Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review of Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier

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I managed to get hold of an ARC copy of this book, which is due to hit the shelves on 6th February. I love this author’s trilogy The Griffin Mage and recommend it to anyone who enjoys intelligently written, nuanced and entertaining fantasy – read my review here. Would I also enjoy this YA offering by Neumeier?

Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic and protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs. Before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them and their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.

This is an interesting twist on the supernatural world, with an innately difficult relationship between the short-fused, shape-shifting black dogs, their human relations and the Pure – those rare individuals whose magic can calm and civilise the darker instincts of the black dogs, who all too frequently slide towards darkness and bestiality. Neumeier’s hallmark is setting up a world with a set of magical laws – and then introducing a number of individuals who subvert those laws. So her fantastic landscapes are complicated by messy relationships, giving plenty of tension in amongst the action scenes and making them matter.

blackdogWe first encounter the three siblings on the run. Natividad, one of the protagonists, is twin to fifteen-year-old human Miguel and both of them spend much of their time trying to keep their older black dog brother, Alejandro, calm enough to keep his shadow at bay – the shadow that causes him to shapeshift. I very much like the fact that anyone dealing with the black dogs in human form has to take care not to extend eye contact and keep their body language submissive. It’s details like this which elevate the run of the mill to the above average.

Neumeier certainly drops us right in the middle of the action. The attack that wipes out the youngsters’ village and orphans them is the aftermath of a recent war fought and won against the vampires. Most black dog clans fought against the vampires, who managed to keep their existence and that of any other supernatural beings below human radar with their mind-fogging skills. Now that they have gone, the black dog clans are counting the cost – and some opportunistic, brutal individuals are making a play for the power vacuum opened up by the defeat of the vampires. Neumeier’s is a great proponent of ‘show, don’t tell’, so these slices of information unfold within the story – but what it means is that the reader is presented with a strongly crafted world with a detailed backstory every bit as riveting as the narrative arc within the book.

The other main character in the book is Alejandro, who now has to try and demonstrate sufficient control to get himself and his siblings accepted by the Dimilioc clan – and if he doesn’t it will mean almost certain death. Through his viewpoint, we learn about the issues black dogs face if they are to keep their humanity and not slide into feral strays that end up ripping their own family apart, before going on the run.

I really enjoy the fact that Neumeier always portrays the cost involved in being part of a magical/supernatural community – and the cost is invariably high. I’ve read one or two protests at the manner in which Natividad agrees to pair up with any of the black dogs offered to her, when she turns sixteen. I didn’t have a problem with this aspect of the story. She is a fertile female within a community of half-animals – it is a consequence of this difference that such terms are negotiated, and Neumeier makes it clear that the humans within the clan are also part of the ranking. If they cannot contribute something useful, they will be right at the bottom of the heap – a miserably uncomfortable spot…

I’m conscious that this review gives the impression that this is some worthy read full of interesting world-building and complex characters – and not much else… What I haven’t mentioned is that from the moment I picked up this book, it hauled me into the world and I read faaar into the early morning to discover what happened – while Himself, who has started five books this week and wandered off, muttering into his beard that they’re all a bit boring, devoured this offering in a single greedy gulp.

Once more, Neumeier has produced a cracking, satisfying read – and I’m hoping that Black Dog is the start of a series as I want more of this excellent world. If you enjoy urban fantasy and relish something different, track it down – you’ll be thanking me if you do…
10/10

Review of INDIE EBOOK Stopover at the Backworld’s Edge – Book 2 of The Backworld’s series by M. Pax

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I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the series, The Backworlds, so wanted more. Read my review here.

StopoverWBIn the far future, humanity settles the stars, bioengineering its descendants to survive in a harsh universe. Revenge is on Craze’s mind. He chews on it every day along with the relentless dust on Pardeep Station. He dreams of grander business and wealth, enough to make his father choke. That’s the dream consuming him when the interstellar portal opens, spitting out a ship that that should no longer exist. A battleship spoiling for a fight, yet the war with the Foreworlds ended two generations ago. The enemy takes over Craze’s tavern and aims their dastardly guns in his face. One wrong move and the shaky truce will end. So will Craze and his friends. Can he outwit them? He must, otherwise Craze and the Backworlds won’t survive.

