Monthly Archives: July 2011

Review of Overthrowing Heaven – Book 3 of the Jon and Lobo series by Mark L. Van Name

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This is another excellent offering from Baen – which immediately tells those of you in the know that this is adventure space opera, with something of a military edge. There is plenty of action, with plot twists aplenty and two strong protagonists who fully engaged my sympathies and drew me into the world.

overthrowingheavenJon Moore grew up on an island of outcasts and in a prison laboratory. When he escaped, memories of the things he’d done still haunted him and he often helped those in need. This particular adventure began as a favour to a woman trying to get away from an abusive household. However, his kindnesses frequently didn’t work out well. This one really didn’t work out well.

It hurled John and Lobo, the intelligent assault vehicle and Jon’s only friend, down an accelerating, dangerous spiral involving: private armies and government covert ops teams; a courtesan who always seems a step ahead of him; rival superpowers that define ethics as whatever doesn’t get in their way; and a brilliant, amoral scientist to whom human beings are just more experimental animals – and who might be Lobo’s creator.

I have to say that the book is better than it sounds on the blurb – I’m not convinced that their back-of-the book summaries are one of Baen’s strengths. However, there is nothing wrong with the quality of their current stable of authors – I’ve recently read a batch of Baen books which have all impressed me and Van Name is one more to add to the list.

His characterisation of Jon is extremely deftly done in first person viewpoint – we get a real sense of how damaged and closed off he is because of his horrific childhood. At times, this is played for laughs – Jon’s complete cluelessness with women and Lobo’s merciless teasing creates some welcome humour in amongst the ever-tightening tension. There are also times when Jon’s essential loneliness creates a real sense of poignancy. I also very much liked the fact that despite their formidable strengths, Lobo and Jon are not depicted as invincible. They are up against a major organisation and there is a realistic appreciation of just what a difficult business it is for an outsider to gain access to Wei, the unscrupulous scientist, whom Jon and Lobo are contracted to extract. The other aspect to this book, which is a recurring theme throughout, is that Jon is determined that no one should die unnecessarily. He constantly wants to use trank weapons and is concerned that injuries he inflicts on his opponents aren’t life threatening. In a genre where violence is a staple and bloodstained bodies are part of the landscape, I found this preoccupation both enjoyable and a refreshing change. Jon is very aware that it is only his moral compass that sets him apart from a monstrous killing machine – and doesn’t let the reader forget it, yet manages to avoid any kind of preaching. It’s a clever trick to pull off.

Van Name’s pacing is faultless. It zips along at an appreciable rate so that a 541 page book didn’t seem long, yet at no time what I ever left in any doubt exactly what was happening in any of the action scenes. He also manages to effectively provide the whole unfolding plotline from a single viewpoint without sliding into omniscient viewpoint or holding up the action with a lot of description – an achievement which is a great deal harder than Van Name makes it look. He also earns a gold star from me by managing to make a third book in a series sufficiently stand alone, that I didn’t feel I was missing anything by not having read the two earlier books, One Jump Ahead and Slanted Jack. Having said that, I’m definitely going to try and get hold of them – Van Name is a great storyteller whose world is worth another visit.

10/10

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Review of The Legacy by Katherine Webb

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This book was recommended to me by my mother; I picked it up with no great hopes from the cover – and within a handful of pages was hooked.

In the depths of a harsh winter, Erica and Beth Calcott return to the house where they spent idyllic summers as children. As Erica sorts through her late grandmother’s belongings, strange fragments of family history and vivid memories break the surface of the present day… Memories of their cousin, Henry, who disappeared on summer long ago. Of their grandmother, a bitter woman, full of a deep dark hatred.

As Eric sifts through remnants of the past, a secret emerges, reaching all the way back to a beautiful heiress in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma. As past and present converge, Erica and Beth must come to terms with two terrible acts of betrayal – and the heartbreaking legacy left behind.

