Monthly Archives: December 2014

My Outstanding Reads of 2014

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Before I start, perhaps you should know how I’ve arrived at this decision, after reading 143 books and writing 126 reviews during the year. To make the list below, the books either blew me away at the time – or have lodged in my brain and rearranged my mental furniture in some way. There are a couple of books by the same author – I make no apologies for that. One of those authors, Jo Walton,  should be a whole lot better known than she is, given the breadth of her writing talent and the sheer quality of her work, while the other is simply an extraordinary writer at the top of her game. So in no particular order – here they are, my outstanding reads of 2014…

Glass Thorns – Book 1 of the Touchstone series by Melanie Rawn
Cayden Silversun is part Elven, part Fae, and part human Wizard. After centuries of bloodshed, in which Cade’s glassthornsWizard 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 denseness of the world and close attention to detail is a delight – I also loved the two other books I’ve read in this series, Elsewhen and Thornlost and I’m looking forward to reading the fourth book Window Wall, due for release in April 2015.

Dominion by C.J. Sansom
dominionTwelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent Auxiliary Police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours about what is happening in the basement of the Germany Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side.

Civil servant David Fitzgerald has been passing on government secrets after the tragic death of his son. While his wife Sarah is increasingly suspicious of the late nights and week-end stints in the office. But as events sweep this middle-class couple up into the political mincing machine, they cross paths with Gestapo Sturmbannfűhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant and implacable hunter of men…

What must be jumping out at anyone interested in reading the book, is that the event where Sansom’s version of history diverges takes place twelve years previously. So he has to construct a completely different world that emerges after Britain’s surrender. As Sansom is an accomplished historian, his version of this world makes fascinating reading and in amongst his deftly realistic worldbuilding, is the tense thriller that pings off the page. This book keeps creeping back into my head at all sorts of times – even when I’d rather it didn’t…

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
These are the acclaimed Man Booker prizewinning books about Henry VIII’s bully boy Thomas Cromwell, who wolf halloversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. 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.

bringupthebodiesThe 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 these door-stoppers? Well, the use of present tense throughout gives both these books 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 was absolutely gripped by these books – the writing is extraordinary.

However, I would also say that many folks have found these books initially difficult to get into, so my firm advice would be to persevere if you aren’t immediately hooked – it really is worth it.

The Crossing Places – Book 1 of the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths
Ruth Galloway is a forty-something archaeologist who lives on her own at the edge of Saltmarsh in an isolated cottage thecrossing placeswith a couple of cats. I found her character immediately appealing and realistic. Her concerns about her weight and her single status struck a chord with me – and I suspect many other female crime fans. This series is evidently going to be something of a partnership between Ruth and Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson. So did I also feel an affinity with the other main character? Yes. Nelson is clearly a complicated personality and – unlike Ruth and many other detectives in other series – he is a family man with two daughters and an attractive wife. I am looking forward to seeing how this all plays out during the series. The other powerful factor in this book is the stunning backdrop – the salt marshes.

Griffiths evidently knows and loves this landscape and has it as a character in its own right, particularly during the climactic scenes where the dangerous surroundings heighten the drama and tension during the denouement in a classic showdown that manages to provide plenty of surprises. Let’s hope the upcoming television series does this book justice.

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
Well, this is fun! I loved the whole idea – including the Gale family tendency to interbreed to strengthen their magical enchantment emporiumbloodline, and the fact that it takes a different direction depending on gender. As Huff doesn’t go into any major detail about the uninhibited sexual exploits within the family, the fact that a normal major taboo is crossed due to a magical imperative just underlines the sense of ‘other’. I would have been a lot less comfortable with this aspect if she’d chosen to provide a lot of gratuitous detail around said exploits – but she doesn’t. It was particularly enjoyable to read a punchy, urban fantasy where the power lies with the elderly females – the infamous ‘aunties’. As someone who finds herself rapidly approaching the same role within my own family faaar too quickly, it was gratifying to read about women of a certain age who were a significant force to be reckoned with.

