Monthly Archives: December 2013

Review of The Iron Wyrm Affair – Book 1 of Bannon & Clare by Lilith Saintcrow

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Steampunk is maturing into a thoroughly established sub-genre with genuine strength and depth – and the proof of that is the appearance last year of this offering.

iron wyrmLondon’s geniuses are being picked off by a vicious killer, and Emma Bannon, a sorceress in the service of the Empire, must protect the next target, Archibald Clare. Unfortunately he’s more interested in solving the mystery of the murders than staying alive…  In a world where illogical magic has turned the industrial revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare will face dark sorcery, cannon fire, high treason and the vexing problem of reliably finding hansom cabs in the city.

This book hits the ground running. Emma Bannon has a dark, difficult past and Saintcrow doesn’t bother filling us in on all the high jinx she has previously got up to – just alludes to it from time to time. Which is fine by me. She is a sorceress at the top of the pile, wealthy and established, and very loyal to Queen Victrix, the young queen who also embodies the ancient force of Britannia. To have that much reach and become so powerful in such a world, she is bound to have trodden on feet and knocked about a bit. She is also a protagonist in – hopefully – a reasonably long-running series. Saintcrow can go one of two ways – start with her as a raw apprentice and take her on a journey of steadily growing in power (sound familiar?) – or she can drop us into her career at its zenith where she will be fighting big scary stuff and teetering constantly on the edge of burnout. Given the plethora of well-written series that have taken the former option, I am very comfortable that Saintcrow has chosen the other course. And that she doesn’t choose to chart Bannon’s previous intrigues with her readership – the slight mystery and threat surrounding her makes her all the more alluring.

Archibald Clare also has a murky past. As a mentath, he is borderline high-functioning autistic and leaves geniuses trailing in the dust. He is also allergic to magic on the grounds that it is entirely illogical. So the relationship between himself and Bannon is innately tense. Refreshingly, there is no romance between them. I’d like to think it stays that way – their professional relationship is interesting enough and Bannon has her own way of seeking comfort. Lucky girl!

The world is detailed and engrossing – I found some of her descriptions owed more than a touch to Dickens – but at no time did the backdrop impede the narrative pace that clipped along at the usual headlong charge that seems to be the default in steampunk. I loved it. Saintcrow brings to the genre the taut, coiled-spring tension I normally see in urban fantasy and as soon as I finished this book, I cast around for the sequel, The Red Plague Affair, which I shall add to my special Christmas stockingful of particular treats for the festive holiday.
9/10

The Adventures of Mike and SJ – Episode 14

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This thread started on a forum Mike and I shared, when we started playing off each other about this alternative/fantasy persona we each gave ourselves. Since then, we’ve started writing a novel together and Mike has had a number of books published as Michael D. Griffiths (The Chronicles of Jack Primus, Part I, The Chronicles of Jack Primus, Part II, Eternal Aftermath) while I’ve been busy rewriting several books and establishing my Creative Writing classes at Northbrook College. But though he writes horror and I write sci fi, when we get together, we write… differently! So I thought I’d put a slice of our combined madness on my blog…

What I feel funny, but in a good way, like a five hundred pound weight has been lifted from my shoulders or maybe my brain!

Huh, what is that black glob of Cuthuhlu nastiness! SJ is screaming for me to control it. Oh man, it is going for the candles and making a real mess, I might add. Everyone is freaking out. The MIBs are drawing weird looking guns, I think Jack is shoving steak knives into his jacket.

I don’t care. That is the thing that was controlling me, making me hurt SJ. Screw that thing, screw everything else. I need to get away from it!

SJ and Jack are on the other side of the table. Oh wow the MIBs are opening up on the thing- why is SJ trying to save the crystal?

Oh this is it. I need to leap over the table to get to them. Oh wow that made a mess. Sheesh that gravy got everywhere. I hope that wasn’t that woman’s favorite white dress.

Oh quit it SJ! Remember they are evil. They deserve what they get. Come on we have to go while LWHB is distracting them. Wow look at Jack go with those knives. Yeah, give me a few.

