Review: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2015)

Signal to Noise

There are books that when you first hear about them excite and tease you, though if, like me, you’ve heard about them months before they come out that excitement can fade, mostly because other books get in the way, but some things do stay around with Signal to Noise it was the trio of music, and magic and Mexico which stuck, and that is a pretty good summary of its hook.

Meche is a fifteen year old girl who uses music to mask out the world around her. The love of music is inherited from her father but it’s with her two friends, Sabastian and Daniela, where her passion takes a more practical and disturbing turn when she discovers how to make music weave magic, and we’re witness to how magic doesn’t really make things better.

Moreno-Garcia goes back and forth between Mexico in a 2009 present and 1998 past as she shows us the lasting effect of the earlier events. She doesn’t linger too long in either and makes both interesting enough that you’re happy to get back to either time frame. She also uses the past to confuse and foreshadow present.

You see Meche’s journey as she burns through her friends and witness the breakdown of her relationship with her family at the same time as seeing that it’s unfinished business she may have tried to leave behind but can’t now avoid dealing with.

You know that’s where the first half of the tale ends up pretty quickly because that is how the present section starts but it’s what happens next and why that makes it more interesting.

As an adult you can’t help thinking back to your earlier self and seeing how you laid tracks to the present and wondering if you could change things what would you change? But Meche has no such regrets. Though there is a scene with her grandmother, that we see as an audience, which if Meche had witnessed would, I think, fill her with a lot of remorse.

Even though this story is full of teenage anxieties and issues I’m reluctant to label it as YA because of the effect it had on this adult reader. The power of using those formative events is that emotion is simpler and more intense, which works in its favour, though this could be seen as simplistic if you’re expecting a more nauanced exploration.

Brought together because they’re unhip gives an awkwardness and a camaraderie to Meche, Sebastian and Daniela but it’s more than that because Meche is a leader and Sebastian has a unacknowledged crush on Meche and with Meche confused by her own feelings then Daniela playing go between the two. It’s teenageness in a microcosm.

As for the music, I’d be surpised if Moreno-Gracia hasn’t got her own passion there. The various melodies resonate as you read and the author makes the point that what is obvious isn’t always the most effective.

Back to the magic. Does it make things better? Not really.

At the heart this novel are dysfunctional relationships; with Meche at 15 and 36 dealing with the effect of her father and how she is and was with her friends plus it illustrates effectively how we do, but mostly don’t, change.

Signal to Noise is a great debut that uses music and magic to bring something a little different to the exploration and struggles of teenage years.

Debut Review: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin (Orbit)

AMadnessofAngels

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin
Published by Orbit on the 2 April 2009.
Review Copy

In A Madness of Angels Sorcerer Matthew Swift returns to London after being missing for two years and he wants revenge. Over 496 pages Kate takes us on a tour of the hidden people and places of London. And what an exciting place she makes it.

It seems that Kate lives and breathes Londonness and this book is packed with that energy – it flows with power. The power of the beggers, the bikers, and the bag ladies. The pigeons, the power lines and the people in the Tower. There are so many fresh and original ideas here that it makes for an engaging and fun read.

You know in horror films when the dying are brought back to life that there is a danger that they don’t come back alone well you get a hint that something isn’t quite right when Matthew starts saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I’.

The mystery of what’s happened to Matthew Swift when he was away is the thread keeps everything together as Swift is conscripted by Mr Sinclair and a gang of concerned citizens whose goals of revenge seem to be aligned with Swift’s and they use each other to try to take down the Tower and the power behind it.

As A Madness of Angels is told in the first person we see everything from Matthew Swift’s point of view and this causes a bit of a problem. There is a mystery element to the story so  there is a bit of a blind spot in what Matthew does and what he’s actually thinking. He doesn’t share everything he knows. 

It’s curious at times but Griffin manages to get around it – if the reader found out all that Matthew knew then the story wouldn’t unfold the way it does but more importantly and I’m not giving anything away by saying it – Matthew Swift is mad – the process that has brought about his return has messed with his mind so you can never be sure that he actually knows all that’s happening or why.

This uncertainty and revelation drives A Madness of Angels along at a cracking pace and by the time we get the to the end we find out a lot more about Kate’s brand of Urban Magic.

The brand of urban magic employed by Kate is gathered from the lights, the garbage, the rhythm of the couriers and other energies that fill an urban environment and it’s a power that is raw and easy to tap for a sorcerer like Matthew and there is always the danger that he is going to let go and let it consume him.

I’ve made it to the end without telling you about the blue electric angels and the telephone lines. I guess you’ll just have to read it to find out what A Madness of Angels really is.