As for Alysha, herself – Huff has depicted a feisty, enjoyable heroine who is busy trying to find her feet within a powerful family without cutting herself off from their support or love. Again, refreshing to read. So many protagonists, male and female, don’t seem to have much in the way of family ties, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in whatever arcane adventures that come their way without having to consider anyone near and dear to them. Her reaction to the rapidly escalating troubles surrounding the Emporium makes for a riveting, memorable read – and the bonus is this is the first of a series.

Fortune’s Pawn – Book 1 of the Paradox series by Rachel Bach
œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIDevi Morris isn’t your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. It’s a combination that’s going to get her killed one day. But not just yet. That is, until she gets a job on a tiny trade ship with a nasty reputation for surprises. The Glorious Fool isn’t misnamed: it likes to get into trouble, so much so that one year of security work under its captain is equal to five years anywhere else. With odds like that, Devi knows she’s found the perfect way to get the jump on the next part of her Plan. But the Fool doesn’t give up its secrets without a fight, and one year on this ship might be more than even Devi can handle.

Written in first person point of view, Devi is a wonderful protagonist. A driven, adrenaline-junkie, she spends her earnings on wicked weaponry and a shielded suit that she loves far too much, to the extent they all have names. She also likes the odd drop and playing poker. I loved her – and her impulsive character that gets her into regular scrapes. Given that many of my favourite reads were quite grim, this mapcap adventure provided plenty of thrills and spills which didn’t stick in my memory as much as the general feeling of fun. It’s not a comedy, but there was more than enough energy crackling off the page to have me turning the pages with a grin on my face.

Farthing – Book 1 of The Small Change trilogy by Jo Walton
In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Eight farthingyears after they overthrew 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. This is the first of an excellent trilogy and I highly recommend it. Walton should be read. A lot.

How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
how to train your dragonHiccup and his friend Fishlegs join a group of boys and set out to catch and train a dragon to be initiated into their clan, the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligans. Those who fail will be exiled forever, so will Hiccup and his small, disobedient dragon manage to avoid this miserable fate?

The whole tone and feel of this book is a delight – Frankie enjoyed the pictures and loved the humour. There is a lot going on, here with plenty of wordplay and puns within the names of the Viking characters and their dragon pets, but there is also a really strong, well executed narrative arc packed with action and suspense. Several times, I found myself reading far longer than I’d initially intended because we both wanted to know what would happen next. As anyone who visits this blog will quickly realise, I’m an enthusiastic reader and consider myself fairly sharp at recognising how a story is likely to progress – but any predictions I made about this particular book were wrong. I simply didn’t know where Cowell was going to take the story after the initial setup – even though I also know the film very well.

In addition to enjoyably funny cartoon drawings and riveting storyline, Cowell also added some extras for those who like to immerse themselves in her world. Frankie wasn’t remotely interested in breaking off and examining the copy of the book stolen from the Meatloaf Community Library called How To Train Your Dragon, written by Professor Yobbish, or checking out any of the dragon stats dotted throughout the book. But then, she is all about the story. However, for any child who appreciates these details – it’s a great addition. All in all – I’ve become hooked into Cowell’s world and am now in the process of buying the audio editions narrated by David Tennant so she can enjoy them when I’m not around to read them to her. And the bonus is that I can also listen in to Hiccup’s latest adventure.

My Real Children by Jo Walton
The day Mark called, Patricia Cowan’s world split in two.my real children
The phone call.
His question.
Her answer.
A single word.
‘Yes.’
‘No.’
It is 2015 and Patricia Cowan is very old. ‘Confused today’ read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War – those things are solid in her memory. Then that phone call and… her memory splits in two.

This book is different from anything else that Walton has written – but then books with a storyline like this aren’t exactly crowding the bookshelves. There is a sense of ambiguity about the whole business – Patricia is suffering from dementia and has been battling with it for some time. So… is this a complex illusion brought about by a damaged brain? At this point, the two alternate lives seem to collide – she gets muddled as to which nursing home she is living in and although she hasn’t yet mixed up the children, she knows it will only be a matter of time. The impact of her different lives doesn’t just affect her family – the world is quite a different place and I found this to be a fascinating consequence.

