Monthly Archives: March 2010

Review of ‘Convergence’ by Thomas Settimi


If you enjoy alternative histories, then this interesting addition to the genre could well be for you.
Lieutenant Nathaniel Booth couldn’t know how his life was about to change as he and Lincoln Hayes completed their air mission in June 1968 over Laos and headed back to aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Thirty-five years later, when Professor Roger Atwood and his assistant find Hayes’ flying helmet inside a Confederate footlocker from the American Civil War, they find themselves untangling a mystery spanning a time discontinuity of 105 years – from Vietnam to the Battle of Gettysburg.
This is an engaging read – once you get past the first fifty-something pages. Settimi is an experienced technical writer with an extensive knowledge of military history and hardware. And it shows. There is far too much technical information crammed into those vital, opening pages where the story and characters should be connecting with the reader – rather than frightening her away with the eye-boggling detail that holds up the action. If I hadn’t been reviewing the book, I’m not sure that I would have persevered. And that would have been a shame. Because, once Settimi gets into the swing of the story, the pace picks up and draws the reader in.
That said, this is definitely a plot-driven book. The characters are there to serve the narrative – not the other way around. Whilst I am aware that the current fashion is for character-driven stories, there is a solid readership out there for well-written, interesting plots that whisk you along. And once you get past those first fifty pages, this book certainly delivers a fast-paced story with some intriguing twists that had me guessing right up to the end.
Settimi gives us a vivid picture of life and conditions for a Confederate prisoner of war and the character of Nathaniel Booth is by far the most detailed and heroic protagonist in the book. And his penchant for using a series of details to build his scenes comes into its own as we follow Booth’s attempt to save Abraham Lincoln from assassination in this alternate version of American history.
By the manner in which the book concludes, I’m guessing that Settimi intends to write a sequel. If so, I strongly urge him to find an editor with a thick red pen to assist him in cutting out unnecessary technical detail.


Review of “Empire in Black and Gold” – Book One of “Shadows of the Apt” by Adrian Tchaikovsky


Enjoy smoothly told High Fantasy? Let’s see – there has to be a cast of well-fleshed characters fighting against an evil Empire and a satisfyingly complex villain, which you almost feel sorry for – until you empireofblack&golddiscover exactly what he’s done… And the third person POV needs to move slickly between the characters with none of that jolting irritation because you’ve become too strongly attached to one of character’s storylines over the rest… Oh – and the battle scenes have to be packed with plenty of high octane action, clearly told and gripping because you really care what happens to the main protagonists.
Have I left anything out? Hm… Well, there has to be some new fresh angle on this oft-trod path – otherwise you might as well reread one of your very well-thumbed favourite books. What if this tale is set in a world where various human tribes take on the aspects and appearance of various insect species?

Welcome to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadow of the Apt series. Master Stenwold Maker of the Beetle-kinden survived to flee the city of Myna after it was invaded by the Wasp Empire. But, haunted by the knowledge that the Wasps won’t be satisfied with just one city, once he is established at the Collegium, he spends his time trying to warn the squabbling Lowland factions of the threat the Black and Gold Empire poses. Stenwold also uses his position as a respectable academic to pick out promising graduates to gather information about the Wasps – in short, he has set himself up as a spymaster. But he doesn’t bargain on his young niece, Cheerwell Maker and her group of friends to become involved as the Wasps suddenly make their move…

As with all above average Fantasy series, Tchaikovsky’s world is intriguingly complex. This is not a peaceful society. The highly organised, telepathic Ant-kinden spend their time fighting other Ant communities. Meanwhile, Beetles trade and mostly make the new artefacts which are spreading throughout the world. The Moths, Mantids and Spiders used to dominate the other kinden, but their inability to grasp the most basic piece of machinery means their numbers and importance are dwindling. However, they still have access to potent and highly secret magic. But Tchaikovsky manages to blend these insect characteristics with human traits convincingly, giving a fresh slant to the inhabitants of his classic tale. The steampunk technology also has some enjoyable ‘insect’ twists.
Tchaikovsky also raises the question of where loyalty to a nation stops and personal morality starts as we follow the fortunes of Wasp Captain Thalric. And Maker Stenwold’s guilt at sending out young spies who often die is another side of the same issue – does Stenwold’s personal conviction that the Wasps are going to attack allow him to continue using young lives? While the rigid kinden rules often break down for half-breeds, who fail to be fully accepted within any of the insect tribes.