The other thing to mention is that given the theme is madness I can forgive much of the storytelling for being slightly confusing as it has a purpose and is quite enjoyable but there are places where I think that the balance isn’t quite right and Kate looses focus of the story and indulges herself a little too much but it’s curious and slightly distracting rather than annoying or frustrating.

Overall though, Kate Griffin’s adult debut (having written for children as Catherine Webb) is a powerful, fresh, imaginative step into Urban Fantasy, and luckily, even though there is a satisfying ending to Matthew Swift’s story of revenge, he’s back in The Midnight Mayor. I’m really looking forward to it but please first if you like Urban Fantasy do read A Madness of Angels – it might be on of the best books of the genre your going to read all year. (I can’t say the best, sorry, as the completion for that title this year is quite fierce).

Debut Review: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (Gollancz)

Title: Heart Shaped-Box
Author: Joe Hill
Publisher: Gollancz
Published: 01 May 2008
Own Copy

Synopsis

If you’re a rockstar who already has a collection of the macabre what is the harm of buying a dead man’s suit, with ghost attached, off the internet? For Jude Coyne it’s going to drag him to hell. Literally.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Jude Coyne is a descendent of the Prince of Darkness with rock and roll hell raising lyrics and all that entails and maybe at some time he was.  He still goes for young girls who stay for 9 months or there about and seem to all have names of states but now his past comes back to haunt him.

Analyse/Comments/Thoughts

I don’t like gore and guts. I won’t watch films that aim to shock by visuals alone. I need to get inside someone’s head and feel what they feel and see what they see.  And this book is very much about what Jude Coyne sees and feels.

The strength Heart-Shaped Box is seeing beyond the act that the public see and seeing the consequences of actions and repeating cycles. The ghost is here to make him pay. But along the way we get an insight into what we see might not be what we get.

Sure it’s a horror tale but it’s more haunting that horrific. That is, it’s not about shock value. It lingers much like the ghost itself who gains control of Jude like a hypnotist and has him more than once about to kill Georgia until he’s snapped out of it by things that he holds dear.

One of the most memorable scenes takes place in a public place and breaks the illusion that these things happen in isolated places where there are no witnesses.

I suppose I should mention that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King and all I’m going to say is that he’s inherited his father’s talent for people and he’s got his own way of telling a tale. Which are both great things.

I would have liked a few more confrontations between the ghost and Jude just to heighten my heart rate a little more than it was already.

But I’ve said before that the best stories are the ones that take the character and readers on journeys and change us both. And I enjoyed it all the way. I kept reading even when I should have been doing other things. I was sad when some things happened and happy at others. I’m eager to see where Joe Hill can take me next.

Summary

A striking, insightful and strong debut from a writer who if at the start of their career is playing with emotions and building characters like this then I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do when as he goes from apprentice to master.

Joe Hill is a new and striking voice in haunting fiction who can stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the masters of the genre.

8.5/10

Debut Review: Lost Boys by James Miller (Little, Brown)

Title: Lost Boys
Author: James Miller
Publisher: Little, Brown
Published: 3 July 2008
Review Copy

Synopsis

At an English Boys Private School children are going missing, they are dreaming and then disappearing but no one knows where they’ve gone.

Analyse/Comments/Thoughts

I wasn’t expecting to like Lost Boys, coming of age stories aren’t really my thing. I was expecting a Lord of the Flies all boy camp bonding thing, if that’s what Lord of the Flies actually is, but that’s the impression I got from hearing about it.

There is a bond between the missing children and it’s a boy in their dreams. At the start of the novel we follow Timothy Dashwood as boys around him disappear and he dreams. We follow the effect that has on him and others around it until he too disappears.

But that isn’t really what this book is about. It’s about why he and the other boys, they’re mostly boys, have gone and what that leaves behind for their parents.

Anyone who is a parent, or is going to be a parent, should read this book. Miller explores the world we have created for our children and how a world of war, alienation and rejection separates children and adults and how that may mean they turn their backs, and weapons, on us.

This is a fantasy but one grounded in real conflicts. Arthur Dashwood, the father we follow, is powerless even to the end to save a child that doesn’t want saving. In fact his child and the other children are fighting against their parents.

Most of the conflict and exploration is internal as Arthur searches for his son and Miller cleverly takes the reader in directions and places that aren’t clear at the beginning as things are connected by links that are revealed in the telling.

The breakdown of Arthur both from internal and external events is extreme but fits the character and the story. The other characters, the wife, the au-pair, the brother and other supporting cast, feel real and rounded. Miller has drawn from a deepwell for this tale.

