The title grabbed my attention – what is hard cider? And after I read the blurb, I was hooked. I like historical whodunits – and what especially snagged my attention with this story is the political backdrop. Set in New Orleans in the febrile period some thirty years before the American Civil War, tensions are rising as French and American interests collide, along with increasing unease regarding the tricky issue of slavery. So freeman Benjamin January has to tread carefully at all times.
BLURB: September, 1840. A giant rally is being planned in New Orleans to stir up support for presidential candidate William Henry Harrison: the Indian-killing, hard-cider-drinking, wannabe “people’s president”. Trained surgeon turned piano-player Benjamin January has little use for politicians. But the run-up to the rally is packed with balls and dinner parties, and the meagre pay is sorely needed.
Soon, however, January has more to worry about than keeping his beloved family fed and safe. During an elegant reception thrown by New Orleans’ local Whig notables, the son of a prominent politician gets into a fist-fight with a rival over beautiful young flirt Marie-Joyeuse Maginot – and, the day after the rally is over, Marie-Joyeuse turns up dead. The only black person amongst the initial suspects is arrested immediately: January’s dear friend, Catherine Clisson. With Catherine’s life on the line, January is determined to uncover the truth and prove her innocence. But his adversaries are powerful politicians, and the clock is ticking . . .
REVIEW: Despite this being the nineteenth book in the series, it’s the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading about Ben’s adventures. And what a ride it was… Hambly’s prose is richly descriptive of the lush, often hedonistic setting that starkly rubs shoulders with utter poverty and deprivation. We see all this through Ben January’s eyes, who was brought up in New Orleans – but then spent time in France, where he trained as a surgeon. So while he is very familiar with the neighbourhood, he isn’t as necessarily as accepting of the ingrained and cultural prejudice as many of his peers. It’s a tricky balance to achieve, but Hambly negotiates it well.
In New Orleans, Ben obviously isn’t able to earn a decent living as a skilled medical man – none of the well-heeled white folks would entertain the notion of being treated by black man. However, he is also a skilled musician and with a series of grand election rallies coming up, he is employed to play at all these events – both the Democrat and Whig functions. Hambly gives us a ringside seat as inflammatory speeches are made, food and drink is handed out to the crowd and rousing songs slurring the reputations of political opponents are sung.
And throughout all the hectic activity, the dark thread of institutional prejudice, exclusion, double-standards and hypocrisy winds across the society. It’s masterfully done – and brought home to me just how much damage slavery wrought. Not only upon those whose lives were shackled to unceasing hard labour with no prospect of anything better – but also to those responsible for it. The story is all the more effective for Ben’s bitter acceptance of such a miserable state of affairs, as Hambly is brilliant at showing, not telling. And since I finished this one, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the situation – particularly as slavery is still going on.
There is also a murder mystery to be solved. Initially, I thought the pacing was a tad slow – but I think that’s because of the rather chatty blurb. If I hadn’t been waiting for a certain key event, I don’t think it would have been an issue. After the murder, consequences roll forward and Ben has to get involved to save the life of someone very dear to him. To be honest, I would have been happy with this book if the whodunit aspect had been averagely good, given the quality of the backdrop and its vivid depiction. But the icing on the cake is that the murder mystery is very well executed, with a brilliant denouement. This might have been the first Ben January mystery I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Very highly recommended for fans of historical murder mysteries. While I obtained an arc of Death and Hard Cider from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 10/10
This is my update on how I’m coping with Long Covid now it’s been over fourteen months since I first got ill, which I’m adding to my Sunday Post blog, hosted by Kimberly at Caffeinated Reviewer.
Thank goodness little Eliza and my daughter have now recovered from their initial medical emergencies. Eliza is back at nursery school and I was able to spend some time with her to see she is back to her normal, bouncy self – more of that later! However my daughter has had to return work while also juggling the needs of three children all at very different stages, so she is at full stretch. To the extent that we’ve had our Boomerang Boy staying with us again.
After his first full week at his new school didn’t go very well, we offered to have our younger grandson to stay over for this last week. Himself is on annual leave and we have the time to give Oscar the support he needs to cope with such a major change, mostly by simply being there. It worked out really well and by Friday he was much happier and more settled, having made a friend and feeling less overwhelmed. He helped make tea, played Wordle with me and contributed to discussions around the table during the evening meal. He is such a star and we love his company – as you can see by the nonsense going on between Himself and Oscar when I was trying to take a photo!
