Monthly Archives: June 2014

Review of Turbulence by Samit Basu

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Well this is fun! And different…

Aman Sen is smart, young, ambitious and going nowhere. But then he gets off a plane from London to Delhi and discovers that he has turned into a communications demigod. Indeed, everyone on Aman’s flight now has extraordinary abilities. Aman wants to heal the planet but with each step he takes, he finds helping some means harming others. Will it all end, as eighty years of superhero fiction suggest, in a meaningless, explosive slugfest?

turbulenceBasu’s slick, pacey writing style is a very good fit for this particular take on the superhero trope – and before you roll your eyes and mutter that you’re fed up to the back teeth of all these overcharged beings zooming through the skies in skin-tight cossies, wearing their pants on the outside – give this particular book a go. For starters, being set in India immediately gives the book a different feel. Basu’s sharp descriptions of the backdrop and society bounce off the page, and the priorities and concerns of the characters are based around the fact that this is an Indian book about Indian superheroes.

The storyline rattles along at a fair old lick – Basu doesn’t hang around – and he manages to give us the different experiences of a number of the passengers on the London-Delhi flight and their character progression. This, for me, is what makes this book stand out. Basu sets up plenty of humorous moments – but that doesn’t stop him asking some penetrating questions about the nature of superhumanism and what it does to the recipient. There are some characters who react with predictable consequences – Jai, a committed patriot and professional soldier becomes a megalomaniac. And despite the chirpy feel of the writing, there is a great deal of death and destruction, along with some genuinely poignant moments.

However, there are some interesting consequences – I liked the fact that no one is left significantly unchanged by their ‘gifts’. And some of them manifest in unexpectedly interesting ways. Aman, as one of the main characters, makes some high-minded decisions to take money from the undeserving rich and bestow it onto the poor – which doesn’t work out as well as he’d hoped. While Uzma initially wants to capitalise on her superpower that makes everyone want to please her by becoming a Bollywood actress. However, things don’t quite pan out that way…

In fact, whenever I settled back down with the impression that I knew what would happen next, events proved me wrong. I’ve attempted to read several superhero books recently and haven’t managed to finish a single one on the grounds they were too predictably violent. There is plenty of blood and gore in this one – but nothing about it is predictable. The climax was suitably full of high-octane action with flashes of humour, some surprising deaths and an interesting twist at the end, which means I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel, Resistance.
8/10

Birthday Thoughts…

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Yep. It’s my birthday. My lovely mother threw me a wonderful party on Sunday – and even the weather behaved, so we were able to spend the time out in the garden noshing on the most fantastic strawberries and birthday cake, among many other goodies Mum provided. And later we all adjourned to the back paddock and played a crazy game of rounders.

And the we? Family – sister and her family; Mum and Dad, of course; close family friends; nephews; son; daughter and grandchildren – and J. Lots of laughter and catching up. The children were able to run around and play. It was perfect.

100_3140 This morning when I woke up on my birthday morning, for the first time in a looong time – I felt excited like a small child. Despite the fact it’s not a special one with nought, I felt different. My writing is moving up a gear – this year, I’m going to be published. Doing it myself, following a strategy that I devised back last winter with the help of Mhairi Simpson. So as well as being my birthday, the year is half gone. And I’m still on track with my main writing goals.

Breathing Space is now coming along nicely, after a lumpy start. I have a real 100_3132sense that this is MY year – and although it wasn’t one of my initial targets, I’ve managed to lose 10lbs in weight and feel so much better! No more groaning as I bend over and my belly pushes back… It’s more than past time – I’ve been carrying waaay too much blubber since my back injury back in 2005 which has really slowed me down physically.

As for family – yes, I will still be there for them, of course. Always top of the list priority-wise, I’ll never be too busy for any of them. But I’d also like to be a role model to demonstrate that it may take years and setbacks along the way, but if you have a vision and the determination to learn your craft – you can prevail.

I’m a cautious person – always thinking in defensive terms, never a true go-getter that reaches out and damn the consequences. But today, on my birthday, I’m throwing that caution to the winds and declaring to anyone who cares to read this – in a year’s time there will be at least a self-published trilogy of science fiction ebooks available. And I will have two other novels doing the rounds with agents and editors for traditional publication – I intend to be a hybrid author. And my blockage about submissions? No more – I have a backlog of books that are reader-ready. It’s past time I got them out there.
Happy Birthday, me!

