Category Archives: outstanding books

#Sci Fi Month – The Ones That Got Away…

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I’ve loved Sci Fi Month – huge thanks to Lisa and the team for organising this fabulous event. As you’ll have realised, I got a tad carried away… In fact, I got even more carried away than is apparent on the blog – because I ran out of November with still a stack of science fiction goodness all reviewed and ready to go. So here is a quick rundown of the books that missed out:

Black Holiday – Book 2 of The Black Chronicles by J.M. Anjewierden
Morgan has finally made it, earning an officer’s slot on S.T.E.V.E., the ancient flagship of the Takiyama Merchant House. She’s survived so much to get here, and isn’t about to let lingering nightmares over those events stop her now. That said, even the toughest mechanics need down time. Grudgingly taking some shore leave, Morgan goes to visit the estate of her friend Emily, Baroness Novan – and gets caught up in trouble that, for once, isn’t of her own making…
I reviewed the first book in this entertaining series here – so was keen to jump in and see what happens next to Morgan – which was something of a shock… I really enjoyed this offering and am looking forward to reading the next one when it is released.

 

Dreadnought – Book 2 of the Lost Colonies series by B.V. Larson
Captain William Sparhawk flies Earth’s single starship on a voyage of exploration. His crew of veteran spacers begins the mission with high hopes and the best of intentions, but the universe has other plans. Instead of space merchants and potential allies, they discover Earth’s impending doom. Sparhawk must decide whether to hunt down enemy scouts to keep Earth’s new starship a secret, or to head home to warn Star Guard of the danger. Either way, he’s ignited an interstellar war.
I’ve become a solid fan of Captain William Sparhawk – see my review of Battle Cruiser – and this stagnating, dystopian society – there is a real shock at the end of this book which is a gamechanger for the next one, such that I can’t wait to jump in and discover what happens next…

 

Nimbus – Book 3 of the Psi-Tech series by Jacey Bedford
In a galaxy where the super-powers are the megacorporations, and ambitious executives play fast and loose with ethics in order to secure resources, where can good people turn for help? The megacorps control the jump gates and trade routes. They use psi-techs, implant-enhanced operatives with psionic abilities, who are bound by unbreakable contracts.
But something alien is stirring in the depths of foldspace. Something bigger than the squabbles between megacorporations and independents. Foldspace visions are supposed to be a figment of the imagination. At least, that’s what they teach in flight school. Ben Benjamin knows it’s not true. Meeting a void dragon was bad enough, but now there’s the Nimbus to contend with. Are the two connected? Why do some ships transit the Folds safely and others disappear without a trace?
I’ve loved this entertaining series from a writer I thoroughly respect – see my review of Empire of Dust here. It was her talk on how to organise submissions to agents and small publishers and fired me up so that I persevered, getting a contract with the awesome folks at Grimbold Publishing in the process. It was a blast reading this final slice of the Psi-Tech series and I’ll be reviewing it shortly.

 

The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky
After an unfortunate accident, Handry is forced to wander a world he doesn’t understand, searching for meaning. He soon discovers that the life he thought he knew is far stranger than he could even possibly imagine. Can an unlikely saviour provide the answers to the questions he barely comprehends?
I love Adrian Tchaikovsky’s writing – see my review of Children of Time here. This intriguing novella is another treat, where an unfortunate incident has unforeseen consequences – this writer is fond of those. While part of this colony world adventure was reassuringly familiar, Tchaikovsky does his trick of taking genre conventions by the scruff of their neck and giving them a good shake.

 

Satellite by Nick Lake
He’s going to a place he’s never been before: home. Moon 2 is a space station that orbits approximately 250 miles above Earth. It travels 17,500 miles an hour, making one full orbit every ninety minutes. It’s also the only home that fifteen-year-old Leo and two other teens have ever known. Born and raised on Moon 2, Leo and the twins, Orion and Libra, are finally old enough and strong enough to endure the dangerous trip to Earth. They’ve been “parented” by teams of astronauts since birth and have run countless drills to ready themselves for every conceivable difficulty they might face on the flight.
This was an intriguing read, given it was written in text-prose. While I understand a number of readers simply couldn’t get through it, I think the fact this was a paperback actually helped. The story itself is thoroughly enjoyable, apart from a set piece that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Hollywood film, but rather let the book down. Other than that, I found the questions this book raised were both uncomfortable and pertinent for our near-future expansion into space.