And there you have it. The book is split between two narratives – Erica, in first person viewpoint, tells of her present day hunt forthelegacy something in their past to help her fragile sister, Beth. While Caroline’s story, set in Oklahoma in the early 1900’s, is told in third person point of view. It’s a tricky balancing act. Almost inevitably in dual narrative books, I generally find myself drawn to one of the stories above the other. However, Webb’s flawless pacing and deft characterisation ensured that I was equally absorbed in both these plotlines. She also manages to pull off another neat trick; there is quite a lot of foreshadowing in this book, which certainly had me making certain assumptions about where the story was going – only to find that it didn’t. Yet, at no point was I exasperated.

This is an extraordinarily accomplished debut book that tells two intertwining stories with such clarity, that I’ve read several reviews that described this book as ‘simple’ and ‘uncomplicated’. However, there are plenty of elements within this book that could have rapidly caused the story to degenerate into an impenetrable mess in the wrong hands.  In addition to her skilful handling of the plot structure, Webb’s writing is a delight to read. Both main characters give detailed descriptions of their surroundings without holding up the narrative tension, which steadily builds so that I read late into the early morning to discover exactly what happened. I also appreciated the fact that Webb also manages to have one of her heroines commit a terrible act without losing the sympathy of the reader.

I found I was genuinely moved by this book – the effect of what happened wreaks havoc on this family and Webb is unflinching in exposing this to our gaze. So, after a 400 page build up, keeping me on tenterhooks right to the end, does the climax and denouement deliver? Absolutely. And again, although Webb manages to make it look very straightforward – this is a tricky balancing act when dealing with a dual narrative. Two story strands have to come to a convincing and satisfactory ending and in this case, there also has to be an answer to a major mystery dangled in front of our noses for most of the novel… If this had somehow fallen flat, or I had successfully guessed the answer fifty pages from the end, then The Legacy would have been seriously compromised – and it isn’t.

Small wonder, then, that this book was recommended as one of the TV Book Club’s 2010 summer reads. If you missed it and you enjoy a well-constructed, engrossing family drama – go and hunt for a copy. You’ll be glad you did…

9/10

Review of Dead Reckoning – Book 11 of the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris

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So… with the TV adaptation of this series by HBO acclaimed by both critics and fans and as yet another volume hits the bookshelves, the question has to be – has Harris managed to give us yet another slice of Sookie magic? Is she able to still deliver the freshness and appeal of our favourite cocktail waitress after she’s been through more scary adventures than you’d want in a lifetime?

Sookie Stackhouse is a cocktail waitress in Bon Temps, Louisiana. It’s a job that has its own challenges, but now the vampires and thedead reckoning shapeshifters are finally ‘out’, you’d think the supernaturals would get on with each other. But nothing is that simple in Bon Temps! …and Sookie has a knack for being in trouble’s way; not least when she witnesses the firebombing of Merlotte’s, the bar where she works. Since Sam Merlotte is known to be two-natured, suspicion immediately falls on the anti-shifters in the area. Sookie suspects otherwise, but before she can investigate something else – something even more dangerous comes up.

Sookie’s lover, Eric Northman and his ‘child’ Pam are plotting something in secret. Whatever it is, they seem determined to keep Sookie out of it, almost as determined as Sookie is to find out what is going on. She can’t sit on the sidelines when both her work and her love life are under threat – but as their plans gradually become clear, Sookie finds the situation is deadlier than she could ever have imagined.

And there you have it. As you’ll have gathered from the blurb, Harris is still capable of delivering a plot full of narrative tension and adventure as Sookie is plunged once more into the heart of vampire politics. As the plot drew me in and once more whisked me off into Bon Temps alongside Sookie, I was once more filled with admiration at how adroitly Harris avoids pitfalls other less able writers nosedive into. For starters, Harris doesn’t assume that everyone who picks up Dead Reckoning has read any or all of the previous books in the series. There is the odd explanatory sentence slipped in as to who all the characters are and a quick mention of a previous incident – also very handy for the more forgetful of her fans. And – even more importantly – Harris ensures right at the start of the book, there is a scene featuring Sookie in trouble to bond her with the readers, either for the first time or reintroduce her to those of us who have read one or three other books since the last time we lost ourselves in a Sookie adventure… It’s a neat trick. One I wish other multi-book authors would use more often (Jim Butcher, John Scalzi, C.J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold are among the honourable exceptions who also successfully employ this strategy). It’s exasperating to wade through a sequel with a boring protagonist I really cared about in the first book, because the author hasn’t made the effort to establish that main character with the readership, again.

