Category Archives: landscape

Review of KINDLE EBOOK The Crossing Places – Book 1 of the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths

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This series was recommended by Himself and my mother, so it was with some anticipation that I started reading the ebook.
When a child’s bones are found on a desolate Norfolk beach, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls in forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway. Nelson thinks he has found the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing ten years ago. Since her disappearance he has been receiving bizarre letters about her, letters with references to witchcraft, ritual and sacrifice. Ruth is soon drawn into the Lucy Downey case and into the mind of the letter writer, who seems to have both archaeological knowledge and eerie psychic powers.

crossingRuth Galloway is a forty-something archaeologist who lives on her own at the edge of Saltmarsh in an isolated cottage with a couple of cats. I found her character immediately appealing and realistic. Her concerns about her weight and her single status struck a chord with me – and I suspect many other female crime fans. This series is evidently going to be something of a partnership between Ruth and Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson. So did I also feel an affinity with the other main character? Yes. Nelson is clearly a complicated personality and – unlike Ruth and many other detectives in other series – he is a family man with two daughters and an attractive wife. I am looking forward to seeing how this all plays out during the series. The other powerful factor in this book is the stunning backdrop – the salt marshes. Griffiths evidently knows and loves this landscape and has it bouncing off the page as a character in its own right, particularly during the climactic scenes where the dangerous surroundings heighten the drama and tension during the denouement in a classic showdown that manages to provide plenty of surprises.

Of course, while a sympathetic protagonist is obviously important – this is a whodunit, so what really matters is how Griffiths handles the plot. Do we know exactly who did it halfway through the story, or does it all come as a complete surprise? I’m not noted for my skill in spotting the culprit, but I thoroughly enjoyed Griffiths’ ability to provide plenty of twists and turns, without completely losing the day to day realism that a contemporary crime thriller needs. It’s a trickier balance to achieve than Griffiths makes it look. And another potential bear pit she manages to deftly sidestep is the fact that her victim is a child.

Obviously when a child goes missing, our protective instincts are instantly aroused – whatever the circumstances, a child is never anything other than an innocent victim. However, when a story highlights this scenario there are also distressed parents to portray and possible cross-questioning of other upset children… It can turn into a mess – I’ve discarded more than one whodunit halfway through either because of the casual manner in which the parents’ grief is depicted, or it’s simply too harrowing. I wasn’t tempted to do put this book down – Griffiths treats the disappearance of a child with sufficient seriousness, yet neither was the situation overwhelmingly grim.

Small wonder that this book created the buzz it did when it first hit the bookshelves, back in 2010 – and I’m delighted that I now have another well-written, edgy crime series to read. In the meantime, if you haven’t yet sampled Elly Griffiths’ world, track down The Crossing Places – you’ll be thanking me if you do.
9/10

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Review of Indie EBOOK Acid Sky – prequel to Below Mercury by Mark Anson

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For those of you who have read and enjoyed Anson’s offering Below Mercury, – read my review here – this book goes back into pilot Clare Foster’s past and gives us a slice of her training, when she first visited the skies above Venus.

Langley plan 250214 150dpiVenus – second planet from the Sun. In the crushing depths of its atmosphere lies a hellish, dimly-lit world of baked rock and furnace-like temperatures, forever hidden beneath thick clouds of sulphuric acid. But high above the clouds, the sky is blue and clear, and a fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers circle endlessly on the high-altitude winds, providing a welcome staging post for crews on long space voyages. For Clare Foster, a newly-promoted lieutenant in the US Astronautics Corps on her first tour of duty on board the carrier Langley, flying on Venus brings new challenges to be mastered. But the endless blue skies of Venus soon darken with an approaching menace, in which the terrifying fury of the planet will be unleashed…

If you enjoy your science fiction on the hard side, then Anson is your man. His world-building is a geek’s dream, with beautiful line drawings of the various craft he portrays in his story. As you can see from the examples I have included – which show up a treat on venusmy very basic Kindle – he has included an extra dimension to the backdrop. There is also a section at the back of the book with additional details about Venus, the acid sky and those amazing craft. However, I have read plenty of amazing futuristic worlds depicted by science fiction authors, who wouldn’t know narrative pace if they fell over it in a wormhole… Anson is one of the other sort – those who not only have an excellent grasp of all the techie toys, but nevertheless can also spin a great story and write convincing characters.

