The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief – Lisa Tuttle

Jesperson and Lane are Victorian London’s newest team of private detectives.  Lisa Tuttle‘s The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief (review copy from Jo Fletcher) challenges them with a potentially career-making case, fraught with danger and challenge.  With their new business on the verge of running out of money they must investigate two cases: their sleepwalking landlord and a series of disappearances of some of the world’s most prominent psychics.  But are those two cases linked in some way?

The comparisons with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s work are obvious.  Jasper Jesperson is intelligent, if at times heartless.  Miss Aphrodite Lane is his resourceful partner, more used to operating in society and an experienced investigator of psychic phenomena.  They live together with Jesperson’s long-suffering mother, who keeps house for them.

The Somambulist and the Psychic Thief is a gloriously entertaining mystery story full of twists and turns, about which it is difficult to write without spoilers.  Both Jesperson and Lane are extremely likable leads whose partnership is entertaining and promises much.  Despite the level of peril and the complexity of the plot, Tuttle executes it with a delicate touch and great elan.  Hopefully we will get to see more of Jesperson and Lane.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2016

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Another awesome Nine Worlds has finished.  As I think I said last year, of all the conventions on the calendar, it is far and away the most welcoming and inclusive, which creates a joyful and creative atmosphere.

I’m on the come-down from a brilliant weekend, and recovering from the heady mix of lots of people, days packed full of content, and late nights socialising.  Inevitably, that makes my reflections a little fragmented, but I’ll pull out some thoughts.

This year we were at a new venue, the Novotel London West in Hammersmith.  After last year’s hotel debacle, this was a refreshing change and it proved to be a much better location.  The food was better, the rooms were better, the space worked really well for the event, it was easier to get to, there were more facilities (shops and restaurants) close to the hotel and the staff were amazing, with prompt and friendly service.  I really hope we will be back there next year.

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Missy with a knitted Dalek cosplayer

Cosplay has become a big part of my con-going experience.  This year I reprised Missy, but with a twist.  At last year’s con Laurie Penny remarked after seeing my costume that she’d only just realised just how much Missy looks like a suffragette.  As a proud feminist that really chimed with me.  So what better to do at a convention that prides itself on its progressive ethos, than to cosplay Missy as a suffragette, campaigning for more Time Ladies to appear in Doctor Who?  I made her a sash, with the slogan “Time For Ladies”, suggested by a fabulous friend of mine.  I’ll post about the making process for that sash in due course.

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Awesome photo by Duncan Lawie. (Thanks!)

I also brought a new costume, a female Avon from Blakes 7.  (I tried it at EasterCon earlier this year, but this is the first time I’ve managed to get pictures of it – the 1970s concrete exterior of the hotel also provided the perfect spot for a dystopian photo shoot.)  Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of the series, so the appeal of cosplaying my all-time favourite character was hard to resist.  I still feel slightly uncomfortable about doing it, as if I have no right to attempt something so iconic, but it’s a great character to play.  And it’s wonderful to see just how much love there is out there for the series.  I had people running across the hotel foyer to give me cosplay tokens, and I had some great conversations about my costume and the series.  Come find me as Avon at a future con and I might even let you pet my Orac.  I’ll blog about putting this look together shortly.

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Look what I made!

The programme was great, as always, with some really thought-provoking sessions.  The stand-out one for me were Alex Lamb’s session on modelling complex systems.  Alex is the author of Roboteer, but he’s also a part-time stand up and improv, as well as having worked creating agent-based modelling systems for academic research.  He is clever, funny and has tremendous energy.  He got the whole audience for his session playing variants of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and then showed how the insights from that could be modelled in increasingly complex (and beautiful) ways.  Though it led to the depressing insight that we are doomed to society ultimately collapsing once corruption takes hold.  Honourable mentions also go to sessions on monsters in art history, how writers get and refine their ideas, a taster session on metal clay work, and a glorious end-of-con session on writing humour.

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Kate with BB8

If I have one small complaint, it’s that there didn’t seem to be as many sessions on books as in previous years, and some of those in the evening slots proved to be a bit … drier … than I might have expected for that time of night.  (There seemed to be no equivalent of last year’s gloriously hilarious panel discussion on writing sex.)  From talking to one of the organisers, it sounds like there had been some difficulties behind the scenes that may explain it.  I think the new model for organising content tracks may not have helped either.  I really hope that gets sorted for next year.  I love the broad church of fandom that Nine Worlds includes all under one roof, but I’m primarily a lover and reader of books, and if I’m give a choice I will gravitate towards book panels and events.

