Monthly Archives: March 2012

Review of EBOOK Principles of Angels – Book 1 of the Hidden Empire series by Jaine Fenn

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I met Jaine Fenn at Bristolcon, where she was the sole female science fiction writer speaking on the various panels. I had a chance to chat to her during the evening and made a mental note to get hold of her writing. I’m very glad I did, as her debut novel on my Kindle made a long train journey zip by in a blur of excitement and action.

principlesofangelsKhesh City floats above the surface of the uninhabitable planet of Vellern. Topside, it’s extravagant, opulent, luxurious; the Undertow is dark, twisted and dangerous. Khesh City is a place where nothing is forbidden – but it’s also a democracy, of sorts, a democracy by assassination, policed by the Angels, the elite, state-sponsored killers who answer only to the Minister, their enigmatic master. Taro lived with Malia, his Angel aunt, one of the privileged few, until a strange man bought his body for the night, then followed him home and murdered Malia in cold blood. Taro wants to find the killer who ruined his future, but he’s struggling just to survive in the brutal world of the Undertow. Elarn Reen is a famous musician, sent to Khesh City as the unwilling agent of mankind’s oldest enemy, the Sidhe. Though they come from different worlds, Taro and Elarn’s fates are linked, their lives apparently forfeit to other people’s schemes. As their paths converge, it becomes clear that the lives of everyone in Khesh City, from the majestic, deadly Angels to the barely-human denizens of the Undertow, are at risk. And Taro and Elarn, a common prostitute and an uncommon singer, are Khesh City’s only chance.

I know that my rant about blurting blurbs must be getting tedious – but I have heavily edited the above because if I hadn’t, you would have encountered a couple of major Spoilers in the opening action. Once more, I am grateful that I never read the back cover before starting a book.

So… this floating city with the privileged living a vastly better life than the underclass who – literally – struggle for survival under their feet – is it convincing and does it rise above the inevitable clichéd feel of that description? Yes – in my opinion it certainly does. And I’ve been startled to read some really unpleasant, sneering reviews about this book. What places it outside the norm for this genre is that Principles of Angels is completely character-driven. Perhaps the omission of a limited omniscient info-dump is perplexing some of those reviewing the book.  Well, it’s fine with me – I happen to think one of the reasons why Fantasy is currently trampling Science Fiction underfoot, is that the majority of best-selling Fantasy authors write punchy, character-led stories which readers find accessible and engrossing. And a large number of Science Fiction writers don’t…

Fenn drops her readers right into the middle of the action in Taro’s viewpoint as he battles for his life – his character sings off the pages from the start and continues to sparkle right through the book. He survives as a prostitute and while Fenn doesn’t flinch from showing us the seamy underbelly of such a trade, at no time does she slide into gratuitous detail. Overall, I felt the world-building was strong and convincing – we see slices of Khesh City from both above and below and I particularly liked Taro’s disorientation when he reaches Topside. The other detail in this book that I appreciated was the dialogue – complete with appropriate slang. Stupidity or absentmindedness (lethal when negotiating hanging walkways with holes or climbing nets) is known as being gappy; in comparison anything commendable is bolted.

The other main protagonist is off-world visitor, Elarn, who is on an unexpected singing tour. Her character is far more opaque – though it rapidly becomes clear that her tour is a cover for another mission. Khesh City is further fleshed out as we get to experience it through Elarn’s viewpoint as a newcomer with access to all the privilige and luxury the City has to offer. However, her plans quickly go awry when she encounters charismatic politician Salik Vidoran.

The pace sweeps onward from the first page and gets ever faster as we reach the climactic ending, which more or less ties everything up while leaving a couple of major issues dangling for the subsequent books in the series. Which means I’ve more opportunities to visit Fenn’s rich, engrossing world. Yay!
9/10

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Review of Felicity Fights Back by Stella Sykes

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While reading yet another romance about a sweet young thing, have you ever wished that the heroine was a bit more wrinkled and a lot less perfect? If so, then look no further than Stella Sykes’ entertaining debut novel about the trials of a feisty fifty-something.

FelicityfightsbackFinding herself divorced after thirty years marriage, Felicity moves to London intent on rebuilding her life. While she struggles to adjust to being single once more, her friends pitch in to help. Jane is determined to fix her up with an elderly version of Mr Right; Venetia masterminds Felicity’s physical transformation; while Rose provides her with a country haven where she can lick her wounds. And as for Felicity? Having spent most of her life as a wife and mother, she hasn’t a clue about what she wants to do – or with whom. But when her friends encounter their own crises, Felicity’s capability shines through, proving to herself – and those around her – that she still has a lot to offer.