We have to get out of here, before it reattaches— oh no it is coming after me! Look how huge it is now -I don’t want it back on MEEEEE!

Its coming! RUN RUN!

*

Jack! Psttt! Over here! Jack – will you stop flinging those steak knives around? Get behind this curtain RIGHT NOW! Because if you don’t – it could be curtains for Mike.

No… Mike isn’t behind the curtains – Look! He’s over there. Surrounded by that posse of MIB.candles

Yeah – I know there’s too many of them. But Little Wax-

I think we need a new name for him, frankly. I mean – Little Wax Head Boy might have been appropriate for the days when he was this cute little co-worker of Scotty’s, another lifetime ago. But just look at him… He’s now the size of a medium sized man. Can you imagine him now crawling back into poor old Mike’s hair? Let’s call him Candleman!

I’m not sure if he’s on our side, but he certainly isn’t on theirs. On account of Edgar getting upset when he started grabbing the candles and eating them – and making a right old mess of the table as a result. But of course the idiots thought it was all Mike’s fault. Ooo – that looks painful! Having all that wax jumping up and down on him must hurt – and of course it’s ruining his suit.

But – no, listen, Jack! This is REALLY important. While you were busy stabbing those guys who are leaking onto the carpet – that’ll cost a fortune to clean – I overheard Edgar phoning someone for instructions. You’ll never guess – it’s Miss Snodgrass! Question is, is she really an evil genius – or has she been somehow bamboozled by the baddies? She has instructed for Mike to be bundled up in chains and sent back to the States! We can’t let that happen – he hasn’t seen Buckingham Palace yet! We don’t want that, do we?

Think – Jack! What can we do to defeat Miss Snodgrass’s wicked machinations?

December Sunset over Littlehampton Beach

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We have been having some stunning sunsets this winter – the sky has been splashed with amazing pinks, purples, oranges and every shade in between. So I tried to capture the sun setting over the sea… I have an elderly camera and am a snapper rather than a proper photographer, but even I managed to capture a slice of the jaw-dropping beauty of the winter sky…

L'ton beach @ sunset (10) L'ton beach @ sunset (15) L'ton beach @ sunset (20) L'ton beach @ sunset (22) L'ton beach @ sunset (35) L'ton beach @ sunset (36) L'ton beach @ sunset (43)

Review of The Republic of Thieves – Book 3 of The Gentlemen Bastards Sequence by Scott Lynch

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Those of us who got caught up in the world of Locke Lamora when Scott Lynch’s debut novel came out, The Lies of Locke Lamora, were saddened to hear of Lynch’s struggles with depression and divorce that knocked back the publication date of this third slice of action. Would his difficulties compromise the vitality and invention that characterised this world?

republic of thievesLocke and Jean barely escaped with their lives from what should have been the greatest heist of their career in the port city of Tal Verrar. Now they head north, looking for sanctuary and an alchemist who can cure the poison that is slowly killing Locke. They find neither, but with their luck, money and hope exhausted, they receive an offer from a power that has never had their best interests at heart. The Bondsmagi of Karthain. And because Locke is dying, it is an offer they cannot refuse…

I’ll be honest – it took a while before I got into this book. Because of Locke’s illness, it starts at a really low point, and I found little opportunity to rebond with both Locke and Jean. In fact, I was debating whether to take the book back to the library, where there is a loong list of readers waiting for it. And then came a particular plot point where I thought – Oh, migod – how will they get out of that one? And I was hooked.

As with the first two books, there is a dual narrative running – we get slices of Locke’s past interleaving the present tangle. It is a testament to Lynch’s writing skill that despite presenting both storylines with more twists than a corkscrew, once I became involved, I neither lost patience with either plot, or skimmed to get back to the ‘exciting’ bit… Something that frequently happens with less skilfully crafted Fantasy tales that try to emulate Lynch’s style. And while reading this offering, I also recalled why there was such a fuss about ‘Lies way back in 2006.