 

The Boy on the Bridge – Book 2 of The Girl With All the Gifts series by M.R. Carey
Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy. The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world. To where the monsters lived.
If you haven’t read The Girl With All the Gifts yet want to plunge into this offering, feel free to do so – while it is set in the same world, the links between the two books are tenuous and don’t add all that much to the overall story. I found this zombie apocalypse reworking a heartbreak of missed opportunities and bungled decisions – but oh so very believable. And if zombies aren’t your thing, don’t dismiss this one – they aren’t my thing either, but Carey’s a master storyteller and this is a masterful story.

So… these are the books I read and reviewed for Sci Fi Month, before I realised that November only had 30 days – and there are a number of others I haven’t yet written the reviews for. As I said, I did get a tad carried away. What about you – are there any here that have taken your eye? What did you read for Sci Fi Month?

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Review of Ebook Terms of Enlistment – Book 1 of the Frontlines series by Marko Kloos #Brainfluffbookreview #TermsofEnlistmentbookreview

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Marko Kloos is one of the authors that Himself has mentioned more than once, so when I asked for more science fiction reads for Sci Fi Month, he suggested I read this series.

The year is 2108, and the North American Commonwealth is bursting at the seams. For welfare rats like Andrew Grayson, there are only two ways out of the crime-ridden and filthy welfare tenements, where you’re restricted to two thousand calories of badly flavored soy every day. You can hope to win the lottery and draw a ticket on a colony ship settling off-world, or you can join the service. With the colony lottery a pipe dream, Andrew chooses to enlist in the armed forces for a shot at real food, a retirement bonus, and maybe a ticket off Earth. But as he starts a career of supposed privilege, he soon learns that the good food and decent health care come at a steep price…and that the settled galaxy holds far greater dangers than military bureaucrats or the gangs that rule the slums.

I really enjoyed this one. Kloos is clearly a talented and experienced author, who gives us a sympathetic, slightly taciturn protagonist with something of an edge, especially when things were going wrong and that edge turns into dark humour. Grayson tucks into boot camp and prepares to tough it out – not that he finds it too much of a struggle, given the dire conditions in the tenement where he grew up. I’m a sucker for school/learning environments, given what a pressure cooker they can be and was perfectly willing for the whole thing to last a lot longer than it did. When the story moved on and Grayson progresses from being a trainee to becoming a newbie, I enjoyed it. The action is engrossing and feels authentic, with the detailed worldbuilding.

And then came a pivotal moment in the narrative when it all hits the fan and the story takes a left turn into something completely different. I couldn’t put it down. My heart was beating and my palms sweated as I read one of the best battle scenes I’ve encountered during a sortie that goes terribly wrong…

As I came to the conclusion of the scene, I looked at the book, surprised we weren’t closer to the end of the book – surely this was the climactic showpiece to this slice of the story? No – what Kloos then does is change the pacing again and take the story off into another direction. Grayson is then given a different set of challenges that give us further insights into his character, before finishing this excellent start to the series. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into the next book.

Highly recommended for fans of military science fiction adventures.
10/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle #Brainfluffbookreview #Windhavenbookreview

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While I cannot get on with his sprawling epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, I am a real fan of much of Martin’s writing – see my review of Tuf Voyaging here, and I also enjoyed Lisa Tuttle’s The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross – see my review here. So it was a no-brainer that I would pounce on this one when I spotted it. I’m so glad I did – and I’ll be linking this review to Sci-Fi Month.

The planet of Windhaven was not originally a home to humans, but it became one following the crash of a colony starship. It is a world of small islands, harsh weather, and monster-infested seas. Communication among the scattered settlements was virtually impossible until the discovery that, thanks to light gravity and a dense atmosphere, humans were able to fly with the aid of metal wings made of bits of the cannibalized spaceship.

Many generations later, among the scattered islands that make up the water world of Windhaven, no one holds more prestige than the silver-winged flyers, who bring news, gossip, songs, and stories. They are romantic figures crossing treacherous oceans, braving shifting winds and sudden storms that could easily dash them from the sky to instant death. They are also members of an increasingly elite caste, for the wings—always in limited quantity—are growing gradually rarer as their bearers perish. With such elitism comes arrogance and a rigid adherence to hidebound tradition. And for the flyers, allowing just anyone to join their cadre is an idea that borders on heresy. Wings are meant only for the offspring of flyers—now the new nobility of Windhaven. Except that sometimes life is not quite so neat…

The story charts the fortunes of Maris, who we first meet as a small child, foraging for anything of value on the beach when she makes a life-changing encounter. She meets a flyer called Russ who picks the child up and treats her dream of being a flyer as something more than just the imaginings of some land-bound brat. He eventually adopts her and trains her – until unexpectedly, he has a son. Maris helps to bring the motherless boy up, until the terrible day when she is forced to hand over the wings she has been flying with. For she is not entitled to keep them – they belong to Coll, Russ’s son, even though he yearns to be a singer and has already caught the eye of one of the best professional singers on Windhaven, who wishes to train him. But tradition says that Coll must follow Russ as a flyer, despite his inability to feel the wind.

