Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter

Harper Voyager | 2017, Pb 2018 (I read the Hb) | 420p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Noumenon by Marina J LostetterIt is 2088 and much of Earth is relatively prosperous and at peace, looking for humanity’s next adventure, to escape the bounds of the solar system. It will send a number of enormous starship convoys out into space, each carrying more than 100,000 people. But where to send them? Astrophysicist Reggie Straifer might just have an answer for one of them. He has discovered an unusual star that defies the laws of physics. Its name is LQ Pyx.

Convoy Nine is given the mission, designated Noumenon, to travel to the star to discover whether it is natural or alien-made. The journey will take generations, a hundred years or so. The convoy will stay at the star for twenty years and then it will return to Earth to share whatever knowledge it’s discovered. Due to the variations of time on such a journey, a period of centuries for the convoy will be thousands of years for Earth, so who knows what the travellers will find on their return. But these are no ordinary astronauts – each will be a clone. The same sets of donated genes will live their lives over and over again.

If I were to write a recipe of everything that I like in a science fiction novel then Noumenon would be the resulting delicious dish. Astonishing and awe-inspiring objects in space, giant spaceships travelling into the unknown, a mystifying Earth in the distant future, the evolution of society on a generation ship, clones, an intriguing and unusual ship AI. I loved everything about it. The novel makes leaps through the years so in each sizeable chunk we follow a new set of personalities, some familiar to us from previous lives as clones are reborn. The legacy of these past lives is one of the novel’s big themes – are future clones guilty of the crimes of their ancestors because they share the same DNA?

There is such a sense of wonder – something that I crave in science fiction, especially the kind that deals with new worlds and space exploration. Reggie Straifer is driven by this wonder. The first generation of clones unleashed for the first time on their ships are almost giddy with it. But how to maintain that over the decades? And how to deal with the practicalities of living a sustainable existence aboard a starship when space and resources are limited? The way that they do this is agonising. And so the question remains – what do you do when the wonder is gone?

For me, the wonder remained and I was gripped by every stage of this novel. I would have liked more time spent at the anomalous star but there will, I believe, be more answers (as well as more questions, no doubt) in the sequel Noumenon Infinity. What we learn here, though, deeply intrigues and puzzles. But there are other things here just as fascinating as the star and they are wondrous to discover. Noumenon is a complete novel in its own right, sweeping through centuries of time. It sets the stage for the second book but it ends well. It did, though, make me want to read Infinity as soon as I can – I bought it immediately. I love it when a book urges me to buy everything else an author has written.

Noumenon is a rewarding and thrilling space adventure which overflows with big themes and questions about life and what drives people on, whether they’re a human being, an AI or a clone. Our sympathies are engaged repeatedly as we get to know these people, even though many of them are only passing through the story. The descriptions of the star are fantastic! I cannot wait to return in Noumenon Infinity.

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Tombland by C.J. Sansom

Mantle | 2018 (18 October) | 850p | Review copies | Buy the book

Tombland by CJ SansomTombland is the seventh novel in this fine series to feature Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Although there are a few references to previous events, Tombland stands well on its own as our journey through the Tudor period continues. Many of you, though, will have been looking forward to this just as much as me. It’s time once more to immerse ourselves in Tudor England.

It is 1549, a few years have passed since the events of Lamentation. Henry VIII is dead, as is, sadly, his Dowager Queen, Matthew Shardlake’s patron Catherine Parr. Edward VI, the boy king, sits on the throne but power is held in the hands of his Protector, Lord Somerset. Times are difficult. Somerset pursues his costly war with Scotland while religious intolerance upsets the common people, although not as much as their lords illegally enclosing their fields and common land in order to make a profit from sheep at their expense. The country is not content.

Matthew Shardlake has recently had a chilling reminder of why the powerful Richard Rich, now Edward VI’s Lord Chancellor, is his enemy. He needs to escape the court. It’s good timing, then, when he is called to the household of the King’s sister Lady Elizabeth in Hatfield to investigate a murder. Edith Boleyn, the wife of John, a distant cousin of Elizabeth’s, has been found murdered in the most grotesque manner in a small town in Norfolk. John stands accused of her murder and is expected to hang. Elizabeth would be most displeased if that were to happen. And so Matthew Shardlake and his assistant young Nicholas Overton travel to Norwich in Norfolk for a summer that will change them all forever.