When Stella Sykes stepped in at the last minute to talk to West Sussex Writers’ Club about how her book came to be written and published, her amusing personality guaranteed an entertaining evening. She told us that she was writing ‘boiler lit’, rather than ‘chic lit’ and enlivened her talk with a variety of funny anecdotes about her eventful life.

Sykes’ warm-hearted attitude informs her writing, reminding me – in places – of Maeve Binchey in her astute, but ultimately generous reading of human nature. However, I do feel there is a conflict within the book. It starts by being very funny, with a couple of set-piece scenes which had me chuckling aloud in the tradition of ‘chic lit with wrinkles’. But, as the story progressed, I became increasingly aware of the tension between the narrative and the humour, which became broader throughout the book in order to get around this problem. I get the impression that someone had been constantly nagging the author to be ‘funnier’. Which is a shame, because I think that insistence has sold this book short.

The plotline of the novel has sufficient narrative drive, enjoyable settings and memorable characters, without having to deliver laugh-aloud lines every few pages. And if you’re looking for a cosy, feel-good romance about an older woman, then I can thoroughly recommend it. I’ll certainly be looking out for her next book. As those of us who won’t see fifty again can testify, love still looms large on our horizons – even if the overwhelming majority of romantic fiction refuses to recognise it!
8/10

Review of Goddess of the Sea by P.C. Cast

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In the slew of paranormal romances out there, this one had a particularly intriguing premise – P.C. Cast mixes ancient myths and legends with the contemporary world, giving them a new, modern twist. As Goddess of the Sea is the first in the series, I decided to give it a go.

Home alone on the night of her twenty-fifty birthday, US Air Force sergeant Christine Canady yearns for something to cure her loneliness. After drinking too much champagne, she recites a divine invocation to revive her humdrum life. But how is she to know the spell actually works?

The blurb goes on for another long paragraph, but contains waaay too many spoilers in my opinion. I didn’t read the back of the book before starting it – and if I had, I would have probably complained that the first 100 pages dragged, like so many other reviewers, because I would have already known what was coming up. Instead, I was rather surprised at the plot twist which had Christine splashing about in the waves and intrigued to see where Cast would take the book, next. I think plotting is one of Cast’s main strengths as a writer – whatever I was half expecting just didn’t happen. Christine – or CC as she is called – definitely ends up in a completely different place to the military base where she has been working…

goddessoftheseaOf course for the book to really work, CC has to be an appealing, believable figure as the story is written in limited third person viewpoint. As it was a paranormal romance, I was expecting the typically strong, yet conflicted female, capable of significant violence when circumstances required. Cast ticked some of those boxes, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that when CC was put into a difficult situation, there was a genuine sense of danger. The fantasy didn’t revolve around her invulnerability, due to some hitherto unknown lethal ability to kill people in a messy manner. Which meant that the villains posed a real threat. And there were several to choose from – ranging from the over-the-top pantomime-type, to the creepy Abbot whose attitude towards women in general and CC in particular, was… nasty. While CC is mostly an appealing and generally likeable heroine, she seemed to cope with being yanked out of her timeline with a great deal of composure. I would have liked to have seen her more miserable at the lack of modern comforts – nothing to read, no TV or radio, no iPod… And though scrubbing chapels and meeting up with a merman may mop up a lot of time, just once I would have liked an internal rant at the general grime, discomfort and sheer inconvenience of living in an age with no running water, flushing toilets or electricity…

As for the supernatural aspect to the story – did it work? Hm… for me this was the major weakness. There was never any real explanation as to why CC’s drunken yearning for change appealed to the Goddess – and her resultant interventions in CC’s life were very much in the ‘…and then she waved her fairy wand’ school of Fantasy. While paranormal romance often concentrates on the romance rather than the paranormal aspect, I was a tad disappointed at the manner in which the Goddess seemed to pop up arbitrarily and sweep all before her – particularly when taking into account Cast’s evident ability to write an engrossing and believable world with plenty of tension. I felt that the magical side of the story could have been more strongly depicted and maybe have pervaded the episode in the monastery with a greater sense of menace and ‘otherness’.

