“Ink” by Alice Broadway (2017)

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“I was older than all my friends when I got my first tattoo.”

I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t think I’ll ever get one. I’ve nothing against them, and obviously I’ve no problem with other people having them, but I don’t think I could commit to having something to permanent on my skin. I’d want to change it after a while. If I had to, however, I know exactly what I would have. Ink takes place in a world where tattoos take on a whole new meaning.

Leora Flint lives in Saintstone, a town where everyone’s deeds are tattooed onto their skin. A dot on the hand for every year you’ve lived, your achievements on your right arm and your failures on the left, a family tree on your back showing where you’ve come from. There are no secrets in Saintstone, and everyone can read exactly who you are and what you’ve done with your life. Not long before graduating school and beginning her new career, Leora’s father dies and his skin is bound into a book so that future generations can read about him and have him never be forgotten.

Saintstone, however, has a new mayor, and he’s got some radical ideas, beginning with wanting everyone to register exactly what tattoos they have and what they mean, and bringing back the idea of marking criminals “forgotten”. Anyone tattooed with a crow will have their skin book burnt and it will be illegal to talk about them after they’ve gone. When Leora sees a man get marked with the crow for stealing someone else’s skin, it brings back a memory of her childhood that she’d blocked out. She remembers her father having that very same tattoo, hidden on his scalp under his hair. Leora realises that her father should be forgotten, and she’s determined to make sure his book comes home with her. As she delves into the family history, however, she soon discovers that the world is far more complicated than she imagined, and sometimes fairy tales are truer than the population believes.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. I had assumed that it was a world where tattoos made it impossible to have secrets because they appeared on your skin by magic, but nope, it’s a very mundane practice done by people called inkers. Every tattoo has a meaning, and the way this is all set out is very cool. Everyone has a family tree on their back, but if someone’s name has been replaced by a tattoo of a cuckoo, it means they’ve been forgotten. Fallen, dead leaves at the tree’s roots represent miscarriages or children who died in infancy. Every single symbol is layered with meaning, and while there are official marks, there is plenty of freedom for people to use the remaining space to decorate their bodies as they see fit. Everyone does, and it is considered weird and antisocial to keep your skin clear. The fear of the “blanks” – those people who choose not to tattoo themselves – are seen as untrustworthy with something to hide. It’s just an example of fantastic racism, but it works very well.

My main complaint is a lack of pacing in places. Occasionally weeks or months pass with little development in characterisation when there really feels like there should be some more exploration of people’s feelings, motives and interactions. Leora is also quite a flat character in places, having no personal tattoos but an innate ability to read and ink others like she was born to do it. The other characters are often more interesting, including Obel who trains her, Mel the town’s storyteller who has the people’s history inked on her skin, and even Leora’s parents.

It’s a thought-provoking book with some interesting concepts. I’m sure I’ll carry on with the series at some point.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Tropic Of Serpents” by Marie Brennan (2014)

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“Not long before I embarked on my journey to Eriga, I girded my loins and set out for a destination I considered much more dangerous: Falchester.”

In 2015, I began reading about the adventures of Lady Trent – at the time Isabella Camherst. Living in an world that is not unlike our Victorian era, she is a scientist with a passion for studying dragons. Despite the reservations that her society has about women adventurers, she manages to forge her own path and come out from the shadow of her husband and the male scientists that surround her. At last, I return to her memoirs, beginning the new year inside the pages of the second volume, this time detailing her adventures through a jungle known as the Green Hell.

Since returning to Scirland, three years have passed and Isabella is becoming restless. Desperate for another adventure and not finding motherhood to her liking – it’s particularly tough given her son looks exactly like her deceased husband – she plans a quest to Eriga, war-torn continent where her people have economic interests in the iron mines. When those with more power than her declare she must leave sooner than expected, she heads off with Thomas Wilker, a companion from her previous journey who doesn’t necessarily approve of her methods, and Natalie Oscott, a young woman with an inventor’s mind who loathes society’s rules even more than Isabella does.

In the land of Eriga, things are more turbulent than perhaps the Scirlanders realised. With several cultures and countries clashing over territorial disputes and the Scirling government focusing instead on building dams and mining iron, Isabella and her team find themselves guests at the palace, where the society’s leader asks her to bring back some dragon eggs while she’s off studying them. The group move off into the swamps, with local guides to assist them, and in there they find out not only a good deal about the native dragons, but also the people who have very different customs to the ones they’re used to. As Isabella learns more about dragons and alternate ways of living, she learns even more about herself and what she’s truly capable of.