Tombland is one of my most anticipated novels of the year (in fact, I was so excited I had a nose bleed… the power of books) and so I began it the day it unexpectedly and wonderfully arrived. It’s not a small book. On the contrary, it’s a mighty tome of 850 pages, and, as expected, every page is a pleasure as it brings us as close to Tudor Norfolk as I think any work of fiction possibly could. It’s quite extraordinary, really. As I was reading it – for instance, during the chapter when Matthew first rides through the gates of Norwich and up to its castle and cathedral – I could imagine it all so clearly. This is some of the most visual descriptive prose I’ve read. It’s packed with historical detail but it’s used to build a picture of the streets, buildings and people of the time. I took my time to imagine it all around me and I could do so incredibly clearly. How fantastic!

One would have thought that the Tudor period has been wrung dry by novelists but C.J. Sansom always reveals its lesser known aspects and this time he takes us to 1649 and the great rebellions of the people. Edward VI’s reign is largely unmined territory and it’s fascinating to learn what went on, in Norfolk and also elsewhere in England. I did some research while reading this and was so interested to learn how close these rebellions came to my home town of Oxford. Here, though, the emphasis is on Norfolk and perhaps the most significant of the rebellions, that led by Robert Kett. I gobbled this up. It’s so compelling.

There is no black and white here. Matthew is a man caught up in a situation that is out of his control and it’s so interesting watching him adapt to it, try to cope with it, try and survive it. I was really glad to see the involvement of Matthew’s former assistant, Jack Barak, and Jack and Nicholas must also respond to their situation in their own ways. C.J. Sansom carefully reveals the causes of the rebellions. There’s nothing dry here. It’s thoroughly engaging and absorbing as we see the impact of enclosures on ordinary men and women. We meet many of them – men, women and children, the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the unlucky. There are triumphs and tragedies. I shed tears more than once while at other times I was exhilarated. The positions of the King’s two sisters Mary and Elizabeth, rivals and yet both in a similar situation, is also such an intriguing element of a book full of intriguing elements.

Lamentation was my favourite of the series but it’s now been replaced by Tombland. This is a book that hugely rewards the reader and shows just how much of Tudor England there is left to explore. And it’s very possible that nobody else can bring it as much to life as C.J. Sansom. There’s usually a wait between books but they’re always so worth it.

Other reviews
Lamentation
Dominion

Blood’s Revolution by Angus Donald

Zaffre | 2018 (18 October) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood's Revolution by Angus DonaldIt is 1685 and Lieutenant Holcroft Blood, son of the infamous Crown Jewels-stealing Captain Blood, has returned to England after years in France as a reluctant spy. It’s now his job to look after (for his rather unpleasant commanding officers) the army’s Royal Train of Artillery, its cannon and other large guns, and he couldn’t enjoy his job more. He can calculate to the inch the position of a cannon to hit its target, however small. Holcroft’s skills are in more need than ever because rebellion has come to England. The Duke of Monmouth is determined to seize the throne from his Catholic and unpopular uncle King James II and now the armies must meet and kill each other at the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset.

And so begins Blood’s Revolution, the second novel in a series begun last year with Blood’s Game. Although this new book is a follow up, to all intents and purposes it marks a new phase of Holcroft’s life and can be read as a standalone. It’s almost fifteen years since the events of Blood’s Game, when the teenage Holcroft, a page, became ensnared in the intrigue of Charles II’s decadent court. Our hero is now in his early thirties, he’s an impressive man to look at physically and he’s gained a great deal of respect for his courage and military skill. Holcroft, somewhere on the autism spectrum, is even more intriguing than he was before. He can wind people up the wrong way. He can be difficult. He knows that and he tries to not take everything so literally, but people are drawn to him, including his old and closest friend Jack Churchill (later Lord Marlborough).

Blood’s Revolution thrills from the outset. Its opening pages set on the battlefield set the pace for the rest of the novel and it doesn’t let up even though the story continues through several years as the events leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 are brought to life. This is a period of history that I know relatively little and it well deserves this excellent novel. So soon after the Civil War, the country is once more on the verge of war, a King again in danger of being removed. Holcroft’s role puts him in the midst of the action and it had me gripped, from the horrific execution of Monmouth through to James’s frantic attempts to hang on to power.