All in all, this satisfying and substantial read is one that I thoroughly recommend – particularly as I found the sequel, Dragonfly Falling every bit as engrossing and well written and I look forward to getting hold of the third book, Blood of the Mantis, sometime soon.

Staring at the Answer


A fascinating article in the New Scientist (Issue no. 2753) by Anil Ananthaswamy discussed the findings of several scientists. They have discovered that how we move directly impacts on our approach to abstract thought and the conclusions we reach. Traditionally, our ability to reason – one of the defining traits of our humanity – is considered to be completely closed off from our physical responses. However, these recent findings are increasingly linking our physical states and movements with higher order thinking skills.

A series of experiments in 2008 by Chen-bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli showed that people obviously excluded in a social setting felt physically colder than everyone else in the room.

Tobias Loestscher and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne conducted an experiment where they asked a dozen right-handed men to think of a string of 40 numbers, between 1 and 30, in a random sequence. As the men listed their sequence aloud to a metronome beat, researchers recorded their eye movements. A pattern quickly emerged.

If they looked left and downwards, the number was typically smaller than the previous one, while if they looked up and right the number was larger. And this correlation was so precise, the researchers could predict the differences in the numbers just by studying the exact direction where volunteers’ eyes focused.
What this experiment didn’t clarify, was whether the eye movements were influencing the number selection, or if the size of the numbers were affecting the eye movements.

However, this is what Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguists has been exploring in his experiments with 24 students. He asked them to move marbles between two shelves, while talking about either positive or negative events in their lives. The students were measurably faster at telling anecdotes reflecting their movements – moving the marbles upwards onto the higher shelf while recounting a positive story, and vice versa.

The next step was to ask the students neutral questions, such as, ‘tell me what happened yesterday,’ when they were engaged in moving the marbles. They were more likely to discuss a positive occurrence while moving the marbles up to the next shelf and recount something negative when moving the marbles downwards.

So… how you move can affect your mood and what you are thinking. On one level, we always knew this, didn’t we? Think of metaphors for moods and mental states that we’ve used all our lives – ‘on a high’… ‘given the cold shoulder’… ‘down in the dumps’… ‘the answer staring you in the face’… George Lakoff, linguist and philosopher, claims that this close relationship with metaphors is no accident, in his metaphor theory. As children, we absorb the physical world in relation to our bodies – and when we have to try and make sense of more abstract ideas and problems, we naturally relate them back to what we actually know and are intimate with – our own physical states.

When suffering with depression some years ago, I was instructed to move briskly, keep my eye level up to meet the gaze of oncoming pedestrians and make sure I smiled at someone every fifteen minutes – whether I wanted to or not. Apparently, when we are miserable, we instinctively look down at the ground, reinforcing our depressed state by isolating us and keeping our mood blue. And using my ‘smile’ muscles, even when I wasn’t feeling like it, would automatically lighten my mood. I was assured that if I went for a walk every day for at least 45 minutes, following these rules, when I got back I would feel happier. I did. It helped that most people I smiled at, responded by smiling back. And within a few days, I was able to start climbing out of my black hole.

I hasten to add – I am not one of those poor souls who suffers from recurring depressive illness, I just happened to be going through a particularly awful patch in my life, which overwhelmed me… I don’t know whether such basic advice could assist someone with major clinical depression – or even if it is generally handed out. But it certainly helped me.

Maybe, these results might lessen the divide between artists, principally concerned with emotional, physical responses; and scientists, more concerned with abstract, higher order problems. I surely hope so. In common with many others, I can’t rid myself of the niggling, nasty feeling that in so thoroughly dividing these two major branches of human endeavour, we are halving our innate abilities and subsequent capacity to respond to the major challenges facing our species.

Review of ‘Unseen Academicals’ by Terry Pratchett


This book – unlike his other recent best-selling success Nation – is set in Pratchett’s famous Discworld. (A flat world balanced on the backs of four elephants, standing on the back of the Great A’Tuin – a giant turtle – that swims through space.) Unseen Academicals is the thirty-seventh Discworld novel.

