Monthly Archives: October 2015

Review of Breathe by Sarah Crossan

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I loved the cover on this YA dystopian science fiction book, so plucked it off the shelves hoping it was an engrossing read.

breatheWhen oxygen levels plunge in a treeless world, a state lottery decides who will live inside the Pod. Everyone else will slowly suffocate. Years later society has divided into Premiums and Auxiliaries. Only Premiums can afford enough oxygen to live a normal life. Dissenters to the regime are ejected from the Pod. Alina belongs to a rebel group and when one of her illegal expeditions to illegally harvest cuttings to grow trees ends in tragedy, her subsequent actions are set to uncover the shocking truth about the Pods.

This is a very interesting world. I really enjoyed the dynamic between the favoured few who have sufficient oxygen to exercise – and those who have to pace themselves because they are constantly coping on limited air. And when the twists come, it was initially quite a shock to discover exactly what was going on. The science is also secure on this one – I liked the way Crossan has woven in established fact in order to make this plot point work. Nicely done.

The teenage protagonists are all engaging and suitably hormonal. My personal favourite is Alina, but no one particularly jarred. However, the characters who crackled off the pages for me were Blue Maud, the drifter they discover outside the Pod, coping on an elderly solar-powered breather and Jazz, the small child looked after by the rebel gang. These two non-teen characters don’t take centre stage but for all that, they have an extra vividness that means they are the characters I recall most clearly now the book is over and done with.

The pacing is good and the book clips along at a fair rate, delivering plenty of adventure and racing towards a suitably climactic ending. If you enjoy dystopian science fiction tales of adventure that you can whizz through in a couple of sittings, then this may well tick your box.
8/10

Review of The Shadow Throne – Book 2 of The Shadow Campaign series by Django Wexler

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I thoroughly enjoyed the first book The Thousand Names in this entertaining Muskets and Magic series – see my review here. Would The Shadow Throne be as much fun?

theshadowthroneThe King of Vordan is dying, and his daughter, Raesinia, is destined to become the first Queen in centuries – and a ripe target for the ambitious men who seek to control her. But politics knows no loyalties, especially for Duke Orlanko. He will bow his knee to no Queen. Freshly returned from their recent victories abroad, Colonel Janus, Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass must defeat the Duke using muskets, magic and every weapon at their command.

Wexler has been smart in completely changing the backdrop to this adventure, thus immediately giving it a different tone and feel. While the first book was set in a dry, desert country where our protagonists were the outsiders, this volume has them back home, grappling with palace politics. Wexler’s smooth writing delivers a cracking read, providing plenty of thrills with engaging, likeable characters. I particularly enjoyed the extra little bits of information we were given about Marcus, although Janus remains intriguingly enigmatic. Winter’s story arc was also strong, as her past catches up with her in a big way and we meet with Jane, the girl in the orphanage with her who helped her survive the miserable conditions. Nowadays she is known by the folks living in the docks area as ‘Mad Jane’.

But the character at the heart of this book is the young princess, who should be spending most of the tale confined to the tower where she is living. And she doesn’t… The scene where she doesn’t and we discover why had my jaw dropping. Wexler writes with an engaging verve and enthusiasm that nonetheless demonstrates great skill. I was gripped by the story and burned through the 641 pages in an impressively short time as I was desperate to discover what was going to happen next.

There was no middle book slump going on with The Shadow Throne, as Wexler brings this slice of action to a satisfying conclusion, leaving sufficient dangling plot points for me to be very happy to have the next book already stacked up beside my bed. Marital bliss is marvellous – if it hadn’t been for Himself’s recommendation, I would never have picked up The Thousand Names – and I’m so very glad I did.
9/10

Review of Us by David Nicholls

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I’ve heard a lot of good things about this author over the years, and when I came across this book in Waterstones, I opened the first page, read it and wanted to read more. It’s radically different from the majority of the books I read – would I enjoy it?

usDouglas and Connie, scientist and artist, and for more than twenty years, husband and wife until suddenly, their marriage seems over. But Douglas is going to win back the love of his wife and the respect of Albie, their teenage son, by organising the holiday of a lifetime. He has booked the hotels, bought the train tickets, planned and printed the itinerary for a ‘grand tour’ of the great art galleries of Europe. What could possibly go wrong?