I’ve always enjoyed Sookie’s character and the bone-dry humour threading through the books – and this book continues to deliver, as we see her on one hand wandering around with a handbag full of stakes while planning a baby shower for her friend, Tara. I enjoy the tension between all the supernatural happenings and Sookie’s efforts to keep on top of the housework and going to work. No one else manages to weave the mundane and weird together so well, heightening one with the everyday contrast and sharpening our sympathy with someone who also struggles to keep her house clean and tidy…

I was slightly startled to register that I plucked this book off the shelf marked ‘Horror’. Of course it is a judgement call – one person’s urban fantasy is another person’s horror, but I do worry whether the steamy, blood-soaked depiction of Bon Temps by the folks at HBO are skewing expectations of this delightful series. Yes, Sookie’s sexual encounters are described, but Harris isn’t anything like as graphic as many other writers in the sub-genre – and certainly doesn’t go in for a blow-by-blow account of the naked writhings HBO insists on showing us. While I do think that HBO have absolutely nailed the sense of the world and have managed to get Sookie, Bill, Eric and Pam physically very close to Harris’s creations, a lot of the humour that leavens the horror is missing.

While I’ll continue to tune into True Blood, I still feel that the TV series is lacking some of the best elements of the books. This is one of a handful of worlds I happily reread, and the latest offering, Dead Reckoning, still delivers Sookie with all her vivid Southern charm.

10/10

What They HAVEN’T Told You About Our Public Libraries…

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I wrote this article last year in response to a press release by the Government, informing us that numbers visiting public libraries were in decline.  Given what has been happening since then, I thought it might be worthwhile to repost it – as I believe the argument I’m making is even more relevant now than it was then…

Cash-strapped councils around the country must have thought Christmas had come, when a Government report was published earlier this week. This story broke with headlines such as:
The number of adults visiting libraries in England has fallen steadily over the last five years

The same article later went on to say:
‘The number of weekly library goers in England has gone down by 32% in 5 years. More than 60% of us have not stepped foot inside a library in the last year.’ (BBC News Website, 24th August 2010)

The survey published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports paints a depressing picture of a steady decline in library use, although it did concede that the figures for children’s attendance had remained constant during the same period. Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, has been making concerned noises about the state of the library service since he took over the post, and in response to the Survey asked for people to think “imaginatively about where libraries could be”…

If that isn’t an open invitation for councils to forge ahead with a series of closures, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. After all, the Government’s figures prove that public libraries are an increasing irrelevance, don’t they? Stacked up against other tough decisions hard-pressed councils face, closing down your local library, shunting some of the stock and a few computers into the corner of a local Tesco will be a really soft option. Particularly because by the time they’ve done it, we’ll all be convinced that despite the fact that we miss our local library and its wide range of services, we’re the exception because everyone knows the public library service is a dwindling, broken thing. But before you shrug your shoulders helplessly and mutter about how modern life no longer seems to value the institutions that have defined our country for generations – such as a nationwide network of free lending libraries – take a look at ANOTHER set of statistics I’ve unearthed. This lot come from the LISU, a research and information centre for library and information services.

First of all, apologies for the BIG numbers. We are talking hundreds of millions, here. So if you were under the impression it’s just you and your Uncle Albert who still are quaintly old fashioned enough to regularly use your library, I’m sorry to burst your bubble – there’s more of us than you have been led to believe.