Under normal circumstances, that would be my major news for this post – but this time around I’ve other tidings to share. I am definitely on the road to recovery! My energy levels have suddenly jumped up, so I don’t get exhausted so easily. Last Saturday Oscar and I (he came to stay last Friday evening) had a sleepover at my sister’s to listen to a nightingale singing in a nearby wood. She made us a lovely roast dinner and then we played cards – we taught Oscar to play knock-out whist and then he beat us both at Dobble. That level and length of interaction would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago – but I not only coped, I was thoroughly enjoying it.
I am not yet fully recovered, as I’m still dealing with nasal drip, tinnitus, persistent pain in my upper right arm and chest that wakes me up at night. In addition I still have a swollen thyroid and lymph glands in my neck. And I am horribly unfit – unsurprising as I have spent a large part of the last fourteen months too tired to get out of bed. But I am so thrilled and massively relieved! I’d begun to fear that the almost constant tiredness constantly dogging me was going to be with me for the rest of my life. On Wednesday evening, I was able to join a Zoom meeting with my Writing group and got such a welcome… It was lovely to see everyone again, as the last time I’d been part of the group was 3rd March, 2021.
So on Thursday evening, Oscar’s last night with us, we asked if we could also borrow the other two children and celebrated my improvement by taking the grandchildren to The Dragon, their favourite Chinese restaurant. Even little Eliza came along – and without her mother, who couldn’t make it as she was busy with an online meeting. It was one of the best nights of my life. We got a lovely greeting from the staff, who remembered us even though we hadn’t been there since 2019 – and the children were wonderful. Eliza was as good as gold and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The food was fabulous and the service was brilliant. When our waiter spotted that Eliza was determinedly spooning up the plum sauce she was supposed to be sharing with her older brother, he brought two sachets of tomato ketchup just for her, tore them open and squeezed them onto her plate and invited her to dip her cucumber slices in that instead. The older children were chatty and easy-going, clearly enjoying the food and always polite – I’m so proud of them!
The highlight for me is that even a fortnight earlier – I simply couldn’t have envisaged feeling well enough to have taken part in such an outing. So it was a huge deal for me to be there. I hadn’t been anywhere for a meal since we went away for our wedding anniversary in September 2020. I’m very aware that I still have a long way to go – and I’m not going to rush ahead with a Graduated Exercise Programme, for example. That would probably tip me back into a relapse – after all, it has taken over a year to get here. So if it takes that length of time to regain my fitness, without running the risk of becoming bedridden again – that’s fine by me😊. I have a hospital appointment on Monday – fingers crossed it won’t find anything sinister!
This week I’ve read:-
Hummingbird – Book 1 of A Charade of Magic by Helen Harper The best way to live in the Mage ruled city of Glasgow is to keep your head down and your mouth closed. That’s not usually a problem for Mairi Wallace. By day she works at a small shop selling tartan and by night she studies to become an apothecary. She knows her place and her limitations. All that changes, however, when her old childhood friend sends her a desperate message seeking her help – and the Mages themselves cross Mairi’s path. Suddenly, remaining unnoticed is no longer an option.
There’s more to Mairi than she realises but, if she wants to fulfil her full potential, she’s going to have to fight to stay alive – and only time will tell if she can beat the Mages at their own game. From twisted wynds and tartan shops to a dangerous daemon and the magic infused City Chambers, the future of a nation might lie with one solitary woman. I’m a Helen Harper fan – and this one didn’t disappoint. It was a real page-turner and I’m now looking forward to reading the next one in the series, as I’m desperate to discover what happens next.
Murder in the Manor – Book 1 of A Lacey Doyle Cosy Mystery series by Fiona Grace Lacey Doyle, 39 years old and freshly divorced, needs a drastic change. She needs to quit herjob, leave her horrendous boss and New York City, and walk away from the fast life. Making good on her childhood promise to herself, she decides to walk away from it all, and to relive a beloved childhood vacation in the quaint English seaside town of Wilfordshire.
Wilfordshire is exactly as Lacey remembers it, with its ageless architecture, cobblestone streets, and with nature at its doorstep. Lacey doesn’t want to go back home—and spontaneously, she decides to stay, and to give her childhood dream a try: she will open her own antique shop.
