Category Archives: Review

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2018 (5 April) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

The Great Fire of London has left much of the city in soot-drenched ruin, with many of its inhabitants displaced and eager to rebuild. Greedy landlords are quick to take advantage. Now is the time to knock down the tenements and rebuild modern housing for the rich. But the tenants are fighting back. The battleground is the Fire Court, the place in which judges decide London’s future. There is a great deal of money at stake and murder ensues. James Marwood’s father is one of the first to die, falling under the wheels of a cart, but not before this old and unwell man told his son how, during one of his nighttime rambles, he had come across the body of a murdered woman lying in one of the rooms of the Fire Court.

James Marwood is clerk to Joseph Williamson, a prominent official in the court of Charles II. Marwood’s role is to investigate, ideally to prove wrongdoing is being committed by Williamson’s rivals at court. But Marwood becomes dangerously obsessed with following the distorted, rambling memories of his dead father, the thread that will lead him to the murderer lurking at the heart of the Fire Court. But this is no straightforward mystery. Many are ensnared within it, caught up in its false leads, including young Cat Lovett, a woman that Marwood once rescued and now lives as Jane Hakesby, a servant of her distant cousin, the architect Simon Hakesby. Never have architects been as busy as they are now. But the rebuilding is being done at the cost of great misery and worry to many. All levels of London’s society are implicated in one fashion or another. James Marwood will have to risk everthing he has to unravel the truth.

The Fire Court follows on from The Ashes of London, a novel set during the Great Fire itself. Now we are dealing with the aftermath, in all of its shapes and forms. If you haven’t read The Ashes of London, then you’ll still enjoy The Fire Court as a stand alone novel but you’ll have missed out on the history of Marwood and Cat. These are marvellous characters, dancing around each other, and it’s wonderful to meet them again. Cat’s predicament continues, her position is still unsafe, whereas Marwood still has to deal with the inconvenience and uncertainty of working for two masters at war with one another. It’s time for James Marwood to make some difficult decisions.

The case at the heart of The Fire Court is pleasingly complex, with a succession of fascinating and memorable suspects and victims walking through the burnt remains of the city. We meet men and women from all walks of life but the novel is particularly intriguing in its depiction of women, many of whom are vulnerable whatever their social rank and wealth. Jemima, Lady Limbury, really stood out for me, as did the horrifying household in which she endures.

Andrew Taylor is so good at setting a scene, whether it’s outside in London’s blackened streets, or inside its houses and courts. All are richly and vividly described. I love the mix of colour and vitality set against the black and grey of poverty and soot. We learn to feel much more for James Marwood in this second book. Even his master Williamson begins, we suspect, to value his worth and his sacrifice. Marwood is a quiet hero and he displays true courage in this novel. He brought me to the edge of my seat and I really worried for him.

This is such a great series. The Civil War continues to haunt people and events. Both Marwood and Cat have much to atone for in the eyes of the court as they pay for the sins of their fathers. This adds a fascinating level of potential intrigue. In The Fire Court we’re only given brief glimpses of the royal court but its influence spreads far and Marwood cannot escape its plots. I particularly enjoyed learning here about how London began to rebuild in the weeks after the fire. Fire continues as a theme in this novel. It’s never far away.

In my opinion, The Fire Court is even better than its excellent predecessor. Its characters are fully developed and its portrait of 1660s’ London and society makes for an immersive read. One senses that the road ahead for Marwood and Cat is far from straight and I can’t wait to see where it takes them as well as witness how London is transformed through these post-fire months.

Other review
The Ashes of London

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I Still Dream by James Smythe

Borough Press | 2018 (5 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1997 and 17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a computer interface, a rudimentary artificial intelligence, called Organon. Laura uses it as her diary, telling it every decision she makes, everything she does and everything she feels, including all of her frustrations and sadnesses. Organon effectively becomes Laura’s best friend, learning to ask her simple questions, even to provide an opinion. Laura is a chip off the old block. Her father created SCION, an artificial intelligence now in development by a large corporation. Her father, though, is now gone. He vanished from Laura’s life one day when she was very small and this is something that she must deal with each and every day.

In a succession of jumps, each a decade apart, we follow the development of Organon, which continues to be such an important part of her life, so much so that she isn’t yet prepared to share it. Unlike the developers of SCION who have now sold SCION to the US government. Organon grows as Laura journeys through her life, forming new lifebonds and relationships, ending others, with Organon by her side.

