Monday, 22 November 2021

Guest review by Graeme Fife: THE PIANO TUNER by Daniel Mason

 


"It’s a first novel but comes with the glow of deep thought, deliberate craft and essential care in construction and development."

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. Great Cycling Climbs, which brings together his books on the French Alps, is published by Thames and Hudson. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.'

How many books out there lurk, unnoticed, to be read? To be found, a word from a friend, a casual hand reaching for a title all but lost in a pile of discards? The chance of serendipity, the unlooked-for discovery or gift at birthday or Christmas? And what delight to come upon the hidden gem. And then to have the pleasure of passing on the news of it.

You know by now that I do not relate the story of the books I speak of here. I don’t read blurbs even if that jeopardises the already onerous, the unforgiving task of writing them. I will note but briefly some of the traits of this book which linger and make me want to broadcast its virtues more widely. It’s well-written, the characters live and breathe. The story is compelling, the layers of richness, in narrative, outreach, idea, many.

Tuner of pianos speaks for itself and you hardly need me to point to the metaphorical force of this: the adjustment of tension so that the instrument plays in tune….and what care, expertise, consideration, understanding, thought would go into adjusting the tensions in our own currently jangled society? An epigraph Mason chooses, from Plutarch: ‘Music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.’ ’tis well said.

The setting is British Burma of the final years of the nineteenth century but do not be deterred. Mason wears his research lightly. He gives context and, where necessary, background, but the information is neither stifling nor overwhelming. The action begins in London before moving eastwards and the detail is deftly managed. One example of how well he interleaves learnt material from imagined: the British protagonist makes an expedition into the jungle in the company of a local. They are followed by a gaggle of local children, drawn to this wonder, this exotic, the stranger with his odd purpose. They banter and chatter and make a nuisance of themselves, the Brit is discombobulated and, to help him, the local rounds on the gang of urchins to reprove them. They back off. ‘What did you say?’ asks the Brit. ‘I told them that you eat children.’ This upsets the man; the local laughs: ‘Don’t be upset, we have giants in our folklore who eat annoying children.’ ‘Perhaps not the best way for us to be perceived, however.’ And the matter is closed. However, a nice story cleverly used.

Names of places familiar from tradition and romance loom: Mandalay, Rangoon, Irawaddy, Siam; Burma, the fabled land, hemmed in by old China, India, Bengal, the oriental sea. If the premise might seem to be unlikely, the setting is perfect for the oddity and there is something quite beguiling in the mechanics of turning the key on the poorly strung wires to make the sickly piano sing once more. There is unlikely drama, too, in the onward tug of the narrative, nothing forced, to a fine dramatic conclusion.

I opened the book, began to read and knew, after a very short time, that it would be my companion for a while, this at a time when I have found some novels really quite difficult and lacking in sustained or even rudimentary charm or seduction. No names, no pack drill, even if the temptation to lard this notice with a number of titles – vaunted winners of glittering prizes – is powerful. A gushing review is enough, it seems, these days, to trigger further spate of gushing review, without basis or sense. I hope, therefore, that in the course of my recommendations here, I have proved an honest broker. There’s no point in fibbing or hyperbole.

I enjoyed The Piano Tuner immensely. It’s a first novel but comes with the glow of deep thought, deliberate craft and essential care in construction and development, the dashes of colour, evocative:

‘There was a statue in the spirit house, a faded wooden sprite with a sad smile and a broken hand. Edgar stopped in the road and took the paper (‘For Edgar Drake who has tasted.’) from his pocket, and read it once again. He folded it and tucked it next to the little statue, I leave you a story, he said.

He walked and the sky was light but he saw no sun.’

The writing is full where it needs to be full and spare when that suggests, a finely tuned instrument with pedal effects.

(√Črard was the first maker in Paris to fit pedals on the piano, and his instrument had several: the usual sustaining pedal, an action shift, a celeste, and a bassoon pedal (which put leather against the strings to make them buzz).

The Piano Tuner is published by Picador.