The Eriga of the novel is clearly meant to be based on Africa, with white colonialists turning up to do their business, often with scant appreciation for what the natives think or want with them. The illustrations within the book – purported to be by Isabella herself – highlight the “otherness” of these people to her, and she clearly comes from a country where black people have yet to make any mark. One photo shows tribesmen who seem to have a definite Zulu basis. The world building is interesting and Brennan has clearly put a lot of thought into these things, but one can get so bogged down in trying to remember which culture is battling which and what all the countries are called that it can slow down the narrative a little. As with last time, the most interesting bits are when she is dealing directly with dragons, and these passages are not as common as one may like.

Nonetheless, Isabella remains an interesting character. She is the epitome of those female Victorian explorers like Gertrude Bell who struck out into the wilderness to study the world, paying no heed to the blustering men they left behind. Natalie is fun, too, being someone who has absolutely no interest in marriage or society’s norms. Thomas Wilker, in contrast, makes for a great foil, and it is wonderful to see he and Isabella reach a certain understanding and come to like one another, rather than simply tolerate the others presence. Isabella is fearless, ambitious and formidable, and she makes a credible heroine. She is not someone I would like to be on the other end of an argument with.

The third book is already on my shelf, so I doubt I’ll leave it so long this time to get to it. The adventure will continue soon.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Next Person You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2018)

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“This is a story about a woman named Annie, and it begins at the end, with Annie falling from the sky.”

I rally against sequels a lot. More often than not they serve as a way for someone to cash in on a previously great story with a slightly worse story that wasn’t really needed. Of course there are exceptions – Toy Story 2 and Shrek 2, for example – but it’s a good rule of thumb. Sometimes we have to let stories standalone. The trouble is, of course, no story really is told in a vacuum. It links to thousands of others. Mitch Albom has used this technique to the full in the beautiful sequel to the truly excellent The Five People You Meet In Heaven.

In the original book, we focus on Eddie, an elderly war veteran who dies saving the life of a little girl. He ascends to the afterlife where he is met by five people who impacted his life and teach him a lesson he must learn from it. At the end of his novel, he takes his place in the queue to meet the girl he saved. This is her story.

Annie has just got married, but the marriage is doomed as within hours, she and her husband Paulo are in a devastating hot air balloon crash. Annie feels herself go under the anaesthetic when she gets to hospital, but she wakes up in the afterlife, meeting the first of her five people. She now undertakes the same journey as Eddie once did, meeting five people who changed her life, including the doctor who reattached her hand after it was lost in the accident, her strong, protective mother, and Eddie himself.

There aren’t many books that bring a tear to my eye, but this one certainly did. The original tale is one of my favourite books and while I’d not held out much hope, I think I’d always been curious to know what had happened to the little girl. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the idea of sonder, that feeling that everyone you meet has their own story and a life as complex as your own, but you only get to play a part in a few of them. This book, and the previous, play that up to the max. Annie is a sweet person, not perfect, but more courageous than she lets herself believe and the sort of woman I would like to be friends with. It’s nice to see Eddie again, less grizzled than we first knew him. The story is by its very nature quite tragic, but like all the best books, hope still shines through.

That’s always what goodness boils down to – hope. There is always hope. Belief in an afterlife in itself is a hopeful act, and while I’m not religious and don’t really think there is anything after “this”, there are worse things to encounter on the other side than five people with important messages.

A beautiful, powerful story. I love it.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Lies Sleeping” by Ben Aaronovitch (2018)

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“His name was Richard Williams and he worked in public relations.”

And so we return to London for another run around magical crime scenes with Peter Grant. Let’s crack on.

We are at the point now where series lock-out has increased so much that if you’ve not read the previous books, nothing here is going to mean anything to you. Grant even says as much on the first few pages. Closing in on Martin Chorley, a wizard who would rather use his powers for evil than good, Peter Grant and his fellow police officers are reaching the end of their tether. Several people involved with a screenplay with an Arthurian flavour have been found dead, and it seems that whatever Chorley has been planning all this time is far from over.

With a long-term plan finally coming together and involving a giant bell, the mischievous spirit of Mr Punch, and a sword that may or may not be Excalibur itself, Chorley has a plan that could see London destroyed forever thanks to a two thousand year old myth and the ego of a former Eton schoolboy who has just been given the keys to Number 10. Loyalties are tested, magic is pushed to its limits, and Grant will stop at nothing to save the city he loves.