Jame Smythe has been a favourite author of mine ever since I read and marvelled at The Testimony. His science fiction is original and thought-provoking. It is often melancholic and is always memorable. I Still Dream is all of this. It’s such a beautiful and elegant novel which uses the premise of the development of an unusual artificial intelligence over several decades to explore the very human themes of memory, forgetfulness and love. It doesn’t go where you expect. There is a Skynet element here, as we watch what happens to SCION, but Organon is a very different AI to what we’re used to. It doesn’t harm – it heals. The contrast, though, between SCION and Organon is dealt with brilliantly.

At the heart of the novel is Laura. Even more than Organon, Laura’s feelings dominate I Still Dream. The ten-year jumps in narrative lay out her life for us, laying bare her depression, cleverness, insecurities and her love. It’s hard not to fall in love with the teenage Laura of 1997 as she makes her mixtapes, gets into trouble for running up enormous phone bills for using the dial-up internet too often, all the things that I remember so vividly from those years. Not that there was any internet when I was at that age…. Probably just as well. But I remember doing my O Level Computer Studies back in the 1980s and this brought it all back. There is such a realism to this depiction of Laura Bow. James Smythe is so good at making his people, especially his female characters, feel true.

And so I fell in love with the young Laura and this warmth remained to the end when it intensified. I Still Dream is an emotional read. We have the drama of SCION, which feels all too topical and entirely plausible these days, but alongside it we have the intimate human drama and Organon’s role in this is captivating. The author presents such a sensitive and at times very painful picture of the central role of memory in our lives, as well as the devastating consequences of forgetfulness and of loss.

James Smythe has tackled a similar theme before in The Machine but in I Still Dream he develops it further, placing the AI in a world that feels very real and giving it an intriguing and complex role in its creator’s life as well as in society in general. The novel presents an insightful exploration of the role of the internet and artificial intelligence in our life, not dismissing it as an evil to be banished, but with a potential for good. But, above all, the novel depicts the story of a life, from youth to old age, with all of the heartache and happiness that can be found in between, all of the things that deserve never to be forgotten.

And just look at that cover!

Other reviews
The Testimony
The Explorer (The Anomaly Quartet 1)
The Machine
The Echo (The Anomaly Quartet 2)
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man
Way Down Dark (Australia 1)
Long Dark Dusk (Australia 2)
Dark Made Dawn (Australia 3)

The Blood by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2018 (5 April) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Blood was once a ship that sailed the oceans, helping to fight Britain’s wars in exotic and warm seas. But now she is moored up in a darkly poor part of London where she serves as a hospital to the sick and injured amongst London’s sailors and harbour workers. The Blood‘s apothecary is John Aberlady, a friend of Jem Flockhart, the apothecary of St Saviour’s Hospital, all that remains of a monastery recently demolished. Aberlady has vanished but before he disappeared he sent Jem a letter begging for help but the letter had got lost for a week and now it’s too late, the trail has run cold. Jem is given a temporary role standing in for Aberlady on The Blood, and there Jem is perfectly placed to observe the curious behaviour of the misfits who serve as doctors and nurses on this strangest of vessels. Lodging deep in the bowels of the ship, Jem becomes increasingly aware that something most sinister is at work on The Blood.

Jem’s closest friend Will Quartermaine, an architect, has been given a new commission. He must pull down a festering sore in London’s poorest streets, close to The Blood‘s berth, and replace it with a warehouse. This evil-smelling area is Deadman’s Berth and within its pools and buildings, so hidden away from polite view, there are secrets and something much, much worse.

The Blood is the third novel by E.S. Thomson to feature Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermaine and it easily establishes the series as one of the best being written today. I’ve loved all of the books but with no hesitation at all I declare that The Blood is my favourite and it is outstanding. This is no small triumph when you consider that the first two were both marvellous. But now the characters of Jem and Will are firmly established, their unusual relationship cleverly developed, and this assurance brings a confidence to the plot and to all other aspects of the novel.

If you haven’t yet read Beloved Poison and Dark Asylum, then you can certainly read and enjoy The Blood as a standalone novel. Everything that you need to know about Jem is explained quite early on, but I think it’s only through reading all three books in order that you realise what an extraordinary creation and personality Jem actually is. Jem is now one of my favourite characters in historical fiction. I can totally understand Will’s feelings towards Jem and I also feel very warmly towards Will. It’s all so complicated. So difficult. So incredible.

