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51. Transtories edited by Colin Harvey

I picked up this collection at a previous Bristol Con and have just got round to reading it in time for this year's. The late Colin Harvey was involved with the Bristol SFF scene but I never met him; the only person I know who has a story in here is Joanne Hall.

This is a collection of stories linked only by each being based (loosely) around a word beginning with "trans". It's an ecclectic and uneven collection (at least for me).

It stars out well with a story by Aliette de Bodard, The Axle of Heaven. I'd heard good things about her and off the back of this I bought one of her books in the recent big Hodder ebook sale.

Transference by Jay Carlsberg was interesting and thought-provoking, as was Transthermal by John Kenny. Jo's offering, The Snake on His Shoulder, was good fun (locking the devil in the bell tower is always fun right?). I also enjoyed Shopping for Children by Susanne Martin, set in a future where having children the natural way is no longer possible. Silver by Rob Rowntree was an interesting concept but had more domestic violence than I really want in a steampunk adventure. Rainbows & Unicorns by Cody L Stanford is brutal and heartbreaking but really, really good. Oh, for the Touch Tentacular by Jonathan Shipley, about a student trying to earn a living on an alien world where the sapient life forms are sauropod and concepts don't translate particularly well, was funny.

The rest didn't do much for me. I've discovered this month that stories set in post-human universes tend to make me bounce right off (the Stross book excepted), and two of the stories are that exact kind of thing.

In other words, it's like many collections - the good stuff is good indeed, but a lot is pretty disposable. Can't fault it for the variety of the stories - at no point did it all start to get same-y.
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50. Beloved Poison by ES Thomson

I heard about this in the Guardian. It's shortlisted for a Scottish crime fiction award (the McIlvanney). The rest of the contenders are the usual suspects, but, as a historical novel, this caught my interest. Not enough to buy it, obviously, that's what libraries are for.

It's set in a crumbling hospital that used to be a monastery in 1850s London which is being shut down to make way for a railway station. Everything we learn about the place leads the reader to believe this is no bad thing.

The narrator is Jem Flockhart, the hospital's apothecary, who is a woman living as a man because there has been a Flockhart as the apothecary at St Saviour's for generations and her father had no sons. A lot of readers have complained that this is a cliche (I went on to Goodreads and immediately needed to shower.) Look, assholes, there's three choices to deal with women as protagonists in historical novels and apparently they all make people bitch. Either you don't use women, and that's just not acceptable to a lot of modern readers. Or you have women as women, and the sexists masquerading as sticklers for historical accuracy shout you down. Or you can use the cross dressing trope (and, interestingly, more evidence is coming to light that this actually happened a lot more than has been previously thought) and get accused of being a cliche. Representation matters, people, so STFU if that's the worst criticism you can come up with.

Interestingly, as the novel goes on it becomes more obvious that Jem and his/her father haven't been fooling many people but they've all gone along with it.

Jem becomes friends with a young architect sent to supervise the demolition works. They find six tiny coffins hidden in a disused chapel (more than a little reminiscent of the real-life mystery of the six miniature coffins found in Scotland which has been used as a basis for many a modern book). They start to investigate and people start dying.

I had a mixed reaction to this book. Thomson has a PhD in the history of medicine so that part is spot on. She captures the Victorian era reasonably well. It falls short of pitching you right into the era as the Shardlake books do to the Tudor era, but those books are my benchmark. She makes an overly heavy-handed use of foreshadowing. However, the literal and figurative claustrophobia of the hospital environment is unsettling and there was enough going on that I wanted to find out what happened next.

Overall, not bad for a first book. However, it's supposed to be the first in a series and while I think it was a good stand-alone book, I didn't find anything about it a good basis for a series. Not convinced I will be following up.
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49. The Corporation Wars: Dissidence by Ken Macleod

In the far future, a bunch of robots who are supposed to be mining/terraforming a planet achieve sentience and refuse to work. So the company brings back to "life" backups taken of the worst war criminals in the last world war to fight them. Except that none of them are quite what they seem.