Lynch takes risks. Starting the book with his protagonist dying – although we knew he wouldn’t because – well… there’s this book about him. And – yes – initially I was a tad underwhelmed. But once I got swept up in Lynch’s vibrant, swashbuckling style where we are presented with constant emergencies and setbacks, I couldn’t put it down.  Any niggles? Well, I will own up to skipping some of the rehearsals of the play which gives this book its title – while the story was interesting and I enjoyed the tensions within the cast, I felt I could do without the lines of verse.

However, this book does go deeper than the ‘boys own adventure’ tone initially suggests. Sabetha surfaces and her relationship past and present with Locke is part of the engine that drives the story. I found Locke’s complete vulnerability concerning Sabetha touching and it endeared him to me a whole lot more. But I also found myself strongly sympathising with Sabetha’s drive to break free from the inevitability of her love for Locke. She tries to make him understand exactly why she is forced to put some distance between them – his charisma and sheer alpha maleness means that anyone close to him ends up orbiting his star. And Sabetha is too driven and ambitious in her own right to want to spend the rest of her life being one of Locke’s satellites.  In many ways, this is an anti-love story. It is about two people who Fate has destined should be together, but character and circumstance constantly intervene and force them apart. I find the constant tension fascinating and far more nuanced than most typically stormy relationships that you know are going to end up with the couple ending up together. I don’t know that Locke and Sabetha are going to finally become a permanent item – and a large part of me hopes they don’t.

Because the true love story in the book belongs to the relationship between Jean and Locke. Not in any physical sense – but they have endured so much together, seen each other at their worst, trust the other more than anyone else – that the worst thing that could befall either of them is the death of the other. The implicit reliance of one upon the other reminded me of WWI soldiers talking about how much they cared about their companions in the trenches – how much they mattered, far more than the women and children they’d left behind in Britain. It always seemed very poignant to me that those who survived not only had to endure the nightmares and post-traumatic stress – but the loss of those brothers in arms they had come to love…

As for the plotting and the twists – no, I didn’t see any of it coming. The fun was reading how they extricated themselves from one big hole, to stumble right into the next one. And the ending was – predictably – shocking and unexpected. Was The Republic of Thieves worth the wait? Did Scott Lynch fully deliver another superb slice of Locke Lamora magic? Oh yes.
8/10

A Christmas Present – from me to you…

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For years I’ve been Games Mistress to the Family Gathering – which at one time ranged from my grandmother in her late nineties to my small granddaughter. Five generations of us. Hm. Tricky. So I devised these multi-choice quizzes that meant everyone could take part. I’ve also included the answers, with the correct version underlined. It took some time compiling it, and if you wish to use it for your own Christmas festivities, feel free to do so. Merry Christmas!

Christmas Quiz

1. What is blennophobia?

a) Fear of the colour white     b) Fear of fish    c) Fear of slime     d) Fear of zinc

2. Where is the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes?

a) Malbro’ country    b) The moon Europa   c) Alaska    d) South Island, New Zealand

3. What is the commonest surname in Spain?

a) Garcia    b) Campo   c) Blanco    d) deCruz

4. How many times have the Olympic Games been cancelled due to war?

a) Never    b) Once   c) Twice    d) Three times

5. What does a belly-man do?

a) Tattoos tummies    b) Is a food-taster   c) Assembles pianos    d) Looks after ballast on a ship

6. Which mammal lives longest?

a) Gorilla    b) Man   c) Blue Whale    d) Sloth

7. Which festival was the first greeting card manufactured for?

a) Christmas Day   b) Easter Day   c Mothering Sunday    d) St Valentine’s Day

8. Where do Vectians live?

a) The Virgin Islands    b) The Isle of Wight   c) The Channel Islands    d) The Isle of Man

9. In 1949, many precious manuscripts in the Vatican Library were discovered to be destroyed. How?

a) Monks had doodled in the margins    b) Damp had rotted them   c) Termites ate them    d) Paper wasps had nested in them