Walton is excellent at summoning up the feel of an era and I was intrigued to note how nostalgia steadily drifts into alternate history, as political events increasingly diverge from our own timeline. Focused as I was on Patricia’s personal story, it took a while for the penny to drop – but when I went back and reread the sections, I was able to appreciate the subtlety Walton employs with occasional mentions of events, before the shock of the major crisis which changes the whole political backdrop forever…

Hav by Jan Morris
havJan Morris is a renowned and respected travel writer with such books as Venice and Europe an Intimate Journey under her belt. The first half of this book, then known as Last Letters from Hav, was first published in 1985 and it wasn’t until after the 9/11 effect rippled around the world, shifting political and cultural stances, that Morris considered writing a follow-up charting that type of changes she’d noted while travelling to actual places.
So she wrote the second section and the book in this form was published in 2006. I have something of a soft spot for well-conceived imaginary places – but this is a tour de force. Morris has not only written extensively about the physical geography, describing the buildings and topographical features – she has also provided a vivid historical and political backdrop.

During the first section of the book, Hav is a comparative backwater. Athough situated geographically between East and West, it is a cultural and political melting pot with a number of immigrants from France, Turkey, Greece, China, India – as well as the mysterious indigenous cave-dwelling population… She captures Hav’s faded splendour and idiosyncratic customs, many originating centuries ago when Hav was part of the Silk Route and Venice had a series of warehouses backed by powerful merchanting families to protect their valuable assets. Though I constantly had to remind myself as I got caught up in the welter of small details Morris continually drops into her narrative – Hav doesn’t exist.

All this is impressive enough – but for me, the genius of this book is what happens in the second half after the Intervention. Morris revisits Hav and charts how it has changed since the… um – Intervention. No one would be stupidly crass enough to use the word invasion… This is another of those remarkable books that have impacted my  inscape with its clever, thought provoking premise.

Half a King – Book 1 of The Shattered Seas trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
Born a weakling in the eyes of the world, Yarvi cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a half a kingdeadly edge. Especially when his father and older brother are both slaughtered by a neighbouring lord and he suddenly finds that instead of continuing with his training to become a trusted advisor to his brother, he is the one who will be the next king…

I loved the world, the perfect narrative pacing and the character progression. We have a salutary demonstration at the end of the book as to just how much Yarvi’s experiences have shaped him – once more leaving me open-mouthed with surprise. I’m not the target audience – and while I regularly read YA books with huge enjoyment, I’m normally conscious they are written for a less experienced reader, so I tend to give the author a pass on some of the less subtle writing. No such pass is required for Abercrombie. This is a delight. Accomplished, enthralling and has this non-YA reader desperate for more.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
signatureofallthingsThis housebrick of a book charts Alma’s life from the day she is born, 5th January 1800, right up until her very old age. And it is a life full of contradictions – brought up in a fabulously wealthy household, she nevertheless is taught strict obedience, frugality, attention to detail and rigorously schooled by her Dutch mother. An only child, she is suddenly presented with an adopted sister when she is 10 years old – a dainty, beautiful girl who is everything Alma is not… Despite being the daughter of a wealthy man, she is not besieged by suitors as a young girl – although there is one man who she has fallen in love with. And I’m not going further because to do so would be to lurch into spoiler territory. Suffice to say that it would be all too easy to turn this book into a heartbreaking melodrama – there is certainly the material to do so.

But Gilbert turns this book into so much more than that. In amongst her duties as her father’s secretary and administrator, Alma is a bryologist, which means she studies mosses. And her work brings her into contact with other naturalists and lithographers – including Ambrose…

As well as becoming engrossed in Alma’s life, I was also fascinated by Prudence, her adopted sister. Though neither girl bonded with the other, their paths cross in ways that profoundly affected each of them, and indirectly, leads to Alma’s restless travelling at an age when most of her contemporaries are settling down to a life of placid routine. The wealth of historical detail; the state of Tahiti at the time, when the native people are still reeling from the epidemics that ripped through the population; Gilbert’s iron grip on the pacing and narrative tension that ensured that the story pinged off the page… This is a masterpiece.

The Martian by Andy Weir
I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Earth. I’m in a Habitat designed to last 31 days. If the themartianOxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m screwed.

