Monthly Archives: May 2012

Review of Orphaned Worlds – Book 2 of Humanity’s Fire by Michael Cobley

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You’ve picked up a copy of Orphaned Worlds, lured by the cool spacescape on the cover and Iain M. Banks recommendation, but haven’t yet encountered the first book in the series. Whatever you do, don’t attempt to read it before hunting down that first instalment, Seeds of Earth. Orphaned Worlds is very much a mid-series book and as this space opera adventure is on an epic scale, orphanedworldstrying to work out what exactly is going on means some serious flailing around. I know – I tried it…

Seeds of Earth has mostly been very well received by critics and readers alike who enjoy this sub-genre. So, the question has to be – does Orphaned Worlds manage to sustain the standard set by Seeds of Earth?

Darien is no longer a lost outpost of humanity, but the prize in an intergalactic power struggle. Hegemony forces have a stranglehold over the planet and crack troops patrol its hotspots while Earth watches, rendered impotent by galactic politics. But its Darien ambassador will soon become a player in a greater conflict. there is more at stake than a turf war on a newly discovered world. An ancient Uvovo temple hides access to a hyperspace prison, housing the greatest threat sentient life has ever known. Millennia ago, malignant intelligences were caged there following an apocalyptic war. And their servants work on their release.

I believe this sequel would have benefitted with a Story So Far summary. Cobley did try to help by providing both a list of characters and the 18 different species of aliens that crop up in the story (I wasn’t kidding when I said it was ‘epic’…) and while they were useful reminders after having read Seeds of Earth, neither list was much help when attempting to read Orphaned Worlds first time around.

After completing Seeds of Earth, I found that Orphaned Worlds plunged straight into the story. This is a much faster-paced book as Cobley had already set up the dynamics of his world and we are now in the throes of the conflict, so there are a variety of battles with all the main protagonists – and the antagonists – fighting for their lives both in space and on a number of worlds. As in Seeds of Earth, the story is narrated in third person pov by the various characters, with each chapter titled by the viewpoint character’s name. This gives the reader a great deal of help – absolutely necessary while the action keeps rolling forward.

There is a lot less of the scene setting that silted up Seeds of Earth and I feel that Cobley really hits his stride during this instalment of the Humanity’s Fire series. If you enjoyed Seeds of Earth, I believe that you will certainly find Orphaned Worlds an equally engrossing, entertaining read and I look forward to getting hold of the final book in the trilogy, The Ascendant Stars.
8/10

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Review of City of Ghosts – Book 3 of The Downside Ghosts by Stacia Kane

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This gritty urban fantasy is an interesting take on ghosts and magic in a world where the Church has taken control and trains witches and wizards.

cityofghostsChess Putnam has a lot on her plate. Mangled human corpses have started to show up on the streets of Downside and Chess’s bosses at the Church of the Real Truth have ordered her to team up with the ultra-powerful Black Squad agency to crack this grisly case. Chess is under a binding spell that threatens death if she talks about the investigation, but the city’s most notorious crime boss – and Chess’s drug dealer – gets wind of her new assignment and insists on being kept informed. If that isn’t bad enough, a sinister street vendor appears to have information Chess needs. Only he’s not telling what he knows or what it all has to do with the vast underground City of Eternity.

Now Chess will have to navigate killer wraiths and a lot of seriously nasty magic – all while coping with some not so small issues of her own. And the only man she can trust to help her through it all has every reason to want her dead.

This is the third book in the series and as I hadn’t come across the previous two instalments, the first hurdle was to negotiate the backstory. However, Kane manages to reprise all the necessary connecting plot points without holding up the narrative – a fairly nifty trick, as it happens. As you may have gathered by the blurb, Chess isn’t exactly squeaky clean. She is a drug addict who also happens to be a talented witch – an interesting take on the whole urban fantasy magic-user scene, if not entirely original.