So that’s the blurb. There is a divide between the Foreworlds, where the bulk of humanity can settle on planets more suitable to their physical requirements – and the Backworlds which are a lot more hostile and require significant bioengineering to make settlement on them possible. Craze ekes out a living running his own tavern on a dusty backwater – until he gets new customers…  Pax’s characters are vivid and interesting – particularly Craze. He has changed from the hesitant, gauche youngster that we first met in The Backworlds. The intervening years have made him harder and a whole lot more suspicious – which is just as well, given the lethal nature of the latest visitors. The largely personal nature of the story so far suddenly expands to encompass a new slice of the world, which is interestingly layered and complex.

Because the story has jumped several years, it isn’t necessary to have read The Backworlds to understand exactly what is happening, although knowing Craze’s backstory certainly helped me to get immediately immersed in the action. Which is just as well, because once the adventure fully takes off, it doesn’t let up until the end. Once more, the story ends in an interesting place – meaning that I’m going to have to get the third book in the series…
8/10

The Adventures of Mike and SJ – Episode 15

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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…

Ow… My head…

chepstowImprisoned again. It’s sad that I’m starting to get used to this. They took all my weapons, but did they put me in the same cell? Ha- I guess they did, Suckers! I still have the key those dumba-

Wait who’s that coming in? Are they bringing me something to eat? Oh, Flippin’ Norah, it is the bughead Edgar again! I’m start to really hate this Son of a-

“Mr Griffiths, or should I say Bone – that is your warrior name isn’t it?”

“I prefer to think of it as my superhero name.”

“Superhero? Oh never mind, you and your foolish friends manage to make Scoobie Doo look like James Bond.”

“Ha! We messed up your dining room pretty good didn’t we and-“

“Silence fool! That will be the last expensive dish you ever break. The immature Thingthatmustnotbenamed has metamorphosed past the stage where it needs a host. Usually they eat their host, but in this case we have other plans for you.”

“What happened to my baby?”

“Baby,” *cough, sputter* “He is a madman! I want him gone. His usefulness is over. If someone else can find a way to deal with his idiocy, let it be their problem. I’m washing my hands of this. Goodnight, Mr. Bone – and may Evil follow your days and nights. We probably won’t meet again, I am done with your purile babbling.”

“Well, may you be strapped over an anthill on a sunny day you fish-bellied freak!”
At last he is gone. Didn’t so much as offer me a glass of water. Still, it doesn’t matter. He he he. I don’t even need Dahtoe this time – I have the key. Those morons! Now to escape and track down SJ and Jack.

*

Oh, WILL you stop moaning? Honestly, Jack – I thought you’d be grateful. We managed to sneak out of the castle while they were busy taking Mike off to the cells – but you got to blend in more. We don’t get all that many men wandering around these streets in buckskin leather-

Oh great… Now he’s got a face on him that would curdle vinegar and is marching up the street. I WISH we had Mike here. He has his off-moments, but he’s a walk in the park in comparison to Mr Wimmin-should-know-their-place…

Oh look. That speck over there…

Is that Dahtoe returning? Gosh, that didn’t take him long. He’s making a dreadful noise, though. Sounds like a half-strangled cat… Oh no… no, no NO. It IS a half-strangled cat! That idiot seagull! He was s’posed to deliver a note, threatening Edgar that we’d take his cat if cat_black_cat_pet_214496he didn’t instruct his goons to release Mike… Not grab the moggy and make off with it!

Jack. Look out! Dahtoe is above you and he’s diving-

Ouch. That MUST hurt. A furious cat landing on his head, like that. Hold onto it, Jack – don’t let it get away!

Too late… Hm. Hope the fleabit bag of fluff hasn’t got any nasty American diseases, seeing as he’s now loose in the streets of Chepstow…

Huh? Yeah – well I am sorry it landed on your head… Hey, just a minute – HOW is this my fault?

It was a perfectly good plan! How did I know that the stupid seagull would take it into his peabrain to grab the wretched cat?

Oh, for goodness sake! Trouble with you is that you’ve been spending far too much time listening to Mike’s hysterical ranting about Edgar and his fights with him. Hear HIM talk, you’d think that he was some mega-scary master-thinker who is five steps ahead of the rest of us sad proles. For starters, he’s tucked up in his draughty old castle. Calm down. C’mon, buddy. Deep breaths. I know – why don’t we catch a show? You’ll love it… Take your mind off our troubles. And then we’ll work out how to get Mike out of that dratted castle.