That is the blurb in Mark Watney’s viewpoint – typically laconic. Several of the reviews called this a 21st century version of the Robinson Crusoe story, and it neatly sums up the first section of the book. Like Defoe, Weir is very keen on demonstrating all the fixes and lash-ups that Watney resorts to. But being an astronaut on a NASA space program, the ingenious ways he manages to avoid death involve a great deal more technology and scientific knowhow than Robinson Crusoe had to grapple with. Weir had to dive into a truly brain-bulging amount of research in order to get this level of detail and apparent plausibility. Although I’m no scientist, nothing jarred – not his reaction or the relationship with NASA.

However, if Weir had kept the story going at that level, I would not have stayed engrossed right to the end. The narrative pacing is pitch perfect – despite the plethora of detail, Weir never loses touch with the fact that he is telling a story. It’s a triumph and worth a read by anyone – including those who don’t generally go near science fiction.

Foxglove Summer – Book 5 of the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch
foxglovesummerWhen two young girls go missing in rural Herefordshire PC Peter Grant is sent out of London to check that nothing supernatural is involved. It’s purely routine. Nightingale thinks he’ll be done in less than a day. But Peter’s never been one to walk away from someone in trouble, so when nothing covertly magical turns up he volunteers his services to the local police who need all the help they can get.

But because the universe likes a joke as much as the next sadistic megalomaniac, Peter soon comes to realise that dark secrets lurk under the picturesque fields and villages of the countryside and there might just be work for Britain’s most junior wizard after all.

Well this is fun! Grant is taken right away from his natural stamping ground and deposited in amongst strangers who are battling to find two girls who have disappeared. After the high drama at the end of the last book, I’d feared this book might feel a tad flat – but the scene change and innate tension caused by the nature of the case meant Foxglove Summer hits the ground running and just goes on gathering momentum, making it a joy to read.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Harry August is on his deathbed again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry first 15 lives of Harry Augustalways restarts to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a live he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes. Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next – and what he did before – and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

North is visiting a very familiar science fiction trope – that of the trans-human who has shifted into something different by dint of having lived so long. The big difference is that trans-humans as depicted by the likes of Alastair Reynolds and Greg Bear owe their longevity to scientific development, while Harry August and the handful of other returnees he encounters during his lifetimes, owe their existence to a genetic quirk. As a kalachakra, after he dies, he goes straight back to the year of his first birth – 1918 – and relives his existence, with the memories of his previous lives impacting on his choices and decisions. For my money, Harry August is the most effectively depicted post-human I have yet encountered. While never forgetting his difference, North has managed to still make him sufficiently sympathetic that I really empathised and cared about him – a feat, as he has become something other than fully human and is certainly not particularly cuddly or even likeable at lot of the time. What we get is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be human and the effects of determinism – how far can Harry influence or alter the events in his lives – alongside the cracking adventure story that steadily evolves.

Review for The Witch’s Daughter – Book 1 of The Shadow Chronicles by Paula Brackston

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I picked up a copy of The Winter Witch at Fantasycon and was impressed with the quality of the writing – see my review here. So would I enjoy this earlier offering as much?

witch's daughterIn present-day England, Elizabeth has built a quiet life for herself. She has spent the centuries in solitude, moving from place to place, surviving plagues, wars and the heartbreak that comes from immortality. Her loneliness comes to an abrupt end when she is befriended by a teenage girl called Tegan. Against her better judgement, Elizabeth opens her heart to Tegan and begins teaching her the ways of the Hedge Witch. But all this time she has been running – and this time around, she has someone else she needs to protect…

I really enjoyed this one. I’m a sucker for a well-told historical tale, and Brackston adroitly weaves the present day with the flashbacks into earlier episodes of Beth’s life. At no time is there any confusion and the periods described by Beth when she retells slices of her long life are both entertaining and vivid. She is an intriguing and layered personality – I found her completely believable, really enjoying her wariness and drive to atone for what initially happened to her. Brackston also handles the narrative tension extremely well – it would have been all too easy to get bogged down in a forest of historical detail as each scene is different.