As we follow Maris and her battle to continue to fly, we also learn of the original colonists and how they accidentally encountered Windhaven. The worldbuilding is excellent with wonderful descriptions of the storms that regularly sweep the planet and the air currents that generally keep the flyers in the sky – and occasionally fling them into the sea. It is a hard, dangerous life and flyers keep to themselves, forming close ties with each other, while despising those who are not able to fly.

A particular decision is made that overturns a tradition that has begun to cause problems – and in a less nuanced, clever book, we would get a variety of adventures involving talented flyer Maris and that would be that. However in this book, decisions have consequences that no one foresaw. The rest of the book continues to follow what befalls Maris, while also exploring the fallout from those decisions and how they impact upon the traditional way of life on Windhaven for both flyers and land-bound alike. I love the way this plays out and how the previous faultlines in society are not only heightened but previous prejudices are also strengthened.

This is a clever, thoughtful book that nonetheless also delivers an engrossing story full of adventure and incident, featuring a sympathetic and believable protagonist. Highly recommended for fans of quality colony adventure… quality fantasy… quality books, basically. Read it and you’ll see what I mean.
10/10

Interview with JEAN LEE – Author of Fallen Princeborn: STOLEN #Brainfluffauthorinterview #JeanLeeauthorinterview

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I’d like to welcome Jean Lee, author of the recently released Fallen Princeborn: STOLEN which blew me away – see my review here. I’ve been reading Jean’s amazing blog for a while now and it’s always a pleasure so I was delighted to have a chance to chat to her about her writing.

How does Wisconsin inspire you as a writer?

Wisconsin breeds the fantastic.

We are home to peculiar, toothsome beasts like the Hodag, devourer of all-white bulldogs.

We are home to unique, word-some writers like Neil Gaiman: “There’s that tiny off-kilter nature in the Midwest that’s in the details,” he says when asked about writing…

Neil Gaiman says ‘American Gods’ is

rooted in Minnesota-Wisconsin weirdness

The writer found a strange quality in the Midwest that fuels his “American Gods.”

We are home to hidden towns, small growths of community where railroads and highways meet, places that no one finds unless they mean to find it. Picturesque, perhaps? Plainfield was indeed picturesque once—until Ed Gein was arrested in November of 1957. You may know the rest. Basically, Gein inspired many of the fictional horror icons we know today: Norman Bates, Leatherface, and Buffalo Bill are all rooted in the reality of Ed Gein.
We drove through the wild patches between the hidden towns often when I was a child. I never tried to occupy myself with books or toys in the car. There was too much to see, out there in those scattered homesteads, too much to wonder about. What happened inside that dying barn? Why is that gravel drive roped off, and where does it lead? Where are all the people for those rusted cars littering the field?

This is the Wisconsin I live in now. The land dips and rises in unexpected places. The trees may crowd a rural highway so much you can lose yourself driving, only to have the tunnel burst open to sunshine and a white-crested river running beneath a bridge you’d swear had never seen a car before. In the small farming town of my youth, I could stand on the lone highway through town and hear snowflakes land beneath the orange street lights.

Wisconsin is filled with hidden towns, small growths of community where railroads and highways meet, places that no one finds unless they mean to find it. Rock Springs was a town of 600 when I was a child, a little grain-fill stop for the railroad. We didn’t even have a gas station until I turned 5, and our library, a small portion of the town’s community center, could fit in a utility closet (it probably was a utility closet at one point). Farms and wild wood filled the gaps between towns. Unless, of course, you went towards Wisconsin Dells, where the wilderness is trimmed and prepped and ready for its mandatory close-up before the tourist rushes to the proper civilization of water parks and casinos.

We drove through those wild patches often. I never tried to occupy myself with books or toys in the car. There was too much to see, out there in those scattered homesteads, too much to wonder about. What happened inside that dying barn? Why is that gravel drive roped off, and where does it lead? Where are all the people for those rusted cars littering the field?

