Monthly Archives: February 2014

Review of The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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It was something of a shock to discover that this book had somehow slipped past me unread when it first hit the shelves. And obviously an omission I needed to put right as soon as I could…

1916: the Western Front. Private Percy Lakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong, and the wing in the leaves in the trees. Where have the mud, blood and blasted landscape of No Man’s Land gone?

2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Cop Monica Janesson is exploring the burned-out home of a reclusive – some say mad, others dangerous – scientist when she finds a curious gadget: a box containing some wiring, a three-way switch and a … potato. It is the prototype of an invention that will change the way Mankind views its world for ever.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting – but it wasn’t this. The whole feel of this book harks back to the earliest science fiction I longread – the likes of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine came to mind in the enthusiastic, detailed description of the expedition across the Long Earth to discover exactly what is out there. In addition, the wide-ranging narrative arc and wide variety of characters has a really old-fashioned feel. The main premise is that there are an endless number of pristine Earths unblemished by humanity just waiting to be stepped into using a small widget powered by a potato, which the inventor ensures is accessible to everyone. The idea of alternate Earths isn’t new, but Pratchett and Baxter ensure there are few interesting touches in their joint incarnation – for starters, stepping across from one Earth to the next induces acute nausea in most people. Though of course, there are exceptions…

The main protagonists are Joshua Valienté, a natural Stepper who doesn’t need a machine or suffer any physical discomfort when travelling from Datum – the name given to our humanity-infested version – to other Earths; and Lobsang, an obnoxiously smug character who was originally a Tibetan monk, but whose intelligence and identity has been uploaded into a series of artificial environments. Neither of these characters are particularly endearing – I found myself far more interested in Sally, another natural Stepper they encounter a long way from Datum. But then I didn’t much like Captain Nemo or any of the characters travelling on the Nautilus, either. And their story didn’t much stick in my memory, so much as the wonder of actually travelling under the sea and their adventures in such a hostile environment. And in this tale, it is definitely the variety of Earths and their impact on humanity and various societies that is the heart of this story.

By the end, I wasn’t so much concerned about the main protagonists, as to how the whole story with the Something Nasty Out There will be resolved in the next book, The Long War, which I will definitely tracking down. A nod to the classics – which initially snared so many fans into seeking more stories in settings beyond the everyday and mundane – is no bad thing in the hands of two such experienced story-spinners.
8/10

Review of The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

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I went looking for this author after both my mother and a widely read student of mine recommended her work. The book is a dual narrative about an impressionist painting, The Girl You Left Behind.

In 1916 French artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his wife Sophie and goes to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant. As his obsession deepens, she will risk everything – her family, reputation and life – in the hope of seeing Edouard again. Nearly a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. Its beauty speaks of their short life together, but when the painting’s dark and passion-torn history is revealed, the first spark of new love Liv has felt is threatened…

girlMoyes’ depiction of the bleak conditions prevailing for French civilians in WWI occupied France is compelling – all the more so for being an under-reported slice of history. The Germans’ continual intrusion into everyday life with a range of rules and regulations; their ‘procurement’ of anything they fancy – from fine furniture, family heirlooms and any stored food and drink, in contrast to the starvation rations they eke out in return, is a grinding, frightening experience. Living under those conditions meant that anyone singled out by them immediately came under the spotlight – so when Sophia and her sister are commanded to cook the evening meal for the German officers and given rations to do so, their ravenous fellow villagers watch with envious eyes. Sophia’s raw courage and gritted determination to survive for the sake of her husband bounces off the page – and when the book suddenly switched to Liv’s story, a hundred years later, I was initially less than pleased.

However, Liv is suffering a different sort of hell. Probably as soul-rotting as Sophia’s plight, if not as extreme. Still struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband four years earlier, she lives in a house she cannot afford and endures the misery of concerned friends trying to ‘fix her up’ so she can move on. The painting that David bought her is a source of great comfort, so when it becomes the focus of unwelcome interest, Liv is determined to hang onto it, whatever the consequences.