I'm a huge fan of Ken's work but this didn't do it for me. It had its moments, but I think this is my least favourite of all of his books.
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48. Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

Of Stross' books, I've read all of the Laundry novels and the detective stories (Halting State and Rule 34). I thought I should read some of his sci-fi and this was sitting on the shelf at the library at an opportune time.

The voice is totally different from the two series that I've read (which are different from each other, but quite close). It's a lot more difficult to read as hes examining more complex concepts.

In the far future where biological humans have been extinct for thousands of years, synthetic people are colonising space. There is no faster than light travel, with complicated implications for finance. A mendicant scholar who studies the history of finance is looking for her missing sister, who may or may not hold the key to a missing space colony and the biggest financial scam of all time. She is being chased by their mother (a real piece of work), a spacefaring cult whose ship is a gothic cathedral (yes, that's as great as it sounds) and a ship of pirates/insurance underwriters who have taken on a giant bat form.

In other words, it's good fun as well as dealing with difficult concepts. Stross digs deeply into the economics of colonising space. At times this felt like a Ken Macleod book - he even uses the line "early days of a better nation" which is, of course, the title of Macleod's blog.

It took me a while to get into it but couldn't put the last third down; recommended.
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47. Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

The Greatcoats, book 2. I reviewed book 1 recently.

This one is even better - lots of swordfights, lots of smart-assery, but it's more elegantly plotted, and All The Feels are turned up to 11 as more and more sacrifice is demanded of the heroes to complete their quest (which may in fact be a non-quest, as there is debate as to the character of their late king). Massive betrayals, but also some redemption.

The only other fictional characters I feel about like I do Falcio are Harry Dresden and Jant from The Year of Our War. But it's not just the character, I love everything about this book.

The only social media de Castell does is Twitter - does this meant I have to open a Twitter account just to tell him how I feel about this book? Damn.
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46. The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

The seventh in Stross' Laundry series, in which Lovecraftian horrors from other dimensions are real, and there is a branch of the Civil Service to deal with it.

Regular readers will know that I love these books, and I was really excited to find that this one takes place in Leeds. It turns out that was kind of distracting - I kept having to check with Google maps that I remembered correctly where places are. But it made me appreciate things like the chapter title "the Doom that Came to Harehills" - I worked in Harehills for two years.

Like the last book, Bob is no longer the protagonist - he's now one of the scary people (in the loosest possible use of "people") on Mahogany Row. The protagonist is Alex, one of the vampires (sorry, PHANGs) from the last book but one. I like Alex a lot. He's funny and adorable. The adversaries are the Laundry-world take on the Fae.

So everything that should make it Right Up My Street, but I still struggled a bit with it. Part of it was a technical thing - the use of italics to demonstrate that the Fae are speaking in their own language. In my visually impaired state, I struggle with italics. Added to the fact that I never like the parts in books where the POV shifts to the antagonists, that meant quite a lot of the book wasn't that engaging.

It's definitely not that he's phoning them in (something some authors do when they get to this point in a series) - it's definitely well thought through.

I think the problem was that it wasn't The Annihilation Score - Mo is by far the most interesting character in the series, it's about classical music, and Mo's violin scares the ever-loving bejeezus out of me.
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45. The Empire Stops here: A Journey along the Frontiers of the Roman World by Philip Parker

I meant to read this when it came out, forgot about it, and then stumbled across it in the library recently.

I'd wanted to read it because while I have little interest in Rome itself, it's life at the fringes and the hybrid cultures that arose as a result that interests me. I'm all about the liminality.

In that respect, the book is pretty disappointing. It doesn't really work as a travel book either - just brief descriptions of the surviving physical remains of the empire at its fringes. What it does reasonably well is give brief histories of how an when Rome came to be at the ends of the empire, how long they stayed and how it fell. Which is not what I was looking for but provides decent background knowledge. There were just enough interesting factoids to keep me going through the full 500 pages.