Review of Rosa and the Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins

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Being the shallow sort who tends to pick up books because of their covers and nifty titles, I would have given this book a pass if it hadn’t been for Himself singling it out – and I’m very glad he did.

Beyond this world, behind the veil of history, lies the Kingdom of the Rus, the land where all the magic fled…rosa

Rose Kovalenka is wild and beautiful and broken: when she returned to Russia, her homeland, she left behind her lover Daniel, and part of herself. She is trying to rebuild her life when she finds a golden bear, hidden in a bathhouse wall, and her inherited Second Sight recognises the sudden lash of power as something otherworldly, something dangerous. Released from the protection of the bathhouse, the golden bear starts to recall the magic that once raged through the land of the Rus.

That’s as much of the blurb as I’m giving you, on the grounds that the rest of it tells you too much of the initial action. Have to say that I picked it up without too much enthusiasm, but with the grandchildren staying, my planned read – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson – was proving just a tad too challenging for my exhausted brain. This looked a lot less daunting – which goes to show just how much of a wolf can prowl behind a girly sort of cover. It only took a page to draw me right into the writing, when it was apparent that I was in the hands of an experienced, accomplished writer at the height of her powers.

By rights I should have been rolling my eyes and swearing under my breath as breathtakingly beautiful Rosa stalked across the pages, enigmatic and flighty. The sort of heroine I normally loathe. But this time around, I found myself sympathetic to her difficult, contrary nature and drive to take mad risks. As for her lover – the fact that he is the timid, frightened one in the relationship ticked all my boxes. I get sooo sick of lantern-jawed alphas busy flexing their status and muscles – and when he is accompanied by the practical, cool-headed Em who never panics in an emergency, his terror is highlighted.  But this isn’t some simple love story. In fact, I’m delighted to report that while the love interest provides some of the initial impetus that gets the story going, this layered, complex novel is far more about the pursuit of what matters – and how one ambitious woman’s drive for power and riches drove magic from Rus and caused it to become a whole lot wilder and more dangerous.

It is refreshing to read excellent quality fantasy based in a culture other than my own – and Wilkins does a superb job of braiding a number of half-familiar old Russian mythological creatures into a terrifying land riddled with dreadful risks for mortal travellers. The most poignant were those fleeing Stalin’s purges, who tried to shelter beyond the veil with disastrous results. As Daniel and Em struggle to survive, while looking for a way out, Rosa is trying to find a way in. Wilkins handled the pace and tension such that I was reading into the small hours, despite my tiredness, despite being woken at unearthly o’clock by my small grandson.

Any niggles? Have to say that having one of the main protagonists address me, the reader, directly did jar and I would have preferred it if that passage had been turned into one of his stories for his young daughter. Or even a late-night musing. But it isn’t a deal-breaker – the overall richness and drama of the narrative, the complex and interesting characterisation and occasional bursts of brutal violence and action were far too well written for me to want to put this book down until I’d reached the ending. Which was unexpected, but very satisfying. I will be looking out for more from this author – she also writes as Kimberley Freeman. And if you haven’t yet encountered any of her work, and enjoy well written fantasy, then track down the uninspiringly titled Rosa and the Veil of Gold – it’s a lot better than it sounds.
9/10

Review of Raising Steam – Book 40 of The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett

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I need to declare an interest. Having heard Equal Rites on Women’s Hour as a serialised book in 1986 and howled aloud with laughter at this different, madcap story, I was hooked on Pratchett’s Discworld and have been ever since.  Catch my review of Unseen Academicals here.

Moist von Lipwig is not a man who enjoys hard work. As master of the Post Office, the Mint and the Royal Bank his input is, of course, vital… but largely dependent on words, which are fortunately not very heavy and don’t always need greasing. However, he does enjoy being alive, which makes a new job offer from Vetinari hard to refuse.

raisingSteam is rising over Discworld, driven by Mr Simnel, the man wi’t’flat cap and sliding rule who has an interesting arrangement with the sine and cosine. Moist will have to grapple with gallons of grease, goblins, a fat controller with a history of throwing employees down the stairs and some very angry dwarfs if he’s going to stop it all going off the rails…

We have met Moist before – a conman and chancer, who has been forced to become respectable and productive for Ankh-Morpork by the Patrician, Vetinari, and the love of Adora Belle Dearheart, clackswoman extraordinaire. In Raising Steam, Moist is once more pitchforked into the middle of yet another leap forward in Discworld’s headlong plunge into industrialisation, by being the main fixer of Sir Harry King’s new railway company.

