Monthly Archives: January 2011

Review of Room by Emma Donoghue

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This was short-listed for last year’s Man Booker prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for 2010. I got hold of the book after hearing Donoghue’s interview for Radio 4’s Women’s Hour when she mentioned that she was inspired on hearing about five year old Felix in the Fritzl case.

roomJack is five and excited about his birthday. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures eleven feet by eleven feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows what he sees on screen isn’t truly real – there’s only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until one day, Ma admits there’s a world outside…

This account could so easily have lingered on the grimness and sheer horror of their existence – but seen through the filter of a small boy, whose young mother has determined to shelter her son as much as possible from the worst aspects of their imprisonment, it becomes something else. Jack’s narrative gives us a fascinating insight in the ability of humankind to survive in a highly difficult situation.

Of course, given that the first person POV is in the head of a small child, the success of this book hinges on how effectively Donoghue managed to convey these fraught circumstances through Jack’s account. I spend a fair amount of my time with a six year old – and her portrayal is spot on. The occasional grammatical mistakes are completely appropriate without being annoying – as was the use of words like ‘hilarious’, which indicates an intelligent, precocious child with unlimited access to a fully engaged adult. Exactly the set-up these two characters experience, in fact…

The other big pitfall Donoghue had to negotiate – and one that I was personally particularly looking out for – was lapsing into any kind of sentimentality. Given the difficult subject matter, it would have been unforgivable to have poured a layer of treacle over this story in the shape of a cute little boy. But while Jack is undeniably remarkable, he has his edges. With his temper tantrums and neediness in ways that most five year olds have outgrown, he is certainly a handful. I found some of the later episodes in the book unbearably poignant as he attempts to cope with all that is happening around him.

The other major character that we see through Jack’s eyes, is Ma. Beautifully written, she defines herself throughout their captivity as Jack’s protector. His survival and wellbeing is her highest priority and she’ll do anything – anything at all to achieve this. Even being polite and obliging to the man holding her, whom Jack calls Old Nick. Again, Donoghue’s characterisation is pitch perfect – right down to the fact that she is constantly struggling with toothache due to a poor diet and no access to a dentist or any form of healthcare during two pregnancies. Her inventiveness in educating and entertaining Jack in their cramped conditions is inspiring without being cloying. Jack also recounts the times when Ma is Gone – having retreated into a fit of depression when she cannot stir herself from the bed.
I finished the book sometime last week and have already completed two other books, since. Normally, that means the previous book is starting to fade. Not so this time. I have a hunch that I’ll still be musing over Jack and Ma from time to time in years to come. There are only a handful of books in my life that have had that impact. They are not the sole reason why I read – I cannot imagine an existence without books in it – but these Golden Reads certainly are life-enhancing, thought provoking gems.
It’s a wonderful start to 2011 to discover another jewel to add to this elite collection…
10/10

Review of Ill Wind – Book 1 of the Weather Warden series by Rachel Caine

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Enjoy non-stop, action-packed fantasy, complete with the mandatory misunderstood but gutsy heroine? Have to say – I love it. I’m a complete sucker for the better written series – and here’s a real treat. Caine has given us a world where naturally occurring phenomena such as weather, earthquakes and volcanoes are sentient – and strongly hostile to human existence. Enter the Wardens illwindwho possess the power to control these disasters and mitigate their effects, keeping humankind a lot safer than they would otherwise be. Her protagonist, Joanne Baldwin, is a Weather Warden.

The Wardens Association has been around pretty much for ever. Some Wardens control fire, others control earth, water or wind – and the most powerful can control more than one element. Without Wardens, Mother Nature would wipe humanity off the face of the earth…

Joanne Baldwin – fashion addict and professional, if unwilling hero – is a Weather Warden. Usually, all it takes is a wave of her hand to tame the most violent weather. But now Joanne is trying to outrun another kind of storm: accusations of corruption and murder. So she’s resorting to the very human tactic of running for her life.