So, here we are.  The seventh novel, but with all the supplementary material available, it’s far further on than that. It might just be me and the fact that quite a bit of time passes between reading each one, but I find that the overarching plot has got away from itself. The series would be better served when binged, I think, as at this point, Aaronovitch assumes that you immediately know every reference he’s making to previous moments in the plot, and I simply didn’t. I’d lost track of some of the characters, and there’s definitely a sense that this one is wrapping up a lot of earlier threads. There isn’t much of a plot here that could be dipped in to without having read the previous ones, and everything hangs on what has come before. Despite the gaps of time, I get the sense that someone somewhere is hurrying these out, as there were multiple grammar and spelling errors. I’m not someone who gets hung up on these – it’s not Aaronovitch’s fault and 99% of books have at least one error in them – but you get the impression that corners were cut in an effort to release at a certain time, come hell or high water.

Still, it’s not bad. I think maybe some of the novelty has worn off – and I definitely put some of that down to professional jealousy, as I write in a very similar style to Aaronovitch but don’t have the sales – and there are a whole lot of things going on at the same time that don’t always interact neatly, but I’m not here to demonise it as a book. The jokes are sharp as ever, the characters are fun, full and lovable (even if the cast has now become so large that several of them who used to be big-hitters now seem to have been reduced to extras) and the ideas sizzle with originality. Aaronovitch is writing a love letter to London with these novels, and it works. By using as many real locations as possible, it brings the novel entirely to life and we find ourselves fully immersed in his world.

The book ends by wrapping up several of the major threads and, frankly, it could all end here and I’d be happy. But I sense there is more to come, and despite all I’ve said, I’m prepared to join Peter Grant on his continuing adventures. London always has more to offer.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The Binding” by Bridget Collins (2019)

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“When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot.”

If it wasn’t obvious, I love books. They hold such power and mystery, each one containing a new world that we’re free to explore if only we open the covers. Sometimes they are magical, other times dangerous. Sometimes they’re to entertain, or to teach. They have all sorts of purposes. Perhaps their most powerful ability is that they can store our thoughts, but what if that could be abused?

Emmett Farmer is a country boy, recovering from a long unexplained illness that rendered him weak, but he refuses to let it change him and he continues to work on the family’s farm. That is, until a letter comes that summons him to the position of apprentice to a bookbinder. Neither he nor his family can afford to pass up this opportunity, and so he is sent off to meet Seredith, the binder. Under her tuition, he learns that books are not what they seem. Each one contains a memory.

This is a world where binders are employed to take memories from people, things they would rather forget, and store them into beautiful, unique books for safekeeping. But binders are not always trusted and some people disagree with what they do. Seredith is no exception, and when an angry group arrives on her doorstep, she and Emmett manage to chase them away but to the detriment of her health. But Emmett has another problem. Beneath Seredith’s house sits all the books she has ever bound, stored away so that the people can forget. Down here, however, Emmett makes a shocking discovery: one of the books has his name on it.

Frankly, this is just a beautiful book. I mean the prose, but the book itself as a physical object is simply stunning. It would have to be, given the content. The writing is beautiful and easy, almost melodic at times, and it creates a world not unlike ours, but just subtly different enough to be captivating. Emmett Farmer is a great every man, but not as passive as he first seems. The boy has a core of steel and is willing to go to great lengths to protect those he loves. Lucian Darnay, his rival, is basically his antithesis. He is born of privilege and never had to work a day in his life, but lives in the shadow of his abusive father. Seredith is a wonderful creation, something like Minerva McGonagall, and I enjoyed her. How the magic works is never fully explained, but that works. It isn’t about how it’s done, but instead about why and how it is handled. Collins does this with great beauty and wisdom.

The concept of binding is, of course, at the heart of the novel. One can see how it would be tempting to be bound. You could forget failed love affairs and embarrassing moments in society, but surely the point is that we are all better people because we can remember our flaws? At first, the characters we see who are being bound are doing it for important reasons, just once a lifetime, to banish something they cannot live with from their brain. It’s an act of self-care, in some ways. As it progresses, however, we see how people use and abuse this ability, such as the vile Piers Darnay who rapes his maids and then periodically has them bound again so he can read their thoughts and take advantage again without them knowing it’s not the first time. There is also a horrible trade in books, with people prepared to sell others memories. A lighter note is made that some people are now making up fake memories, called “novels”, but the characters can’t comprehend of someone who would willingly make up a tragedy and spend so much time in that head space.

A surprisingly beautiful and moving novel about what we are willing to sacrifice for our happy endings.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Good Fairies Of New York” by Martin Millar (1992)

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“Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practising gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.”

The USA, in its modern form, is a pretty young country, as these things go. Yes, the Native Americans have a wildly fascinating and detailed folklore history, but much of it seems to be ignored and there are struggles to preserve it. Perhaps we’ve already lost a lot. It always seemed to me that the modern Americans viewed the folklore and magical history of older countries like England and Ireland with jealous eyes and sought to create their own myths and legends, idolising figures like Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett and George Washington. In this novel, Martin Millar gives America a chance to play around with a few older myths.