For Discworld fans, there is much in this book that is as cosily familiar as your favourite pair of slippers – the footnoted info-jokes; the frequent viewpoint changes, interspersed by long passages in omniscient viewpoint; the cast of characters – apart from Dick Simnel, grease-covered, engineering genius – the cast list is also familiar, as we have come across them all before. Including the major villain of the piece…

The pace of this story is initially leisurely – if you are looking for a tension-filled story that packs a wallop and doesn’t let up from the moment you open the first page, this isn’t it. What you do get during the first third of the book, is a thorough immersion into Discworld politics, philosophy and a good slice of the backstory leading up to how and why trains are so widely and delightedly embraced by Discworld inhabitants. As a result, this, the fortieth in the series, would also be a reasonably good starting point for someone not yet conversant with Pratchett’s universe.

However, when the story does pick up momentum and we find that a number of dwarfs are seriously unhappy with the advent of steam trains – and prepared to do more than just complain about it – there are the usual thrills and spills. Is there any sudden and fresh new angle/treatment/theme running through Raising Steam that Discworld fans haven’t already seen in the other novels? Nope. Just more of the same. And that’s fine with me – I’ll take that. No one else has constructed a world quite like this, where the self-deprecating, Woodhouse-type humour belies a breadth and richness of observation and commentary on our current world and its obsessions. Is this Pratchett at his best? No – but that still makes it an enjoyable, entertaining novel. And sometime soon, I will be rereading the whole forty books. Not because I ought to – but because I know that revisiting the Discworld again will provide me with a lot of laughs, food for thought and some genuinely moving moments. And I get to read Small Gods again, this time in the correct sequence… which is my personal favourite. Raising Steam is a worthy addition to this groundbreaking, outstanding series – and one of the very, very few that I know I will one day pick up and read again.
8/10

Review of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – Book 1 of the Russell and Holmes series by Laurie R. King

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My husband scooped this off the shelves, looking for a quality whodunit and enthusiastically recommended it.

1915. The great detective Sherlock Holmes is retired and quietly engaged in the study of honey bees when a young woman literally stumbles into him on the Sussex Downs. Fifteen years old, gawky, egotistical and recently orphaned, Mary Russell displays an intellect to impress when Sherlock Homes – and match him wit for wit. Under his reluctant tutelage, this very modern twentieth-century woman proves a deft protégée and a fitting partner for the Victorian detective.

beekeeperI’m skipping the rest of the blurb on the grounds that it contains too many spoilers. Have to say, this book didn’t grab me from the first page as it did Himself. Although I enjoyed the sparky relationship between Holmes and Russell, and felt that King’s evocation of the period very impressive, it took me a while to get into the story. Not that I minded all that much – that I was in the hands of a master storyteller was evident from the start. Mary Russell is a convincing young woman and as the book charts her steady maturation from a furious teenager to a talented and formidably focused young woman, the book is as much about her coming of age as it is about a partnership with the world’s most famous detective.

King’s version of Holmes worked. We are very familiar with his clever, difficult character via a number of TV depictions. As a semi-retired gentleman tucked away in rural Sussex, some of his sharper edges have been rounded. Though his impatience with his waning physical powers is well handled, and the eventual shift in their relationship from master/pupil to genuine companion provides the main engine to this book’s narrative.

I enjoyed the view of John Watson as a kind, thoroughly dependable companion, but far too dim to be regarded as anything like Holmes’s equal. This version chimes perfectly naturally with Conan Doyle’s stories in Watson’s viewpoint, it seemed to me. King’s take on World War I from Mary’s viewpoint is also well done. The misery of those back home when confronted with the shattered men returning from the trenches and the constant grind necessary to sustain the war effort is vividly created, adding an interesting layer of social comment on a historically fascinating, rather grim period.