There is another side to Blood’s Revolution as well and it’s just as exciting. An evil French villain, the master spy Narrey, has followed Holcroft back from France and he is determined to exact his terrible revenge. Narrey has another mission as well and it’s compelling stuff. Angus Donald is to be congratulated for fitting in so much entertaining plot! It all works and connects brilliantly well. And did I mention there’s a spot of romance? Of course, it involves Holcroft so it might not be your conventional romance.

If I had to find fault, I’d be struggling, but I did have a little dissatisfaction for the way in which one particular lady, with a rather unusual voice, is treated. It felt a little unkind and I felt sorry for her. But that’s it. Otherwise, Blood’s Revolution is a corking historical adventure and I enjoyed it as much as I did Angus Donald’s glorious Robin Hood and Alan Dale novels (one of the best historical series ever written, in my opinion). I had a few minor issues with Blood’s Game but they all disappeared with Blood’s Revolution. I liked that Holcroft is now older and removed from the court. Now he’s in the big bad world and he has to take it on as an adult and a soldier, in his own unique way.

Blood’s Revolution is set during such a fascinating and dangerous period of history when people such as Holcroft and Jack Churchill had to make some terrible decisions and live with the consequences. And when there’s a rabid foreign spy after your head, it doesn’t make things any easier. This is such a fun, thrilling novel and I cannot wait to see what’s next for Holcroft Blood. As you can see from the long list of reviews below, I love Angus DOnald’s novels and Blood’s Revolution is a fine example of why that is.

Other reviews
Outlaw
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Warlord
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin
The Death of Robin Hood
Blood’s Game
Guest post: Rampant hedonism in the restoration

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Orbit | 2018 (20 September) | 390p | Review copy | Buy the book

Rosewater by Tade ThompsonNigeria, 2066, and the new town of Rosewater is a place like none other. The shape of a doughnut, its centre is occupied by an astonishing alien biodome. Its contents are mysterious and unknown but people are drawn to it because, each year when it opens, everyone within the area is healed of all physical and mental disorders. Nobody wants to miss the Opening. Of course, it isn’t perfect. The reanimated dead must be avoided and destroyed at all cost. There is another side effect of the dome’s presence. Some people have become telepaths who can link through to the Xenosphere and there they can read people’s minds, find out things, hunt out secrets. S45, a government agency, was established to use the psychics to stop crime, including those committed by other telepaths. Their best agent is Kaaro. He can find things better than anyone. He is their best interrogator. Now he has a new case and it is the worst kind – someone or something is killing his fellow agents.

Rosewater is an extraordinary piece of science fiction and there is much about it that I really enjoyed and admired. Most of all, I loved the environment of Rosewater, ironically named for its stench. All humanity is drawn to this town, in all of its ugliness, greed and desperation. The setting, in our not too far off future, is really compelling. There are hints about the rest of the world – America has gone silent but nobody knows why – and there are memories of Nigeria’s colonial past overshadowing Rosewater’s perception of itself. Rosewater is vividly evoked, complete with the traffic problem that ensues when a place is shaped like a doughnut, and, at times, when the reanimates walk the streets, it can be a dark and frightening place, locked down by curfews. The premise of the alien biodome and the superhuman powers that is has bestowed on some and the healing it has gifted to others are so intriguing.

The novel combines science fiction with a crime thriller and it is the character of Kaaro who links the two. I didn’t find him a likeable character in the least. He was a thief and now he doesn’t steal objects but people’s secrets and identities. His relationships with women are not healthy but now he is challenged by the new woman in his life who is one of the most enigmatic characters in the book, as is her strange brother. Kaaro is being swept away and he’s not quite sure if he likes it or not. I did have my issues with Kaaro and his rather unpleasant sexuality and sporadic cruelty but, throughout the book we’re given glimpses into Kaaro’s past life, to help explain why he is the man he is and how he is so interconnected with the biodome.