More reviews by Graeme Fife:

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman
A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham
West of Sunset by Stuart O'Nan
Adolfo Kaminsky: a Forger's Life by Sarah Kaminsky
Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu
Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown
Moby Dick by Herman Melville


Monday, 15 November 2021

Guest review by Lesli Wilson: WHAT YOU CAN SEE FROM HERE by Mariana Leky

 


"With its humour, its unsentimental humanity, and its intimacy, it's a pretty good place to inhabit..."

Lesli Wilson is the author of two novels for adults and two for young adults. Last Train from Kummersdorf was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Branford Boase Award; Saving Rafael was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award. Both deal with Nazi Germany. Lesli Wilson is half German, was brought up bilingual, and has spent considerable amounts of time in Germany. She is currently working on a novel for adults, set in the very early nineteenth century. 

'An okapi is completely implausible, every bit as implausible, in fact, as the sinister dreams of a woman from the Westerwald.'

The Westerwald (the name means Western Forest), lies a little way to the east of the Rhine. Its tourist site describes it as 'dreamfully unspoilt,' which is amusing, since the entire plot of this novel, set in that area, hinges on the dreams of the narrator's grandmother, Selma. If you want to know what Selma looks like, you can look up Rudi Carrell, the Dutch television host on the Internet. Selma 'resembled Rudi Carrell so perfectly that.. in our eyes, he was nothing more than a poor copy of Selma.' However, Selma has several characteristics that differentiate her from Rudi, unless Rudi also used to have dreams of an okapi that meant one person in his neighbourhood was going to die within days.

When Selma dreams of the okapi, she tells two people and swears them to secrecy; which means, inevitably, that the news runs round the neighbourhood like wildfire, creating havoc in the lives of its inhabitants. Some become deeply risk-averse, avoiding animals, even gentle old dogs, looking up to rule out falling rooftiles, branches, or heavy light fixtures, constantly checking themselves for signs of an incipient heart attack. An old farmer who feels he's lived too long lies in his bed and prepares to welcome death; in vain, as it turns out. Others vent long-kept hidden truths, which they might as well reveal before they die; 'A secret truth does not want to perish in hiding.' The survivors then, of course, have to live with the consequences of this frankness.

One of this latter category is the Optician (the otherwise excellent translator doesn’t capitalise the name, but I would have done; all nouns, of course, are capitalised in German, but I sensed what you might call a special capitalisation there. The Optician is Selma's best friend, and he has helped her bring up her granddaughter, the narrator Luise, and Luise's best friend Martin. Luise's mother and father have other preoccupations that prevent them from playing much of a role in her life. Martin's father is an alcoholic and physically abusive. The Optician has loved Selma for years, but his mind is populated by doubting voices that prevent him telling her so, and in the end, even the prospect of imminent death can silence them.

This is not a novel about how people behave in the face of death, however, or even about the emergence of long-held secrets, though that enters into the plot. It's primarily about people, how they relate to each other, how they love, or hide from love; how they hurt each other and heal.  The characters are presented with wry, ironic, sometimes dark humour. There's a reclusive woman (euphemistically named 'sad Marlies') who lives to hurt other people; her  aunt hanged herself in her kitchen  at the age of ninety two 'which Marlies could not understand. In her opinion, committing suicide at ninety-two was hardly worth the trouble.' There's Elsbeth, Luise's great aunt by marriage, small and circular, who purveys potions to the villagers: they slip into her garden 'with their coat collars turned up' and look around several times 'the way men in the county seat turn up their collars and look around when they opened the door to Gaby's Erotic boutique.' When the Optician tries to kill Martin's father by sawing through the legs of his hunting blind (a tower that hunters in Germany climb onto so they can see the game from a distance,) he repents and rushes off to repair it. But he has confided what he's done to Elsbeth, and when he arrives she's already there, trying to do the job with wire and superglue. The ensuing dialogue, which becomes three-cornered when they discover that their intended victim is actually up in the hunting blind as they work, is a triumph of comedy. But the book also contains tragedy and sadness, joy, and many different varieties of love.

