Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Review of A Rush of Wings by Adrian Phoenix

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This urban fantasy/crime whodunit is one of the plethora of vampire books that are currently flooding our bookshops. However, if you pick this one up expecting the chirpy humour pervading the likes of Undead and Unemployed, you are likely to be disappointed. Or not – depending on your taste. This book is gothic in feel and writing style, complete with plush prose and full-on emotional tone.

Dante is talented, beautiful and the star of the rock band, Inferno. He is rumoured to be the owner of the hot New Orleans nightspot, Club Hell. F.B.I. Special Agent Heather Wallace has been tracking a sadistic serial murderer known as the Cross Country Killer, and the trail has led her to New Orleans, Club Hell and Dante. But the attractive musician refuses to co-operate and claims to be “nightkind” – in other words, a vampire. Digging into his past for answers reveals little. A juvenile record a mile long; no social security number; no known birth date. In and out of foster homes for most of his life before being taken in by Lucien DeNoir, who guards mysteries of his own.

What Heather does know is that something links Dante to the killer – and she’s pretty sure that makes him the CCK’s next target. Heather must unravel the truth about this complicated, vulnerable young man – who, she begins to believe may indeed be a vampire – in order to finally bring a killer to justice. But Dante’s past holds a shocking secret and once it is revealed, not even Heather will be able to protect him from his destiny.

This debut novel from Adrian Phoenix is ambitious in its scope – and at times her inexperience shows. First, the good news. Phoenix successfully manages to establish the heightened atmosphere and emotional tone that she is aiming for, by a writing style rich in imagery and description – mostly without holding up the pace, which clips along at a reasonable rate. That, in itself, is an achievement in my opinion. The main protagonists are suitably complex and well-drawn and the various plot twists are mostly convincing. I also liked her original and somewhat startling take on God and where he fits into the world she has created. It will certainly raise a few eyebrows, but does work nicely within the development of DeNoir – who for my money, was a lot more riveting a character than Dante.

But there are problems with this book, particularly the first half. Written in multiple POV, there are a number of characters – alongside Dante – who also have hidden pasts and major secrets. Add to that the fact that three of them also have code names – and a third of the way into the story, I was seriously confused and debating whether to finish it. It does become clearer as the book continues, but I do think that initial muddle is seriously off-putting.

The other major issue I have is that the book starts with a bang and continues at full tilt. Phoenix writes with the brakes off – and while it is a treat in small doses, reading the book for any length of time is a bit like eating three ice-cream sundaes in a row. And if you have youngsters in the house, you might not want to leave it lying around. In common with many books in this sub-genre, the language, sex and violence are extremely graphic.

Having said that, I found the book a gripping and enjoyable read, once I got past the point of confusion. The final twist was pleasing in that I didn’t see it coming and I look forward to reading Phoenix’s next offering.
6/10

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Review of The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway

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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

What we want our children to learn

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We all have views on what children should be learning in school these days, don’t we? For instance – it would be great if they all came out of the system being able to read, write and add up. And then, there’s Citizenship that they’re learning… Oh – and how to use computers, though it seems to me that most of them emerge from the womb being able to text and manipulate the trickiest DVD player so they have that totally unsuitable programme on the minute you’re looking the other way…

What about learning about food? At the very least, with the explosion of obesity in our population, it might be a good idea if they are taught about a healthy balanced diet and where our food comes from. How about Primary age children raising a few animals? A school farm, maybe, where the children help to rear the animals, before they are slaughtered for their food… So that our children don’t go away with the idea that meat comes ready-packed in clingfilm, but once upon a time wandered around on four legs…

And this is where is gets messy. As Kent Headteacher, Andrea Charman has found to her cost. Her idea of teaching children exactly what happens to animals came an almighty cropper, when she proposed to the Lydd Primary School Council that Marcus the sheep should be slaughtered and joints of meat should be raffled off to raise money for the school – and the School Council agreed. Some parents, horrified that the cute little lamb their children had helped to feed was about to be butchered organised a protest, bringing a storm of hostile publicity down upon the head of Mrs Charman, who finally succumbed to the pressure and resigned, yesterday. In response, a number of extremely upset parents and children who had supported her, demonstrated outside the school to have her reinstated.