Tegan is a refreshing contrast. Typical teenager, she is impressed with the skills Beth chooses to show her and yet initially is also resistant to being told what to do. They have a tussle of wills – a classical scenario between a young girl and an older woman. Brackston is very good at quickly developing nuanced, interesting relationships between her characters without unduly holding up the pace. Given that I read her two books the wrong way around – this is the first book, while The Winter Witch is the second book in the series – I think it is the stronger of the two.

The ending to this book was magnificent – I thought I saw it coming, but I didn’t. And afterwards, when I’d scraped my jaw off the floor, I realised that it made absolute sense and completely tied up the story arc. While I enjoyed The Winter Witch, I loved The Witch’s Daughter. And if your taste runs to well-written paranormal books with some gripping historical flashbacks added to the spell, then go looking for this one – it’s worth it.
9/10

Review of Dear Thing by Julie Cohen

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Himself doesn’t usually do mainstream fiction – particularly with curly writing on the cover… So when he enthusiastically recommended this book, I paid attention. Would I enjoy it, too?

dearthingAfter years of watching her best friends Ben and Claire try for a baby, Romily has offered to give them the one thing they most want. But Romily wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming feelings that have taken hold of her and which threaten to ruin her friendship with Ben and Claire – and even destroy their marriage. Now there are three friends, two mothers and only one baby, and an impossible decision to make…

This wasn’t a book I would ever have picked up – but that didn’t prevent it from immediately hooking me into the story. Cohen’s style is readable and punchy. I initially really bonded strongly with Claire, but as the book progressed I increasingly sympathised with Romily. Cohen managed to write her small daughter without lapsing into sentimentality – not always an easy trick to accomplish when small children make intermittent appearances in an adult book. Especially when one of the main themes revolves around what makes a good mother – something of a burning question in these days of increasing concern about the way we parent. And as Romily finds herself unexpectedly bonding with her unborn baby, she is torn – does she keep her promise to her friends? Or keep the baby? Cohen certainly knows how to pull a story along. I devoured this book in three greedy gulps.

For me, the best bit was how both very different women reacted to the situation confronting them – and the way their relationship and attitude to each other changed. Claire’s story was no less engrossing or heart-tugging than Romily’s problem and anyone who has ever longed for a baby will sympathise with her plight. And while Romily tends to stumble into her own muddles through her impulsive nature, Claire is the victim of biology. Small wonder she becomes a tad over-controlling about the aspects of her life she can alter – I found the way Cohen depicts this both clever and moving.

Any grizzles? Well, while I found Jarvis completely convincing, Ben bothered me. On one hand, he is quite able to implicitly acknowledge Romily’s affection for him for years – to the extent that they go out for pub quizzes together as best mates. That seems entirely plausible. What I find difficult to swallow is his sudden need to then become painfully honest to Claire, given the dire consequences. Nope – didn’t ring true, given his capacity to gloss a thorny problem for years and years. However, given how much Cohen got right and the skill with which she negotiated this highly emotional story, it wasn’t a deal-breaker.

The ending works well – which again, is no mean feat, given the complexity of the problem. I certainly won’t be by-passing Julie Cohen’s books again, and if you’re looking for a well-written, readable novel about some of the complications that contemporary issues can pose for family life, I highly recommend this.
9/10

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

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This excellent review has flagged yet another book for my attention – so I thought I’d reblog it so you could also read it…

Cleopatra Loves Books

Historical Fiction 5*'s Historical Fiction
5*’s

The most apt word I can think of to describe this book is sumptuous! This is a book to delight the reader with the layers of detail which build a picture of a household in London in the 1920’s. Mrs Wray and her daughter Frances found themselves struggling to make ends meet after the loss of the men during World War I and the solution is to take in some paying guests, their gentrified term for lodgers. With the household rejigged to make space for a couple of rooms the day arrives for Leonard and Lillian Barber to move in. Lily sets about decorating her rooms in her own style while Leonard works away at his job at an insurance company and the household begins to adapt to the new routine. The Wrays meanwhile remain suspended in the disagreeable place between accepting and despising the changes the…

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Review of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

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I picked up this book from Fantasycon last year, and finally got around to picking it up this week… Which was when I discovered it was YA.

incarceronImagine a prison so vast that it contains cells and corridors, forests, cities and seas. Imagine a prisoner with no memory, sure he came from Outside – though the prison has been sealed for centuries and only one man has ever escaped. Imagine a girl in a manor house, in a society where time is forbidden, held in a 17th-century world run by computers, doomed to an arranged marriage, tangled in an assassination plot she dreads and desires. One inside, one outside. But both imprisoned. Imagine Incarceron.