It's a piece of fiction which is hard to categorise, quite different from anything else I have read recently. With its humour, its unsentimental humanity, and its intimacy, it's a pretty good place to inhabit; a book to keep on your shelves after you've finished it, and revisit again and again.

What You Can See From Here is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 8 November 2021

Guest review by Tina Jackson: FEATHERHOOD by Charlie Gilmour

 


"A beautiful book about the nature of what is wild, and what can and cannot be tamed; about nature and nurture and how the two can co-exist."


Tina Jackson is a writer and journalist, and the author of the novel The Beloved Children (Fahrenheit Press), a short fiction collection Stories from the Chicken Foot House (Markosia) and a book of non-fiction about working class women and the struggle for the vote in her hometown, Leeds. See more on Tina's website.

In tales of enchantment, the arrival of a talking animal always has a particular significance, taking the person who encounters it – invariably someone in need of its counsel – over the boundary of what is usual and into the realms of the extraordinary. And while Charlie Gilmour’s Featherhood is not fiction, folk, or fairy tale, and Benzene - the magpie whose presence in his life provoked this telling - only ever speaks in crow, it tells a real-life transformation tale that casts an extraordinary spell.

Featherhood weaves life writing and nature writing to tell the story of how a gentle and troubled person was helped to make sense of his relationship with his absent father, and to prepare for becoming a father to his own child, by the presence in his life of a baby magpie. As Benzene, who Gilmour initially expects will not survive, thrives, she becomes fiercely attached to Gilmour and his partner Yana, and they to her. Nothing, in the wake of this profound inter-species connection, will ever be the same, and the wild bird is an agent of healing and chaos in equal measure.

Writing in luminous, clear prose, Charlie conjures a cast of human and avian characters no less fantastical or compelling for being real, and relates how he is taught by the magpie that he can also look after a human child and be a good and loving parent.

His biological father Heathcote Williams is the trickster in the tale: a slippery figure whose identities switched seamlessly between poet, magician, anarchist, absentee father and a person whose entire existence reads as a play of smoke and mirrors and leaves a trail of hurt, pain and abandoned relationships, such as the one with his son, in his wake. The twin threads of the story are the unfolding tale of Gilmour’s relationship with Benzene and his attempts to unravel the mystery of why his complex, charismatic father was unable to have anything but a fragmented relationship with his son. The book is shot through with down to earth humour, too, with the antics of the bird an obvious highlight and the succinct dismissal of Heathcote Williams’ mercurial behaviour by Gilmour’s staunch, loving, stepfather. ‘What a wanker,’ he sums him up, with this reader cheering him from a ringside seat.

This is a beautiful book about the nature of what is wild, and what can and cannot be tamed; about nature and nurture and how the two can co-exist; about what can and cannot be known; about families and how the past does not have to repeat into the present, and about the transformative power not just of love, but of care. It’s a story about being open to possibility and accepting responsibility – for the fierce demands of a bird that stashes meat in Gilmour’s hair and for the human baby who arrives after Gilmour has learned that he isn’t fated to repeat the example of his own father. It’s a story about understanding something that is other, whether that’s a creature of another species or a human being who behaves in ways that are less comprehensible than those of a wild creature. It’s a story of reconciliation with the past and accepting the numinous encounters that lead to becoming. Above all, Featherhood is an exceptional, beautiful and wonderfully told story about how to create a stable nest, and feather it with love, compassion and understanding. It may not be fiction, but it really is a magical tale.

Featherhood is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Tina Jackson's The Beloved Children is reviewed here by Yvonne Coppard.



Monday, 1 November 2021

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: HOPE NOT FEAR by Hassan Akkad

 


"A story that needed to be told."

First published in 2001 for children, Cindy Jefferies found success with her Fame School series with Usborne Books, obtaining 22 foreign rights deals. Latterly writing fiction for adults as Cynthia Jefferies, her first title The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan was published in 2018, followed a year later by The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, set during the English Civil Wars, followed in 2019. Both titles are now available in paperback.