10. In which film did James Bond drive a white Lotus car underwater?

a) The Spy Who Loved Me    b) Live and Let Die   c) Thunderball    d) Goldfinger

11. What freak weather killed 23 people in Rostov, Russia in July 1923?

a) A tornado    b) Mud slide after a rainstorm   c) Giant hail stones    d) A tsunami

12. What is 555 in Roman numerals?

a) VVV    b) VCDM   c) DLV    d) LVD

13. From which planet do Dr Who’s daleks come?

a) Davros   b) Skaro   c) Gallifrey   d) Silurian

14. Who sang the original version of “Blue Suede Shoes”?

a) Elvis Presley   b) Buddy Holly   c) Little Richard   d) Carl Perkins

15. Which part of the body was the guillotine originally designed to cut off?

a) Head   b) Hands   c) Feet   d) Fingers

16. Whose national anthem is called “Thousand-Year-Old-Land”?

a) Ethiopia   b) Finland    c) Bosnia    d) Egypt

17. How many nobles used to be in £1?

a) None – a noble was worth £1-2s-6d    b) 2   c) 3    d) 4

18. What is the name of the Flintstone family’s pet dinosaur?

a) Fido   b) Dino   c) Boom-Boom   d) Thumper

19. What part of the body does Bright’s disease affect?

a) The heart   b) The eyes   c) The kidneys    d) The liver

20. Why were brasses originally worn by horses hauling heavy loads?

a) To ward off the evil eye   b) Their jingling warned people they were coming   c) To make them look good   d) To keep the flies away

Christmas Quiz 2008 – Answers

1. What is blennophobia?

a) Fear of the colour white   b) Fear of fish   c) Fear of slime   d) Fear of zinc

2. Where is the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes?

a) Malbro’ country   b) The moon Europa    c) Alaska    d) South Island, New Zealand

3. What is the commonest surname is Spain?

a) Garcia   b) Campo   c) Blanco    d) deCruz

4. How many times have the Olympic Games been cancelled due to war?

a) Never   b) Once   c) Twice    d) Three times

5. What does a belly-man do?

a) Tattoos tummies    b) Is a food-taster   c) Assembles pianos    d) Looks after ballast on a ship

6. Which mammal lives longest?

a) Gorilla    b) Man   c) Blue Whale    d) Sloth

7. Which festival was the first greeting card manufactured for?

a) Christmas Day   b) Easter Day   c Mothering Sunday    d) St Valentine’s Day

8. Where do Vectians live?

a) The Virgin Islands   b) The Isle of Wight   c) The Channel Islands   d) The Isle of Man

9. In 1949, many precious manuscripts in the Vatican Library were discovered to be destroyed. How?

a) Monks had doodled in the margins   b) Damp had rotted them   c) Termites ate them   d) Paper wasps had nested in them

10. In which film did James Bond drive a white Lotus car underwater?

a) The Spy Who Loved Me   b) Live and Let Die   c) Thunderball   d) Goldfinger

11. What freak weather killed 23 people in Rostov, Russia in July 1923?

a) A tornado   b) Mud slide after a rainstorm   c) Giant hail stones   d) A tsunami

12. What is 555 in Roman numerals?

a) VVV   b) VCDM   c) DLV    d) LVD

13. From which planet do Dr Who’s daleks come?

a) Davros   b) Skaro   c) Gallifrey   d) Silurian

14. Who sang the original version of “Blue Suede Shoes”?

a) Elvis Presley    b) Buddy Holly   c) Little Richard   d) Carl Perkins

15. Which part of the body was the guillotine originally designed to cut off?

a) Head   b) Hands   c) Feet d)    Fingers

16. Whose national anthem is called “Thousand-Year-Old-Land”?

a) Ethiopia   b) Finland   c) Bosnia    d) Egypt

17. How many nobles used to be in £1?

a) None – a noble was worth £1-2s-6d    b) 2   c) 3    d) 4

18. What is the name of the Flintstone family’s pet dinosaur?

a) Fido   b) Dino   c) Boom-Boom   d) Thumper

19. What part of the body does Bright’s disease affect?

a) The heart    b) The eyes   c) The kidneys    d) The liver

20. Why were brasses originally worn by horses hauling heavy loads?

a) To ward off the evil eye   b) Their jingling warned people they were coming   c) To make them look good d) To keep the flies away

Review of Stormdancer – Book 1 of The Lotus War by Jay Kristoff

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stormdancerI picked up my copy of this book at World Fantasy Con in Brighton, attracted by the stunningly attractive cover – and the comment that it was Japanese steampunk.