Football has come to the ancient city of Ankh-Morpork – not the old-fashioned grubby pushing and shoving, but the new, fast football with point hats for goalposts and balls that go gloing when you drop them. And now the wizards of Unseen University must win a football match without using magic, so they’re in the mood for trying everything else.

The prospect of the Big Match draws together a likely lad with a wonderful talent for kicking a tin can, a maker of jolly good pies, a dim but beautiful young woman who might just turn out to be the greatest fashion model there has ever been, and the mysterious Mr Nutt. (No one knows anything much about Mr Nutt, not even Mr Nutt, which worries him, too.)

As the match approaches, four lives are entangled and changed for ever. Because the thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.

This is vintage Discworld fare. Old favourites such as Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully and Lord Vetinari, tyrant of Anhk-Morpork, head up the cast of colourful and varied characters, who also include newcomers Dave Likely, Glena and Mr Nutt. As ever, Pratchett uses his fantastic backdrop to make sharply acute observations about contemporary life. There are the usual suspects – the rights of the individual versus the state; responsibility of power – and in this book, football is gently prodded for the more ridiculous aspects of the sport and the fashion industry also gets the Pratchett treatment.

However, the darker tone apparent in some of the more recent Discworld novels, such as Making Money, Monstrous Regiment and Thud! is less obvious in Unseen Academicals, which contains more gags and one-liners. For ardent Discworld fans, this book ticks all the boxes. However, if by some fluky chance you’ve managed to miss the joys of Discworld, I wouldn’t advise that you start with Book 37 in the series. While they don’t exactly run in strict chronological order, there is a definite progression with characters. So, in order to get the best out of Discworld, start with the exuberant fun of The Colour of Magic and work forward. You’ll find – when you get there – although lacking the inspired brilliance of Small Gods (my personal favourite), Unseen Academicals is a worthy addition to the canon.

Review of ‘Midnight Never Come’ Book 1 of The Onyx Court by Marie Brennan


Are you a keen fantasy fan that loves tight-wound intrigue interspersed with action? Enjoy a well-constructed, historical setting with a strong sense of danger and ‘otherness’? Appreciate a fantasy that isn’t hip-deep in graphic sex and bad language? If so, you might feel right at home tucking into midnightnevercomeMarie Brennan’s world of faerie politics set in Elizabethan England – Elizabeth I, that is…
England flourishes under the hand of its Virgin Queen: Elizabeth, Gloriana, last and most powerful of the Tudor monarchs. But a great light casts a great shadow…
In hidden catacombs beneath London, a second Queen holds court: Invidiana, ruler of faerie England, and a dark mirror to the glory above. In the thirty years since Elizabeth ascended her throne, fae and mortal politics have become inextricably entwined in secret alliances and ruthless betrayal whose existence is suspected by only a few.
And two courtiers, struggle for very different royal favours, are about to uncover the secrets that lie behind these thrones…

It is an interesting proposition – and particularly in this first book – I think that Brennan has magnificently succeeded. Her thorough research of the history has given her sufficient command of the subject to portray a real flavour of the age, liberally sprinkling the story with actual historical characters and events, without burying us in a mound of dry historical facts. Her characterisation of Elizabeth certainly gives us a sense of the old Queen’s capriciousness and charm – and the tightrope she was forced to walk all through her reign.
Elizabethan London is also depicted with loving care – becoming a character in its own right, which lays the groundwork for the action-packed sequel In Ashes Lie.

But the heart of this book lies with the protagonist, Lune. After falling out of favour with the ruthless faerie Queen Invidiana, Lune struggles to regain her position in the underground court, agreeing to spend time in the mortal world as a spy. The book charts Lune’s battle for survival as she becomes embroiled in the plots and counter-plots of both the faerie and mortal courts – which impact on each other. Even the outcome of the Armada, we learn, was down to the intervention of some powerful water entities, who Lune managed to persuade to help Elizabeth, at Invidiana’s command. It’s a neat device – and if you are at all interested in historical fiction, this is a real treat. Brennan manages the wealth of detail and scene setting with sure-footed dexterity.

