Review of The Yard Book 1 of The Murder Squad by Alex Grecian

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Last term, my Creative Writing students nominated and brought in examples of writing by their favourite author. One of my students presented the opening pages of this book and I was sufficiently impressed to track the book down.

theyard1889. One year on from Jack the Ripper, a new killer stalks London’s streets… But he has not reckoned on Scotland Yard’s newly formed Murder Squad and the team of new-recruit Walter Day and the world first forensic pathologist, Dr Kingsley…

This isn’t Sherlock Holmes’s London, though. This is a far more visceral and frightening view of London from those bumping along the lower layers of the very rigid social strata – and it’s a great deal less cosy if you don’t have a bed for the night, or the money to get one. Grecian has clearly done his homework. With an unprecedented jump in the population of Great Britain and the industrial revolution in full swing, people were flocking to all the major cities. Provision for fresh water and sewerage were inadequate and housing insufficient making all the cities breeding places for disease and crime, which mostly went unchecked. And I’m not taking Grecian’s word for this – I happened to study this period in history for my degree and some of the grim statistics I’d gaped at then, now have become flesh and blood characters in this gritty read.

There are some familiar elements in this crime thriller. We have an idealistic newbie starting work with an overburdened, harried team whose new boss is causing concern because he’s taking far too much notice of what is happening in his department for the comfort of some of the more experienced detectives. There is a deranged killer with an innocent victim in his clutches, who regards Saucy Jack – the Ripper – as a role model. And a sullen, angry populace who feel let down because in their daily lives they don’t get protection from whatever the local villains feel like dishing out.

There are also flashes of dark humour in this twisting, adrenaline-fuelled story that help leaven the grim backdrop. My favourite character is Dr Kingsley, the hospital surgeon who encounters the stinking hole that went by the name of the City Morgue when looking for his dead wife – and single-handedly takes over the running of it. He is the one who starts examining bodies for clues and reads up on the latest papers, so begins to use shredded charcoal to take fingerprints to help identify potential murderers. I love his unshakeable faith in the power of science to put right the wrongs he sees around him and it certainly encapsulates the can-do spirit of the Victorian educated man.

The climax of the book is deftly handled, giving an entirely satisfactory ending to the various plotpoints weaving through the story, while leaving a couple of openings for the sequel. So will I be tracking down The Black Country? Oh yes – Alex Grecian’s historical crime series is a riveting, enjoyable read.
8/10

Review of Embassytown by China Miéville

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EmbassytownI read The Scar when it first came out and couldn’t get through it. But when I saw this offering on the shelves and realised it was a stand-alone book, I scooped it up and decided to give it a go.

Embassytown, a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerse, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts – who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.

By coincidence, I’ve recently read a number of books where aliens feature, so I was intrigued to see how Miéville would go about depicting ‘other’. It is a huge challenge, both imaginatively and technically to write convincingly about another species that has never been seen on our home planet. No problem for Miéville, though. He nails it.

The book is written in first person viewpoint and early on it is apparent that Avice is posthuman in many ways. While there are enough differences that mark her apart from you and me, she still retains sufficient humanity that I cared about her all the way through. Which is a tricky balancing act to pull off. I have enjoyed the worlds created by the likes of Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds, however their protagonists are so altered by the span of time and technology that I find it difficult to really care about them. Not so Avice.

But Miéville’s feat in producing a sympathetic far-future human becomes a sideshow when we encounter the Hosts, the planet’s indigenous intelligent species. Humans perch in a small enclave – Embassytown, which has been biorigged to produce a breathable atmosphere for its inhabitants. Avice was born and raised in Embassytown and is only one of a handful who manage to leave the planet, due to her talents as an immerse.

The Hosts speak a Language where emotion and meaning are inextricably linked. Therefore they cannot lie, and when they communicate with humans, it takes a fully bonded pair, mostly identical twins, who are raised to be able to think and talk in tandem. These pairs are the Ambassadors, who interact with the Hosts to keep Embassytown supplied with food and resources, as well as administering the industrial links between both species. Despite being a small, far-flung outpost, the planet Arieka has a thriving trade exporting some of the vital biomes manufactured by the Hosts.

Avice also has another claim to fame – as a small child, she gets involved in an incident with the Hosts where she becomes part of their elaborate Language rituals as a simile. She narrates this event with the same affectionate impatience she displays towards Embassytown, a relatively small community that she cannot wait to leave. And the only reason she returns is as a favour to her husband, Scile, who is a linguist and desperate to make his career publishing the definitive work on the Host’s Language system.

