I think I have mentioned one or three times before on this blog that I simply don’t get on with Martin’s sprawling Fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. That doesn’t mean I dislike his writing, however. Fevre Dream remains one of my favourite all-time novellas – I cannot recommend it highly enough. So when I came across this offering by Gollancz, who rounded up this series of connected short stories and published them in a single volume in a very smart marketing move – I scooped it up with glee.
Haviland Tuf, an honest trader with his humble ship the Cornucopia of Excellent Goods at Low Prices, has agreed to transport a group of unpleasant individuals to an amazing and terrifying discovery made by the space archaeologist among them. Question is – will any of them survive the experience? And if they do, how does anyone cope with a thirty-five kilometre long ship devoted to producing terrifying plagues and monsters?
As any fan of science fiction knows – the recurring storyline of a scary-powerful artefact suddenly emerging from a previous era is as cosily familiar within the genre as a cup of cocoa. Martin takes the subject – and adds in his own quirky protagonist and individual take to produce this series of entertaining, humorous and thought provoking stories. His writing is sharp and enjoyable – I found Haviland Tuf an interestingly complex and contradictory character. He appears to be stolidly argumentative and pedantic, yet goes out of his way to help people who don’t seem to remotely appreciate his efforts. Though, you see flashes of the author capable of the dark twists infesting a book like A Feast for Crows in his depiction of Tuf – particularly right at the end, when the mood turns suddenly a whole lot sombre, as Martin raises some very sharp moral issues. At what point does an individual trample on the rights and free will of a whole society in order to save them from their own folly? Is it ever allowable? And where does that leave the idea of democratic rule if such a caveat becomes acceptable?
However, for most of the book, such issues bubble away in the background while Tuf’s adventures kept me captivated and amused – and on my toes. Right from the start, I had no idea where this story was headed, which was why I have gone to some lengths to avoid providing too many spoilers. I am personally allergic to them and recommend that you avoid the back cover blurb, which basically sets out the plot of the first story.
In addition to the outstanding protagonist, Martin has also peopled these adventures with a number of memorable supporting characters – my favourite being Tolly Mune, who makes several appearances in these stories. Eccentric and crafty, she is a great foil to Haviland Tuf and her story arc throughout the book is equally enjoyable and twisty. All in all, this is one of the best science fiction reads of the year, so far. Track it down – even if you, too, can’t cope with Martin’s magnum opus.
I really enjoyed reading this – and I have a hunch that Johanna isn’t the only author, Brit or otherwise, who feels more comfortable writing, rather than bigging up her work…
I’ve reached a rather devastating conclusion this evening: I’m far too British for my own good.
I’m modest. I can’t confidently identify any brass instrument, so how can I possibly blow my own trumpet?
I squirm with uncomfortable admiration when reading some authors’ self-publicity on the social networks: I’d rather sit in a bath full of slugs than launch a daily (let alone hourly) self-promotion campaign. I did it once, for five days, and although the event was successful in attracting new readers, I found the experience very stressful. Pushy sales tactics have me looking for the door, and being pushy is something that feels very unnatural to me. I’m aware that the authors who engage in regular…
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I had heard about this self- publishing phenomenon at the time – but somehow didn’t get around to tracking down a copy of the book. So imagine my surprise when there it was, in my local library. Naturally, I had to whisk it off the shelves. Would I enjoy it as much as The Hunger Games trilogy?
It has been six weeks since the angels returned to Earth and destroyed the world as we know it. When they fly away with a helpless little girl, her sister Penryn will do anything to get her back…
I’ve read a couple of apocalyptic books, recently – so this post-apocalyptic offering is timely. It certainly is a page-turner – Penryn is an appealing protagonist, street-smart and tough after having lived alongside and cared for her mentally ill mother, in addition to looking after her paraplegic young sister. The narrative engine of the story is Penryn’s frantic search when she witnesses Paige being snatched from her wheelchair by an angel and carried off. After helping another angel, Raffe, who was wounded by Paige’s abductor, they team up and experience a series of adventures, despite the fact that angels regard humans with contempt, calling them monkeys.
The book is written in Penryn’s first person viewpoint, so it is vital that we engage with her and I think her strong characterisation is one of the key appeals of this book. The present tense throughout emphasises the fast-paced action that tends to characterise YA books – and this is certainly a foot-to-the-floor non-stop ride for all you adrenaline junkies. Despite the YA tag, there is a lot of violence and some of it is visceral, particularly near the end. The world that is portrayed by Ee is deeply unpleasant – everything has gone to Hell in a handcart since the angels struck. Several reviewers felt that the speed at which everything has disintegrated is too fast, given that the angels destroyed civilisation six weeks ago. But having read one or three apocalyptic books in my time, I reckon Ee has it about right. There are still a handful of houses where there are slim pickings, while survivors have banded into gangs, the majority of them aggressive males. Once electricity becomes sufficiently unreliable so we cannot rely on most of our clever machinery to keep ourselves clean, fed and watered – life in any sized town rapidly would become untenable. Very rapidly…
I also like the fact that Penryn doesn’t know much about anything. She doesn’t know why the angels struck, and is unaware of the warring factions amongst them until she sees the attack on Raffe, who isn’t the chatty sort. The relationship between the two of them is nicely judged – I personally would prefer it if it doesn’t slide into lurve as I think the prickly tension between them is far more interesting– but I’m not the target audience for this sub-genre.
