Review of The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe

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A copy of this classic was a gift from a talented friend of mine whose opinion I value, so clearly it had to go right to the top of my reading pile – and I’m not sorry that it did as it started my 2012 list on a really high point.

Deep in a forest wilderness lay a village so humble, so insignificant, that only a handful of people knew it existed – yet it was here that a mighty battle was waged in the endless struggle between Good and Evil.
Led by Fate into the timeless struggle were:devilintheforest
WAT the savage and charming highwayman…
MOTHER CLOOT the cunning and cruel possessor of mysterious powers…
BARROW MAN the awesome spirit of a long-dead warrior… and
MARK not yet totally seduced by Evil, not yet totally convinced by Good…

And there you have it – the back cover blurb. As you can see they did things slightly differently back in 1976 – for starters they didn’t see fit to tell you at least half the plot although there were lots of capital letters and slightly portentous pronouncements due to the Tolkein effect still rippling through the genre at the time. And the blurb gives no insight whatsoever as to what the book is actually about. Neither does the cover. I was expecting major battle scenes… nasty armoured beasties lurking around every tree… which simply doesn’t happen. It’s SO much better than that.

Told in third person limited pov from Mark’s viewpoint, this little book gives you a slice of the gritted business of surviving in an isolated community that has seen better times when their religious shrine brought in a steady stream of pilgrims. But now, thanks to the depredations of their very own highwayman, Wat, that trickle has all but dried up and everyone is having to tighten their belts. A lot.

Mark is an orphaned fourteen year old apprentice to the village weaver. Which means he often goes hungry and has learnt to take care of himself – something that stands him in good stead when a foray into the forest with the innkeeper’s daughter turns into a dark and dangerous adventure. Where his future and very soul is at stake…  Wolfe has a trick of utterly subsuming you into his created world. We accept that Mark spends a large chunk of time so hungry that his stomach gripes with the pain. That he has to always pick his words carefully to the adults around him, because there is no one who innately cares about him. We learn just how unnerving Mother Cloot’s behaviour can be – and what Mark does when he comes across a murdered man…

The huge forest rustles with hidden food and threats, the river offers fish and the risk of drowning – and threading through all this is the scalding knowledge that life is precarious and cheap. And Mark has been caught between forces that he cannot hope to prevail against. All this occurs without an ounce of sentimentality and in just over 220 pages, Wolfe produces a gripping adventure that had me reading faaar into the night to discover what would happen to Mark, and Wat and Mother Cloot. The writing is pin-sharp and exquisite, with wonderful dialogue, superb scene setting and an interesting cast of characters, who are initially offered up as ciphers – and then, refuse to behave as you’d expect.

So Mark is less defiant and more accepting of the clear injustices that Life has dealt him; more suspicious of nearly everyone and their motives for being friendly; and very aware of the occult and dark forces in play around the village. Mother Cloot is a tough, wise old woman – and then something else a whole lot darker… As the violence escalates and events spin out of control, this tale gripped me and would not let go. And by the end, I felt I had a far clearer understanding of what it meant to part of an underclass in a small village during the Dark Ages – despite the fact that I have a teaching Degree in History and regard myself as reasonably knowledgeable about that period.

As you might have gathered, this 1970’s offering mightily impressed me and confirmed what I’ve always known – that superb writing is timeless. If you enjoy excellent adventure Fantasy in an historical setting, then hunt down this little book – it’s worth the effort.
10/10

Great Science Fiction Series I’ve Discovered in 2020 #Brainfluffbookrecommendations #SciFiMonth2020

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It’s been a truly dreadful year – like everyone else, I cannot wait to see the back of it. But in one respect, it’s been wonderful – I have discovered some fabulous science fiction reads. Some are relatively newly published, others are a bit older. But the one thing they all have in common is that they provided me with an engrossing read that took me right away from the daily grind of social distancing, masks and lockdowns… Have you read any of these? I’m linking this post to #Sci Fi Month 2020.

Ancestral Night – Book 1 of the White Space series by Elizabeth Bear
Haimey Dz thinks she knows what she wants. She thinks she knows who she is. She is wrong.

A routine salvage mission uncovers evidence of a terrible crime and relics of powerful ancient technology. Haimey and her small crew run afoul of pirates at the outer limits of the Milky Way, and find themselves on the run and in possession of universe-changing information. When authorities prove corrupt, Haimey realizes that she is the only one who can protect her galaxy-spanning civilization from the implications of this ancient technology—and the revolutionaries who want to use it for terror and war. Her quest will take her careening from the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core to the infinite, empty spaces at its edge. To save everything that matters, she will need to uncover the secrets of ancient intelligences lost to time—and her own lost secrets, which she will wish had remained hidden from her forever.
Yes… I don’t deny there are some pacing issues. And that Bear does tend to muse about all sorts of philosophical issues that her character is chewing over – evidently being in a small tin can light years away from everyone else other than your own small crew can do that to you. But listening to this one, where the world seeped into my dreams and Haimey and I hung out together for a handful of days, was such a blessing… see my review. I’m currently listening to Machine, the second book in the series and enjoying that one, too.

Skyward and Starsight of the Skyward series by Brandon Sanderson
Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul.
This one has more of a YA feel as Spensa is a teenager with family issues that make her reckless and a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Humanity is clinging onto existence, anyway as constant alien attacks are besieging their ghetto on a planet ringed by ordnance. I loved the sentient ship – and also where the adventure went in the second book. See my mini-reviews of Skyward and Starsight.

Termination Shock and Interdicted Space of the Interstellar Enforcement Agency series by Gillian Andrews
Ryler Mallivan’s comfortable life as an upstanding young freighter captain has just imploded. Avaraks are storming the training ship he is on and the bullets being fired are not blanks. Interstellar war has broken out and unless he moves fast they will all be as stone dead as the instructor lying at his feet. But this is one conflict they can never escape. The cause of the trouble is far closer than they know and will bring Mallivan and his ragbag fledgling crew under ferocious attack from all sides. They are going to need all their wits about them if they are to stay alive. And they have to, because there is nobody else to save all their worlds from a doomsday weapon which is set to obliterate the entire universe.
Just how much can one lone spaceship do?
This is a lot of fun with loads of action and engaging characters – see my reviews of Termination Shock and Interdicted Space. I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series – Exceptional Point sometime in the New Year…

The Book of Koli and The Trials of Koli – of the Rampart trilogy by M.R. Carey
Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable world. A world where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly vines and seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will.
Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He knows the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture beyond the walls. What he doesn’t know is – what happens when you aren’t given a choice?
I absolutely loved this series. The slightly degraded English in Koli’s first-person narrative is beautifully handled and works very well. Too much more and it have been annoying, but it is an effective part of the worldbuilding. I’m really looking forward to reading the third book in the series – see my reviews of The Book of Koli and The Trials of Koli.