The only slight thing that jarred was with the sex as desire, lust, and animalistic exploration was missing from the equation for most of the novel but the stories tensions had there release in the final disturbing chapters. Though I don’t think it was about sex but more about power and loosing control of yourself and putting it someone elses hands.

Summary

Lost Boys by James Miller is a shocking and startling debut. It’s a powerful exploration on the world we are presenting and leaving our children. It’s a disburbing take on what could be. Well worth reading but don’t expect any happy endings.

Score

9/10

Links

Times Online Review
Big Dumb Object Review

Debut Review: Scar Night by Alan Campbell

Title: Scar Night
Author: Alan Campbell
Publisher: Tor
Published: May 2007
Price: £7.99
Bought It

Before I say anything else Alan Campbell’s debut novel Scar Night is an amazing creation. Not only does he create rounded characters, he creates a believable world for them to live. I enjoyed reading it immensely but it’s not without its problems. Though before I get into all that let me tell you what it’s all about.

Dill is the last of his line. A battle-archon whose role is to protect the faithful and the Temple of Deepgate. But he’s not a fighter. The role is now ceremonial as the battleships do the fighting and the flying. Dill is left to stand on the roof unable to fly and release the occasional bucket of snails from his room in the Temple kitchens.

The city of Deepgate is suspended by great chains that have been interlinked over the years by lesser chains and ropes. This combined with its industrial needs have created several districts but overlooking them all is the Temple of Ucis. Ulcis is the undead God who is gathering an army of Ghosts, the dead of Deepgate, to reclaim his place in heaven.

As events unfold it is Dill who has no choice but to descend below and find out what hell really looks like.
When I started reading I wasn’t sure what expect. I expected Dill to go for feeble boy to a warrior man and save everyone. But he doesn’t, well not in that Hollywood hero way and that’s a good thing.

Instead Alan Campbell presents an exploration of life, death and faith and how what we believe can build and build until its foundations are forgotten. He also shows that no one is as bad as they first appear.

The trouble is I’m not sure that Campbell always had the balance quite right. The bad characters have some qualities that strip away some of their nastiness, which is alright, but somehow made me pause and wonder about their motives.

Saying that though he does well to give individuality to the minor as well as major characters and my thoughts about some of the motivations didn’t distract or undermine my enjoyment of Scar Night.

In fact I couldn’t wait to see what Campbell did next. Somehow he kept managing to surprise me in terms of what happened in the story and how he got there.

And at the end he left me in no doubt that this was only the beginning.

I recommend this for anyone who likes their fantasy to break and twist conventions and who likes their stories dark with a light at the end of a tunnel. I’m eager to read the just released Iron Angel.

8.5/10

Debut Review: The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The SomnambulistTitle: The Somnambulist
Author: Jonathan Barnes
Publisher: Gollancz
Published: 10 Jan 08
Price: £7.99
Bought Copy

There is something intriguing about Victorian England. A place and time that has a personality all of it’s own. It’s that personality which Barnes draws on for The Somnambulist. Set in Victorian London we follow the latest and maybe last case of Detective and Stage Conjurer Edward Moon as he looks into the mysterious murder of Cyril Honeyman. But all is not as it seems. Something is afoot.

A good writer gets the reader to suspend their disbelief and brings them into the story’s reality. It feels like if you take a wrong turn you might run into The Somnambulist writing on his chalkboard as Edward Moon waves his hand dismissively.

The Somnambulist is a strange tale. We follow Moon as he traipses around London following leads and taking us to some weird and wonderful places like establishment of Mrs Pugsey and the butchers shop in Limehouse. The places are nothing compared to characters like Mr Cribb, who can’t possibly knows what he says he knows and Madame Innocenti whose prediction makes the investigations of Edward Moon even more urgent.

The story isn’t wholly logical and it isn’t meant to be. It’s phantasmagorical, teasing, and imaginative. The characters are extra-ordinary sometimes grotesque but quite believable in this setting. A combination of the personality of the narrator and skill of Barnes makes it strangely believable and quite compelling.

There are some oddities even in this strange tale. In part it comes down the to limitations of the point of the view of the narrator (quite cleverly chosen BTW) and partly it is the tale as a whole. It doesn’t quite all fit but no matter the journey is highly enjoyable entertaining and it doesn’t spoil the tale being told.

I’m looking forward to sampling more of Barnes’s formidable imagination in The Domino Men where characters from The Somnambulist are trapped in a chalk circle under Downing Street, a manuscript brings together every conspiracy theory about the Royal Family and explains where the power of Number 10 really lies.