It starts in Britain and works its way round to West Africa. There wasn't a lot I didn't already know in the Britain segment but as it got further from my area of knowledge, the more interesting it got.

It's not a bad book, but it kind of doesn't succeed in doing any one thing particularly well, and as an introductory survey of a massive subject it's just too big.
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44. The Haunted Vagina by Carlton Mellick III

This month's book club selection. (Thanks, J-P).

Well, that's one way to set up an alternative universe.

I didn't hate it as much as I should have, there was some visceral body shock horror that definitely worked, and some almost good ideas which simply never got followed through. And the author clearly hates women. It took two hours to read, so it's not like it took any investment. It also generated more discussion than I would have thought possible.

That does not mean I'm saying you should read it.
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43. One Virgin Too Many by Lindsey Davis

Of all the books clamouring for my attention, this one got me because of the end of the last book in the series, where Vespasian has ordered Falco back to Rome urgently. It turned out all he wanted to do was to give Falco a bogus sinecure as Procurator of the Sacred Fowl as a reward for uncovering a plot to poison them.

Compared to Two for the Lions, this one's fluff (which could well be intentional). There's lots of weird stuff going on but Falco is even slower than usual at putting it all together as he's even more preoccupied with personal matters than normal. As to where the missing child was, it was pretty obvious even to me.

The portrayals of the priestly class are straight out of Asterix comics. While it's hardly surprising that Falco is not well disposed towards them, Davis portrays them as buffoons at best and dangerous lunatics at worst and it's kind of at odds with the picture she usually paints of Roman life (human with good and bad qualities).

I still enjoyed it, but it's far from the strongest book in the series.
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42. North by Southwest edited by Joanne Hall

Disclaimer: This is another one where I know almost everybody involved. My name's in the acknowledgements because I contributed to the Fundsurfer.

This is a collection of short stories by the North Bristol Writers' Group. While it's not explicitly SF/F like the BristolCon publications, there's a critical mass of overlap so it leans in that direction. Throw in a murder mystery so it ticks that genre box as well.

The quality of the stories is very good overall. As has been mentioned in other reviews, the most fun story is J H-R's Miss Butler number, but there's a lot of good stuff. As always with short story collections, the very short ones do very little for me, but they were all technically good. I enjoyed the murder mystery, Pete Sutton's Latitude was nicely disturbing, and I especially liked Ian Milstead's House Blood. He's not the first person to link slavery and vampirism, but it works well nonetheless. Recommended.
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41. Two For The Lions by Lindsey Davis

A few years ago I read the first half of this series and then tailed off. I've read the first chapter of this a couple of times but couldn't get into it and thought maybe I'd had enough. Started it again on the bus/at lunch last week and got sucked straight in. Read the rest on the coach to and from London this weekend.

Standard Falco series stuff - Falco lands what he hopes is a lucrative contract as an auditor for Vespasian's census and is given the task of looking into the finances of various participants in the arena - gladiators, wild beasts etc and stumbles right into the killing of one of the lions to which convicted criminals are fed. This is, naturally, swiftly followed by the murder of a gladiator. For Reasons, the case unravels but Falco's entire family ends up in North Africa, where it all comes together again.

Because it's set in ancient Rome, even though it's mostly about a fairly clueless, smartass investigator, there's a lot of death and violence. Even so, the ending, where everything *really* all comes crashing down around him, is pretty dark.

And I have to read the next one really soon to find out exactly what Falco did bring to light about the sacred geese...
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40. Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell

I became aware of Sebastien at last year's Nine Worlds on a random panel (when I the one I had intended to attend was full). He writes "swashbuckling fantasy" which intrigued me but not enough to buy his books, even though he's witty, charming and Canadian. I knew that he was attending Nine Worlds again this year and the last time I was at the library his first book was there, so I grabbed it.