A Memory Called Empire – Book 1 of the Teixcalaan series by Arkady Martine
Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court. Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.
I have a particular fondness for stories where there are whodunits set in the future – done well, it makes for a wonderful, gripping read. And this is excellent – one of my outstanding reads of the year – see my review which is also going live today. I’m looking forward to getting hold of A Desolation Called Peace next year.

Relatively Strange, Even Stranger and Stranger Still – the Strange series by Marilyn Messik
It’s tricky to know what’s normal if you’re not, But Stella’s north west London upbringing is average enough, and her eccentric, protective (paranoid?) family are not given to making a fuss. Only when she finds herself smack dab in the middle of a situation, face to face with the stark reality of medical experimentation and its horrifying consequences, does she realise how sure she is of one thing. This hero stuff just isn’t her. Normal, or as near as damn it is what she wants for the future, and if that means smothering her instincts, so be it. At least she’ll know, should she slip off the wagon occasionally, it’ll be choice not chance.
Isn’t it a fact though, just when you think you’ve got yourself back on track, events can overtake and derail you.
This series has been one of the major reading highlights of my year – at a time when my need for enjoyable escapism has been intense, diving into these books was like a long cold drink of water on a steaming hot day… Love, love, love them all – here are my reviews – Relatively Strange, Even Stranger, Stranger Still.

The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky and The Relentless Moon of the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal
On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process. Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too. Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
This classy, alternate history where a meteorite accelerates Humanity’s reach for the stars is another highlight of the year. I loved Elma – and Nicole, who we get to spend more time with in the final book. See my reviews of The Calculating Stars and The Fated SkyThe Relentless Moon is to follow.

Have you read any of these series? Have you any other discoveries you’ve made this year, too? I have left off some others – Seven DevilsEmbers of WarUnconquerable SunEvery Sky A Gravewhich I also loved!




Sunday Post – 27th September, 2020 #Brainfluffbookblog #SundayPost

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This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

I am still struggling with my energy levels – it feels as though I’m wading through treacle. So it’s been a quiet week, other than a meeting on Friday with Sally and Tim to discuss his upcoming year. He has worked on an impressive number of projects since Lockdown started and it was lovely seeing him. I’m looking forward to teaching him again.

The photos this week are from our 25th Wedding Anniversary visit to the Ashdown Forest, when we got lost. I look that the bright sunshine with wistful yearning. The second half of the week has turned really chilly with a biting northerly blowing and I want the warm weather back!


Last week I read:

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
A murder on the high seas. A detective duo. A demon who may or may not exist.

It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported to Amsterdam to be executed for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent. But no sooner are they out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage…
This is a cracking historical murder mystery and I particularly enjoyed the denouement, which was extremely well done. Review to follow.


AUDIOBOOK Lies Sleeping – Book 7 of the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch
Martin Chorley, aka the Faceless Man, wanted for multiple counts of murder, fraud, and crimes against humanity, has been unmasked and is on the run. Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard, now plays a key role in an unprecedented joint operation to bring Chorley to justice.

But even as the unwieldy might of the Metropolitan Police bears down on its foe, Peter uncovers clues that Chorley, far from being finished, is executing the final stages of a long term plan. A plan that has its roots in London’s two thousand bloody years of history, and could literally bring the city to its knees.
It’s been a while since I read any books in this series – but I loved the fabulous narration by Kobna Holbrook-Smith, who did a stunning job in bringing Peter Grant to life. Review to follow.


Unconquerable Sun – Book 1 of The Sun Chronicles by Kate Elliott
GENDER-SWAPPED ALEXANDER THE GREAT ON AN INTERSTELLAR SCALE

Princess Sun has finally come of age. Growing up in the shadow of her mother, Eirene, has been no easy task. The legendary queen-marshal did what everyone thought impossible: expel the invaders and build Chaonia into a magnificent republic, one to be respected—and feared.

But the cutthroat ambassador corps and conniving noble houses have never ceased to scheme—and they have plans that need Sun to be removed as heir, or better yet, dead. To survive, the princess must rely on her wits and companions: her biggest rival, her secret lover, and a dangerous prisoner of war.
I loved this one! Elliott’s gift for producing compelling characters and intriguing worlds worked really well. There are also a couple of cracking battle scenes, too… Review to follow.

AUDIOBOOK Eating Things on Sticks by Anne Fine
Harry is in trouble. He’s burned down the family kitchen so now has to spend a week of his summer hols with his uncle Tristram – who’s heading off to stay with a new girlfriend – Morning Glory – on a tiny British island.

Harry doesn’t expect it to be a lot of fun – with just a wacky competition at the end of the week to look forward to. He certainly didn’t expect to discover all the beards. Or the angel on the mountain. Or the helicopters circling overhead all week. And he definitely didn’t think it would be so wet . . .
This is yet another gem from Frank’s Audible backlist – I absolutely loved it and was definitely in the mood for the quirky humour and series of mishaps that follow Harry and Uncle Tristram. Review to follow.


My posts last week:

Castellan the Black and His Wise Draconic Tips on a Mid-Life Crisis

Déjà vu review of The Crossing Places – Book 1 of the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths

Friday Faceoff featuring Just One Damned Thing After Another – Book 1 of the Chronicles of St Mary’s by Jodi Taylor

Cover Love featuring the covers of Phil Williams

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Dead Man in a Ditch – Book 2 of Fetch Phillips Archives by Luke Arnold

Can’t-Wait-Wednesday featuring The Post-Script Murders – Book 2 of the Harbinder Kaur series by Elly Griffiths

Tuesday Treasures – 14

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Kept From Cages – Book 1 of the Ikiri series by Phil Williams

Two Murder Mystery Mini-reviews: Salt Lane and The Outcast Dead

Sunday Post – 20th September 2020


Interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:

Managing Expectations, One Book at a Time https://writerunboxed.com/2020/09/24/managing-expectations-one-book-at-a-time/ While this is aimed at writers, I also think is something that is something that readers should consider. That famous second-book slump might also be partly caused by our feverish anticipation to be transported back to that surprising, new place we’d discovered – only to find the excited expectation leads to disappointment…

Thursday Doors – Castle Archdale Part One https://jeanreinhardt.wordpress.com/2020/09/24/thursday-doors-castle-archdale-part-one/ It’s wonderful to be transported back in time once more, courtesy of Jean’s particular magic – I do love these articles!