Her only hope is Lewis, the most powerful Warden. Unfortunately, he’s also on the run from the World Council. It seems he’s stolen not one but three bottles of Djinn – making him the most powerful man on earth. And without Lewis, Joanne’s chances of surviving are as good as a snowball in – well, a place she may be headed. So she and her classic Mustang are racing hard to find him because there’s some bad weather closing in fast…

And that’s where this breathlessly paced story starts. Joanne, desperate and on the run. As she blasts her car at highly illegal speeds along American roads, we learn just why she’s running and what happened. It is a ripping good yarn, told with poise and ability. Caine manages to handle a lot of action in a small timescale without dropping any of the narrative tension; losing character focus; or giving us anything other than a cinematically sharp account of exactly what is happening at all times. It takes a lot of skill to write that clearly.

An aspect of these books (yes, there’s a series – eight so far. I’ve read three to date and they go on giving the goods…) that I’m really enjoying is the role of Djinn. These supernatural creatures sound quite familiar – although they have great natural powers they can be enslaved to human will and stored in a bottle. Wardens use them as tools to amplify their own abilities to battle some of the increasingly violent storms afflicting the planet and regard them as a tool. However, Joanne becomes romantically entangled with one – David. Which gives her a completely different and opposing view to the prevailing one that Djinns are merely hostile entities to be overcome and used as necessary. This ongoing story arc throughout the first three books has given me the impetus to get hold of the next book in series – as with all the most successful urban fantasy series, like Butcher’s Harry Dresden, and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse, the characters surrounding the protagonist also matter – developing and changing alongside our heroine.

All in all, a really enjoyable romp – with the bonus of lots of weather details for those of us who find the subject fascinating. I’m now looking to get hold of the next five books…
8/10

Review of Rebel Fay – Book 5 of Saga of the Noble Dead by Barb & J.C. Hendee

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Inevitably, there was a certain amount of floundering in the opening pages of this book as it was the fifth in a six-book series and I hadn’t read any of the previous volumes. I nearly didn’t persist, but the character of Chap attracted my attention and I persevered. I’m glad I did.

rebelfayHalf-elven Leesil burns with the need to rescue his mother, an alleged traitor, now held captive by elven assassins. But his obsession will endanger him and his friends, as they cross the mountains in the dead of winter, to a land known for its eerie beauty and hatred of humanity. For all of them the journey will raise more questions than answers.

Magiere, part-human, part-vampire, is plagued by visions of humanity’s ancient enemy. But which side is she destined to serve? And Chap, their canine guardian, faces a new fear. He united Magiere and Leesil for his kin, their goal being the creation of an alliance against the forces of dark magics. But now this alliance is under threat, why have the Fay abandoned him?

Yep. It is a high fantasy quest set in a secondary world peopled with elves, vampires and humans with a small band of plucky adventurers who find themselves beset on every side… But before you roll your eyes and yawn that you’ve read a bunch of books like this before – just hear me out. This isn’t some lazy, formulaic read. The Hendees (a husband and wife team, in case you hadn’t already figured it out) have taken the classic dark fantasy template and used it in interesting and inventive ways. I won’t try to pretend that their world or plotting is exceptionally original – it isn’t. What lifts this book is the depth and sophistication of the interaction between the characters.

I’ve read plenty of books where the main protagonist(s) are outsiders, either by birth or talent. I’m sure you have, too. They are a staple of this genre. However, I’ve rarely felt the force and consequences of that ‘otherness’ with such poignancy. Leesil is obsessed with rescuing his mother and drags his companions along in a headlong rush to find her. Chap, who is the other main stalwart of this slice of the story, is equally convinced that he is doing the right thing.
However, as the tribulations of their hard journey pile up, both of these main characters’ efforts to find somewhere they truly fit draw the reader right into the story. It was moving to watch Leesil struggle to say the most basic phrase in his mother tongue. Chap’s realisation that he has been used as a tool by his kin packs a real emotional punch.

The Hendees are skilful writers. The world is extremely well depicted, the action rolls forward with plenty of pace and each character leaps off the page with enjoyable complexity.