Anyway, I loved it. Yes, there is a sword fight in almost every chapter. Yes, the main character is a smartass whose two companions can be equally charming and/or annoying. Yes, if you are a goth the aesthetics are spot on (the disgraced order our heroes belong to is called The Greatcoats). But there are also All The Feels, and when it gets dark it gets really, believably dark and visceral and just awful. Although there are times when I think he came up the visual first and built the world backwards from there, it holds together really well.

If I hadn't just read Guns of the Dawn, this would easily be the best book I read this year. I bought volumes two and three at Nine Worlds.
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39. What is Paleolithic Art? Cave paintings and the dawn of human creativity by Jean Clottes

This was reviewed in New Scientist recently and I had to order it right away. Clottes is *the* expert on the cave art in the south of France and leading proponent of the theory that cave art is an expression of a shamanic culture. I recognised his name from Cave Painting and the Human Spirit.

The first one third to one half of the book looks at rock art throughout the world, including cultures in the Americas and Australia that still do it, and how their approaches correspond to theories about how and why neolithic rock art/cave art was made. The last (long) chapter relates this to examples from European cave art.

Fascinating stuff; it's only short and well worth it. Parts of it are not easy (I'm a historian, not a social scientist) but it's accessible to a general reader. It has reminded me to get m sticky paws on a copy of The Mind in the Cave and its sequel ASAP.
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38. Heartbreaker by Tania Carver

Tania Carver is actually a large man from the North East of England who also writes as Martin Waites. I was unaware of his/their work until he did a reading from one of the Tania books at BristolCon recently. I was intrigued (he described the Tania books as occupying the same space in British publishing as Karin Slaughter does in the US, and I do like Karin Slaughter).

This is a recent book in the series, which follows the exploits of a husband and wife team - he's a police detective, she's a psychologist. In this one their marriage is falling apart and he makes a lot of bad decisions. She works out a lot.

It's pretty generic violent-crime stuff (but it's not as graphic or even pornographic about violence as Karin Slaughter at all). Which is to say that I still read it in a very short period of time - nothing particularly to write home about, but very much delivers what it sets out to. It was above averagely plotted, though - I was pretty sure who the killer was early on, but enough red herrings are thrown into the mix to keep you doubting right till the end.
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37. Orlando by Virginia Woolf

This month's book club selection. It was my nomination. I saw the film back when it came out but couldn't remember a thing about it. I was interested in it less for the gender swap than for the living forever element. (My favourite Sandman story is Hob Gadling). And then I remembered that I hate the Bloomsbury Set and everything they stand for.

Again, I was pleasantly surprised. Nobody told me that it's funny. And although it's generally classed as literary fiction, it's definitely fantasy. Aside from Orlando changing gender and living for 400 years, the geography is definitely of the next parallel world over.

Also, from a historical perspective she gets a number of things right - Orlando's stately home being effectively a working village is the only one I can remember now.

The description of the frost fair is gorgeous yet ridiculous. The description of the 19th century had me laughing like a loon in a random coffee shop.

It's difficult to read because there aren't a lot of paragraphs, and I kept having to stop and giving my brain a chance to compile, so it took longer than I planned for but was also way more rewarding than I thought it would be.
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36. Spark and Carousel by Joanne Hall

Disclaimer: Jo is one of the BristolCon mob so I spend a fair amount of time in the pub with her.

I keep going to Jo's book launches but as my to-read pile has its own room, I hadn't got round to actually reading any of her books yet. Also, she writes more traditional fantasy than tends to be my thing. I mean, this one's set in a city, but it's a city at a late-medieval level of development.

I was pleasantly surprised. While it's not exactly up my street, the writing is good enough and the plotting tight enough to keep me interested. While there is magic and clearly a hierarchy and structure of magic use, this is incidental to the story rather than something the whole story is based around. The characters are interesting. The world is pretty grim but not without joy and hope. The black magic was creepy as hell.

The rest of her books have just been bumped up the queue, and there's a new one out next month.
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35. Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I've encountered Adrian on many a panel at cons, and people I trust rate his work. However, he writes doorstops that are mostly part of a very long multi-part series so I've been wary. One of the latest, though, while still a doorstop, is a stand-alone and appealed to me more than the series, so I picked it up while I was at Books on the Hill.