This is a roller-coaster of a book. As you might imagine from the blurb there are all sorts of opportunities for farcical mishaps that had me sniggering into the night. Except… I really, really cared about David. And Connie and even – eventually – Albie. So that while I found myself laughing on one page, the next one brought a lump to my throat. This book is funny, but humour can be cruel. We laugh at people more often than we laugh with them and although Douglas offers himself up as the butt for many jokes he tells against himself, this is far more than a mere farce. It is a tale of a relationship that has weathered both triumph and tragedy.

As he faces losing Connie and Albie, Douglas takes us back to when he first met Connie, the early days of their relationship, their deepest joys and the worst calamities that engulf them. Douglas is the main protagonist and tells the story in first person. I fell in love with him during the book, despite his unfailing ability to put his foot in his mouth and his lack of emotional intelligence. This is the man who superglued his small son’s Lego figures so they wouldn’t come apart and become untidy… This is also the man who walked his feet to ribbons searching for said son to try and undo a mistake he made. Douglas is flawed, human and valiant. There is a dogged determination that has him put his head down and battle on when the going gets tough. I stayed up far later than I should, to discover whether he prevails.

The ending is interesting. I certainly didn’t see it coming and it left me unsettled with a sharp realisation as to why I generally read books set thousands of light years away, or in fantastical worlds as far away from here and now as I can possibly get. But it’s a book that won’t leave me alone. I find it creeping into my hindbrain when I’m not thinking about my own work. That Nicholls is a writer at the top of his game goes without saying. The story is perfectly pitched, with just the right mix of humour and heartbreak.

Am I glad I read it? Oh yes. I keep nagging Himself to read it, as I want his opinion, too. And you – I’d like you to read it. Let me know what you think about it. Because I reckon it’s one of my outstanding reads of the year. And there isn’t a dragon or alien in sight…
10/10

Book cover reveal for Running Out of Space

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Here it is… my cover for Running Out of Space, plus the blurb that a number of you kindly helped me straighten out.

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Jezel Campo has yearned to be an officer on her father’s Iberian merchanting ship for as long as she can remember. But serving aboard the Estrella Fugaz is a very different experience from the excitement and adventure she’d always imagined. So Jezel and three friends take themselves off on an unchaperoned jaunt to the lower reaches of Space Station Hawking to prove that young women can also deal with danger – a big mistake.

The consequences of that single expedition changes the lives of all four of them, Jezel’s family – and the blond-haired stranger who steps in to save them from the dregger gang in the lawless Basement Level. And now, Jezel has more excitement and danger than she knows what to do with…

With a following wind, the ebook will be available next Monday 19th October. Running Out of Space is the first in the Sunblinded trilogy, which will be the background to a science fiction crime series I’m writing, featuring my protagonist Jezel Campo as a pan-galactic private investigator.

Review of Fool’s Quest – Book 2 of Fitz and the Fool by Robin Hobb

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This epic fantasy book is set in the complex, layered world Hobb has established over twenty years and some fourteen books, starting with the first book Assassin’s Apprentice, where we first encounter Fitz as a boy. As a solid fan of Hobb’s writing, I have read all of the books in this epic fantasy series in order and before you so much as open Fool’s Quest, my firm advice would be to go right back to the start and at the very least, read The Farseer Trilogy, which tells of Fitz and where he fits into the story. If you find yourself beguiled by Hobb’s writing, then move onto The Tawny Man Trilogy, which gives the history of the Fool. While Hobb is too smart a writer to leave readers floundering, I think that this world is simply too special and complex to crash into sideways. And then, don’t start with this book – go back to the first one in the series Fool’s Assassin – see my review here.

foolsquestHappy endings never last… Years ago, they freed a dragon from the glaciers on Aslexjal. Then they parted ways, the Fool returning to far off Clerres, while Fitz finally claimed a wife, a family and a home of his own. Now, betrayed by his own people and broken by torment, the Fool has made his way back to the Six Duchies. But as Fitz attempts to heal his old friend in Buckkeep Castle, he is not at Withywoods to protect his young daughter, Bee. A mistake…

That’s a very shortened version of the rather chatty blurb that drops far too many spoilers for me to want to repeat it. I love Hobb’s writing and thoroughly enjoy her worldbuilding and Fitz is a special favourite – although that doesn’t stop me wanting to shake him until his teeth rattle. So I quickly became engrossed in this doorstep of a book, which had my arms aching long before I finished it.