Any way you look at this business, it’s regrettable. A clearly inspirational and competent Headteacher who had pulled Lydd Primary out of special measures and turned it around, has been lost to the school and a number of children have been thoroughly upset – either at the loss of Marcus, the sheep; or their Head. Or both… It’s always easy to be wise after the event. Maybe, it would have been a good idea not to name the lamb that was always destined for the dinner table.   Maybe it would have been advisable to ensure that everyone was aware right from the start that he was never intended to be a pet. Some parents claimed it was a horrible shock when they learned he was for the chop.

But I do worry about the sticky, sentimental attitude towards animals that has slewed this whole issue. Andrea Charman was threatened with violence by Animal Rights protesters and harassed by a Facebook campaign designed to get her sacked – despite the fact that at no time has anyone suggested that Marcus wasn’t given the very best care. Events took an ugly turn when she received death threats and excrement through the post. I wonder how many of the protesting parents are vegetarians – because if they ARE meat eaters, then there is some seriously muddled thinking going on in those households. Those of us who are carnivores should know what it costs to go on eating meat on a daily basis – not just the financial and environmental cost, but the stark fact that our eating habits cost the lives of hundreds and thousands of animals every single day.

During the last war, households all over the country raised pigs, chickens and rabbits for meat in back gardens. Children were expected to look after them as part of their daily chores – and I’m sure there were tears when the day came for them to be killed, but the expectation was they needed to deal with it. Or not eat the meat. It’s different, these days. Mrs Adele Grant claimed that her ten year old daughter needed counselling after Marcus’s death. In our drive to protect our children from traumas and upset, I wonder if we aren’t muffling them inappropriately. The price of meat is an ongoing issue. One that we should keep in mind every time we walk into a supermarket and pick out a mass produced, cheap cut of meat instead of the expensive, more humanely reared product.

And if Adele Grant, who announced herself delighted at Mrs Charman’s resignation, picks up the cheaper cut of meat when she goes shopping, then at the very least, she’s a thorough-going hypocrite.

The two victims in this mess – Mrs Andrea Charman, forced to resign after the  vindictive  campaign against her.  Marcus the sheep – who had a much better life than most of his fellow lambs and – hopefully – caused some of the children to think hard about eating meat and what it entails…

Review of Grimspace – Book 1 of the Sirantha Jax trilogy by Ann Aguiree

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This enjoyable space opera romp features a feisty, no-holds-barred heroine with a troubled past and an unusual ability that puts her in a variety of life-threatening and difficult situations. Sounds familiar? It should do — unless you’ve been walking into bookshops and libraries with your eyes shut for the past couple of years. Take away the vampiric/werewolf trappings and the urban settings; and you’re looking at a science fiction version of the dark urban fantasy that has become so popular. Indeed, Aguirre has also written an urban fantasy series featuring a feisty, no-holds-barred… you get the idea.

As the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through grimspace — a talent that cuts into her life expectancy but makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp. But then the ship she’s navigating crash-lands, and she’s accused of killing everyone on board. It’s hard for Jax to defend herself: she has no memory of the crash.

Imprisoned and subjected to a ruthless interrogation, Jax is on the verge of madness, when a mysterious man breaks into her cell offering her freedom – for a price. March needs Jax to help his small band of rogue fighters break the Corp monopoly on interstellar travel and establish a new breed of jumper. She accepts. After all, she is only good at one thing – grimspace. As it will eventually kill her, she may as well have some fun in the meantime…
In common with many of the current crop of urban fantasy reads, the inevitable love interest doesn’t hold up the action in this vivid page-turner. Jax’s first love was killed in the crash and she spends a chunk of the book grieving for him. In fact, the subject of death figures a great deal in this book and its sequel.

Somehow I thought it’d be clear, that I’d be able to pinpoint how many jumps remain to me. I always thought jumpers chose to go out in style instead of the sad impotence of retirement. Now I’m seeing that simply isn’t so.
Because even now that I’m rested, I don’t know how much I have left in reserve. My next jump could be my last, or I might make twenty more. I’m just not sure, but I am positive I’m not as strong as I used to be.
Grimspace, p. 148

Navigating a ship through grimspace significantly shortens a jumper’s life expectancy. Indeed, Jax has already outlived all her contemporaries — other than those who chose to retire and become teachers. But she has already decided that isn’t a lifestyle choice available to her, addicted as she is to the lure of grimspace. However, those around her have little patience or understanding with her frequent thoughts about her impending death, particularly March. One of the many sources of conflict between the two of them.