These flashbacks did, I must admit, cause me trouble. They actually carry as much weight, plot-wise and action-wise, as the main thread set in the ‘Now’ and that means that I couldn’t help muddling them up. It doesn’t help that they’re not really in much of an order, we jump around all over the place and adding further confusion are the interludes. There are links between the trails but I’m not sure I spotted them well and I particularly grew confused about the nature of the revolutionary ‘Bicycle Girl’.

This is the first book in a trilogy, I believe, and so you don’t expect all the questions to be answered here but it does have the benefit of potentially leaving you wanting more. However, while most reviewers really love Rosewater, I did struggle to finish it, having been left behind by the challenging structure with its multiple plot-lines, and also by my dislike of Kaaro. But the premise, its Nigerian setting, and the enigmatic dome are very hard to resist.

For other opinions, do take a look at reviews by Curiosity Killed the Bookworm and Blue Book Balloon.

Absolute Proof by Peter James

Macmillan | 2018 (4 October) | 576p | Review copy | Buy the book

Absolute Proof by Peter JamesRoss Hunter is a freelance investigative journalist who is about to get the story of his life, all thanks to a former Art History lecturer Dr Harry Cook. For Harry Cook has, he insists, absolute proof that God exists and Ross is the medium God has chosen to reveal the truth to the world. Ross wants to dismiss Harry as a crank but there is something about the man that makes him want to trust him and, what’s more, he offers proof for what he says – three sets of coordinates will lead Ross to clues to the truth, beginning with a location in Glastonbury before taking Ross further and further afield. What Ross will discover in Glastonbury will change everything. But he is not alone on the hunt. Others will kill for what Ross knows, either to suppress it or to steal it. Because, as a Bishop friend says to Ross when he asks what would happen if a man could prove the existence of God – that man would be killed.

Peter James is an author I’ve enjoyed for quite some time, not just for his Roy Grace detective series but also for his stand alone novels, such as the ghost story The House on Cold Hill. Absolute Proof is a substantial and ambitious stand alone thriller that not only fascinates – there are some huge themes here – but it also grips. It’s extremely compelling, not least because it feels so vast in its scope.

Ross Hunter is the main character of the novel but there are many others we get to know as well, some of whom are as evil as sin. There are representatives of big business, of religion, of crime, each of whom is invested in what Ross may discover. The TV preacher Wesley Wenceslas and his henchman, fetchingly named Pope, particularly stand out. I always looked forward to their sections of the novel.

There are some moments in Absolute Proof that took my breath away. There are others that shocked me. In this book you rarely know what lies around the corner. I liked that! I do think, though, that the novel is a little too long at almost 600 pages. There are episodes and characters that the book could have done without in my opinion, especially radio presenter Sally Hughes. Ross’s dalliance is a distraction that halts the plot too frequently. Having said that I thought the novel a little too long, in other ways I wanted more of it! More of the themes and characters that really intrigued from the beginning, such as the pope’s messenger. Also, the book makes it clear that the absolute proof is for God – the God of all religions – but there is a great deal about the Christian God and not much about the other faiths. The themes of the novel are just so vast, so significant, that it almost seems too huge for just one book.

I thoroughly enjoyed Absolute Proof. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a substantial novel but I was glued to it for two wonderful days, reading it very quickly (for me). It’s a clever book, full of ideas and thought. You can tell how much the author was invested in his story. It’s one of those wonderful thrillers that I almost wish I hadn’t read just so I could have the pleasure of reading it again! I can imagine comparisons will be made with Dan Brown’s thrillers but, to my mind, there is no comparison. Absolute Proof is a well-written and thoughtful thriller that is packed full of adventure and action. Ross Hunter stands alone against the world. He just has to hope that God is on his side.

Other reviews
The House on Cold Hill
You Are Dead (Roy Grace 11)
Love You Dead (Roy Grace 12)

Penguin Modern Classics: A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

A Small Town in Germany by John Le CarreOn 27 September 2018, Penguin completed its nine-year project to publish 21 of John Le Carré’s novels as Penguin Modern Classics, making him the living author with the greatest number of works awarded this classics status. New to the list will be Little Drummer Girl, which the BBC is about to bring to our small screens. I’m really proud to have been invited to take part in the blog tour to celebrate the project, as well as the BBC series of Little Drummer Girl. It’s my role to introduce you to A Small Town In Germany, which, like so many in the Le Carré Penguin Modern Classics has such a gorgeous, striking cover.