In 2012, Hassan Akkad was a refugee from Syria, where he had been imprisoned and tortured for protesting against the regime. His story, including the perilous journey across Europe in 2015, as borders began to close, was told in the BBC series Exodus, our journey to Europe, some of which he filmed himself. The programmes won a BAFTA for Best Factual Series in 2017, by which time he had settled in London, spending a while with a family who hosted refugees through the charity Refugees At Home.

Hassan had been an English teacher in Damascus, and a keen photographer too. His excellent English meant that he was able to travel around the country, speaking about his experiences. Now he has put all this down, and more, in this challenging and moving book. It is a story that needed to be told.

It begins, not with his journey, but with him volunteering at Whipps Cross hospital during the pandemic. Not only did he work at great risk, alongside others cleaning the Covid ward before much PPE was available, he also campaigned for the removal of the £400 surcharge levied on immigrant cleaners and porters to use the NHS themselves. Who knew that such a levy had been put on so many front line workers in the NHS, an impossible cost for many to afford? Hassan raised the issue, fought to get heard, and won a repeal of it, an extraordinary success, cancelling a horrible injustice loaded on those who do so much to help us when we are in need.

Hassan Akkad is a young man who is not always very comfortable with praise. Survivor guilt is a painful thing to suffer from. He has more than physical scars to show for his experiences before he escaped. But he doesn’t lack courage, and it seems likely that he will continue to object to injustice wherever he feels he can help. With his large number of followers on social media he has a voice that tends to be heard, and he interviews well on TV and radio. His experiences have given him great empathy, and a desire to be helpful. Syria’s loss is very much our gain.

This is a poignant, at times harrowing, but always moving and uplifting memoir. The Guardian called Hassan "a vision of a kinder, more inclusive future". The paper suggested that this book should sit alongside When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson as an account of meeting a seemingly impossible situation with immense courage and grace. I would concur with that. And Hassan is building his career in other directions too. New on Netflix is a documentary film he has co-directed, Convergence: Courage in a Crisis. Judging by the trailer it’s well up to his usual standard, as is this excellent book.

Hope Not Fear  is published by Bluebird, an imprint of Pan Macmillan.




Monday, 25 October 2021

Guest review by Jon Appleton: THE WEEKEND by Charlotte Wood

 


" ... And yet the hunger remains, the appetite for life. What’s the best you can hope for? That’s what The Weekend is about. A hungry novel."  

Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor living in London. He is a regular contributor to Writers Review.

Nobody wants you when you’re old. You have to shore things up before this point. You have to face up to the future, to the worst possibilities, you have to prepare yourself. Anticipate, adapt, accept.’

You might argue that reaching your eighth decade precludes you from having to learn and harness jargonistic alliterative slogans. (Although strictly speaking this is assonance, right?) But events such as the loss of a partner, a child, a friend can prove so destabilising that you’re reduced, in some respects, to learning your A, B, C all over again.

That’s where we find long-time friends Jude, the restaurateur, Wendy, the academic and Adele, the actress, in the aftermath of their close friend Sylvie’s death. The three women are spending a hot Australian Christmas at Sylvie’s home (in the absence of Sylvie’s partner) to clear it for sale and the conclusion of a chapter of their lives.

More oppressive than a dead friend is the inclinator, the platform that elevates – infantilises? passengers and baggage from the ground level to house level. Oh, and Wendy’s poor, dear dog Finn, who soils himself and inconveniences fastidious Jude but is perhaps all Wendy has left of Sylvie. His life so far beyond comfort and opportunity that it surely would better be ended with mercy and kindness. Gulp.

As the women set about their tasks, they engage and remember and rewrite history. They pride themselves on the sophistication of their inner lives and scorn those who lack such vivid interiors.

They might be old but they have expectations. You might not want lost looks, lost love, men or sex, The Weekend argues. What you really want, reasonably, is work. And money. Others might think you’re past it, somehow an encumbrance or liability, but these women know you can still make certain demands. You can trust a lived-in body, you know how it works – ‘you left it alone and it sorted itself out’.

So demanding of the world beyond them, and yet, a lot of the time it seems the best they can offer each other is tolerance or forbearance. Except, of course, when push comes to shove, as it does at the brisk ending. But if you can’t be brisk in old age, when can you?