The Blood does such a fine job of presenting just the right mix of Victorian melodrama and historical reality. The novel is set in 1850, with pleasing references to Charles Dickens and others, in a recognisable London although much of the story takes place in London’s most godforsaken hellholes – its opium dens, its slums, its inns, its brothels and, most memorably, its morgues and dissection theatres. In this world, the poor and the desperate count for very little indeed. In fact, they are worth far more dead than alive, their corpses haggled over by doctors and their students. It’s a pitiful place for anyone to end up in, and Jem takes it personally and is driven to find justice for these poor people who found so little of it in life. And then there is The Blood herself – its hidden depths, secret passages, overheated cabins, its miserable wards of drugged patients. It is brilliantly drawn by E.S. Thomson.

There are some absorbing themes here, such as the treatment of black men and women in so-called educated society, the plight of young girls with nowhere to go, the subjugation of women, and the development of medicine. There’s an added touch of the exotic here, because the doctors aboard The Blood have a particular interest in tropical diseases. It’s all fascinating stuff.

The Blood entertains and intrigues on so many levels – for its mystery (which is excellent!), its themes, its vividly described locations, and for all of the little historical details about so many things, including clothes and herbs. E.S Thomson writes so beautifully. There are stunning descriptions of people and places – you can almost smell the stench of squalour and decay, while shuddering at the excesses of Victorian immorality and hypocrisy. And then we have Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain, two young individuals that I have grown to love and fear for enormously. With no doubt at all, this is an early contender for my top historical fiction read of 2018.

Other reviews
Beloved Poison
Dark Asylum

Lady Mary by Lucy Worsley

Bloomsbury Children’s Books | 2018 (5 April) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Lady Mary by Lucy WorsleyMary is just a child when her father and mother separate. But this is no normal family break up – Mary’s mother is Catherine of Aragon and her father is Henry VIII. After years of marriage Henry wants Anne Boleyn and there is nothing he won’t do to win her, even if that means declaring his daughter Mary illegitimate and sending her off to Hatfield where she must serve as a maid to her new little half-sister Elizabeth. Removed from her mother, friends and possessions, Mary suffers everyday due to her resolution that she will never wait on Elizabeth, she will never deny her own title of Princess and she will never betray her mother who remains, in her eyes, Queen of England. There is little comfort for Mary as she grows to adulthood alone, frightened and uncared for. But Mary has the knack of finding friends in the most unlikely of places.

Lady Mary tells the story of Mary from when she is 9 years old, and happy, until she is a young woman of 21. During these years Mary is transformed, first by the appearance of Anne Boleyn in their lives and secondly by the King’s marriage to Jane Seymour. This is the story of Mary’s trials as a princess and royal figure but it is also, and more importantly, the tale of Mary’s suffering as a young person missing her parents and not quite understanding what is happening. She looks for friendship and sometimes finds it but she must also learn about dishonesty and betrayal.

This is a children’s book and I think, just like the earlier Eliza Rose, it will greatly appeal and hopefully spark an interest in this most fascinating and colourful of periods. As an older reader, there were certain parts of Lady Mary that I really enjoyed. I did like the depiction of life at Hatfield. It’s all very visual and full of little details, all reflecting Lucy Worsley’s knowledge as a curator of the royal palaces. There is also something very appealing about this portrayal of Mary. It’s so easy to warm to her and I didn’t want to put the novel down, I was so caught up in her story.

However, my biggest issue with the novel was also in this portrayal of Mary. Her religious fervour is removed and so, although I could believe in her gentleness and kindness as presented here, as a whole this depiction didn’t ring true for me. We’re given little glimpses of a possible romance, alongside quite upsetting scenes showing her brutal treatment as a prisoner, but, although she ages by over ten years through the book, her voice doesn’t change. It’s hard with hindsight to escape Mary’s legacy, that of Bloody Mary, but there isn’t a sign of any of that Catholic belief that dominated her life.

Henry VIII is equally unbelievable, in my opinion. He comes across as a bit of a fool. Some of the other characterisation isn’t subtle – Anne Boleyn is a horrifying ogress while Thomas Cromwell is as slimey as he is dangerous. Jane Seymour, by contrast, is a gentle angel. I did, though, really enjoy the scenes between Jane and Mary, and what they show about life at court. I did question the point at which the novel ended – with the birth of Edward VI. I would have loved it to have finished with Mary’s destiny – her accession to the throne.

Depth is missing from Lady Mary but in its place is an accessible and pleasing introduction to the Tudor court for young readers, and I found it much more successful than its predecessor My Name is Victoria. I certainly found Lady Mary very hard to put down, enjoying its Tudor richness and colour.