In an alternate world whose level of development is somewhere between the Napoleonic and First World Wars (the weaponry is the former, but they have trains), two neighbouring nations are at war. One country is so screwed (but telling the citizens that victory is just around the corner, and people believe it) that they have a draft of women, one from each household. The thing that tells you this is a fantasy novel is that there are Warlocks, but they're not very effective in war.

Most noble families send a servant; however Emily Marshwic believes in honour and duty so she goes herself. By virtue of her elevated station in life she is immediately made a junior officer. Because of her belief in honour and duty, and because her brother was killed there, she volunteers to go to the less desirable of the two fronts.

Naturally, everything she thinks she knows and believes is tested to breaking point. She is fighting in a swamp, using outdated methods because their country has honour, against a country who just do what needs to be done to win. Her only outlet is that she is able to write freely to the corrupt mayor of her home town, without being subject to the censorship that the army writing home contends with.

The war ends and follows her home in an awful (but predictable) way.

I have no words to express how much I loved this book: the characters, the pacing, the plot. I usually get very bored with long battle scenes, but even these were fascinating to read. The end was absolutely perfect, which I very rarely say at the end of a good long book.
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34. Dead Shift by John Llewellyn Probert

I'm not sure how I came to be aware of the launch event for this book, but it was held at a book shop in Clevedon called Books on the Hill that I'd been meaning to visit for some time, so I dragged Jason out to the seaside early on a Saturday morning to pick up a copy (and other things).

It's a Lovecraftian horror novella. A dying man performs a ritual to open the gates to another dimension in hospital (rather than at the place of great evil he originally intended) and three doctors, stuck on the night shift, have to save the world as the hospital is cut off from the rest of reality.

Not complicated, not even particularly original, but a terrifically fun read nonetheless. Some of it is genuinely creepy, balanced by some laugh-out-loud funny moments. Even if I hadn't read the author's note at the end it would have been obvious to me that his day job is in the NHS, because he captures that so perfectly.

Even though Probert lives locally and has written loads of stuff, I'd never heard of him before. I will definitely be seeking out more of his work.
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33. Sherlock Holmes: The Patchwork Devil by Cavan Scott

I am fascinated by Sherlock Holmes as a cultural phenomenon, so have been vaguely intending to read one of the current run being put out by Titan for a while. Cavan Scott is a local writer and had a signing event for this at the local Forbidden Planet, so I decided this was as as good a time as any.

Despite the story having a good hook right from the start, it took me a while to get into it. It's set in 1919 so Holmes and Watson are older. The narrative is more self-aware and knowing than Conan Doyle, but not mean-spirited or sarcastic. It didn't quite work for me until about 1/3 of the way in, when it clicked.

It is based around an engaging mystery and throws in another enduring mythos in popular culture, the Frankenstein's monster. My main criticism is that it throws in too many elements from the original Holmes Canon so that it becomes a bit messy in places.

Nothing profound but it was an entertaining public transit read. My 12 year old self, however, would have loved this to death.
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32. Fellside by MR Carey

A ghost story set in a women's prison. I'm a big fan of Carey's work and attended an interview with him at Waterstones where he talked about this book & the research he did before I read it, so I know that he has become a passionate advocate for prison reform and against the privatisation the prison services and the cutbacks that make life worse for inmates and staff alike.

He had wanted to write about drug addiction so it almost inevitably became a story about prison. A woman who has committed arson whilst under the influence of heroin, which resulted in the death of a child living in the same block of flats, is committed to Fellside, an enormous and corrupt prison for women in the middle of nowhere in the north. She is haunted by the ghost of her victim.

But mostly it's about prison life and survival in prison (for staff and inmates alike). It's not much like his previous work at all. I hate to use the terms literary and serious, but it is, and is more character than plot driven.

I liked it very much, but still not nearly as much as The Girl With All The Gifts. And although I saw the ending coming, I still didn't like it.


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