Monthly Archives: May 2014

May 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere

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I love the idea behind this blog – reading and revewing classic crime written before 1987. So if you are a fan of those gems from the past, this is a wonderful resource. It didn’t hurt that the site namechecked my review of ‘Strong Poison’ by Dorothy L. Sayers, either!

Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

Where Danger Lives highlighted 50 great noir posters from Republic Pictures Where Danger Lives highlighted 50 great noir posters from Republic Pictures. This one just gets odder the more you look at it.

Well, I haven’t managed many book reviews this month (big fat zero), but fortunately the rest of the internet has picked up my slack. There are some great posts out there in the blogosphere; here are just a few of them.

Andrew Nette of Pulpcurry wrote a fascinating piece on June Wright, author of Murder in the Telephone Exchange and apparently a refreshingly wry figure.

Responding to one reporter who quizzed her on how a mother could use Who Would Murder a Baby? as the title for her second book, she quipped, ‘Obviously, you know nothing of the homicidal instincts sometimes aroused in a mother by her children. After a particularly exasperating day, it’s a relief to murder a few characters in your books instead.’

Andrew goes on to consider…

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Review of Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

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Christopher Brookmyre is one of those authors whose writing has been labelled ‘Scottish noir’ due to his bleak and very funny crime bedlamseries featuring investigative journalist Jack Parlabane – see my review of Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks here. So when I saw that he had written a science fiction book, it was a no-brainer I would be checking out Bedlam.

Ross Baker is an over-worked scientist developing medical technology for corporate giant Neurosphere, but he’d rather be playing computer games than dealing with his nightmare boss or slacker co-workers. He volunteers as a test candidate for the new tech – anything to get out of the office for a few hours. But when the experiment is over he discovers he’s not only escaped the office but possibly real life for good. He’s trapped in Starfire – a video game he played as a child – with no explanation, no backup and, most terrifyingly, no way out.

Well, this book took me back – no, I’ve never been a gamer, apart from dabbling with Pacman back in the 1970’s – but I had a son who was… While visiting the familiar trope of a human-trapped-inside-a-computer-game (cue Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack), Brookmyre attempts to cover several other bases with this book.

Ross grapples to adjust to his new surroundings, however he is fortunate in being very familiar with the landscape as he used Starfire as an escape from his parents’ quarrelling as a teenager. This allows him to quickly get used to the inevitable fights with which he regularly gets embroiled – while he is desperate to return to reality, he also throws himself into the fight games with enthusiasm, recalling how to heal himself and where various weapons caches are. Unlike poor Bob, an accountant, who falls asleep one day and wakes up in the middle of the virtual battle without a clue about what to do and how to survive.

As Ross finds himself having to flee the Nazi-type police force who are chasing him through a variety of worlds, he finds himself revisiting a number of games from his past and the book turns into something of a nostalgic journey for all keen gamers. There is a fair dollop of humour – although I did feel the sweary phrases are more effective in his Scottish underworld, rather than dropping out of the thoughts/mouth of his geeky scientist.

What distinguishes this book, however, is Brookmyre’s examination of the probability of ‘ancestor simulations’ based around Nick Bostrom’s theory that in the unlikely event of humanity managing to survive until it reaches posthuman status, it is probable that we are living in a computer simulation. As part of the storyline, Brookmyre touches on the issue of downloaded characters – what are their intrinsic rights? Should they have any consideration, given they have no bodies and are able to be killed continuously? Or given they are capable of feeling pain, hope, love and hate just as their real life counterparts, should they also be given some legal protections so they don’t end up being used in medical experiments, or military tactical exercises against their will?

Brookmyre has attempted to cover a lot of ground in this book – part nostalgic homage to past games now long gone; part adventure thriller; part discussion and examination of issues that we will surely need to address, if we manage to survive the plethora of environmental challenges that confront us over the next couple of centuries. Does he pull it off? Mostly… although the execution is somewhat uneven and Ross is not as much the trapped victim Brookmyre initially paints him – he relishes killing the opposition far too much in some of the games to completely convince as the put-upon protagonist. For all that, this is a novel that is worth reading because in the best tradition of science fiction, it raises issues we should all be considering for the future.
8/10

Something Wicked This Way Comes & Why Writers Could Be in Great Danger

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This reblog breaks a couple of my self imposed guidelines. Kristen is something of a force, so her blogs are already widely available and I generally don’t write or reblog loooong anything. But I thought this was such a thought-provoking, pertinent article, I wanted to include it.