Aguirre’s depiction of a space jumper apart from the general run of humanity, with her own closed ethos and set of rules suddenly bumping up against a group of people with differing attitudes, is generally effective. Jax’s ability to alienate everyone around her is impressive, but as the book and its sequel, Wanderlust, progresses, she is forced to reassess her priorities and attitudes. I think this is one of the undoubted strengths of this sub-genre and one of the reasons for its great popularity. Offer up a heroine in the middle of a major crisis, present her with yet more life-changing problems – and then watch her change.

I do have a couple of niggles. The characterisation of Jax is mostly spot-on, but I have trouble believing that a girl, who in her former life was a devoted fashion follower, wouldn’t get her disfiguring burn scars dealt with at the earliest opportunity, rather than keep them as some kind of memorial to her dead lover. It’s not serious, but it does slightly jar with me. I also think that as soon as Carl receives the nosebleed on the planet Lachion in chapter 8, everyone would stop fighting and immediately run for cover, rather than resume their battle.
On the other hand, one of the strengths of Aguirre’s writing is the first person POV in present tense, which gives Jax’s voice a fresh immediacy encouraging the reader to feel real sympathy for her character.

Deep down, I know it’s move or die. Haven’t I been imagining desertion the whole time I’ve been locked up in here? Trying to figure out a way to escape? And now it’s been handed to me, I’m like a caged bird, afraid to venture beyond the bars, terrified of what lies beyond. That’s new. I didn’t used to feel like that, used to be the first to dive into free fall.
Grimspace, p. 8

It is the personal relationships and Jax’s own reaction to what is going around her that is the undoubted centre of this book. While the world adequately hangs together and certainly seems solid enough to keep Jax, her companions and enemies fully occupied, Aguirre’s far future is almost cosy in its familiarity. She certainly isn’t in the business of creating original worlds or arrestingly unusual technological gismos to give us pause for thought. The notion of ships jumping through some other dimension veiled in secrecy has been regularly used as a device to overcome the problem of deep-space travel. We are also on more than nodding terms with a large, power-hungry institution who ruthlessly exploits personnel for its own ends, like the Farwan Corporation, which doesn’t even have a particularly inventive name…  As a science fiction fan, am I bothered? Not for a nanosec. There are plenty of writers creating worlds eye-bulging in their complexity and originality, whose characters possess the depth of a pavement puddle. Hard-core fans generally speak of these authors with hushed respect. While critics fall over themselves to find yet more metaphorical links between these worlds and our current society, yet managing to gloss the fact that their protagonists’ dialogue often manages to make a Thunderbirds script seem realistically raw. Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy their work – I do. But I happen to think that the genre should be big enough to encompass Aguirre’s version of science fiction without the eye-rolling dismissal it often gets from a sizeable chunk of the fan-base.

Many young women in search of romantic reads have concluded the traditional ‘and they lived happily ever after’ in these days of serial monogamy and spiralling divorce statistics is even less realistic than the worlds of vampires and werewolves, created by the likes of Charlaine Harris and Kelley Armstrong. So why not explore the notion of finding Mr Right behind the controls of a Starship?

And Aguirre’s Grimspace and its equally enjoyable sequel Wanderlust, gives us so much more than a formulaic girlie just waiting for some strong male to come along and sweep her off her feet.
10/10

Sharpen up your dialogue…

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Grammar spot

Setting out dialogue – if this doesn’t get nailed at school, it can provide problems. Just remember that if you can put your words inside a comic speech bubble, it should be surrounded by speech marks. Eg,

“Land ho!” called the sailor.

• Whenever someone new starts to talk ALWAYS start a new line, generally indenting it, except at the start of a new section or chapter.
• The text inside the speech marks is known as direct speech.
• The he said/she said lines are known as dialogue tags (more on this later…)
• Although I have added an exclamation mark, go easy on them. Editors generally don’t like them – and never more than one at a time.

General points

Dialogue can:-
• Give an immediate sense of your characters, especially if you ensure they use contrasting speech rhythms, vocabulary based on age, education, etc
• Inject pace, tension and/or humour into your work
• Move the plot along by introducing important information without lengthy descriptions
• Visually break up blocks of text on the page – a fairly modern concern, by the way. But certainly one to take into consideration if you are submitting your work to professional markets and competitions

Dialogue can also:-
• Derail the narrative tension by including too much pointless information, eg, “I’m fine, thank you. How are the kids?” Even in literary fiction, ensure that you compress your speech by taking out everything that isn’t necessary to your plot
• Kill your characters stone-dead with clunky, unrealistic speeches. One of the giveaways of an inexperienced writer is their characters often talk in chunks. In reality, people interrupt. A rule of thumb is never to let your character say more than 3 lines of speech at a time

Broken Promises

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They call us the Baby Boomers.  We are the post-war birthrate bulge that were promised the best of the best – and then rebelled.  We plugged in and chilled out – not disconnected, though.  Never that.  We demonstrated.  A lot.  Against nuclear weapons; against the war in Vietnam; for equal rights for women; for a better deal for black Americans.  We wanted the Pill and legal abortion, free love and a fairer society.

