Tag Archives: Connie Willis

Friday Faceoff – Checkmate

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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 the one we prefer. This week the theme is black and white covers, so I’ve chosen Blackout – Book 1 of the All Clear series by Connie Willis.

 

This cover produced by Spectra Books in February 2010 is the original. I love the way we get small bubbles of action in amongst the shifting dark pattern – an attractive design that nicely echoes the content of this time-travelling adventure. This one is my favourite.

 

This offering was produced by Gollancz in June 2011 and is another strong contender. The cloud revealing the London skyline from the surrounding black cover is another strong, simple design that is both eye-catching and effective.

 

This French edition was published by J’ai lu in March 2014. The iconic view of Westminster surrounded by smoke smearing the sky would certainly make me look again and though I’m not a fan of solid blocks of colour as a backdrop for the title and author, this time the blue works very well.

 

Produced in September 2010 by Allen and Unwin, this Kindle edition is another successful effort. The greyscale shading works well as the girl is unmistakeably from the late 1930s/early 1940s. The red tinge near the top of the cover just behind the ruin gives a slight sense of menace – and a big clue as to the setting of the book.

 

Published in February 2010 by Spectra Books, this hardback edition is the most generic of the covers and my least favourite. It has clearly been taken from a photograph of the time and I think the overall design is further weakened by a rather limp title font. Which cover do you like best – and which is your least favourite?

 

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Favourite Time Travelling Novels – Part 1

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Loreen had posted a number of time travelling novels – which was when I recalled that I’m really fond of this genre and wanted to share my own selection with you…

Doomsday Book – Book 1 of the Oxford Time Travel series by Connie Willis
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as doomsdayreceiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received. But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

This is one of my outstanding reads, ever. I love this book – it is such an intelligent, layered read, with splashes of dry humour amongst the fear and terror. See my review here.

 

 

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
thetimetravelerswifeClare, a beautiful, strong-minded art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: his genetic clock randomly resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity from his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous and unpredictable, and lend a spectacular urgency to Clare and Henry’s unconventional love story. That their attempt to live normal lives together is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control.

This remarkable book is not just about Henry – it’s main protagonist is Clare, who is scooped up in the middle of this adventure before she is old enough to make a choice. An issue that she eventually resents… I love Niffenegger’s leap of imagination to consider how it must be to live alongside someone with this ability. The film doesn’t come close in doing justice to the book, by the way.

 

 

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
“I’ve had a most amazing time….”thetimemachine
So begins the Time Traveller’s astonishing firsthand account of his journey 800,000 years beyond his own era—and the story that launched H.G. Wells’s successful career and earned him his reputation as the father of science fiction. With a speculative leap that still fires the imagination, Wells sends his brave explorer to face a future burdened with our greatest hopes…and our darkest fears. A pull of the Time Machine’s lever propels him to the age of a slowly dying Earth. There he discovers two bizarre races—the ethereal Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks—who not only symbolize the duality of human nature, but offer a terrifying portrait of the men of tomorrow as well. Published in 1895, this masterpiece of invention captivated readers on the threshold of a new century. Thanks to Wells’s expert storytelling and provocative insight, The Time Machine will continue to enthral readers for generations to come.

I read this first when I was a teenager and I reread in my 20s, still impressed with Wells’ prescience. If you haven’t encountered this one, I highly recommend it.

 

 

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
tomsmidnightgardenLying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn’t exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .

Like many children’s classics, this haunting, bittersweet book is worth reading no matter how old you are. I have often thought it’s because both protagonists are children is the main reason why it has ended up in that genre. Tom, the visitor from the future, and Hannah, the imperious Victorian girl who always seems to be playing alone in the garden, no matter the weather have lodged in my mind ever since I encountered this book when I read it to a class a long time ago.

 

 

Lightning by Dean Koonz
In the midst of a raging blizzard, lightning struck on the night Laura Shane was born. And a mysterious lightningblond-haired stranger showed up just in time to save her from dying. Years later, in the wake of another storm, Laura will be saved again. For someone is watching over her. But just as lightning illuminates, darkness always follows close behind.

I haven’t read all that much Koonz, but I really enjoyed this time-travelling thriller, where it is the shadowy character who keeps appearing to keep Laura safe who is the most intriguing person – see my review here.