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Image courtesy of Raymond Brown via Flickr Creative Commons Image courtesy of Raymond Brown via Flickr Creative Commons

Today, we are going to take a bit of a sideline from our acrostic. Over the holiday weekend, I was resting up from a nasty bout of bronchitis and puttering around Facebook. I’ve been long frustrated with this new culture of “Everyone’s a Winner.” Back in 2005, my young nephew was in soccer. I recall being horrified that everyone received a trophy.

What was the point for working harder? What gain did it give my nephew that I ran extra drills with him after school and off the practice field? He “won” the same trophy as the kid who showed for one game out of the season.

Trying is all that matters.

Deep. Deep. Never mind the TYPO. The person “tried.”

We see all over the news where schools are attempting to cancel Honors events because those kids who didn’t achieve honors…

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Review of The Wild Ways – Book 2 of The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff

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I read the first book in this entertaining series – read my review here – and was delighted to see that the second book was already available. Would it be as enjoyable as The Enchantment Emporium?

the wild waysCharlotte Gale is a Wild Power – but there’s nothing wild about the life she is living. When her meddlesome aunts start interfering, Charlie ditches her cousin Allie and their grandmother’s Enchantment Emporium and joins a Celtic rock band on the summer festival circuit. All Charlie wants to do is to play some music and have a grand time, but she soon becomes embroiled in a fight between an extended family of Selkies and an unscrupulous oil company willing to employ the most horrific means possible to get what they want, including one of the Gale aunts…

Huff is an accomplished writer with a proven track record and it shows. Charlie is an enjoyable, sympathetic character whose musical talent and magical power are closely aligned, yet there is a sense that she is always slightly apart and underachieving – until the turning point in the book, when she is forced to make some big decisions without the Gale family there to shield her. So is this merely a reiteration of the first book, also about a member of the magical Gale family finding her feet? No – Allie and Charlie are quite different characters and if Charlie works at anything, it is trying to be as non-conformist as possible, while keeping within the bounds of what the Gale aunts stipulate. Only an idiot with a deathwish would completely range themselves against the aunts… Which I love – women of a certain age are all too often completely disregarded in genre fiction.

Not only is Charlie a strong, believable protagonist – there are also a number of entertaining characters surrounding her I really enjoyed. The sulky fourteen-year-old Dragon Prince sorcerer is up there, along with the sultry Selkie Charlie is more than half in love with – but my favourite character is the enigmatic Catherine Gale, the grandmother of the first book who ended up leaving the Enchantment Emporium to Allie before disappearing. I really enjoy those half-absent characters at the heart of stories, who often end up stealing the show despite – or because of – the fact they are always in the shadows instead of the limelight.

The other star of this book is the magical system running through it – urban fantasy is a well-established genre with plenty of interesting variations on this theme. The idea that it is all about bloodlines is a thoroughly familiar one – but I do enjoy Huff’s notion that means all the most powerful magic emanates from family groups, ranging from the dragons of the Under Realm, to the Selkies who come ashore in search of human lovers and husbands and, of course, the Gale family.

The magic works really well in this intriguing, highly readable addition to a solidly good series – and the upside is that Huff is a prolific author, so Book 3, The Future Falls, is due to be released in November.
9/10

Recommended Reads: Moondust Memories by Vaughan Stanger

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Dylan’s recommendation caught my eye – and I thought it was worth reblogging. Love the cover, being the shallow sort…

Suffolk Scribblings

Moondust Memories

This is a great collection of speculative fiction short stories. Stanger shows his breadth of range, moving from alternate history to pure science fiction whilst keeping us entertained with a range of interesting, well-rounded characters and scenarios. Whether writing about an alternate version of Mallory’s tragic attempt on Everest, alien first contact or the all to real possible ending had the cuban missile crisis ended differently; Stanger brings warmth and humanity to each story, allowing us to view the various what ifs and possibilities at a very personal level.

The tell-tale sign of great speculative fiction is that you are still thinking about it days after you finish reading. This has been the case for me with Moondust Memories. Highly recommended.

You can buy the Moondust Memories from Amazon.com here and from Amazon.co.uk here.