This is the Wisconsin I live in now. The land dips and rises in unexpected places. The trees may crowd a rural highway so much you can lose yourself driving, only to have the tunnel burst open to sunshine and a white-crested river running beneath a bridge you’d swear had never seen a car before. In Rock Springs, one could stand on the lone highway through town and hear snowflakes land beneath the orange street lights.

Both Charlotte and Liam, the Fallen Prince, are strong, nuanced characters – when you first started writing this book whose story did you most want to tell?

At the outset, the story was all about Charlotte. It was strictly in her point of view, the story opened with more of Charlotte and her sister’s life before boarding the bus, and so on. I wanted Charlotte to escape her wretched life and fly. But once I got her into River Vine, I began to see an ensemble take shape, a family of characters bearing their own shames and despairs, all struggling to free themselves and find hope in the future.

Liam wasn’t much to me at the outset–just a pompous artist who had some growing up to do. It was Arlen, the teacher, that got me to slow down and see what he saw: a kind heart that had been brutalized so often it had forgotten what it meant to feel. The more I drafted, the more I came to see Liam’s inner struggle to grow beyond his cage.

When did you start writing Fallen Princeborn: Stolen?

2010. Yup, that’s a while ago, but life tends to fill the years, and in my case, I had just become a mom. Postpartum depression hit hard. Very, very hard. I felt very cut-off from life. I couldn’t feel the joy of motherhood. I found myself often staring out a window, trapped in walls yet somehow exiled outside of feeling. I’d look upon my sleeping baby and feel nothing but guilt because I couldn’t feel complete with motherhood. Then a friend introduced me to the awesome challenge that is National Novel Writing Month. From November 1st-30th, you are to write 50,000 words of a story not yet started (that’s cheating. Outlines are permissible, though.). The story may need more than 50K words, but what matters is that you reach that length in thirty days.

I swung it that year, and felt AMAZING. I was escaping the trap, driven to feel with characters outside of this world. I couldn’t just sit and dwell on individual lines or plot points—I had to keep going, and because I had to march on in the narrative, I found myself marching on in real life, too. I wasn’t staring out the window waiting for minutes to pass. I was…I was back, you know?

I felt a part of life again, enjoying the touch of my daughter’s tiny hands around my finger and her boundless grey-blue eyes. I reveled in these things. I felt…complete.

How did you figure out the names of your characters?

Charlotte’s name came from a baby book in the long, long, LONG process of choosing a name for our firstborn. After weeks of highlighting and crossing out names, we had narrowed ourselves down to Charlotte and ____. Well, we went with ____ for our kid, so I kept the name Charlotte for my heroine. I’d grown attached to the name over those weeks. It carries both feminine and masculine traits, both delicacy and strength. A perfect fit.

Nature was ripe for names, since this small society has been cut off from the rest of the world for centuries. From this I uprooted names like Poppy, Ember, and even Campion (it’s a kind of rose). Many of the other names I chose after studying The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. I loved having this broad overview of names across various cultures. It’s through this book I discovered names that fit some aspect of my characters’ nature, such as Dorjan—“Dark Man” and Liam—“strong-willed warrior.” It’s important to have names that matter. Be it the history, the meaning, or because my child almost carried it—the name needs to matter.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Writing’s a must. When I write, I channel the depression away from my family and into a universe where my characters can fight it.

It’s never completely gone, you know, depression. We can slay it, burn it, bury it—but it never dies. Only by spinning stories can I transplant some of that darkness into villains, heroes, and worlds. From the darkness grows the adventure and the hope.

What has it been like – juggling writing, teaching and three kids?

Three years ago, you may as well have asked what it’s like to juggle three bowling pins with spikes on fire. Back when I was trying to write in bedlam, I stole whatever time I could before dawn. The television usually bought me at least an hour in the day to outline, draft dialogue, or keep up with my blog. The children’s naptime never felt long enough, but I made due.

Once the boys began preschool, I could at least promise myself one hour of writing time a day. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But that’s the thing about writing and keeping a job and running a household: every minute to write’s a blessing. Sometimes those days crash and burn. Other times—like when the boys didn’t have school—we found other ways to be creative.