It’s my favourite kind of epic fantasy – where the action stays focused on a handful of characters we come to know and care about. However, be warned. If you enjoy foot-to-the-floor non-stop action, then this won’t necessarily tick your boxes. Hobb provides plenty of adventure, but she lays the groundwork first, thoroughly establishing her protagonists, their motivations and providing the world in plenty of detail. While I love the way she crafts her books, I’m also aware it isn’t to everyone’s taste.

We also get far more of the Fool in this book. He has always been a mysterious character, whose backstory has never been fully told, so the revelations provided in this book regarding his origins and his backstory are a particular delight to read. There is a special joy when an author provides a world where in Book 15, you learn a vital slice of the story that began in Book 1. Hobb is good a writing enigmatic characters that don’t irritate me, which is something of a feat as I generally am a tad short-fused when I feel an author has gone all mysterious because she hasn’t figured how to fill a certain plothole she discovered far too late in the day. Chiefly because I trust Hobb sufficiently to know that sooner or later, she will fill in the gap in her narrative, thoroughly and imaginatively such that I’ll love the journey.

So does Fool’s Quest match the standard set in the other books? Yes, I think it does, though there were places where I felt the pace was just a tad slow. Thing is, I was quite pleased, because it meant the book wasn’t coming to an end, yet. Did I mention I loved her writing? But, be warned, the book does not tie anything up. Hobb leaves the whole story on a cliff-hanger ending. So I’m quite relieved that my TBR list has become ridiculously long – I’m far too busy trying to catch up to be pining after the next book, which isn’t scheduled to appear until 2017.

In the meantime, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of Hobb magic, why don’t you make a start on the first book? That will give you time to complete the whole series before Assassin’s Fate is released…
9/10

Shoot for the Moon Challenge 2015 – September Roundup

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We are hurtling towards Fantasycon 2015 at breakneck speed. Am I going to get Running Out of Space published in time to have it available as an ebook at the Con?
• Hm. Still not sure. I’ve completed the line edit and now will be handing over to uber-editor and word-wrangler, moonMhairi Simpson to cast her picky, experienced gaze over the manuscript. She has already spanked the Spanish phrases into submission, bless her. I still have the glossary of Spanish words and phrases to compile and the preliminary pages to sort out. The book cover design is being finalised by the awesome Janet Sked and Mhairi has also finessed my design of the logo for Griffinwing Publishing, my self-publishing imprint. It all feels very grown up and exciting. I have a reading slot at Fantasycon on Saturday night, at 8.20 pm, so if you’re at a loose end and fancy coming along to hear a slice of Running Out of Space, you’ll be very welcome.
• Challenge – To have Running Out of Space – Sunblinded: 1 published by Fantasycon. Probably…

• I read 13 books and wrote 11 reviews during September. More or less on target with this one.
Challenge – To review a minimum of 100 books during 2015. In progress…

• The new academic year is in full swing and both classes are settling in well. While the new classroom isn’t quite as convenient or roomy as the previous one, it is large enough and while it tends to be a bit stuffy with the warm autumn sunshine, at least it will be cosier in winter.
Challenge – To strive to make my Creative Writing courses enjoyable and informative for my students.

Inevitably, this month it’s been all about Running Out of Space. I did take the week-end off to go to Bristolcon a couple of weeks ago – which was so worth it. Every year I come away from this friendly, eventfill Con buzzed and enthused from having met so many lovely folks and the panel subjects were outstanding – read about it here.

As for writing – I had a couple of ideas that were rattling around my skull until I got them down on paper, but that only amounted to a paltry 3,500 words. Other than that, it was all about the editing. I wrote just over 6,000 words reviewing books and blogging this month. As I’d expected, the majority of my writing and a fair chunk of time and mental energy went on writing course notes and admin for my teaching commitments, which amounted to just over 15,000 words, bringing my monthly total in September to around 25,000 and my yearly total to date to just over 193,000 words.