Recommended reads are independently published books that I have bought and enjoyed. They are part of…

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Review of Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey – Book 3 of The Expanse

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I read Leviathan’s Wake, which I reviewed here and Caliban’s War last year – and loved them both. Strong military science fiction abaddon's gatewhere the action crackles off the page and peopled with characters I care about doesn’t come along all that often. Far too often, a sprawling plot stutters over huge distances and the characters are somehow flattened by the enormity of all the technological gismos flexing their shiny muscles. Not so with this series. But having read the first two books, would I also equally enjoy this next instalment?

For generations, the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt – was humanity’s great frontier. Until now. The alien artefact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has appeared in Uranus’s orbit, where it has built a massive gate that leads to a starless space beyond. Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artefact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with Holden’s destruction at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to decide whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.

That’s the blurb. So… something alien has appeared and now Mankind needs to work out what they are going to do with it. A science fiction theme that is as cosily familiar as late-night cocoa – although this time around it has a particular backstory which I will not be going into right now. In fact, if this is the first Expanse novel you’ve encountered, my strong advice is to put it down and get hold of the first in the series, Leviathan’s Wake. While Corey (writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) are far too experienced to either produce a slew of spoilers, or leave readers flailing around amid a forest of allusions to previous plotlines – this story rackets along at a fair clip with a lot going on and events in the previous two books have a direct bearing on what happens and why.

One of the main protagonists that keeps me coming back to this series, is James Holden. His apparently heroic stance in the first book created a fair amount of havoc – to the extent that parts of Humanity loathe him. So when he directs Rocinante towards the Ring, it is going to create tensions in an already unstable situation – but what actually happens could not be foreseen by anyone. Or how certain factions of Humanity decide to react…

As ever, along with the non-stop action and excitement, Corey also provides us with plenty of food for thought – what is the nature of Faith in a world where planet-killing forces are at work? How does that line up with the notion of a loving God? While I would have liked to see a tad more of Rocinante’s crew, there were a cast of characters in this book that more than made up for their relatively minor role in this slice of adventure. It didn’t hurt that both my favourite people in this novel were powerful women who represented very different viewpoints. I loved Anna, her strength and core of kindness. Reading and appreciating her, I realised that people with a strong religious belief all too often come off badly in genre fiction – either portrayed as some narrow-minded fanatic or misguided fool. The other character I really enjoyed was Clarissa. Her journey through the novel could have been all too predictable – in fact I was reasonably positive that I knew exactly what would happen to her by the end. And it didn’t… I am hoping to see her again in Cibola Burn, the next instalment which cannot come fast enough.

If space opera does it for you at any level and you haven’t yet encountered The Expanse series, do yourself a favour and start hunting it down.
9/10

Review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

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Frankie asked if I could read this book to her, as some of her classmates are now tucking into the series. It’s a while since I was engrossed into the doings of Harry – would I still find this first book as readable as the first time I encountered it?

harry potter1Harry Potter is an ordinary boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs at his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon’s house, which he thinks is normal for someone like him whose parents have been killed in a ‘car crash’. He is bullied by them and his fat, spoilt cousin Dudley, and lives a very unremarkable life with only the odd hiccup (like his hair growing back overnight!) to cause him much to think about. That is until an owl turns up with a letter addressed to Harry and all hell breaks loose! He is literally rescued by a world where nothing is as it seems and magic lessons are the order of the day. Read and find out how Harry discovers his true heritage at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, the reason behind his parents mysterious death, who is out to kill him, and how he uncovers the most amazing secret of all time, the fabled Philosopher’s Stone! All this and muggles too. Now, what are they?

That’s the blurb. I recall reading this book to my Year 5 class back when I was teaching – and how it grabbed every one of them. Frankie was similarly enchanted. I read until my voice was hoarse and had to cry quits – only to have her wander back an hour or so later and ask for some more… I’d forgotten the constant little touches of humour and how deftly Rowling builds the world. The pacing and narrative drive are pitched perfectly and she is also very adroit at giving us a range of colourful, memorable characters with some wonderful names.

I found I, too, wanted to read on and that I cared every much for poor Harry the second time around – although knowing what I now know, I find I really dislike unctuous, double-dealing Albus Dumbledore, despite the fact that his Machiavellian schemes are for the right reasons. The gothic darkness that emerges in the films and later books is also there, lurking under the light-hearted quips, where wandering the corridors at night will result in expulsion – because there are things at Hogwarts which will make short work of young, semi-trained wizards… The trek into the forest as punishment duty hails back to a former time, when our children weren’t protected from all possible danger – but endured it right alongside the adults. A responsibility that modern children greedily lap up in their fiction.