Kane is at pains to depict Chess as something of an anti-hero – in addition to being a drug addict and using her highs to feed her magical talent, she has also been around the block one or three times… And uses the full range of graphic swear words to describe said block. Chess also has a somewhat torrid love life. Fully depicted in all its… torridness. Add in some fairly gruesome descriptions of the dark magic that is practised, then you have a book that is definitely more along the lines of True Blood, rather than Harry Potter and isn’t one I’d recommend for the shelves of your fourteen year old.

However, if graphic sex and language doesn’t offend you, then this is an urban fantasy that zips forward at full tilt and doesn’t ease off until the final page. In common with some of the better written books in this sub-genre, there is a sprinkling of humour to leaven the dark nature of the magic and I enjoyed Chess’s snappy first person narrative voice – although personally I could have done with a few less ‘f’ words. And one of the sex scenes (the one in the public toilets) seemed unrealistic to the point of silliness.

The baddies were convincingly scary and I particularly liked the passages during the Church rituals, which managed to convey a real sense of menace. Kane is very good at providing detailed and threatening backdrops to her various adventures without losing pace or narrative tension, which is trickier to pull off than Kane makes it look. Overall, I enjoyed the story and felt that Chess was an interesting and mostly convincing protagonist. City of Ghosts certainly enlivened a long train journey and I shall be interested to see how Kane further develops this character.
8/10

Review of V is for Vengeance – Book 22 in the Kinsey Millhone by Sue Grafton

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This is the latest offering in the long-running series about P.I. Kinsey Millhone, For those of you who haven’t picked up a Grafton alphabet thriller, starting with A is for Alibi which was published way back in 1982, you may not be aware that Grafton’s spiky female detective was a trailblazer. Back in the day, women detectives weren’t exactly thick on the ground and the fact that so many of them now exist is in no small part a tribute to Grafton’s successful series.

However, thirty years after the first book was published, the question has to be asked – is V for Vengeance a worthy addition to this visforvengeanceworld famous franchise? Does the latest novel still have the sparky freshness that made it fly off the shelves all those years ago?

In Las Vegas, a young college graduate decides to borrow a large amount of money to stake his new career as a professional poker player. However, things don’t end well when the money is funded by the notorious criminal Lorenzo Dante. Two years later, Kinsey Millhone finds herself watching a woman, Audrey Vance, shoplifting a number of items and helps in her capture. Events take a much darker turn when Audrey’s body is discovered beneath the Cold Spring Bridge, a local suicide spot.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo Dante is becoming weary of his criminal activities and very much aware that the police are steadily closing in. He has other concerns – his faltering love affair; his increasingly mentally impaired father who founded the current organisation; and above all, his younger brother Cappi, whose impulsive and dangerous behaviour has posed all sorts of problems. As Kinsey’s enquiries reach a dramatic head, it becomes clear that she and Dante have one thing in common – they must be careful who they trust…

As is apparent from the blurb, there are a number of plotlines weaving their way through this book and Kinsey’s ongoing investigation and everyday life is only one strand in this book. Do the other characters manage to provide sufficient balance against Kinsey’s powerful, established narrative voice? Absolutely. The book starts with a bang, and while Grafton has always been about steadily winding up the tension throughout her books, this one really had me reading into the wee small hours. I particularly enjoyed Dante’s character – Grafton managed to make a criminal boss seem charming and vulnerable, which is a testament to her writing ability. Indeed, Dante even beguiles Kinsey into cutting him some slack – the only grizzle I had with the whole plot, as I think she is far too hard-edged and unforgiving with lawbreakers to suddenly acquire a soft spot for Dante. However, it is a minor niggle when set against the sheer excellence of the characters; the superb handling of the small details that breathe life into Kinsey’s daily activities; the steady increase in the narrative tension as we uncover the layers of secrecy surrounding all the major protagonists, with the exception of Kinsey. Until the wonderful reveal at the end, which gives the book its title and provides a brilliant extra dimension to one of the major conflict points throughout the novel.