We believed everything was possible – and why?  Because we were on our way.  Leaving the planet and going into Space.  Starting with the Moon, our generation confidently expected that we would continue the great human march out to the stars.  Amidst the worldwide celebration over the moon landings in 1969, I recall my grandfather declaring that I would probably live to see the first human land on Mars.  After Obama’s recent announcement scrapping plans to revisit the Moon, I’m not holding my breath – despite Buzz Aldrin’s gritted determination to put a gloss on the President’s decision.

Apart from the sheer oddness of the decision to by-pass the Moon ‘because we visited it 40 years ago’, when we have amassed a whole tranche of fascinating information that could be profitably investigated since then – I do wonder at the notion that we can successfully prepare for a manned mission to Mars, without trying out the equipment in the nearer, less testing conditions of the Moon.

But there is also a far deeper and more important reason why Humanity should continue to strive for the stars.  It is in our DNA to quest further – and if we continue to allow political and financial considerations to keep us tethered to an increasingly overcrowded Earth, the long-term effects won’t be pretty.  Those of us in First World democracies already speak of ‘economic migrants’ as if these folk were committing a crime in trying to reach somewhere better.   When all they’re doing is responding to an age-old instinct that drove our species out of Africa and across the planet millennia ago.

In breaking the promises made back in the days of my youth and shrinking our horizons, we have short-changed our children and their children, whose concerns seem pettier, less ambitious than those of our generation.  Do I sound like a grumpy old woman – you bet.  But, when I think back to bright promise of space travel…   When I think of the expertise built up in both Russia and America, that was dribbled away by timid politicians… I am also broken-hearted that Obama has joined that dreary list.

Review of A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

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Are you an urban fantasy fan a bit fed up with the slew of vampire/were characters cramming the genre, these days? Pining for a tale with an interestingly complex protagonist who takes you right into the heart of the story? Longing for a writer who can depict a city with such vividness that you can taste the traffic fumes, smell the rubbish and touch the pigeons? Wishing that someone would take the time and trouble to construct an unusual, interesting magical world that didn’t take place in some rural outback with plodding horses and flea-ridden inns? Then this is the book for you.

amadnessWhen Matthew Swift finds that he has returned to life after a two-year absence, he quickly needs to acclimatise himself to the London landscape where the source of his power resides – urban magic. A new power that ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the city, makes runes from the alignments of ancient streets and hums with the rattle of trains and buses; it waxes and wanes with the patterns of the business day.

Enter a London where magicians ride the Last Train, implore favours of the Beggar King and interpret the insane wisdom of the Bag Lady. Enter a London where beings of power soar with the pigeons, scrabble with the rats and seek insight in the half-whispered madness of the blue electric angels…

Griffin grabs you from the first page and doesn’t let go until the last with her taut, poetic prose and action-packed story. Matthew Swift’s thirst for revenge against the terrible being preying on urban sorcerers leads him into dark places – and we are yanked along with him. There are one or two really bloody moments. Not to mention some scenes that score high on the ‘yuck’ factor – an attack by a litter monster being one of them. However, this book is so much more than a guts’n gore fest. Griffin’s ability to weave her action amongst the densely depicted London scenes that she clearly knows extremely well, gives the story an almost literary feel. And Swift is an amazing creation. Only half human, his instability while teetering on the edge of something terrible creates plenty of dynamic tension as he tries to pick up the pieces of his old life. And – yes – Griffin manages to conclude the story with a satisfactorily climatic ending, leaving enough interest dangling for another adventure.

If I have a quibble – and it is a minor one – I did find myself skimming some of the descriptions of the London landscape to find out what happened next. But it was only an occasional flip of the page, as mostly the scene setting held me.

For those of you interested in such things, Kate Griffin is actually Catherine Webb, who has written a number of acclaimed books starting with Mirror Dreams in 2002 for the YA market. A Madness of Angels is the first book in this outstanding series – and along with the likes of Ben Aaronovitch, she has set the standard for London-based urban fantasy – and that standard is high and just goes on getting better.
9/10