Now that Blondie, Biff, and Bash are in school all day, I always have time for writing, be it for the blog, editing, drafting, etc. Granted, summer’s still a trial, but because I didn’t give up on writing when time was scarce, I have many stories to share here in the daylight hours.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Research can feel like a big time-suck, but when it comes to publishing, DO YOUR RESEARCH! There are so many scammers out there with their “author services” and “exclusive anthologies.” They’re going to talk you up, make you feel amazing, and before you know it you’ve paid four digits for lousy editing on a slap-dash affair no one’s going to see. Scope out the small presses. Join author groups online to gather recommendations for editors, book designers, and cover artists. Your story deserves to be seen, but when it’s ready.

Yes, an author platform really does help. Don’t think of it as yet another time suck; rather, treat it as the regimented prose exercise. Reading countless other voices, writing tight posts on a regular basis—all helps the craft, not hinders it. No, it’s not the novel you dream hitting the best-seller list, but making a website, commenting on social media—these simple actions give your name an author’s history. Other writers/publishers/agents/readers can trace your name back to studies, comments, and whatever else you write. You build that platform, you build a writer’s resume for the publishing business to see.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

When my sons’ principal calls. Nothing f***s over the creative mindset when you have to come and talk about one son, or the other, or both. Again.

Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

I do write under a pseudonym, actually. When you’re a preacher’s kid, all your actions and talents are scrutinized—“you play piano just like your mom!” “You sing just like your dad!” “You write just like your father.” “You should be just like your mom and become a teacher.”

There comes a time when you get sick of all the comparisons, and just want to be known for something YOU do, not what your parents do. So when I started my site Jean Lee’s World, I wanted to see who’d like my writing for my writing, NOT because of who I am or whomever I’m related to. Writing under another name’s also allowed me to work through past traumas and current depressions without bringing any family members under fire, which is important to me. These are my demons, not theirs.

How did you begin writing the short stories that accompany your novel?
The short stories began as a writing experiment last year. My husband had been listening to John Carpenter’s Lost Themes, and a story began to shape in my head of a child dying at the hands of a cuddly creature before a dark skulking thing gets involved. When I showed the short story to my publishers, they encouraged me to write more short stories as little introductions to the universe of Charlotte and these imprisoned shapeshifters. Thus Tales of the River Vine was born, with stories following both antagonists and protagonists across the years.

The challenge with such “prequels,” as they are, was to find emotional centers without chipping away at the emotional arc of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. Take the last story of the collection, “Tattered Rhapsody.” Originally I intended the story to be called “Dirty Charlie,” featuring Charlotte the Wise-Ass taking on some gang members at her high school for profit. Girl’s got to earn bus money somehow, right?

But the story felt wrong. I couldn’t pin it at first. Charlotte’s there, she’s showing her strength, her protective instincts for her kid sister. And yet, the story felt…heartless.
Then it hit me: Charlotte’s heart doesn’t speak with her fists. It speaks with her music.
And just like that, the story’s heart found a pulse, a rhythm both despairing yet defiant. Just like Charlotte.

I hope you enjoy reading “Tattered Rhapsody” and the other Tales of the River Vine and telling me what you think. They’re all FREE on Kindle, Nook, and other publishing platforms!

 

 

 

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Fallen Princeborn: STOLEN by Jean Lee #Brainfluffbookreview #FallenPrinceborn:STOLENbookreview

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Jean Lee writes excellent articles on her blog – slices of her family and writing life that leap off the page. So when she asked me if I would be interested in reviewing her first full-length fantasy book, I jumped at the opportunity. I will be posting her fantastic interview on Monday…

In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.

Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte is running away with her younger sister Anna. Together they board a bus. Little do they know that they’re bound for River Vine—a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shapeshifters feed, and where the seed of love sets root among the ashes of the dying.

This one starts with a bang. I love Lee’s immersive style as we immediately are caught up in Charlotte’s concerns once the bus comes to a stop and the passengers spill out. As well as keeping a firm eye on Anna, her rebellious teenage sister, Charlotte is busy checking out the reason why they’ve broken down… their fellow passengers… their surroundings… the odd behaviour of the local wildlife, particularly a certain raven… It’s clear she has a heightened sense of smell – and that while she is alert and apprehensive, she isn’t afraid. Lee does a masterful job of establishing Charlotte’s difference and concerns from the very first line. I loved her.

The worldbuilding is brilliant. Lee’s snappy prose style gives us a real sense of the surroundings – and thanks to Charlotte’s enhanced olfactory abilities, we not only get to see the world, we get to smell it, too. Once the turning point in the book occurs, Charlotte finds herself in a completely different place with different rules. We get to see her propensity to act first and consider later, even if she isn’t always sure that’s the best strategy. During her troubled and often violent past, this has proved to be successful and it also provides her with release for the simmering anger that drives her. I loved watching her progression as she very slowly starts to let her guard down – only for all her suspicions surge once more when she becomes convinced that she is being double-crossed.

