How to Avoid Post-Vacation Depression

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sjhigbee:

There are a number of us who have been away during the summer and now we are back, embedded in our normal lives, are finding everything a bit… flat. Enter Rita’s excellent, timely advice…

Originally posted on The Anxious Traveler :

Here’s a quick quiz.  Which of the following do you do when you get back home from a spectacular trip abroad?
a)  go to bed, even after you’ve recovered from jet lag
b)  have a beer (or two or three) and ignore your pile of bills for a week
c)  turn on the Travel Channel and leave it on (after you’ve gone back to bed)
d)  look around your home with subtle disgust and distaste
e)  two or more of the above

If you have a slight grimace on your face, keep reading.

Let’s be honest, if not dramatic: bringing your vacation to a close can be a rewarding, emotional, and draining experience.  You may feel euphoric, proud, reborn, grateful, fulfilled, and like a different person.  After you’ve seen, done, and been a part of many incredible things abroad, it can be hard to move on – and even more…

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Review of The Silkworm – Book 2 of the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith

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This is the second novel in the Cormoran Strike series written by J.K. Rowling in her failed attempt to use a pen name in circumstances that the whole planet must know by now – see my review of The Cuckoo’s Calling here. So, given the favourable reaction of the first book, both before and after the fuss created over the discovery of who Galbraith really was – does this much anticipated second book live up to expectation?

silkwormWhen novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, she just thinks he has gone off by himself for a few days – as he has done before – and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home. But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realises. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits for almost everyone he knows. If the novel is published it will ruin lives – so there are a lot of people who might want to silence him…

And that’s as much of the rather chatty blurb I’m prepared to reveal. I really enjoyed this one. Galbraith has thoroughly relaxed into the character of Strike, who bounces off the page with his stubbornness. The relationship between him and his secretary/sidekick is also steadily moving forward. Robin’s upcoming wedding could put a spanner in the works, though… And that’s not the only problematical wedding that crashes into Strike’s preoccupation with this tricky case during the book.

I used to thoroughly enjoy Sue Grafton’s trick of weaving the crime being investigated into Kinsey Millhone’s everyday life, so that we get a real sense of her as a person by the end of the story. Galbraith has managed to pull off the same trick – which relieves the pressure on the whodunit as we get increasingly caught up in the personal dilemmas facing both Strike and Robin.

Having said that, I found the mystery thoroughly absorbing. Galbraith had some pungent observations to make about the book world – the thousands of wannabe writers and their desperation and passion to get published were depicted with some sympathy, along with the sharpness. The niche publishing company doesn’t come out of the affair with all that much credit, either… As with the previous story, I really enjoyed the various plot twists and found that the book was impossible to put down once I’d got so far into the story – always the mark of a solidly good crime thriller. And I didn’t see the ending, either.

All in all, The Silkworm leaves me wanting more, and very glad that Rowling didn’t decide to hang up her laptop and retire to a tropical paradise after the Harry Potter series transformed her life. More, please. Whoever she decides to call herself, she’s worth reading.
9/10

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

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There’s been a slight technical hitch recently and one I’m in the process of fixing… In the meantime, apologies for those visitors who are scratching their heads of the lack of pictures. However, one of the consequences is that I’m now revisiting some of my earlier blogs, when there were a very select few reading my work. This is one of those reviews…

If you like your speculative fiction bubbling over with energy – part science fiction, partswashbuckler with plenty of fight action including ninjas, pirates and all-round hard men, then don’t miss this book. Harkaway’s exuberant literary style and sharp humorous observations gives his grim subject matter a rollicking feel as we experience the end of the world as we know it – and the start of something else.

goneawayThe Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world and it’s on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch and his fellow trouble-shooters have been hired to put the fire out. But this isn’t the straightforwardly dangerous job that Jorgmund’s boss, Humbert Pestle, has depicted. Gonzo and his best friend will have to go right back to their own beginnings to unravel the dark mystery that lies at the heart of the Jorgmund Company…

For those of you interested in such things, Nick Harkaway is the son of the celebrated spy novelist John le Carré – and the writing talent certainly runs in the family. Written in first person POV, the character jumps off the page as he draws the reader into his world, by giving us layers of detail about the world he inhabits. The book is long – in the region of two hundred thousand words. I know this because Harkaway tells us on his website – but if asked, I’d have said it was shorter. While certainly not an easy read, neither was it a difficult one. And after you get to a certain point in the plot (you’ll know exactly where I’m talking about, if you read it), it becomes very difficult to put down.