In writing about the fortunes of two women confronted with such very different lives, Moyes is faced with the predicament of ensuring that the reader stays sympathetic to both of them. They share the same gutsy determination not to give in – and the same impetuous impulses that cause both of them to make decisions that are potentially disastrous. But Sophia is far tougher and more practical than Liv, brought up in harder times with an abusive father – and I liked the fact that Moyes doesn’t attempt to depict Liv as anything less than rather spoiled, in comparison. Of course she is – those of us living with the advantages of modern living all are. And unless we were confronted with the same terrible choices of imminent starvation and the daily misery of an invading army, we wouldn’t know how we would measure up.

But what starts as two love stories, linked by a painting spirals off into a far more interesting, nuanced narrative. Liv is informed that her beloved painting was appropriated by a German officer during WWI, and as such, truly belongs to the family of the artist, living in France. Who is more entitled to it? The current owner, who bought it in good faith – or the relatives of a family who had everything unfairly ripped away by an invading army, even when that deed occurred a century ago? While we all think we know the answer, Moyes poses the question where the original family’s motives are purely financial, compared to Liv’s gritted emotional reaction to being forced to relinquish the one possession that has come to symbolise her lost marriage. It’s a very neat device – and completely drew me in.

This is an intelligent, able author at the height of her powers, who has written a compelling story full of twists and turns. It could so easily have all gone pear-shaped… Sophie’s terrible experiences could have completely overwhelmed the second narrative, making Liv’s plight seem anaemic in comparison, thus unbalancing the whole book. That it doesn’t shows a depth of skill in the crafting that is belied by the readable, unflashy style which, nevertheless, had me reading waaay after I should have got up and got cracking this morning.

Any niggles? The supporting cast are mostly very strong. I enjoyed the contrasting worlds – Hélène, Sophie’s sister, gives a believable slice of sisterly support and criticism that is pitch perfect. I also found Liv’s eccentric actor father and step-mother enjoyably plausible. But one character did have me gritting my teeth by the end – Mo, the goth waitress that ends up moving in with Liv is far too knowing and wise. Consequently, in a book filled with well-drawn, realistic characters, she stands out like a sore thumb… However, in the overall scheme of things, this is a minor quibble – and I am certainly going to hunt down more books by this talented writer.
9/10

Review of Riven – Book 2 of the Bound trilogy by Sarah Bryant

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With my usual lack of planning, I plucked this offering off the shelves, beguiled by the cool cover and it wasn’t until I got it home, I realised that it was the sequel to Bound, which I haven’t read…

Devastated by the death of her boyfriend, Lucas, Sophie moves in with her mother in Edinburgh, hoping to grieve quietly. But since rivenmeeting Lucas, nothing about Sophie’s life has been quiet, and his death doesn’t change this. If anything, life has become more complicated and confusing than ever. Her mother is determined that she get over him. A strange, compelling man seems to be stalking her. And she’s begun to have visions she doesn’t dare believe. Because, if she does, it means that Lucas isn’t dead at all. Instead, he’s entangled in a fate worse than death. And only she can save him.

Congratulations to Snow Books for a really good blurb – it gives a taste of what the book is about without including any major spoilers, which these days is a rarity… So given the atmospheric cover and intriguing blurb, did the contents of this YA adventure encompassing loving angels and otherworldly nasties live up to the promising first impression? In a word – yes.

Bryant is clearly an experienced story-spinner at the top of her game and her deft handling of this sequel is clear proof. Starting a book with a grieving protagonist is a lot trickier than Bryant makes it look – particularly if you have a reader like me who hasn’t read the first book, so isn’t remotely invested in the heroine’s narrative arc. Misery is actually fairly boring – which is why soaps linger on the meaty drama leading up to a terrible event, dwell on the Awful Bit and then gloss/skip the subsequent grieving. Bryant manages to give us a real feel for Sophie’s emotional pain, while keeping the pace going and pulling us into her world.