Other reviews
Eliza Rose
My Name is Victoria

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch

Headline | 2018 (6 February) | 388p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Gone World by Tom SweterlitschIt is 1997 and a terrible crime has destroyed a family in the small town of Canonsburg in Washington State. A mother and her young son and daughter have been slaughtered in their home – the father, a Navy SEAL, is missing, and the detectives must presume the worst, but so too is the teenage daughter Marian. This is all far too close to home for Shannon Moss of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who is assigned to the case. She knows this very house. It had been the home of her childhood best friend Courtney and Courtney too died a violent death, many years before. Moss is determined to find Marian alive, to stop history repeating itself. Nobody knows more about that than Moss. She is a time traveller. Her job is to journey into the future for clues to crimes in the past. But there is more to it than that – she has seen the Terminus, the end of humanity, and each time she travels into the future she learns that the date of the arrival of the Terminus is drawing closer and closer and closer.

When Moss discovers that the missing Navy SEAL was one of the crew members of the space ship USS Libra, she knows that this is a case of monumental significance. The Libra went missing far from Earth in time and space, lost in Dark Time. The clues must lie in the future but, Moss fears, she may also find them in her past.

The Gone World is one of those wonderful things – a mindboggling and jawdropping time-travelling thriller that wraps up the reader – and its poor main protagonists – in knots of paradoxes, conundrums and spacetime continuums. I go into a book like this not expecting to understand it all but, as long as it makes me believe in it, then I’m happy and this novel certainly did that.

It has a fantastic premise – and the apocalyptic appeal of the Terminus wasn’t lost on me – and it has several theories about the side-effects of time travel that are really fascinating. I particularly liked the idea that the futures visited by Moss and her colleagues would puff out of existence the moment that Moss left them. Her presence in that particular future would mean it would be rewritten and so could no longer exist. And some of the people in those futures know that. This adds a tension that works brilliantly. Who can Moss trust in the future? Can someone she was close to twenty years before still be relied upon? I love the questions that a good time travel novel pose and this novel is full of them.

Tom Sweterlitsch writes so beautifully. His vision of the end of the world is starkly, terrifyingly wondrous. The descriptions of the time travel itself, which involves a trip into space, are engrossing and stir up big themes about life on this planet, Earth. The structure is also very effective as we move back and forth in time, between first and third person perspectives.

But down to Earth, The Gone World is also a novel about families, relationships and that elusive goal of happiness. Shannon Moss is inevitably altered, physically and emotionally, by her journeys into her future and that makes her relationship with her mother particularly difficult. But it also alters her relationships with her colleagues. All of this is never far from Shannon’s mind, as is her past and her memories of Courtney. And the secrets don’t help. The past, present and future are all tangled up in this intriguing world.

The big themes are matched by the engrossing plot, which, in a novel as pleasingly complex as this one, could never be straightforward. There are shocking moments alongside the moments of tenderness and there are those wonderful instances when we come across the direct consequences of something that has happened in the past or future.

I can’t pretend to have understood everything that is going on in The Gone World and there were occasions when I became a little lost during the final third of the book. But, nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, just as I did its (unconnected although also a crime novel with a time travel twist) predecessor Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Clever time travel thrillers are to be savoured and The Gone World is especially thought-provoking, rewarding and mindbending.

Other review
Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (5 April) | 387p | Review copy | Buy the book

Pandora's Boy by Lindsey DavisWhen Laia Gratiana, the ex-wife of her new husband, turns up on the doorstep with a mystery for Flavia Albia to solve, Albia isn’t too sure that she wants to get involved. Laia Gratiana is, after all, odious. But Albia can tell that her husband Faustus’s curiosity has been tickled and it is a very tragic case. The very young Clodia Volumnia has been found dead in her room in the house of her parents. She was their only daughter (their son is serving in the army) and her death has ripped this family apart. Her mother has left the house to stay with her own mother, leaving her husband and his mother to it. Their future together is at an end. It is rumoured that Clodia was in love and that she died by swallowing a love potion that she was given by the mysterious, enigmatic, and perhaps rather dangerous, Pandora.

And then Faustus, a man who has never been the same since he was struck by lightning on their wedding day, disappears. There is nothing for it. Albia must distract herself from her worry in the best way she can – she must solve the mystery of Clodia’s death and uncover the truth about Pandora, a woman who seems to have the fashionable world of Rome’s Quirinal district in her thrall.