So… after all the adventures, fights and harrowing discoveries, does Ee satisfactorily wrap up this story? No, she doesn’t. She leaves it dangling on something of a cliffhanger – and still managed to garner a hatful of five star reviews from ecstatic readers. While the prose is a tad basic, Ee produces strong characters, plenty of thrills and spills and an intriguing world where we are left wondering exactly what is going on. I cannot wait to get my hands on the next book, World After.
I really enjoyed this lively review of what looks to be a very useful addition for anyone grappling with written English, so thought I’d pass it on…
The Best Punctuation Book, Period: A Comprehensive Guide for Every Writer, Editor, Student, and Businessperson by June Casagrande
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I should be nervous. I feel like you are going to judge every usage of my periods, commas, and semicolons. I mean, who in their right minds would write a review on a grammar or usage book? Well, I’m okay because June Casagrande has already taught me that GRAMMAR SNOBS ARE GREAT BIG MEANIES. You can learn about grammar AND have fun. Shocking, isn’t it?
I reviewed that other punctuation book—you know, the one about the pandas shooting each other—and it confirmed Casagrande’s hypothesis about those grammar meanies. Seriously. Here’s a good one from that panda book: “don’t use commas like a stupid person.” Charming, right? Or how about this one: “you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in…
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I came across this book the day after a good friend had given it a glowing review and expressed shocked surprise that I hadn’t yet read it – so of course I couldn’t let it languish on the shelf, could I?
Now, this is where I normally type up the blurb. But I’m not going to – because there isn’t any. Nope. Other than a few lines of advertising fluff on the back cover along the lines of: This wonderful Man Booker prizewinning book about Thomas Cromwell is really, really worth reading… I suppose when a book gets the amount of exposure that Wolf Hall has received, then extra explanation is unnecessary.
Suffice to say, that it charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, widely regarded as one of history’s bad men. What is undeniable is that this is a remarkable book. Mantel instantly had me off-balance with her present tense, third person deep POV when we first meet Cromwell being beaten by Walter, his drunken father, and he is lying on the ground trying to summon up the will to move. So Mantel quickly gains our sympathy for her protagonist – but rather than chart his adventures in Europe where he spent time as a mercenary and scholar – we then jump to when he is in Cardinal Wolsey’s employ and establishing himself as a man of substance. The biggest problem for Mantel in choosing this period of history, is that many of us know the progression of events all too well – so how to pull us into the story and keep us turning the pages of this door-stopper? Well, the use of present tense throughout gives this book pace and immediacy. While she certainly charts the major events in Henry’s constant struggles to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine in favour of Anne Boleyn, it is Cromwell’s musings and highly personal take on what is going on around him that bounces off the page.
I haven’t read Mantel before – so was sort of expecting a conscientious, if skilful, reiteration of the steadily growing sense of urgency and danger that gained momentum as Henry’s desperation at being thwarted grew. But she does nothing of the sort. Mantel plays with those expectations – and then confounds them. Her portrait of Cromwell as a complicated, brilliant and restless man with huge amounts of physical and mental energy is wonderful and builds gradually in slices of showing, not telling. By the end, I knew all sorts of snippets about him – including his love and knowledge of good food; his enjoyment of comfort and the good things in life; his love of small dogs; his concern for poor people in the district; his distaste for torture and burning; his pragmatic view of religion. But she doesn’t omit the sense of menace he exudes and the fact that he enjoys bullying men – particularly those who are high-born.
We are also treated to passages of poetic beauty as he muses on the meaning of life and death. And his grief when in a single year he loses his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness – a blow from which he never truly recovers. Mantel’s grip on her narrative timeline is so confident she regularly allows Cromwell’s internal musings to range across tracts of his life we know little of – without giving the reader much explanation of the context. It is only as we are treated to a series of these reflections, we can start to build a fuller picture of how Cromwell comes to be as he is – and why he so dislikes Thomas Moore, for instance.
So… having read to the end – and knowing that the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, must inevitably chart Cromwell’s fall from Henry’s favour, am I up for plunging into the next brick-sized book in this duology? Oh, absolutely. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Furthermore, if you have also somehow managed to miss the froth and excitement that these books have generated – get hold of Wolf Hall and give it a go. There is a solid reason why it is the most read of all Man Booker prizewinning books.