The other main protagonist is Liam, the Bloody Prince, who makes a dramatic entrance thanks to Charlotte’s intervention. He is also an interesting mixture. Imbued with a great deal of innate power, his abilities have been compromised over the years by his tendency to use them for his own baser ends. I really liked this aspect – far too often protagonists pitch up with major abilities they have only used for the greater good, with only the baddies who give in to the darker side… But what if a main character’s upbringing is sufficiently skewed to lead him down some dark paths? Can he pull themselves free of such a compromised past and redeem himself? This is one of the main questions Jean asks.

And the clash of cultures between entitled, mesmerising Liam and embattled, bitter Charlotte ensures that plenty of sparks fly. His assumption that he can schmooze her with his usual mix of flattery and mind-power elicits her contemptuous fury, beginning to make him reconsider what he is doing.

He isn’t the only nuanced, interesting character – all the supporting cast have their own tales. I particularly love Arlen, who had the thankless task of raising Liam and his own gifted and powerful nephew and is still trying to hold everything together.

Those violet-eyed, murdering creatures are also fascinating, with their own tragic stories. Like the grief-stricken, trapped fae who has seen his children blown apart, and is intent on slaughtering any human he can get hold of. While he clearly shouldn’t prevail, I liked knowing why his behaviour is so savage. How refreshing to be sympathetic to the antagonists, especially given what they have done and what they are planning to do to humanity.

After the initial tension-filled opening and flurry of action, the pace eases up as we are given a ringside seat into Charlotte’s struggle to acclimatise and discover exactly what is going on. I didn’t mind – I was hooked. Once the story picked up again, gathering momentum for the final denouement I simply didn’t bother to put this one down. Lee’s spin on some of the classical mythical tropes, such as the Tree of Life and a usurped prince, is beautifully handled. There are a couple of short story collections set in this world, but I am hoping for another full-length book of more adventures in this savage, strange place.

Highly recommended for fans of quality, character-led fantasy.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Muse of Nightmares – Book 2 of the Strange the Dreamer series by Laini Taylor #Brainfluffbookreview #MuseofNightmaresbookreview

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I recently completed Strange the Dreamer, the first book in this amazing series and immediately went ahead and bought the second book – I had to know what would happen next…

Sarai has lived and breathed nightmares since she was six years old. She believed she knew every horror and was beyond surprise. She was wrong.
In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.

That’s as much of the blurb I’m happy to share with you, given that if you have picked up this book without reading the first book, then put it back down and track down Strange the Dreamer. Muse of Nightmares immediately picks up the tale from where Strange the Dreamer left off, so you’ll be floundering without appreciating the full awesome specialness of either Sarai or Lazlo if you try to plunge straight into the middle of this duology.

In this book, we also are introduced to two sisters, Kora and Nova. While Sarai and Lazlo are battling with Minya, we also learn of the hard-scrabbled existence endured by Kora and Nova as their mother was taken by the blue-skinned gods. They are both convinced they are also worthy to serve – that when the time comes, they, too, will be taken away from their cruel step-mother and uncaring father before they end up being married to men old enough to pay for them. And then the silver skyship comes… I particularly love this story arc and would have enjoyed more of it and a little less of the romantic scenes between Lazlo and Sarai. But it is supposedly a YA read, so I’m aware that I’m not the target audience. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, more of an observation.

What I particularly enjoyed was the way the story morphed from being a magical fantasy tale into a science fiction story – and then was linked with the Daughter of Smoke and Bone universe – nicely done! However, I was interested to note that most of the characters – at least the ones we cared about and even some of the ones we didn’t – had their story arcs completed in a more positive manner than I’d been expecting. While I knew that Taylor wasn’t writing grimdark or anything close to it, – I had rather assumed that there would be more losers, given the stakes were so very high and I’m not sure that I was completely convinced by some of the character transformations.

That said, I couldn’t put this one down until I’d finished it and if it didn’t contain quite the same atmosphere and magic of Strange the Dreamer as far as I’m concerned, it is still an amazing read and one I very highly recommend.
9½/10

Friday Faceoff – Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again… #Brainfluffbookblog

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This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This meme is currently being nurtured by Lynn’s Book Blog and the subject this week featuring on any of our covers is MYSTERY NOVEL, so I’ve selected Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

 

This edition was produced by Little, Brown and Company in December 2013. Initially I didn’t like it – too gloomy and odd. But it is a cover that has grown on me. There is a lot going on despite the preponderance of black – the glamorous woman hugging herself, clearly in trouble. For once, I even think the textbox featuring the title is well done – though I generally hate them – as it gives a sense of the period in which this classic was written.