 

 

In the Garden of Iden – Book 1 of The Company novels by Kage Baker
inthegardenofidenThis is the first novel in what has become one of the most popular series in contemporary SF, now back in print from Tor. In the 24th century, the Company preserves works of art and extinct forms of life (for profit of course). It recruits orphans from the past, renders them all but immortal, and trains them to serve the Company, Dr. Zeus. One of these is Mendoza the botanist. She is sent to Elizabethan England to collect samples from the garden of Sir Walter Iden. But while there, she meets Nicholas Harpole, with whom she falls in love. And that love sounds great bells of change that will echo down the centuries, and through the succeeding novels of The Company

This remarkable series is part of brilliant premise that is played out over seven novels and the first five are stunningly good – the dreadfully named Mendoza in Hollywood is one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you enjoy time-travelling books then get hold of this series – while the final two do get a bit silly, it’s worth it for Mendoza’s fantastic story up to that point.

Shoot for the Moon Challenge 2016 – September Roundup

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This is the month where the summer break finishes and I resume my teaching at moonNorthbrook College and with Tim. It was also busy as I had a long week-end away at my mother’s where we caught up and enjoyed a bit of retail therapy then at the end of the month, J and I travelled up to Scarborough to Fantasycon 2016.

• While I, inevitably didn’t read so many books during September, completing thesummergoddessonly nine, the lack of quantity was more than made up for by the quality. Another joyous month with a slew of wonderful reads. I loved E.D.E. Bell’s The Fettered Flame – her worlds are intriguing and post pertinent questions about what happens to those who aspire to step outside the norms of society. Crosstalk by Connie Willis was huge fun with a serious message under all the mayhem, necessitywhile Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger piratical space opera tale was engrossing. But my standout reads this month were Joanne Hall’s The Summer Goddess and the final book in Jo Walton’s amazing Thessaly Trilogy, Necessity.
Challenge – To review a minimum of 100 books during 2016 and widen my reading to include more authors new to me. I nailed this challenge last month, but am pleased the Netgalley arcs I’ve requested continue to delight. I was also delighted to have a line from one of my reviews appear on the paperback edition of Lesley Thomson’s best-selling novel The House With no Rooms. And last week, Netgalley have informed me I have reviewed 80% of the arcs I’ve requested.

• I have continued to submit my work. Hopefully, my main rewriting project, of the summer is on the final lap – I started editing Netted in the last week of September and should have it ready to resubmit by the end of this week. I also received detailed, very helpful feedback on Miranda’s Tempest. I can now see how to improve it, so will be starting on a major rewrite of that manuscript as soon as I have the time.
Challenge – To continue to submit my work.

I had hoped to have made a start on Bloodless – that was in the plan I made at the start of the year, anyhow. However, I hadn’t factored in the major rewrite of Netted or major surgery on Miranda’s Tempest. While rewrites don’t take up quite the amount of time and effort of a first draft, I certainly cannot consider writing one book and editing another – I wish I could, but I’m too much of a mono-tasker, sadly.

I wrote just over 10,000 words on my blog in September and more than 15,000 words on my course notes and teaching admin, so my monthly wordcount came to just over 25,000. This brings my total for the year so far to just under 227,000 words. Have you had any schedules or plans for reading, writing or blogging this year go peelie-wally?

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Crosstalk by Connie Willis

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Connie Willis is in that special category of writers as having been the author of one of my all-time favourite novels, Doomsday Book – see my review here. I couldn’t believe my luck when I spotted this offering on Netgalley and was blown away when my request for the arc was accepted.

Briddey is a high-powered exec in the mobile phone industry, overseeing new products from concept crosstalk(‘anything to beat the new apple phone’) to delivery. And she works with her wonderful partner, Trent. They’ve been together for six magical weeks, in a whirlwind of flowers, dinners, laughter and now comes the icing on the cake: not a weekend away or a proposal but something even better. An EDD. A procedure which will let them sense each other’s feelings. Trent doesn’t just want to tell her how much he loves her – he wants her to feel it. Everything is perfect. The trouble is, Briddey can’t breathe a word of it to anyone (difficult, when the whole office is guessing) until she’s had two minutes to call her family. And they’re hounding her about the latest family drama, but when they find out about the EDD – which they will – they’ll drop everything to interrogate her. And it might just be easier to have the procedure now and explain later. Only Apple are poised to deliver an amazing new product and she has to be one step ahead …if she can only persuade their tech genius, C. B., to drop his crazy ideas about a ‘privacy phone’ with its ‘do not disturb’ settings, and focus on what people really want: more efficient, instinctive and immediate ways to communicate. The race is on: not just for new, cutting-edge technology, but also for a shred of privacy in a public world and – for Briddey – a chance for love at the heart of it all.