But what of the actual cases Holmes and Russell have to deal with? No matter how good the characterisation, historically accurate backdrop and dialogue – if the whodunit part of this novel isn’t strong enough to sustain the rest, then The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is nothing but a failed homage to one of the greatest literary characters ever invented. Fortunately, this aspect of the book is excellent. Though if you are a fan of wall to wall action, car chases and full-on gory action, then give this book a miss. The slow-burn, steady build-up of a seemingly intractable case with the poring over a handful of clues leading to Holmes’s – and increasingly Russell’s – brilliant deductive leaps that was Conan Doyle’s trademark won’t necessarily satisfy many modern tastes. Despite the fact that this book was first published in 1994, it feels a lot older – a tribute to King’s strong writing and easy familiarity with the character.

Do I have a problem with King using someone else’s character and taking the story in her own direction? Clearly, there are a number of Sherlock fans out there who do. I’m not one of them. King has paid attention to the manner in which Conan Doyle crafted his stories and character and has been respectful of the original, while adding another, additional series of books to the canon. However, I do have a niggle. And it does involve a spoiler – in subsequent books, Holmes marries Russell and given there is a forty year gap between them, I find this whole notion uncomfortable. Particularly as she is only fifteen when they first meet and very damaged. I’m aware that a number of recent unpleasant court cases involving the sexual exploitation of children have made this a far more fraught topic than it would have been back in 1994 when this book was written. But a forty year age gap is big – and given that Holmes has always been depicted as being largely uninterested in women, with most of his energy and taste running to cerebral stimulation, I’m not sure that this works.  However, this isn’t an issue with this first book in the series, and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of a really interesting, nuanced read.
8/10

You Know You’re a Writer When…

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I read this funny article by Kristen Lamb and roared with laughter – and a lot of recognition… And felt it was too good not to reprise to my own followers. So here you are…

Kristen Lamb's Blog

We’ve been talking about some heavy stuff the past several posts, so I figured it was time for a bit of levity. We writers are different *eye twitches* for sure, but the world would be SO boring without us.

You Know You’re a Writer When…

You’ve learned that regular people are cute, and no longer get offended with this conversation.

Regular Person: What do you do?

Writer: I’m a writer.

Regular Person: No, I mean, what’s your real job?

You’ve come to understand that writers are a lot like unicorns. Everyone knows about them, they’ve simply never seen a REAL ONE.

You Know You’re a Writer When…

The NSA, CIA and FBI no longer bother with you. Likely, they know you by name and now outsource to the creepy ice cream truck to just make a few passes and check to make sure you’re still at your computer.

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You Know…

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Review of The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe

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Anything by Gene Wolfe is worth reading whether you enjoy it or not in my opinion – catch my review of The Devil in a Forest here.  So I was delighted to get my hands on The Sorcerer’s House.

In a contemporary town in the American Midwest where he has no connections, an education man recently released from prison is staying in a motel. He writes letters to his brother and to others, including a friend still in jail. When he meets a real estate agent who tells him he is the heir to a huge old house, long empty, he moves in, though he is too broke to even buy furniture, and is immediately confronted by supernatural and fantastic creatures and events. His life is utterly transformed, and we read on because we must know more. We revise our opinions of him and of others, with each letter. We learn things about magic, and another world, and about the sorcerer, Mr Black, who originally inhabited the house. And then perhaps we read it again.

This epistolary novel (structured through letters) mostly written by the main protagonist, Baxter, is a gradual revealing of a house infested by otherworld beings. This is a much-visited theme – classic horror fare – to the extent that it was parodied in the 2006 cartoon movie Monster House. But in Wolfe’s hands it becomes something else.

sorcerorshouseBaxter’s steady stream of letters recount the astonishing change in his fortunes, and also charts his very rocky relationship with his twin brother George. By definition, he is an unreliable narrator and a complex, interesting character. We know that he was imprisoned for conning money out of his brother’s friends and though he is at pains to emphasise how much he values honesty, we need to treat his accounts with caution. So the occasional letter by other people involved with the sorcerer’s house is every bit as interesting and engrossing as Baxter’s fluent and smooth account.