Review of The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

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One of my students recommended this author, knowing that I am allergic to plain romance – and I absolutely loved The Girl You Left Behind – see my review here. So when I saw this offering on the library shelves, it was a no-brainer that I’d add it to the teetering piles of books by the bed.

one plus oneOne single mum with two jobs and two children, Jess Thomas does her best day after day. But it’s hard on your own. And sometimes you take risks you shouldn’t. Because you have to… One chaotic family – Jess’s gifted, quirky daughter Tanzie is brilliant with numbers, but without a helping hand she’ll never get the chance to shine. And Nicky, Jess’s teenage stepson, can’t fight the bullies alone. Sometimes Jess feels like they’re sinking… Into their lives comes Ed Nicholls, a man whose life is in chaos, and who is running from a deeply uncertain future. But he has time on his hands. He knows what it’s like to be lonely. And he wants to help…

That’s the blurb, more or less – and yes – I know it reads like a bit of romantic fluff. But it really isn’t. Jess cleans other people’s houses and lives on a rough estate, so her children go to the local sink school. And the first chunk of this book is a grim insight into modern Britain where, no matter how determined and hard-working you are – if you happen to live in the wrong place, your children are doomed to a sub-standard education. Heartbreaking enough, anyway. But if they are particularly gifted, or stand out in any way, it’s worse – given that our State education system isn’t geared up to assist clever children fulfil their potential. I particularly felt that that Moyes captured the feelings of sheer bewilderment when a parent is confronted with a brilliant child – especially when said brilliant child has a very bad wobble.

Ed has his own problems and initially it is a testament to Moyes’ writing talent that I didn’t dismiss him as a maladjusted geek who deserved everything he got. Offering to pay off a gold-digging girlfriend isn’t particularly admirable – neither is making constant excuses not to see his terminally ill father. However Moyes managed to make me care about him and his problems sufficiently that I really didn’t want to see him receive a hefty prison sentence.

Never work with children or animals is the advice given to actors – but I also happen to think both of these additions to a book should come with a health warning, as it is easy to write both badly. Does Moyes manage to avoid being sentimental over the soppy, over-sized dog and the children? Yep. You wouldn’t wish that dog on anyone with a working sense of smell – and travelling for several days in car with him is a feat of endurance. No wonder Tanzie suffers so badly from travel sickness…

I’m conscious my description of the book manages to give the impression that it is some worthy, if miserable exposé of being poor in modern Britain. But despite there being times when I had a lump in my throat, there is also a lot of humour – I was grinning through much of the journey to Scotland and more than once laughed out loud. Any book that manages to make me both laugh and come near to weeping clearly has fully engaged my feelings.

Does it all come right in the end? After all, that is the classical definition of a comedy – not a story that is humorous, but one that ends happily. Well, I think it probably does. But this isn’t some unqualified fairy tale ending – I personally would welcome revisiting this particular family some ten years down the line because I have my doubts as to just how well it all works out. But whether you believe they ultimately manage to prevail or not – I recommend you give the book a go.
10/10

Twas the night before Chri…..the Book Review Challenge!

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If you’ve ever thought about reviewing books yourself, but not sure how to start – then Rosie Amber’s schedule could be really helpful. Have a look and then dive in…

Rosie Amber

Amber roseBook Review Challenge

“Twas the night before Chri…” opps!(The Wrong Book and exactly six months adrift)…The Book Review Challenge!

If you’re not familiar with the plain honesty of this blog, then COME ON IN, everyone’s welcome, there’s plenty of room, find yourself a cosy couch (Yes we spell things the English way and the typo way here.) I’m sure over the next few days I bubble over with so much enthusiasm to bend your ear and generally encourage you to take up a book and write a review, that I’ll offend a few readers with my typos and my opinions. I’d like to hope they’ll make you smile rather than cringe and that you’ll indulge me as I rabbit on.

So what have we got lined up for you?