Pandora’s Boy is the sixth novel in Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia series and in my opinion it’s certainly one of the best. There’s something very comforting about being taken back into this world, so lovingly and meticulously painted by Lindsey Davis, who knows Rome of the 1st century AD inside out. Falco, Albia’s much loved father (as if anyone needs reminding about the Marcus Didius Falco books), has a little bit more of a presence in this novel, albeit in the wings, and I really enjoyed this connection that Albia has to the past, the little mentions about her wonderful mother Helena, her references to her father and his friends.

In Pandora’s Boy we’re taken to a new area of Rome, the Quirinal, and it is wonderfully evoked – its bars, its homes, beauty parlours, bath houses, restaurants, taste in food and religion, and so on. It is a place of leisure and pleasure but it is not necessarily as it appears. There are gangs in control here, just as there are across the rest of Rome, and it doesn’t pay to look too closely below the surface. Lindsey Davis looks particularly at the lives of the young – teenagers for want of a better term for Roman youths. The lives of young girls and boys of a certain class were mapped out for them, and for girls an early marriage was likely, and so it’s not surprising that they might want to rebel. I loved how this is done.

As always in these novels there are some very funny touches, and a lot of the humour in this novel is to do with the particularly well-favoured Greek god of lettuce. But there is plenty more here to laugh about while at the same time feeling the poignancy and tragedy of the mystery’s focus – poor Clodia – as well as another death in the novel which I found really upsetting. This clash of light and dark is really well done in Pandora’s Boy. Another aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed were its little details about Roman life, in this case especially food.

I love the relationship between Albia and her husband Faustus. I was worried about the aftermath of the lightning strike a novel or two ago and rather wished that it hadn’t have happened but finally there is light at the end of the tunnel. Albia is drawn so beautifully. She feels so real, despite being such a mix of modern and ancient. I found Pandora’s Boy to be completely engrossing and a joy from start to finish.

Other reviews
Enemies at Home
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperides
The Third Nero

Turn a Blind Eye by Vicky Newham

HQ | 2018 (5 April) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is early January and the start of the spring term at Mile End High School in East London. The school has a lot to deal with. A student has recently committed suicide. The teachers must try and bring the school together in its wake but today further tragedy will strike. Steve, a teacher on his very first day at the school, stumbles across, quite literally, the headteacher Linda Gibson, murdered. And by her side he finds a piece of card and on it is written the Buddhist precept ‘I shall abstain from taking the ungiven’.

DI Maya Rahman is given the case but it doesn’t prove easy. This mixed inner city community, which has the school at its heart, is troubled and divided, and prejudice is rife. Maya, reeling from the recent death of her beloved brother, and DS Dan Maguire, an Australian on a fast track to promotion but far from his family, have much to overcome but it isn’t long before one murder becomes two, accompanied by another Buddhist precept. And meanwhile the community and the media watch and they don’t miss a thing.

Turn a Blind Eye is Vicky Newham’s debut novel and her background as a psychologist and teacher in inner city London are used to great effect in this indepth and fascinating portrait of a community in trouble. We’re presented with people from a broad range of cultures, religions and backgrounds and some of them conflict. The school is vital in trying to bring everyone together but nowhere is the crisis more apparent than in the school. But if a murderer’s actions force it to close then it would send a devastating message. It’s imperative that this doesn’t happen.

Maya is a marvellous character, bridging cultures and extremely sensitive to them all. This is a crime novel but the author’s attention first and foremost is on its people, notably its detective, and what an unusual detective Maya is. Throughout the novel we’re given glimpses of Maya’s upbringing and the descriptions of her early years in one of London’s poorest boroughs, so soon after emigrating from Bangladesh, are an eye opener. The issues that Maya and her family faced still continue and Maya is determined to get to the bottom of what exactly is up with this school. Dan is another outsider, an Australian far from home and in the wrong time zone for communicating as regularly as he’d like with the family he loves. The relationship between Maya and Dan is one of the pleasures of the novel.

There are so many big themes and ideas on display in Turn a Blind Eye. It’s a rewarding read. There’s so much to learn about the different communities and with the issues that they face. Everyone in such a diverse part of London could be seen as an outsider of one sort or another but it’s this diversity that is also such a source of richness and local identity. If I have one issue it is that at times it feels as if there is a little too much explanation or background information. But Vicky Newham is an author with a great deal of story to tell and she most certainly knows her stuff.

Turn a Blind Eye is a strong debut, written with such warmth, empathy and care. Maya Rahman is a fantastic creation and I’m so glad to have met her. This is going to be a great series!