Mini Book Tag Week: Opposite Book Tag https://zezeewithbooks.wordpress.com/2020/09/24/mini-book-tag-week-opposite-book-tag/ I haven’t taken part in this one – but it looks such fun…

25 Book Blog Ideas Volume I https://www.randomredheadedramblings.com/2020/09/25-book-blog-post-ideas-volume-1.html?spref=tw There are fabulous suggestions here if you are looking for ways to liven up your content – I’ve taken notes. Thank you, Heather!

Life After Death https://wandaluthman.wordpress.com/2020/09/21/lifef-after-death/ A beautiful, brave article…

Thank you for visiting, reading, liking and/or commenting on my blog – I hope you and yours have a peaceful, healthy week. Take care.

Sunday Post – 13th September, 2020 #Brainfluffbookblog #SundayPost

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This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

I’ve been very quiet over the last few days online, because we went away to celebrate our wedding anniversary, seeing as we’ve now been married 25 years. Which seems a ridiculous number of years on one level. Yet on another… I cannot conceive Life without Himself by my side. Last Sunday we went to a local Tai restaurant to celebrate Himself’s birthday and then on Monday, we sat down to plan our getaway to celebrate our Silver Wedding anniversary.

We stayed at the Ashdown Park Hotel and Spa, which is in the middle of Ashdown Forest of Winnie the Pooh fame, from Wednesday to Saturday. It’s an amazing place – this week’s pics are of the hotel and grounds. On Thursday, we visited Bateman’s, the National Trust property where Rudyard Kipling spent the last years of his life. Due to COVID-19, the house was closed, but the gardens were open and are lovely. The weather throughout our holiday was fabulous – bright sunshine which was warm enough for me, yet cool enough for Himself. We’d planned to visit Bodium Castle on Friday – but when it came around, we decided we’d rather spend the day in our gorgeous room. Later in the afternoon, we went for what was supposed to be a gentle walk in the extensive grounds – and got lost for about an hour in the forest, because the designated path had become impassable. We decided to push on, rather than turn off, as another path was clearly visible. Until it wasn’t… There was no phone signal worth the name and by half past five, we were still scrambling over fallen trees and through bracken. Fortunately, I listened to Himself, rather than follow my own wretched sense of direction and when we finally emerged from the forest onto a corner of the golf course, we were only a short walk from the actual hotel. During the walk we saw squirrels, a fox and deer.

We both were sorry to pack up and return home on Saturday, but were happy in the knowledge that we couldn’t have had a better time.


Last week I read:

Taken to Voraxia – Book 1 of the Xiveri Mates series by Elizabeth Stephens
Miari
Here’s what I know: aliens invade our colony every three years, hunt and claim the most beautiful of our women, then leave. Here’s what I don’t know: why the king of them is here this time, and why his black, glittering eyes are trained on me. A hybrid with red alien skin and brown human eyes, I’m not pretty. I’ve got no family and no plans to ever have one – least of all with this monster of a male. I’m an inventor, a mechanic, a tinkerer. The alien king wants me for reasons I can only guess at, but I’m not about to be taken for a slave and his response to me is something I know I can engineer my way out of.

He plans to come back for me when I’m of age, but he’ll have to find me first. Our little colony is a scary, desperate place and I’m less afraid to face it, than to face him or the strange, alien sensations he stirs…

Raku
She is my Xiveri mate, yet she runs from me – straight into the horrors of her small, savage moon colony. Slaughtering in her defense is easy, while gaining her trust will be the true challenge. She fears my kind and the horrors my treacherous general has inflicted on her humans. Does she not know that it is my blood rite to keep her safe against him and his even more dangerous off-world allies? No, she thinks herself my slave and in place of acceptance, offers me only pacts and bargains. Shamed by her pacts, I still take them all gluttonously, because though she knows only hate, I know only need.

Eventually, we will need more than just these pacts between us if I am to convince her that she is my Xiveri mate and if she is to take her place at my side, not as my slave, but as Voraxia’s queen.
I was a tad surprised at just how steamy this sci fi romance turned out to be. That said, the world and general premise behind the love story was well written and the characters were sympathetic with a strong backstory – which isn’t always the case with sexy stories. Mini-review to follow.


Earth Prime – Book 1 of the Earth Girl Aftermath stories by Janet Edwards
Earth Prime is the first of two collections of aftermath stories set in the distant future of the Earth Girl trilogy (Earth Girl, Earth Star, and Earth Flight). This collection is set immediately after Earth Flight, and focuses on Jarra, Fian, and the other archaeologists before they head to excavate the alien ruins on Fortuna.
I’m a real fan of Edwards’ writing and loved the Earth Girl series, so was delighted when Janet asked me if I was interested in reading an arc of her latest collection. In fact, it doesn’t read like a collection of stories – more like an extension of events surrounding Jarra’s class, before some of them head off to investigate the ruins on Fortuna. Review to follow.


AUDIOBOOK Magnus Chase and the Hammer of Thor – Book 2 of the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series by Rick Riordan
It’s been six weeks since Magnus and his friends returned from defeating Fenris Wolf and the fire giants. Magnus has adjusted to life at the Hotel Valhalla—as much as a once-homeless and previously alive kid can. As a son of Frey, the god of summer, fertility, and health, Magnus doesn’t exactly fit in with the rest of Odin’s chosen warriors, but he has a few good peeps among his hallmates on floor nineteen, and he’s been dutifully training for Ragnarok along with everyone else. His days have settled into a new kind of normal.

But Magnus should have known there’s no such thing as normal in the Nine Worlds. His friends Hearthstone and Blitzen have disappeared. A new hallmate is creating chaos. According to a very nervous goat, a certain object belonging to Thor is still missing, and the thunder god’s enemies will stop at nothing to gain control of it.
I really enjoy Riordan’s smart, contemporary take on the Norse pantheon, with Magnus as a sympathetic and funny narrator of his own adventures. In amongst all the fun, these books also spark an interest in ancient mythologies – my grandson is studying Classical History because of them. Mini-review to follow.


Kept From Cages – Book 1 of the Ikiri duology by Phil Williams
Reece’s gang of criminal jazz musicians have taken shelter in the wrong house. There’s a girl with red eyes bound to a chair. The locals call her a devil – but Reece sees a kid that needs protecting. He’s more right than he knows. Chased by a shadowy swordsman and an unnatural beast, the gang flee across the Deep South with the kid in tow. She won’t say where she’s from or who exactly her scary father is, but she’s got powers they can’t understand. How much will Reece risk to save her?