Which is just as well, because his protagonist is young Clare Foster and the nature of the storyline means that this could have gone into some really dodgy territory, with yet another young, good-looking female victimised. Dedicated, talented and extremely hard-working, nevertheless Clare is greener than a four-leaved shamrock when she finds herself on the huge carrier Langley, which is harvesting elements from the surrounding skies as well as providing a convenient stopover for traffic moving back and forth to Mercury.

acid skyShe falls foul of a fellow officer – and rather than just put up and shut up, as she is advised to do, she decides to mete out her own revenge. With startling consequences… The early stages of this book is full of Clare’s experiences as a pilot and the pace is not exactly leisurely, but it isn’t a foot-to-the-floor adrenaline rush, either. But what it does do, is make us really care about Clare and get to know her thoroughly before she is plunged into her adventure. As well as give us plenty of insights into just how everything works on this world, with all the checks and balances and safety regulations, we get the sense that those living and working in this hostile environment know it well and have more or less got it under control… Until it all goes wrong, of course.

It’s a very neat trick. I cannot recall reading a book where I minded so much about the technology and what happens to it. As for Anson, this is his second book and it shows. The pacing is more sure-footed and while he takes risks with the particular storyline he has chosen, I think his depiction of Clare has managed to avoid the accusation that he has set up his female protagonist as a sex victim in a lazy plot device. The situation she finds herself in is all too believable – and Anson’s handling of the whole incident is well done. I’m looking forward to reading Anson’s next book. His particular format of juxtaposing the impressive technical ingenuity alongside the frailty and inherent rule-breaking that goes on in any human community makes for riveting storytelling.
9/10

Review of The Islanders by Christopher Priest

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Christopher Priest’s work is always a challenge. He regularly pushes the envelope with his beautifully written prose, as in The Separation, which I reviewed here. And this offering is no exception. So would I enjoy this book more than I enjoyed The Separation?

islandersThe Dream Archipelago is a vast network of islands. The names of the islands are different depending on who you talk to, their very locations seem to twist and shift. Some islands have been sculpted into vast musical instruments, others are home to lethal creatures, others the playground for high society. Hot winds blow across archipelago and a war fought between two distant continents is played out across the waters. The Islanders serves as an untrustworthy but enticing guide to the islands, an intriguing multi-layered tale of a murder and the suspect legacy of its appealing but definitely untrustworthy narrator.

Whether this book could be called a novel is a matter for debate – the overall narrative spine of The Islanders is a visitor’s guide to some of the islands within the Dream Archipelago with a series of short, factually concise guides to a range of islands. At the same time, we become increasingly aware that this task is doomed to failure. Because of temporal anomalies that are now routinely used by aircraft to shorten flights, it is very difficult to accurately map large sections of the Archipelago. It gets worse – even trying to standardise the names of these islands proves a challenge as there are frequently anything up to three alternatives names for each one. And at least one of the poorer, less attractive islands appears to have appropriated the name of one of its more prosperous, popular neighbours in the hope of attracting a section of their tourist trade.

Who has embarked on this project of writing a gazetteer? We are never told. At least we are on solid ground at the beginning of the book – the famous novelist, Chaster Kammeston has written the Prologue – an oblique and rather qualified approval of the whole undertaking. However, one of the sections near the end of the book describes Chaster’s death – so how can he have read and approved of the manuscript sufficiently to have written the Prologue? Again, don’t expect Priest to provide any answers.