Review of The Art of Forgetting: Nomad – Book 2 by Joanne Hall

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I’d read the excellent first part of this unusual Fantasy rite-of-passage book Rider earlier this year, see my review herenomad. And when at Bristolcon, it was a no-brainer that I’d buy a print copy of the sequel and get Joanne Hall to sign it for me. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, would the second book go on delivering?

In a single moment of defiance, driven by a rash act of compassion for a stranger, Rhodri turns his back on his unit, his country and his comrades in arms. Taken in by the Plains Hawk tribe, he finds compassion, love, and a new purpose for his unique memory. But just as he is coming to terms with his decision, they are overwhelmed by a threat that throws the tribe into chaos, menacing their nomadic way of life and the people he has grown to love.

Rhodri is an interesting character with an inconvenient memory, who is far more flawed than your usual main protagonist, but also more endearing. I certainly found myself caring for him – and holding my breath, at times when he got into some really tight spots. Hall has already proved that she isn’t afraid of offing major characters – and I wasn’t convinced that Rhodri would necessarily prevail against the many dangers he faced.

The love story threading through this story is depicted with tenderness and passion. But I also enjoyed the sense that Rhodri still carried in his heart the people he’d loved before. All too often in a series when a protagonist moves on, those characters who hitherto played a major part in our hero’s life vanish, no longer even meriting the odd mention.

Rhodri struggles to acclimatise to the new customs and life of a Plains Hawk man, missing many of his former companions. It doesn’t help that there is hostility and distrust for him from certain quarters in the tribe – and once more, the story took a sudden left turn that had my jaw dropping as alliances very suddenly shift. And the way it happens is so very cool, I find myself constantly thinking about how it came about, even though I’ve now read a couple of books since, and I’m up to my neck in line editing my own novel. It displays the smart awareness Hall shows in her writing. I certainly didn’t see how Rhodri’s role within the Plains Hawk tribe was going to develop when I first started the book.

So, given this is the final book in the series, does Hall manage to complete Rhodri’s story satisfactorily? Oh yes. I had begun the final battle scenes, thinking the outcome was bound to go a certain way – only for Hall once more to confound my expectations and produce an unexpected ending that I really enjoyed.

All in all, this is a delightful read, packed with adventure in an engrossing, readable world, with a complex, interesting protagonist who keeps delivering surprises that had me whipping through the book by staying up far later than I should have done. Once more, an outstanding read and if your taste runs to well written, enjoyable Fantasy with a difference, then track down this duology – and whatever you do, start with Rider. While Nomad is certainly easy enough to get into, this is too good a treat to only sample half the pleasure.
10/10

Inheritance Poems…

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On this, National Poetry Day, I thought I’d share the poems that have mattered to my parents – and the poem I would like to pass down to my children.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique landOzymandias
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

This was my father’s favourite poem – and I also love it. The clash of what Ozymandias intended, against what actually happened to his works… Yep. Absolutely hits the spot.

Crossing the Bar by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!sunsetseas
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

This is my mother’s favourite poem and another one that gives me the tingle factor. The comfort and belief that underpins it comes from a different age, but for all that, it is a poem I grew up also loving.

And now for my contribution – the poem I’d like to pass down to the next generation. Hm. Which of all the poems I know do I choose? I was strongly tempted with ‘Anne Hathaway’ by Carol Ann Duffy – such a tender, loving poem, or Vernon Scannell’s ‘Grannie’, which is especially close to my heart, these days. I also seriously contemplated ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, as the advice is so apt and beautifully put – there’s a solid reason why it’s the nation’s favourite poem. Or Jan Dean’s lovely poem ‘Angels’ that always leaves me with a lump in my throat. But, in the end I opted for this wonderful outpouring from Gerald Manley Hopkins – a plea for this untended corner to be left in peace, which surely must ring even truer today than it did when this poem was written back in 1881.

Inversnaid by Gerald Manley Hopkins
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foamarklet-falls-beside-the
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

HELP! I’m all blurbed out…

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I’m working on my back cover blurb for Running Out of Space and have got to the stage where I’m spinning in hamster-wheel circles in my head… I cannot decide which is the better, punchier-yet-informative blurb. I’d be very grateful for any feedback!