In 2008/09, there were 324,991,354 visits to libraries. Ah, you’re saying—there’s a bunch of libraries in colleges, universities and the odd private collection dotted around the country, she’s added those to the mix, to big up the numbers. Nope. That’s another set of numbers. These are just the visits to public libraries, like the one you currently have in your neighbourhood. So much for an increasing irrelevance… What is undeniable, is that the number of visits have been steadily dropping for the last five years. Hm. About that five year thing… The Government used percentages in their press release about their survey, rather than raw figures, I noticed.

But the numbers fluctuate more than you’d think from that press release. Just take look at the table below:

Table showing numbers of visits to public libraries

2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004//05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
*323,916 318,155 323,042 336,951 336,984 342,168 337,316 328,485 324,991

*Please add 000 to each figure, which I’ve rounded to the nearest thousand.

As you can see, although there has been a decline since 2005, there have been times when the numbers of library visits were below last year’s figure, while the highest number of visits were in 2005. Suddenly all those statistics, giving the percentage drop from 2005 to last year, make horrible sense. I believe there is a concerted campaign going on to convince us that our libraries are an outmoded, irrelevant part of our lives and need to be changed – ‘reshaped’ was the word that Mr Vaizey used. Or is it a massive coincidence that the Government survey used that 2005 spike, which just happen to emphasise the percentage decrease in numbers of visits?

The other little nugget of information I uncovered while scrolling through the LISU site, was tucked away under Other Services, – the number of visits to the public library website. I use this constantly to order books not available at my local branch, which cuts down the amount time I spend physically browsing in the library. Surely, I cannot be the only person whose visits to the library have lessened as the online facility has become more reliable? In 2006-07, the library website received approximately 64 million visits and last year that number had increased to around 113 million visits. And the ‘golden’ year of 2005? There are no available figures. So last year, if you add the virtual visits to the physical ones, you get over 437 million visits to our local libraries – an overall increase that makes the concern generated about our ‘failing’ library service look far less plausible.

I’m not going to gloss over the problems – the number of adults who use public libraries is steadily dropping, while the number of children is rising, slowly and steadily, according to LISU figures. Which is another interesting variation from the Government survey, which claims that children’s visitor numbers ‘remain steady’. The other big problem is that the number of books in the public library collection is declining year on year and many libraries around the country have been subjected to reduced opening hours, just when the public have grown to expect a 24 hour service from other facilities.

libraryBut I have a terrible feeling that local councils, desperate to claw back some money on their overstretched budgets, will use the Government survey as an excuse to axe a number of libraries across the country. One estimate is that between 800 and 1000 libraries are at risk – that is approaching a quarter of the country’s libraries.

We all saw what happened to our local Post Offices when we sat back and left it to the Government to sort out. Rustington used to have a modern, well designed Post Office that was heavily used by the community. These days, the town’s Post Office is crammed in the back of a local shop. Queues often stretch out of the door and while shuffling around the aisles, jostled by shoppers, I reflect bitterly that I should have made more of a fuss when the apparently reasonable alternatives were being proposed – which at the time did not include our current grim reality. I’m not making the same mistake, twice.

I believe that if we want to hang onto our public library network, we’ll have to fight for it. The first step is to understand that the Government will look the other way in the name of ‘progress’ when local councils propose slashing the service. These heavily massaged figures are the start of a Government initiative to talk our library service into the ground.

Mr Vaizey more or less admitted it, when he said, “A strong library service, based around the needs of local people, can play a key role in our ambitions to build the Big Society by providing safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn and access a range of community services.”  Er. We’ve got ‘safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn… blah, blah,’ Unless, of course, he means safe, cheap and inclusive spaces. In which case, in the Big Society we are all learning to dread, you might find yourself dodging supermarket trolleys as you look for the latest good read…

Review of ebook Engineman by Eric Brown

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This Kindle edition of Eric Brown’s interesting offering caught my eye as I enjoyed Brown’s Bengal Station trilogy. The most professionally produced ebook I’ve read so far, I didn’t notice any typos or mistakes and the formatting was flawless. Once I finished the novel, there was an additional collection of short stories, all set in the same world.