 

Published in 2006 by HarperCollins, this is a classic case of more is less. The sepia image of the steps, presumably leading to Manderley, are suitably appropriate. Granted, the very plain white font is rather bald and could have done with a bit of texture or shadowing to lift it – but then scrawling a fancy R over the whole thing in a mismatched colour just shouts that some big boss looked at it and decided it ‘needed something’. He was probably right – but definitely not the odd scolling either side of that very plain font, or that R…

 

This edition, published by Virago in December 2007 is more like it. Those wrought-iron gates with the ominous glow in the background, echoed in the sky above the author’s name leaves a sense of menace without giving the impression it’s horror. I quite like this one, though once again, I think the title and author name are rather too plain.

 

Produced by Virago Modern Classics in 2015, this is my favourite. For starters, unlike any of the others to date, this cover is actually beautiful. The scrolling of the wrought-iron gate, the looping font for both the author and the title are eye-catching and visually appealing. And yet… those hectic red flowers shout that something is amiss – maybe dangerous.

 

This edition, also published by Virago, though in July 2015, is another excellent effort. You can see echoes of the previous design (I’m not sure which one came first) in the styling of the author and title font, but the colour is different. The silhouettes of Manderlay and the second Mrs de Winters – or is it Rebecca? – stand out really well against the black background. This one is a very close second, though the previous cover still just edges it for me. Which is your favourite?

Friday Faceoff – Clouds in my coffee… #Brainfluffbookblog

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This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This meme is currently being nurtured by Lynn’s Book Blog and the subject this week featuring on any of our covers is CLOUDS. I’ve selected Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read…

 

This edition was produced by Random House in August 2004. They do have my sympathy – trying to get a sense of this remarkable book on the cover must have been an almighty problem. They have gone for the prosaic, opting to provide six cloudscapes, presumably to represent the six viewpoints that feature within the narrative. The trouble is that the overall effect ends up looking like a book about the weather. That impression isn’t relieved by the red textbox featuring the title, which simply looks like a weather warning when the cover is in thumbnail.

 

Published in February 2005 by Sceptre, this cover is far more effective. The vibrant blue is both beautiful against the deep crimson cover and gives a sense of the extraordinary nature of the story. I love the treatment of the title font, too.

 

This Spanish edition, published by Duomo in 2012, once again falls back on the idea of the cloudscape, this time adding a ship to presumably denote the voyage of one of the protagonists. While I think it is a really cool idea, it is completely spoilt by chopping the lovely image in half and presenting the title and author in the most boring textbox on the planet. The two sad efforts at clouds plonked in there by someone who must have winced at all that white, aren’t sufficient to ease the visual tedium.

 

This edition, produced by Sceptre in 2014, is far more satisfactory. This time we have clouds, along with paper and ink, denoting one of the themes in the book – the fragility of historical records. I think this cover has caught the sense of the book really effectively and is my favourite.

 

This edition, published in January 2004 by Hodder & Stoughton, is just beautiful. I love the vibrancy – once again, it’s a surprise to see just how changes in colour can impact the overall design. My niggle is that the title simply doesn’t sufficiently stand out – and because of that, this week it is a tie. I cannot decide between this offering and the previous one. What do you think? Do you agree with me?

Review of paperback book Hero at the Fall – Book 3 of The Rebel of the Sands trilogy by Alwyn Hamilton #Brainfluffbookreview #HeroattheFallbookreview

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I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in this series – read my review of Rebel of the Sands here. So I was keen to see how Hamilton wraps up this entertaining Sand and Sorcery adventure.

When gunslinging Amani Al’Hiza escaped her dead-end town, she never imagined she’d join a revolution, let alone lead one. But after the bloodthirsty Sultan of Miraji imprisoned the Rebel Prince Ahmed in the mythical city of Eremot, she doesn’t have a choice. Armed with only her revolver, her wits, and her untameable Demdji powers, Amani must rally her skeleton crew of rebels for a rescue mission through the unforgiving desert to a place that, according to maps, doesn’t exist. As she watches those she loves most lay their lives on the line against ghouls and enemy soldiers, Amani questions whether she can be the leader they need or if she is leading them all to their deaths.

