Saturday 29 December 2018

Review: The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms

I was in the mood to read something fun. After browsing the unread books on my Kindle for ages, I decided to re-read, instead, and it's been a while since I first read The Dragons of Heaven. Fortunately, the book was as good as I remembered.

The Dragons of Heaven is set in a world where there are superheroes, alliances of superheroes, magic, myths, and monsters. Missy, our protagonist, is the grand daughter of Mitchell Masters, a.k.a. 1950s superhero Mister Mystic. His gift (and her inherited power) is to tap into the shadow realm, which is useful for cloaking the face, for hiding from sight, for drawing forth demonic monstrous shadow creatures, and, if the shit really hits the fan, for diving into, traversing the hellscape while trying not to be noticed or destroyed by monsters, and emerging elsewhere.

The novel is told in chapters alternating between two strands: "then", and "now".

Then, a few years ago, teenage Missy first dallied with the idea of turning masked vigilante. After an early foray goes disastrously wrong (she gets shot by a professional superhero), she makes her way to China like her grandfather before her, to find a dragon who might teach her martial arts and Chinese mystic powers and stuff.

Now, a plot involving triads and assorted villains is under way, a plot which Mr Mystic gets entangled in while trying to fight crime in Chinatown.

The Dragons of Heaven is, as the cover promises, "A hell of a lot of fun." It's got a huge sense of humour, a massive dose of fan-love for all kinds of geeky fiction (Missy references Narnia, Princess Bride, The Last Unicorn, etc. etc. etc.), and a deep fascination with the superhero genre. At one point, Argent, this world's SHIELD, force Mr Mystic to work together with a very Captain America-like hero. At the same time, this is a world where superheroes are into their second or third generations, and it's openly acknowledged that many heroes of previous generations were sexist, racist, dinosaurs, in some of their attitudes.

The final ingredient is (Asian) mythology, with dragons, fox spirits, ogres, man-eating witches, very different unicorns, and more. Sometimes, mixing lots of settings / ingredients in a story can be a bit gimmicky, but Alyc Helms succeeds at bringing everything together into a whole that is as engrossing, and as enchanting, as Neil Gaiman's Sandman - i.e. she's up there with the very best of mythblenders. The fox spirits were particularly memorable. Fortunately, her style is a bit more light-handed than Gaiman's: the novel is genuinely, joyfully funny, especially early on. It includes one of the funniest romance / courtship / seduction plots I have ever come across.

If there is a flaw, it is that one sequence stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit far. Dragons? Magic? Monstrous shadow dimensions? No problem. But the exact conditions under which three trials are faced and endured? Ouch. OUCH. Jesus Christ, OUCH!!! Nope, not buying it. Impossible.

Well, and the beginning, even on the second read, felt a little disorienting. I took a while to properly get the alternating then-now chapters. Sure, I should have paid closer attention to the word before each chapter, but I wonder if perhaps the Kindle formatting was off (there were no whitespaces between scenes within chapters, so maybe the chapter intros have bigger "Then" / "Now" tags in print than they do on Kindle, too. All I can say is that the Kindle version felt confusing and visual cues were missing or not noticeable enough).

Anyway: The Dragons of Heaven. Superheroes, mythologies, humour, romance, grand adventures, all in a novel that is pacey, exciting, and full of memorable and likeable characters. In a word, awesome. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5.

PS: I also wrote a review of The Dragons of Heaven the first time I read it.

Thursday 27 December 2018

Review: Empty Graves by C.L. Raven

Empty Graves is the latest novel by Cardiff based writers and entertainers CL Raven. I first encountered them at a small horror convention in Cardiff, where a workshop allowed writers to pitch story ideas. CL Raven, identical twins, were very charismatic and memorable, as was their pitch. I have read a few of their short stories since then, and quite enjoyed the comic horror ones.

Empty Graves is the story of Lachlan Ketch, a young man who has just reached adulthood. He is also Edinburgh's latest hangman, somewhat reluctantly continuing the family business. One night, he comes across the Greyfriars Gang of graverobbers, in flagrante delicto. They force him to choose between joining them or becoming a corpse himself. Needless to say, he chooses life, even if it means digging up bodies to sell them to Edinburgh's medical schools for teaching and research purposes.

I was a bit surprised by Empty Graves. I expected to be reading a popcorn entertainment comic horror novel about the dead rising (as zombies) during the time of the graverobbing heyday in Edinburgh - basically, Zombieland meets Burke & Hare. Instead, it turned out to be a historical (romance) novel about a hangman and a bunch of graverobbers, and a forbidden love. There was very little supernatural horror and no zombie uprising at all. Somehow, I must have gotten the wrong idea from the book's description.

That said, the novel was engaging and I enjoyed reading it. CL Raven are writers who enjoy overt drama, a grand canvas, and bold strokes in their writing voice. Some readers might use words like corny or cliché, or moan about "show not tell". Those readers would be missing the point. CL Raven's stories are written with a flair that relishes a dramatic sentence. You can almost hear the movie score going dum-dum-daaaaah!, and the narrative voice could be the frontman in a circus or travelling show enticing you to part with your tuppence and enter the spooky haunted house / ghost train. Is it cheesy? Sure, but so are superhero movies, zombie stories and the London Dungeon tourist attraction...

... which made it a bit surprising that the story is very well researched, authentic, and well grounded in its reality. Historical novels can sometimes be slow moving snoozefests. Empty Graves isn't. It succeeds at bringing a point in time to life, and keeps enough corpses and grotesque incidents and action in the tale to keep the merry mixture bubbling nicely in its cauldron. It's not as filled with humour as some of CL Raven's other writings, which is a pity, but it aims for (and achieves) historical accuracy instead, which is perhaps a bigger challenge than chasing laughs.

However, it's also a book that would have benefited quite a lot from an editor. There are many obvious edits and polishes that would have made the book better. Reading Empty Graves, I kept wanting to get out a marker pen to highlight bits that needed tweaking: in particular, dialogues needed tightening. Sometimes, I lost track of who was saying what. Sometimes, characters didn't have natural conversations, but seemingly delivered exposition or narration at each other in a way that felt nothing like speech. Sometimes, conversations went in circles or echoed previous conversations, leading to a sense of repetition. All of these things would have been easy to fix with a bit of tlc from a good editor, so it's a bit of a shame they weren't tidied up before the book was published.

Nonetheless, Empty Graves is a novel worth trying - if you don't mind a narrative voice that's carnivalesque, and a historical novel spiced with elements of horror.

Rating: 3/5 (a good editor could have lifted this rating by at least half a point).

For an idea of the sort of things CL Raven write, check out this reading:

Saturday 22 December 2018

Review: Tree Talk by Ana Salote

Tree Talk is a science fiction fantasy novel told from the perspective of an ash tree in a wild(ish) back garden. Ash lives her life in a way that does not have consciousness, but which involves a sort of communing with other plants, and a calm, plant-like way of being aware of the world outside her reach. Then one day Charlie, a little boy, touches Ash, magically awakening a mind. In the book, they call it gnosis, and Ash soon finds out that she is not the only non-human who has it.

Any story told from the perspective of a tree (as a first person narrator, no less) is very likely to hit upon matters environmental sooner or later. Fortunately, Tree Talk allows itself to take it slowly: much of the first part of the book is Ash forming a mind and a connection with Charlie and his family, observing the wider world through his experiences (while Charlie perceives the garden through Ash's plant sentience).

As with Ana Salote's other novels (Oy Yew), there is a tenderness at the heart of Tree Talk. Ash's experience of the world is initially one of affectionate, caring naïveté. Charlie, too, starts out this way. However, this is not a kind world, and we get a sense that things are going badly wrong. Ash learns to watch TV, which brings her more and more bad news, while Charlie soon gets a sense that one of his neighbours is not a nice man, with evil designs upon the garden...