Despite the above grumbles, the book held me to the end – which I didn’t see coming – and I found it an enjoyable read.
7/10

Review of The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare by Robert Winder

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Robert Winder certainly aims high. Not only does this fictionalised account of William Shakespeare’s final play concentrate on how he managed to create such a fine body of work; a subject that is probably discussed in every school, college and university where Shakespeare’s work is studied – Winder actually produces a five act version of the lost play, Henry VII, written in blank verse…

London, 1613. The Elizabethan golden age is over, replaced by James I’s reign of terror, and William Shakespeare has been orderedfinalactofmrshakespeare out of retirement to write one last play – a flattering treatment of James’ grandfather, Henry VIII. He gathers together his devoted troupe, The King’s Men, and they start work. However, after realising exactly how much Londoners are suffering under James, Shakespeare is driven to create something else – something far more dangerous. Something that he comes to believe will be his best work ever – his searing attack on monarchy in Henry VII is the play that he is proud to leave for posterity…

So – does Winder pull off this ambitious historical novel? First the good news. Winder has clearly rolled up his sleeves and done the necessary exhaustive research – and managed not to make it unduly show. Jacobean London is vividly depicted, complete with the sense of paranoia. All the main characters are well rounded and believable – even if I don’t agree with his take on Shakespeare. At the start of the book, William Shakespeare is portrayed as depressed, middle-aged and written out, feeling ashamed of the political foot-shuffling that produced works such as Richard III. When scooped up and ordered to produce another play by James’ henchman Edward Coke, he feels angry, humiliated and defiantly rebellious.

Hm – not too sure about this. While Elizabethan England may have produced a flowering of English literature with Shakespeare the undoubted pick of the crop, no one should go away with the notion that it was an age of political permissiveness. There was an extensive spy network operating throughout London during Elizabeth’s reign and if your face didn’t fit for whatever reason, you could find yourself whisked off to the Tower and there were no checks and balances to stop you being horribly tortured. Just because England managed to – somehow – survive against the might of the Spanish Armada, the prevailing view in Europe and amongst many informed Englishmen, was that it was just a matter of time before England fell under the control of Spain. The paranoia gripping the capital in the years after the Gunpowder Plot would have – surely – been entirely familiar to Shakespeare.

I also found the cagey, secretive character that Winder depicted lacking both charm and humour. It didn’t help that Winder wrote in limited omniscience, so that we kept sliding out of Shakespeare’s voice and back into Winder’s viewpoint. This hampered my bonding with Shakespeare, which was key to the novel. While I completely agree that he may have not been the rumbustious hell-raiser downing pints with Marlowe that has been formerly characterised, neither do I feel that this double-dealing, grumpy old git who carped about Edward Alleyn’s desire for Constance Donne, would have been capable of engendering the loyalty and affection shown him by The King’s Men. Just why  do they all risk life and limb – literally – to put on this seditious play? There was never a sufficiently pressing reason why these well established, successful folk would commit such a foolhardy act. The Shakespeare that sings off the page in his plays and incomparable poetry, bears no resemblance to the dangerously impetuous misery that stomps through the pages of this book.

As for the play… Having failed to convince me that Shakespeare would have risked his closest friends in such a reckless venture, I was interested to see how his effort to write a Shakespearean masterpiece would stand up. In fact, the blank verse is impressive. No doubt about it – Winder is a gifted chap. And the idea of the story is an intriguing one. There was much in the book that I enjoyed – but I never believed that the creator of King Lear, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet would be so stupidly pigheaded as to plunge himself and the people he cared about into such a dangerous project – all for the sake of posterity.
7/10

Review of Unclean Spirits – Book 1 of The Black Sun’s Daughter by M.L.N. Hanover

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Urban fantasy – constantly being dismissed as by its detractors as an annoying distraction from the real deal – continues going from strength to strength. A sign of healthy popularity in a genre is when authors go on producing intriguing twists to the original template. And that is exactly what Hanover has done in this enjoyable new series. For those of you interested in such things, M.L.N. Hanover is actually Daniel Abraham, he of The Long Price quartet and in yet another authorly incarnation, he has also written Leviathan Wakes as James S.A. Corey.

When college student Jayné Heller’s uncle is murdered, she goes to Denver to settle his estate and mourn the loss of the only member of her family who has always been on her side.  She discovers that her uncle has left her quite a legacy: a string of property across the world, several very full bank accounts – and an extremely unconventional business. It turns out Uncle Eric has been secretly fighting to rid the world of supernatural ‘riders’ – demons, vampires, werewolves and all sorts of other nasty parasites – since before Jayné was born. Now it’s up to Jayné to avenge her uncle’s death, and continue his work – if she can survive her first week on the job.