Once the Enginemen pushed bigships through the cobalt glory of the nada-continuum. But faster than light isn’t fast enough anymore. The interfaces of the Keilor-Vincicoff Organisation bring planets light years distant a simple step away. Then a man with half a face offers ex-Engineman Ralph Mirren the chance to escape his ruined life and push a ship to an undisclosed destination. The nada-continuum holds the key to Ralph’s future. What he cannot anticipate is its universal importance – nor the mystery awaiting him on the distant colony world.

And there you have it. This isn’t full-on, action-stuffed adventure that whisks you up on page one and doesn’t let you catch your enginemanbreath until the closing sentence. This is an adventure, alright and it steadily gains momentum as the book progresses, but this particular world is an intrinsic part of the story and as such, Brown is at pains to set the scene. Paris is vividly described as a fading city, overrun in parts with alien vegetation as the population continues to move away to more thriving places, both on and off Earth. The previously bustling port and centre of the bigship industry is sliding into inexorable decline – I felt there was a strong comparison to the Port of London after cargo containerisation became the norm. And just as parts of Paris are no longer vital, neither are the Enginemen – those once elite corps of men and women whose brainwaves ‘pushed’ the bigships into the nada-continuum while in a trance-like state called the flux, allowing the ships to travel thousands of light-years in a matter of weeks and months. However, once interfaces were invented so that people could actually walk or drive through to colony planets, the Enginemen were obsolete and unwanted…

The book explores the plight which echoes that of generations of men and women through the ages who have found their skills are suddenly redundant.  Many of these highly skilled people, hungering for the neural high they can only achieve when pushing bigships, take refuge in the religion of the Enginemen – while others cannot manage to grasp at the comfort that this spirituality offers.  This is science fiction at its best – looking at contemporary issues through a futuristic lens…

Brown’s world is so engrossing, the story running through it was almost a distraction and I wasn’t wholly convinced by the ending, which I felt was a bit too unconvincingly upbeat, given the gnarly issues that Brown addresses. However as it got going, it drew me in and I particularly became involved in Ellie’s plotline. I think that Brown’s female protagonists work better than his men – a tendency that is emphasised in the short stories. That said, the characters were all suitably complex and interesting and held my interest throughout.

Any grizzles? Well… it might be a picky point – but as the world is so carefully constructed, it did somewhat jar that as all this alien vegetation engulfed chunks of Paris, at no point did anyone mention any attempts to control or monitor what was growing. Even in a rundown area, I still think there would be – at sporadic intervals – fully overalled, masked teams stomping through, spraying various noxious substances around the place, probably with a glorious disregard for human health, this being a Brown novel. Even if it wasn’t effective, humanity’s hang-ups about the ‘other’ would not tolerate such a laissez-faire attitude to rampant creepers punching through buildings…  In the scheme of things, though, this is a relatively minor point and despite my misgivings about the ending, I think Engineman is an excellent read, raising some pertinent questions about how technology is constantly stranding groups of people who strained to train to acquire a skill – only to find themselves on the scrapheap a few years further down the line.

Which brings me onto the short stories. As they were set in the same world, often addressing the same themes and echoing some of the plotpoints in the novel, I got the impression that a number of them were written alongside the book, helping Brown ‘write his way’ into the storyline. As a result, I found a number of them were so similar in tone and plot to aspects of the novel, I don’t think they offered very much in the way of extra insights into the world. This is particularly applicable to The Girl Who Died for Art and Lived and the award-winning The Time-Elapsed Man. Both were excellent stories, but I do question whether they should have been at the end of this particular book. However, a couple did break away from this tendency and I found Big Trouble Upstairs and The Pineal-Zen Equation really enjoyable reads.

Overall, I thoroughly recommend this ambitious book, which will leave me pondering some of the ideas it raises for a long time to come.

