Monthly Archives: June 2011

Review of The Cobra Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

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In a very smart marketing move back in 2004, Baen gathered together this fine series of books and put them into an omnibus edition. This is the first time I’ve actually encountered Timothy Zahn’s writing – although I’d heard plenty about him, but hadn’t been in any real hurry to pick up one of his books as I have only limited enthusiasm for shoot ‘em up military action science fiction. However I now realise that I was seriously selling Zahn short – his work is far more than that…

cobratrilogyThe colony worlds Adirondack and Silvern fell to the Troft forces almost without a struggle. Outnumbered and on the defensive, Earth made a desperate decision. It would attack the aliens not from space, but on the ground – with forces the Trofts did not even suspect. Thus were created the Cobras, a guerrilla force whose weapons were surgically implanted, invisible to the unsuspecting eye, yet undeniably deadly. But power brings temptation… and not all the Cobras could be trusted to fight for Earth alone. Jonny Moreau would learn the uses – and abuses – of his special abilities, and what it truly meant to be a Cobra.

It sounds like just one more super-soldier adventure with warfare the staple and the protagonist spending his days dealing with a deadly enemy and corrupt officialdom on his own side… But it isn’t. Oh, there’s plenty of action, alright. Written with verve and tension – but the book quickly shoots off into another direction, exploring the far more intriguing political and social aspects of having a bunch of surgically enhanced fighters within a community. While they may be capable of saving a planet from a deadly alien invasion – what happens when the threat goes away and the majority of your force has survived the war?

This is just one of the questions Zahn’s enjoyable action-filled series raises – and for my money this is science fiction at its best. Layered in amongst the various adventures are a number of gnarly issues for readers to consider if they wish. Issues such as right versus might; at what stage does one society with superior technology intervene in the affairs of another planet to prevent a perceived threat? How far should a soldier follow orders?

Baen were spot-on in republishing this series, as Zahn’s writing style and general tone hasn’t dated although this series was originally released back in the 1980’s. His unfussy style manages to keep the action rolling forward through multiple viewpoints, avoiding the chunks of info-dumping so often prevalent with this sub-genre. It takes a lot of skill to set a storyline spanning several worlds while following a family down three generations as they grapple with another Cobra-related problem, without resorting to pages of background information in omniscient viewpoint. Some of my favourite authors can’t do it – but Zahn can.

I now realise why Timothy Zahn’s name still regularly comes up when fans discuss their favourite all-time reads – and I’ll be looking out for more of his work. While I don’t generally subscribe to the view that the golden age of science fiction writing occurred during the last century – there are too many fine contemporary authors producing excellent work for me to get dewy-eyed about past glories – I’m perfectly willing to add a few books from times past to the pile of books-to-read teetering beside my bed and this trilogy is certainly up there as one of my favourite reads of the year, so far…

10/10

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Review of The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh

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You’ve just finished re-reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors for the nth time with a deep sigh… ‘They don’t write them like that, anymore,’ you mutter, kicking the cat in disgust.  However, Jill Paton Walsh, an accomplished murder mystery writer in her own right has adopted The Mantle and has written three more Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I’ve just completed The Attenbury Emeralds – and while she may not have the exact feel of Sayers, she has skilfully negotiated the timeline so that it isn’t such a big issue.

attenburyIt was 1921 when Lord Peter Wimsey first encountered the Attenbury emeralds. The recovery of the magnificent gem in Lord Attenbury’s most dazzling heirloom made headlines – and launched a shell-shocked young aristocrat on his career as a detective.

Now it is 1951: a happily married Lord Peter has just shared the secrets of that mystery with his wife, the detective novelist Harriet Vane. Then the new young Lord Attenbury – grandson of Lord Peter’s first client – seeks his help again, this time to prove who owns the gigantic emerald that Wimsey last saw in 1921. It will be the most intricate and challenging mystery he has ever faced…

It certainly is intricate. Walsh weaves through a series of timelines with assurance and skill, as we follow the very complicated fate of this amazing gem. Several surprises are served up along the way – and you may guess whodunit – I didn’t, but then I generally don’t try very hard when I’m in the hands of a really good mystery spinner, preferring to just allow the story to whip me long in its wake. But, for me, the highlight of this novel isn’t necessarily the labyrinthine plot, it’s catching up with a host of other favourite characters – Charles, Helen, Gerald and, of course, Bunter. Who in 1951 is an outright anachronism.