And that’s the blurb. There’s a lot in this novel that feels comfortably familiar to the dyed-in-the-wuncleanspiritsool fan – a conflicted, isolated heroine with a whole suite of supernatural powers that she somehow stumbles into; a major crisis set in an American city for which she is totally unprepared…  And yet – there are also some important differences that have this series earmarked as One To Watch. Jayné, a 22 year old college dropout, gets guilty after going on a spending spree with her newfound wealth and donates a large portion of her new wardrobe to those more needy than herself. When the fighting first hots up, while she can trade blows with the best of them, lining up a baddie in the cross-hairs and squeezing the trigger is beyond her. I enjoyed the thoughtfulness and real agonising that occurred before our heroine started taking out the opposition. It is refreshing for the inevitable violence to be depicted as a big deal – something intrinsically frightening and to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. And while the mandatory love interest is still there, it isn’t the engine that runs this story – the focus is all about the evil that Jayné and her team have undertaken to eradicate. Yep, she also has a team. Complete with their own issues and personal baggage. No doubt we’ll get to know a lot more about these characters as this series progresses. I’m particularly looking discovering more about Midian, a vampire cursed by the evil Randolph Coin, which makes him – temporarily – one of the good guys.

Which brings me onto the other enjoyable twist to this urban fantasy. Humankind is being preyed upon by demonic presences that invade a body like a parasite – having more in common with threadworms or head lice than the gorgeous fanged hunks that slink through so many other books in this genre. Hanover manages to bring a real sense of tension to this adventure, despite the fact that we know right from the start that Jayné will survive.

Any niggles? Well – of all the names on the planet that Hanover had to choose, Jayné seems the most annoyingly pretentious. Along with our protagonist’s regular whining about the fact that no one pronounces it correctly – why should they, when it simply comes across as a feeble attempt to spice up that solid staple, Jane? Other than this uncharacteristic – and wholly avoidable misstep – this is a well-written, thoroughly enjoyable offering and I am eagerly awaiting the second instalment in the series.
9/10

Review of Film – Woman in Black

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I’m a fan of the original book by Susan Hill and the successful West End play based on the book, so was a tad reluctant to go along and watch this film. Our experience wasn’t helped by the ‘Potter’ element in the packed cinema, who screeched at every set-piece scary moment. So… the main questions regarding this film have to be – did Daniel Radcliffe pull off his first major adult role since Harry Potter and did Jane Goldsmith’s screenplay measure up to the very high standards set by both the book and play?

daniel-radcliffe-in-the-woman-in-black-2012-movie-image-21-e1325636326516Radcliffe plays young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, still reeling after the death of his wife in childbirth some three years earlier. He is sent off to the depths of Norfolk to Eel House by his grumpy senior partner, with the injunction to sort through the mass of paperwork left by deceased reclusive widow Alice Drablow – with the instruction that if he doesn’t do a thorough job, he needn’t bother returning. Radcliffe’s pale-faced expressions of suffering and terror certainly ticked the box. It wasn’t a part that demanded much else – and his particular skill-set absolutely delivered what was required. Could he have done more? Not as far as I’m concerned. The major sin in this part would have been to overact – and Radcliffe’s pared, mature performance meant that at no time did the mass of over-excited teenage girls burst into laughter.

This version is set in Edwardian times and Radcliffe is well supported by Ciarán Hinds, who plays the local landowner – the only person in this inbred, grimy part of Norfolk prepared to be friendly to the London lawyer. Director James Watkins has fully exploited the gothic creepiness pervading the play, right up to the limit. There are tension-filled shots of macabre-looking toys, smeared windows and dusty corners of this neglected house – interspersed with genuinely frightening glimpses of an emaciated female. The effect is heightened by the fact that we never get more than a fleeting glance. Amid the gloom and cobwebs, the story steadily unfolds until we arrive at the sudden twist ending.

Goldsmith chose to completely depart from the play’s grimly effective climax, and while I was up to that point, quite happy to go along with the genuinely menacing atmosphere that Watkins had crafted, as the end credits rolled, I felt that the last few minutes were a real letdown. A shame – especially for those of us who have seen the play. I’m still trying to work out why a writer of Goldsmith’s calibre chose such a lame option for the finale, but it certainly knocked a couple of points off my final score as it spoilt what was mostly, an enjoyably creepy film.
7/10