That’s the slightly bleak blurb. While this book isn’t a barrel of laughs, it is dialled to YA sensibilities, so although there is plenty of unpleasantness Fisher doesn’t see fit to dwell overmuch on the more violent side of what happens within Incarceron, other than the nastiness that befalls our protagonists and their companions.

As with all dual narratives, Fisher has to balance the unfolding stories of Finn and Claudia. I was interested to learn many other reviewers enjoyed Finn’s journey and his character more than Claudia’s – whereas I found her story more immediately gripping. Which tells me that Fisher did her job. That she is a skilful and technically adept writer is evident right from the first sentence. She manages to pack an enormous amount of backstory and detail about the two very different worlds without silting up the pace – a much harder trick to pull than Fisher makes it look, but crucial when writing a successful dystopian science fiction thriller, like this one.

What Fisher also manages to achieve is the steady pulling together of the two separate strands until they intersect while moving towards the climax. Some of the progression is reasonably predictable – I guessed who Finn was very early on. But I didn’t foresee the Warden’s story arc, or that by the end I would be feeling sorry for him. He is one of an interesting cast of characters who accompany the two protagonists on their journeys. Some, like the Queen, are clear enemies right from the start – but others are far more nuanced and ambivalent. One of the most intriguing relationships is that between Keiro and Finn. Keiro is Finn’s oathbrother – the person who first scooped him up and protected him as the only way to survive in such a hostile environment is to have someone who watches your back. And Keiro is everything Finn is not – strong, fearless and skilled at fighting. But while Finn trusts him, there are big questions over whether he should almost from the start of the book.

Overall, this is a strong, enjoyable YA offering with a different flavour compared to many recent dystopian science fiction novels and I’m going to track down the sequel, Sapphique, in 2015.
8/10

Christmas Quiz

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There’s four generations of us when we get together at Christmas and for years I was in charge of organising the games. So I devised a multi-question quiz so that everyone could pair up and join in. Because there are a LOT of clever-clogs in our family, the questions are a bit quirky and difficult, so  said clever-clogs didn’t always win – and the answers used to provide some hilarity… Have a go. Or if you are also wondering what to do with the family during the festive season, then you’re very welcome to download it and use it.

1. If you suffer from cynanthropy, what do you think you are?
a) a dog b) a swan c) a plant d) a superhero

2. What is a group of foxes called?
a) a pack b) a skulk c) a rabble d) a sneak

3. What was the name of William Tell’s son, who stood with an apple on
his head?
a) Jean b) Walter c) Hubert d) Frederick

4. For what did the Russians use the bones of the 40,000 killed at Sebastopol?
a) Making cement b) The footings of a war memorial
c) Fertilizer d) The foundations of St Peter’s Hill

5. From which country does lettuce originate?
a) Iraq b) Tunisia c) Egypt d) Iran

6. On which Christian feast day is the Earth nearest the Sun?
a) Christmas b) Ascension Day c) Epiphany d) All Hallow’s Eve

7. Which colour tranquillizer pills have the best effect?
a) Green/blue b) Blue c) Yellow d) White

8. What is the birth stone for March?
a) greenstone b) aquamarine c) agate d) topaz

9. Which place name gives the word ‘port’ its name?
a) Portugal b) Portsmouth c) Oporto d) Portobello

10 According to the Bible, what “quencheth the thirst of the jackasses”?
a) seawater b) vinegar c) water d) strong wine

11 Approximately how many inches of snow are equal to 1 inch of rain?
a) 6 inches b) 8 inches c) 10 inches d) 12 inches

12 Who was the oldest Beatle?
a) Paul McCartney b) Ringo Starr
c) George Harrison d) John Lennon

13 What is the nickname that Anne Frank gave her diary?
a) Kitty b) Dulcie c) Paige d) Carrie

14 What part of the human body contains the most gold?
a) hair b) kidneys c) liver d) toenails

15 What is a Suffolk punch?
a) Very strong cider b) A farm implement
c) A breed of horse d) A knockout blow in boxing

16 How did Alfred Hitchcock appear in his film Rope?
a) In an oil painting b) In outline, on a neon sign
c) On an advertising billboard d) Staring out of a passing taxi