One of the things that I love about Wolfe is that he isn’t afraid to take risks. Epistolary novels are normally literary, often used for reflective and introspective examination of a subject – think about Lionel Shriver’s wonderful We Need To Talk About Kevin. So using a device that immediately funnels all the action through another narrative in a horror fantasy book would be something that using my writing tutor’s hat, I would advise any student to avoid doing. But I found The Sorcerer’s House utterly compelling – particularly the obvious gaps in the narrative towards the ending. And… about that ending. Well that’s an almighty risk! I’m in a cleft stick, here – hoisted by my own petard. I am aching to discuss the end and what is actually going on, which as far as I’m concerned, isn’t what the letter-writers claim is happening.
If anyone reads the book and wants to chat about the ending, we can discuss it in the Comment section… Which I recommend that you do, because even if you don’t like it, I guarantee it will stick in your head like a burr.
10/10

My Outstanding Reads of 2013

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These are the books that have stuck in my memory as the most enjoyable or thought- provoking reads of the year. For those who don’t already know – I don’t bother to review books I dislike. In 2013 I read 115 books, didn’t complete 4 others and posted 69 reviews.

The Bloody Angel – Book 4 in the Eddie LaCrosse series by Alex Bledsoe
Having in a former life owned a yacht, I have very limited tolerance for tales that get the sailing wrong… So when my husband kept onwake of recommending this book, I rather grumpily decided that I’d better read a couple of chapters to shut him up before returning to the next cool space opera beckoning. And then became hooked…

Twenty years ago, a barmaid in a harbour town fell for a young sailor who turned pirate to make his fortune. But what truly became of Black Edward Tew remains a mystery – one that has just fallen into the lap of freelance sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse. For years, Eddie has kept his office above Angelina’s tavern, so when Angelina herself asks him to find out what happened to the dashing pirate who stole her heart, he can hardly say no – even though the trail is two decades old.

If that sounds like a really cracking plot with plenty of opportunity for swashbuckling characters, a hatful of exciting adventures, plenty of humour and more than a slice of real heartbreak and horror – you’d be right.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
doomsdayI picked up this copy of the book as an SF Masterworks because as a solid fan of many women fantasy and science fiction writers, I had never read her work and I discovered it was a Hugo Award winner. I’m so glad I did…

When Kivrin Engle travels back through time to complete her doctoral thesis, due to an accident she lands in the middle of a major crisis her Faculty were struggling to avoid. Meanwhile the Oxford she left behind is laid low by a mysterious strain of influenza and, with no one willing to risk arranging her rescue, time is running out…

This book, indeed, deserves to be part of the SF Masterworks series – from the moment I opened the first page I knew I was in the hands of a great writer at the top of her game. Willis sets the scene in Oxford’s near future with deft dexterity, her characters crackle with humanity and there is a bone-dry humour running through the whole story that helps to make the grim adventure Kivrin endures bearable.

The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan
As an ex-teacher, the failure of our state education system is a subject that haunts me – and when I read this book, I was excited about 1worldits potential for helping fix our broken system. A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere: this is the goal of the Khan Academy; a passion project that grew from an ex-engineer and hedge funder’s online tutoring sessions with his niece, who was struggling with algebra, into a worldwide phenomenon. Today millions of students, parents and teachers use the Khan Academy’s free videos and software, which have expanded to encompass nearly every conceivable subject, and Academy techniques are being employed with exciting results in a growing number of classrooms around the globe.

Khan suggests that instead of having a teacher deliver a lesson to a group of children in a totally arbitrary manner, they learn individually at their own pace using modern technology with the teacher acting as enabler. He also suggests that a far more creative, wide-ranging curriculum should be in place, where children undertake complex self-directed tasks in groups. A revolutionary approach to state-funded education? Absolutely. Read Salman Khan’s solutions to our educational problems – and then could someone point the Minister of Education in the direction of this book? Please?? We cannot continue to squander our most precious resource – our children.

The Clockwork Rocket – Book 1 of The Orthogonal by Greg Egan
clockworkEgan, as a physicist, has always been on the harder side of science fiction, but the important difference – for me – is that he is also able to write convincing characters into the bargain.

However, this time around he has produced a truly different world – one where the laws of physics as we know them no longer work. As he explains on his website – along with a series of diagrams – this fictional world he’s invented where light travels at differing speeds is due to changing a minus sign to a plus sign in a mathematical formula that governs the geometry of space-time. He calls this a Riemannian universe as opposed to the Lorentzian version we inhabit. In Egan’s world, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity simply doesn’t make sense. Further, the basic humanoid template, so prevalent in most space opera adventures, is also off the table. Egan demonstrates a head-swivelling leap of imagination by producing a race of beings who don’t look like us, or breed like us… It’s an awesome achievement. And highly readable into the bargain.