The Shima Imperium verges on collapse. Land and sky have been poisoned by industrialisation, the Lotus Guild oppresses the populace and the nation’s Shogun is lost to his thirst for power. Yukiko and her warrior father are forced to hunt down a griffin at the Shogun’s command. But any fool knows griffins are extinct – and death will be the price of failure.

That’s as much of the blurb I’m including, as the rest goes on to tell far too much of the early story arc, in my opinion. This is definitely a variation of steampunk – the Empire, very loosely based on the Japanese culture, runs on the blood lotus flower, which unfortunately produces clouds of pollution are equally toxic to man, beast and plant life to an extent that manages to make coal look benign… The world is vividly described in all its gritty, decaying glory through the viewpoint of angry teenager Yukiko, whose father is a lotus addict. His job as Chief Hunter to the young Shogun means he is largely unemployed, given that most animals are now extinct.

I enjoyed Yukiko as a protagonist – I think she largely works. Although I did feel that women’s roles in this society were rather wafty… The Guild, who ensure and enforce the population stays pure and obedient to the Guild’s precepts, only admit males in their midst and the Shogun’s sister talks of women having to use their beauty and guile to work behind the scenes. Yet Yukiko seems free to accompany her father when he does go hunting and roams the City armed without any apparent comment or disapproval coming her way. She even spars on the airship with one of her father’s hunting team – a middle-aged woman – and again, no one seems to mind all that much, despite the fact they are using practice swords.

However, within the narrative Yukiko’s role as someone slightly outside the norm works reasonably well and her progression through the book – especially the love affair and her interaction with the thunder tiger – is effective and punchy. I was drawn into the action, once it really got going, and kept turning the pages to find out what happens. I enjoyed the fact that we start with one premise and as the book progresses, discover something else is happening. While it isn’t a particularly complicated plot, there is plenty going on throughout and the twists and turns towards the end genuinely surprised me.

The full-on action is typically steampunk, but I was a bit shaken at the bleak, angry tone near the end of the book, clearly lining us up for the next instalment. I suspect this is a marmite book and some readers will find the liberties taken with Japanese culture annoying and objectionable. If Kristoff had called the Empire Japan, I would have also had a real problem with it – but he didn’t, he called it Shima. And this is steampunk fantasy – I have yet to see a single chainsaw katana powered by flower extract at my local DIY store. Overall, I think this is an enjoyable take on a sub-genre that continues to throw up interesting twists on the original steampunk idea, and I’m looking forward to reading the next book, Kinslayer.
8/10

Review of Among Others by Jo Walton

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After reading Tooth and Claw, I wanted to read more of Jo Walton’s books. Googling her immediately brought up Among Others, so it was a no-brainer to go and get hold of a copy. But would I find this next novel – so completely different from dragonkind set in a Victorian backdrop – equally engrossing?

among othersWhen Mori discovers that her mother is using black magic, she decides to intervene. The ensuing clash between mother and daughter leaves Mori bereft of her twin sister, crippled for life and unable to return to the Welsh Valleys that were her own kingdom. Mori finds solace and strength in her beloved books. But her mother is bent on revenge, and nothing and no one – not even Tolkien – can save her from the final reckoning.

This is a remarkable book. I’ve never read anything quite like it and – for once – the OTT phrase on the cover by Jeff Vandermeer A wonder and a joy is absolutely spot on. For starters, there is a complete backstory that would easily fill a novel in the scenario that builds up to this book. Among Others is dealing with the aftermath. What happens next, once the protagonist has averted the End of the World at great personal cost. And make no mistake, the cost is heartbreakingly high. More so, because Mori doesn’t spend all her time telling you how desperately unhappy and bereft she is. Only mentions the constant pain when it becomes difficult to carry books, or walk distances to see fairies.

