don’t know any teenagers but I’m sure they’d love this.

After the start of the slowing, it’s hard for anyone to really notice a difference at first, and adjustments can and are made, allowing life to go on largely as normal. Perhaps a touch more sunscreen at midday, staying out of the heat, the grass needing more watering. Orbiting satellites start to have trouble. Satnavs become less accurate. School goes on, people still go to work, conspiracy theorists start to come out of the woodwork.

The story focuses on a street of households in a small American town, but it’s a microcosm of what’s being experienced the world over. It feels strangely familiar in these times of pandemic, with a growing global unease and increasing difficulty in living a normal life. Politicians on the TV saying what the public wants to hear, experts who are pointing out what they really don’t want to know are sidelined or mocked. So yes, very familiar!

There must have been a huge amount of research behind this, into the effect of the Earth’s rotation on gravity, on the ‘wheat point’, on the differing reactions of individuals, the world religions and various scientific establishments. It’s detailed and terrifying.

There are however seams of joy and hope woven through the narrative, alongside a measure of sadness and desperation. If you liked The Last Day, read this for a different take on a plausible but hopefully hugely unlikely scenario.

Review of Sleep Tight by C S Green

Sleep Tight

This arrived as part of a Perfectly Imperfect Book Club parcel (check them out on Etsy) with a book and treats that I ordered to spoil myself because working from home on dark cold winter afternoons is a bit grim sometimes. It’s not my usual fare of travelogue or sci fi but I will definitely be reading the next in the series when it’s released.

It’s described as having a kinship to The X Files; as lover of that forerunner show (member of the fan club back in the day!) I would say it’s a slightly down at heel inner city cousin, with terrible weather and more tea rounds. Maybe a close-to-retirement Phoebe Green would pop over to ask a favour of UCIT with a weird case now and again (one for the X Files viewers there, sorry).

I don’t usually read police procedurals, outside ploughing through the entire Morse box set once, but I was grabbed by this one.

You feel for the main character, Rose, immediately; she’s had a miserable childhood and adulthood isn’t treating her much better. She’s finally become a policewoman and so badly wants to really belong to her new blue family, as she has no friends outside it, but there’s something holding her back from fully investing in life. She’s treading water, hopeless, waiting for something not clearly defined and probably awful to happen. She has secrets she’s not even admitting to herself properly. She doesn’t sleep well. She lives (well, exists) in the old, dark, damp family home, and her boss can’t at the moment bear the sight of her, through no fault of her own, which is doing her prospects no good at all.

There is a supernatural element to the story, but it’s handled well and with complete seriousness. I got to around 40 pages from the end and I could not wait to find out the resolution. It really is hard to put down. I did not guess whodunnit and it was a satisfying resolution that leads into the (hopefully soon) next book.

Throwback Thursday: Review of All Gone To Look For America, by Peter Millar

Forgot to post on Thursday!

This edition was published 2012, just before Obama was voted in as the first black President. The potential in that is palpable throughout the book.

A travelogue is my absolute favourite genre. I would love to jump on a train or hire an unusual car and take myself across a country, exploring everywhere I’ve only ever seen on the TV. However I definitely lack the confidence, never mind the holiday days or the funds!

So I always pick one up when I see one. I have all the Brysons, and every book Tim Moore has written. This book from a charity shop is a perfect example, a journey across the United States, by train, which surprisingly for a country built on and by the railway is rather difficult and cumbersome to do. The author did have to resort to a car at least once to make connections, to save backtracking to past cities.

I cannot quite imagine a train journey that takes days, but he makes several. America is orders of magnitude bigger than us Brits are used to. And he experiences amazing silver trains with observation decks, rolling across huge open vistas. And the strange fact Americans have to climb up to board trains, they aren’t at platform level like ours.

Peter delves into the history of the places he steps off the train, be it Graceland, Niagara Falls or Dinosaur country. He is often funny, sometimes poignant and always searingly honest.

I’ve found he has also written a book called Marrakesh Express so I’m going to seek that out next. If you can find All Gone, I highly recommend it.

Throwback Thursday – Review of Blood, Sweat & Tea by Tom Reynolds

First published in 2006, and followed by the ‘sequel’, More Blood, More Sweat & Another Cup of Tea , these are selected posts from the writer’s then-blog, turned into book form. As it says, “The real life adventures in an inner city ambulance”.

Trust me, you will sit down to read one or two and then it’s an hour later and the book is half finished. You will chortle, despair, probably have a little weep, sigh at humanity, and gain a little insight into the life of an EMT in London. You will want to be one of those people who leaves a bar of Dairy Milk on an ambo’s windscreen with a kind note, and not one who complains a big yellow van with flashing lights is blocking his drive whilst treating a critically ill person.

Tom (real name Brian Kellett) writes in such a chatty, friendly, quite gossipy style, as if you are one of the gang, that it makes the difficult stories hit that much harder, and the funny ones sound that much funnier.

It will make you want to go and do a first aid course. Or at least watch some You Tube videos. You know, “press hard and fast on the medallion”… And it will definitely make you want a cup of tea.