Even so, this is a joyful book. Ash using her now-conscious mind to watch TV (and teaching other plants consciousness, who also then become rather fond of watching TV) is very endearing, especially because of her particular interests...
"My favourite programmes were the soaps, because they put together two things which fascinated me: stories and human behaviour. Brooke Farm is the best soap because it has the most weather in it."
(Her penchant for soap operas also leads her to think of events around her in soap operatic terms. Later she worries a lot that Charlie might risk a coma when he starts having sneaky adventures, because in soaps, comas are frequent consequences to dramatic events...)

While the novel is very much Ash and Charlie's story, there are other important characters. Wilfred the rat is wonderfully cynical about humans, and fierce. Emma, Charlie's mom, is all too credible as an overstretched woman struggling to raise a child while the world economy goes down the drain. This is a novel where we glimpse very adult problems through the partial perceptions of a tree and a young boy, and it works very well at building suspense (the reader fears what decisions Emma will take when someone offers her much-needed money for the garden).

All that said, the novel cheats when it comes to delivering an outcome of its more global problems and questions. It's largely a science fiction novel set in the near future, but the problems of the world, it seems, have no chance of being addressed without a fantasy solution. To resolve a science problem with a fantasy solution is cheating, and I grumbled a lot when I saw where the book was going.

There's lots of interesting stuff going on early in the book, including some utopian thinking about communities, and the book is brimming with thoughts about humanity and the world, so I had hoped for a much more complex treatment of its themes in the second half. Instead, Tree Talk feels more like children's literature by the end, much more so than it does in the beginning. That said, it's still a much more intelligent nature-themed book than, say, the movie Avatar...

It's still a beautifully written, gently amusing, kind novel, with a rare and interesting perspective.  I very much enjoyed reading it, even if I grumbled at some parts near the end.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday 20 December 2018

Review: Swordheart by T. Kingfisher

Swordheart is a romantic adventure novel by T Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon) set in the same world as the marvellous Clockwork Boys duology.

Halla, our heroine and a respectable widow, starts the novel locked up in her room, imprisoned by her awful relatives. Unfortunately, she has inherited a fortune after caring for a curmudgeonly collector and rogue uncle for years. Said relatives (by marriage) don't want to let the fortune leave the family, and so they are preparing to force her to marry her clammy-handed, limp cousin-in-law.

Seeing no other way out, she tries to kill herself with an old sword that has been hanging on the wall for years. Only, as she draws it, a warrior magically appears: Sarkis, servant of the sword, is sworn to protect its wielder.

Swordheart is a fairly straightforward romantic adventure. Halla is likeable, naive, filled with child-like curiosity and wonder, downtrodden and very not-confident. Sarkis is a fierce warrior, not blessed with the greatest patience in general (but a huge amount of patience with Halla, even if he tends to mutter under his breath and bang his head against any nearby solid surface a lot), and generally up-tight and upstanding and cut from the very same cloth as Clocktaur Wars' paladin character.

Their adventure is basically a journey along a road to the nearest town (some days' travel away) and the nearest city (a few more days of travel), and back. There's a lot of travelling along that one road in the story, with a few small and big adventures along the way.

Swordheart is a story on a different scale from other T Kingfisher and Ursula Vernon novels I have read. There's no big quest, no saving-the-world shenanigans, no ticking clock. Instead, it's a story of two characters, both eminently likeable, developing feelings for each other, while having a few adventures along the way. The book leaves and breathes with Halla and Sarkis and the reader's investment in them. They're likeable, but as currently bitter curmudgeon, I did not feel the "awwww" that I was supposed to feel. I would bet that other readers (and, I suspect, women readers in particular) will feel much more warming of their tender hearts at the book.

This book is made of fluffy huggy things and the old TV movie Pride & Prejudice moment when Colin Firth's Mr Darcy is shirtless and all flustered. Curmudgeons beware!

Fortunately, there is a gnole in the book (yay!), it is full of the author's delightful sense of humour, and the Vagrant Hills are awesome. Altogether, there's just enough swashbuckling mayhem and laughter to keep even curmudgeons like myself engaged and interested.

Rating: 3.5/5. A bit too sweet for my palate, but good.

Friday 14 December 2018

Review: The Prince of Cats by D. E. Olesen

The Prince of Cats is an adventure novel about a thief in a fictitious medieval Arabian city. We meet Jawad, our hero, in a dungeon, awaiting his fate. Instead of the executioner, a private guard comes to visit him, to interrogate him about the Prince of Cats - an infamous thief. Jawad offers up just enough information to be useful, so he is taken from the dungeon and put in the service of a rich trader. His task: to catch the Prince of Cats, and to protect the wealth of the merchant.

The novel does the handwaving, vaguely Arabic thing that some stories do - infatuated with the aesthetic, but not willing to locate the novel in one place or time. Its setting is basically the world of the tales of "Arabian Nights", only there is no magic, there are no djinn, and there is no Islam. It's not really a fantasy setting, nor history.

So we get street rats, slaves, guards, gangs of thieves, rich merchants trading silk and dyes, jewels and silver and gold. We get Arabic names and words (medina, haramlik, etc - I assume it's Arabic rather than Ottoman, but cannot be sure as I don't know any of the languages of the Middle East). And we get the threat of thieves' hands being chopped off, a lot of socialising over tea, and advances in astronomy and mathematics. On the other hand, we also get a gay character, and women characters who have a relatively high degree of autonomy and independence.

Between the setting and the adventure filled plot, the novel makes for an easy read. Jawad keeps his plans and schemes to himself, so the reader might see what he does, and get glimpses of his thoughts, but anything that relates to why he does the things he does, or what he plans to do, is withheld until it happens / comes to fruition. Even so, some plot twists are not hugely surprising.

What was a bit surprising is just how much Jawad gets put through the wringer in the book. Clearly, the author is of the Jim Butcher school of thinking, throwing his protagonist into ever deeper piles of shit, peril and torture. Unfortunately, I did not find that this made me feel more worried about the character, or more invested in him. He tries to play it cool, so as a reader, I shrug off his pains quite easily.

By far the biggest problem the book has is that Jawad has virtually no friends. He has some connection with two old men who both seem to suffer from the early stages of Alzheimer's, but they aren't his peers / mates, but acquaintances he feels fond of. He also slowly grows slightly attached to two people in the merchant's household, but keeps them at arm's length and ultimately proves himself unworthy of their trust.

The Thief of Cats is entertaining, but not brilliant, not breathlessly paced, not so engrossing that you can't put it down. Its characters are okay, but not charismatic or mysterious or memorable enough to feel very strongly about them. It's basically the sort of novel that you might get if you took The Lies of Locke Lamora, set it in an Arabian setting, and toned down all the  excitement by a notch, and took out any Locke-Jean bromance (and any other close friendship).

Fans of Harry Dresden novels are likely to find this book right up their street - it's on a par with that series.

Rating: 3/5

Monday 3 December 2018

Review: The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman

The Mortal Word is the fifth novel in the Invisible Library Series. I happen to be a huge fan of the series, and have been since the start. In fact, a small quote from my review of the Invisible Library adorned the second novel as a recommendation blurb, which I was delighted about when I saw it. So it won't be a huge surprise that I enjoyed The Mortal Word.

In terms of plot, we join Irene as she's once again on a mission to steal an important book. This time, she's in a Austrian castle in a time of inquisition and witchhunting led by a sadistic paranoid Count, and she's in chains, in the dungeon, awaiting her interrogation...

It's almost a bit like the pre-credit sequences in old James Bond movies: a mini-adventure, featuring action, chases, peril and adventure. For a book about a Librarian Spy, it's a great way to start. After that adventure is over, Irene soon finds herself drawn into the main story. Her friend Vale (a Sherlock Holmes type) is needed to solve a murder at a peace conference between dragons (agents of order) and fey (agents of chaos). Irene is the Invisible Library's chosen delegate to the investigation, and she'll have to work with colleagues from the draconic and fey sides, and Vale, to prevent war, further murders, the end of the universe as we know it, all while trying to solve a murder in a post-revolutionary Paris.