On the other side of the world, Agent Sean Tasker’s asking similar questions. With an entire village massacred and no trace of the killers, he’s convinced Duvcorp’s esoteric experiments are responsible. His only ally is an unstable female assassin, and their only lead is Ikiri – a black-site in the Congo, which no one leaves alive. How far is Tasker prepared to go for answers?
This headlong adventure is packed full of incident, and peopled by a cast of eccentric, memorable characters in vivid settings. A spinoff from Williams’ successful Ordshaw series, this enjoyable paranormal thriller is a real adrenaline ride. Review to follow.


Written in Red – Book 1 of The Others series by Anne Bishop
As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg’s Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.

Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she’s keeping a secret, and second, she doesn’t smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she’s wanted by the government, he’ll have to decide if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow.
Himself has been nagging me to read this series for a while – and when we were away, I decided to tuck into this first book. I loved the premise and the taut writing, so inhaled this one throughout a lazy afternoon on the terrace. Review to follow.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance. But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…
This is an utter joy. Mona is a delightful protagonist and I loved the world, where real danger is leavened by Mona’s tart take on the mess the adults are making of it. As for the magic, it’s a delight. Review to follow.


Murder of Crows – Book 2 of The Others series by Anne Bishop
After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more. The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murder of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard – Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader – wonders if their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or a future threat.
I returned to this beguiling world, as I’d thoroughly enjoyed reading about Meg and her struggle to put the horrors of her previous life behind her. This adventure is every bit as addictively readable as the first. Mini-review to follow.

My posts last week:

August 2020 Roundup

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of The Green Man’s Silence – Book 3 of The Green Man series by Juliet E. McKenna

Can’t-Wait-Wednesday featuring Dead Man in a Ditch – Book 2 of the Fetch Phillips Archives by Luke Arnold

Tuesday Treasures – 12

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Afterland by Lauren Beukes

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Fearless by Allen Stroud

Sunday Post – 6th September 2020


Interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:

Here be Dragons…picky eaters (S.J. Higbee) https://thecaptainsquartersblog.wordpress.com/2020/09/10/here-be-dragons-picky-eaters-s-j-higbee/ Having been away – it was a lovely surprise to return to find this review of Picky Eaters by the Cap.

Guy’s security camera catches kid tearing it up on his driveway every day, so he decides to do something about it. https://twitter.com/MikeSington/status/1299074699385663488 And this won’t be the response you’ll be expecting…

My Top Ten Games of the Past Two Years https://booksbyproxy.wordpress.com/2020/09/05/my-top-ten-games-of-the-past-two-years/ I’m the wrong age to be a gamer, but these look tempting to me…

Subjective Chaos: our 2020 award winners https://onemore.org/2020/09/07/subjective-chaos-our-2020-award-winners/ This is an interesting list – do you agree with it?

Thank you for visiting, reading, liking and/or commenting on my blog – I hope you and yours have a peaceful, healthy week. Take care.

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc The Book of Koli – Book 1 of the Rampart trilogy by M.R. Carey #Brainfluffbookreview #TheBookofKolibookreview

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I was delighted when Tammy of Books, Bones and Buffy mentioned on her excellent blog that this one was coming up – and even more thrilled when I was approved to read it. I’m a fan of Carey’s writing – see my reviews of The Girl with All the Gifts, The Boy on the Bridge and The Devil You Know, which is part of his wonderful Felix Castor urban fantasy series, when he was writing as Mike Carey.

BLURB: Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable world. A world where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly vines and seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will. Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He knows the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture beyond the walls. What he doesn’t know is – what happens when you aren’t given a choice?

I enjoyed Carey’s previous post-apocalyptic world – he is a master storyteller – but I loved this one even more. For starters, this time around we stay in Koli’s viewpoint throughout in first-person POV, which is always my favourite narrative mode anyway. And Koli is a lovely protagonist – a teenager in a small community facing a vicious world, where even the trees are trying to kill you… The narrative voice is just right, different enough from our everyday speech to remind us that we are in a different time – a time where education is spotty and syntax doesn’t matter – adding to the worldbuilding without being annoying. It’s a far trickier feat to pull off than Carey makes it look. It also didn’t hurt for this one to be based in England, rather than in the US, as place names I recognised helped me to envisage the landscape, though I’m very relieved the wildlife is completely different!

When everything starts to go wrong, I was still very much alongside Koli and willing him to be okay – I know Carey is capable of killing off much-loved characters – and found this one difficult to put down. The adventure that unspools is a solid delight. I particularly loved Monono, whose burbling, light-hearted input stopped the book descending into an unduly grim read. And I would like to reassure fans of TGWATG, that the tone of this one is far less bleak. I feel that reassurance is important, because right now I’m quite happy to escape into a challenging, difficult world – but I don’t want to be pulled down by it, and I’m guessing that I’m not the only one.

The ending nicely tied up the current adventure, but also left a dangling plotpoint to take the story onward. This is highly recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic adventures with enjoyable protagonists and a vividly, believable world. The ebook arc copy of The Book of Koli was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.
10/10

Review of The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe

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Anything by Gene Wolfe is worth reading whether you enjoy it or not in my opinion – catch my review of The Devil in a Forest here.  So I was delighted to get my hands on The Sorcerer’s House.

In a contemporary town in the American Midwest where he has no connections, an education man recently released from prison is staying in a motel. He writes letters to his brother and to others, including a friend still in jail. When he meets a real estate agent who tells him he is the heir to a huge old house, long empty, he moves in, though he is too broke to even buy furniture, and is immediately confronted by supernatural and fantastic creatures and events. His life is utterly transformed, and we read on because we must know more. We revise our opinions of him and of others, with each letter. We learn things about magic, and another world, and about the sorcerer, Mr Black, who originally inhabited the house. And then perhaps we read it again.

This epistolary novel (structured through letters) mostly written by the main protagonist, Baxter, is a gradual revealing of a house infested by otherworld beings. This is a much-visited theme – classic horror fare – to the extent that it was parodied in the 2006 cartoon movie Monster House. But in Wolfe’s hands it becomes something else.

sorcerorshouseBaxter’s steady stream of letters recount the astonishing change in his fortunes, and also charts his very rocky relationship with his twin brother George. By definition, he is an unreliable narrator and a complex, interesting character. We know that he was imprisoned for conning money out of his brother’s friends and though he is at pains to emphasise how much he values honesty, we need to treat his accounts with caution. So the occasional letter by other people involved with the sorcerer’s house is every bit as interesting and engrossing as Baxter’s fluent and smooth account.