Coming up on Wednesday 25th June – Book reviewing by Rosie Amber + easy to follow tips for writing your own review+ genres; moving out of your…

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Review of Thornlost – Book 3 of the Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn

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This is the third in the series – and no, this isn’t a trilogy, which I didn’t realise when I first started reading it. So is this fairly densely written book worth reading, given that nothing will be fully resolved?

Cayden is part Elf, part Fae, part human Wizard—and all rebel. His aristocratic mother would have him follow his father to the Royal Court, to make a high-society living off the scraps of kings. But Cade lives and breathes for the theatre, and he’s good, very good. He’s a tregetour—a wizard who is both playwright and magicwielder. It is Cade’s power that creates the magic, but a tregetour is useless without a glisker—an elf who can spin out the magic onto the stage, to enchant the audience. And Cade’s glisker, Mieka, is something special too. So is their fettler, Rafe, who controls the magic and keeps them and the audience safe. And their masker, Jeska, who speaks all the lines, is every young girl’s dream. They are reaching for the highest reaches of society and power, but not the way Cade’s mother thinks they should. They’ll change their world, or die trying.

The blurb gives you a slice of the very well-depicted world. This series is described as high fantasy in all the publicity material – and if thornlostyou want battles, enraged dragons, blood and gore, then give this series a miss because it offers something different. Though if you haven’t read Glass Thorns, which I’ve reviewed here and Elsewhens – see my review here – then put Thornlost on one side and read those first. There are some series where you can pick up what is going on without losing too much – this isn’t one of them. No doubt you’d be able to make sense of what is happening, but the world-building and character progression is so layered and detailed, I think you’d lose far too much if you jumped in with this, the third book.

It follows the fortunes of a magical theatre group striving to get to the top of their profession. Cade, one of the main protagonists, is also dogged by glimpses of the possible futures, many of whom predict they will burn out and Mieka, his closest friend, will die overdosing on thorn and drink. Like many modern pop groups, when the going gets tough, they all rely on drink and stimulants to get them through a performance – or help them unwind when adrenaline-fuelled after the show. Touchstone, their theatre group, is now well established and they are all famous. They have also drawn down some unwelcome attention – Cade, in particular, is very wary of other people outside a small circle of trusted friends knowing about his ability to see slices of the possible future, which leave him shaken and undermined. But there are others who have become aware of his abilities and are waiting to scoop him up and use him for their own ends…

The story arc doesn’t take a great leap forward and while I love those stories which whisk you up into action-packed adventure that leaves you wanting to draw breath by the time you put them down – a book that gives you such a wealth of detail and layered experience of the characters that I’ve actually dreamt about this world provides a special joy. I always feel a stab of sorrow when I finish one of these books – it is different to anything else I’ve recently read and I’m looking forward to the next one.
10/10

Review of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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This book had been on the edges of my radar for a while – I’d read Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie crime adventure Started Early, Took My Dog but couldn’t get through it. However, I was aware that this book was different and when one of my students brought it in with the words, “I’ve just read this and I’d love to know what you think about it…” I was more than willing to give it a go. After all, Costa Award winners should at least be given a chance.

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

life after lifeSo this is a book where the main protagonist loops back to the start of her life again, each time she dies. And she dies a lot – particularly at the start of the book. But what held me was the quality of the writing – Atkinson’s depiction of the family on the surface was very straightforward, but through Ursula’s various reincarnations we get to see other family members in all sorts of situations and how their relationships shift according to the way events fall. Some of the disasters don’t just befall Ursula – I was very struck at Nancy’s fate. A neighbour’s child and close friend to younger brother Teddy becomes a murder victim, after being sexually assaulted. During the lifetimes when this event occurs, the grief-stricken family turn in on itself, so that Ursula loses the friendship of Millie, Nancy’s older sister, who otherwise plays a key role in her other lives.

I’m conscious it sounds a thoroughly grim read – and indeed, parts of the book are exactly that. Ursula’s miserable existence with her violent, controlling husband and her experiences during the Blitz are visceral. But the book is also shot through with shafts of humour, joy and tenderness. Atkinson understands the only thing that makes big disasters in life bearable are the smaller details that make up our every day – laughter and kindness between friends and family, the beauty of nature, sharing good food and drink…

Fox Corner, the family home, becomes the emotional hub of the book. All Ursula’s earlier mishaps occur here, and others involving family members, friends or servants also happen here. But in a book where the storyline is continually shifting with often horrible and abrupt endings, only to restart all over again, Fox Corner comes to represent stability, even though it is the site where some of the worst disasters befall Ursula. There are passages of lyrical beauty about the countryside surrounding the house and there is also a sense of community and servants devoting themselves to the Family – although that doesn’t stop rapists and child murderers also popping up to wreak havoc as with characteristic deftness, Atkinson suddenly turns everything on its head.