Harkaway is a martial arts enthusiast – another info-nugget I harvested from his website. But if I hadn’t read it, I think I would have already gathered that by the loving detail he lavishes on his combat scenes. They read extremely well, with plenty of pace and detail. The world-building is outstanding. You can taste, touch and feel Harkaway’s creation as his character describes it in flowing detail. Despite the humour and violence, this is also a book with soul. The descriptions of Mr and Mrs Lubitsch are suffused with tenderness and affection, so that at times I was smiling with a lump in my throat. Only a first-rate writer can pull off a trick like that.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, Harkaway throws us a major curved ball in the way of a plot twist, which I’m not even going to hint at. Suffice to say that it’s in the nature of a massive gamble. Does he pull it off? Yes – in my opinion, I think he does. My husband actually dropped the book and shouted aloud when he got to that point (he read it first).

But, for me that outstanding achievement in this book is the voice of the protagonist. All the adventure, tragedies and celebrations are filtered through this one character – and during the whole of this complicated and multi-layered narration, there wasn’t a single false note. I have a shocking memory – I regularly completely forget books within a fortnight of reading them. But I know that this one will stay with me along with the handful of other outstanding reads. Go on, give it a try. You won’t find anything else out there quite like it…
10/10

Review of Shadow’s Edge – Book 2 of The Night Angel series by Brent Weeks

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I read the first of this series a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it – and what with one thing and another, lost track of it. I’m so glad that I picked up the second one – it’s been a blast.

shadow's edgeKylar has rejected the assassin’s life. In the wake of the Godking’s violent coup, both his master and his closest friend are dead. His friend was Logan Gyre, heir to Cenaria’s throne, but few of the ruling class survive to mourn his loss. So Kylar is starting over: new city, new companions, and new profession. But when he learns that Logan might be alive, trapped and in hiding, Kylar faces an impossible choice. He could give up the way of shadows forever, and find peace with his young family. Or Kylar could succumb to his flair for destruction, the years of training, to save his friend and his country – and lose all he holds precious.

Kylar is fascinating – a young man with awesome powers and a strong motivation not to use them, who faces a horrible choice. And, yes, I did really care about the decision he makes, which – given this is just one storyline in this epic doorstopper, teeming with a significant cast of characters, several of them plain horrible – is a feat. My personal taste is intense, first person narratives set in a confined space with often nuanced, subtle threats in amongst the big bad stuff. Though Weeks isn’t completely opposite in writing style to my ideal book, it’s getting close. Nevertheless, I loved this read from the first action-packed page, right through to the climactic ending.

And if you are addicted to adrenaline-fuelled, full-on action from the outset with BIG STUFF happening in every single chapter, then this is the book for you. Granted, the worldbuilding isn’t the last thing in originality – in fact we’re right back in the very familiar late-Medieval/early modern hundred-years-war mid-European unpleasantness so often depicted with this sub-genre. But I’ll give Weeks a free pass on that one – he has saved his creativity for the tightly-knit narrative and enjoyable cast of characters. While there is much that is cosily familiar – the young hero cast into a role he’d rather not fulfil versus the power-mad mage, there are also a lot more well drawn, sympathetic protagonists who leap off the page with such power and immediacy, I was quickly drawn right back into Weeks’ world.

It was also refreshing to read epic fantasy by a male author with a wide cast of women and girls. While there are a sprinkling of helpless virginal pawns and evil bitches – the majority are nuanced and every bit as complicated as their male counterparts. What keeps the tension level high, is that Weeks isn’t averse to killing off a fair proportion of his main characters and the battle scene near the end is a fitting high point to this full-tilt adventure.

If you’re sick of books where self absorbed characters spend pages obsessing about their feelings and the pace moves forward with all the urgency of a dozing snail – go and track down the first book The Way of Shadows. It’s well-plotted, action-packed fun.
8/10

Review of The Winter Witch – Book 2 of The Shadow Chronicles by Paula Brackston

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This was one of the books I scooped up at Fantasycon this year and then went on to read it after Himself recommended it. Although it clearly is labelled as Book 2 in the series, it read like a standalone and I certainly didn’t find I was floundering in any way through not having read The Witches Daughter.

winter witchIn her small Welsh town there is no one quite like Morgana. Her silence – and the magic she can’t quite control – makes her a magnet for ill rumour. When she marries a widower from the far hills, Morgana feels freedom for the first time in her life. But a dark force soon challenges her happiness…

And that’s as much of the blurb as I’m prepared to use, as the next slice runs into spoiler territory. Set in the 19th century, this story is a dual narrative with Morgana’s viewpoint in first person (I) and Cai, her husband, having his story told in third person (he). This has the effect of giving Morgana a more vivid, immediate voice, which is just as well as she doesn’t speak. We learn during the book why this is so – and exactly just what consequences her lack of magical control has.

Brackston depicts life in Wales in enjoyable detail that drew me into the story. I particularly liked the livestock drive to London – having lived for several years in a small village in Somerset that used to be one of the starting places for driving geese to the capital, I know what an important business these journeys were. And yet, it is a slice of our history that seems to have been lost. It was great to read a convincing account of one of these journeys within the storyline.