And an interesting mishmash her world is… There is a lot of blending of mythological characters taken from a variety of sources – the Morrigan, for instance, which are flung into the rich mix of Bryant’s particular version of How It All Began and how our heroine fits into the overall picture. Needless to say, she isn’t a bit player. While initially more than a tad sceptical about this world, by the middle of the story I was completely prepared to suspend any disbelief and just keep turning the pages. In addition to an appealing main protagonist, Bryant also produces an interesting cast, so that when the climax kicks off, Sophie has alongside a team that are more or less allies. I enjoyed the fact that these include a couple of major characters whose motives don’t line up with Sophie’s – but are less of a threat than the main villain.

I really enjoyed the final showdown – and the fact that Bryant played with our expectations of the climax, then threw in yet another curved ball, which sets up the next book in the series to be yet another huge deal… Needless to say, I will be waiting for this final book with anticipation – as well as tracking down some more of Bryant’s books. If she writes for adults with half the skill and flair she demonstrates in her YA offering, then I want to read more of her work.
8/10

Review of 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Like many other science fiction fans, I was blown away by the Mars series – and also very much enjoyed Antarctica, so it was a no-brainer that I needed to track down 2312.

The year is 2312. Scientific and technological advances have opened gateways to an extraordinary future. Earth is no longer humanity’s only home; new habitats have been created throughout the solar system on moons, planets and in between. But in this year, 2312, a sequence of events will force humanity to confront its past, its present and its future.

2312In essence, this brick of a book follows the fortunes of Swan after her grandmother unexpectedly dies and her actual adventures would easily fill a book only half the size. But this novel isn’t just about the fortunes of one character, it is also a detailed evocation of a future where humanity has spread across the solar system. Not only are we now living on Mars, Venus and even Mercury – I love the wheeled city, Terminator, running on rails so as to stay out of the lethally scorching sunlight, which sears the planet surface every daybreak – humans also inhabit the interior of hollowed asteroids and perch in tented cities on the surfaces of moons circling Saturn. While Earth still struggles to recover from the disastrous sea level rise, spacers send back food and resources.

As life expectancy becomes ever longer and the basic template of humanity is tweaked – including their sexuality – and altered to cope with innately hostile conditions, the book examines the familiar theme of what exactly defines human beings.

This is a major theme running through the book, as the mobile AIs, known as qubes appear to have suddenly altered – and a knot of influential humans are beginning to meet off-grid, concerned to communicate with each other face to face, rather than using quantum computers to link up virtually.

Running alongside the descriptions of the different worlds, Swan’s story arc are also chapters providing lists, and other chapters of extracts, discussing subjects as diverse as the periodification of history (we’re living through The Dithering, by the way…), instructions on how to create terraria from a hollowed asteroid and a philosophical discussion on the impact of the constant changes of humankind. So – do they work, interspersed in amongst the actual storyline? Honestly, I think the answer has to be – yes and no. Some are punchy, enjoyable and certainly successfully add an interesting dimension to the book, while others are so oblique and abstract (many of the lists fall in this category, in my opinion) that I found myself skimming through them.

But it is refreshing to see a novelist of Robinson’s fame continue to push the envelope of what constitutes a hard science fiction story – which as a genre has always paid a great deal of attention to the world-building and the technology. Because he has put those aspects right up there alongside his fairly straightforward story and what creates the gravitas in this book are those elements interweaving in amongst the narrative arc. Which has created a thickly textured world where pockets of humanity are splintering off into their own, often creating very introverted societies.

Unlike the modern taste for keeping the pace clipping along at a brisk trot by using plenty of tension and using character-led action, Robinson insists on slowing everything right back down again, after an action scene, by the inclusion of another chapter of extracts and/or lists. It took me a while to get used to the rhythm of the book, but once I did, I was surprised how tolerant I became of these interruptions. Of course if they were badly written, poorly reasoned or lacking in originality and invention I probably would have lost patience with them.