So, does Walsh pull it off? Yes, in my opinion she certainly does. By jumping ahead to the fifties, the fact that Lord Peter’s speech and mannerisms have changed is completely believable and the impact of death duties and a new mood sweeping the country on aristocratic families works very well. Sayers’ wonderful, complex detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, may not have quite the dynamic intensity in Walsh’s reincarnation – but then again, he is now well into middle age, after years of domestic bliss. The angst-ridden edge that haunted many of the earlier novels during his long, sometimes desperate, courtship of Harriet Vane, alongside his guilty misery whenever he successfully tracked down a murderer, is bound to be blunted.

All in all, this is an enjoyable and successful transition of one of detective fiction’s most famous and well-loved characters. It was a very big ask for any author to take this project on, but Jill Paton Walsh has definitely fulfilled the brief.

8/10

Review of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

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This debut novel has been creating something of a stir – but it was my husband who ordered it from the library after seeing a poster about it on the way to London…

Ten year old Jamie hasn’t cried since it happened. He knows he should have – Jasmine cried, Mum cried and Dad still cries. Roger didn’t, but then he’s just a cat and didn’t know Rose that well, really.  Everyone kept saying it would get better with time, but that’s just one of those lies that grown-ups tell in awkward situations. Five years on, and it’s worse than ever. Dad drinks, Mum’s run off with Nigel from her Support Group and Jasmine wears black and has pink hair. While Jamie is left with questions he must answer for himself.

mysisterlivesAs for Rose, Jasmine’s twin – bits of her are in an urn on the mantelpiece and the book opens with Jamie explaining exactly which bits of her ended up in the urn and why. This is a brave, thought-provoking read about the on-going consequences of a child’s unexpected death. However, Pitcher has managed to depict the family’s painful dysfunction with an assuredness that is impressive in a first novel. It is Jamie’s voice that saves this book from descending into a bleak miasma of misery, as in his viewpoint Pitcher leavens this book with a number of funny scenes. Like the majority of children in really tough situations, Jamie doesn’t waste a lot of time on self pity. He’s too engrossed in trying to adjust to life in a new school in the Lake District and making friends with Sunya, a Muslim. In the normal course of things, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Rose died in a terrorist incident similar to 7/07, so Dad hates Muslims.

So, on top of giving us a ringside seat on a family’s suffering over the loss of a child, Pitcher also adds the tricky issue of hardening attitudes towards an innocent community due to the actions of a handful of murdering fanatics.

I think she’s managed to succeed in nailing Jamie’s voice – no mean feat, given the storyline and once I got into the book, I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it. And when I surfaced, I was feeling more than a bit wrung out…

Any niggles? Hm… as it happens, yes. As an ex-primary school teacher, I had no problem with Pitcher’s unsympathetic treatment of Jamie’s class teacher or headmaster. But, while I would be quite prepared to believe that Jamie’s records or lack of them might have been overlooked in an hard-pressed inner city school, where anything between 30% to 50% of the pupils may move in a year – in a country school where he is clearly the ‘new boy’ and treated as an outsider, the fact that he wears the same t-shirt for a whole term and is clearly neglected wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. These days, teachers are legally bound to report any concerns over a child’s welfare to a superior and/or visiting social worker and I find it difficult to believe that some details of the family’s circumstances wouldn’t have become known to the school in that timeframe.

However, given Pitcher’s achievement in managing a very difficult subject with such adroitness, I’m quite prepared to cut her some slack over this issue. The novel has been marketed as a children’s book, but it is one of those special stories suitable for anyone aged ten and over – and if you don’t believe me, get hold of a copy and give it a go. You’ll thank me if you do…

9/10

Review of Makers by Cory Doctorow

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This interesting, near-future technology-based novel initially came out in 2009 in serial form as an ebook, before being released by Voyager as a printed version. I’ve been interested to read a variety of responses to the book, many of them hostile…

Perry and Lester invent things. All sorts of things. Seashell robots that can make toast, Boogie Woogie Elmo dolls that drive cars. They makersalso invent an entirely new economic system. ‘New Work’ is a New Deal for the technological era, and together Perry and Lester transform the country, with journalist Suzanne Church there to document their progress.