Lacey finally feels that her life is taking a step in the right direction—until her new star customer turns up dead. As the newcomer in town, all eyes are on Lacey, and it’s up to her to clear her own name. With a business to run, a next-door neighbor turned nemesis, a flirty baker across the street, and a crime to solve – is this new life all that Lacey thought it would be? This is one of the books that Himself acquired – I was intrigued by the blurb and was in the mood for something a bit different from my usual fare. There is much to commend it – I liked the gutsy can-do attitude of the heroine. But timescales were ridiculously compressed (a week to get a temporary Visa to live in the UK????) and this offering couldn’t make up its mind if it was a cosy mystery or a cosy second-chance romance. 7/10
Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings Fleeing the final days of the generations-long war with the alien Felen, smuggler Jereth Keeven’s freighter the Jonah breaks down in a strange rift in deep space, with little chance of rescue—until they encounter the research vessel Gallion, which claims to be from 152 years in the future.
The Gallion’s chief engineer Uma Ozakka has always been fascinated with the past, especially the tale of the Fortunate Five, who ended the war with the Felen. When the Gallion rescues a run-down junk freighter, Ozakka is shocked to recognize the Five’s legendary ship—and the Five’s famed leader, Eldric Leesongronski, among the crew. But nothing else about Leesongronski and his crewmates seems to match up with the historical record. With their ships running out of power in the rift, more than the lives of both crews may be at stake. This enjoyable timeslip space opera adventure has some interesting things to say about how History slants events to suit those writing said History. I grew very fond of the Fortunate Five and found myself rooting for them. 8/10
Herrick’s End – Book 1 of The Neath by T.M. Blanchet Ollie’s only friend disappeared a few days ago, and now, he’s frantic to find her. But he doesn’t have much to go on until a mysterious note arrives which reads: “Still looking for your friend? I know where she is.” Unfortunately for Ollie, the trail leads to the last place he’d ever expect.
Somewhere dark. Somewhere deep. The kind of place where magic spills like blood, vengeance is merciless, and escape seems all but impossible.
Worse still, it soon becomes clear that someone-or something-was expecting him. Now, time is running out. If Ollie has any hope of ever seeing home again, he’s going to have to summon every last scrap of courage, smarts, and tenacity he can find. And none of it will matter if he can’t get some help. Fast. This intriguing offering has been labelled YA, but it certainly didn’t come across as a YA read to me. I thought the story was going in a certain direction – when it suddenly turned into something completely different. And I was hooked. I was also intrigued by the strong morality story that underpins it, putting me in mind of Pilgrim’s Progress – although there isn’t any religion in this offering. Review to follow.
The Lending Library by Aliza Fogelson When the Chatsworth library closes indefinitely, Dodie Fairisle loses her sanctuary. How is a small-town art teacher supposed to cope without the never-ending life advice and enjoyment that books give her? Well, when she’s as resourceful and generous as Dodie, she turns her sunroom into her very own little lending library.
At first just a hobby, this lit lovers’ haven opens up her world in incredible ways. She knows books are powerful, and soon enough they help her forge friendships between her zany neighbors—and attract an exciting new romance. But when the chance to adopt an orphaned child brings Dodie’s secret dream of motherhood within reach, everything else suddenly seems less important. Finding herself at a crossroads, Dodie must figure out what it means to live a full, happy life. If only there were a book that could tell her what to do… I wanted to like Dodie – but she’s the type of heroine that frankly gives millennials a bad name. She giggles and pouts over men as if she’s a mid-teen, turns her back on a friend looking for support and suddenly decides to adopt a baby without having any of the resources to do the job properly. Thank goodness the baby’s grandparents saw through her charm and realised just how flighty she is. I read on in fascinated horror to see how else she was going to mess up her life. Though given her addiction to every kind of sweet food on the planet, it might just be she’s making decisions in the throes of a sugar-blitzed brainstorm. 6/10
AUDIOBOOK Wolfbane – Book 9 of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series by Michelle Paver, narrated by Sir Ian McKellan It is early spring, a turbulent, perilous time of sudden storms, frozen river fractures and drifting ice. Fleeing from a demon intent on devouring his souls, Wolf is swept out to Sea far from the Forest and his pack.