The writing is extraordinary in the pin-sharp description of the everyday, alongside the remarkable and Mori’s character is so compellingly realistic and nuanced, I’m still undecided whether there is a large chunk of autobiographical detail wrapped up in this book. And I don’t really care – other than to fervently hope, for her sake, there isn’t too much that is borrowed from Walton’s own life. Memorable and remarkable art invariably is a fusion of imagination and reality – and this is both a memorable and remarkable book. Certainly the most amazing book I’ve read this year.

As a bookworm from before I could walk – my mother would hand me her copy of Reader’s Digest as a baby in my highchair and I would leaf through every page without tearing a single one, apparently – I fully understand Walton’s passion for books that sings off the page. I, too, used to spend hours in the library compulsively reading as a girl and teenager, though didn’t get completely immersed in the joys of speculative fiction until much later in my life. Walton’s description of the books and authors who sustain Mori during this dark period, and the handful of people she discovers who share her passion, reverberated with an answering chime of recognition.

So given that the book drew me in right from the beginning, was the ending to such an unusual story completely satisfactory? It was a worry that started in the last third of the book, to be honest. I was dreading getting to the end of this one – partly because the journey through it was so intensely pleasurable, and partly because I worried that the ending might spoil the rest of it… I’m very picky about endings and there are a whole slew of otherwise excellent books that, in my opinion, were ruined by inadequate, unsatisfactory finales. I got myself in a lather over nothing. The ending to this book hit exactly the right note, completing the story arc with complete authority and leaving me feeling uplifted and sad, all at the same time.

If you don’t read another book this year, track down Among Others. Even if you don’t love it as much as I do, I can guarantee you haven’t read anything else quite like it.
10/10

Review of Between Two Thorns – Book 1 of The Split Words by Emma Newman

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I picked up this copy at the World Fantasy Conference in Brighton and was intrigued by the blurb. Would this book live up to the interesting world depicted on the cover?

Something is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s secret mirror city. The new season is starting and the Master of Ceremonies is missing. Max,between2thorns an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, is assigned with the task of finding him – with no one to help but a dislocated soul and a mad sorcerer.  There is a witness, but his memories have been bound by magical chains only the enemy can break. A rebellious woman trying to escape her family may prove to be ally Max needs. But can she be trusted? And why does she want to give up eternal youth and the life of privilege she’s been born into?

This is an appealing read, setting the story between three worlds – Mundanus, which is our world, Exilium where the Fae actually live and the Nether, which isn’t an actual world, but between the other two worlds, where there isn’t a sky and no one ages. Society has stagnated there and its customs and fashions reflect the Regency era. If you’re getting the impression that this is rather a complicated set-up, you’d be right. But Newman had already written fifty stories set in this world and released them during the year before Between Two Thorns came out, which she was originally intending to self-publish before Angry Robot snapped it up.

Catherine is one of the main characters, hiding out in Mundanus, having fled her overbearing family as she is stifled by the prospect of life as a highborn woman in Nether. I enjoyed her story arc – and at times skimmed the others to get back to it. She is certainly one of the most well drawn and interestingly complex characters and I want to get my hands on Any Other Name largely to discover what happens to her.

I also loved Max, the Arbiter, or rather, the gargoyle who is part of his persona. If you could imagine an unlikely detective duo – a crippled, blank-faced grumpy person teamed with a smart-mouthed, emotional gargoyle must be right up there at the top of your list. I did find I had to concentrate on the plotting, as the various viewpoint characters along with their narratives wound around and through the three worlds, while the enormity of the crime gradually unfolded alongside Catherine’s efforts to escape her arranged marriage.