And this is where I think that Grafton has been so very clever. I enjoy reading a number of successful long-running series featuring a single main protagonist and what most of them feel forced to do, is to continue providing extra surprises from their main character’s past. Grafton doesn’t see the need to go down this avenue – Kinsey Millhone is a character that we now know very well, as throughout the books we have learnt all about her difficult upbringing, her suspicious nature, her methodical approach to her work and her complete inability to cook, along with a dozen other traits. So while the main narrative voice is in Kinsey’s viewpoint, we are treated to a new cast of characters involved in her investigation, who have their own agendas. This also prevents the books becoming formulaic and predictable.

All in all, I think V is for Vengeance is a triumph. For my money, it is the best of the series so far – and for Grafton to be writing at this level thirty years after her first book is a testament to her talent and inventiveness. And leaves me with a nagging worry that increases with the passing years – once Grafton has published Z is for Zero, where do I go for my new slice of Kinsey Millhone magic?
10/10

Review of Seeds of Earth – Book 1 of Humanity’s Fire by Michael Cobley

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Talk about this space opera debut came up on the forums I lurk on more than once – and so I grabbed hold of a copy when it came my way and dived in…

seedsofearthThe first intelligent species to encounter mankind attacked without warning. With little hope of halting the invasion, Earth’s last roll of the dice was to dispatch three colony ships, seeds of Earth, to different parts of the galaxy. The human race would live on… somewhere.  Over a century later, the planet Darien hosts a thriving human settlement. But mankind’s new home harbours secrets dating back to the dawn of history. Secrets that could yet see a devastating war erupt across the entire galaxy…

This is space opera writ large – and although Cobley attempts to drop us into the middle of the rising action, I struggled for the first section. For starters, it seemed far too similar to a whole raft of other Avatar-type scenarios. Beautiful forest-like planet peopled by a (mostly) contented human population and quirky other-worldly aliens – until threatened by an aggressive rapacious enemy intent on acquiring the precious and unique something said planet has to offer… Yeah, yeah – yawwwn…

What actually held me was that a couple of the characters in this storyline were interestingly different – Catriona and Robert Horst both caught and held my attention in amongst the large cast who narrate the story in third person viewpoint. My perseverance paid off – the appearance of Kao Chih from another of the three ships and his desperate quest and various adventures suddenly lit up the whole book. The initial storyline became less of a cliché as it progressed and I found the notion of humanity caught between two vast, established alien powerblocks fascinating. It was always going to be a big ask for Cobley to be able to whisk his readers into the heart of a story with as many strands and scenarios that comprises this sprawling beast and I’m not convinced that he started in the right place. Both Greg and Theo, two of the main protagonists on Darien, are probably the least interesting characters – especially when set against some of the more intriguing protagonists on offer.

One of the issues examined in Seeds of Earth is the tension between natural humans and those with additional augmentations – while these beings regularly crop up in far future science fiction, their presence generally fades into the furniture – not so in this novel. As we are introduced to characters with and without AI companions, the political and personal consequences of such implants are thoroughly explored. Catriona, a researcher of Darien history and fauna, is a victim of a failed experiment to artificially boost the intellectual capacity of the small human colony as her Enhanced abilities start to falter when she hits puberty.

Overall, Cobley handles the large, varied cast of characters well and once the book hits its stride, I found the pace and narrative drew me right into the story. Any niggles? Well, I could have done with a lot less scene setting which at times interfered with my ability to bond with some of the characters and silted up the action, somewhat. But I am aware that many fans of space opera really enjoy the detailed depiction of the different land and spacescapes offered by authors of this genre. And despite my preference for less description, I was still hooked until the end and look forward to getting hold of the next book in the series, Orphaned Worlds.
8/10

Review of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

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This is an autobiography about Jeanette Winterson’s unusual and destructive childhood that was partly covered in her fictional version, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She was adopted by the Winterson’s, who were Pentecostalists. That could still, of course, worked out just fine – except that Mrs Winterson was very disappointed with Jeanette almost from the start when she proved to be baby that cried a lot… And from there it slid away into disaster. Mostly because you wouldn’t want to let Mrs Winterson near any breathing being – and the thought of having the small child depicted on the cover of the book at her mercy makes me feel queasy.