One of the things that I love about Wolfe is that he isn’t afraid to take risks. Epistolary novels are normally literary, often used for reflective and introspective examination of a subject – think about Lionel Shriver’s wonderful We Need To Talk About Kevin. So using a device that immediately funnels all the action through another narrative in a horror fantasy book would be something that using my writing tutor’s hat, I would advise any student to avoid doing. But I found The Sorcerer’s House utterly compelling – particularly the obvious gaps in the narrative towards the ending. And… about that ending. Well that’s an almighty risk! I’m in a cleft stick, here – hoisted by my own petard. I am aching to discuss the end and what is actually going on, which as far as I’m concerned, isn’t what the letter-writers claim is happening.
If anyone reads the book and wants to chat about the ending, we can discuss it in the Comment section… Which I recommend that you do, because even if you don’t like it, I guarantee it will stick in your head like a burr.
10/10

My Outstanding Reads of 2013

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These are the books that have stuck in my memory as the most enjoyable or thought- provoking reads of the year. For those who don’t already know – I don’t bother to review books I dislike. In 2013 I read 115 books, didn’t complete 4 others and posted 69 reviews.

The Bloody Angel – Book 4 in the Eddie LaCrosse series by Alex Bledsoe
Having in a former life owned a yacht, I have very limited tolerance for tales that get the sailing wrong… So when my husband kept onwake of recommending this book, I rather grumpily decided that I’d better read a couple of chapters to shut him up before returning to the next cool space opera beckoning. And then became hooked…

Twenty years ago, a barmaid in a harbour town fell for a young sailor who turned pirate to make his fortune. But what truly became of Black Edward Tew remains a mystery – one that has just fallen into the lap of freelance sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse. For years, Eddie has kept his office above Angelina’s tavern, so when Angelina herself asks him to find out what happened to the dashing pirate who stole her heart, he can hardly say no – even though the trail is two decades old.

If that sounds like a really cracking plot with plenty of opportunity for swashbuckling characters, a hatful of exciting adventures, plenty of humour and more than a slice of real heartbreak and horror – you’d be right.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
doomsdayI picked up this copy of the book as an SF Masterworks because as a solid fan of many women fantasy and science fiction writers, I had never read her work and I discovered it was a Hugo Award winner. I’m so glad I did…

When Kivrin Engle travels back through time to complete her doctoral thesis, due to an accident she lands in the middle of a major crisis her Faculty were struggling to avoid. Meanwhile the Oxford she left behind is laid low by a mysterious strain of influenza and, with no one willing to risk arranging her rescue, time is running out…

This book, indeed, deserves to be part of the SF Masterworks series – from the moment I opened the first page I knew I was in the hands of a great writer at the top of her game. Willis sets the scene in Oxford’s near future with deft dexterity, her characters crackle with humanity and there is a bone-dry humour running through the whole story that helps to make the grim adventure Kivrin endures bearable.

The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan
As an ex-teacher, the failure of our state education system is a subject that haunts me – and when I read this book, I was excited about 1worldits potential for helping fix our broken system. A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere: this is the goal of the Khan Academy; a passion project that grew from an ex-engineer and hedge funder’s online tutoring sessions with his niece, who was struggling with algebra, into a worldwide phenomenon. Today millions of students, parents and teachers use the Khan Academy’s free videos and software, which have expanded to encompass nearly every conceivable subject, and Academy techniques are being employed with exciting results in a growing number of classrooms around the globe.

Khan suggests that instead of having a teacher deliver a lesson to a group of children in a totally arbitrary manner, they learn individually at their own pace using modern technology with the teacher acting as enabler. He also suggests that a far more creative, wide-ranging curriculum should be in place, where children undertake complex self-directed tasks in groups. A revolutionary approach to state-funded education? Absolutely. Read Salman Khan’s solutions to our educational problems – and then could someone point the Minister of Education in the direction of this book? Please?? We cannot continue to squander our most precious resource – our children.

The Clockwork Rocket – Book 1 of The Orthogonal by Greg Egan
clockworkEgan, as a physicist, has always been on the harder side of science fiction, but the important difference – for me – is that he is also able to write convincing characters into the bargain.

However, this time around he has produced a truly different world – one where the laws of physics as we know them no longer work. As he explains on his website – along with a series of diagrams – this fictional world he’s invented where light travels at differing speeds is due to changing a minus sign to a plus sign in a mathematical formula that governs the geometry of space-time. He calls this a Riemannian universe as opposed to the Lorentzian version we inhabit. In Egan’s world, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity simply doesn’t make sense. Further, the basic humanoid template, so prevalent in most space opera adventures, is also off the table. Egan demonstrates a head-swivelling leap of imagination by producing a race of beings who don’t look like us, or breed like us… It’s an awesome achievement. And highly readable into the bargain.

The Glass God – Book 2 of The Magicals Anonymous by Kate Griffin
Sharon Li: apprentice shaman and community support officer for the magically inclined. It wasn’t the career Sharon had in mind, butglassgod she’s getting used to running Magicals Anonymous and learning how to Be One With The City. When the Midnight Mayor goes missing, leaving only a suspiciously innocent-looking umbrella behind him, Sharon finds herself promoted. Her first task: find the Midnight Mayor. The only clues she has are a city dryad’s cryptic warning and several pairs of abandoned shoes…

Sharon’s determinedly fair-minded stance is given a major workout as she comes up against a number of unpleasant nasties in her pursuit of the Midnight Mayor. Griffin hasn’t eased up one jot on some of the more revolting corners of London, as the story rolls forward with all the energy and slickness we’ve come to expect from one of the foremost fantasy Brit writers.

A Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb
half forgotten song1937. In a village on the Dorset coast, fourteen-year-old Mitzy Hatcher has endured a wild and lonely upbringing – until the arrival of renowned artist Charles Aubrey, his exotic mistress and their daughters, changes everything. Over the next three summers, Mitzy sees a future she had never thought possible, and a powerful love is kindled in her. A love that grows from innocence to obsession; from childish infatuation to something far more complex. Years later, a young man in an art gallery looks at a hastily-drawn portrait and wonders at the intensity of it. The questions he asks lead him to a Dorset village and to the truth about those fevered summers in the 1930s…

Those of you familiar with The Legacy will recognise that Webb has again revisited the dual narrative, with one story unfolding back in the past and one storyline gradually progressing in the present. The past finally meets the present in an exciting and unexpected denouement – but the engine that drives this story is a lost, unloved soul who anchors all her hopes and affection on a charismatic artist. Webb apparently loosely based Charles on Augustus John, who had a reputation as a womaniser and clearly loved women’s bodies with a strong, sensual appreciation.