Overall, I think this sprawling book works – although I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending. But the lapses in the storyline; occasional holes in the characterisation or sheer oddity of the lists can all be forgiven when set against the hugely ambitious scope of what Robinson is trying to achieve. And that fact that he succeeds more than he fails. If you haven’t given it a go and your taste runs to intriguing, complicated worlds and musing on where we are headed as a species, then track this book down. You won’t have read anything quite like it – I guarantee it.
8/10

Review of Glass Thorns – Book 1 of Touchstone by Melanie Rawn

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When I first met Himself, he had a box of fantasy books – including Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince trilogy, which blew me away. So, all these years later when I’ve read so many more books in the genre, would I still love her writing?

glassthornsCayden Silversun is part Elven, part Fae, and part human Wizard. After centuries of bloodshed, in which Cade’s Wizard kin played a prominent role, his powers are now strictly constrained. But in the theatre, magic lives. Cade is a tregetour, a playwright who infuses glass wands with the magic necessary for the rest of his troupe, Touchstone, to perform his pieces. But alongside the Wizardly magic that he is sure will bring him fame and fortune on the stage is the legacy of the Fae within him. Troubled by prophetic visions of not only his future but the fates of those closest to him, Cade must decide whether to interfere, or stand back as Touchstone threatens to shatter into pieces.

It is always enjoyable and intriguing to read something that stretches the genre in a different direction – and Glass Thorns certainly does that. Apart from the fact that it has many elements taken from Fantasy – a Late Medieval/Early Modern historical feel, complete with horse-driven conveyances; a number of races rubbing shoulders, including Elves, Wizards, Fae, Trolls, etc; women relegated to a subservient role – there are also aspects of this book that would fit quite happily in a hard science fiction read. The fact that the narrative is powered by attention to and details from the world (which in a sci fi book would be all the techie toys); main characters are defined and moulded by their interaction with the magic system (think of post-humanity in the likes of Alisdair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks novels); and the pace is outright leisurely – which is certainly also the case in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2313.

However Fantasy fans are generally used to a lot more action than Rawn offers, here. So does she pull it off? As far as I’m concerned – yes. I loved it right from the start. Cade’s twitchy, neurotic but brilliant character had me immediately hooked. I love the setup of the magical theatre group struggling to establish themselves – the concept is original and gives us a specific slant on the society from the viewpoint of a couple of self-absorbed, egotistical characters, whose job as actors take them outside the conventions of class.

Rawn manages to beautifully balance the touchy, over-controlling Wizard, with the devastating charisma and chaotic abandon of Mieka, Touchstone’s glister, whose imagination releases and shapes Cade’s raw magic stored in the glass withies. He is also the other viewpoint character in the book. As Touchstone learn their repertoire and go on an extended tour, this book charts their progress and particularly the relationship between Cade and Mieka, which is often tense and explosive.  So if you’re looking for a swash-buckler, full of gory action and breathless non-stop action, then give this one a pass – it doesn’t tick any of those boxes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with those books – but this novel is attempting to do something different.

I loved it – from the odd words, which were easy enough to understand without resorting to the glossary in my opinion – right through to the cliff-hanger ending. And one of my priorities for February is to track down the next book in this fascinating series, Elsewhens and see where Rawn takes it.
9/10

Review of Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig

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When Himself waved this under my nose, I rolled my eyes and muttered about yet another third-class offering by some celeb. But he insisted that it wasn’t anything of the sort – said it was about the Boer War and deserved my attention.