This relooping narrative isn’t new – think of Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day. Author Christopher Priest finds this an engrossing theme – see my review of  The Separation. Atkinson’s treatment is more successful than Priest’s The Separation in that Ursula makes a more appealing protagonist then his twins – and he throws his readers into a morass of conflicting storylines and leaves them to sort it out, without the helpful chapter headings and dates in Life After Life. But the similarity ends with the structural device – Atkinson is far more interested in the fragility of life and how apparently inconsequential decisions are often nothing of the sort, whereas Priest is concerned about the role of the unreliable narrator and how it impacts upon the narrative.

There is an anomaly that bothers me – while Ursula’s life reloops to the extent that she becomes half aware of some of the dangers lurking and experiences powerful feelings of déjà vu. So is Ursula alone in experiencing these different versions? Well, no – otherwise the people around her would have remained unchanged. And they don’t. Teddy, her brother, is the only one who also seems equally determined to change circumstances around his life – so is Atkinson saying there are only a handful of people who are aware of this? Given the complexity and number of lives Ursula experiences, I would have liked a bit more about Atkinson’s take on nature of this constant retread, other than the slightly jokey references in Dr Kellet’s office and the occasional brief discussions between Ursula’s close friends and trusted family members.

But this niggle fades into the background against the breadth, unpredictability and sheer exuberance of Atkinson’s writing. A memorable, thought-provoking read.

10/10

The travelogues; I enter a time-warp near Llanbrynmair and cause a bit of a stir.

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I love Wales and found this well-written travelogue entertaining and thought provoking… Jenny’s right, of course. If she were a man, no one would comment about her driving the camper…

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I didn’t think I was doing anything remarkable or that I would ever be the subject for conversation until I stopped off at a small campsite on my way to Dolgellau. On my arrival, a little chap wearing a tweed hat and pushing a wheelbarrow directed me to a pitch and told me not to worry about paying as the owner would be along later. Within an hour, I got a visit from one of the couples staying there.

“I hear you’re driving this thing on your own. How are you managing it?” asks Mr.

The little chap with the wheelbarrow must have duly noted my singledom and passed on the word. I tell Mr I’d found the camper’s size a bit intimidating at first but I’m used to it now.

Following much shaking of his head, Mr says, “Well, I take my hat off to you but you do…

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Review of Farthing – Book 1 of the Small Change series by Jo Walton

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One of the highlights of this last year has been discovering Jo Walton – I actually met and talked to her at Eastercon in 2012 without knowing her work, which I’m really sorry about because I think she is one of the brightest talents in the genre. I’ve reviewed Tooth and Claw and Among Others – which was my outstanding read of last year – here. So when Himself came across this alternate history offering, we were both delighted.

In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Eight years after they farthingoverthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the upper-crust families of the ‘Farthing set’ gather for a weekend retreat. But idyll becomes nightmare when Sir James Thirkie is found murdered, a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest. Suspicion falls, inevitably on David Kahn, who is a Jew and recently married to Lucy, the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley of Castle Farthing, but when Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard starts investigating the case, he soon realises that all is not what it seems…

As ever, Walton braids the apparently cosy into something different and when you’re lulled into a false sense of security, she pulls the rug from under you. The familiar backdrop here is the classic country house murder. Guests are staying over – mostly the ‘Farthing set’, with the inevitable alliances and enmities, both political and personal. Inspector Carmichael and his loyal sidekick, Royston, set about the task of unpicking the various secrets of all the likely suspects. The investigation in alternate chapters is described in third person viewpoint, harking back to those Agatha Christie whodunits we all know and love.