One of the nice things about this series is that there isn't huge fluctuation in the quality of the novels. They are all good, pleasant fun. I'd swear that previous books tended to be a little funnier, but it could also be a case of my sense of humour getting rustier since the last book came out. Irene is highly competent but humble and self-conscious, as always, while the main plot is filled with enough action and suspense to keep the reader entertained. It's perhaps a little predictable (I pretty much knew who the baddie was from the start), but that in itself is comforting in a light entertainment read. (It's not as if one reads Harry Potter expecting the overarching story to be unpredictable and full of surprises).

I read the book having forgot some of the events from previous novels and had no difficulties with the story, so chances are it could be read as a standalone. The cast of recurring characters is small and the dynamic between them is fairly straightforward. I would still recommend starting with the first book and reading the series in order, as each book follows on from the one before, but a reader starting with this one won't struggle to get into the swing of things.

Rating: 4/5

Now, below the break a postscript / discussion:

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Worldbuilders Annual Fundraiser 2018

If you are a fan of fantasy and science fiction books, chances are that you have come across the novels of Patrick Rothfuss. They're wonderful.

However, this isn't a post about his fiction. This is a post about his other wonderful work: the Worldbuilders charity fundraising efforts. Worldbuilders exists to raise money for charities that make the world a better place - primarily Heifer International, which helps families in poor communities by providing them with training and resources like bee hives, goats, chickens, cows, so that they can build up a regular income and a small business.

But Worldbuilders doesn't just ask for money. Worldbuilders offers fantastic goodies, which you can buy, bid on in auctions, or win through a massive raffle. There are literally thousands of books, games, paraphernalia, services for writers and other geeky bits of joy. So if you want something in return for doing good, you can either enter the lottery to win things, or buy stuff outright.

Have a look at Pat's blog posts about Worldbuilders. He's a nice guy who is running himself ragged trying to bring goodness to the world, and his achievements are phenomenal (even if he is wracked by anxiety about his efforts). Or read the summary on the Worldbuilders blog - it's the tenth anniversary of Worldbuilders this year.

This year, Worldbuilders runs from November 27, 2018 through December 11, 2018, and I decided to promote it here on my blog. 

Monday 26 November 2018

Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

The Bedlam Stacks is a historical fantasy novel set in Victorian Britain and Peru. The narrator, Merrick Tremayne, starts the story as a crippled man, physically and mentally, living in a dilapidated former mansion with his vicious, even more crippled brother Charles.

Charles was crippled by polio: he may be snobbish, bitter and mean, but he rules the home with confidence and an iron hand. Merrick, on the other hand, was badly injured during a skirmish in China. A tall, strong man before the injury, this experience has left him a shadow of his former self, wandering around in a dream-like fugue and letting himself be bullied by Charles.

When Charles tries to ship him off to a parsonage and threatens him with sending him to an asylum, Merrick despairs. Fortunately, an old friend, Clem, pops by to drag Merrick away to go exploring and adventuring. Their mission is to smuggle some cuttings for cinchona trees out of Peru, as those trees are the world's only source of quinine, which is the only medication with any effect on malaria. Merrick's erstwhile bosses at the East India Company (recently nationalised and turned into The India Office) are desperate to break Peru's monopoly so they can get quinine cheaper by growing cinchona trees themselves. For the same reason, Peru is very keen not to let any cinchona trees, seeds or cuttings leave the country: Peru relies on this income. Merrick, it turns out, was a highly accomplished smuggler of plants prior to his injury.

Once Merrick and Clem reach Peru, the expedition soon finds itself in the hands of a native guide, Rafael, who is forced onto them by an overly polite, but unsettling and sinister landowner. The landowner calls everyone 'dear' and 'darling' while ruthlessly bullying Rafael and carefully threatening the others - I felt reminded of Leonardo di Caprio's character in Django Unchained.

As they trek through jungle and mountains, Clem and Rafael don't get along. Merrick, however, is fascinated by their unreadable companion. Then, the landscape starts to get strange...

The Bedlam Stacks does not read like a fantasy novel. It moves at the sedate pace of a historical novel and it is full of historical entities and characters. (Clem is the explorer and anthropologist Sir Clements Markham, one of whose books, a translation of Apu Ollantay, I reviewed a while ago).  Elements of the fantastic are introduced fairly gradually and deadpan, so the reader encounters most of them with the expedition, in a mysterious faraway place (darkest Peru). It might take some readers a while to figure out that they are reading fantasy, not history. Personally, I found it a bit weird and old-fashioned, this gradual revelation of the fantastic in our world. It felt like the author was somewhat interested in the real world and real history, but got bored and had to resort to adding more and more magical elements to create wonder.

Perhaps I would not have spent so much time taken aback by the interweaving of fantastical and historical if I'd liked the characters better. Merrick is not a very nice guy, when he regains his faculties. He's okay on his own, but bizarrely meek around Clem, and his past is hardly that of a decent man. Clem is a toff and a plank and a tosser in this novel. (I wonder if the real Clements Markham was anything like the obnoxious idiot in the book. I hope not.) The most interesting character is Rafael, but he doesn't feel real. He's a Catholic priest, but also somehow connected with native beliefs. At Martel's place, people respond to him as if he's terribly dangerous, but there is no reason why he should be seen that way. He occasionally makes bitter, hate-filled remarks about Indians that, from a white character, would be racist, but he is Indian himself, so it's ok. He's mysterious, unpredictable and interesting and, in the end, unconvincing.

The story progresses at a stop-and-go pace that is quite odd. Long periods of people stuck in one place happen, followed by some chapters where movement and tension occur. Then, as the tension goes up, the novel puts in some very long flashbacks to slow things down again. 

The Bedlam Stacks is an unevenly paced, confused novel, with characters who are intriguing but not quite likeable, and an unreality to the people that is tougher to swallow than the interwoven fantasy elements. It's not a bad novel, but it doesn't live up to the potential of its setting and ideas.

Rating: 3/5

Friday 23 November 2018

10 Brilliant Books You've Never Heard Of: Perfect Gifts For Bookaholics

A couple of years ago, I wrote a list of Brilliant Books You've Never Heard Of. As Christmas is coming up, I thought it's time to update and expand the list!

Below are a few awesome books which even your bibliophile friends probably haven't read yet. These are books which probably never made it to a Waterstones 3 for 2 table, books which don't appear on the Goodreads shelves of avid readers I follow. Some are older books, which were moderately successful in their time, but which are largely unfamiliar to millennials. So, you know, perfect gifts.

Mood: Happy, Adventurous

For those who like fun-filled stories filled with thrills and adventure
The \ Occasional / Diamond Thief is a YA adventure scifi novel.

Kia Ugiagbe, is a 15-year-old girl on a distant planet. On her father's deathbed, he reveals a secret: hidden at the back of a drawer, there is a huge diamond. Her father, she realises, must have stolen it!

Fast paced, fun, and tense, The Occasional Diamond Thief is great fun. Kia is easy to root for: she's hard-working, not brilliant at everything she does, but dedicated. She has a sense of humour and just the right amount of cheek.

There is a sequel, which is just as good. Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!
The Dragons of Heaven is set in a world where superheroes and some kinds of magic are real.

Our hero is Mr Mystic. Able to control shadows and even drift from the 'real' world into a shadow realm, Mr Mystic is a fedora wearing, British-sounding, Chinese-magic-wielding martial arts expert. Oh, and she's also a woman, Missy Masters, who inherited the superpowers from the original Mr Mystic.

If you want a book that is fun, funny, thrilling, a bit romantic and sexy, joyful, whip-smart, and a good romp, this really should be up your street.

Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!