17 In 1631 Robert Barker’s Holy Bible was destroyed and the printer fined £300. Why?
a) Because the 7th Commandment read: Thou shalt commit adultery
b) Because he mistranslated Moses as having horns
c) Because he misspelled the word ‘Blessed’ as Blissed’ in the Beatitudes
d) Because he omitted the last chapter, Revelations.

18 What was John Logie Baird’s first successful invention?
a) the earliest television b) socks to prevent sweaty feet
c) sweatproof underclothing d) infra-red images

19 What does an oometer measure?
a) audience reaction b) birds’ eggs
c) water purity d) calorific values in food

20 Whose hair caught fire while making a Pepsi-Cola advert?
a) Madonna b) George Michael
c) Michael Jackson d) Tina Turner

Answers

1. If you suffer from cynanthropy, what do you think you are?
a) a dog b) a swan c) a plant d) a superhero

2. What is a group of foxes called?
a) a pack b) a skulk c) a rabble d) a sneak

3. What was the name of William Tell’s son, who stood with an apple on
his head?
a) Jean b) Walter c) Hubert d) Frederick

4. For what did the Russians use the bones of the 40,000 killed at Sebastopol?
a) Making cement b) The footings of a war memorial
c) Fertilizer d) The foundations of St Peter’s Hill

5. From which country does lettuce originate?
a) Iraq b) Tunisia c) Egypt d) Iran

6. On which Christian feast day is the Earth nearest the Sun?
a) Christmas b) Ascension Day c) Epiphany d) All Hallow’s Eve

7. Which colour tranquillizer pills have the best effect?
a) Green/blue b) Blue c) Yellow d) White

8. What is the birth stone for March?
a) greenstone b) aquamarine c) agate d) topaz

9. Which place name gives the word ‘port’ its name?
a) Portugal b) Portsmouth c) Oporto d) Portobello

10. According to the Bible, what “quencheth the thirst of the jackasses”?
a) seawater b) vinegar c) water d) strong wine

11. Approximately how many inches of snow are equal to 1 inch of rain?
a) 6 inches b) 8 inches c) 10 inches d) 12 inches

12. Who was the oldest Beatle?
a) Paul McCartney b) Ringo Starr
c) George Harrison d) John Lennon

13. What is the nickname that Anne Frank gave her diary?
a) Kitty b) Dulcie c) Paige d) Carrie

14. What part of the human body contains the most gold?
a) hair b) kidneys c) liver d) toenails

15. What is a Suffolk punch?
a) Very strong cider b) A farm implement
c) A breed of horse d) A knockout blow in boxing

16. How did Alfred Hitchcock appear in his film Rope?
a) In an oil painting b) In outline, on a neon sign
c) On an advertising billboard d) Staring out of a passing taxi

17. In 1631 Robert Barker’s Holy Bible was destroyed and the printer fined £300. Why?
a) Because the 7th Commandment read: Thou shalt commit adultery
b) Because he mistranslated Moses as having horns
c) Because he misspelled the word ‘Blessed’ as Blissed’ in the Beatitudes
d) Because he omitted the last chapter, Revelations.