One of the main themes of the book is communication, which is explored on all sorts of levels. Obviously, given there is an alien species at the heart of the narrative with a very unusual approach to language, there are questions about why you’d communicate in the first place, how you create sufficient mutual understanding so that a particular words represents the same meaning by both species. What is language, anyway? But Avice also finds it a challenge to sustain the initially close relationship she has with her husband and her lovers. Miéville also examines the issue of power throughout the story. Who has it, who wants it and what lengths they’ll go to get it.

I’m conscious that I’ve managed to make this sound like some dry, rather worthy tome – and it’s nothing of the sort. While being brain-achingly clever and leaving me buzzing about all sorts of concepts around communication and language that hadn’t occurred to me before, it is also a cracking good read. The twists and turns in the story had me exclaiming aloud and I have no hesitation whatsoever in announcing that Embassytown isn’t just one of my outstanding reads of the year, it is one of those books that has both entertained and entranced me.

If you’re a science fiction fan on any level, go and track down this remarkable book. It’s an exciting, wonderful read and demonstrates why this is my very favourite genre. What about you – have you read anything recently that blew you away with its stunning excellence and quality?
10/10

Review of The Red Queen – Book 1 of The Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard

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I’d heard the buzz surrounding this book, so scooped it off the shelves as soon as I spotted it. Would it live up to all the excited hype?

theredqueenReds are commoners, ruled by a Silver elite in possession of god-like superpowers. And to Mare Barrow, a seventeen-year-old Red girl from the poverty-stricken Stilts, it seems like nothing will ever change. That is, until a twist of fate brings her before the Silver court. Here, surrounded by the people she hates the most, Mare discovers that despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly ability of her own. But will she survive in amongst her enemies?

I’ve tweaked the rather chatty blurb, because while the initial premise isn’t particularly ground-breaking, what this book does have going for it are the constant twists and turns. Aveyard isn’t afraid to take the plot and give it a thorough shaking every so often, so you suddenly find yourself in quite a different place from where you thought the narrative was going. Furthermore, she manages to accomplish the sudden twists with sufficient skill and smoothness that I didn’t find it remotely annoying or jarring – a trick that is harder to pull off than Aveyard makes it look.

It doesn’t hurt that Mare Barrow is a thoroughly enjoyable protagonist. While her edgy attitude at times reminded me of Katniss Everdeen, that didn’t overly interfere with my enjoyment of the story or the world. Another dystopian world with a cowed underclass and dominating, entitled ruling elite, this divide is pre-ordained at birth. If you are lucky enough to have silver blood, you’re automatically given opportunities and privileges the red-blooded can only dream of.

However, there are important differences. While Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series focused on the dangers of ultra-consumerism, particularly our increasing habit of treating other people’s experiences and reactions as reasonable entertainment in an ever-growing slew of reality shows, Aveyard’s world has a more feudal feel. Her major theme is more about the nature of power – who possesses it, who snatches it, who longs for it and how that plays out both in the conflict between the silvers and reds, as well as the constant jostling for position among the courtiers surrounding the king and his family. And one of the consequences of all that jostling is betrayal. Who is betrayed, how it happens and where it leaves the main characters – particularly Mare.

I became engrossed in this world, and I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series to see where Aveyard takes it.
8/10

Freestyle Writing Challenge courtesy of Charles French

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Many thanks to Charles for nominating me to have a go at this freestyle challenge on my blog. How could I refuse, given that with my Creative Writing tutor hat on, I regularly dish these babies out to my students?
The rules are:-
1. Open a blank Document
2. Set a stop watch or mobile phone timer to 5 or 10 minutes
3. Your topic is at the foot of this post – DO NOT SCROLL DOWN TO SEE IT UNTIL YOU ARE READY WITH YOUR TIMER!
4. Once you start writing do not stop until the alarm sounds!
5. Do not cheat by going back and correcting spelling and grammar using spell check (it is only meant for you to reflect on your own control of sensible thought flow and for you to reflect on your ability to write with correct spelling and grammar.)
6. You may or may not pay attention to punctuation or capitals
7. At the end of your post write down ‘No. of words = ____” to give an idea of how much you can write within the time frame
8. Copy and paste the entire passage on your blog post with a new topic for your nominees and copy/paste these rules along with your nomination (at least 5 bloggers)

The writing prompt Charles set was:
If you could travel to any place in the world at another historical era, where would it be?