Mood: Literary, coming of age, but exciting

For those who like coming of age novels with complexity, warmth and a plot that moves. 
The Chicken Soup Murder is told from the perspective of Michael, a primary school boy about to move on to "Big School".

However, all is not well in his world. His best friend's father has recently died. His neighbour's dog has died. And now his neighbour Irma is dating a policeman, whose son bullies Michael.

Then, Irma dies, and Michael suspects foul play.

The Chicken Soup Murder is a warm, addictive, gently amusing novel about the everyday tragedy that is death, but also a novel about childhood and growing up.

Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!
Konstantin is a biographical novel about a boy growing up in Russia,and becoming an oddball young man.

Konstantin is a boy with a huge imagination. After losing most of his hearing, he spends the rest of his life a bit removed from his peers. However, this is not at all a misery book. Konstantin is full of infectious enthusiasm, permanently fascinated, and brave, even foolhardy.

Beautiful prose and the energetic protagonist make this a joyful book. Read my full review of Konstantin to find out more.
Jasmine Nights is a coming-of-age novel set in 1963 Thailand. It’s the story of Little Frog / Justin, a 12-year-old boy from a very rich family. Justin is a somewhat eccentric, aloof boy. Then, he is gradually nudged out of his shell by his grandmother, and by the kids who live next door...

Jasmine Nights is a story touching on race and prejudice, finding out about sex, Thailand, the periphery of the Vietnam War, different social classes, but above all else, it is the story of a lonely boy becoming slightly less lonely and growing up a little. Amusing and complex, it reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Read my full review of Jasmine Nights to find out more.

Mood: Literary Science Fiction and Fantasy

For those who like their speculative fiction thoughtful and ambitious.
The Falling Woman is a classic that few millennials will have read. It won a Nebula Award in 1987.

Elizabeth is an divorced archaeologist on a dig in Central America. She can glimpse ghosts of the past, especially at dusk and dawn. One day, one of the spectres looks at her and starts to talk...

Diane is her daughter, joining her on her dig after a bereavement. Diane hasn't seen Elizabeth since childhood, and isn't sure what she has gone out to find.

The story builds up its world and characters one step at a time. Gradually, it gains tension, a sense of the uncanny, a foreboding feel... Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!

Sequela is the debut novel of a Scottish poet. It tells the story of a scientist whose job is to create sexually transmitted viruses (STVs). In this future, STVs have become fashionable: they indicate whom one has slept with. Each symptom pattern is linked to different powerbrokers, and every 'player' is trying to have the most rarefied rash pattern.

It's high concept, but really, this is a character-based thriller. The tension comes from social interactions, from office politics, from personal relationships and how they develop...  It's a unique and frighteningly convincing novel.

Read my full review of Sequela to find out more.
The Beauty starts years after all the women have died. Men and boys have survived, seemingly unaffected by the bizarre fungus plague that wiped out womankind. It's a very short novel. It's postapocalyptic, it's horror, it's science fiction and it's unlike anything I've read: it's full of ideas, atmosphere and the uncanny, and it sticks with you long after you'd finished reading.

Read my full review of The Beauty to find out more.
In Great Waters is set in an alternative history where merpeople are real. They are not like humans: fiercer, more direct, more single-minded. They can interbreed with humans, which results in physical and mental differences. Thus we meet Henry / Whistle, a crossbreed who is born in the sea but grows into adulthood among humans.

In Great Waters is outstanding because of its immersive, gradual worldbuilding. Tension builds up slowly: by the time your fascination is satisfied, the story has sneakily turned into a thriller that can't be put down.

Read my full review of In Great Waters to find out more.

Mood: Childlike awe and terror

For those who remember how big and wonder-filled and scary the world was when we were kids... or for kids.
Oy Yew is a tiny boy who grows up sustaining himself on crumbs and the smells of food. One day, he is forced into servitude, first in a factory, then in a country mansion. His comrades in slavery are other waifs, children who arrived as boat people on tiny rafts.

But things are about to go from bad to worse: How come there have been so many accidents lately? What secrets lurk in the sinister Bone Room? And why is Master Jep suddenly so interested in Oy's thumbs?

This is a fantastically atmospheric novel. It's uncanny and tender and beautiful.  Even as an adult reader, I was on the edge of my seat. Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!

What books would you add to the list?

Have you read any excellent, but underrated / not very widely known books lately? Add a comment, give some recommendations!

Sunday 18 November 2018

Review: Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series. Chances are, if you like urban / contemporary fantasy, you will have given this series a try by now. If not: go out and buy Rivers of London right now. It's the first novel, and the beginning of the best urban fantasy series ever written.

Peter Grant is a Detective Inspector by now, having worked his way up from rookie (and apprentice wizard) to trusted professional (and ok wizard, though it seems his magical abilities have plateaued and aren't growing much between volumes). At this point in the series, the support cast includes dozens of people, including lots of policeman officers, extended families of Peter and the Rivers, several scientists / medics, and even a few others who are learning wizarding through officially sanctioned channels. So even though I've read every book, I struggled a bit to keep track of who's who. I may have to re-read the series in one go at some point.

One of the reasons the cast is so enormous is that this is the book of a major police operation, nicknamed "Operation Jennifer", with the aim of sorting out the Faceless Man problem once and for all. Meanwhile, Martin Chorley, the Faceless Man (an evil wizard) is busy, busy, busy, scheming to achieve some big objective that might change the world (or London) forevermore...

So far, the series has largely been alternating between "Faceless Man" novels (the even numbered ones) and "archetypal myth" novels (the odd numbered ones). I have consistently enjoyed the ones featuring some archetypal, atmospheric, folkloric style myths more. The Faceless Man could have been interesting, I guess, but after a big intro, his mystique fizzled out quickly. Now he's just plain Martin Chorley, bereft of charisma or mystique, and not really the creepy supervillain that he started out as. More powerful than Peter, but easily matched by Nightingale. So an odd-numbered novel about him felt a bit like it's cheating me out of one of the good ones. (They're all good, but the ones with little or no Faceless Man are simply better).

So, big police operation, Faceless Man, cast list of dozens... Lies Sleeping is not the most accessible novel. Anyone unfamiliar with the series won't find much to enjoy, and those familiar with it need a really good memory. On the bright side, Lesley is in this a lot, and her former place has been taken by Guleed, so Peter has a kick-ass female sidekick again, this time with a hijab, but otherwise very old-Lesley-like. Even better, we meet someone similar to Molly, and the sub plot around her is the best thing about the book (aside from a cameo by talking foxes). Despite those highlights, the book has the usual faceless-man-novel problem of being complicated, messy, and feeling a bit by-the-numbers, so it's not one of the highlights of the series. But this is the sort of series where even the weak entries are not bad.

Bring on the next one!

Rating: 3.5/5

Monday 12 November 2018

Review: The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People by José María Arguedas & Ruth Stephan

The Singing Mountaineers is a book about the songs and folk tales told by Quechua speakers in South America. Quechua being the language that the Inca empire required all its subjects to learn, this means people living in the Andean region, from Ecuador to Bolivia, but primarily in Peru.

Published in 1957, the book is sadly of its time. Sentences like "Since the Andean people have always been a singing, a poetically disposed, race, the songs have their own proud past." or "Their race is noted for its ancient skill in catching and taming animals instead of killing them, and birds and animals exist as possible friends, as integral living relations in the Indian world." caused me to cringe. There is useful information in the introduction, in between all the patronising, vaguely racist, noble-savage bullshit, but you may find your teeth grating as you read it: mine certainly did.

Fortunately, once the lengthy introduction is over, the songs and tales themselves are more interesting. Unfortunately, about half the length of the book is the introduction, which is a wasted opportunity. The most interesting thing of all, the folk tales, is frustratingly short. Of the 60 or so tales that had been recorded by the author in Spanish, only 17 (if I remember correctly) were included in the English book, much to my chagrin.