The ocean too teems with danger: sea wolves, sharks and hunters of the deep, and the demon is gaining ground. Torak and Renn must race to save their pack-brother, battling the harsh, icy waves and merciless torrents. If they can’t find Wolf in time, the bond between them will be severed for ever… What a treat… In this prehistoric world, our ancestors have formed a deep spiritual bond with the creatures around them. Paver depicts their hunter-gatherer lives with realism and respect – and I recommend you also listen to the Afterword, where she describes the research she has done to back up aspects covered in this gripping adventure. But then, you’ll probably want to listen on, anyway. With McKellan’s masterful narration, I’d listen to him reading aloud the soccer results. Review to follow.
Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. I’m aware that right now, it’s a very one-sided relationship and I don’t know when I’ll be able to fully reciprocate. In the meantime, do take care and try to keep well.
I’m a fan of Helen Harper’s writing – see my reviews of Bloodfire and the Lazy Witch series – Slouch Witch, Star Witch and Spirit Witch. So when this one popped up on Netgalley I immediately requested it and was delighted to get hold of an arc.
BLURB: The best way to live in the Mage ruled city of Glasgow is to keep your head down and your mouth closed. That’s not usually a problem for Mairi Wallace. By day she works at a small shop selling tartan and by night she studies to become an apothecary. She knows her place and her limitations. All that changes, however, when her old childhood friend sends her a desperate message seeking her help – and the Mages themselves cross Mairi’s path. Suddenly, remaining unnoticed is no longer an option.
There’s more to Mairi than she realises but, if she wants to fulfil her full potential, she’s going to have to fight to stay alive – and only time will tell if she can beat the Mages at their own game. From twisted wynds and tartan shops to a dangerous daemon and the magic infused City Chambers, the future of a nation might lie with one solitary woman.
REVIEW: This fantasy magic-based class struggle adventure is set in a version of Glasgow in an approximation of the early Victorian period. Harper’s feisty heroine, Mairi, has had a tough time of it. Raised in an orphanage and determined to better herself, she is currently working as a shopgirl/general servant to an unpleasant couple who run a shop selling tartan cloth. The other thing to know about her is that she cannot speak.
Having a mute heroine could have really got in the way. But Harper’s clever writing and skill in getting us to care about her main character meant that it didn’t in any way slow down the action. The scene setting is excellent. Tension crackled off the pages as Mairi tries to keep a low profile in a city where anyone different is immediately at risk.
There is a zombie element – the Afflicted who roam the streets at night looking for anyone to snack on. Obviously there is also a curfew in place for the protection of everyday folk, who are understandably terrified of the Afflicted. Especially as no one really knows how they are made. Do they become infected by being scratched or bitten by an Afflicted? Is it an illness? Or is it magic? The Mages claim to protect the general population, but then they claim to work for the service of the city. And as far as everyone else is concerned, they live a life of luxury shrouded in secrecy and if anyone tries to get too close – the consequences are dire.
This one grabbed me from the beginning and didn’t let go until the end. And now, I’m desperate to know what is going to happen next. Very highly recommended for fans of gripping historical fantasy stories featuring a gutsy heroine. While I obtained an arc of Hummingbird from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 9/10
This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.
This was the first full working week since I recovered from the flu, so Monday and Tuesday saw me teaching as usual. I am now on the last lap of the final edits for Dying for Space which is the sequel to my debut novel, Running Out of Space, and am planning to release it on 14th December. So I am in the process of preparing for the blog tour – Lola is once more organising it for me to run from 14th-31st December. And I was a bit startled to realise when about to publish my usual Friday Face-off blog, that it was my 1,500th post…
On Wednesday I returned to Pilates and Fitstep, taking it easy, which was just as well as I was horribly unfit and Friday found me stiff in places I didn’t even know I had muscles. On Thursday, Mhairi came over and offered her usual awesome help and companionship. On Friday evening Himself and I actually had a date night – we went out to The Dragon, our favourite restaurant and afterwards returned home to snuggle up on the settee and watch the final two episodes of season 7 of Game of Thrones. Oh my goodness – what a finale! It was raining yesterday – of course it was as we were due to pick up the children. My daughter invited us to stay for brunch, which was wonderfully good. On the way home we swung by Worthing for some shopping and in the afternoon my sister came over for a meal and we sat and watched Strictly with Oscar, aged 7, passing judgement on the dancing and the judging.
