Feb. 17th, 2016

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They call themselves ghosts. Once human, they survived death by somehow crossing into another person's body, and in order to survive, they continue jumping from body - "skin" - to body. Some try to be considerate, some take the best of a body's life and leave them dying, and some torture and kill.

The narrator of Claire North's novel Touch is such a ghost. Long forgotten is the human life he had, the name he carried - even the sex he was. Since the moment before death - a violent death, full of pain and trauma and fear, like all the other ghosts he's known - he has worn many skins, men and women, from all around the world. He has grown into the habit of trying to be good to the hosts he uses, first getting consent, offering payment - money, a new life - for the temporary use of their bodies, for the gap in their lives.

But someone is trying to kill him, and they have an organisation to back them. When his host Josephine is murdered and he barely escapes, the only way he can think of to track down whoever wants him dead is to take over the body of his would-be assassin. What he finds is a file on him, code-named Kepler, full of truths, half-truths and lies about him and his dead host.

Kepler's search for the person behind the lies and the order to kill takes him halfway around the world, through conspiracies, traps, breathless chases and hundreds of bodies, all at breakneck speed. In rare pauses in the action, Kepler's recollections provide insight into his own behaviour as a ghost, and that of others.

A fast-paced thriller, this is also an extended examination of the morality of survival at the expense of others and an exploration of manipulation, theft - or perhaps a better word is rape - and consent. Kepler believes he does the best he can, certainly better than many others of his kind - but the reader may have other ideas.

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Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's debut novel, is a rich and complex tale of power, music, magic, and love, told in two times and set in the working class neighbourhoods of Mexico City.

For 15-year-old Mercedes "Meche" Vega, music is the structure of her life, what connects her to her father - an alcoholic dreamer who never manages to carry through with his dreams - and to the magic she discovers within herself. Her family is breaking apart under the weight of her father's fecklessness and her mother's disappointment. The only subject that interests her at school is math. She's an outsider among the other young people in the neighbourhood. So when magic comes her way, and she - and her friends Sebastian and Daniela, outsiders themselves - discover that together they can use music to cast magic spells to make their lives better - and the lives of those who torment them worse - it seems only right that they should.

In her mid-thirties, Meche is a programmer, living in Oslo, when her father's death brings her home to Mexico City for the funeral. When she meets Sebastian and Daniela again, old grudges, mistakes and betrayals rise to the surface that demand resolution.

The narrative weaves between past and present, unraveling the complicated relationships between the three friends, and between Meche and her family. Power - interpersonal, magical, institutional - is used and abused, to ends that become increasingly disruptive and divisive. But in the end this is a love story, where the path not taken - indeed, the path carelessly cast away in youth - is not forever lost.

As a person rather deeply involved with music myself, I loved the way musical references, from jazz greats to Latin music to the Who, were woven into the narrative. I could hear major parts of the soundtrack of Meche's adolescent life and her forays into sorcery, which made reading the novel all the more engaging.


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