The tales were collected in the 20th century. Therefore, they are heavily influenced by Catholicism and the legacy of the conquistadors. Nonetheless, there are glimpses of a different culture, and a few tales seem like they could have been told, with relatively few changes, back in Inca times...

As a resource, The Singing Mountaineers is useful: English translations of Quechua folk tales and songs are not that easy to find. As a book, it's lopsided, with an overly long introduction that is filled with outdated thinking and attitudes, and not enough collected tales and songs. Nonetheless, it's worth reading, for any glimpse of authentic Quechua culture in English is too rare to ignore.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 11 November 2018

Review: America's First Cuisines by Sophie D. Coe

America's First Cuisines is a unique book: it is an accessible account of what the peoples living in the Americas used to eat, before the conquest of the continent by Europeans.

Food history is not a topic I knew much (ahem, anything) about before I read this book. I had started to get an inkling that huge swathes of the foods I'm used to are not actually traditional European fare, after reading books about South American archaeology. Among other things, they mentioned various plants that had been domesticated in the Americas - and which were unknown in Europe and Asia until the 'discovery' of America by Columbus.

Everyone knows about the potato, right? As a German, it's one of those things that surprise you when you are a small child, that this most German of vegetables didn't exist in Germany until comparatively recently. Maybe Portuguese people feel the same way about maize. Maybe Italians feel the same way about tomatoes. Maybe Balkan people feel the same way about aubergines. Maybe Asian people feel the same way about chile peppers. The variety of fruit, vegetable, roots, tubers, and plant-based domesticated crops that were introduced to Eurasia and Africa after the conquest is mindboggling. There may well be no single world cuisine that was not enhanced significantly as a direct result of the conquest. (Of course, some things travelled the other way: bananas, onions, garlic, milk, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, etc.)

So America's First Cuisines was bound to be interesting. The book lays its ground work by discussing what had been domesticated and where, mentioning almost in passing that there may have been many more domesticated crops that are lost now, after the disasters that followed America's discovery (the waves of disease that killed up to 90% of all the continent's inhabitants), and because the Europeans were primarily interested in crops that they could easily map onto European equivalents. So maize was an instant hit ("the American grain!"), but potatoes took much longer to gain traction in Europe, and quinoa was of little interest until recently, when it became a fad.

Much of the early part of the book deals with basic foodstuffs / ingredients, because that is what archaeological and genetic evidence can prove. Once the basics are established, the book fastforwards to the conquest, because it is then that written records start being generated by conquistadors, describing the meals and dishes they are served by the different cultures. So, first the ingredients, cultivated and made available over millennia, and then the snapshot of the early 1500s, and a glimpse of what was being made out of those ingredients.

It's not just an interesting and educational book. For me, it was also full of surprises. There are one or two instances when America's First Cuisines debunks other theories that are still quoted by historians today - generally theories that were originally based on pure conjecture, but which became entrenched simply because no one bothered to investigate or look for evidence. (Much like the theory that Komodo dragons have such a vile mouth flora that it is the bacteria killing their prey once bitten. This was common knowledge until just a few years ago, when someone checked and found that actually, Komodo dragons are venomous, and inject venom into the prey through their teeth, like snakes. Similarly, many historians quote a "three sisters" theory about crops in Central America, which claims that a convenient combination of three plants growing together in a field would provide all the nourishment a people need, and that the "three sisters" were almost worshipped for it. Turns out they were not worshipped, and while they can grow together neatly, there is little evidence that any people relied on that combination to the extent historians now claim, and in fact, the diet produced by such a reliance would be insufficient in protein for pregnant women and possibly for men). Basically, Sophie D Coe has done her homework properly even when others haven't and her book shows it.

America's First Cuisines is a great book. It illuminates an aspect of history and knowledge that most people are probably quite ignorant of. It does so accessibly and reliably. The one thing I would have liked to see included is some recipes, but I understand why there are none: it would have been conjecture, and the book is strictly factual. Still, even without any recipes, this is a book worth reading.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: The Elephant and Macaw Banner by Christopher Kastensmidt

The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a historical fantasy adventure novel, set in 16th century Brasil. There, Dutch adventurer Gerard van Oost and Oludara, a former Yoruban warrior and former slave, have a series of adventures fighting monsters and entangling with local folkloric characters and gods. They join a native tribe of cannibals, they work for colonial governments, and take part in the odd skirmish or two.

It's fairly obvious that the book did not start out as one novel, but is a collection of a series of novelettes and novellas (with, apparently, some additional material). Each chapter is a self-contained adventure / quest, usually bookended by vignettes featuring a wild animal that encounters the heroes of the story. There is some development over time, but very little in terms of overarching plotlines. Perhaps Gerard's problems with his nemesis Antonio (a competing bannerman) or Oludara's desire to return to Africa to continue his family line offer some through-lines, but they're very secondary to whichever quest the adventurers are currently caught up in. The final chapter ties up the narrative, but is also the least enjoyable part of the book. There are other chapters of dubious enjoyment (I got quite cross at one which was rich in prophecy and "Gerard is chosen" to be the chosen one who must choose who shall rule the future empire of Brasil, yada yada yada), but for the most part, the adventures are entertaining, swashbuckling romps.

The novel is quite similar in tone and structure to Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, which is also a book about two heroes adventuring together. What sets this novel apart is the setting (colonial era Brasil) and the atmosphere (jungles, monsters, cannibals, sorcerers, and forest spirits), which are a refreshing change from vaguely-Nordic & pseudo-European settings. The book doesn't take itself too seriously, so I was never sure whether any particular creature / element was based on actual mythology and history, or made up by the author.

Our heroes are pleasant enough, if not quite as iconic or charismatic as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Oludara is clearly the brains and the muscles of this outfit, while Gerard is a slightly pompous ass a lot of the time, constantly harping on about his Protestantism and Christianity. In fact, Gerard's main contribution is to free Oludara at the start and make him an equal partner: Gerard supplies their company's autonomy, ability to have agency, and respect in a colonial and racist era, while Oludara supplies everything else. Alas, this is never milked for humorous purposes: the setup might slightly resemble Jeeves and Wooster, but the tone does not. The narration really believes the two are equal partners.

The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a pleasant adventure romp. Not too taxing, with an intriguingly different setting. The episodes are somewhat too self-contained, but they're engaging enough that I was never too tempted to give up on the book entirely. There are a few sequences that let down the book, but on the whole, it's worth a read.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday 9 November 2018

Review: The Dreaming Stars by Tim Pratt

The Dreaming Stars is the sequel to The Wrong Stars, picking up more or less where the previous novel finished. The crew of the White Raven, along with the people they have rescued from the machines left behind by evil alien gods, are loitering around inside an old mining asteroid they've taken from space pirates by ruthlessly murdering the lot. Everyone's feeling a bit bored, but snarky and bantering away and being cute at each other. They're waiting to find out whether they can resume adventuring as themselves, or whether they have to make up new identities and start new lives somewhere.

For a long time, very little happens but people talking with each other about their relationships, and flirting, and bantering and then talking about their relationships some more.

Eventually, they go out to find the captain's ex, and to get a job, so they can then talk about their relationships en route, followed by some more talks about relationships. (Not that there is anything particularly interesting going on in the relationships. It's just people flailing "I <3 U! Let's have sex! We had sex! I <3 U!  U R HOT! I AM CUTE!" at each other ad infinitum.)

As you might guess from the plot summary so far, The Dreaming Stars is very different from its predecessor. Sure, everyone is still chattering away like a somewhat more murdery Joss Whedon ensemble cast, but there is very little plot movement in the first half of the book. And in the second half? The plot gets very very silly, in an unintentional and unfunny sort of way.

As hammy as the first novel was, it kept moving. This one is hammy, clunky and filled with mindbogglingly annoying rehashes of the first book. Exposition done poorly is one thing, but when the book starts to rehash "remember how we once had a metaphor-rich conversation about ants?", it's not just important plot points that are being given the clunky exposition treatment, it's half the previous novel.