If the book had merely contained a series of tourist guide details about a bunch of non-existent islands, it would have joined my growing pile of DID NOT FINISH books on the grounds that Life is too short. But Priest is a fine writer – and mixed in amongst the clipped, impersonal island descriptions are a number of vivid characters, some amusing, some dark and some plain sad. A handful of these characters, including Chaster, constantly keep appearing and reappearing, building up a drifting, insubstantial plot that shifts as soon as you start to rely on it as the thread that will pull this book into a coherent whole. Even the chronology jumps around – nothing is certain.

So… did I enjoy The Islanders? Oh yes. Priest’s evocation of a vast, shifting population of islands that are resistant to any firm cataloguing is a temptingly attractive backdrop to his flickers of characterisation and drama. I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come.
10/10

Review of EBOOK Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves – Book 4 of The Shetland Quartet

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My mother – a crime fan – treated me to this ebook as an introduction to Ann Cleeves. I do dimly recall that she mentioned it was the last in the series and I should get the best out of Cleeves’ work if I started at the beginning of Jimmy Perez’s adventures. But by the time I read it, I’d forgotten her advice. So, given that I’ve never read any Ann Cleeves’ mysteries before, did it matter?

Shetland Detective Jimmy Perez knows it will be a difficult homecoming when he returns to the Fair Isles to introduce his fiancée, Fran, to his parents. It’s a community where everyone knows each other, and strangers, while welcomed, are still viewed with a degree of mistrust. Challenging to live on at the best of times, with the autumn storms raging, the island feels cut off from the rest of the world. Trapped, tension is high and tempers become frayed. Enough to drive someone to murder… When a woman’s body is discovered at the renowned Fair Isles bird observatory, with feathers threaded through her hair, the islanders react with fear and anger. With no support from the mainland and only Fran to help him – Jimmy has to investigate the old-fashioned way. He soon realizes that this is no crime of passion – but a murder of cold and calculated intention. With no way off the island until the storms abate – Jimmy knows he has to work quickly. There’s a killer on the island just waiting for the opportunity to strike again…

blue lightningCongratulations to Pan – I think the back cover blurb is the best I’ve read for a while. It gives a sense of the flavour and richness of the story without presenting us with any major spoilers. And it is spot on with the allusion to the old fashioned feel of this tale. Set within an isolated community and a limited number of suspects, all of whom could have had strong reasons for murdering the rather unpleasant victim, the story reminds me of the Agatha Christie thrillers I grew up reading. However, Cleeves ensures that nod to the past is just that – as her protagonist is far more vulnerable and riddled with doubts than the imperturbably self-assured Miss Marple. And as subsequent events unfolded, I was jolted from treating this as an intellectual puzzle, and became fully engrossed in the story while Cleeves ramps up the action and the emotional tempo with wonderful descriptions and shrewd observations sharper than the knives her murderer wields.

Murder mysteries are often defined by their surroundings – think of Stephen Booth’s Derbyshire landscape; Colin Dexter’s Oxford cityscape and more recently, Dana Stabenow’s Alaskan scenery. Ann Cleeves sets these stories in the Shetlands in a landscape she clearly knows well and loves. Her description of the sudden storms, dramatic harsh scenery and the isolation of the natives is pin sharp. And this is a landscape with teeth. The characters are defined by their reaction to this bleak, magnificent backdrop, which also controls their behaviour. When a storm hits this part of the world, everyone is confined indoors for days at a time and the island is cut off.

Even though I had not read the other books, I was intrigued with Perez’s personal life and willing his lover, Fran, to bond with his family and the landscape, enabling Perez to return to his family home should he wish to do so. That Cleeves is a writer at the height of her powers rapidly became apparent and I just relaxed into the action and got swept along, confident in the knowledge that I was in the hands of an experienced and talented storyteller. She took me along a twisting story full of incident and details that gave insights into possible suspects and the murder victim. As with the best whodunit, Blue Lightning is an exploration into human behaviour and what exactly makes some of us tick – and a very few, break the ultimate taboo of taking another life.