Today, I will be spending most of the day filming Tim’s script in a converted barn for the medieval scenes. We are nearly at the end, so fingers crossed it doesn’t rain and the light levels are good. I hope everyone is also having a great weekend.
This week I have read:
Gnomon by Nick Harkaway Gnomon, which took Harkaway more than three years to complete, is set in a world of ubiquitous surveillance. Pitched as “a mind-bending Borgesian puzzle box of identity, meaning and reality in which the solution steps sideways as you approach it”, it features: a detective who finds herself investigating the very society she believes in, urged on by a suspect who may be an assassin or an ally, hunting through the dreams of a torture victim in search of the key to something she does not yet understand; a banker who is pursued by a shark that swallows Fortune 500 companies; Saint Augustine’s jilted mistress who reshapes the world with miracles; a refugee grandfather turned games designer who must remember how to walk through walls or be burned alive by fascists; and a sociopath who falls backwards through time in order to commit a murder. This took me some time to complete, but it was worth slowing down my normal reading speed to savour the dense prose and keep track of the characters. An unusual, rewarding read with some surprising twists and a poignant, powerful ending.
Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang Orphaned, raised by wolves, and the proud owner of a horned pig named Merlin, Weylyn Grey knew he wasn’t like other people. But when he single-handedly stopped that tornado on a stormy Christmas day in Oklahoma, he realized just how different he actually was. This is another quirky, unusual read which defies strict genre classification. It’s a lovely, warm-hearted tale that nonetheless avoids sentimentality. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
The Prisoner of Limnos – Book 6 of the Penric and Desdemona novella series
In this sequel novella to Mira’s Last Dance, Temple sorcerer Penric and the widow Nikys have reached safety in the duchy of Orbas when a secret letter from a friend brings frightening news: Nikys’s mother has been taken hostage by her brother’s enemies at the Cedonian imperial court, and confined in a precarious island sanctuary. This little gem is yet another excellent addition to this entertaining, unusual series and takes the story that halted at the end of Mira’s Last Dance onward, encompassing yet another exciting adventure.
Ironclads by Adrian Tchaikovsky Special limited edition sceince fiction hardcover novella by the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author. Only 1000 copies.
Scions have no limits. Scions do not die. And Scions do not disappear.
Sergeant Ted Regan has a problem. A son of one of the great corporate families, a Scion, has gone missing at the front. He should have been protected by his Ironclad – the lethal battle suits that make the Scions masters of war – but something has gone catastrophically wrong… This supposes that in a post-apocalyptic world where resources are scarce, corporations are involved in the inevitable wars with the top families encased in top-of-the-range armour that makes them almost invulnerable. Needless to say when the dirty jobs are handed out, it’s the regular grunts that end up having to pick up the pieces…
I picked this one off the shelves because I loved the look of the cover and the idea that this book filled a gap left by J.K. Rowling and Phillip Pullman appealed.
England. A century ago, give or take a few years. An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real. An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government. Three young people who learn everything they’ve been taught is a lie – knowledge that could cost them their lives.
This book is set in a Dickensian England in an alternate time when any negative emotion appears as either soot or Smoke. The aristocracy and upper classes generally don’t show any signs of such debased behaviour, whereas the lower orders are steeped in it. London, with its factories and crowded living conditions, is a byword for degradation and filth as a perpetual cloud of Smoke infests its streets. We follow the fortunes of three youngsters – two boys who are pupils at the boarding school – Charlie and Thomas and a girl Livia.
I thoroughly enjoyed the way this book opened and found the initial tension and questions surrounding Smoke pulled me into the story. However, while it continued to be enjoyable and there was never any risk of my not finishing it, the readability factor that initially hooked me began to dissipate. Vyleta seemed to need to thoroughly explain his world and that was the factor that began to drive the story, rather than the other way around. It is, indeed, a fascinating premise. But I did find the continual addition of random characters who we never saw again giving us slices of their viewpoint rather jarring and it diluted the characterisation and strength of the initial protagonists, who became rather generic. The love triangle also seemed an oddity and didn’t sit at all well with me, given how it cuts right across the gothic atmosphere and managed to diminish the story into a will-they-won’t-they romance while also trying address some really big and interesting themes.