When Jeanette finally left home at sixteen, because she was in love with a woman, Mrs Winterson asked her, ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

This book is the story of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories about a girl locked out of home, sitting on the whybehappydoorstep all night; about a tyrant in the place of a mother, who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a northern industrial town now changed beyond recognition, part of a community now vanished; about the Universe as a Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how the painted past Jeanette Winterson thought she had written over and repainted returned to haunt her later life, and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her real mother. It is also a book about other people’s stories, showing how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft which supports us when we are sinking.

The blurb makes some big claims for this book – which, after all, isn’t terribly long – only 229 pages, and not particularly densely printed at that. However, Jeanette Winterson’s sharp, vitally intelligent and considered account is all of the above and more… There is the chippy resolve not to be annihilated that comes across so strongly in Oranges, along with the flashes of humour. However, this is a darker reality than the fictionalised version. Jeanette was far more isolated and bitterly aware of being unlovable and while some of Mrs Winterson’s more extreme behaviour tips into apparent farce, I was more shaken than inclined to laugh.

What this book isn’t, though, is one of the misery memoirs that hit the shelves a few years back. Jeanette Winterson would rather rip her tongue out by the roots than have her readers pity her – mostly because whatever else she did, she didn’t go around pitying herself. She was far too busy questing for books and finding ways to survive Mrs Winterson’s depressive and self-destructive attitude to Life. Indeed, she appeared to not only survive, but outright thrive once she fought free of Accrington. After getting herself into an Oxford college – a feat in itself back at a time when Oxbridge weren’t so scaldingly aware of the damaging faultlines in providing a first class education to only the privileged few – she produced a best-selling, award-winning book at a time when many of her contemporaries were still trying to learn how to survive on their own.

However, this isn’t a fairy story. This is reality – and the hard fact is that being told, ‘The Devil lead me to the wrong crib,’ leaves wounds. And while Jeanette managed to use reading and later, writing, to keep herself from sinking, the time finally came when the damage caught up with her. She describes her descent into madness (her word for it) with her customary honesty, as well as the gritted effort and the role of writing a children’s book in helping her find a way out. She also describes her search for her real mother – and once more, we are aware that this is not the soft-focused, effusively emotional business we are used to seeing on tv programmes.

However, don’t take my word for it – this is a book that has so much packed into it, it deserves being read at least once by anyone who’s had a bumpy childhood. You’ll come away feeling empowered and admiring.
10/10

Review of City of Dragons – Book 3 in The Rain Wild Chronicles by Robin Hobb

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We don’t buy many hardback books – we simply cannot afford it. But there are a few authors that we both love with a passion and cannot resist acquiring as soon as their books become available – Robin Hobb is one of that handful.

cityofdragonsSo – the question has to be – does City of Dragons live up to our expectations? Does it both continue the ongoing story about the stunted creatures sent up the lethally toxic river, along with the bunch of Changed youngsters that no one wanted around anymore – and provide yet more narrative tension as new plotlines draw us further into the world? I’m not going to reproduce the jacket blurb, as it travels deep into Spoiler country – and while those who regularly read my reviews know of my rants against blurting blurbs, in all honesty when you are into Book 3 of an ongoing series, it gets very difficult to avoid. Especially as the blurb reads more like the Story So Far. There are series where reading volume three of the adventure means that it’s hardly worth your trouble backtracking to the previous two books – but The Rain Wild Chronicles doesn’t fall into the category. Hobb is such a fine writer and weaves so much characterisation, wonderful scene setting and intriguing layers that are later picked up and further explored in interesting ways, that it would be a crying shame if you missed out on the pleasure of the two previous offerings. And if you haven’t picked up a Robin Hobb before, then don’t start with The Rain Wild Chronicles – you are selling yourself and the whole series short if you don’t at least read The Liveship Traders trilogy before this one.