Running Out of Space – Blurb 1

Jezel Campo is supposed to find a husband within the Iberian space-merchant community, settle down in Nuevo Madrid and produce a brood of babies. But her ambition to be a serving officer enrages her disciplinarian father, Captain Vicente Campo.

An illegal expedition to the lower reaches of Space Station Hawking spins out of control when Jezel and her friends tangle with a dregger gang. However, they are saved from a beating, or worse, when Wynn steps in and guides them to safety. Dazzled by his blonde good looks, Jezel takes him aboard the Estrella Fugaz and guarantees him safe passage to their next destination. Which turns out to be a very rash promise…

Running Out of Space – Blurb 2

Jezel Campo has yearned to be an officer on her father’s Iberian merchanting ship for as long as she can remember. But serving aboard the Estrella Fugaz is a very different experience from the excitement and adventure she’d always imagined. So Jezel and three friends take themselves off on an unchaperoned jaunt to the lower reaches of Space Station Hawking to prove that young women can also deal with danger – a big mistake.

The consequences of that single expedition changes the lives of all four of them, Jezel’s family – and the blond-haired stranger who steps in to save them from the dregger gang in the lawless Basement Level. And now, Jezel has more excitement and danger than she knows what to do with…

Review of KINDLE EBOOK Aurora: Eden – Book 5 of the Aurora series by Amanda Bridgeman

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When I selected this book from the latest releases on Netgalley, I wasn’t too concerned that this was Book 5 as I have a long and dishonourable tradition of crashing halfway into an established series while still enjoying the experience. However, with this particular book it was far more of an issue.

aurora edenIn the wake of the tragic events in Centralis, Captain Saul Harris stands with the weight of the world on his shoulders. With the truth of UNFASP revealed, he realizes that he must embrace his ancestry if he is to survive the coming onslaught. But how far will Harris go to protect the future? Will he sacrifice life as he knows it and become a Jumbo? Or can he face the future as a common man? Meanwhile Sergeant Carrie Welles has been left devastated by what has happened. Uncertain of the future ahead, and with her nemesis, Sharley, on the brink of control, she struggles to pick herself up. But she is left surprised when help comes from the unlikeliest of places. As her life veers off in a direction she never expected, Carrie soon understands that she is running a course with a destiny that lies far beyond her control.

Firstly, congratulations to whoever wrote the blurb for managing to avoid spoilers. Given we are now into Book 5 of the story arc and there was a major event in the previous book that knocked most of the protagonists endways, it is a commendable achievement. However with any long-running series, the challenge is to ensure new readers care sufficiently about the characters to want to flounder through the initial stages, so there should be a bonding moment in the opening chapters where that can happen. Unfortunately, Bridgeman doesn’t provide such an opportunity. I hung in there, hoping for some space action and expecting to grow attached to the characters as the story progressed.

Overall, the romantic element in the story was well handled, although I do wonder how fans of the series would react to the speed with which Welles recovered from her loss – I felt that aspect of it was rather rushed. It’s always tricky depicting small children in adult adventure books – they often come across as sickeningly cute or unbelievably precocious. I think Bridgeman gets away with the twins – just.

The premise is certainly interesting and I liked the sense of foreboding the predicted alien invasion produces, but I wonder if daily life would be a lot different sixty years hence. I haven’t been around quite that long, but things have certainly changed in all sorts of ways since my childhood and I didn’t feel Bridgeman has paid quite enough attention to that aspect of everyday life set in the near future. That said, it is probably the hardest type of futuristic writing to nail.

None of these issues are dealbreakers, but I do confess to being a little disappointed at the story progression. A particular plotline was well flagged at least a third into the novel, and I waited for the sudden twist, for the unexpected action to come out of nowhere and suddenly whisk the story somewhere else other than where I was predicting it would go. And it didn’t. While the book was brought to a satisfactory conclusion with all the loose ends tied up, I came to the end feeling a tad put out that there hadn’t been enough surprises. For those of you who haven’t followed this series from the start – don’t begin with this book as I get the impression it doesn’t do justice to what could be a really entertaining story.

The book was provided by Netgalley, while the opinions and writing in the review are all my own.