I’m conscious that it sounds as if I thought this was a bad book and it’s not. There premise is original – Vyleta handles the subsequent class divide really cleverly – and at times, the writing is wonderful. But I have a feeling that this book is trying to be a gothic, Dickensian read while having a wide YA appeal and in trying for both goals has managed to fall short of the original greatness this book promised. Having said that, I’m glad I’ve read it and would be interested in reading other works by this author – he certainly has a fertile, original imagination.
Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.
Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
This is my choice of the day: Autonomy by Jude Houghton
34% The tour included endless rows of pristine assembly lines, the workers silently and efficiently constructing components, machine shops full of smoke and dust and grease, a triage centre, a cafeteria that fed a million people a day with jellyfish and insects, and even an underground catacomb of stone shelves where workers in tightly overlapping shifts were allowed to rest for a couple of hours.
“So in total we have seven hundred and fifty buildings, each with twenty thousand workers, and a turnover of over thirty-five million employees a day,’ Solquist said proudly.
BLURB: Balmoral Murraine works in a Battery, assembling devices she doesn’t understand for starvation pay. Pasco Eborgersen is the pampered son of an Elite, trying to navigate the temptations of the Pleasure Houses, the self-sacrifice of the Faith, and the high-octane excitement of Steel Ball. They never should have met, and now they will rip the world apart.
What happens when ninety percent of the world lives on skaatch – a jellyfish and insect composite? What happens when mankind spends more time in alternative life sims instead of in the “real” world? What happens when economic interest is the sole determinant of global decision making? What happens when a single secret is discovered that calls into question everything we have ever believed? Welcome to the Autonomy. Welcome to your future.
This is a compelling near future tale about what happens when civilisation crashes in 2020. The remnants of world leaders decide in their wisdom (highly plausible when you think that many current governments are clearly unfit to lead us out of a wet paper bag…) that runaway capitalism is the way to keep humanity alive. The writing is smooth and readable, the plotting sharp and the message very chilling… I’m loving it.
I need to declare an interest – Steve is a fellow tutor at Northbrook College and a thoroughly nice chap. That said, I wouldn’t have volunteered to spread the word about Riddler’s Fayre: The First Matter if I didn’t believe in the quality of the story. Steve and Jeff are delighted that Riddler’s Fayre is in the process of being re-released with a new publisher, with changes to more closely reflect the nuanced tale they had originally envisaged.
Aeden is young man with no memory, adrift in a world of riddles. His only friend – a man hated for his race and creed, their only hope – a nun on the run for opposing the Holy Wars. Meanwhile a veteran of the Third Crusade is hunting Aeden, believing him to be the clue to discovering the greatest secret in alchemy – the identity of the First Matter.
As you may gather from the blurb, this is set in 1199 in the Middle Ages and there is a lovely map at the front of the book, along with a short prologue, giving us plenty of information about the period in order to appreciate the story. Aeden is a young man struggling to cope – and the only clue to his identity are a number of peculiar tattoos on his arm. Meanwhile, a returnee from the Crusades, Ludovic Parvell, is on a mission of his own. A mission that will ensure he will be on a collision course with Aeden and those looking out for him. The artwork is lovely – in graphic novels, the characterisation is achieved with the dialogue and the drawing. Facial expressions, gestures and their movements tell you as much about who they are and their role in the story as what is contained in the speech bubbles. In a good quality graphic novel, the drawings provide you with a rich seam of information, as each page adds another layer onto the story. Anderson has done a lovely job.
The mood in the castle is effectively portrayed as brooding and ominous by the dark colours and confined settings, with Parvell’s uncertain temper kicking off as he snaps out orders to his apprehensive underlings. I really like the story arc – if I have a grizzle, it was that I was just really getting into the story when it suddenly stopped to be continued in the next slice of the adventure.
But if you enjoy graphic novels, this beautifully drawn and engrossing tale of religious intolerance and growing distrust of strangers may be set in the distant past, but it also has something to say about our own turbulent times.
This apocalyptic adventure is more Brit than fish and chips and warm beer. Does it work?
Edgar Hill is 35 and caught in his own headlock. Overweight slob, under-performing husband and reluctant father – for Ed, the world may as well have already ended. So when it does end in a catastrophic asteroid strike and Edgar and his family find refuge in an Edinburgh army barracks, it comes as something of a relief. His world becomes simpler, life becomes easier – things might just be looking up.
Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that whatever else is going to happen – Life isn’t going to get any easier for Ed. In a twist I’ve no intention of blurting about, he finds himself needing to be at the other end of the country in a hurry. Not only are the majority of cars burned out, but with most of the roads damaged and cratered, hopping in a car and driving anywhere is an impossibility. So he and his travelling companions are faced with legging it through the chaos, encountering a variety of interesting characters.
Walker briefly explores some of the faultlines in British society by having Ed and his spend a night in a stately home, hosted by the surviving member of the landed gentry and then end up in a inner-city council estate. I did feel the characterisation was very predictable in both scenes, which was disappointing. There was none of the sharp-edged unexpectedness of Gloria, for instance – which was an incident that has stayed with me for the poignancy and horror of it.
However, I did enjoy Ed’s character. His sense of being adrift, before the meteors strike, is palpable – something I have discussed with men about their loss of identity within our modern society. Ed is believable and although there are times I want to shake him – I also find myself sympathising with him, which is important. As the whole unfolding adventure is filtered through his viewpoint, unless we care about him and his goals, we won’t fully bond with the story.
I did care. In fact, I was gripped by the book, staying up far too late to discover what happens next. By about two-thirds of the way through, I figured out I’d know how it was going to end – and I was wrong. The ending was a genuine surprise and worked well in the overall context. If you taste runs to end-of-the-world adventures, then track this one down, as it’s well written, pacey storyline makes for a gripping read.
The ebook arc copy of The End of the World Running Club was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book
I read Desolation Road, Chaga and Kirinya longer ago than I care to recall, so when I kept seeing reports of Luna on the book blogs I frequent, I decided to get hold of it, to see if the McDonald magic was still as formidably effective as I hazily remembered…
The Moon wants to kill you. She has a thousand ways to do it. The bitter cold of vacuum. The lethal sleet of radiation. Choking dust as old as the Earth. Your weakening bones… Or you could run out of money for water. Or air. Or simply run foul of one of the Five Dragons: the corporations that rule the Moon and control its vast resources. But you stay, because the Moon can make you richer than you can imagine. Adriana Corta is eighty. Her family run Corta Helio. They have survived the vicious corporate wars and the dangerous peace that followed. But now that peace is fracturing. Adriana may have to die but she will not be killed by her rivals, or the Moon. And whatever happens to her, Corta Helio will not die.
This is capitalism, red in tooth and claw. We follow the fortunes of various Corta family members, from the founding matriarch, Adriana and her children and grandchildren, as well as one particular newcomer – a Jo Moonbeam as Earth immigrants are dubbed – Marina Calzaghe. Think of Game of Thrones set in space – indeed, McDonald himself apparently named this duology ‘Game of Domes’.
The depiction of life on the Moon, with all its burgeoning opportunities set against an intensely hostile environment where every breath you draw has to be paid for, is vividly realised. We also get a ringside seat at the dynamics within the Corta clan – their ambitions, their strengths, flaws and loves. My particular favourite is the first person recollection by Adriana of her early days on the Moon, but all the family members are characterised by a streak of recklessness and striving to grab hold of life with both hands. Not that they are remotely cosy or even all that likeable – Rafa, Lucas and Ariel are all unpleasantly arrogant and entitled, however that doesn’t prevent them being engrossing. As with the Game of Thrones, things don’t necessarily go all that well for the main protagonists.
There are a number of assassination attempts and dynastic marriages are not sufficient to paper over the cracks steadily growing amongst the Five Dragons – what then happens to the subsequent offspring is that they become another resource to be fought over. McDonald’s evocation of a freebooting society teetering on the edge of utter lawlessness is beautifully portrayed.
So, does the story come to a satisfactory conclusion? Nope. Not remotely. It all kicks off near the end, so I put the rest of my life on hold to discover what happened to these characters I have come to know well throughout the book – only to get to the last page with no resolution whatsoever. This is the ultimate ‘to be continued…’ I wouldn’t have minded quite so much – but this is March 2016 and the sequel isn’t scheduled for publication until September. I have no idea what those who read this book back when it was first published back last September felt when they realised they would have to wait a whole year for any kind of resolution, but I am a tad fed up.