As you may have gathered, I am something of a fan… and the answer to my earlier questions is yes. Hobb succeeds in re-establishing the main characters, along with their ongoing problems and still providing further knotty issues for them to confront. My favourite characters continue to be Thymara and Alise – along with the magnificently imperious Tintaglia and Sintara. But there is a varied cast whose viewpoints pull the story along, with some suitably threatening antagonists.  The ailing Duke of Chalced is a satisfying study in utter megalomania and we also continue to follow Alise’s self-absorbed husband, Hest Finbok, as he has to face to prospect that both Alise and Sedric, his former secretary, have apparently deserted their former lives.

It is interesting that Hobb has chosen to depict a same sex relationship in this series – and fairly courageous, as initially the main instigator is Hest, who is less than sympathetic. I was relieved to see that she has progressed this storyline and created a close, loving couple that we care about.

Hobb is masterful at scene setting – she manages to depict the eerie deserted streets of Kelsingra with the same vividness as the bustling trading settlement of Cassarick and the relatively established sophistication of Bingtown. Hobb has situated most of her previous trilogies in this setting – and it shows. There is the depth and layering of a fully realised world that you also see in Juliet E. McKenna’s work, where the author is aware of all the factions, with the resultant political tensions threading through the various storylines.

Any niggles? Well… I had assumed that as Hobb has presented us with a series of trilogies, that City of Dragons would wrap everything up – and it doesn’t. It has been a feature of this particular series that the endings of the books don’t provide a satisfying conclusion to any of the major plot threads. Ho hum – just need to grit my teeth and wait for Blood of Dragons to be released. In the meantime, it’s something to look forward to… more Robin Hobb!
10/10

Review of This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams

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This near-future thriller has a feel of Charles Stross’s Halting State – apart from the second person viewpoint and constant dry humour. There is the same sense of everything teetering on the edge of precipice, ready to slide into chaos at a few keystrokes from the wrong sort of people…

Dagmar is a game designer trapped in Jakarta in the middle of a revolution. The city is tearing itself apart around her and she needs tothis is not a game get out. Her boss Charles has his own problems – 4.3 billion of them to be precise, hidden in an off-shore account. Austin is the businessman. He’s the one with the plan and the one to keep the geeks in line. BJ was there from the start, but while Charlie’s star rose, BJ sank into the depths of customer service. He pads his hours at the call centre slaying online orcs, stealing your lot and selling it on the internet.

They all knew each other at college. They all promised to keep in touch. But when one of them is caught up in an international emergency, they are all sucked into a series of events that changes everything.

This enjoyable adventure comes with a caveat – stick with it. The start is rather a slow burn, but once you get fully into Dagmar’s point of view, the pace picks up and the narrative voice starts to convince. The bursts of violence are wholly believable because of the horror experienced by the protagonist. All too often in such books, a major character pickforked into a shocking situation seems to take it far too much in her stride – not so here. Williams manages to make me feel the enormity of the events as they unfold and by the end, I was reading late into the wee small hours to discover exactly who was doing what – and had a thorough blast with the denouement and climactic ending.

It is the voice and pacing that slightly slips at times and I get the impression that Williams isn’t entirely happy writing from a feminine point of view. However, the story and scenario are sufficiently compelling that I was prepared to overlook the slight unevenness in the main protagonist. For those of you who don’t know my tastes – this is a big Get-Out-of-Jail card, as I’m a gal who zeroes in on characters all the way, and is a testament to the pulling power of the plot. While I’ve concentrated on the thriller aspect of this book, there are some really enjoyable touches of humour – Williams’ has great fun with his gamers and their responses to the unfolding drama – which both manages to give some welcome relief to the gritted tension elsewhere, yet also highlight the gravity of the underlying situation. It’s a neat trick to pull off.

This is the first in a trilogy and I’m delighted to have managed to track down the other two books in the series, Deep State and The Fourth Wall and shall be shortly tucking into them. Watch this space for more Williams’ adventures.
8/10