For the record, that’s half the blurb published (which I hadn’t read before embarking on the book) on the inside of the cover – and the reason why I’m not continuing any further, is that the next paragraph proceeds to give away at least half the major plot points of the book. Which is the reason, I reckon, that one of the recurring complaints I’ve encountered about this book is that the story is slow and predictable. If those reviewers knew in advance what was coming up, no wonder they felt the book dragged. That’s the only explanation I can come up with – because although it’s a long book, at no time did I find my attention wandering. Doctorow’s gleeful enthusiasm for the new toys he’s envisioned for the near future didn’t stop him paying attention to providing an entertaining storyline and likeable, interesting characters. I was also impressed at the clarity of the writing – at no point was I scratching my head or having to backtrack and reread any sections in order to understand exactly what all these cool, techie gismos did. And while I enjoy browsing through the New Scientist, I’m no science specialist.

I have a suspicion that many of the poor reviews about Makers are aimed at the high profile author who makes no secret of his beliefs, many of which are somewhat controversial. One complaint was grumbling about the fact that Doctorow chose Duracell as a struggling company of the future… while another targeted the fact that Lester and Perry spent a lot of time making kitch dross, rather than worthy, planet-saving inventions. There were several scathing comments along the line that despite Doctorow’s dislike of large profit-hugging corporations, such as Disney, his maverick inventors still ended up working in a system that made money.

Well – duh… I would suggest that while it’s a no-brainer that Capitalism is a toxic system, criminally wasteful of the resources and humanity that get ground up underfoot – so far, thanks to the crash of Communism and the current woes of Socialist governments across the globe it’s the system we’re stuck with. And if Doctorow had managed to come up with a credible alternative system in his novel, he’d probably be Out There, earning himself a Nobel Peace prize and becoming the first President of Earth, rather than critiquing the current sorry mess as a writer.

I think it’s a shame that Makers has drawn down so much unfriendly criticism due to Doctorow’s political stance, because while at times the prose is a little rough around the edges, I’ve read an awful lot of science fiction novels   where the pacing, characterisation and plotting was a great deal worse, yet garnered far more favourable reviews. Doctorow has all sorts of interesting observations to make in this thoughtful look at the near future and how technology may shape the outlook for sections of American society. I also thoroughly enjoyed the story of Lester, Perry and Suzanne and am not sure how anyone could have thought the poignant epilogue was predictable.

If you are genuinely interested in what one person has to say about how new technology might impact the near future – and won’t throw up your hands in horror if said person chooses not to address the issues of resources or climate change – then I strongly recommend this novel.
9/10

Review of KINDLE ebook The Chosen Soul by Heather Killough-Walden

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This was the first ebook I uploaded onto my shiny new Kindle – a very smooth and easy process by the way… Certainly a HUGE improvement on the Sony e-reader I acquired two years ago.

It was a dark and stormy night when the Stranger came to call. Sarah Grey’s second child was breached; the twin was going to die. The Stranger offered help. Twenty years later, Raven Grey, the second twin born on that fated night, is now an extraordinarily beautiful woman. With a gift. But what is the price to pay for that gift? If Raven and her brother cannot escape the handsome and powerful elf prince, outwit the dark and dangerous bounty hunter, and defeat the ancient, mighty Death Mage – Raven is sure to learn just what that price is. And pay dearly.

chosensoulThe opening to this story certainly packs a punch and drew me in. And from then, the adventure just galloped off. There was action aplenty with a host of exotic characters and a variety of difficult situations that Raven was forced to negotiate. If your favourite fantasy is of the swashbuckling variety that swoops you up and doesn’t stop till the end, then this will certainly tick your boxes. Killough-Walden is adept at providing a vivid description of the setting and introducing the characters who are about to be plunged into the next episode in Raven’s life and despite the constant action, I was never in any doubt where I was and what was going on.

However, the author’s trick of head hopping – switching viewpoint characters in the same scene did at times hamper the characterisation and jarred with me. I would have preferred it if she had provided more insight into her main protagonists, which would have also slowed the pace down and given the reader a chance to draw breath and get to know Raven better when she wasn’t fleeing or fighting, which would also give the book a bit more depth.