The Glass God – Book 2 of The Magicals Anonymous by Kate Griffin
Sharon Li: apprentice shaman and community support officer for the magically inclined. It wasn’t the career Sharon had in mind, butglassgod she’s getting used to running Magicals Anonymous and learning how to Be One With The City. When the Midnight Mayor goes missing, leaving only a suspiciously innocent-looking umbrella behind him, Sharon finds herself promoted. Her first task: find the Midnight Mayor. The only clues she has are a city dryad’s cryptic warning and several pairs of abandoned shoes…

Sharon’s determinedly fair-minded stance is given a major workout as she comes up against a number of unpleasant nasties in her pursuit of the Midnight Mayor. Griffin hasn’t eased up one jot on some of the more revolting corners of London, as the story rolls forward with all the energy and slickness we’ve come to expect from one of the foremost fantasy Brit writers.

A Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb
half forgotten song1937. In a village on the Dorset coast, fourteen-year-old Mitzy Hatcher has endured a wild and lonely upbringing – until the arrival of renowned artist Charles Aubrey, his exotic mistress and their daughters, changes everything. Over the next three summers, Mitzy sees a future she had never thought possible, and a powerful love is kindled in her. A love that grows from innocence to obsession; from childish infatuation to something far more complex. Years later, a young man in an art gallery looks at a hastily-drawn portrait and wonders at the intensity of it. The questions he asks lead him to a Dorset village and to the truth about those fevered summers in the 1930s…

Those of you familiar with The Legacy will recognise that Webb has again revisited the dual narrative, with one story unfolding back in the past and one storyline gradually progressing in the present. The past finally meets the present in an exciting and unexpected denouement – but the engine that drives this story is a lost, unloved soul who anchors all her hopes and affection on a charismatic artist. Webb apparently loosely based Charles on Augustus John, who had a reputation as a womaniser and clearly loved women’s bodies with a strong, sensual appreciation.

Webb’s depiction of Mitzy’s harsh childhood, where she spends much of time scavenging the surrounding countryside for plants, herbs, fish and small animals to eat or make up potions for her mother to sell, is far from the rural idyll that soft-focused adverts use. Yet, she still manages to evoke the beauty and rhythm of the Dorset countryside – so much so, that I fell asleep with the colours of this book swirling in my head. The initial friendship of Charles’ two girls is a revelation for Mitzy, who is shunned by all the village children, except for Wilf. This particular narrative caught at my heart and as it spirals into a tailspin of obsession and the inevitable darkness, the book’s denouement was completely unexpected and shocking.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
You live in Eden. You are a member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of Angela and Tommy. You shelter beneath the Forest’s darkedenlantern trees. Beyond the forest lie mountains so forbidding that no one has ever crossed them. The Oldest recount legends of a time when men and women made boats that could travel between worlds. One day, they will come back for you. You live in Eden. You are member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of two marooned explorers. You huddle, slowly starving, in the warmth of geothermal trees, confined to one barely habitable valley of an alien, sunless world. You are John Redlantern, a teenager and agent of change for life in Eden.

This book has a 1970’s feel about it – but with modern nuances with the story being told through a number of the most prominent characters in first person viewpoint. And if you only ever pick up a handful of science fiction books a year, make this one of that handful – this memorable and disturbing read is worth it.

The Red Knight – Book 1 of The Traitor’s Son Cycle by Miles Cameron
redknightTwenty-eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild. Twenty-eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern’s jaws snaps shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip your head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men – or worse, a company of mercenaries – against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder.

It requires the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it. The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he’s determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery it’s just another job. The abbey is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can’t deal with. Only it’s not just a job. It’s going to be war…

Military medieval fantasy generally doesn’t do it for me. I’ve read plenty in my time, and until my husband nagged me to try this book, I’d more or less decided I wouldn’t shed any tears if I didn’t ever read any more. But this is different. For starters, Cameron knows what he’s talking about. He’s been involved in role-playing, martial arts – he’s actually jousted in tournaments… And it shows in the writing, which gripped me from the first page until the last – and gave me an insight into just how very different that world was, compared with our modern version.