Any niggles? Well, the running sub-plot involving Chane and Westiel never fully integrated with the main protagonists and although we were given snippets about their previous interaction with Chap and Leesil, it being Book 5, I never fully fathomed what had gone on. By halfway through the book I was skipping the ‘Chane chunks’. If I’d read the series in the correct order, no doubt it would have all made sense. But, like many readers, I didn’t. The book wouldn’t have suffered if those bits had been omitted and written as a separate main story in the following volume, which presumably will tie the rest of the story together. Or the Hendees could consider adding a ‘Story So Far’ section at the start of each volume.
That grizzle apart, I found this book a thoroughly engrossing, enjoyable read and am now searching out the rest of the series.
7/10

Review of The Golden Hills of Westria – Book 8 of the Westria novels by Diane L. Paxson

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I’ll be honest – a lot of high fantasy doesn’t do it for me. But I was intrigued by the premise that Westria is California many years in the future after some terrible disaster ripped through the land. This Cataclysm has forever altered the people and their relationship with their environment, as it awoke the spiritual entities guarding the land, forcing them to take a more active role in events.

Prince Phoenix was always a bit restless, never quite measuring up to the expectations of his heroic father, King Julian, who is goldenhillsofmagically attuned to the four powerful jewels of Westria. After being sent away in disgrace for his part in a stupid prank that went tragically wrong, Phoenix is snatched by a band of slavers.

Meantime there are increasingly troubling reports of a fanatical sect emerging, led by a charismatic leader, Mother Mahaliel. They are on the march, apparently seeking a place where they can settle and worship in peace.  Lux, childhood companion of Phoenix with a strong magical talent, is torn between the need to control her powers and her wish to be of some service to Westria during this time of increasing crisis. However, as events take a critical turn, Lux finds herself unexpectedly right in the middle of one of the greatest and most critical times in Westria’s history since the Cataclysm…

Told in third person multiple viewpoint, the story clips along at a good pace and I quickly became engrossed in the characters. For me, one of the abiding problems I tend to have with this story structure, is that there is generally one story arc I far prefer to the other sub-plots, so tend to skim through them to get to my favourite. However, Paxson’s deft handling of the different protagonists meant that wasn’t a particular issue, as her control of the narrative pace, and building of the action to the climax was skilfully executed.

Paxson’s previous Westria novel was published in 1992, so this book which was released in 2006, is very much revisiting a blast from the past. In her Afterword, Paxson mentioned that with the current upsurge of religious extremism, she felt it would be an interesting theme to examine within this particular world, and it certainly worked well. Despite the fact that this is the eighth novel in the series, it wasn’t a particular problem because of a jump in the timeline and while Paxson alludes to previous happenings from time to time, I didn’t find it particularly irksome or felt that my reading experience was compromised by not having read earlier books. Which makes a pleasant change, in these days when ‘The Story So Far’ prologues have fallen out of favour…

Fans of high fantasy won’t be rocked or wrong-footed by the themes running through this book. These include the struggle for moral certitude in a time of building crisis; the epic nature of the battle between good and evil – which in this case certainly starts as more nuanced than is usual in this genre; and the sense of fulfilling a destiny that initially overwhelms the character. In Phoenix’s case, he finds refuge in an interesting survival trait that Paxson uses in her heroic depiction of the spirituality that permeates the relationship between the land and its inhabitants.

Overall, I found this a well-executed, highly readable book with some original and pleasing touches that distinguish it as novel that not only entertains, but also provides food for thought.
8/10

Review of Haze by L.E. Modesitt, Jr

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Modesitt is a prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy, probably most well known for his famous series The Saga of Recluce. Haze is a stand-alone science fiction novel told in third person viewpoint, featuring Keir Roget.