Piracy, pricing and the pernicious effects of victim-less crimes
Piracy is not Johnny Depp running around in kohl and dreadlocks, pretending to be Jack Sparrow. Piracy is a terrifying reality on the seas to this day but that’s not the type of piracy I’m wanting to raise awareness of. The type of piracy I mean is a so-called victim-less crime.
Piracy in the creative industry is the stealing of content without the consent of the creator. Every DVD starts with an anti-piracy notice; most you cannot even fast forward through. But I’ve heard people say it’s not a crime and that an artist ought to be flattered that someone has thought their content worthy of lifting. I suspect that most reading this will be on the side of the angels and I may be ranting simply to relieve my feelings. I don’t know if any of my work has been…
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As Scalzi flags in the Author’s Note at the beginning of this book, ‘Fuzzy Nation is a reimagining of the story and events in Little Fuzzy, the 1962 Hugo-nominated novel by H. Beam Piper.’ I haven’t yet read Little Fuzzy, but immediately scooped this one off the shelves as I’ve enjoyed Scalzi’s military science fiction series, Old Man’s War – see my review of The Last Colony here.
Jack Holloway works alone for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. One hundred seventy-eight light-years from ZaraCorp’s head office on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor on the planet Zarathustra, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. In the wake of a cliff collapse he accidentally caused, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels. Although his share of the potential wealth is negligible in percentage terms, according to his Contract, it will still allow him to live in comfort for the rest of his life. But there’s a wrinkle. ZaraCorp’s – and Jack’s – entire legal right to exploit Zarathustra is based on being able to certify that the planet is devoid of any sentient life. So… those ridiculously cute creatures who moved into Jack’s home may be very, very smart – but they couldn’t be as clever as humans, could they? And if they are – what will Jack do?
Apparently in Little Fuzzy, Jack was an elderly crusty loner who fell hook, line and sinker for the charms of the Fuzzies – but Scalzi’s protagonist is younger and a whole lot more edgier. A disbarred ex-lawyer, who has also lied at a hearing when his then-girlfriend claimed he’d trained his dog to detonate explosive charges – this version of Jack is morally ambiguous. During the last section of the book, which is a court room drama, a large chunk of the narrative tension revolves around exactly how Jack will react when confronted with losing a fortune, versus the fate of the Fuzzies.
Scalzi’s breezy style belies a darker undertone to this book – a couple of the murders that take place left me winded. And a lot of the humour is of the sharper sort. So – is Jack an appealing protagonist? Yes – I fully identified with him right from the word go, and enjoyed the fact that Scalzi manages to portray the Fuzzies as beguiling without too much treacle.
He is also a very deft storyteller, who moves the action along at a fair clip and gives us a cast of interesting and enjoyable characters – even if a couple of them seem a bit OTT to be wholly credible. Not that I particularly minded – it all adds to the slightly madcap, surreal tone of the book. While the narrative arc is smoothly concluded, there were a couple of dangling plot points and I’d love to think that Scalzi is all set to visit this world again.
Hi Paul, thank you very much for agreeing to let me grill you on my blog. I really enjoyed Flare, which I reviewed here. As you generally write crime thrillers (a logical genre for an ex-policeman), what gave you the idea for this apocalyptic science fiction thriller?
Hi Sarah, I’ve always loved Sci-Fi and fantasy. I write crime because I know it so well, but I’ve always wanted to write Sci-Fi, although every novel I started fizzled out until Flare. The idea for it came while watching Blackout on TV last year, which made me wonder how much worse it would be if all the immediate resources (i.e. the supermarkets etc) were destroyed in the initial apocalypse, and how quickly society would fall apart.
Without giving any spoilers away – how much research did you have to do about the Nasty Event that engulfs your poor characters?
I actually did more than I needed to! I’ve always been fascinated by space, stars and anything else that might be out there, but researching solar flares and CME’s and the potential devastation to our way of life was terrifying but incredibly interesting at the same time, particularly when you realise how lucky we are that it hasn’t happened already.
Your backdrop is very well described throughout – those of us who live in on the south coast of England could instantly identify parts of Brighton and the places you mention. How closely did you follow actual places as your characters travel north?
Google maps was my best friend! I charted their path across the UK and each place they visited is exactly where it is in the book. The places I hadn’t actually been to were explored via Streetview, so that anyone reading it who knew any of the areas they travelled would identify with it immediately.
I really liked your protagonist – he seemed entirely believable with his reactions as an ordinary man in the street, yet also quick-thinking and reasonably courageous. Did you base him on anyone in particular?