This interesting sub-genre that intersects with both science fiction and fantasy, is a real favourite of mine. I’m a sucker for a well-constructed alternate history that posits some of the more fascinating ‘what ifs’. And these are the best ones I’ve encountered so far. Again, in no particular order…
Ghosts of Columbia by L.E. Modesitt Jr
This nifty omnibus edition contains the first two books in the series – Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator. This is a world where people who are killed violently or accidentally with sufficient time to realise that they are about to die, become ghosts. So large battles become undesirable – battlefields overrun with hordes of ghosts make an area uninhabitable until they fade. The point at which history has also diverged is when the colonists from the Mayflower landing in the New World succumb to the plague, denying England any foothold on the American continent. Which means a chunk of Canada and North America is settled by the Dutch, in a nation called Columbia with New France down in the south and the Mormon state of Deseret jostling in an uneasy truce. For the time being…
Drop into this interestingly original world, ex-espionage agent and political minister Johan Eschbach, now living quietly in New Bruges and working as a lecturer on Environmental Studies at the Vanderaak Centre who tells his story in first person POV.
The story and espionage are well constructed – but what sticks in my memory is this wonderful world Modesitt has created. I love the details he produces about the weather, Johan’s shopping habits and what he has for breakfast – so that when it does all kick off, the violence is all the more shocking. Read my full review here.
Farthing – Book 1 of the Small Change series by Jo Walton
In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the upper-crust families of the ‘Farthing set’ gather for a weekend retreat. But idyll becomes nightmare when Sir James Thirkie is found murdered, a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest. Suspicion falls, inevitably on David Kahn, who is a Jew and recently married to Lucy, the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley of Castle Farthing, but when Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard starts investigating the case, he soon realises that all is not what it seems…
As ever, Walton braids the apparently cosy into something different and when you’re lulled into a false sense of security, she pulls the rug from under you. The familiar backdrop here is the classic country house murder. Guests are staying over – mostly the ‘Farthing set’, with the inevitable alliances and enmities, both political and personal. Inspector Carmichael and his loyal sidekick, Royston, set about the task of unpicking the various secrets of all the likely suspects. The investigation in alternate chapters is described in third person viewpoint, harking back to those Agatha Christie whodunits we all know and love.
But that sense of order being re-established is entirely false – as we get to discover in the two ensuing books… This is a storming start to an excellent trilogy by one of the most versatile, interesting speculative fiction writers around today. Read my full review here.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
I 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. Mr Dunsworthy – who opposed the whole hare-brained notion of Kivrin going back to this particular time, yet somehow found himself caught up in helping her – is an outstanding character. The book is largely in his and Kivrin’s viewpoint and as the situation in both timelines slides away into chaos, it is these two main characters on whom the whole story arc rests.
Willis lays bare the internecine struggles within the famous University with a sense of gentleness that is refreshing in a genre which often exposes human frailty with ruthless savagery. There are a couple of characters who resort to petty rule-hugging in order to protect themselves, but most of the people depicted step up and do their best in increasingly awful circumstances. Read my full review here.
Age of Aztec – Book 4 of the Pantheon series by James Lovegrove
The 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. Mal Vaughan, one of the Jaguar Warriors, who police affairs in London, is determined to track down and put a stop to the Conquistador – a determination honed by the knowledge that if she doesn’t deliver, her life will be forfeit…
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. Read my full review here.
Dominion by C.J. Sansom
Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent Auxiliary Police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours about what is happening in the basement of the Germany Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side.
What must be jumping out at anyone interested in reading the book, is that the event where Sansom’s version of history diverges takes place twelve years previously. So he has to construct a completely different world that emerges after Britain’s surrender. As Sansom is an accomplished historian, his version of this world makes fascinating reading. In this Britain there has been a prolonged period of financial stagnation, leading to widespread poverty without any Welfare State. This is a world where the BBC is strictly censored with newspapers, television and radio staying silent when violent protest spills into death – and morris dancing is upheld as a national dance… But perhaps the most startling demonstration of the difference is when young Queen Elizabeth – still unmarried – is commemorating Remembrance Sunday, with Rommel stepping forward and propping on the cenotaph a large poppy wreath, complete with a swastika.
This is a strong read for anyone interested in exploring alternative historical landscapes and Sansom has beautifully conveyed the fog-shrouded desperation of a country slowly grinding to a halt under a punitive rule. Read my review here.