Webb’s depiction of Mitzy’s harsh childhood, where she spends much of time scavenging the surrounding countryside for plants, herbs, fish and small animals to eat or make up potions for her mother to sell, is far from the rural idyll that soft-focused adverts use. Yet, she still manages to evoke the beauty and rhythm of the Dorset countryside – so much so, that I fell asleep with the colours of this book swirling in my head. The initial friendship of Charles’ two girls is a revelation for Mitzy, who is shunned by all the village children, except for Wilf. This particular narrative caught at my heart and as it spirals into a tailspin of obsession and the inevitable darkness, the book’s denouement was completely unexpected and shocking.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
You live in Eden. You are a member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of Angela and Tommy. You shelter beneath the Forest’s darkedenlantern trees. Beyond the forest lie mountains so forbidding that no one has ever crossed them. The Oldest recount legends of a time when men and women made boats that could travel between worlds. One day, they will come back for you. You live in Eden. You are member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of two marooned explorers. You huddle, slowly starving, in the warmth of geothermal trees, confined to one barely habitable valley of an alien, sunless world. You are John Redlantern, a teenager and agent of change for life in Eden.

This book has a 1970’s feel about it – but with modern nuances with the story being told through a number of the most prominent characters in first person viewpoint. And if you only ever pick up a handful of science fiction books a year, make this one of that handful – this memorable and disturbing read is worth it.

The Red Knight – Book 1 of The Traitor’s Son Cycle by Miles Cameron
redknightTwenty-eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild. Twenty-eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern’s jaws snaps shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip your head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men – or worse, a company of mercenaries – against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder.

It requires the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it. The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he’s determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery it’s just another job. The abbey is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can’t deal with. Only it’s not just a job. It’s going to be war…

Military medieval fantasy generally doesn’t do it for me. I’ve read plenty in my time, and until my husband nagged me to try this book, I’d more or less decided I wouldn’t shed any tears if I didn’t ever read any more. But this is different. For starters, Cameron knows what he’s talking about. He’s been involved in role-playing, martial arts – he’s actually jousted in tournaments… And it shows in the writing, which gripped me from the first page until the last – and gave me an insight into just how very different that world was, compared with our modern version.

Sister by Rosamund Lipton
When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first sisterflight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face. The police, Beatrice’s fiancé and even their mother accept they have lost Tess but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.

The strong first person viewpoint and constant tension, coupled with the fine writing had me utterly engrossed, so that I gorged on the book in two hefty sittings. Though I did have to break off at one stage to find some tissues because I was weeping… The protagonist is beautifully handled as we follow her desperate search for her sister, which entails finding out a series of very uncomfortable truths about herself. Lupton is adept at braiding the surroundings, weather and cast of well depicted, vivid characters through Beatrice’s consciousness, so that she is one of the strongest and most interesting protagonists I’ve read for a while.

Advent – Book 1 of The Advent Trilogy by James Treadwell
adventFor centuries it has been locked away. Locked away. Lost beneath the sea. Warded from earth, air, water, fire, scrying thought and sigh. Now magic is rising to the world once more. And a boy called Gavin, who thinks only that he is a city kid with parents who hate him, and knows only that he sees things no one else will believe, is boarding a train alone, to Cornwall. Where he steps into a different world…

I’ve seen this book compared favourably to Susan Cooper, and while such hyped comparisons are often absurd, this time, I was reminded of Cooper’s threat-ridden landscape and sense of tension. Treadwell is a superb writer – the description of the ancient house, Pendurra, is outstanding. It is a hefty read and at no time does Treadwell throw his young readers any sort of ‘you’re only teenagers, so I’ve made it easier for you’ lifebelt, I’m delighted to report. This non-teenager was engrossed with the quality of the storytelling and this shifting, frightening world has stayed with me since I read it.

A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thompson
Summer 1968: the day Senator Robert Kennedy is shot, two nine-year-old girls are playing hide and seek in the ruins of a deserted kindofvanishingvillage. When it is Eleanor’s turn to hide, Alice disappears.

Thomson immediately plunges into the world of young girls, depicting first Eleanor’s rich interior landscape and then allowing us to access to Alice’s carefully modulated world, where her doting parents watch her every move. Thomson paints an exquisite picture of each girls’ fragilities, their aspirations and pin-sharp awareness of adult expectations. She beautifully inhabits the terrible, wonderful world of childhood – and the girls’ growing antipathy towards each other. One a noisy, rebellious tomboy living in a household where the adults only occasionally pay attention to their three children, while the other is the heart of her parents’ aspirations and already knows she needs to be neat and pretty to succeed. Neither girl trusts or like the other as they are forced to play together – until that disastrous game of hide and seek. This thriller/mystery is like nothing else I’ve read, and I’m still not sure that it fully works… but it certainly powerfully evoked the time and has stayed with me since I read it.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
madscientistsdaughterFinn looks and acts human, though he has no desire to be. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection. A billion-dollar construct, his primary task now is to tutor Cat. As she grows into a beautiful young woman, Finn is her guardian, her constant companion… and more. But when the government grants right to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world, and her heart.

If you’re looking for a slam-dunk, action fuelled adventure full of clear-cut baddies and heavy-tech weaponry, then don’t pick up The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Because this offering is on the literary end of the genre, with nuanced, three-dimensional characterisation and coolly sophisticated prose that places this book in a heavily contemporary setting, due to the recent crash in civilisation – and also accounts for the sudden, huge reliance on robots, as their tireless assistance is needed to provide vital labour in rebuilding society. Not that this is the focus of the book. This story concentrates on Cat and her relationship with the world, after having been tutored by a robot for all her formative years. And, by default, Finn’s relationship with Cat also is under close examination. Because the bond between them is heart and engine of the book, it has to be pitch-perfect. And it is. Don’t expect any black and white answers – this book is beautifully complex and Cat’s life unfolds in unexpected and sometimes disturbing directions. And in common with the other books in this list – it is a story that still steals into my head when I’m not thinking of anything else in particular.

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell
I heard this book narrated on Radio 4 and was transfixed. Normally the radio is the background for the necessary loathed household reason I jumpchores I have to perform – but during that week, I sat down and listened. So it was a no-brainer to get hold of the book and read it for myself. Most books – for me – provide a really enjoyable way to escape the everyday. But there are a hatful of books that are inspirational, thought-provoking and genuinely life changing. I’m a tad allergic to books which trumpet this aspect – mostly because they’re not. However, The Reason I Jump is the real article.

This remarkable book, written by Naoki Higashida when he was only thirteen, provides some answers. Severely autistic, Naoki learnt to communicate via pointing to letters on a ‘cardboard keyboard’ – and what he has to say gives an exceptional insight into an autistically-wired mind. He explains the often baffling behaviour of people with autism, invites us to share his perception of time, life, beauty and nature, and offers an unforgettable short story. Proving beyond doubt that people with autism do not lack imagination, humour or empathy. Naoki makes a heartfelt plea for our patience and compassion. Even if you don’t have anyone autistic in your life, it is worth reading – especially when you consider that every letter was pointed to and then written down by a scribe, before being translated into English.