8/10

Review of Twisted Metal by Tony Ballantyne

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This is a story all about robots, living in a robot world. But before you embark on this novel– know that the grim cover is far closer to the tone and style of this book than any cosy childhood memories you might harbour of Metal Mickey…

twistedmetalPenrose: A world of intelligent robots who have forgotten their own distant past. A world where all metal, even that of their own wire-based minds, is fought over – a valuable resource to be reused and recycled.  Now full-scale war looms, as the soldiers of Artemis sweep across the continent of Shull, killing or converting every robot to their stark philosophy. Only the robots of Turing City stand in their way. Robots who believe that they are something more than metal. Karel is one such robot. Or is he?

Ballantyne has pulled off a nifty trick, here. He has produced a credible world of metal beings who are gendered – the male robots provide the wire that the females can twist and weave into a mind that powers the average robot for somewhere between thirty to forty years. However, females in Artemis no longer take time to think and decide exactly what traits they are going to include into their children’s minds – they are indoctrinated into the ethos of Nyros, that all minds are only metal, so each robot’s needs and wishes is subordinate to the State. I’m sure this is starting to ring bells amongst the non-robots amongst you… While the action scenes and carnage surround the war are depicted with clarity and power, this book is so much more than a military shoot ‘em up romp.

As we are pulled into the action through the varying viewpoints of Ballantyne’s cast of metal characters, we are confronted with some familiar themes and ideas set in a novel background. It works extremely well in giving a fresh spin on the themes of the rights of the individual, opposed to that of the State… the rise of myths in the need to create stories that make sense of our beginnings and our role within our landscape… the sheer brutality of war… And if you don’t believe that metal creatures who can replace severed limbs with a couple of clicks are able to be tortured, Ballantyne gives a disturbingly visceral plausibility to their ability to inflict all sorts of suffering on each other…

This is an engrossing, well-told story about an intriguing world and I’m currently halfway through the sequel, Blood and Iron, in which humankind puts in an appearance and it is every bit as good as the first book. I highly recommend this thought-provoking read that will be lingering in my mind long after I’ve finished with the series…

10/10

Review of Graceling by Kristin Cashore – Book 1 of The Seven Kingdoms trilogy

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I discovered on Google that this New York Times Best Seller is a YA book. Although I had guessed from the restraint shown in both the fights and romantic scenes, I wouldn’t let that label dissuade a more mature reader from picking up this fantasy book. The characters are well drawn, particularly the main female protagonist; and the world has some interesting original touches that drew me in. Cashore writes with pace and this enjoyable tale kept me reading far into the night, when I should have been asleep…

In a world where people born with an exceptional skill, known as a Grace, are both feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of a gracelingskill even she despises: the Grace of killing.  As a Graced killer who has been able to kill a man with her bare hands from the age of eight, she’s forced to work as the king’s thug. Feared by the court and shunned by those her own age, the darkness of her Grace casts a heavy shadow over Katsa’s life.

When the King of Liend’s father is kidnapped she investigates and stumbles across a mystery. Who would want to kidnap the old man, and why? The intrigue surrounding this crime offers her a way out of her violent life that she has come to loathe. But little does she realise as she plunges into this adventure that the menace awaiting can even overwhelm her superhuman strength and threatens to engulf all the Seven Kingdoms…

Katsa is related to King Randa, which doesn’t stop him coldly using her as a tool to perform his dirty work, when his grasping, bullying tactics do not work on his hapless subjects. Katsa is, unsurprisingly, damaged by her upbringing – and Cashore manages to depict the flaws in her heroine, without holding up the story in any way. Given Katsa’s ability to battle and kill quantities of foes, Cashore manages to come up with an ingeniously wicked villain who poses a real threat to this apparently invincible protagonist. The inevitable romantic sub-plot is also well handled, managing to deliver some unexpected twists along the way and building to a strong ending. It comes as no surprise to learn that Graceling has appeared on a number of listings, including the ALA’s William C. Morris YA Award and was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction & Fantasy Award. Altogether, a satisfying and engrossing read that had me immediately reaching for the second book in the series, Fire.  At present the final book in the series, Bitterblue is due to be released in June 2012 .

9/10