It's still readable because it's very simple, much like Twilight or the newspaper The Sun, but The Dreaming Stars has run out of steam before it began. With a plot that barely moves and, once kicked into gear, turns daft, the poor writing becomes the coup de grace that sinks the ship. The first book might have been fun, but it seems the series is not worth persevering with.

Rating: 2.5/5

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Review: The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

The Wrong Stars is a lightweight, fun space opera novel in the tradition of Firefly and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Our heroes this time around are freelance security operatives / salvagers operating a small ship around Neptune. They stumble upon an ancient "Goldilocks ship" - a ship sent out with a frozen crew five hundred years ago during mankind's desparate attempts to find a future on planets other than the one they'd mismanaged into ruin. One crew member is still inside, and, waking up, yells a warning about aliens and first contact, before fainting again. As mankind has been in contact with aliens for about 300 years by that point, the crew are not unduly alarmed - until they notice strange data in the ship's computer, and a history that cannot be true... or can it?

The Wrong Stars starts out briskly and keeps up a good pace. Unlike Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, there is actually a plot moving the story forward, and not just a sightseeing expedition around the galaxy by a bunch of cheerful space truckers. This makes it a more brisk read. However, just like Long Way, the novel is seemingly written with a wish list of 'representation' topics in mind. So we get gay characters, bi characters, trans characters, asexual characters, people who have pronoun preferences, people into drug filled religious sex orgies, people into casual sex... the only thing that does not exist in the novel is heterosexual characters or people in a monogamous relationship. Amusingly, the novel goes so far out of its way trying to be non-traditional that it tries to define people who are sexually attracted to those they fall in love with as "demisexual". The key idea appears to be that there is no "normal" when it comes to sex and gender, and that there is a spectrum and infinite variety, and that therefore there should be an infinite variety of labels none of which can be allowed to imply that they are just "normal", etc. etc. etc.

The Wrong Stars is not the work of a subtle writer. It wears its thematic heart on its sleeve, as you might guess from the last paragraph. The text also handles romance with all the subtlety of E.L. James or Stephanie Meyer.

As for the cast, the characters are wisecracking smartasses who have some external differences, but are all more or less the same underneath: slightly witty, friendly smartasses. In fact, the group dynamic is so consistent that on one or two occasions, other characters who are met for the first time instantly join in the bantering, with zero transition period or getting-to-know-each-other. However, it's a bit baffling that a novel so fluffy in those matters is also quite happy to treat deadly force and violence as something that has no real consequences. At times, there are deadly conflicts that had all the depth of kids yelling "pow pow" at each other while playing cowboys & injuns.

But a novel needn't be all subtle, abstract, character-analytical, philosophical book-club-discussion-material to be fun. It's shallow, but The Wrong Stars succeeds at being fun. Hammy romance, identikit character and uber-keen representation messaging aside, it's a story of grand space adventures, filled with mystery, evil aliens, likeable aliens, dangerous missions, world-saving drama, and a complete and total lack of boredom. The Stainless Steel Rat for 21st century readers. Worth a look if you like that sort of thing.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 27 October 2018

Review: Nondula by Ana Salote

Nondula is a children's fantasy novel and the sequel to the amazing Oy Yew. So, before you read this review, check out my review of Oy Yew - it's such an awesome children's book.

Now, Nondula. After their narrow escape at the end of Oy Yew, a handful of waifs are blown into a different land by a tornado. Specifically, Oy, Alas, Gertie, Gritty and Linnet. The land they arrive in is Nondula, and it is something akin to a utopia, only its neighbour is a dystopia, so there's trouble brewing ahead.

Nondula is a land of vegetarian peaceful academics, who live peacefully, discover their inner jenie (spirit) and are driven mainly by self-realisation. Their neighbours, Fellund, are carnivorous thugs, short-sighted, short-tempered, abusive, violent and greedy. They abduct Nondulans (and people from other lands), enslave people, and are entirely villainous. Soon, Oy and his fellow waifs are caught up in the conflict.

Nondula is a very different book to Oy Yew. There is still a gentleness around the way the waifs are written, but other than that, everything has changed. Even the characters have changed: Alas is now standoffish and paranoid, in a way that felt like it was exaggerated compared to his characterisation in Oy Yew. That change in particular made me wonder whether the book was written after a long break rather than immediately after its predecessor.

There are also changes in the pacing, plot, and atmosphere. Oy Yew was a masterpiece, even if it was sometimes bewildering and disorienting. It built an atmosphere of peril and threat, but did so by using dread more than anything else. Nondula tries to be less bewildering. We spend the first third of the book in a utopia where everyone has a bit of a rest after the grand adventures of the first book. The slow and gradual start is then followed by adventures in Fellund, but those adventures feature more violence and physical abuse than the first book, and less ominous dread. Torture, executions, animal abuse, children being hunted with dogs (and, it is implied, being torn apart by them)... if Oy Yew was a novel comparable to Krabat, Momo, The Owl Service, then Nondula is more like Gulliver's Travels or the Wizard of Oz, a travelogue through weird lands, but distinctly more violent.

There is still a richness and a gentleness around the way the book sees the waifs. Poor Linnet's illness is heartbreaking throughout the story. But the kid gloves have come off  - Oy gets thrown around, injured, tortured. Slaves and dogs and animals are whipped, tortured, abused, killed en masse. The first book was about something fragile and kind trying to survive in an ominous and cruel world. This book is about fragile and kind things being abused and kicked around and damn near pulverised. For me, dread and threat are more effective in a story than brute force, so Nondula didn't bewitch me the way that Oy Yew did.

Much as I loved Oy Yew, I must admit that I struggled through Nondula. With unsteady pacing and a totally different atmosphere, it didn't feel like a continuation. I still wholeheartedly recommend the book Oy Yew: it works fine as a standalone and needn't be a trilogy. Nondula... well, I don't know if my expectations were too high after the first book, or whether having a case of man-flu was affecting my enjoyment, but I wasn't engaged by it in the same way. That said, other reviewers rate Nondula as highly as Oy Yew, so I may well be the odd one out on this one.

Rating: 3/5

Friday 26 October 2018

Review: Snowflake by Heide Goody & Iain Grant

Snowflake is a comic fantasy novel about Lori, a young millennial woman who finds, upon returning from a holiday, that her parents have sold the house, moved out, and kicked her out in absentia. And then magic shit starts to happen...

As comic fantasy novel, Snowflake gently bumbles along as Lori flounders from one disaster to another, raising chuckles and smiles. Lori is an amiably inept protagonist, likeable because she is naive and silly. The story, meanwhile, is a bit bewildering. For a long time, the plot can't decide whether it's about Lori's troubles with adulting, or about the magic stuff that adds a different dimension of chaos. It tries to do both, but with the result that it feels like neither strand is driving the story forward.

"Snowflake" is a term used a lot these days, often in online flamewars. My understanding was different from the authors' - I thought it's a derogatory term about overly sensitive, overly PC people who go on about trigger warnings and safe spaces a lot. The authors seem to have interpreted it as a term about young millennials who don't grow up, don't move their life into the phases of job-marriage-housebuying-children that traditional adulthood expects, but who loiter somewhere in a post-uni limbo of living in houseshares or with their parents, halfheartedly chasing dreams but ignoring careers, having relationships but nothing too serious or long-term. Lori certainly never seems to have any strong opinion or any obsession with safe spaces, which was a bit of a relief.

Comic fantasy is a genre that lives in the shadow of Terry Pratchett. I remember trying to write like him back when I was a teenager, and the huge plethora of books that were touted as "the next Terry Pratchett" at the time. Snowflake is one of those books that reads like Pratchett-light. It's amusing, but not a substitute for the master.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Review: Oy Yew by Ana Salote

Oy Yew is a children's novel set in another world. It's not a world of magic or dragons or aliens, but a world much like ours around the time of Charles Dickens' stories.