Morgana’s mutism could have been a real pain, getting in the way of the narrative pace and causing unnecessary problems for Cai and Morgana’s relationship to progress. Fortunately, Brackston is far too technically accomplished to allow that to happen and because we are inside Morgana’s head, we know exactly what she feels. Her wildness and sense of difference is well drawn and allows the reader to empathise with her. Again, it could have been an issue that created too much distance between the reader and the character, but Brackston managed to negotiate this possible pitfall without sliding into it. Clearly an experienced and confident writer.

So, any grizzles? Well, I have to admit to slight sense of anti-climax when I realised exactly who the antagonist is and what their motives are. We learn this a fair distance from the ending – and I did wonder if Brackston was going to produce another twist to further hook us into the story. She didn’t. Judging by many of the other reviews, the kinks in the relationship between Cai and Morgana and the terrible deprivation they endure is sufficient narrative tension to keep everyone engrossed until the end. But, I did anticipate the ending by a fair way and feel that the last plot twist should have been delayed further. However this is a personal preference – and doesn’t take away from this book being an enjoyable, accomplished read and if your taste runs to well depicted historical romance with an added slice of fantasy, then hunt down The Winter Witch – you’re in for a treat.
8/10

Setting: the middle of nowhere

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Setting: the middle of nowhere

sjhigbee:

This term’s teaching focus is about writing mood music – so I couldn’t resist reading it when I saw this pic heading up Chris’s article. And when I read it, I couldn’t resist reblogging it…

Originally posted on Planetary Defense Command:

middle of nowhere

I took the above photo during my honeymoon, part of which included a drive from Springbok to Augrabies Falls in South Africa’s Northern Cape. I drove through this terrain for hours, and tried to imagine what it would have been like centuries ago, traveling in an ox-drawn wagon, with no road or power lines to follow. How did those first Afrikaaners decide which direction to travel, and what did they think they would find on the other side of the nowhere? Occasionally I’d pass a lone farmhouse and wonder how self-sufficient the people there were. It was hours of driving to any source of supplies; what would they do if their vehicle broke down?

The most similar experience I had to this was probably when I drove across West Texas, although that was decades ago and I don’t remember it as vividly. To me, what is most striking about being…

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Review of Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris

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I’ve always enjoyed reading Harris – the best of the Sookie Stackhouse series is right up there as some of my favourite and memorable reads. See my review of Dead Reckoning here. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Harper Connolly books – read my review of Grave Sight here.

midnight crossroadWelcome to Midnight, Texas, a town with many boarded-up windows and few full-time inhabitants, located at the crossing of Witch Light Road and Davy Road. It’s a pretty standard dried-up western town. There’s a pawnship (where someone lives in the basement and runs the store during the night). There’s a diner (although those folk who are just passing through tend not to linger). And there’s a new resident: Manfred Barnardo, who thinks he’s found the perfect place to work in private (and who has secrets of his own). If you stop at the one traffic light in town, then everything looks normal. But if you stay a while, you might learn the truth…

Charlaine Harris was one of the guests of honour at Fantasycon 2014 and came across as a sweet natured, gracious lady with a keen sense of humour and a delicious Southern accent I could have listened to all day. It was a real fangirl moment actually seeing one of my favourite authors… But, aside from all that – would I enjoy the start of this new series?

The answer is overwhelmingly – yes. I like Harris’s chatty, easy style. She builds up a story from the ground up by having her protagonist depicting a series of everyday details about his life. I quickly bonded with Manfred and thoroughly enjoyed exploring this one-horse town stranded in this dusty corner of the States. Because the community is so small and tightly knit, when a murder does occur there are a ready-made pool of suspects – much like those country house crimes investigated by the likes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. It was refreshing to have a main character, like Manfred, who didn’t see fit to rush around and try and solve the crime. One of the book’s strengths is that there are also a group of intriguing characters, all with an interesting backstory. Some we got to thoroughly know – and some we didn’t… I particularly liked the witch, Fiji. She is refreshingly different from the tall, beautiful heroines we regularly encounter in so many fantasy novels – short, plump, out of condition and very unsure of herself. But smitten with Bobo, who has heartbreak of his own and is oblivious of her attraction. I also enjoyed Lemuel, whose first encounter with Manfred is particularly memorable.

Because I cared for so many of the inhabitants of Midnight, as soon things started happening, I was hooked and stayed up reading faaar too late into the night. As you’d expect with such an experienced, talented writer, the pacing of the narrative arc was pitch perfect with plenty of twists that caught me off-balance and snagged me further into the book. I certainly didn’t come close to guessing who the culprit was… But before you go away with the idea that this is a cosy whodunit, there is a dark underside to this story. For all their apparent charm, there are those living in Midnight who don’t take any prisoners – literally. And Harris throws out a wider question for us all to ponder – is murder ever justified? She goes on to unpack that question quite thoroughly within the book.