What lies beneath the millions of orbiting nanotech satellites that shroud the world called Haze? Major Keir Roget’s mission is to make planetfall in secret, find out, and report back to his superiors in the Federation, the Chinese-dominated government that rules Earth and the colonized planets.  For all his effectiveness as a security agent, Roget is troubled by memories of an earlier assignment in his career. When he was assigned to covert duty in the Noram backcountry town of St. George, he not only discovered that the long-standing Saint culture was neither as backward nor as harmless as his superiors believed, but he barely emerged with his life and sanity intact.

hazeNow, scouting Haze, he finds a culture both seemingly familiar and frighteningly alien, with hints of a technology far superior to that of the Federation. Yet he is not quite certain how much of what he sees is real or how to alert his superiors to a danger he cannot prove – if he can escape Haze…

The scenario at the heart of this novel is an intriguing one, dealing with a collision of two completely different cultures with poor old Agent Roget stuck between them. I really like the premise. The world is interestingly portrayed through Roget’s viewpoint as his experiences on Haze run alongside his previous encounter with a society unsympathetic to the Federation’s aims and ideals.
If you are looking for an action-packed, shoot-em-up, however, then this isn’t your book. It attempts to deliver a far more thoughtful-provoking read. But… while Modesitt’s depiction of his cultures is sophisticated and detailed… while his take on the near future is disturbing and fascinating in equal measure… this book did not grip me as it should have, given that this is my very favourite sub-genre.

I think the problem lies with Modesitt’s protagonist, Keir Roget, who isn’t a character I found easy to care about or know. The initial pace of the book is leisurely, as Modesitt slowly builds up the details of his world through Roget’s viewpoint – which isn’t a problem if the reader has sufficient access to Roget’s thoughts and feelings to discover what really makes him tick. However, despite the fact that Haze is fairly short, the first half was something of a trudge, rather than a delightful page-turner as I waded through the slow build-up to the initial sudden burst of action. Roget is still recovering from major trauma – which we don’t learn about until two-thirds through the book. It may well be that Modesitt has him so locked down and distant as a consequence of this, but the result is that we only really see the world through the eyes of this single character means that if we don’t bond with him, then the book is seriously compromised.

Modesitt is a skilful writer with a wealth of experience and his depiction of this interesting, nuanced world means that reading Haze is worth the effort. However, it’s not a great book – and I can’t shake the feeling that if only Modesitt had poured a bit more energy and internal dialogue into Roget’s character – the dynamic tension in this plotline would have set it on course to be one of the outstanding reads of the decade.
7/10

Review of Scared to Live by Stephen Booth

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If your taste in whodunits runs to a beautifully crafted plot, a cast of complex characters depicted with thoughtfulness and realism, set within the Derbyshire countryside – then Stephen Booth’s books are a must. He was one of the visiting speakers on the West Sussex Writers’ Club Day for Writers a few years ago and his session on character development and motivation was excellent. He also came scaredtoliveacross as a thoroughly nice, unpretentious chap. Before becoming a full-time writer, he was a crime journalist who has lived in or near the area his writes about for most of his life – and it shows. The Peak District is every bit as crucial to the atmosphere of Booth’s plots as Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, or Colin Dexter’s Oxford.

It was an ordinary house fire with tragic consequences: a wife and two children dead. But then for DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper the ordinary always means trouble.  Trouble like a bereaved family living in fear. Trouble like the shocking assassination of an elderly woman living alone in a quiet Peak District village. What could be the motive for inflicting such violence on harmless victims?

To find the answer, Fry and Cooper must direct their search far beyond Derbyshire to the other side of Europe, in a land where the customs are even more unfathomable than the language. With a little help from Europol, they discover some of the reasons why people can be scared to live – and the connection at the heart of the enquiry that proves to be the most surprising revelation of all.

Scared to Live is the seventh book in this superb series, which follows the careers of DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. And they are fully stretched when in the same week an arsonist kills a woman and her two children in a house fire, swiftly followed by a shooting of an elderly, reclusive woman. Fry, recently promoted over Cooper, is anxious to prove herself and move on from this comparative backwater, while Ben Cooper, born and bred in the area, cannot imagine living anywhere else. To get the full effect of the delicately nuanced relationship between these two, I recommend that you go back and read the series from the beginning, starting with The Dead Place.