A Small Town in Germany was published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2011 but the book itself first appeared in print back in 1968 and is one of the spy novels that doesn’t feature George Smiley. Here is a little of what the novel is about:

West Germany, a simmering cauldron of radical protests, has produced a new danger to Britain: Karfeld, menacing leader of the opposition. At the same time Leo Harting, a Second Secretary in the British Embassy, has gone missing – along with more than forty Confidential embassy files. Alan Turner of the Foreign Office must travel to Bonn to recover them, facing riots, Nazi secrets and the delicate machinations of an unstable Europe in the throes of the Cold War.

As Turner gets closer to the truth of Harting’s disappearance, he will discover that the face of International relations – and the attentions of the British Ministry itself – is uglier that he could possibly have imagined.

The small German town in question is Bonn, West Germany, and it’s a foggy, wet place – a dangerous place in this time of Cold War and suspicion. It is a time when Europe is trying to draw closer together, to tighten its Union, in the face of a considerable amount of instability and hostility. Alan Turner isn’t keen to visit but he has no choice. It’s in Bonn that he must look for the missing British Embassy Secretary, Leo, a man that remains elusive throughout the novel.

The Little Drummer Girl by John Le CarreA Small Town in Germany is one of Le Carre’s earliest novels and takes place without the presence of George Smiley. Nevertheless, it still contains the hallmarks of Le Carré’s skill – his ability to describe in great detail without giving much away, keeping the reader as much in the dark as his agents. The time and place are evoked with great clarity, despite the puzzles that haunt each page.

I’ve read most of Le Carré’s novels over the years and I would definitely call myself a fan. I do think that A Small Town in Germany is one of the more challenging of the books – it takes a while to establish in which direction it’s heading and it can, at times, confuse – but it is so steeped in the times, which seem particularly pertinent now.

I have a spare copy of A Small Town in Germany to give away, so if you’d like to read it, please leave a comment here or on Twitter.

This is such an exciting blog tour to be a part of, with each stop focusing on a different book. A spy book bonanza! For the other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster.

John le Carre - Blog Tour Card

The Ash Doll by James Hazel

Zaffre | 2018 (20 September) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ash Doll by James HazelDay one is about to dawn on lawyer Charlie Priest’s big new case. It’s caught the attention of the media and the general public and it’s not surprising. Priest’s team is defending the small, independent magazine First Byte against the Elias Children’s Foundation, a massive charity that the First Byte has accused of channelling some of its money into terrorist organisations, with the full knowledge and cooperation of its CEO Alexia Elias.

Priest has a card up its sleeve, the testimony of ex-charity worker Simeon Ali, but when Simeon fails to turn up in court on the first day, Charlie Priest begins to worry. And then the murders begin…

The Ash Doll is the second novel by James Hazel to feature lawyer Charlie Priest and his team. The series began with the extraordinary and marvellous The Mayfly, a book that made me instantly fall for Charlie and, most of all, his assistant Georgie Someday. Charlie and Georgie are not your normal investigators. Charlie has a dissociative order that disconnects him from the world – and from himself – for worrying periods of time; Georgie has an intense, sharp vulnerability that makes one care deeply for her, especially as you know how much she continues to test and stretch herself. It’s hard to imagine anyone more brave than Georgie Someday. How good it is to see her again.

Although The Ash Doll is book two in the series, you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy this, although I think you really should. But, if you haven’t, you’ll find The Ash Doll an absorbing stand alone crime thriller, that’s both clever and exceedingly well-written.

The Ash Doll takes the reader into very dark territory indeed and I have to say that it was a little darker than I’m usually prepared to go. It’s never easy reading about child abuse and the corruption of innocence but that is a theme that overshadows this novel and I did struggle with sections of it. Nevertheless, this is a beautifully written novel, exhilarating and exciting from start to finish, with a complex, layered plot that kept me fascinated. But, even better than that, are its wonderful characters. I love Charlie Priest and Georgie Someday, and I love them all the more for their quirks and eccentricities. They are each packed full of character and personality. I can’t wait to spend time with them again.

Other review
The Mayfly