Charlotte Wood is an Australian writer whose reputation is enhanced with each new publication; The Weekend, her last-but-one novel, was published here with a splash last year and deservedly so.

You’ll learn a lot about contemporary Australian life. You’ll understand where Australia has emerged from. (The surnames alone – Wendy Steegmuller, Adele Antoniades - are telling.) But interestingly, the cultural references are British – no mention of the Miles Franklin Award, instead the Booker Prize. The women reference the Mamas and the Papas from their youth, not The Seekers.

There’s always been a tension in Australia that anyone with ambition is punching above their weight – ‘the tall poppy syndrome’, it was called. How much worse is it for the high-flyers now diminished in old age, by themselves, by others, by society?

And yet the hunger remains, the appetite for life. What’s the best you can hope for? That’s what The Weekend is about. A hungry novel. I loved it and recommend it. So will you.

The Weekend is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

More recent choices by Jon:

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett


Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura


Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stewart

Monday, 18 October 2021

Guest review by Julia Jarman: THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY by Matt Haig

 


"I won’t do spoilers, just say I’m really glad I read this book, which is entertaining and wise."

Photograph by Linda Newbery
Julia Jarman has written books for children of all ages. Her work includes The Time Travelling Cat series for readers of eight to twelve or thereabouts and the acclaimed picture book, Big Red Bath. She is currently trying her hand at writing for adults ‘to see if I can’.

Matt Haig has been sitting on my bookshelf for years – unread. How daft was I! Though highly recommended by a respected friend, The Humans did not appeal. Foolishly I let the blurb put me off, with a single word: aliens. The hint of sci-fi aroused my prejudices – I prefer realism or so I thought- and the book stayed closed. Then my reading-group chose The Midnight Library and I felt bound to give it a go despite the blurb which made it clear that suicidal Nora is ‘transported’ – yes, that sort of transported – at the stroke of midnight, to a fantasy library where she can choose an alternative life as easily as choosing a book. Her choice is limited to her own life. She can re-write it by going back in time to choices she made and choosing differently. Nora is attracted to this idea and so was I; it’s a fascinating theme.

Who hasn’t wasted time what-iffing? What if I’d married so-and-so? What if I’d gone to that job interview? What if I’d caught that train? Penelope Lively uses her ‘what ifs’ to good effect in Making It Up, a novel published in 2005. She uses her writing skills and imagination to create lives she might have lived in what she calls a confabulation or ‘anti-memoir’. True and not-true it reads like a novel-cum-biography. I enjoyed it very much. But would I enjoy The Midnight Library where the imaginative leaps are more daring?

Fortunately, the book begins realistically enough, with Nora nineteen years earlier, a worried teenager, in the school library during a wet break, talking to the comfortable, knowledgeable librarian Mrs Elm, who tells her prosaically enough that she has her whole life before her and could do anything she wanted. I liked and believed in both characters – even the excessively talented Nora - which was a good start. Mrs Elm turns up again later in the midnight library, which arises out of the mist, and that’s good news too, aiding credibility. Now Nora is thirty-five and she has already written her suicide note. She feels a complete failure and worse, she has no hope for a better future. She feels she will go on failing and is full of shame and regret for the opportunities she has not taken and the people she feels she has let down: her father for not becoming a champion swimmer; her brother and friend Ravi for leaving the pop group they’d formed; her lover Dan for jilting him two days before the wedding. The list goes on: Nora had more talents than most of us and a lot of people investing in her – and living through her.

But now Nora has a chance to explore those ‘might have been’ lives, and if she wants, choose one of them in preference to hers. Nora takes the chance and makes some remarkable discoveries. I won’t do spoilers, just say I’m really glad I read this book, which is entertaining and wise. I’ve now read The Humans which I also thoroughly enjoyed. Bring on the aliens!

The Midnight Library is published by Canongate.