8/10

Debut Review: Debatable Space by Philip Palmer

Debatable SpaceTitle: Debatable Space
Author: Philip Palmer
Publisher: Orbit
Published: 24 Jan 08
Price: £10.00

A band of pirates kidnaps the daughter of the ruler of the universe and holds her for ransom. The trouble is ruler of the universe Cheo isn’t that receptive to their demands and their prisoner, Lena, isn’t what she first appears.

But this isn’t just a pirate story. It’s an exploration of 1000 years of human history. And what has happened? Human have travelled, colonised, enslaved, and turned into dolphins (well some of them have).

For a first novel it’s a big challenge and a bit of a balancing act. Palmer presents his story from multiple viewpoints. We delve into the minds of Lena, the pirate crew, occasionally others, but we get most of our information from Lena.

And this is where the balancing act comes in. How time do you spend with each character and how they appear will depend on their part of the story. As Lena is a big part of the story we spend a lot of time with her. As a main character she is a fascinating and a worthy companion. The problem is she goes on a bit.

Palmer through her retells how the current state of humanity came about. He does occasionally retell too much. This is slightly frustrating especially as events speed to a conclusion when we’re presented with a large chunk of history. It is relevant but maybe isn’t as vital or as enjoyable as Lena, or perhaps Palmer, thinks.

This is strange as I enjoyed most of the other tales and the asides and presentation of history. It’s probably because it takes too much time out of the current action at a point where it should be sprinting towards the finish.

This isn’t though a fatal flaw. The characters are varied and well formed; the story is well planned and interesting. And most of the time it works. When it doesn’t I’d put down to over enthusiasm on Palmers part to share the universe and history he’s created.

For a first novel and a story on such a wide scale Palmer keeps a good grip on the reins and where it does get away he pulls it back in. I look forward to seeing what tale Palmer tells next.

Debut Review: In the Woods by Tana French

In The WoodsTitle: In The Woods
Author: Tana French
Publisher: Hodder
Published: 14 November 07
Price: £6.99
Bought It

You can never escape your past or so they say. And Tana French plays with this idea in her debut novel, In The Woods. Rob Ryan retells the investigation into death of a small girl found in the same woods where he, but not his two friends, had a lucky escape twenty years ago.

French hasn’t created a conventional detective novel. Ryan’s past comes back to haunt him during this investigation. She pitches it right. Ryan unravels as the case gets tougher. And as you read you wonder if he can solve it before he unravels too far.

It’s a very emotional read. French keeps you reading by playing with you. She builds the connections between the main characters and sparks them off each other. It’s a small world after all.

The strengths of this novel is how well French sets everything up. As I was reading I thought I had a good idea of who did it, if not why, and I was wrong. French, through Ryan’s eyes, gives a lot of leads and clues but these are muddied by Ryan own biases and obsessions. Another strength is how she explores the effect the investigation has on the relationship with his partner DI Cassie.

French foreshadows a lot of the major events, sometimes a little too heavily, and this gives a drive to find out the truth. And it is truthful and a bit brutal in its honesty. It’s an interesting balancing act between keeping plot moving in terms of finding the killer and showing us the emotional tensions surrounding it.

In The Woods keeps you reading as Ryan recounts and explores this investigation from beginning to end. French has created a well-crafted story with a believable, if highly fictional set events, told with strong compelling voice. A strong performing and haunting debut. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Debut Review: The Pools by Bethan Roberts

The Pools by Bethan Robers

Title: The Pools
Author: Bethan Roberts
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Published: 29 August 2007
Price: £10.99
Review Copy

Bethan Roberts has started her literary career with a disturbing tale of Middle England, mid-1980s when the death of a teenager, Robert, is the inevitably conclusion to the paths of many lives.

This is a hard book to pin down. Beth rebuilds the events that lead up to Robert’s death but she goes further than that. She dismembers them. She gets under the skin of the narrators as she retraces the steps.

This is not a who dunnit. It’s not even a why dunnit. It’s story of life and how our characters might be natured as well as nurtured and how we can’t escape from what is in our hearts.

I wish that Roberts wasn’t so honest in her portrayal. I was she’d been more writery so that the story isn’t as brutal as it is. But she doesn’t flinch and she doesn’t pull her punches. She confronts the confusion we experience as we find out who we are and maybe face the realisation that we can’t escape what we done or perhaps the effect that our parents have on us.

Overall, Bethan has created a challenging novel that delves deep into the pools inside each one of us and it makes you question your own decisions. It also makes you thankful that you still have choices. An outstandingly insightful début.

Now OOP but you can still read it via ebook