All in all, this book is real treat. And I’m looking forward to the next one.
9/10

Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories

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sjhigbee:

Thom Hickey writes revealingly about what makes each of us remarkable – and then provides the soundtracks that define and scuplt our lives… This blog is really worth a read and I thought I’d share this particular article with you…

Originally posted on The Immortal Jukebox:

‘It’s just an ordinary story about the way things go … Round and round nobody knows but the highway goes on forever’ (Rodney Crowell)

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’ (Raymond Carver)

I live an ordinary life. So do you. Yet, I guarantee that if we sat down and talked honestly about the lives we have led, the people we have met, the narrative arc of our lives; including the successes, the mis-steps, the fulfilled and broken dreams, the regrets and the wonders, that we would each think the other has led a truly extraordinary life.

All our lives contain experiences we struggle to understand and come to terms with: unresolved longings, fault lines, tender wounds, hidden scars. In a very real sense we will always remain mysteries to ourselves.

I believe that our attraction…

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Review of The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

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The year is 2059. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is working in the criminal underworld of Scion London, based at Seven Dials, employed by a man named Jaxon Hall. Her job: to scout for information by breaking into people’s minds. For Paige is a dreamwalker, a clairvoyant – and in her world, the world of Scion, she commits treason by breathing.

bone seasonAnd that is the first half of the rather chatty blurb about this intriguing world of Shannon’s. She has landed an eye-bulging amount of money for this seven-book series, apparently. Paige is definitely another gutsy heroine out of the same mould as Katniss Everdeen, although clearly looking for a strong father-figure as she takes far more nonsense from Jaxon than she should… I liked her spikiness and the glimpses of this alternate future England, where the memory of Edward VII is reviled as the wicked Jack the Ripper for feeding his unnatural voyant talents with murder and mayhem. The current despotic republic has frozen fashions, so that everyone is wearing Victorian garb and while there are some techie gismos, Paige doesn’t have access to them. She is busy using her unusual talents to give her crimegang family access to ill-gotten gains. Until everything changes…

Shannon has an eye for a striking turn of phrase and gives us occasional vivid pictures of her world. I also enjoyed her underworld slang, which was a pleasing mesh of invented words and historical phrases and – in my opinion – worked well enough without the thoughtfully provided glossary.

However there is a but lurking… While I did enjoy the book, the pacing is very uneven. There are periods where I was almost skimming, as Paige internally wrestles with the forces ranged against her, but when the action suddenly kicks off, it continues accelerating, adding a series of major revelations about the world in amongst all the chases and violence, so that I ended up rereading a couple of sections, to make sure I knew what was happening.

I also found the worldbuilding a tad frustrating. I get that this is a layered, intricate place with a lot going on. But far too much was withheld initially – I had no clear idea about the overall political structure. And as for the Warden and exactly who was whom in that setup later in the novel – again, I found the lack of information starting to interfere with my enjoyment of the story. The Enims felt too much like an additional menace that had to be added to keep everyone sufficiently penned up, rather than an integral part of the world, for instance. With the first person viewpoint, we got a very blinkered slice of the world and while I generally am quite happy to go with the flow, I did find there were far too many unanswered questions at the conclusion of this book for it to be a truly satisfying read.

However I’ve reviewed it, because despite my reservations, I enjoyed the story and found Shannon’s voice sufficiently compelling to want to track down the second book, The Mime Order, when it becomes available. If only to answer one or three of those unanswered questions about exactly what is going on…
7/10

Recommended Reads: Yesterday Road by Kevin Brennan

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sjhigbee:

This articulate review on Kevin Brennan’s book YESTERDAY ROAD, written by Dylan Hearn caught my eye, so I thought I’d share it with you…

Originally posted on Suffolk Scribblings:

yesterday road small-cover

I’ve been enjoying Kevin Brennan’s blog, What the Hell, for a while now. It has a great mix of articles on writing, his favourite music, as well as his occasional exasperation at the publishing business. Yesterday Road had always been on my ‘to read’ list but it wasn’t until it was recommended by Susan Toy on her Island Editions blog that I finally took the plunge and bought it. I’m so glad I did (if that isn’t an example on the power of word-of-mouth recommendations, I don’t know what is).

Yesterday Road tells the tale of Jack, an old man looking for something but unsure exactly what that something is. Jack has trouble with his memory. He can’t remember what happened the day before, and those images he can remember have little meaning. He has also lost his wallet and his ID; all he has is a cutout picture of a handsome…

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