Not really, but I wanted a real person, with real fears and uncertainties. Having made some huge decisions that affected people’s lives and safety in the past, I know how crippling it can be to make harsh choices, and I wanted that to be reflected in Malc. Anyone can write a protagonist that mows people down by the dozen and is immune to bullets, but how can a reader ever identify with someone like that? I also wanted to balance him out with Emily. Having an average Joe as the protagonist with a strong female as his second seemed much more interesting (and realistic – I know the score, I’m married!)
There is a very good mix of characters your protagonist encounters – I enjoyed the fact that you don’t have ‘evil’ and ‘good’, but a mixture of both.
One thing I learned in the police is that no one is all good or all bad except for a very few unfortunate souls. One person’s evil is another person’s necessity, and that would only be amplified by an event as horrific and unstoppable as the one in Flare.
Given how well balanced the action, characterisation and description are, how carefully do you plan your storyline before you start writing?
Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t! I’m a “seat of the pants” writer. I wrote Flare in four weeks after the seed sprouted in my mind (if that makes any sense at all), and all I knew was that Malc needed to find his daughter and she was in Manchester, and that the flare was going to utterly devastate society. The rest just came out of my dark imagination and a compulsion to get the story onto paper. I loved writing it, but I was even dreaming about the characters by the second week!
As I previously mentioned, you have also written a number of crime thrillers. Can you tell us a bit about those?
I wrote The Follow just after leaving the police and it’s full of vitriol. It revolves around an officer who lives in a moral grey area between the law and doing what’s right. I think it’s flawed, but I’m assured it’s still a good read. When Good Men Do Nothing was my fourth novel but only my second released on Kindle. The main character is Rob Steel, a firearms positioning forensics expert who gets caught up in a double murder, an MI6 investigation and a terrorist threat to Brighton. It was a lot of fun to write and until Flare it was my best seller.
I’m hoping there will be a sequel to Flare – can you tell us what you are now working on and when we can read about Malc’s next slice of adventures?
There is indeed a sequel to Flare being written as we speak. It’s called Winter, and it starts about two months after the end of Flare. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I’m hoping to have it finished by midsummer, and then out on Kindle not too long after!
Apocalyptic science fiction generally doesn’t do it for me, these days. I rapidly ran out of any lingering enthusiasm I may have had for the sub-genre halfway through Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake which was slickly accomplished, beautifully written and put the eek! in bleak… So would Grzegorzek’s tale of devastation caused by solar flares keep me reading?
Malcolm King is a journalist living in trendy Hove on the south coast of England. His days are taken up with video meetings and research on the internet while he writes articles for magazines around the world. When a solar flare of unprecedented magnitude hits the Earth, effectively hurling us back to the stone age in a matter of hours, Malc is thrust into a terrifying new world as he travels the length of the country to find his young daughter.
Faced with difficult choices at every turn, Malc draws his strength from those around him; Emily, a tough, no-nonsense soldier with a soft spot for lost causes and Jerry, a disgraced astrophysicist who may be the only person left who understands what’s happening with the sun. With their help, he must struggle to answer the ultimate question. What won’t he do to get his daughter back?
I read this book on a train journey, whisked away from the nuisance seated opposite busy deafening himself and irritating me with the tinny throbbing from his earplugs, by the initial enormity of the disaster that engulfs the South coast. But what actually caught and held me was Grzegorzek’s protagonist, Malc. He is thoroughly believable as an ordinary chap caught up in a series of unthinkable, violent adventures as he is yanked from his everyday existence with a suddenness that snares us into the story faster than you can say aurora borealis. Malc is decently normal, without an ounce of testosterone-driven anything – which I found immensely refreshing and utterly realistic. He’s a magazine journalist – why wouldn’t he vomit at the sight of his first dead bodies? I also enjoyed the fact that his female companion, Emily, is an ex-soldier with the REME. So she is the one who can handle herself when it all kicks off.
In addition to having a believable and appealing protagonist, Grzegorzek is adept at spinning an engrossing tale with plenty of incident. This doesn’t read like a first novel, and when I looked him up, I discovered that he has two other crime novels published with Amazon. So while the early parts of the book were reasonably familiar – once Malc sets off to rescue his daughter, Melody, I found myself right alongside for the ride. Grzegorzek has a knack for delivering interesting, believable characters in a few short sentences and Malc encounters some real slimeballs, along with some remarkable kindness. There are also politicians – guess whereabouts they come on the sliding scale of morality?
Overall, this is an entertaining, well written thriller that bounces along and is yet another demonstration of the strength of talent out there in the Indie market. Any niggles? The formatting is a bit peelie-wallie in places – the new chapters turned up in a different position on the page almost every time. But that is a relatively easy fix and certainly wasn’t going to stop me finding out what happens next. I understand that there is going to be sequel – which I’m certainly going to track down when it comes available. Apocalyptic science fiction is back on my reading list, again, thanks to Flare…