For those of you who have read Doomsday Book and fear this is yet another slice of armageddon, this story ticks at a fair clip with plenty of laughs along the way. We are immediately whirled up into the world of corporate gossip and concerns about how the latest launch will impact on jobs – as well as the carnivorous interest shown in fellow workers’ love lives. Especially when the latest happy couple both work for the same company. But Briddey is also fending off her family’s less than delighted reaction at her plans to commit to new boyfriend, Trent, by having a cutting-edge procedure that will make them neutrally more sensitive to each other’s emotions. However when they get bumped to the top of the very long waiting list and the operation comes around far more quickly, Briddey finds there are some unintended consequences.

The plotting is pitch-perfect. We are tipped right into the middle of Briddey’s busy, connective world where she constantly juggles a number of conversations, both private and professional. As the story picks up pace and shoots off in directions I didn’t see coming, I found the book increasingly hard to put down and whenever I thought about it, I found myself grinning. That said, don’t go away that this is a piece of happy fluff, because there are compelling scenes full of terror as Briddey teeters on the brink of destruction and madness. And help comes from an unexpected quarter – except that it isn’t remotely unexpected. Anyone who has ever read a romantic comedy will know the bloke with messy hair is going feature in some way.

What is far less predictable is where the story about mental connectedness is going – and I loved the twists and turns, as well as the science behind it that Willis slips into the narrative. Any grizzles? Well, Briddey’s intrusive extended family includes a very precocious nine-year-old niece. Given the nature of her role in the story, I felt she should have been at least eleven – while she is clearly exceptional, my experience of nine-year-olds under pressure is that those two extra years make a huge difference to a child’s confidence and sense of self.

That said, it isn’t a dealbreaker and I also love that under the mayhem and comedy, Willis is raising some pertinent and searching questions about our current obsession about staying in touch with each other. A highly recommended read.

I received the arc from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review.
9/10

Teaser Tuesday – 20th September, 2016

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Teaser

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:
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
76% Set me up is right, Briddey thought as he shut the door behind her. She went over to the table. On itcrosstalk were a pair of headphones, a microphone, a pencil, and a sheet of paper with numbers down the side.

BLURB: Briddey is about to get exactly what she thinks she wants . . . Briddey is a high-powered exec in the mobile phone industry, overseeing new products from concept (‘anything to beat the new apple phone’) to delivery. And she works with her wonderful partner, Trent. They’ve been together for six magical weeks, in a whirlwind of flowers, dinners, laughter and now comes the icing on the cake: not a weekend away or a proposal but something even better. An EDD. A procedure which will let them sense each other’s feelings. Trent doesn’t just want to tell her how much he loves her – he wants her to feel it.

Everything is perfect.

The trouble is, Briddey can’t breathe a word of it to anyone (difficult, when the whole office is guessing) until she’s had two minutes to call her family. And they’re hounding her about the latest family drama, but when they find out about the EDD – which they will – they’ll drop everything to interrogate her. And it might just be easier to have the procedure now and explain later.

The race is on: not just for new, cutting-edge technology, but also for a shred of privacy in a public world and – for Briddey – a chance for love at the heart of it all.

This very-near future romantic comedy is an absolute joy. Yes – it’s funny, brimming with vivid characters and a typical twist in Briddey’s personal life that has me firmly onside and hoping she ends up with the right chap. But underneath all the amusing mayhem, Willis’s gimlet focus is gunning for our current obsession to be connected 24/7 to the world around us. Sooo… what would happen if that was really possible?

Friday Faceoff – Dead Men Tell No Tales

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This is a new meme started by Books by Proxy, to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is the better. This week I’ve taken the idea in a slightly different direction – the book I’ve selected is a classic which has had a series of covers over the years, so I decided to pick the best.

I encountered Doomsday Book by Connie Willis in early 2013, and was blown away by the book – and it was from the library in this SF Masterworks series. I really love the striking difference of the cover, with the grim figure on the front. If I have a quibble, it is that it doesn’t convey the touches of humour that run through this outstanding read.

doomsday

And here is the SFBC 50th Anniversary edition, published in 2007. There are a variety of other covers for this book, but for me – this is the winner. Yes… there is still the brooding menace of death in this, but this cover also manages to convey more effectively the time travelling element and other major story strands. I think it is beautiful and unusual – and entirely apt. And this is the cover that wins it for me.

doomsday

What about you – do you agree with me? Have you read this book? If you haven’t, I strongly recommend it – it isn’t the bleak, miserable trudge you might imagine looking at the title and cover. In fact, it is a gripping time travel adventure with a fair amount of humour – and one of my all-time favourite reads.