If you are expecting the book version of CSI – complete with car chases and graphic gore – then this isn’t the book for you. But as Fry and Cooper trudge through the investigation, the often low-key exchanges and steady accumulation of evidence nevertheless makes compelling reading. And when the occasional burst of violence explodes across the page, as readers, we feel the shock along with the victims. In these days where dead bodies litter our TV screens on a nightly basis, it’s a neat trick to pull off.

I also enjoy Booth’s gift of capturing a character by a gesture or a few words and his wonderful descriptions of the Peak District’s stark beauty – which is often used as a metaphorical counterpoint to the plotline. There is a compelling scene at a local tourist spot, where one of the chief suspects is finally tracked down by Ben Cooper. But for me, what makes Booth stand out, is his interest in the motivations of his criminals. Throughout the book, we have shafts of insight about the all the main protagonists – and by the end of the story, not only do we know whodunit, but why. And in this book, the irony of the denouement is every bit as bleakly haunting as anything you’ll encounter in a literary masterpiece.

I’m delighted to note that his latest book The Devil’s Edge is due out this April. Once I’ve bought it, I’ll hide my mobile phone, take the day off work and settle down to read. Go on – try him. I’ll be surprised if you can stop at just one…

9/10

Review of The Family Trade by Charles Stross

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This start to his alternate historical science fiction series proves that Charles Stross is an outstanding talent and – unsurprisingly – won the 2005 Sideways Award for Alternative History, as well as a nomination for a Locus Award.

familytradeMiriam Beckstein is happy in her life. She’s a successful reporter for a hi-tech magazine in Boston, making good money doing what she loves. When her researcher brings her iron-clad evidence of a money-laundering scheme, Miriam thinks she’s found the story of the year. But when she takes it to her editor, she’s fired on the spot and gets a death threat from the criminals she has uncovered.  Before the day is over, she’s received a locket left by the mother she never knew – the mother who was murdered when she was an infant. Within is a knotwork pattern, which has a hypnotic effect on her. Before she knows it, she’s transported herself to a parallel Earth, a world where knights on horseback chase their prey with automatic weapons, and where world-skipping assassins lurk just on the other side of reality – a world where her true family runs things.

I love this world – where Miriam is constantly cold away from her modern comforts. Where, as a thirty-two year old, she is regarded as a dowager – almost past her prime purpose, which is to make an advantageous match and provide plenty of babies also capable of world-walking. However, as the tension mounts and news leaks out that she has been found, Miriam finds herself in acute danger and unable to fully trust anyone – not even Roland… The heroine is enjoyably complex with a completely understandable reaction to the shock of switching between the two worlds.

This is standard fantasy fare – but there is nothing standard about the rawness and real sense of trauma experienced by Miriam as she finds herself catapulted into this new, hostile existence without any prospect of being able to safely return to her former life. As we are pulled into her adventures, there is a constant sense of danger as she feels herself unable to completely trust anyone in this complicated, brutal world. While the intrigue thickens and the plot gathers momentum, Stross keeps the pace and narrative driving forward to the end of this particular story – leaving me looking forward to reading the second book in the series, The Hidden Family.
10/10

My outstanding reads of 2010

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I’m not quite sure exactly how many books I read last year – but it’s around 130 as I tend to average between 2 & 3 books a week. I thought I’d just round up the ones I enjoyed the most and share them with you as I believe that they are all enjoyable and worthwhile reads with something original to say.  Needless to say, many are science fiction and fantasy, but there are a few others that crept in, as well.

cryburnCryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold
If Miles Vorkosigan novels used to tick all your boxes, then don’t worry. Cryoburn still has plenty of the old magic. I’ve always enjoyed Bujold’s writing, so have read both her Chalion and The Sharing Knife series with huge enjoyment, appreciating her deft characterisation, intriguing worlds and the Bujold ability to evolve realistic human difficulties and tensions out of the surrounding circumstances. Nobody does it better…

However, something magical happens to her writing when Miles leaps into the fray. Bujold’s prose sizzles with extra three-dimensional depth and agility as she plunges her hero into yet another adventure.