There were also sections where the formatting of the book was slightly compromised – the left-hand margins moved to the Indent setting for no good reason that I could see. But, when is all said and done – this book cost me just 70p. Did I get I get my money’s worth? Absolutely. Despite Killough-Walden’s breathless pacing and characterisation flaws, her energetic writing and clear story-telling held me to the end. Which is something of a cliffhanger as this is the first book in a series. And although I’ve read a few reviews of this book criticising the abrupt ending, I did feel that all the main plotlines were satisfactorily resolved. It certainly enlivened a long train journey…

7/10

Review of Glass Houses – Book 1 of The Morganville Vampires by Rachel Caine

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This is yet another urban fantasy vamp tale – but worth a serious look because Rachel Caine is also the author of the very successful and nicely plotted Weather Warden series.

Morganville is a small college town filled with unusual characters. But when the sun goes down, the bad come out. Because in Morganville, there is an evil that lurks in the darkest shadows – one that will spill out into the bright light of day.

For Claire Danvers, high school was hell, but college may be murder. It was bad enough that she got on the wrong side of Monica, the glasshousesmeanest of the school’s mean girls, but now she’s got three new roommates, who all have secrets of their own. And the biggest secret of all isn’t really a secret, except from Claire: Morganville is run by vampires, and they are hungry for fresh blood…

This tale is definitely aimed at the YA market. However, that doesn’t preclude many books from being an equally enjoyable read for those of us who a lot longer in the tooth – in a completely non-vampire way, of course. Authors such as Juliet Marillier and Trudi Canavan are often parked on the YA bookshop shelves, which doesn’t prevent me being a solid fan of both. The style and tone of this book did come across as rather young as it is written in Claire’s viewpoint and I did skim the sections where she is obsessing about the boy in her life. It isn’t a criticism, so much as an observation – I’m not, after all, the target audience this book is written for – and I was prepared to go with the flow as I found the storyline sufficiently intriguing.

One aspect I very much applaud is that Caine’s young protagonist is a highly gifted student who has been fast-tracked to college several years early. It makes a refreshing change to have an academically gifted heroine who is being seriously hazed for it, rather than the normal fashionably dumb girl very into clothes and/or shoes. It gives this fantasy a sharper, grittier edge to see school life through the eyes of this neglected minority, who after all have the potential and ability to shape our future society – and who are all too often singled out by their less able classmates.

The other aspect that sets this tale apart is Caine’s excellent pacing and atmosphere – this book hits the ground running and doesn’t let up. The initial action was all the more shocking for being committed by a gang of girls, and as Claire becomes ever more mired in Morganville’s dark side, a real sense of menace and danger is created. There is nothing remotely sexy or fun about Caine’s vampires in this book – they are lethal predators and those living alongside them are quite rightly absolutely terrified and cowed by them.

The plot twists were engrossing and the cast of characters well drawn, with several enjoyable surprises along the way. By the time we came to the cliffhanger ending, I was sufficiently hooked to want to get hold of the sequel and discover what happens next.

8/10

Review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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I heard an interview by Kathryn Stockett with Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4 about this book and decided to get a copy from the library to see what all the fuss was about.

thehelpEnter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver… There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from college, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared.

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they’d be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell…

Skeeter, back from college, finds she doesn’t fit in so well with her married friends’ social life when the talk turns to installing a separate bathroom for the maid so the family isn’t in danger of catching ‘colored diseases’. Missing the maid who brought her up, she is drawn to motherly Aibileen and turns to her for help when she lands the job of writing a column in the local paper solving domestic problems, such as removing stubborn stains and unscrewing broken light bulbs. So when she gets the chance to write about the lives of the black women who help out in all the neighbouring white households, once more she asks Aibileen to help in contacting other maids for their stories – good and bad – of working for white folks. And Aibileen asks Minny…