Favourite Alternate History Worlds

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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 ghostsofcolumbiaof 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 farthingupper-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 doomsdayand 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 ageofaztecreign 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 dominionafter 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.

My Outstanding Reads of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking About the Weather…

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I tend to do it a lot on Twitter. During the last few years I’ve whimpered – online and at home – about the long, miserably gloomy winters we’ve endured and whined about the disappointing dank summers. I was always aware the weather affected my mood – but didn’t really realise just how much until this heatwave started.

summer photoI wake up with the sunshine blazing through the curtains and a grin crawling across my face before I’m properly awake. Things that would normally have me cursing under my breath and bad temperedly slamming kitchen cupboards now get a mere shrug in response. I’m ridiculously happy. Yes, it’s hot. Yes, I’m sweaty. But the light levels flooding the house and the luxury of having the back door open ALL DAY is just marvellous. I skip around the kitchen singing…

So when I read books where the weather hardly gets a mention, I’m aware there is a thinness in the scene setting – even if I don’t immediately realise why. And when books do a particularly good job of weaving the weather into the plot, it just feels… right.

In science fiction and fantasy there are a number of stories that hinge around major weather events, so they become the engine of the plot. Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series, where Joanne Baldwin is part of an elite secret force fighting to save millions from catastrophic meteorological events, is a classic example. Caine’s entertaining, snappy writing and high octane action makes this an enjoyable read, although like many long-running series, it does get steadily darker as it progresses.

Tim Lebbon’s The Island is an interesting offering – the cataclysmic storm that creates havoc brings another threat theislandalong in its wake and only one person in the devastated fishing community is aware of just how dangerous the newcomers may be. The storm is an agent of change and misery – and makes the community a whole lot more vulnerable to any kind of danger. Lebbon fully exploits that sense of nationshock and chaos – and rising sense of wrongness. Terry Pratchett’s Nation takes a similar event – a devastating tsunami – to reshape the lives of two young people who are literally flung together in a survival situation. It is supposedly a YA novel – though I think it should be required reading for every politician on the planet, but the vivid description of the killing wave was heart-wrenching and immediately ensured that readers felt sympathetic and protective of both young protagonists.

James Lovegrove’s Age of Aztec uses the stifling humid conditions to emphasise his unusual setting of a jungle-strewn London, dotted with ziggurats, and to also enhance the sense of pervading wrongness and menaceageofaztec. Britain, the last bastion of freedom against the Aztec Empire, has at last been conquered. The weather doesn’t present the kind of drama the other books I’ve mentioned have offered – but the oppressive heat effectively mirrors doomsdaythe subjugation of the population. And Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book gives the same energy to the action, by providing a strong feeling of rising tension in the bad weather that accompanies Kilvrin, a young Oxford-based historian who in 2054 travels back in time to explore medieval life. However, due to a number of factors, she ends up in the wrong time and place, entirely at the mercy of a tiny community in deep mid-Winter, who are suddenly afflicted by a terrible illness. Without any modern comforts, the bitter weather becomes a constant challenge.

What all these books have in common, is that they provide us with readable, convincing settings – including the weather. And if I ever need a reminder as to just how vital that ingredient is, I’ll just recall my sunny response to this year’s heatwave.

Review of Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

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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…

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

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

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.

Be warned though – Willis can lull you into a false sense of security. While the writing style can seem gentle, she is unflinching in her depiction of one of the worst tragedies in human history. Part of the ironic humour is the academic studies – with often ludicrous pontificating by esteemed members of the History Faculty – set against the terrible reality that confronts Kivrin. Willis manages to make the medieval family that takes Kivrin in, entirely plausible – despite her initial struggles with the translating device that doesn’t work as planned – and we get to know them well, from the curious and bright five year old Agnes right through to the rigidly proper mother-in-law from Hell… And if anyone is in any doubt that this is the best Time to have been born, especially for a woman, then read the account of a small village on the outskirts of Oxford struggling to survive a harsh winter. Personally, I snuggled under the covers of my electrically heated bed and offered up silent thanks.

I have a soft spot for time travelling books – when done well, as in Kage Baker’s Company novels, they take a lot of beating. This offering from Connie Willis is right up there with the best of them and if you come across a copy, pick it up. Better still, give yourself a treat and actively hunt down this book – you won’t regret it.
10/10