Among Others by Jo Walton
among othersAfter reading Tooth and Claw, I wanted to read more of Jo Walton’s books. Googling her immediately brought up Among Others, so it was a no-brainer to go and get hold of a copy. But would I find this next novel – so completely different from dragonkind set in a Victorian backdrop – equally engrossing?

When Mori discovers that her mother is using black magic, she decides to intervene. The ensuing clash between mother and daughter leaves Mori bereft of her twin sister, crippled for life and unable to return to the Welsh Valleys that were her own kingdom. Mori finds solace and strength in her beloved books. But her mother is bent on revenge, and nothing and no one – not even Tolkien – can save her from the final reckoning.

This is a remarkable book. I’ve never read anything quite like it and – for once – the OTT phrase on the cover by Jeff Vandermeer A wonder and a joy is absolutely spot on. For starters, there is a complete backstory that would easily fill a novel in the scenario that builds up to this book. Among Others is dealing with the aftermath. What happens next, once the protagonist has averted the End of the World at great personal cost. And make no mistake, the cost is heartbreakingly high.

The writing is extraordinary in the pin-sharp description of the everyday, alongside the remarkable and Mori’s character is so compellingly realistic and nuanced, I’m still undecided whether there is a large chunk of autobiographical detail wrapped up in this book. And I don’t really care – other than to fervently hope, for her sake, there isn’t too much that is borrowed from Walton’s own life. Memorable and remarkable art invariably is a fusion of imagination and reality – and this is both a memorable and remarkable book. Certainly the most amazing book I’ve read this year.

My Outstanding Reads of 2012

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I read 87 books in 2012 and started 2 more that I didn’t bother to finish. Although it probably is apparent from my blog, perhaps I should explain that I only review books that excite and impress me. My life is far too crowded to expend energy I don’t have on reading and writing about books I don’t like. So the books that make this list are the best of the best – those that have lodged in my shockingly bad memory, providing me with a slice of escapist magic. Or an extra insight into this higgledy-piggledy mess that has ended up being my life.

The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe
devilintheforestThe huge forest rustles with hidden food and threats, the river offers fish and the risk of drowning – and threading through all this is the scalding knowledge that life is precarious and cheap. And Mark has been caught between overwhelming forces.

The writing is pin-sharp and exquisite, with wonderful dialogue, superb scene setting and an interesting cast of characters, who are initially offered up as ciphers – and then, refuse to behave as you’d expect. As the violence escalates and events spin out of control, this tale gripped me and would not let go. And by the end, I had a clearer understanding of what it meant to be a peasant in a small village during the Dark Ages – despite the fact that I have a teaching Degree in History and regard myself as reasonably knowledgeable about that period.

The Last Family in England by Matt Haig
Prince is an earnest young dog, striving hard to live up to the tenets of the Labrador Pact (Remain Loyal to Your Human Masters, lastfamilyinenglandServe and Protect Your Family at Any Cost). Other dogs, led by the Springer Spaniels, have revolted. Their slogans are ‘Dogs for Dogs, not for Humans’ and ‘Pleasure not Duty’. Mentored by an elderly Labrador called Henry, Prince takes his responsibilities seriously, and as things in the Hunter family begin to go badly awry – marital breakdown, rowdy teenage parties, attempted suicide – his responsibilities threaten to overwhelm him. And down in the park it’s even worse. Henry has disappeared: Falstaff the Springer Spaniel wants to lead Prince astray… What will he do next?

I got sucked in by the comedic cover and Jeanette Winterson’s description that the book is fabulous and moving and funny and strange. And – yes – she’s absolutely right, it’s all of those things. It’s also poignantly sad. The simple writing style is deceptive – Haig is dealing with some hefty issues in this slight book. Because, of course, this book is actually nothing at all to do with dogs – it is about choosing how to live your life. Are you going to bounce through like a Springer Spaniel, carefully avoiding any commitment? Or shoulder responsibilities even if they buckle you in the process? It behoves everyone to sometimes take the time to reconsider their choices – and this small book should be required reading for everyone.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
zoocityZinzi December is an ex-journalist trying to rebuild her life after having been involved in the death of her brother. But in this alternate world, those who feel particularly guilty find themselves paired with an animal who may or may not contain the soul of the person they wronged. Beukes doesn’t spend a great deal of time on exposition, but the first person narrative is at times interspersed with other documents – and the academic treatise on the prejudice against ‘zoos’ is examined, along with its causes. Zinzi is bonded with Sloth, who she has to have reasonably close, or die a painful, terrifying death – but in addition, zoos have a gift. Zinzi’s is an ability to find lost things that she visualises floating above people.

And the Zoo City? A slum area in Johannesburg, inhabited by criminals – mostly accompanied by their animals. This is a vivid and richly different world, where the African slang words and rhythms rang with authenticity, along with the slick, wonderfully worded metaphorical language.  But don’t take my word for it – if you are remotely interested in speculative fiction and haven’t already got hold of this book, then do so. It is one of those books that will still be discussed ten years from now as a benchmark read of 2010/11.

The Hare With the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal
This winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award was fervently recommended by my sister-in-law, so I decided to give it a try – harewiththeambereyesalthough to be honest, the blurb didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

264 Japanese wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie’s Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the netsuke, they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined. From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siècle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke’s journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century. For de Waal, a noted potter in his own right, just happens to belong to one of the major Jewish banking families who operated out of Vienna, Paris and London at the height of their powers.

Using a collection of objects as the nucleus of the narrative was inspired and probably made it possible to consider recounting the trauma caused by the Nazi’s aggression and the vicious anti-Sematic comments and open prejudice that winds a dark thread through this account. This book is a testament to the sheer resilience and toughness of a family who have managed to not only endure being ripped apart, stripped of all their property and evicted from their country of birth – but thrive. Along with their collection of Japanese figures.

Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
lightbornLightborn is a revolutionary new technology that has transformed the modern world. Better known as ‘shine’, it is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment – beamed directly into the mind of anyone who can meet the asking price. But what do you do if the shine in question has a mind of its own…?