Photo courtesy of Kate

But as always, the thing that makes Nine Worlds is the people.  Friends make the weekend special, and are the source of all the best memories.  The late night room parties.  Enthusiastic dancing at the Bifrost disco.  Heckling panels via text message.  Cosplay photo shoots where it’s hard to keep a straight face.  But there are also smaller moments of joy too.  Catching up with people you haven’t seen for ages.  Making new friends and planning future shenanigans.  Finding out an author friend has given a character your profession, after a chat you’d had at EasterCon.  But mainly just the simple joy that comes from hanging out together and chatting.

Vigil – Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter‘s Vigil (review copy provided by publishers Jo Fletcher) is a glorious mash up of urban fantasy and crime thriller.  Set in contemporary Brisbane, it follows Verity Fassbinder as she solves a series of gruesome murders.  So far, so Sarah Lund.  But Verity Fassbinder is super-strong and half-Weyrd, and those being murdered are winged Sirens.

Verity works for the ruling council of the Weyrd, Slatter’s faerie community in Brisbane.  She’s been hired by her Weyrd ex-boyfriend Bela (a nickname, because of his resemblance to classic horror actor Bela Lugosi).  Her half-human, half-Weyrd heritage  enables her to move freely between both societies, though like all who live between, she struggles for acceptance in either world.  In her case, it’s not helped by her Weyrd father being a famous criminal.

As Verity’s investigation progresses, it begins to reveals corruption at the heart of Weyrd society.  Positions of power and privilege are abused by a wealthy Weyrd elite who are struggling to integrate with the ‘real’ world and want to cling on to the old ways.  Along the way Verity is also forced to confront some of her own dark personal history.

Vigil is slick, polished and fun.  I will certainly be interested to see what Verity gets up to next.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Fibre East 2016

After a gruelling few weeks, what could be better than a trip to a yarn show?  I took myself off to Fibre East with a couple of friends for the day about a week or so ago, to soak up the atmosphere.

Fibre East was a new show to me, but it’s become a regular fixture in the calendar.  It has a real focus on spinning and weaving, with some people from one of the local spinning guilds taking part in a ‘sheep to shawl’ challenge over the course of the weekend, scouring, carding, spinning and weaving freshly sheared fleece.

The Sheer Sheep Experience was there, exploring some of the UK’s native sheep breeds and the different characteristics of their coats.  (Though spot the Antipodean interloper on the far right!)

img_2406There was a shearing demonstration, using both electric clippers and traditional hand shears.  The lucky owner of the fleece, which had been auctioned earlier in the weekend, was also in the audience.

img_2396John Arbon had this beautiful antique on his stand.  It’s gloriously steampunk in design.

And there were lots of ways to indulge in some retail therapy.  I’ve noticed that the tougher the time I’ve had recently, the more outlandish my purchases are.  At Fibre East I kept being drawn to 80s style neon colours, in bright highlighter pen shades.  I mostly escaped unscathed, but there were a few I just couldn’t resist.

img_2439This pink, called Pink!, from WooSheeps, called to me from across the hall.  Paired with a more subdued charcoal grey, it will make a fantastic colourwork shawl.  And it comes in generous 150g skeins too.

img_2443I loved the neon spatter dye of For The Love Of Yarn‘s Speckled Lagoon, and picked up a couple of skeins in more muted shades.  They have some fantastic dyeing, and some beautiful shades.  I will definitely keep an eye out for them at future yarn shows.

img_2440As always, I had to pay a trip to see Lola at Third Vault Yarns.  Lola joked that I probably have most of her colourways in one base or another, but I still picked up these two beauties.  The top one (Bad Apples) will be perfect for a pair of socks I have in mind.

img_2448And I paid a trip to Sparkleduck as well.  If you like purple (and who doesn’t?!) Sparkleduck is the place to go.  These are all beautiful laceweights.

But these were probably the most unexpected purchases of my trip, and probably a measure of just how tired and run down I am.

img_2446I’ve never spun in my life.  But I came home with a sparkly top-whorl drop spindle from Spin City, and two lots of fluff.  I nearly succumbed to the one with candy-coloured unicorns, but went for the slightly subtler one with the iridescent heart-shaped confetti and glitter.

So, I guess I need to learn to spin.  Does anyone have any good resources they can point me to?

Fellside – M R Carey

What is justice, and who among us are truly innocent?  Those are the questions posed by M R Carey in his sublime and redemptive novel Fellside (Orbit, review copy from NetGalley).

Jess Moulson wakes up in hospital with horrific burns and no memory of the fire that caused them.  But she finds herself on trial for the murder of a small boy, accused of setting the fire that led to his death from smoke inhalation.  Convicted, she is sent to the notorious high security wing of Fellside women’s prison.  Filled with self-loathing for the crime she believes she committed, Jess goes on hunger strike, but is saved by the ghost of the boy she befriended and who died in the fire.  With the ghost boy’s help she seeks to unravel what really happened on the night of the fire.