18. What was John Logie Baird’s first successful invention?
a) the earliest television b) socks to prevent sweaty feet
c) sweatproof underclothing d) infra-red images

19. What does an oometer measure?
a) audience reaction b) birds’ eggs
c) water purity d) calorific values in food

20. Whose hair caught fire while making a Pepsi-Cola advert?
a) Madonna b) George Michael
c) Michael Jackson d) Tina Turner

Review of Foxglove Summer – Book 5 of the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch

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I’ve enjoyed this series – see my review of Rivers of London here – so was looking forward to this next slice of Peter Grant goodness – particularly as the twist at the end of Broken Homes had my jaw dropping and Mhairi Simpson sending me sweary text messages… Would this next instalment sustain the quality?

foxglovesummerWhen two young girls go missing in rural Herefordshire PC Peter Grant is sent out of London to check that nothing supernatural is involved. It’s purely routine. Nightingale thinks he’ll be done in less than a day. But Peter’s never been one to walk away from someone in trouble, so when nothing covertly magical turns up he volunteers his services to the local police who need all the help they can get.

But because the universe likes a joke as much as the next sadistic megalomaniac, Peter soon comes to realise that dark secrets lurk under the picturesque fields and villages of the countryside and there might just be work for Britain’s most junior wizard after all.

Well this is fun! Grant is taken right away from his natural stamping ground and deposited in amongst strangers who are battling to find two girls who have disappeared. After the high drama at the end of the last book, I’d feared this book might feel a tad flat – but the scene change and innate tension caused by the nature of the case meant Foxglove Summer hits the ground running and just goes on gathering momentum.

It’s always something of a balance when an author chooses to make his backdrop another character – if he’s not careful, said character starts to invade the action with description that silts up the pace. And urban fantasy always needs plenty of pace. There have been times in this series where Aaronovitch has struggled to keep this balance – but in this book he’s cracked it. The setting is depicted through Grant’s sharp, city-bred eyes with plenty of verve, making it bounce off the page and as the supernatural element becomes more apparent, there is an increasingly sinister twist to what we feel at first is perfectly ordinary. The heatwave provides yet more tension as the countryside swelters in heat that British bodies and buildings aren’t designed to deal with – let’s face it we’re only set up to cope with drizzle in this country.

The storyline gripped me from the first and didn’t let up. As ever, Aaronovitch reveals the faultlines in modern British society – the growing social divide and racism within the village is clearly shown as Grant and the rest of the police toil to find the missing girls. There is a cast of interesting characters who are also caught up in this adventure – unlike many supernaturally gifted protagonists, Grant doesn’t set out to annoy his superiors. While he is all too aware of some of the systemic failures of the organisation, he spends time and effort conforming to the guidelines and strictures while working within the police. I enjoy his constant referral to these guidelines, which give a far more realistic edge to the police procedural aspect of the book than other contenders.

And, of course, those of us still reeling after the denouement in Broken Homes are also watching a wounded Peter Grant. Nightingale’s suggestion that he pop down to Herefordshire in the first place is prompted by a concern for Grant – and a sense that he could do with getting away, even if it is only for a day… The situation continues to unfold throughout the book and this is again, a storyline that I love – and applaud Aaronovitch for continuing to show how one dramatic and horrifying occurrence in the first book goes on reverberating for those around them. All too often in urban fantasy, terrible events occur to get us plenty of drama – and within the space of a book the whole situation somehow rights itself and everyone carries on. Not so this series…

In short, for my money, this is the best book of the lot. And that’s saying something, because Aaronovitch is a fine writer whose success with this best-selling series is rightly deserved. And if your taste runs to well-written urban fantasy – or you started this series, but felt some of the subsequent books slightly lost their way, then get hold of Foxglove Summer. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
10/10

Review: Shifting Dreams by Elizabeth Hunter

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This snappy, coherent book review introduced me to a writer I haven’t yet read and a series that sounds really intriguing, so I thought I’d share with you…

So, I Read This Book Today

Shifting Dreams | [Elizabeth Hunter]This was my first introduction to Elizabeth Hunter, and I am so happy that I found her through a book blogging friend of mine. I listened to the Audible edition, narrated by Liisa Ivary, and this is just another example of how a good narrator can take a good book and make it even better. Her smooth delivery led me through the book, introducing me to the characters and the world in a smooth and well-modulated way.

The story itself introduces us to Cambio Springs, a shifter town – a dying town since the military base closed down. Without something good happening, the town will disappear, and the safety of its inhabitants as well. A bar, a small school, and a tiny café are about it. Seven extended families started the town when one of their number had a vision of a crow flying over hot springs. And one…

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