We follow the fortunes of two youngsters, Roksana and Xavia as they struggle to cope when life in the Arizona town of La Sombre falls apart as the adults all go mad. This being Sullivan, don’t expect classic dystopian, ‘Oh my God, the world is falling apart, isn’t this awful?’ What marks her out as such a joy to read, is that she is an author who assumes her readers are intelligent enough to keep up without having everything spelt out. So as we watch both Roksana and Xavia’s characters mature throughout the catastrophe and follow their personal griefs and coping strategies, their personal stories steadily unfold. Her writing, as ever, is wonderful. Dialogue is pitch perfect and the passages describing the sentient lightborn as it interacts with the human brain is brutal and beautiful. As you may have gathered, I highly rate this book. But don’t take my word for it – go find a copy and read it yourself.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is an autobiography about Jeanette Winterson’s unusual and destructive childhood that was partly covered in her fictional whybehappyversion, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She was adopted by the Winterson’s, who were Pentecostalists. That could still have worked out just fine – except that Mrs Winterson was very disappointed with Jeanette almost from the start when she proved to be baby that cried a lot…. And from there it slid away into disaster. Mostly because you wouldn’t want to let Mrs Winterson near any breathing being – and the thought of having the small child depicted on the cover of the book at her mercy makes me feel queasy.

What this book isn’t, though, is one of the misery memoirs that hit the shelves a few years back. Jeanette Winterson would rather rip her tongue out by the roots than have her readers pity her. She was far too busy questing for books and finding ways to survive Mrs Winterson’s depressive and self-destructive attitude to Life. Indeed, she appeared to not only survive, but outright thrive once she fought free of Accrington. This book deserves to be read at least once by anyone who’s had a bumpy childhood. You’ll come away feeling empowered and admiring.

Age of Aztec – Book 4 in the Pantheon series by James Lovegrove
ageofaztecThe date is 4 Jaguar 1 Monday 1 House; November 25th 2012 by the old reckoning. The Aztec Empire rules the world, in the name of Quetzalcoatl – the Feathered Serpent – and her brother gods. The Aztec reign is one of cruel and ruthless oppression, fuelled by regular human sacrifice. In the jungle-infested city of London, one man defies them: the masked vigilante known as the Conquistador.

We follow the exploits of the Conquistador as he rebels against the might of the Aztec Empire for his own reasons – a personal tragedy that sums up, for him, all that is wrong with the current regime. Britain had been one of the last countries on the planet to fall under Aztec domination and as a patriot, the Conquistador – or Stuart Reston, to use his everyday identity – yearns for the country’s lost freedom. But as the chase between Stuart and Mal intensifies, the unique twists that Lovegrove has made his own in this series transform this book into something far cleverer and more memorable. This page-turner has its own share of dark humour as well as well-rounded protagonists that we care about. Lovegrove’s smart intellect shines through his prose and shows in the pin-sharp perfection of his pacing and plot structure.

The startling backdrop – London simmers in equatorial heat as monkeys and creepers infest the streets with ziggurats littering the landscape – is well described without holding up the action. Which is just as well, because this book starts with a bang and doesn’t let up till the final, shocking climax.

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart
This classic Fantasy tale – knocking around long before Harry Potter was a twinkle in Rowling’s eye – was always a firm favourite with littlebroomstickall my classes when I taught. I dug out my copy and read it to my granddaughter. Despite the unfashionably long descriptive passages, the narrative was sufficiently engrossing that it held her rapt right through to the end.

Quite right, too. I’d forgotten what a little gem it is, with beautifully flowing and evocative prose the whips the story along at a fair clip. Mary Smith is ten years old and due to an unfortunate illness and bad timing, finds herself parked with Great-Aunt Charlotte in her large house, Red Manor, in the heart of Shropshire right at the end of the summer holidays. There is nothing much to do. Until she encounters a beautiful black cat called Tib with glowing green eyes, who leads her to a rare flower in the middle of the woods…. And from that beginning, the adventure whisks up its young readers and doesn’t let up until the final page. Plain Mary Smith is an enjoyable, appealing protagonist who is just the right mix of innocence and quick wittedness. But there are also a strong cast of supporting characters – particularly the wonderfully creepy Madam Mumblechook and her sidekick, Doctor Dee.

Endor College, educational establishment of witches and black magic, is vividly described and until I read this again to Frankie, I’d forgotten just how disturbing it is. Under the cosy touches – ‘Badness me’ as an exclamation, for instance – there is real menace. Stewart’s wonderful description of Tib does more than mark her out as a cat lover – it also highlights the contrast between the lithe, independent creature who befriends Mary and the twisted toadlike thing he becomes thanks to Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. And the reason why they expend all this magical energy and effort to transform Tib and a host of other creatures? Because they can.  Stewart gives youngsters a powerful insight into the nature of evil – all too often it isn’t about world domination with overblown, pantomime-type characters that slide into the ridiculous. It is about people in everyday situations who abuse the power they have to twist and torment those powerless to prevent them.

The Broken Kingdoms – Book 2 of The Inheritance trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
thebrokenkingdomsLike all really good writers – and Jemisin is certainly that – she assumes that her readers are bright enough to join up the dots without spelling out every last nuance and allusion. So it becomes interesting to see characters we’ve already got to know well from an entirely different viewpoint.

However, what has this book humming is the vibrant story of Oree and her injured refugee. I’d intended to read a couple of chapters – but Jemisin’s magical prose drew me in and before I knew it, I was nearly at the end of the book. In addition to a cracking plot with various twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, there is Oree’s spiky character. She is an endearing protagonist – a great mix of gritted stubbornness and vulnerability. The supporting cast are a wonderful mix of godlings, gods and driven individuals, whose power and capacity to hold a grudge produce a deadly cocktail of vengeful anger. We are given a ringside seat at an immortal family tragedy from a mortal’s viewpoint, with Oree stuck right in middle of the immortal scrap – a very neat trick to pull off. As an additional treat, following the genre convention, Jemisin isn’t afraid to give us flights of descriptive prose that verses on the poetic.
I was completely drawn into the action – and found the ending moving and appropriate. Not only does The Broken Kingdom manage to live up to the promise shown in A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, it surpassed my expectations. If this excellent series has somehow slipped past your radar, I highly recommend it.

Stray Souls – Book 1 of the Magicals Anonymous series by Kate Griffin
This is set in the same world – and the same backdrop – as Griffin’s highly successful Midnight Mayor series, featuring Matthew Swift straysoulsas her conflicted and very powerful protagonist. I expected an action-packed plot wound full of tension and vivid descriptions of some of the less wholesome parts of London, which I certainly got – but what was a delightful surprise were the laugh-aloud moments. And this book is full of them. Griffin’s humour is pitch-perfect and a wonderful counterpoint to the full-on action and pathos. A book that leaves me with a lump in my throat while making me laugh always has a special place in my heart – it doesn’t happen all that often. And if Griffin’s descriptions leap off the page, then her dialogue is a joy – pin-sharp, funny and perceptive.

As for the ending, it was beautifully handled – both satisfying and poignant. All in all, while Griffin’s books have always been excellent, Stray Souls is outstanding and the best urban fantasy book I’ve read this year.