More reviews by Julia Jarman:

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Monday, 11 October 2021

Guest review by Doug Johnstone: THE NIGHT ALWAYS COMES by Willy Vlautin

 


"Even as a writer in a similar genre I couldn’t predict how Vlautin would end this beautiful but excruciating tale. But when it comes, the ending is just perfect."



aAuthor photo by Duncan McGlynn
Photograph by Duncan McGlynn
Doug Johnstone is the author of thirteen novels, most recently The Great Silence. His previous book, The Big Chill was longlisted for the Theakston Crime Novel of the Year. Several of his books have been bestsellers and three, A Dark Matter, Breakers and The Jump, were shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions over the last two decades including festivals, libraries, universities, schools, prisons and a funeral directors.

Doug is a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow and works as a mentor and manuscript assessor for many organisations, including The Literary Consultancy, Scottish Book Trust and New Writing North. He’s been an arts journalist for over twenty years and has also written many short stories and screenplays. He is a songwriter and musician with six albums and three EPs released, and plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also co-founder of the Scotland Writers Football Club.

Willy Vlautin is something of a hidden gem of American fiction. He is occasionally blessed (and maybe cursed) by that phrase ‘a writer’s writer’, but that might give the wrong impression of him as someone who is showy and flamboyant in his writing style. Nothing could be further from the truth – Vlautin’s novels contain the cleanest and clearest prose around, simple yet devastatingly effective. He brings to mind the words of Orwell, that good writing should be like a windowpane. It feels as if you can see straight through Willy’s words to the story, the characters and the pain he puts them through.

The Night Always Comes is Vlautin’s sixth novel. His previous outings have all been heartfelt examinations of the dark underbelly of the American dream – stories that look at the downtrodden and hard-done-by people at the bottom of that country’s society, and how they cope with the hardships that their situations throw at them. This latest book sees him finessing this formula masterfully, while also marrying it to a breathless thriller plot that feels like it owes a debt to the classic American noir canon.

The beating heart of the book is Lynette, a thirty-year-old with a troubled past, currently working three jobs, living with her mother and caring for her older brother who has learning difficulties. The book is set in Portland in the recent past, as the city is being rapidly gentrified, pricing people like Lynette out of the housing market and forcing them out of the city.

Lynette’s plans to scrape together enough cash to buy the house she rents are scuppered when her mother gets cold feet. Because of her dubious history, Lynette has no credit rating and needs her mother on board. She is left trying to claw back money that she’s owed from various less than savoury people, taking her on a long dark night of the soul as she travels across the changing city getting deeper and deeper into trouble.

The whole book takes place over two nights, as Lynette is forced to make hard decisions, then is forced to deal with the consequences of those decisions. One of her jobs is as a part-time sex-worker, and when she asks a rich returning client for a loan, his disgusted reaction forces her to take matters into her own hands for once. From there it’s a classic noir trajectory, as the momentum of her actions becomes impossible to resist.

From the opening few pages this is a heart-in-the-mouth read, both in terms of the action and the depth of empathy that Vlautin conjures up for Lynette. It’s impossible not to care about what happens to her even as she makes terrible mistakes, and even as a writer in a similar genre I couldn’t predict how Vlautin would end this beautiful but excruciating tale. But when it comes, the ending is just perfect.

The framing of Lynette’s story against the backdrop of rampant commercialism and consumerism in a modern American city allows Vlautin some social commentary, but it’s handled deftly and never polemical, always in service of his story.

This is a short novel, but one that takes structural and stylistic risks too. There are elements here that go against the standard creative writing lessons, things that shouldn’t work but just do because of Vlautin’s care and attention to the words on the page. There’s a large section of Lynette’s backstory inserted later on, not something I usually care for but it works brilliantly here. Then there is a lengthy discussion near the end between Lynette and her mother that by rights should bore the reader at a time when action is required, but which actually becomes a profound treatise on how we live our lives and relate to others.

As a writer, it can become harder to be blown away by others’ work when you can see the nuts and bolts of what they’re doing. But sometimes a book is just so good that you’re blown away. This is just such a book.

The Night Always Comes is published by Faber.

Doug Johnstone's  A Dark Matter was the choice of our birthday guest Val McDermid. Read her review here.