London 1897 and a young girl, Valentine Grey, arrives in England from India. She finds the damp and cold country insufferable and the only bright spot is her exciting cousin, Reggie. He and his lover, Frank, seek out adventure in the clandestine bars and streets of London, and are happy to include Valentine in their secret. And then comes the Boer War. But it won’t be Reggie who dons the Volunteer Regiment’s garb. Valentine takes her chance, puts on her cousin’s uniform, and heads off to war…

The blurb sets the initial backstory and while enjoying Toksvig’s smooth, readable prose, I had sort of settled down for an account of derring-do by our gutsy heroine. To be pleasantly surprised – the book is a whole lot more interesting than that. Toksvig has clearly done her homework on the sheer, brutal pointlessness of the Boer War campaign. Typically, the Brits had gone into the conflict with the wrong equipment for the climate and the haziest notion of exactly what they were hoping to accomplish tactically (sound familiar, anyone?) and the full impact of the whole mess fell onto the hapless recruits and the wretched civilians who happened to be in their path. Hopefully no one will think we’re into Spoiler territory if I just mention that it doesn’t end well…

valentineToksvig’s account of Valentine’s military adventures are gripping, occasionally farcical to the point of humour – and graphic in their depiction of the wretched conditions endured. In addition to following our protagonist, we also get an insight into the fortunes and fates of her messmates – Toksvig is effective at penning appealing, realistic characters who bounce off the page and into the imagination. The other main plotline follows the fortunes of the charismatic Reggie and his lover Frank. Again, I hope that I’m not giving too much away if I let slip that this doesn’t end well, either…

Toksvig’s examination of how Victorian society handles minorities, such as women, homosexuals and blacks is drearily familiar. I’d like to be able to report that it came as a complete shock – but it didn’t, chiefly because many of those attitudes are still all too prevalent. What I did find impressive and unexpected, was her acknowledgement of the role of women within the home and the extent of the ‘soft power’ exerted at that time. Valentine lives with her aunt and uncle in an efficient, if rigidly controlled household – until her aunt dies in a tragic accident. The household immediately falls apart – much of the subsequent damage to the family continues because Valentine’s uncle is unable to step into his wife’s shoes and take over, with several of his subsequent decisions being disastrous.

This is often the elephant in the room when gender issues are raised – and I am all for women taking their place alongside men in the public domain and regard myself as a feminist. But what happens to the domestic sphere when women’s energies and attention are directed elsewhere? Toksvig doesn’t provide any answers – to be honest, I haven’t seen anyone satisfactorily do so… But at least she is courageous and honest enough in her writing to pose the issue. In fact, it is this quality of honesty that shines through this particular novel – it would have been so easy to have put a gloss on several of the issues she raised. It is, after all, fiction. But the fact that she didn’t means that this book packs a punch well above the average historical novel – and despite her celebrity status, I will be looking out for other books by her. Toksvig may be well known for her other achievements, but she is also an accomplished, interesting novelist.
8/10

Review of The Eternal Prison – Book 3 of the Avery Cates novel by Jeff Somers

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If you like your science fiction dystopian, full of action and tension with a deeply flawed character, then Somers is your man and Avery Cates your ideal protagonist.

After surviving the worst bioengineered disaster in history, Cates finds himself incarcerated – in Chengara Penitentiary. As Chengara etrernalhas a survival rate of exactly zero, the System’s most famous gunner must do some serious plotting. And a betrayal or so later, he achieves his goal. At a price. All he has to do next is defeat some new personal demons, forge some unlikely alliances, and figure out why the people he’s killed lately just won’t stay dead. Plus pull off the biggest assassination of his career…

Imagine everything going to Hell in a handcart, with a foul-mouthed John McCain-type character of Diehard fame – and you get a sense of what Somers’ world is all about. Cates is definitely a thug and murderer, but he has a sparky gallows humour that meant despite doing some horrible things, I always wanted him to prevail. This is a big deal – I’m not a huge fan of cover-to-cover gore, but somehow Somers’ tone and excellent writing won me over. If you enjoy Richard Morgan and haven’t yet come across Somers, then check him out – he is every bit as readable as Morgan, in my opinion.