So, after this eventful, excellently written journey – does Cleeves provide us with a suitably exciting denouement? Oh, absolutely. I read this late into the night and found myself genuinely moved by the climax. I read far too many books to weep easily, but this one had me crying at the end. However, before rushing out to grab a copy of this book – perhaps you would be advised to listen to my mother – and start at the beginning of this wonderful series with the first book Raven Black. I know that I shall be off to track this down, so I can read the rest of this excellent series in the correct order.
10/10

EBOOK – Review of A Cold Day for Murder – Book 1 of the Kate Shuguk series by Dana Stabenow

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My husband came across this author about six months ago and has steadily worked his way through her complete output, which is considerable – her twentieth book in this series, Bad Blood, was released in February. I’ve a backlog of books to complete but when I was recently away for a few days, I downloaded A Cold Day For Murder.

colddaySomewhere in the hinterlands of Alaska, among the millions of sprawling acres that comprise “The Park,” a young National Park Ranger has gone missing. When the detective sent after him also vanishes, the Anchorage DA’s department must turn to their reluctant former investigator, Kate Shugak. Shugak knows The Park because she’s of The Park, an Aleut who left her home village of Niniltna to pursue education, a career, and the righting of wrongs. Kate’s search for the missing men will take her from self-imposed exile back to a life she’d left behind, and face-to-face with people and problems she’d hoped never to confront again.

As you may have gathered from the blurb, there is a lot here that sounds very familiar – a gutsy heroine with a troubled past who finds herself compelled to take on a case. What makes this whodunit offering stand out from the crowd is the setting. Alaska. And while Stabenow writes a reasonably effective protagonist and an entertaining plot – the engine that drives this story is the setting. Immediately we are presented with a landscape as nearly alien as some of the science fiction and fantasy settings I’m so fond of – in a setting such as this, no one can forget their surroundings. It drives the way everyone behaves and goes about their daily lives. It creates unique problems and pleasures that the rest of us cannot access.

Stabenow’s depiction of daily Alaskan life is pin sharp and rings with authenticity as she was brought up in that part of the world. Kate Shuguk, the protagonist, is a member of the local ethnic tribe, who went away and has returned and through her viewpoint, Stabenow not only gives us an entertaining adventure set in one of the wilder parts of the world, she also gives us a brief insight into the options open to a small underclass of people, whose history and geography have immediately ringfenced their opportunities. Popular genre fiction doesn’t often manage to give us these insights. While Stabenow’s first priority is clearly to provide a well-crafted story, as she mentioned in a recent Radio 4 interview, people’s impressions are that Alaska is a pristine wilderness where inhabitants can somehow commune with Nature. The reality is a whole lot more complicated and messy, as Stabenow suggests.

So, given that the backdrop and environment are the stars in this story and series – does Stabenow manage to craft a suitably complex supporting cast and plot? Yes, she does. Her writing style is straightforward and she uses limited omniscience, rather than fully character-led POV. If she’d set the stories in Chicago or New York, I don’t think she would have got away with it, but given the backdrop and her ability to provide a vivid description without holding up the action, she manages to pull it off. I’m certainly up for diving into the next book in this series.
8/10

Review of The Reindeer People – Book 1 of The Reindeer People Saga by Megan Lindholm

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reindeer peopleFor those of you who are interested in such things, Megan Lindholm also writes under the name of Robin Hobb, one of the most successful and accomplished Fantasy writers of her generation. Her impressive output includes The Farseer Trilogy, Liveship Traders Trilogy, The Tawny Man Trilogy and The Soldier’s Son Trilogy. This novel is a significant departure to her other work – it is set in the distant past and there isn’t very much magic, other than that provided by the overbearing shaman.