The pace moves along at a fair clip, and at times I did feel that Newman’s familiarity with these characters and the world meant that some explanation and scene setting was missing. A couple of times I checked to see if this was the second book in the series, because I did feel I had landed bang in the middle of an adventure and was slightly playing catch-up. This niggle isn’t a dealbreaker, though. I thoroughly enjoyed this genre mash-up and the story arc came to a satisfactory conclusion, while leaving some plotlines dangling for the next book, which I shall certainly be getting. Apart from anything else, I really want to know what happens to Catherine and Max – and if you like your fantasy with a different twist, give Between Two Thorns a go. I won’t guarantee you’ll love it, but it certainly provides a detailed world with a difference and there’s no denying that Newman is a talented writer whose punchy, individual voice makes this a memorable read.
8/10

Review of The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell

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I heard this book narrated on Radio 4 and was transfixed. Normally the radio is the background for the necessary loathed household chores I have to perform – but during that week, I sat down and listened. So it was a no-brainer to get hold of the book and read it for myself. Most books – for me – provide a really enjoyable way to escape the everyday. But there are a hatful of books that are inspirational, thought-provoking and genuinely life changing. I’m a tad allergic to books which trumpet this aspect – mostly because they’re not. However, The Reason I Jump is the real article.

reason I jumpI have to declare an interest – several years ago I looked after the son of my closest friend when she had to return to work while he was still very tiny, after he became extremely distressed when left with the childminder. He settled into my arms and we bonded… I love babies. I’m good with babies. And he was a sweetheart, so cuddly and affectionate. So bright-eyed and bubbly. Initially he hit all his milestones, but then around a year old, his progress seemed to falter and he started withdrawing. And sliding backwards… Anyone who knows about autism firsthand will, doubtless, recognise the whole wretched sequence. It was devastating when he was finally diagnosed. His parents have worked tirelessly on a range of therapies and he has made marvellous progress. His mother is currently writing a book about their experiences together.

What is it like to have autism? How can we know what a person – especially a child – with autism is thinking and feeling, so that we can help them?

This remarkable book, written by Naoki Higashida when he was only thirteen, provides some answers. Severely autistic, Naoki learnt to communicate via pointing to letters on a ‘cardboard keyboard’ – and what he has to say gives an exceptional insight into an autistically-wired mind. He explains the often baffling behaviour of people with autism, invites us to share his perception of time, life, beauty and nature, and offers an unforgettable short story. Proving beyond doubt that people with autism do not lack imagination, humour or empathy. Naoki makes a heartfelt plea for our patience and compassion.

For David Mitchell, The Reason I Jump provided an invaluable insight into his own autistic son’s mind. He and his wife ,K.A. Yoshida, have translated the book in the hope that it will benefit others in the same way, and dispel some of the widely held myths about autism. For all readers, Naoki Higashida offers a rare opportunity to view the world from a fresh and fascinating perspective.

The book is structured by posing questions that Naoki answers – questions that any of us who have cared for someone with autism have yearned to ask. While David Mitchell’s foreword gives the best description of this mysterious disorder that I have ever read. Naoki’s answers are direct and passionate – that’s what reverberates through the whole book for me… The intensity of his emotion. And yet, looking at his blank face, his avoidance of eye contact, his silence – Naoki finds speech very difficult – we would assume that his emotions are all locked down and he simply doesn’t care all that much about the rest of us… That is the heartbreaking aspect of this disorder – and why this book is so vitally important.

For carers struggling to cope, the sense that an autistic sufferer is indifferent to their efforts in trying to break through is exhausting and discouraging. Exhausted and discouraged carers don’t do a good job – with the best will in the world, your bleakness imparts itself to everyone around you. Especially to the person trapped inside themselves, with no way out to show how much he needs patience and optimism. Which is why words like inspirational and life-changing really do make sense when discussing The Reason I Jump.

Though he isn’t the first person to do it, I’m still awestruck when I consider that this book was written letter by painful letter, with thirteen-year-old Naoki pointing to each one, while someone copied it all down. If autism has touched your life, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Or maybe you feel fed up with the daily doses of ugliness on the news and need evidence of just how enduring the human spirit can be when faced with immense difficulties.  Do yourself a favour, get hold of The Reason I Jump – and perhaps you will also want to jump high to reach the sky in the knowledge that you share DNA with Naoki Higashida.
10/10

Review of Tarnished by Rhiannon Held

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The cool cover and the author’s even cooler name snagged my attention, so I plucked this offering off the shelves, despite the fact that this is the second book in the series. Would my impulsive choice be a good read?