Any quibbles? Well, there are times when I felt that characters could have been given a little more depth with a tad more ‘show not tell’. But when juggling quite so much detail, both historical and supernatural, as Brennan’s faerie court is every bit as hidebound in tradition and history as its human counterpart, I can understand why there were times when she opted to keep the pace going, possibly at the expense of some characterisation. However, it’s a picky point and shouldn’t deter anyone from picking up this novel.

I didn’t start this book with great enthusiasm – I happen to know too much about this particular slice of English history to enjoy reading sloppy fictitious renditions of the era. However, by the time I was a third of the way through this book, I was able to completely relax and enjoy the ride – to the extent that as soon as I completed this book, I immediately ordered the sequel from the library.

False Alarms…


The poor souls living in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, had a very nasty shock last night when they turned on their TV. The local station, Imedi, were broadcasting news that Russian tanks had invaded the capital and that the President, Mikheil Saakvili, had been assassinated. Unsurprisingly, this news caused panic – especially when considering that only eighteen months ago, Russia had penetrated Georgian defences and got within 30 miles of Tbilisi. The mobile phone networks were overwhelmed and people rushed onto the streets.

However, it was untrue. The broadcast had shown archive footage and speculated how the opposition might seize power with the President’s death – and although it was introduced as a simulation, that detail slid by many horrified Georgians. So why did Imedi create such a scare story? Apparently, in an attempt to show the ‘real threat’ to the country if such events might unfold, the head of Imedi told Reuters.

So much for political neutrality… We might have our grumbles about supposed favouritism by certain commentators and interviewers – but thank goodness the BBC hasn’t seen fit to run that particular wheeze. Yet…

It’s not the first time that such panics have happened. Perhaps the most famous one is the 1938 CBS Radio play based on H.G. Wells’ book War of the Worlds, that had announcers describing how Martians were marching across New York. Despite sporadic announcements informing the listening audience that it was a play, many believed they were hearing a real invasion – an impression strengthened by the fact that no commercial breaks ran for the duration of the airing. The emergency services were swamped with panicked calls – and in a horrible coincidence in the town of Concrete, Washington, the power supply shorted out just as the ‘Martian landing’ was being played on the radio. Many families fled for the hills, while some apparently fainted with terror…

This incident has been much discussed – and is often used to show just how naïve and pliable the listening public can be. A number of conspiracy theories have sprung up around the whole thing. Some claim that the broadcast was an attempt to cover up UFO activity and defuse any panic. Others claim that it was an experiment into crowd psychology funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 1994, the inhabitants of Tiayuan, China were repeatedly warned about a Sibuxiang beast on the loose and heading for the city. ‘It is said that the Sibuxiang is penetrating our area from Yanmenguan Pass and with in days will enter thousands of homes. Everyone close your windows and doors and be on the alert.’

The Sibuxiang is a mythical creature with a lethally poisonous bite. Unsurprisingly, Tiayuan residents barricaded themselves in their homes, while others called the local authorities. However, the announcement was part of an advertisement campaign for a drink. The creator of the ad was fined 5000 yuan (roughly £300) for causing public panic, but felt it was worth it. The ensuing alarm and publicity ensured that Sibuxiang liquor became famous. Again, during the inevitable discussions in the aftermath, the authorities believed that the relative inexperience of many of the Chinese TV audience was the main cause of the misunderstanding.

It would be tempting to believe that this kind of panic caused by such hoaxes or publicity stunts is purely a modern trend. But I’m not so sure. Human nature doesn’t change…

Back in the 1580’s, when England was bracing herself for inevitable invasion by mighty Spain, a series of signal fires were arranged all along the south coast with watchers. At the first sight of Spanish warships, these fires were lit, one after the other, stretching as far as London. I don’t know whether anyone ever falsely or accidentally lit one, which then caused the next one to light up until they were all blazing – to the consternation and panic of everyone who saw them. But I’d be very surprised if it never happened…

Review of ‘I’m the King of the Castle’ by Susan Hill


This book is parked on the library shelf marked Horror. Having said that, there isn’t a vampire, zombie or sword-waving anything in sight. In fact, there isn’t much in the way of blood and gore or even a decent fight (sorry…). So why is it here? Because the book lodged in my brain like a burr since I read it years ago and having recently reread it, it’s every bit as good as I remember.