Revelation – C.J. Sansomrevelation
Like your whodunit with a twist of history? Well, look no further than one of our local authors, Chris Sansom. His sleuth of choice is Matthew Shardlake, who should have some sort of medal as the unlikeliest P.I. in the history of the genre. Master Shardlake is a hunchback, who has battled against his disability to become a lawyer – which is a greater achievement than you might think, considering that Sansom’s detective series is set in King Henry VIII’s turbulent reign. I have just finished reading the fourth book in the series, Revelation, and in my opinion it’s right up there with Dark Fire, my favourite.

attackofunskinkableAttack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks – Christopher Brookmyre
I came across this gem in the library one rainy day in November and it brightened my life. Do you believe in ghosts? Do we really live on in some conscious form after we die, capable of communicating with the world of the living?

The investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane, who sort of solves this crime, has appeared in four previous Brookmyre novels. He leaps off the page with all the force of Robbie Coltrayne’s Cracker – and with as many opinions, which he doesn’t shy away from sharing with the rest of us. So, in addition to enjoying a really well-crafted thriller with a number of BIG surprises that I didn’t see coming, I was also treated to a series of intelligent discussions on the nature of belief, its impact on society and how it can be used to exploit victims when they are extremely vulnerable.

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives – David Eaglemansum
This little book was published in 2009 and very quickly garnered a fistful of rave reviews, emphasising its originality, charm and inventive. The word ‘genius’ has even been slung around… While I wouldn’t go quite that far, I’ll happily endorse anyone claiming it is unlike anything else you’ve ever come across. As for originality – you start really examining some of the forty ideas and you’ll find you are being pushed into brain-bulging places. Meat and drink for those of us who like our ideas and fiction on the weirder side.

As with any anthology, some of the stories work better than others. Sum is one of the better ones – but it is by no means my favourite. A word of caution, though. It might be a very small book and you could easily whizz through it in one sitting. Don’t. My advice is never to read more than two of these little stories at a time because to do so is to risk becoming inured to the sheer amazing leaps of imagination Eagleman is asking you to take.

invisiblegorillaThe Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways our Intuition Deceives Us – Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons
The authors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, won the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for Gorillas in Our Midst, a groundbreaking and world-famous experiment where they asked volunteers to watch a 60 second film of students playing basketball and told them to count the number of passes made. About halfway through, a woman dressed in a gorilla outfit strolled to the centre of the screen, beat her chest at the camera and then walked away. Half the volunteers missed seeing the gorilla…

Yep. It made my jaw drop, too. Unless you’ve already heard of the experiment, of course. Many people have, by all accounts. But before you shrug your shoulders and dismiss it as yet another oddball piece of human behaviour that doesn’t really apply to everyday life, just stop and think of the ramifications for a long moment. And if your imagination still fails you, then pick up this book and read on. You need to know what it has to say. Really.

Mindscan – Robert J. Sawyermindscan
Sawyer’s hero, Jake Sullivan, is struggling with a life-shortening, inoperable brain condition which could also leave him a vegetable – his father’s fate. So when he gets the opportunity to upload his consciousness into an android body, he takes it. At this point, we follow both Jakes. Sawyer’s unfussy, clear prose gives us a powerful insight into many of the emotional and practical problems following such a life-changing decision as both versions of his protagonist struggle to come to terms with their new status. His situation is alleviated by friendship with a feisty octogenarian, Karen, who also undergoes the same process. So far, the book is a masterful piece of storytelling that intelligently examines an issue that may well be confronting our grandchildren. But when Karen’s son sues, claiming that he has been cheated out of his rightful inheritance, Sawyer’s handling of the courtroom arguments for and against transferring human consciousness elevates this book from a good piece of science fiction to greatness.

thecommonsThe Commons – Matthew Hughes
This book charts Guth Bandar’s adventures in the Commons – the name for the collective unconscious – from his time as a young student trying to prove himself, to the climax of the story when he is in his middle years, still trying to prove himself. The protagonist is extremely well-drawn and likeable, as much for his failings that are charted in witty, unblinking detail – along with his strengths. So as he stumbles into yet another mind-threatening adventure, I was right alongside, hoping that he would prevail.