Sister by Rosamund Lipton
When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first sisterflight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face. The police, Beatrice’s fiancé and even their mother accept they have lost Tess but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.

The strong first person viewpoint and constant tension, coupled with the fine writing had me utterly engrossed, so that I gorged on the book in two hefty sittings. Though I did have to break off at one stage to find some tissues because I was weeping… The protagonist is beautifully handled as we follow her desperate search for her sister, which entails finding out a series of very uncomfortable truths about herself. Lupton is adept at braiding the surroundings, weather and cast of well depicted, vivid characters through Beatrice’s consciousness, so that she is one of the strongest and most interesting protagonists I’ve read for a while.

Advent – Book 1 of The Advent Trilogy by James Treadwell
adventFor centuries it has been locked away. Locked away. Lost beneath the sea. Warded from earth, air, water, fire, scrying thought and sigh. Now magic is rising to the world once more. And a boy called Gavin, who thinks only that he is a city kid with parents who hate him, and knows only that he sees things no one else will believe, is boarding a train alone, to Cornwall. Where he steps into a different world…

I’ve seen this book compared favourably to Susan Cooper, and while such hyped comparisons are often absurd, this time, I was reminded of Cooper’s threat-ridden landscape and sense of tension. Treadwell is a superb writer – the description of the ancient house, Pendurra, is outstanding. It is a hefty read and at no time does Treadwell throw his young readers any sort of ‘you’re only teenagers, so I’ve made it easier for you’ lifebelt, I’m delighted to report. This non-teenager was engrossed with the quality of the storytelling and this shifting, frightening world has stayed with me since I read it.

A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thompson
Summer 1968: the day Senator Robert Kennedy is shot, two nine-year-old girls are playing hide and seek in the ruins of a deserted kindofvanishingvillage. When it is Eleanor’s turn to hide, Alice disappears.

Thomson immediately plunges into the world of young girls, depicting first Eleanor’s rich interior landscape and then allowing us to access to Alice’s carefully modulated world, where her doting parents watch her every move. Thomson paints an exquisite picture of each girls’ fragilities, their aspirations and pin-sharp awareness of adult expectations. She beautifully inhabits the terrible, wonderful world of childhood – and the girls’ growing antipathy towards each other. One a noisy, rebellious tomboy living in a household where the adults only occasionally pay attention to their three children, while the other is the heart of her parents’ aspirations and already knows she needs to be neat and pretty to succeed. Neither girl trusts or like the other as they are forced to play together – until that disastrous game of hide and seek. This thriller/mystery is like nothing else I’ve read, and I’m still not sure that it fully works… but it certainly powerfully evoked the time and has stayed with me since I read it.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
madscientistsdaughterFinn looks and acts human, though he has no desire to be. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection. A billion-dollar construct, his primary task now is to tutor Cat. As she grows into a beautiful young woman, Finn is her guardian, her constant companion… and more. But when the government grants right to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world, and her heart.

If you’re looking for a slam-dunk, action fuelled adventure full of clear-cut baddies and heavy-tech weaponry, then don’t pick up The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Because this offering is on the literary end of the genre, with nuanced, three-dimensional characterisation and coolly sophisticated prose that places this book in a heavily contemporary setting, due to the recent crash in civilisation – and also accounts for the sudden, huge reliance on robots, as their tireless assistance is needed to provide vital labour in rebuilding society. Not that this is the focus of the book. This story concentrates on Cat and her relationship with the world, after having been tutored by a robot for all her formative years. And, by default, Finn’s relationship with Cat also is under close examination. Because the bond between them is heart and engine of the book, it has to be pitch-perfect. And it is. Don’t expect any black and white answers – this book is beautifully complex and Cat’s life unfolds in unexpected and sometimes disturbing directions. And in common with the other books in this list – it is a story that still steals into my head when I’m not thinking of anything else in particular.

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell
I heard this book narrated on Radio 4 and was transfixed. Normally the radio is the background for the necessary loathed household reason I jumpchores 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.

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. Even if you don’t have anyone autistic in your life, it is worth reading – especially when you consider that every letter was pointed to and then written down by a scribe, before being translated into English.

Among Others by Jo Walton
among othersAfter 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?

When 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.

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.