Oh it would have to be London in the Elizabethean era – the first one, that is. I would LOVE to wander the streets theglobewhere Shakespeare, Francis Drake and Elizabeth herself swished by… Though I would want to be someone with a bit of cash – I’m under no illusions that it would be a thoroughly grim place if you’re bottom of the heap socially and financially. No benefits back in those days – not with Henry VIII having dissolved the monasteries.
But the crackling sense of that society coming into its own, with the flowering of literature, alongside the uncertainty and terrible fear of invasion which somehow SHARPENED things – shook the upper echelons up and had people striving harder than ever with the belief they’d prevail. And often they did… Even characters like poor, doomed Sir Walter Raleigh.

I’d also like to be a man in this world. Or at least disguised as one. Women – even virgin queens – were definitely tolerated rather than treated with equality, although the worst of the women-hating, witch-burning oppression was yet to come with that horrible little man, James I, Elizabeth’s nasty nephew who succeeded her… But, yes, Shakespeare’s London – that’s where I’d want to visit. And breathe in the air, taste the food and catch a vibe of the generation and time that created the greatest genius who ever put pen to paper.
And then the question arises – which year would be best? Hm. That’s something of a poser. Would I find the early days of Shakespeare’s plays, when he was penning the likes of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or would it be preferable to sit through a performance of ‘King Lear?’
275 words in 10 minutes

It was fun to do. I write a lot, but generally not against the clock, which did slightly produce brainfade, but it was definitely an interesting experience and I PROMISE that the content I’ve published is as it left my fingers in all its unedited glory.

I nominate the following to have a go at my challenge:-
Michael D. Griffiths
Mhairi Simpson
Sara Letourneau
Sophie E. Tallis
Joanne Hall

I’ll fully understand if you decide you’re too stacked out with other stuff, right now. But, hey, there’s no time limit on this one, and you may find it fun to do later in the year. In the event you do want to have a go, please scroll down only when you’re completely ready to accept the challenge… While I’ve specifically challenged certain folks, if you’re visiting and the idea has caught your eye, please do take part – and let me know. I’d LOVE to know what you’ve done with the starting line:). Good luck!
And
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Your
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Topic
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Is:
If you could travel at warp speed to any part of the solar system, other than Earth, where would you want to go and why?

Review of Fishbowl by Matthew Glass

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This is a book rather difficult to pigeonhole. It is described by Amazon as contemporary, while one reviewer classified it as a lo-octane thriller, which would appeal to geeks. I think that pretty much nails it, except I think it has a wider appeal than the geeks among us. If you’ve ever seriously wondered where the internet is going to end up, then this book provides some interesting food for thought.

fishbowlGifted Ivy League student Andrei Koss hits upon an idea that promises to revolutionise social networking and move it on by a generation. Enlisting the help of his roommates, Ben Marks and Kevin Embley, he turns their dormitory into an operations base, where flashes of creative brilliance and all-night-coding sessions lead to the creation of Fishbowl. Within eight years they will turn a whim into a multi-billion-dollar empire; their creation will reach into every corner of the planet. But its immense power has many uses and everyone wants a piece of it…

And if that sounds like a certain film about a certain famous social-networking site, you’re right. There are some striking similarities to The Social Network. However, this book then continues and gains momentum just where the film finishes, with some chilling and fascinating conclusions.

Koss is a classic geeky genius, socially awkward and only truly happy when up close and personal with a computer screen, or other people who are equally at home in cyberland. I found it poignantly ironic that the ideal driving him forward to succeed with Fishbowl is his obsession with Deep Connectedness – a concept that will link people to others who truly line up with their own personalities and interests, no matter where they live. However, running a popular social network takes processing power and chunks of time, which isn’t free. So Koss and his two companions find themselves needing serious funding to keep Fishbowl going, which means finding some way to earn money with it. And the A-word is introduced to the Grotto, to the horror of the diehard fans of Fishbowl, who regard themselves as the intellectual heart and soul of the Fishbowl community.

Events impact upon Fishbowl, not least when they manage to attract the attention of Homeland Security and the FBI, but there is an inexorable push for Koss and the company keeping Fishbowl going to continue to extend the commercial side of the business. I found the descriptions of the growth of Fishbowl and the problems encountered along the way utterly engrossing. Glass manages to write knowledgeably about the technical and commercial obstacles littering the path of such a venture and make it interesting and comprehensible to someone whose knowledge of computers and the business world would fit comfortably on the back jacket of a pocket-sized paperback. It’s a nifty trick to pull off.