This book was the start of a phenomenon that swept the playgrounds, seeping into staff rooms and classrooms by word of mouth – my copy of this book was an end-of-year present by one of my pupils, after I’d been asking the children in my class how many of them had read it. While the prose isn’t particularly elegant, Rowling’s stories have an energy that bounces off the page – and reading it aloud sucked me back into Harry Potter’s world and wouldn’t let go until we’d finished it. If you have a youngster in your life who hasn’t yet encountered the books – sit down and start reading them aloud. It’s a lovely bonding time, as well as being great fun.
8/10

Review of Crucible of Gold – Book 7 of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik

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I finally settled down to read the latest exploits in this entertaining alternative history adventure. Novik’s premise is the Napoleonic Wars that convulsed Europe now have the addition of fighting dragons, but can she continue to provide fresh twists in this long-running series? See my review of Victory of Eagles here

Former Aerial Corps captain Will Laurence and his faithful dragon, Temeraire, have been put out to pasture in Australia – and it seems their part in the war has ended just when they are needed most. The French have invaded Spain, forged an alliance with Africa’s powerful Tswana empire, and brought revolution to Brazil. With Britain’s last desperate hope of defeating Napoleon in peril, the government that sidelined Laurence swiftly offers to reinstate him, convinced that he’s the best man to enter the fray and negotiate peace. So the pair embark for Brazil, only to meet with a string of unmitigated disasters that forces them to make an unexpected landing in the hostile territory of the Incan empire.

Novik has been very smart in the way she has managed to use the on-going war to shift Laurence around the globe. The last book crucible of goldTongues of Serpents – see my review here – had Laurence and Temeraire transported to Australia and enduring the hardship and disgrace of the raw penal colony. However, when Britain is hard-pressed, the authorities have no trouble in reinstating the pair and sending them across the ocean to South America. As ever, events don’t run according to plan – and the twist that overset everything was a complete surprise. It didn’t take long for me to bond once more with Temeraire – I love the high-handed, temperamental dragons and their constant vying for honour amongst each other, along with their devotion to their handlers.

Though once more, the issue of slavery surfaces to create tensions – Laurence is violently against the practice, an unusual stance for a serving officer. There can be a problem in historical adventures when the protagonist’s anomalous views and tastes clash with the time in order to make him sympathetic to modern readers. However, Novik has effectively established where Laurence’s  anti-slavery ideas come from in previous books – while watching Temeraire suffer at the hands of the British Navy, who are reluctant to treat the dragons as anything other than fighting monsters – only serves to harden his attitude. The interesting spin that surfaces in this book, is that in South America the human population has been decimated by smallpox brought in by the Spanish conquistadors, so the local dragons are desperate for more humans, whom they rule and take care of. Increasingly, Temeraire and the other British dragons find this idea appealing…

Novik continues to find intriguing themes within the variety of adventures and hardships she has her intrepid duo endure – and once again I fell right under her spell. Though, whatever you do – don’t start with Crucible of Gold. If you haven’t yet encountered this series and you have ever enjoyed 19th century deeds of derring-do, Novik’s evocation of the time and the fabulous Temeraire are a must-read addition. And I need to track down the next in the series sooner, rather than later.
10/10

Review: The Martian

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I am a sucker for a tightly written thriller set on another planet… And Ryan’s review of ‘The Martian’ means I’m going to have to get hold of it – in the meantime I thought you’d like to read his enjoyable review…

Ryan's Book Review

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Curse you Andy Weir. Seriously. Your fault: I hardly slept last night. I could not—could not!—put your book down. It was too good.

I loved Chris Hadfield’s ASTRONAUT’S GUIDE TO LIFE ON EARTH , and when a commander of the International Space Station praises a book for “fascinating technical accuracy”, it makes my internal ears perk up. My interest is piqued. Then, the author of WOOL (who sold like a billion copies of his independently published work before getting professionally bound) said, “The best book I’ve read in ages. Clear your schedule before you crack the seal.” I should have listened. Nope. And there went my night.

Here’s the mix: science and galley humor. With one of the best opening lines ever (censors prevent me from posting it; look it up on Amazon’s preview) and with the stranded astronaut/science…

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