Stockett was brought up in Mississippi and it shows. The description of the food, heat and landscape is pitch perfect. It is an effort to remember that this is only forty-nine years ago – and yet, the rigid standards imposed on everyone in this hide-bound rural society inevitably falls most heavily on those at the bottom of the heap – black women. This book could have degenerated into a Gone With the Wind pastiche of southern society, or shown Aibileen and Minny as downtrodden victims. Fortunately, it does neither. Both the black protagonists are shown to be intelligent, spirited individuals with their own particular coping strategies for getting through their difficult lives. Aibileen’s religion is an active force in her life and contrasts well with her shafts of desert dry humour that runs like a delicious chocolate thread throughout her narrative. Hm… talking of chocolate, you may not be quite so enthusiastic about the thought of chocolate pie by the end of the book – and I’m not saying anything more about the method that Minny uses to express her anger at all the injustices she has to contend with working for a manipulative, unscrupulous woman.

We see all the social strata in Jackson and what it means to be an acceptable member of the ‘in’ crowd – and what happens when you aren’t. Skin colour isn’t the only defining factor and as a Brit, I found it fascinating to see that 1960’s Jackson was every bit as snobbishly exclusive as any 18th century London salon, while poor Celia struggles to befriend anyone at all. Her breeding – or lack of it – along with her catastrophic dress sense doom her to be constantly snubbed.

However, while this subplot is engrossing, it isn’t the engine that drives the plot forward – it’s the threat of the violence by white racists against the growing civil unrest. Skeeter plunges into this project in order to produce a publishable book, and only as the maids start confiding in her does she begin to realise just how much they are risking. The growing tension as the book starts being read by the people who appear in it, with the protagonists’ dread of discovery brings home just what a dangerous time it was for dissenters. It is a powerful foil for the outwardly genteel concerns about appearance, cooking and well run homes.

Stockett manages the three narratives very well and in my opinion, manages to avoid most of the pitfalls that could have mired her. This is an impressive debut novel that manages to tell a gripping entertaining story about a raw, difficult stage in American history – and the fact that many people still recall it must have created an added complication.

Any niggles? Well, Stockett manages to mostly avoid lapsing into sentimentality, however one scene in the church when Aibileen is presented with a gift wrapped book for Skeeter had me wriggling uncomfortably. The enthusiastic applause and words of the reverend were just a little OTT for my taste.

Apart from that one jarring scene, though, I felt this is an excellent book that tells a powerful story with humour and adroitness. I look forward to reading Stockett’s next offering.

9/10

Review of Thief With No Shadow by Emily Gee

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Enjoy a dollop of romance with your fantasy? If so, then this interesting fantasy debut by Emily Gee might be just what you are thiefwithnolooking for, especially if you are all vampired-out right now. Not that Gee’s world doesn’t have some really unpleasant creatures inhabiting it, alongside the humans – they just don’t happen to fly at night and flash their fangs. However, they are every bit as deadly if crossed…

Aided by the magic which courses through her veins, Melke is able to walk unseen by mortal eyes. When a necklace she has stolen holds the key to both saving her brother’s life and breaking a terrible curse, she must steal it back from a den of fire-breathing salamanders. Things are about to get very tough for Melke, especially when she comes to realise she may have to trust the very people who were out to kill her.

I really enjoyed the world depicted here. It is different enough to intrigue and Gee’s writing managed to create a taut, claustrophobic atmosphere on the cursed farm that makes Bastian’s simmering fury entirely justifiable. The dusty, devastated landscape is a very effective backdrop to the action. Her characters develop throughout the story, which starts with a bang and whisks the reader straight into the plot. Despite the fact that this is Gee’s first fantasy book, she has written a number of Regency romance novels and her deft handling of the plot and pacing indicate her experience.

Niggles? Hm. I do have a couple. I found the romance part of the story a bit too predictable – but that might be rather unfair of me, as I came to the book as a fantasy fan. I also had a bit of a problem with the speed that the rape victim apparently recovered from his experience, but then maybe Gee is planning a sequel where the long term consequences of Hantje’s attack may be addressed. I would have also liked a lot more about the salamanders and psaaron, the other beings who live alongside humans. They seemed interestingly different and gloriously contemptuous of humankind.

All in all, though, Thief With No Shadow is an enjoyable read, set in a world with some interesting touches that could be effectively developed into an engrossing series, should Gee wish to do so. I find myself hoping that she does…

7/10