Oy is a tiny boy who grows up sustaining himself on crumbs and the smells of food. He's mostly unnoticed until one day someone does spot him. Then, he is quickly caught and forced into servitude, first in a factory, then in a country mansion. His comrades in slavery are other waifs, children from Poria who arrived on the shores of Affland as boat people on tiny rafts, sent across the sea by desperate parents during a famine.

Oy is the smallest waif, the quietest waif, the one who listens and offers nothing but kindness and intuition to those around him. His presence gradually improves the lives of the other waifs, but it also brings with it an intuition that something is wrong. How come there have been more accidents than usual lately, always befalling the waifs about to be freed? What secrets lurk in the sinister Bone Room? And why is Master Jep, a bone collector, suddenly so interested in Oy's thumbs?

Oy Yew is a fantastically atmospheric novel. It reminded me of Otfried Preussler's Krabat, and of Michael Ende's Momo. (Oy is quite similar to Momo in many ways). Or, in more British terms, of Alan Garner's scary children's novels - except that the atmosphere in Oy Yew is richer, the story more lovingly told. There is a tenderness in Oy Yew where Alan Garner goes for grand drama, and that tenderness makes it a more beautiful story. Basically, it's a superior novel to The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

It's not flawless: at times, the text moves too fast, in a disorienting way. Some of that disorientation happens early on, which could discourage some readers. I don't know whether the author was trying to create an atmosphere of hectic movement, or whether she saw the story in her mind and left out some words that might have helped me as a reader to follow it. All I know is that there were quite a few times when I was a little bewildered over who was there, who was who, and what was going on. I imagine child readers are likely to get confused, too. Those moments of bewilderment are literally the only flaw, and it's very much worth persevering if the text befuddles you momentarily.

The prose is beautiful, the story is filled with atmosphere, creepiness, tension, kindness and joy. The waifs are lovely and the characters around them include quite a few memorable personalities. Even as an adult reader, I was on the edge of my seat at many points, and I felt the peril in the story was real.

To my mind, this is one of the finest children's novels ever written. It's so good that I consider myself an instant fan of the author and immediately ordered the sequel.

Rating: 5/5

Monday 22 October 2018

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a high concept crime novel. Its one-sentence pitch is "Groundhog Day crossed with Agatha Christie".

Our hero wakes up without memories, with a single word on his lips: "Anna". He's in a forest and witnesses a young woman being chased by a villain. He hears screams and a gunshot. And then someone pursues him, gives him a compass, whispers a word in his ear, and allows him to flee to the nearby country mansion Blackheath.

In Blackheath, he finds people who know him, but his memories stay out of reach. All he recalls is the violence he witnessed that morning. The day progresses with an unsettling feeling that there are dark secrets lurking in the house and the people who are gathered here. However, he manages to make one single friend, Evelyn Hardcastle, who sees possibility and potential in his blank state. A promise of renewal, a new start, a chance to become a better man (for there are unpleasant rumours about his profession...)

The next morning, our hero awakes again, but in a different body, reliving the same day, looking at it through different eyes. It is the day of Evelyn Hardcastle's murder, and our hero's task is to solve it.

Seven Deaths is a novel that manages to build up intrigue and tension relatively gradually. If it weren't for the title, a reader might find the first chapters a bit slow, confusing and frustrating. (We don't even find out that Evelyn Hardcastle dies until he has gone through the day several times!) Fortunately, the title tells us the grand drama that the narrator does not know, and therefore adds tension even in moments when the narrator is bumbling along gormlessly.

Each body he inhabits is different, and each body comes with different emotional patterns, instincts, and physical limitations. After the first day, our narrator is in a constant battle between his own mind and the habits of the person he occupies. Short-tempered people, calculating people, flighty people, sometimes his hands do things before his conscious mind notices them. It's a very interesting idea, and I think in the hands of a virtuoso, it could have been gobsmackingly brilliant to read. Stuart Turton is a good writer, but not a prodigy, so he tackles this deftly but not very immersively  or subtly by having our narrator tell us about his struggles. The same goes for the rest of the book: it is written well, but the genius is in the concept, not so much in the execution. Characters may have secrets, but they don't tend to have much complexity. The basic crime story has peril, but is thin on authenticity. The end result is a book that is immensely readable and good fun, but which feels like you can glimpse a hint of a magnificent could-have-been through the text that is. A good novel that feels like it might have been great.

Definitely worth a read.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday 21 October 2018

Review: Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan

Apocalypse Cow is a book that has two massive things going for it:

1) It was the winner of a contest run by Terry Pratchett when he was alive. (Its theme was "anywhere but here, anytime but now")
2) It knows how terrifying cows are.

I mean, 500kg horned beasts with four stomachs and a tendency to stampede... forget wolves! Cows are what you should be worrying about!

As I rarely see evidence that anyone else shares my moophobia, it was perhaps inevitable that I would buy the book. I hoped for an udderly terrifying reading experience, as a horror novel about cows is pretty much guaranteed to scare any sensible person half to death.

Unfortunately, it turned out not to be a book I enjoyed.

Our heroes (if one can call them that) are Geldof, a horny teenage boy with a constant rash, Terry, a slaughterhouse worker who cannot wash off the smell of dead meat, and Lesley, a journalist with big daydreams but little talent. When a bio-weapon starts turning mammals into man-raping, man-eating rage-beasts (i.e. horny zombie critters), they all struggle to survive (and maybe find out what happened).

Our main characters may be not particularly interesting, but they are surrounded by characters so annoying that the readers is clearly meant to want them to die. Geldof's mother is a leftwing vegan extremist and terrorist sympathiser who walks around naked all the time, harangues neighbours and bystanders about their lifestyles, forces her son to wear materials he is allergic against, and spends most of her time having lengthy noisy sex. Her husband is a stoner whose main function is to be a penis for her to shag, without a shred of a brain cell or the ability to string a sentence together. Their neighbours are a meat-obsessed abusive right wing xenophobe nutter, his twin bully sons and his wife / their mother, a maths teacher whom Geldof is in lust with.

Pretty much every character is written with disdain, which is quite offputting as it's clear the author simply cannot imagine a pleasant human being and has nothing nice to say about anyone.

So, a cast of annoying caricatures who aren't funny. Not a good place to start with.

Then, as the animals run amok, the plot meanders along without having anything smart or unique to say. It does not feel tense because every character is odious, so it's impossible to care about any of them. There are chases, narrow escapes, gory violence, etc. etc. etc., but the story does not pack a punch. Instead, it feels like a comic strip written by a 13-year-old misanthropic boy, with roughly the same sense of humour (immature and witless) and the same level of empathy (none).

Finally, for a novel named after cows, featuring a cow on the cover, and mentioning cows a lot on the back cover, there are actually precious few cows in the book. All animals become a threat, and aside from cows we see murderous cats, rats, sheep, pigs, squirrells, etc. - cows draw first blood, but after that they only make a few cameo appearances. So the book isn't even scary - who would be afraid of a fast-moving mountain of rabid man-eating rats when there could be a cow instead?

I have no idea how this novel won a contest. I'm vaguely surprised it was published. Don't waste money on it: it's a load of cowpats.

Rating: 2/5

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Review: Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell

Soulbinder is the fourth novel in the Spellslinger  YA fantasy series about Kellen, a young mage trying to get by as an outlaw.

I've been reading this series since it began, but for reasons I can't quite fathom, I have never reviewed any of the books yet. Shame on me.

The Spellslinger series is fun. It's made of fun. Our hero may be a self-deprecating young man, but his companion is a fierce and murderous squirrell-cat, his mentor is a gypsy frontierswoman hustler, and his adventures are fast, swashbuckling and exciting. At the same time, the books do have high drama, pathos, tension and enough peril to ensure that boredom is never an option.