Silver has found her mate in Andrew Dare, but they haven’t found the pack they can call home. Some of Andrew’s old friends think he should return to the East Coast and challenge Roanoke for leadership. But Andrew has baggage, with his violent history with the packs of Europe and rumours of his lack of control. Can Silver and Andrew find a refuge within American werewolf society, or are they doomed to wander the continent as loners – only visiting pack territories on sufferance of the ruling alphas?  And – no – that isn’t the actual blurb, which contains far too many spoilers in my opinion. As Tarnished is the second in the series, it is all too easy to tell the whole story of Silver – the first book – while furnishing readers with an enticing tidbit.

So my advice would be to set aside Tarnished for the time being, and seek out Silver, because if it’s half as good as the sequel, it’s tarnishedworth the effort to start in the right place with this interesting addition to the urban fantasy genre. Tarnished is all about werewolf society and focuses on the struggles of a single female trying to cope in a pack environment where might is right. And – yes – this is an oft-travelled route since the likes of Kelley Armstrong and Bitten – but Held has taken the genre and given it a good old shaking.
In her world, werewolves can only be bred, not turned. So it is all about bloodlines and biological imperatives – and silver is absolutely poisonous to them. Recovering after a terrible attack, Silver is now unable to turn into wolf form, so when she teams up with Andrew, the two of them immediately pose a problem for any pack. And when one pack agrees to take them in, their mere presence triggers a chain of events that leads to a Convocation – a meeting of all the pack alphas to pass judgement on a major crime committed within pack society. So this book is mostly about the politics running werewolf society and how the main characters react and try to conform, or not, into the pattern set hundreds of years ago to allow weres to exist alongside humans.

Held’s taut prose has the slightly elevated feel of a literary novel, but with the pace and narrative drive customary in urban fantasy – it’s a heady mix. The character that stands out is Silver. Scarred and crippled, she regularly communes with Death, who appears to her as a large black wolf. He often helps her – but also can be taunting and apparently unconcerned when she is in trouble. There is no sense that this communication is somehow a secret weapon that makes up for her physical weakness and the aching void left by being unable to run with the rest of pack. Silver tries to remember not to talk to Death in front of others – she is aware that far too many people already believe she is mad – but occasionally it is not always possible. So does the depiction of such a compromised character work in a sub-genre that habitually produces tough females who are able to square up to the males and give as good as they get? Yes – because Silver refuses to see herself as a victim, and can still assert her own form of authority. One of Held’s major sub-plots also involves Susan, the human mate of a were alpha, who finds herself on the edge of were society without fully appreciating her own danger. Until Silver takes upon herself to ensure Susan knows what she has got herself into.

I found this book immensely affirming in a way that many books featuring female protagonists simply don’t. I’ve grown a tad tired of the generic kick-ass heroine, armed and feisty, who has Attitude oozing out of every pore along with a smart mouth, is drop-dead gorgeous/sexy – and able to produce an arsenal of lethal weaponry from the back pocket of those skintight jeans she is wearing and mix it up with the roughest, toughest male in the neighbourhood. Okay, I’m exaggerating – but you get the point… That formula has been done to death.

Silver is none of those things and Held makes it very clear that there is no cure lurking around the corner for her terrible injuries. She has to make up for her physical weakness by living on her wits and keeping sharp – there is no magic gismo to give her any sense of invulnerability. Yippee! A heroine I can empathise with. Because the hard fact is, as any woman who’s ever been faced with an angry/drunken man will testify, we are weaker and in any physical conflict, we mostly come off worse.  If you are a fan of urban fantasy, track down Silver and give it a go. That’s what I’m going to do – I need another fix of Held’s world until Reflected comes out next year.
9/10