Fellside would be a rough place, even if Jess wasn’t known as a child-killer.  The high-security wing is controlled by the ruthless and violent Harriet Grace.  Along with the corrupt Head of Security, Devlin, Grace runs a drugs empire throughout the prison.  When she tries to recruit Jess as a drugs mule during the appeal of her conviction they are thrown into a conflict that threatens to bring down the whole of Fellside.

Fellside deals with some profound themes about the nature of justice.  The justice system itself only deals with those cases that are brought before it, and while it is capable of establishing the facts of a case, it does so on the basis of only the evidence put before it.  In the case of the amnesiac Jess, it will only ever be able to reach a partial view.  And it fails Jess as an addict and the victim of domestic violence, until she is reconciled enough with herself to seek to re-open the case.  But the system fails to address the greater crimes of Grace and Devlin, whose positions of relative power give them a measure of control over it.

We are asked to consider who is guilty and who is innocent.  Dr Salazar, the essentially good-hearted prison doctor has been so ground down by the environment that he works in that he colludes with, and facilitates the crimes of others, and never feels he has the ability to challenge what is going on within the prison.  One of his nurses causes harm by acting with a real lack of compassion, based on her own prejudices.  And Jess is not the only offender who is also a victim – Grace brutally exploits the vulnerability of other prisoners, including her own heavies.

But for all its bleakness, Fellside is an uplifting story of justice and redemption.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Last Gasp – Trevor Hoyle

It’s pretty rare for me not to finish a book.  I normally try to give them the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it’s a review copy I’ve been given.  The best way to review something fairly is to finish it, so that it can be judged as a whole.  When I do abandon a book unfinished, it seems to be normally at about the 40% mark.  By that stage, I’ve read enough to be confident abandoning it is the right thing.

I gave up on Trevor Hoyle’s The Last Gasp (Jo Fletcher, who provided a review copy through NetGalley) at 10%.  Yes, 10%.

I’d been feeling pretty ambivalent about it from the start.  There were the slightly skeevy scientists doing research in the Antarctic.  There was the very heavy-handed plot about climate change killing off the oxygen-producing algae in the planet’s oceans, slowly rendering the atmosphere unbreathable.  There was the ensemble cast straight from a disaster movie (hero scientist! plucky scientist daughter! global elite ignoring all the evidence!).  There was even a cigar-chewing general, who reminded me of General Ross from The Incredible Hulk cartoon series.

But the moment that made me walk away?  When that general uttered the line “Weapons of Climate Degradation.”

Nope.

Goodreads rating: 1*

The Difference Engine – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

I have a problem with steampunk.  And I say this as someone who grew up reading great Victorian stories of adventure and exploration, like the work of H Rider Haggard.  Steampunk far too often romanticises privilege and Empire.  Anxiety about the direction of contemporary society and its technology manifests as a wistful nostalgia for an alternative future branching out from the Industrial Revolution.  One based on brass and steam rather than the microchip, and where everyone knows their place in society.  It is a sub-genre that very rarely interrogates issues of class, colonialism and gender, instead perpetuating very problematic attitudes under the fiction that this “is just how things were”.  (No, it wasn’t, as any half-way decent scholar of Victorian society would tell you.)  It’s all corsets, tea, gin and brass goggles, not child labour, poverty, disease and worker exploitation.

I had high hopes for The Difference Engine.  It promises conspiracy at the highest levels of government and adventure.  Both William Gibson (famously the inventor of cyberpunk) and Bruce Sterling have great credibility as writers looking at the disruptive impact of technology.  But ultimately, the novel just didn’t deliver for me.

The plot of the novel is a bit of a mess.  It starts well, with a murder that sends a prostitute named Sybil on the run to France with some stolen diamonds and a set of Engine punch cards that are highly sought after.  But we then don’t hear of Sybil again until the end of the book.  The flabby middle section follows Mallory tracking down a rebel called Captain Swing who is threatening to ruin his reputation.  Characters drift in and out, and there is no clear resolution of any of the plotlines.  The promised high-level conspiracy does not materialise in any meaningful way.

The characters are also extremely disappointing.  Female characters are few and far between, and generally prostitutes or identified as sexually promiscuous.  Mallory’s sister is a mere plot device that we never get to meet.  Lady Ada Byron, based on Ada Lovelace, is venerated as the Queen of Engines, but there is no sense of her transformative and visionary genius in the novel.  She is a faded figure with a gambling habit who barely makes an appearance.

As well as being sexist, it’s also crashingly racist.  I winced in particular at the portrayal of some Japanese gentlemen who do little more than be ninjas for hire, while extolling the virtues of Victorian industrial progress and asserting that the Japanese should aspire to replace their culture and language with their English equivalents.  All delivered in a deeply offensively stereotyped set of speech patterns.  There is no examination of colonialism or Empire at all.  Johnny Foreigner is just there to benefit from the wisdom, progress and knowledge of the English.

Goodreads rating: 1*