And he continues to impress with the various twists in the story. I saw some of them coming – after all there are only so many options open to a scenario featuring a social network site set in the present or very near future. But the final twist was an enormous surprise and has ensured that this book left a lasting impression with me. If you are interested in where technology is going, or any kind of science fiction fan, then give this book a go. It’s worth it.
8/10

Review of Horizons by Mary Rosenblum

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This is another review that first appeared on my blog back when no one was around much to read it. And one of the reasons why I’m re-issuing it, is that the book is a gem and deserves to be far more widely read.

Ahni Huang is hunting for her brother’s killer. As a Class 9 Empath with advanced biogenetic augmentations, she has complete mental and physical control of her body and can read other people’s intentions before they can even think them. Faced with deceptions behind deceptions, Ahni is caught in a dangerous game of family politics—and in the middle of it all lies the fate of her brother.

Her search leads to the Platforms, which orbit high above Earth. On the Platform New York Up, ‘upsider’ life is Horizonsdifferent. They have their own culture, values and ambitions – and now they want their independence from Earth. One upsider leader, Dane Nilsson, is determined to accomplish NYUp’s secession, but he has a secret, one that, once exposed, could condemn him to death. When Ahni stumbles upon Dane during her quest for vengeance, her destiny becomes inextricably linked to his. Together they must delve beyond the intrigue and manipulative schemes to get to the core of truth, a truth that will shape the future of the Platforms and shatter any preconceived notions of what defines the human race.

This is my favourite kind of science fiction. Rosenblum’s characters lead the action, particularly her apparently invincible protagonist Ahni. All the main characters are pleasingly complex and whisk you into an interesting and intricate plot backlit by a beautifully developed world littered with enjoyable details.

However, what lifts this excellent read from the common herd are the issues that Rosenblum addresses in her story. All the best science fiction, in my opinion, gives us some believable insights into some of the dilemmas that future technology will pose for our descendants. Rosenblum shines a light on some of the problems that are starting to loom uncomfortably close – such as genetic manipulation; cloning; what defines humanity and the faultlines along which humankind will divide. While there is nothing particularly original about these subjects, in the light of the scientific advances the likes of Michio Kaku is predicting, the more discussion and thought we give to these matters, the better.

All in all, Horizons is definitely one of my favourite science fiction reads and I’m really sorry she hasn written more novels, though I notice that she is a prolific short story writer.
10/10

POEM – Hateful Possessions (1)

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I’m a bad mood mug.

The clay that made me
came from a pool where
a cow was stuck fast,
mooing till she died.

My shade of green
gives tea and coffee
a bilious hue.
My handle crushes
fingers, pinching hands,
and slopping hot drinks.

When your best friend gave
me to you as a
random present,
you wondered –
for the first time –
Does she really like me?

I bounce when I’m dropped.
There’s a scratch on the tap
where you tried to crack me.
When I’m in the dishwasher,
something else gets chipped.
And yet,
you dare not throw me away.

So I squat in the
corner of the cupboard,
toad-like and repellent.
Until…
your mother-in-law
comes to stay.

badmoodmug

Review of Queen of Nowhere – Book 5 of the Hidden Empire series by Jaine Fenn

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This is the fifth book in this excellent series – read my review of Principles of Angels here. So would it continue to be as gripping as the previous offerings? queenofnowhere

The Sidhe look like us. They live amongst us. They have fearsome mental abilities and considerable physical resources at their disposal. And their biggest advantage? No one believes they exist. Almost no one. Bez is fighting a secret war against them. Always one step ahead, never lingering in one place, she’s determined to bring them down. But she can’t expose the Hidden Empire alone and when her only ally fails her she must accept help from an unexpected quarter. Just one misstep, one incorrect assumption, and her Sidhe trap – her life’s work – could end in disaster. Worse, if Bez fails then humanity will be lost to the manipulative and deadly Sidhe…

As is apparent from the back cover blurb, this book veers away from the regular protagonists we have been following to date. Instead, solitary data-hacker genius Bez takes centre stage. I really enjoyed her spiky, paranoid personality as she tries to stay one step ahead from the authorities while fighting the Hidden Empire. Fenn pitches us right into the middle of the action from the beginning of the book, with the tension pinging off the page. Bez is not remotely cosy or particularly approachable and to make me care so much for her so quickly is a harder trick to pull off than Fenn makes it look.