What I’ve really enjoyed throughout this twisting, roller-coaster adventure in Amani’s first- person narrative, is the way her character has continued to grow and develop. She can look back at that gun-toting girl, desperate to escape a dead-end existence with some disgust and amazement – the way we often do when we look back at our own lives. Not that she has much time to ponder all that much – except how to get herself and her dwindling band of rebels out of the next awful bind they find themselves in.

Hamilton has a pleasing knack of tipping our feisty heroine from one disaster to another, while steadily upping the stakes. This gives the book a punchy, page-turning pace that meant it was very difficult to put this one down – except when I wanted to surface, gasp some sand-free air, before plunging right back into the maelstrom that is the final book in this series.

I kept waiting for the pace to slacken off… for Amani to have some sort of breathing space while she recollected herself and those around her fighting for freedom – and laying down their lives. What knocked the wind out of me was that characters I’d grown to like actually died. Reminding me that people who rebel against the status quo generally pay a very high price – in many cases, the ultimate price.

There were short, intervening chapters after a major event, where we were pulled out of Amani’s head into an omniscient narrator reciting what stories were told about it in times to come. Initially, I was a bit fed up as I’m not a fan of omniscient narration. But by the end, I found I was thankful for the lull and enjoyed the sense of historical impact this desperate struggle was having. As for the ending – yes, it worked. And make no mistake – this is a very big deal. Hamilton is building towards the major confrontation from the first page, so it has to matter and be sufficiently surprising, thrilling and engrossing to justify all those hair-raising escapades along the way. A suitable ending to an outstanding fantasy series that has lodged in my memory despite reading hundreds of other books along the way.

Recommended for fans of sand and sorcery adventures with a strong Eastern flavour in the writing – but whatever you do, don’t start with Hero at the Fall – first enjoy Rebel of the Sands.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Foundryside – Book 1 of the Founders series by Robert Jackson Bennett #Brainfluffbookreview #Foundrysidebookreview

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I spotted this one on several book blogging sites I respect, but when Lynn at Lynn’s Book Blog featured it as one of her upcoming reads, I scampered across to Netgalley and managed to get approved for it. And we agreed to buddy read it…

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle. But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic–the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience–have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims. Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them…

Part of the rather chatty blurb above makes it clear the magic system is complex with a long, involved history. Back at the height of a lost civilisation, the ancients were able to wield magic to do unimaginable things and it is the discovery of some of their magical objects that has allowed the brightest minds to work out how to rekindle magical power, albeit in a bastardised form. It is the discovery of this magic powering the rise of the four merchanting families, who have a stranglehold on Tevanne. Furthermore, those who are not born into the service of these houses, or are thrown away after they have outlived their usefulness, scrabble for survival in the Commons. And there’s Sancia, whose backstory is different again…

I loved the premise and the world. It seems entirely plausible that a capitalist system would reward those with the magical skills and artefacts, while neglecting those who aren’t so fortunate. Sancia is a brilliant protagonist – one of the best I have read this year. Gritted, determined and focused on surviving, with a special ability that she would love to lose, she is a thief. Bennett writes her ability brilliantly and I found myself engrossed in her plight.

So I was more than a tad fed up when the action scenes were halted by chunks of explanation of how the magic works in omniscient point of view. The most egregious example occurs about halfway through the book during a fight – where the courageous hero is left hanging in mid-realisation that his attackers are flying, while we break off for a detailed explanation as to why flying is technically a really tricky business and therefore illegal… It was the only sheer quality of the writing and characters saved the book from flying across the room at this point. I would prefer an appendix where the magic system is explained in detail for those who like drilling into such details of the worldbuilding, rather than crashing across the story so intrusively.

Rant aside, this book is a joy. Fortunately the info-dumps decrease significantly in the second half of the book, allowing the pace to pick up. The world is well described and the characters gripped me – I like the fact that despite the patriarchy running Tevanne, there are plenty of strong, not necessarily likeable female characters who punch through the institutional obstacles in their path. But the character who shines through all of this is Sancia – I dreamt of her… Damaged, scarred and struggling with mental issues, she is still battling to move forward and strive for something better. The climax works brilliantly and I liked the ending, which nicely sets this one up for the sequel, which I look forward to reading.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy detailed, urban fantasy tales peopled with awesome characters – if that appendix was in place this book would have scored a 10. While I obtained an arc of Foundryside from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10