Soulbinder starts off the way they all do: Kellen is in mortal peril and great trouble. This time, we meet him after he has defeated and killed an enemy, but he and Reichis (the squirrell-cat) are gravely wounded, in a desert, unable to move, and far from any chance of rescue.

Their plight moves from cliffhanger to cliffhanger until Kellen finds himself in a new place, where other people afflicted by the Shadowblack have come together to find sanctuary, and to fight when necessary.

If you haven't been following the series, then go and read it from the beginning. Spellslinger is a fantastic novel, and the books that follow it are highly readable. The previous (third) novel was perhaps a little confused about its direction, but Soulbinder has laser-sharp focus. The characters it introduces are interesting, Kellen's attitude is surprisingly adversarial and filled with bravado, and the plot is tight, fast and dramatic. What makes it so dramatic is that we see Kellen on his own for the first time since the series began, and it's clear that he is more competent than he thinks he is - but also reckless, foolish and panicky, so the reader is never quite sure whether he's ready for this.

The Spellslinger series is great, but books two and four are, essentially, perfect. If you like your fantasy fun, filled with heart and wit and affectionate bickering, if you like fierce and mean cute animals, if you like swashbuckling adventures, great derring-do and larger-than-life characters, if you enjoy a little bit of terrible heartbreak and cliffhangers, then the Spellslinger series is a must, and I'm glad to report that Soulbinder is another of highlight of the series.

Rating: 5/5

Friday 5 October 2018

Review: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road is a literary science fiction novel about a young girl and a young woman, journeying towards Ethiopia. The young girl, Mariam, crosses the African continent as a stowaway on a lorry, while the young woman, Meena, crosses the ocean from India, on foot, walking on top of a wave energy generator that connects Djibouti to India. Both are running from personal crises, and neither has any idea what to expect in Ethiopia.

I like reading science fiction set not too far in the future. If it's set outside the standard American / Western Europe setting, that makes it all the more enticing. So I had high hopes for The Girl in the Road, even though it is a book with one of those awful "The Girl..." titles.

Unfortunately, the book turned out not to be enjoyable at all. It starts in a breathless panic, as Meena wakes up with five snake bites in her chest and goes on the run. Fairly quickly, the reader begins to suspect that all is not as it seems, that Meena is hallucinating or mad or both, but for a while, there is a lot of rushing around. Once she's on the trail (the wave power generator), the sense of movement slows as she walks for thousands of miles.

Similarly, Mariam returns from the beach, where she has been given a chunk of sea snake meat, to find a "blue snake" in her mother's shack, so she runs away knowing she can never return. Shocked by the sight of the blue snake, she mis-swallows the chunk of snake meat she was chewing, which settles in her chest and bothers her forever after, becoming an internal demon she calls "the kreen".

This is the sort of book written for literature students to analyse. Even I, who didn't enjoy English Lit in school, can spot the snake motif, the way the phrase "snake bite" is used by Meena and by Mariam (one refers to a wound on her chest, the other to a bite of snake meat stuck in her chest), the many snakes in the story (the blue snake, the sea snake, the wave generator, the road, etc. etc. etc.), and the ouroboros-inspired structure of the story and think "that's clever!"

But clever literary gimmicks don't necessarily make for a joyful reading experience. And "clever" is a smug kind of thing, anyway, it's not the same as "intelligent" or "wise"...

The book reminded me of other ones I've read. It is as seedy as a Glen Duncan novel, but without wit or humour. It has a setting & future that could be from an Ian McDonald novel, but without the breathless energy. It's as literary / clever / pretentious as a Salman Rushdie novel, but without the musical prose. I've seen Haruki Murakami mentioned as a comparative writer: this could well be true as I never got more than a few pages into the one Murakami novel I tried, because it was too seedy too quickly. The Girl in the Road takes a bit of time before it gets really sordid.

What baffles me is that many of the authors and other works this novel reminded me of are ones I enjoyed - some years ago. Perhaps my taste has changed. Perhaps this book is a brilliant achievement and I am just no longer receptive to the sort of thing it is trying to do. Or maybe, just maybe, the book is not just clever, but also a little bit stupid. There were many weird things in the book, but aside from a very disturbing sexual encounter involving a prepubescent child and a slightly disturbing scene where a horny woman contemplates raping a gay man, here's a quote of one that seemed a bit silly to me:

"I start thinking of the first woman I ever slept with, Ajantha. She was eighteen. I was fourteen. She was my peer counselor at D.K. Soman International. It was a scene from a lesbian pulp comic. One night at school we were sitting across from each other cross-legged and she leaned over as if to whisper something in my ear but instead she sucked on my earlobe. I remember my vagina made an actual noise, an un-glocking, because my labia got so swollen they unsealed. Ajantha heard it too and pressed her palm over my pants and things went from there."

OK, so the author is in possession  of a vagina and I am not, so I guess I should not doubt her description of noises vaginas make... but really? Are vaginal un-glocking noises a thing? WTF did I just read? It does feel at times like a novel that is so convinced of its own genius that it oversteps into the realm of nonsense.

Lots of ideas went into this book, but the whole lacks joy, pleasure, and vim. Most plot twists are obvious long before they happen. None of the characters are likeable. Both first person narrators are mad. Sexuality is casual (nothing wrong with that) and icky and messed up in ways that match the worst predictions of previous generations' shame-obsessed "socially conservative" religious zealots. The book predicts a future where gender equality doesn't make people safer, but rather, a future where women commit all the same horrors that male abusers do: child molestation, rape, jealousy murder...

The Girl in the Road left me feeling hollow, as if my soul had been soiled a little by the reading of it, the way binging on too much Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones will do. Ultimately, I found the novel joyless and icky. I would not recommend it to anyone who doesn't have a strong stomach for explicit sex and child molestation.

Rating: 2/5

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey God is the story of the recent discovery of ancient ruins in Honduras. It's a book about archaeology and adventure, but also a book about the past and the future.

The story starts when Douglas Preston attaches himself to a wealthy hobbyist who hopes to find a mythical lost city - Ciudad Blanca, also sometimes known as The City of the Monkey God. That city was mentioned in the chronicles of early conquistadors, and its myth had grown over time.

Early in the 20th century, another hobbyist funded several attempts to discover it, including one which claimed to have resulted in success, but which kept the coordinates secret. Reportage about those attempts would inspire other wannabe adventurers for nearly a hundred years.

The attempts and efforts which resulted in this book were different from previous ones: they used lidar technology to scan four sections of the jungle where the city was suspected of being, based on research of the records left behind by other people who claimed to have found it. When lidar revealed patterns that suggested human construction, in the deepest jungle, expeditions went out to find the ruins on the ground.

There are some aspects of the story of the discovery that might be a little troubling. The "dancing with the devil" that the organisers decided to do (hiring a criminal with good connections to support their efforts in Honduras in the early stages) makes for uncomfortable reading. Then, once the expeditions become more serious and involve reputable scientists, the criticisms flung against their work by a charlatan who uses the language of social justice campaigners as a weapon are utterly depressing. Especially since said charlatan is a disreputable self-promoter, guilty of everything he accuses the expedition of: it's a sad example of the way social justice theories have become weaponised, used not to bring about improvements, but as a tool to attack individuals, heavily used by con artists and trolls to fire up angry insta-mobs.

I was a little worried that the book would be either boring, or over-sensationalised. Fortunately, it was neither. Douglas Preston managed to breathe excitement into a non-fiction account where the reader would know the outcome before picking up the book. He brought the landscapes and the people vividly to life, while taking care to write factually and objectively about everything that was found, and everything that happened before and after the discovery. More importantly, when later chapter deal with diseases, he quickly and efficiently summarises things in ways that were eye-opening to the point of feeling like new information to me. It's a highly readable, interesting book - and even educational!

Rating: 4.5/5