I'mthekingoftheCharles Kingshaw and his mother find themselves living in a huge Victorian house, when Mrs Kingshaw is forced to find a job as a housekeeper. However, ten-year-old Edmund Hooper, whose father owns the house, bitterly resents the intrusion and determines to make Charles pay. Which he certainly does… As Edmund’s campaign against Charles escalates, Hill takes us on a dark path towards the shocking climax of the book. There might not be much in the way of supernatural mayhem, but a real sense of dread pervades as Hill carefully crafts a gothic, creepy feel in this tale of anger, longing, loneliness and brutality. The exquisite writing charts the struggles of the four major characters coming to terms with their loveless lives and the toll it takes on all of them. And if it sounds like it isn’t a barrel of laughs – you’d be right. But if you enjoy reading a gripping tale written by a highly accomplished author at the height of her unsettling powers, then this is a must-read book. The opening sequence in the third chapter, when Charles is attacked by a crow while out walking through a cornfield, is a great example of writing an action scene. Hill describes the landscape with cinematic clarity, while ensuring that the reader sees the whole incident through Charles’ point of view, complete with the thoughts, emotions and sensations of a ten-year-old boy. ‘Kingshaw began to run, not caring, now if he trampled the corn, wanting to get away, down into the next field. He thought that the corn might be some kind of crow’s food store, in which he was seen as an invader. Perhaps this was only the first of a whole battalion of crows, that would rise up and swoop at him. Get on to the grass, he thought, get on to the grass, that’ll be safe, it’ll go away. He wondered if it had mistaken him for some hostile animal, lurking down in the corn…Sweat was running down his forehead and into his eyes. He looked up. The crow kept coming. He ran.’ (Susan Hill, 1970, p.31) By the end of this scene, we completely identify with Charles – and also later in the story, come to realise that the crow is also a metaphor for the violence he encounters. For those interested in such things, Susan Hill is also the author of the classic ghost play The Woman in Black, which has been running in the West End since 1989. She also wrote Mrs DeWinter, sequel to the famous book Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. 10/10

Review of The Host by Stephanie Meyer


Fresh from the success of her best-selling trilogy for younger readers, Meyer now brings us this first offering for her adult fans.

Melanie Stryder refuses to fade away. The earth has been invaded by a species that takes over the minds of their human hosts while leaving their bodies intact, and most of humanity has succumbed.

Wanderer, the invading ‘soul’ who has been given Melanie’s body, knew about the challenges of living inside a human: the overwhelming emotions, the too-vivid memories. But there was one difficulty Wanderer didn’t expect: the former tenant of her body refusing to relinquish possession of her mind.  Melanie fills Wanderer’s thoughts with visions of the man Melanie loves – Jared, a human, who still lives in hiding. Unable to separate herself from her body’s desires, Wanderer yearns for a man she’s never met. As outside forces make Wanderer and Melanie unwilling allies, they set off to search for the man they both love.

This is a fascinating twist on the usual alien invasion story. Told from the viewpoint of the alien inside a human body – with the unwilling human consciousness still fighting for a foothold – Wanderer is embroiled in an adventure not of her making. Written in first person POV, the success of the book hinges on whether we believe in the alien. Or care enough about storyline and characters to suspend our disbelief. I think she nearly pulls it off – the writing, pace and characterisation are strong and the character of Melanie comes across very clearly. However, it is incredibly difficult to portray adequately the full sense of ‘other’ when writing from an alien viewpoint. And for me, this is the weak spot in the book. It didn’t help that I wasn’t particularly interested in the love story. For me, the themes of difference and other were far too riveting to get sidetracked into who attracted Melanie and/or Wanderer. As the story progressed, I found the love interest increasingly intrusive into what I considered the more interesting aspect of the narrative. I also think it is too long at six hundred and seventeen pages. At times, I skimmed through some of the passages that seemed to be offering the reader more of the same, instead of continuing to take us into new situations.

However, don’t let these relatively minor niggles discourage you from reading this ambitious and original novel. Meyer is a gutsy writer for attempting such a difficult subject – and she is a talent worth watching for managing to get so close to succeeding.

Drunk in charge of a golf buggy


Celebrating after their Six Nations’ win over Scotland, Welsh rugby star Andy Powell and a mate decided that it would be a good idea to take a golf buggy for a spin… They were arrested on the M4 at Junction 33 Services near the team hotel in the small hours of Sunday morning and charged with drunken driving.