That said, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Hidden Empire series, then don’t be afraid to jump aboard. While there is a considerable backstory, and you would clearly benefit from reading the other four excellent books, Fenn’s writing is too slick and accomplished to leave her readers flailing around in confusion.

I also enjoyed the fact that despite the epic nature of the story, which spans a number of worlds light years apart, Fenn manages to mostly keep the focus trained on a small handful of characters, thus raising the stakes for the reader. And the stakes are high, because like a growing number of speculative fiction authors, Fenn isn’t afraid to kill off major characters. I stayed up reading far later than I’d intended to discover what happened next. And yes, there are some big surprises along the way – and not all of them are happy ones. Did I see the finale coming? No. And I’m really looking forward to seeing where this interesting series is going to go next – because, being Fenn, this could go anywhere. 8/10

Review of Bay of Secrets by Rosanna Ley

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I have to declare an interest – Rosanna Ley is my former Creative Writing tutor at Northbook College and I’m delighted at her success with her last three books. That said, if I didn’t enjoy reading her work, I wouldn’t be reviewing her books. I really enjoyed The Villa – see my review here. Would Bay of Secrets be as much fun? bayofsecrets

Spain, 1939. Following the wishes of her parents to keep her safe during the war, a young girl, Julia, enters a convent in Barcelona. Looking for a way to maintain her links to the outside world, she volunteers to help in a maternity clinic. But worrying adoption practices in the clinic force Sister Julia to decide how far she will go to help those placed in her care.

England, 2011. Six months after her parents’ shocking death, 34-year-old journalist and jazz enthusiast Ruby Rae has finally found the strength to pack away their possessions and sell the family home. But as she does so, she unearths a devastating secret her parents, Vivien and Tom, had kept from her all her life.

This book has three protagonists, two are women and one is a man. Ley followed the lives and fortunes of three women from the same family in The Villa – but there the resemblance ends. These three storylines initially seem quite disparate. I could see fairly early on where two of them were going, but the story of the nun seemed to stand alone. Not that was a hardship, as I found her story compelling.

I found myself really caring for each of these people, and hoping they would somehow prevail. Ruby, in particular, tugged at my heartstrings. Losing parents suddenly in an accident, at any age, must be a terrible body blow. I like the fact that Ley doesn’t assume that after a couple of months, Ruby will simply ‘bounce back’. And of course it is complicated by the fact that when clearing out their house, Ruby makes a momentous discovery, which means that her anger at having been shut out from this terrific secret all her life is now entangled with her grief. Ley effectively depicts Ruby’s sense of betrayal and hurt without dropping the pace or narrative drive, by setting Ruby’s story alongside that of Julia. It’s a neat trick to pull off and works very well.

Ley is a very sensual writer, who immerses her readers in her surroundingss by vivid descriptions of the smells, sounds and haptic experiences of her characters. This aspect of her writing came to the fore when Andrés becomes a part of the story. He is a painter and Ley’s prose kicks up a notch when we see the world through his eyes. Her descriptions are lyrically beautiful, without losing the pace and immediacy of the story. It’s one thing to embark on a story with several apparently unconnected characters, but in order to succeed, the story needs to come to a satisfactory climax that affects or involves everyone. Ley triumphantly succeeds in producing a moving, shocking conclusion that I simply didn’t see coming – which is why I’ve been so very careful not to lurch into spoiler territory.

If you enjoy contemporary fiction that leaps off the page, shines a light on a terrible episode of Spanish history, and provides an engrossing story then go looking for Bay of Secrets. It’s an accomplished, cracking read. 10/10

In The Chair 21

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sjhigbee:

I’ve reblogged this intriguing interview with talented writer Vivienne Tuffnell because I thought it was exactly the right length – and I LOVE her word – sehnsucht. It deserves to be far better known, as does Viv.

Originally posted on janruthblog:

Welcome, Vivienne Tuffnell

How would you describe your writing style in only three words?

Vivienne: Sensuous, poetic, intelligent (don’t laugh; I really did hesitate with that one).

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If you could have a relationship with one of your fictional characters who would it be and why?

Vivienne: By relationship, I assume you mean the romantic sort? None. But I’d very much have liked to be a mentor and friend to Antony Ashurst from The Bet. He’s someone who needs all the friends he can get. And no, knowing him as well as I do, I’d never be tempted to jump his bones.

If you had to exist for a week in one of your books … which would it be? Would you be a central character or simply watch the story unfold from the sidelines?

Vivienne: Probably Away With The Fairies so I can have a week at Isobel’s cottage to sort out my…

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