Living on the outskirts of the tribe, Tillu is happy spending her time tending her strange, slow, dreamy child Kerlew and communing with the land to heal the sick and bring blessing on new births. However Carp, the Shaman, an ugly wizened old man whose magic smells foul to Tillu knows that Carp’s magic will steal her son and her soul. So begins a harrowing and desperate pursuit across the winter-ravaged lands, as Tillu’s flight leads them into an uncertain, and deadly, new future.

This tale pulls you in immediately as we follow Tillu in her efforts to keep her son safe in a period where Life is tough – particularly for a lone woman with a child who is oblivious of the social conventions surrounding him. Where the weather and any number of illnesses or accidents can wipe out a life and those depending upon it in a matter of hours, Lindholm manages to depict the time and place with pinsharp attention to detail, without giving us any long-winded exposition. We are not only confronted with Tillu’s dilemma – we also learn of Heckram’s struggle to secure himself a reasonable future, after the untimely death of his father. He feels a strong sense of sympathy for the fey Kerlew and desires to help him. But he has other calls on his loyalty and energy, as Elsa, his childhood sweetheart is clearly in trouble and looks to him for help…

Lindholm manages to give a wholly convincing slice of life in a reindeer herder’s village and the scene when a young couple are setting up home together is a particularly fine example of how deftly this author crafts a technically demanding scene. I don’t know whether Lindholm has much immediate experience of the sort of landscape she uses in this story – but it certainly reads as if she has.

If you enjoy reading historical tales that have the characters and their particular problems jumping off the page and into your head, then go looking for this book – and one of my main priorities is to get hold of the sequel, Wolf’s Brother.
10/10

Writing a landscape – you’ll be lost if you don’t…

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You’ve got this great story with a really neat ending. You’ve nailed the character – there was this teacher at your school who, with a bit of tweaking, will fit snugly into the part.

Fizzling with creative excitement, you spend the next week slaving over the computer. But on returning to your masterpiece for the first editing session, you are disappointed. It, somehow, seems rather flat. Which is odd – because the character is just as you envisaged and that cool plot twist has worked well, too. Chances are, if you are still scratching your head, your story is lacking an adequate setting. It’s crucial. But can get easily overlooked while trying to marshal all the other vital ingredients necessary to write a zinger.

Another classic ‘newbie’ writing fault is to give us a quick sketch during the opening paragraphs and then never touch on the scenery surrounding the action, again. However, it’s a tricky balancing act. Neither do we want detailed descriptions stretching into paragraphs, where your characters seem to have vanished while you are busy telling us about the lashing rain/drenched cityscape/squalid neighbourhood… How to get the mix just right, so that your characters and action are adequately anchored, without drowning your story in too much description?

This is where our old friend POV (point of view) comes to the rescue. You filter your backdrop through your protagonist– her thoughts, actions and reactions to the weather/Christmas shopping crowds/the herd of cows clogging up the country lane…

If you have multiple viewpoints, you can have some fun with one character loving the café – while another loathes it. Take care if you are writing short fiction, though. I don’t generally recommend switching viewpoints in any story less than 2,500 words. It CAN be done effectively, but you need to be skilful to pull it off.

Writing science fiction, my everyday surroundings can be of limited or no help. I find that using my characters to describe their landscape (or spacescape) is a huge help in getting the setting sufficiently depicted.

At times, I have also found the writing frame below to be useful in jogging my elbow. Although it is fairly crude, notice how it employs all the senses, ensuring that I haven’t neglected any of them. I’ve found it handy when writing a number of scenes in my books, when I don’t necessarily want to describe everything single thing around me to my readership – but I sure as heck want my character to be able to visualise it…

The air was ………………………………………… around me. A few steps in front of me I could see…………………………………
and above me ………………………………………… . The sound of
…………………………………………could be heard. To my right, ……………………………………, while to my left, ……………………
………………………… . Listening, I could hear …………………… …………………and the smell of ………………………………………… filled my nose. It felt ………………………………………… .