While it is the sort prank that probably raised a grin (no one was hurt and the image of a couple of giggling rugby gorillas tootling along the motorway in a golf buggy will probably have the arresting officers dining out on the story for the rest of their lives…) it does raise some interesting issues.

I think we all know, for instance, that you can be ‘done’ for riding a bicycle under the influence – and it is also against the law to ride a quad bike while drunk. However, there are some disturbing loopholes. While mobility scooters are technically regarded as motor vehicles, a recent case against an Oldham woman was dropped despite the fact that she was three times over the legal limit. The law is somewhat blurred – apparently – if the scooter is travelling along a footpath or bridleway. Oh really?? So it’s ok for a drunken scooter-user to collide with motorists safely tucked up in their cars, but unprotected pedestrians have to take their chances. Yes – I know they generally travel quite slowly, but they can move at something of a clip and the ensuing carnage if one ploughed into a pushchair is unthinkable. Besides, if Andy Powell’s golf buggy is regarded as a potential hazard, surely so should a mobility scooter…

The Government is also considering RELAXING the rules, so that anyone in charge of a pleasure craft less than 7 metres long (that’s about 21 feet in old money…), moving at less than 7 knots would be exempt from drink driving rules. Which leaves me scratching my head, somewhat… It all sounds very innocuous, doesn’t it? Except there are areas where swimmers and boats are often quite close together (East Head beach in Chichester Harbour springs to mind). A 15 foot wooden-hulled boat is quite capable of braining a swimmer while moving a lot slower than 7 knots… And I’m sure that on-shore rescue services will be just thrilled to think that any inebriated fool will be able to stagger onto their pleasure craft with impunity.

The other mode of transport that is exempt from any drink restrictions is ski-ing. Because it isn’t powered… Erm. But… surely, a skier needs to get going using their own body movement – like on a bicycle? Or am I missing something? And before anyone rolls their eyes and mutters under their breath about my kill-joy attitude – I would mention that I didn’t necessarily advocate that being drunk-in-charge of a golf buggy was a crime – the Law said it was. And if the Law is right about that, then surely on a crowded ski slope, vulnerable beginners and children have the right to expect that après-ski refreshments mean just that.

Because accidents DO happen on pavements, ski slopes and on water, as well as on the roads. And I think it odd that while a couple of inebriated rugby players are convicted – those in charge of equipment equally capable of inflicting damage on themselves and others are, apparently, immune to such prosecution.

Punctuating Dialogue Tags


Most mistakes occur in punctuating dialogue, when adding the direct quote – “I’m not ill.” to the tag he said, she screamed, they chanted.

The rules are as follows:-

  • Use a COMMA to separate the quote from the tag.  Eg:-  “I’m not ill,” she said.

  • Use a FULL STOP to separate the quote from the tag if there is no speech verb.  Eg:-  “I’m not ill.”  She glared at him.

As there is no speech verb, the tag is considered to be a separate sentence.

  • If the quote ends with an exclamation or question mark, you don’t need to add any further punctuation.  And if the quote is followed by a tag, there is no capital letter at the start of it.  Eg:- “I’m not ill, you’re lying!” she shouted.

BUT when the tag doesn’t have a speech verb, you need to treat it as a separate sentence.  Eg:-  “Am I ill?”  She started crying.

  • If the tag interrupts in mid-sentence, use commas to surround it.  Eg:-  “I’m not ill,” she said, “and I wish you’d stop telling me I am.”

  • However, if the tag separates two sentences, use a FULL STOP and CAPITALS at the start of each sentence.

Eg:- “I’m not ill,” she said.  “Just mind your own business.”


“I’m not ill.”  She said, “Just mind your own business.”

The second example here sounds a little more awkward because these days, we generally put the tag line at the end of the quote.

  • If the tag doesn’t contain a speech verb, consider it a separate sentence.  Eg:-  “I’m not ill.”  She glared at him.  “Just mind your own business.

Remember, the words ‘smiled’, ‘laughed’, ‘grinned’, etc… are not speech verbs.  You cannot ‘smile’ a sentence.  “I’m not ill.”  She smiled.  “But it’s sweet of you to care.”