I also enjoyed the range of other characters that Cates encounters – they necessarily tend to be hard cases, as Cates doesn’t move in the sort of circles that mixes with respectable middle-class nonentities. In this world, they’re probably all dead… But this selection of characters are an intriguing lot – particularly the villains. I particularly like Michaleen, the indomitable little man who somehow has managed to survive the horrors of Chengara longer than anyone else. Not because he’s at all pleasant – but despite the foul language and violence, he has charm. Almost as much charm as Cates, himself.

As the plot whips along at breakneck speed, Somers introduces plenty of plot twists calculated to keep readers turning the pages. Which I did – despite this being the third book in the series, at no time was I floundering or adrift, though I was aware there was a long, interesting back story to this slice of Cates’ adventures.

I’ll confess to picking this book up, half expecting that I would be abandoning it after a couple of chapters. I didn’t. Instead, I thoroughly enjoyed it – and would recommend it for those adrenaline junkies among you. This combat-packed, gore splattered thriller is a cut above many in the genre, thanks to Somers’ strong writing.
8/10

Shoot for the Moon Challenge – January Update

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I may have mentioned that in early January – carried away in the euphoria of seeing the back of 2013 and under the influence of my moonbuddy Mhairi Simpson – I agreed to set myself stupidly ambitious writing targets. The theory is that in striving to get somewhere near these ridiculous challenges, I will achieve a great deal more than if I had decided to give myself more realistic deadlines.

So now that January has just been and gone (and how come it flitted by so damn fast?) I thought I’d provide a short overview of where I am in comparison to where I hoped to be…

• This month I’ve written nearly 15,000 words towards Miranda’s Tempest, my current Work in Progress. However, it needs some significant rewriting which I want to complete before starting the final story arc – so I want to step away to give myself a chance to do a brief edit, which I cannot do while I’m writing it… This may sound mad, but when I write a novel really fast – I began Miranda in the middle of October and have written 75,000 words so far, which is quick for me – I often find that there are aspects that are glossed/neglected and need further attention. Because the ending of this book is particularly climactic and shocking, I want to have all the major elements working their passage before embarking on the last story arc. Hence the break.
Challenge – to have the first draft of Miranda’s Tempest completed before Easter. So far, I’m on track – though I have some editing jobs coming up, which will require my full attention.

• I’m now editing Netted, which is going well and I have reached the final chapter, which needs some rewriting/additional scenes to elongate the final story arc. At present the action is too rushed, impacting on the climax and affecting the final character development of two of the main protagonists. Because I have chopped about some of scenes, I am having to rejig the timeline – which is a major pain because the initial handwritten version has gone missing, so I am going to do this one from scratch on the computer. No point in kicking the furniture about it (it hurts my toes too much for starters…) and while going through the whole m/s to redo the timeline, I’m turning this into a virtue by taking the opportunity to double-check that all 4 protagonists are in the right place at the right time. So it may be a fiddle, but it’s necessary…
Challenge – to have Netted fully ready for submitting by the end of February. Hm. This could be tight, but so far isn’t impossible.

• I’ve written nine book reviews so far this year – it’s been a bit of a shock to discover how many words I write on my blog – just under 10,000 for January.
Challenge – to write 100 book reviews this year. Currently on track – but not holding my breath that I’ll achieve this…

Overall this month, I’ve written 33,500 words, including handouts, lesson plans, schemes of work, etc for this term’s Creative Writing course at Northbrook.

Challenge – to submit all my available poems and short stories. Nope. Complete failure – I haven’t subbed so much as one… So during February I need to make this a priority.

That’s where I am to date. I’m fully expecting the gap between what I’m aiming for and what I manage to do to steadily widen as the year progresses – but to be honest I’m more than happy with the start I’ve made and feel really excited about my writing at present.

Anyone else given themselves massive challenges for 2014? And it doesn’t have to include tapping away madly at a keyboard for hours on end…