Despite the fact that the focus and subject matter is all about human psychology, there is plenty of visceral action here. The archetypes are ever-hungry for new people to populate their constant enactments of Situations and Events, even if the outcome leads to violent death. Which, being the human unconscious, happens only too often. However, don’t expect to be whipped along at breakneck speed a la David Gunn or Simon R Green, from one gore-drenched episode to the next. Hughes is offering so much more. The writing style is literate and restrained, even when the action gets bloodily heated – and there are constant shafts of witty humour.

Enduring Love – Ian McIwanenduringlove
Joe Rose has planned a romantic picnic with his lover Clarissa after having been away on business. However, the delightful idyll is horribly interrupted when a hot air balloon, attempting a landing, starts to break away from its moorings with a ten year old boy inside. Joe, along with a number of other men, rush to try and anchor it. But when the sudden wind strengthens and Joe finds himself suddenly jerked off his feet as someone else lets go, he follows suit – until only one man, John Logan, is left hanging on – until he plunges to his death… Shocked at the terrible accident and feeling guilty for letting go, Joe rushes to the spot where the dead man is lying and encounters Jed Parry. They exchange a passing glance and Jed, suffering from de Clerambault’s syndrome, immediately falls passionately in love with Joe, with dire consequences.

dragonkeeperThe Dragon Keeper – Robin Hobb
To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job; their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils. Not only are they not expected to return – no one wants them back… I, for one, was delighted when I realised that this book would pick up the adventures of the tangle of serpents as I’d found the whole storyline surrounding them and the liveships a really satisfying tale. So I started The Dragon Keeper with high expectations – and it did not disappoint.

The characters in Hobb’s stories are always strong and in this story we have several protagonists, all in third person viewpoint. The two that stand out for me are Alise and Thymara – but the whole cast are entertaining and once more, Hobbs gradually unwraps her plot with the deft skill we’ve all come to expect. Her world building is pitch perfect as the inhospitable Rain Wilds take its toll on man and beast alike – in contrast to the stifling confines of Bingtown’s society.

Turn Coat – Jim Butcherturncoat
This is the eleventh novel in the Harry Dresden files series. Has Butcher managed to keep the characters fresh and surprising? Are the plots getting increasingly entangled and mangled in an effort to breathe some new life into a threadbare scenario? Has the fact that the TV series was such a crock adversely affected Butcher’s enthusiasm for his wizard detective? For the record – yes, no and no. Butcher has managed to breathe new life into these characters, giving some of them a surprising twist. And no, there is no sense that this world is running dry of creative juice.

We have encountered the Council from time to time in Dresden’s adventures, but this further insight into their politics and the characters made for an entertaining read. Butcher manages to give all the major protagonists surrounding Harry Dresden an equally complicated and tortuous personal journey, which is probably one of the secrets of this series successful longevity.

I'mthekingoftheI’m the King of the Castle – 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.

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 Gone-Away World – Nick Harkawaygoneaway
If you like your speculative fiction bubbling over with energy – part science fiction, part swashbuckler 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.

The 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.

grimspaceGrimspace – Book 1 of the Sirantha Jax trilogy – Ann Aguirre
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.

A Madness of Angels – Kate Griffinamadnessofangels
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.

slowlightningSlow Lightning – Jack McDevitt
This sci-fi thriller is a fascinating take on how we might just blunder into another space-travelling civilisation. McDevitt also examines the idea of loss and grief in a time when the bereaved can summon up images of their loved ones and talk to them. His main protagonist never recovers from the death of her charismatic sister – and Kim’s investigation into what exactly happened on that last, mysterious mission, is as much an attempt to deal with her feelings about Emily.