The novel opens with two Scottish fairies, Morag and Heather, flying through the window of Dinnie’s flat and vomiting on the carpet. The frenemy fairies accidentally found themselves in New York after boarding a plane and are bemused by this huge city and its strange ways. Unable to deal with Dinnie and his horrible personality, Morag flies to the apartment over the road to meet Kerry, a perfectly charming woman with Crohn’s disease and a desire to complete her Celtic flower alphabet.

Being good fairies, Morag and Heather decide to improve things for their human friends. They don’t count, however, on New Yorkers not having the same excitement when seeing fairies as the British and Irish do and they soon find themselves in trouble with New York’s native fairies, a large number of homeless people, and Dinnie’s abrasive landlord. Elsewhere, the fairies of Cornwall are staging a rebellion against their tyrannical king, another group of fairies have landed in Central Park and are desperately in need of some whisky, and the ghost of Johnny Thunders is trying to find his old guitar.

Despite all the claims that he’s a hilarious writer, I definitely didn’t find this one as funny as I did my last Martin Millar novel. I get the light-heartedness and that the humour is present, but it didn’t tickle me into laughing out loud once. I was impressed with the concepts, certainly, and they’re quite daft, but they suit the universe he’s created well enough that I don’t find them outlandishly funny. The other problem is that there are so many overlapping stories and viewpoints, often visited for only a paragraph or two at a time, that things quickly tangled themselves up and it became hard to develop a rapport with one character when suddenly you were jerked away to read about another, only to drop back in to meet a third on the very next page.

Some of the stuff is very interesting, though. The Celtic flower alphabet intrigues me as a concept, and I would love to have known more about that. The inclusion of New York native fairies is also great fun, as they’re not just simply American. There are Italian fairies in Little Italy, Chinese fairies in Chinatown, and Ghanaian fairies in Harlem, each with their own styles, customs and costumes. They do hang a lampshade on the fact that despite America having had a lot of Irish immigration, there don’t appear to be any Irish fairies in the city, but it does make you wonder where they are.

An interesting and fun read, but a touch too busy. With a little more focus, it could be great.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Furthest Station” by Ben Aaronovitch (2017)

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“Jaget said he’d been watching this documentary on TV about the way people learn to track animals.”

I’ve been away from Peter Grant’s London since 2017, and what better way to ease myself in with the novella that fits into the continuity but doesn’t require much time to get back into. Much of the action here, however, takes us out of London and right to the very edge of the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground, which stretches out much further than many people realise.

A series of abusive attacks have taken place on a Tube train between Harrow-on-the-Hill and Baker Street, but anyone who reports them forgets they happened minutes later and is surprised when the police calls them to follow up. Sergeant Jaget Kumar knows when something seems fishy on the magnitude of a whale shark, so summons in Peter Grant and Inspector Nightingale of the Folly, the branch of the Met Police that deals with “the weird stuff”.

Accompanied by his genius troublemaker of a teenage cousin Abigail, Peter begins searching the Metropolitan Line rolling stock, finding several ghosts haunting the trains and stations, many of whom seem desperate to pass on a message but are having trouble locating someone who will listen to them. When the ghost of a small girl tells Peter a story about a princess trapped by an evil man, he becomes convinced that someone has been kidnapped, and so sets off to Chesham, the furthest station out on the London Underground…

Aaronovitch is a great writer and his style is what I aspire to, with breezy, silly lines and jokes in between the more serious aspects of the story, leading to a fun and funny romp through a world he clearly enjoys writing. The characters of the river goddesses are much diluted here with just a few mentions and a short appearance on-page for one of them, and frankly I’m not saddened. I enjoy the Rivers, but there is so much more of London to explore. The rest of the cast are still great fun – Abigail is rapidly becoming my favourite character – and Aaronovitch manages to produce a completely multicultural London without it feeling laboured, tokenistic or obligatory. London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and many works seem to neglect this aspect of it. Here, it’s part and parcel.

The magic continues to not overwhelm the story, and while it’s sad that in some respects we don’t get to see Peter learning new spells and abilities, constantly falling back on his knack of producing a ball of light as his primary magical flourish, it’s clear that he is slowly learning more things. I sense that given Abigail’s speed at picking up her other studies, she will be more powerful than him in a book or two from now and perhaps there’s even a plan for a spin-off series of YA books with her at the helm. There’s a lot about her that she and Aaronovitch still aren’t telling us and I look forward to finding out what’s there.

A quick, easy read with a few good laughs and some fun ideas.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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