But by far the strongest voice in the book, is that of Lucy Kahn. She bounces off the page with her first person narrative, told in a slightly breathless, chatty style that is so vivid, I actually dreamt of her… Her love for her husband shines through – as does her disgust for her peers, whom she regards at best as useless, after being educated by a thoughtful, egalitarian governess. And her wary hatred for her powerful, unscrupulous mother.

Walton is masterful at capturing a particular feel for an era – all the more impressive when this specific version never existed. In Walton’s Britain, because WW II didn’t run its full course and Germany is still fighting Russia, Labour never came to power. Which means the Old Order still prevails with landed gentry not beset by death duties and the measures put in place by the revolutionary governments just after the war, such as the Education Act of 1944 and the Welfare Act of 1948 never happens. So the gulf between the rich and poor doesn’t narrow, as it actually did in 1950’s Britain – which is why the narrative reads so much like early, classic whodunits. This Britain is far more similar to the world of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie than the historical reality.

While on the surface this seems fine – there are constant jarring details. The language describing Jews is unpleasant – as is the fact that no public school in the land will take any Jewish boy, no matter how well connected or successful. Everyone has to carry an I.D. card and a whole raft of professions and employment are simply closed off to sections of the population if they are not born into the right class. And everyone appears to know and accept this…

Walton’s smooth writing style is deceptive. She manages to cover a lot of ground in a book just over 300 pages long – and while the crime is solved, the political fallout is just about to create a cascade of political consequences… I am waiting for the next book in the series, and if you have ever enjoyed any form of alternate history, then start tracking down this gem.
10/10

Review of Heaven’s Queen – Book 3 of the Paradox series by Rachel Bach

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I was hooked the moment I picked up the first book, Fortune’s Pawn – read my review here. I immediately burned through the second book Honour’s Knight, but would I enjoy the third offering as much? I generally don’t read a series straight through as it is much easier to spot an author’s quirks that way. However this third volume was due back at the library, so I had no choice…

Government conspiracies. Two alien races out for her blood. An incurable virus that’s eating her alive. Now, with the captain missing and everyone – even Devi’s own government – determined to hunt her down, things are going from bad to impossible. The sensible plan would be to hide and wait for things to blow over, but Devi’s never been one to shy away from a fight, and she’s getting mighty sick of running. It’s time to put this crisis on her terms and do what she knows is right. But with all human life hanging on her actions, the price of taking a stand might be more than she can pay.

heaven's queenIf you like your action fast-paced, with plenty of twists along the way, then this series ticks the boxes. There is no shortage of fights, with a satisfying variety of different backdrops providing a whole range of challenges. And while it seems that Devi will prevail because she always had – there was always a sense that this time around, she may not manage it.

Bach really knows how to keep cranking up the stakes – and the overall narrative pace throughout the series is perfectly judged. This trilogy really hangs together well, with each book taking a slice of the storyline and overall action. I think if I had read them spaced out, I would have lost more than I gained by reading them together.

Devi is a wonderful protagonist – vulnerable enough to make us care, especially as she is battling for her very survival – but also amazingly gung-ho about Life in general and hers in particular. The first person viewpoint really helped me bond with her and Bach managed to make me entirely sympathetic to her and her ideals, while profoundly thankful I’ve never run into her on the High Street after she’d had a few at the local pub… Devi is different – a product of her Time and upbringing. Bach is too good a writer to tell us this – but she manages to show that difference in action repeatedly.

The love story between her and Rupert is complicated – just because she cares for him, doesn’t stop her blasting him in the chest at pointblank range when he gets in her way. I liked her worries that her feelings for him make her weaker and less effective as a soldier. It is also interesting that she finds for the first time in her life, the rage she uses to hone her battle instincts also accelerates the symptoms of the disease ravaging her. So she has to exercise self control – not one of Devi’s strengths…

In addition to producing an outstanding protagonist that will live long in my memory – I was also interested to note the theme running through the book. Bach raises the question whether the interests of the greater good should ever allow us to trample on the rights of a few individuals. She comes down fairly emphatically on the side of the individual versus the greater good – a classic American theme that runs through many films and books produced on the other side of the pond. The ending is entirely satisfactory and I was relieved and heartened to see a couple of plotlines that could be expanded on for yet more Devi fun in the future. I profoundly hope so – she is a great character and I’m already missing her.
10/10