McDevitt’s narrative sweeps Kim along into a morass of cover-ups, lies and sheer happenstance that I found compelling and believable. The world is beautifully depicted, with flashes of wry humour that give the moments of horror an extra dimension. The layers of futuristic detail were a joy to read – placing the story solidly in the McDevitt’s world without slowing the narrative or impeding a very tightly plotted storyline. It takes a confident writer very sure of his ability to pull off the steady build-up of suspense that characterises the first half of the book. There is action aplenty for the reader – but you have to work for it. McDevitt isn’t in the business of gun-toting heroes blasting away at one-dimensional villains three lines into the first chapter.

modernworldThe Modern World – Steph Swainston – Book 3 of The Castle series
I picked up this book (known in America as Dangerous Offspring) because I’d heard some interesting things about Swainston as an author – people either seemed to love or loathe her – and I decided it was time I made up my own mind.

What is undeniable is that she is an outstanding writer. I didn’t start this book with joy in my heart. Being the shallow sort, I’m unduly influenced by book covers – and the UK cover of this one has to qualify as one of the dreariest offerings, ever. Once I opened it, the tiny font didn’t enthuse me, either. However, I persevered – and I’m very glad I did. Because this is one of the best written fantasy books I’ve ever read.

forgottenbeastsThe Forgotten Beasts of Eld – Patricia A. McKillip
I’m not much into nostalgia. Yes – I thoroughly enjoyed reading the likes of Tolkien, Clarke and Heinlein way back, whenever. But I don’t look back fondly on any particular era as a ‘golden time’ because I’m too busy wading through current books piled up beside my bed. However, I do enjoy dipping into the Fantasy Masterworks series as I’ve come across some cracking reads in the process – and this is one of them.

For those of you who haven’t cut your teeth on Tolkein, the prose style will strike you as somewhat odd – while the rest of us will immediately recognise it as silmarillionese. I would urge you to persevere past the first few pages when it is particularly obtrusive if you do find it a problem; personally, it was like meeting up with a long-lost relation… But if you can grit your teeth at the start, I would hope that the story sweeps you up and takes you for a wonderful ride into a past when Fantasy didn’t mean conflicted vamps and weres prowling in search for blood, sex or both…

The Empress of Mars – Kage Bakerempressofmars
Your gaze rests lovingly on your battered copy of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, wondering why no one writes like that anymore… Well, I’ve uncovered another gem in the same mould, folks. Based on Baker’s Hugo-nominated novella of the same name, this is space opera at its rollicking best. While still set in Baker’s world of The Company – her series about time-travelling immortals plundering Earth’s history – it is entirely stand-alone to the extent that you don’t need to be aware Baker has written anything else, in order to appreciate the story.

A classic frontier tale of rugged individualistic grit pitted against shadowy religious and corporate ambition, Baker is very upfront about the influence of the Wild West in this book. This emphasis on the individual allows Baker free rein in her depiction of the gloriously mapcap characters peopling Mars as the plot weaves through a series of hurdles that Mary and her family have to scramble under and over. The characters leap off the page as the action sweeps them through edgy tense drama to humorous interludes verging on farce – classic Baker, in other words.

IshallwearI Shall Wear Midnight – Terry Pratchett
This is the fourth Tiffany Aching book from The Great Man and his thirty-eighth Discworld novel. If you are a fan, then you’re in for a treat – this is classic Pratchett, complete with all the special individual touches we enjoy from this unique author, including the famous footnotes.

Tiffany is older, but Life isn’t getting any easier. She is working flatout in treating the sick – both animal and human, laying out the dead and interceding in local quarrels. In short, the duties of a typically busy witch. It doesn’t help when Roland announces his engagement to a highborn girl with blonde hair and delicate features. Neither does it help when the Nac MacFeegle, who insist on shadowing her every move, decide that she needs their help. Because something has been awakened. Something foul smelling and evil – something that moves amongst people and turns them against witches. Once more, it is down to Tiffany to save the day. But despite the fact that she is older and wiser, there’s every chance she’ll not succeed…