Tuesday, 8 July 2014

An Unplanned Hiatus

I'm a bit shocked to realise I haven't blogged at all for a month. I hadn't intended to take a break; other stuff has just got in the way of writing up reviews. I now have a rather intimidating pile of books I've read but not reviewed...
There are some real treasures in that pile, I'm confident a few will make my list of favourite reads this year. I'll try and catch up with reviewing them all over the next week or two.

I've also become increasingly less bothered about using GoodReads to log what I'm reading. I haven't decided yet whether to catch up or just let it slide completely. While I mull it over I still need a way of keeping track...perhaps here on the blog.

The Sinking Of Rms Tayleur, Hardback bookWith that in mind, my next read is a history book by Gill Hoffs called The Sinking of RMS Tayleur. It tells the story of another White Star Line ship's maiden voyage that ended in disaster. I'm looking forward to it as I know absolutely nothing about the incident. Yet.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Osiris by E.J. Swift

Osiris: The Osiris Project

The writing in Osiris felt very beautiful to me. The story is told at a restrained pace allowing us to get to know and understand the vastly different lives of Adelaide Rechnov and Vikram Bai in the last city left on earth. It’s told in alternating chapters, starting with Adelaide at the ‘service of hope’ for her missing twin Axel. Adelaide is generally estranged from her family but has attended despite being desperately uncomfortable in their company. She’s certain that Axel is still alive, somewhere, and resents the inference that he has committed the unspeakable sin of suicide, as well as the grieving tone of the affair.

The rarefied and privileged world that Adelaide inhabits is spatially and materially distant from Vikram’s existence in the western sector of Osiris. It’s the difference between the haves and the have nots. The west is cold, the people starving and sick, on the wrong side of the militarised border. It wasn’t originally meant to be like this, but a combination of shortages, greed, and fear has created a world split in two.

The execution of Eirik 9968 puts Adelaide and Vikram in the same place at the same time. Vikram was a comrade of Eirik's and has served time in prison too. The awfulness of the underwater experience haunts him, and me. It’s worse than a hell on earth; it’s hell submerged, entombed in a lightless watery featureless box. The execution is awful and claustrophobic; the slow pumping of the water into the chamber is torture for the condemned, the crowd, and the reader. I think I was holding my own breath while I read it. The execution acts as a catalyst. It causes a crack in Adelaide’s uncaring fa├žade, it reignites Vikram’s attempts to bring change to the west, and it stirs up thoughts of violence and rebellion in those with little to lose.

The story moves slowly as the both Adelaide and Vikram pursue their separate agendas. They move toward each other without either fully trusting or understanding the other. There is much to discover, about the city, about the Rechnovs, and how fundamental one is to the other. But even more than the unfolding story, I just loved the writing. I was carried along by it, learning about the characters, watching them struggle with their demons, growing, changing. I found Osiris completely absorbing.

Osiris is the first book in the Osiris Project and is available from Del Rey. The second book, Cataveiro, is also available, and I’m looking forward to reading it very much. I bought Osiris myself from a bookshop.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Battles of Ben Kingdom: The Claws of Evil by Andrew Beasley

The Claws of Evil - Battles of Ben Kingdom 1

The Claws of Evil is the first story in The Battles of Ben Kingdom, a middle-grade Victorian, supernatural, Steampunkish adventure series. It is set over six very eventful days in Ben’s life leading up to his birthday on 25 December 1891; in under a week his life changes forever. He has to adjust very quickly from being a cheeky apprentice-boy as his destiny comes crashing down upon him.

Ben’s a bit of a scally, always getting himself into mischief, apart from when he has his nose in a book. He lives with his dad and brother in a freezing cold room in a not very nice house, but it’s all they can afford. That is until his dad is given a silver coin, which surely will make all their lives better. Unfortunately, that coin is more than just a piece of silver and some people will do anything to get their hands on it.

That’s not Ben’s only problem. He’s also desperately trying to avoid The Weeping Man, a sinister looking figure who scoops up children that are never seen again. For some reason he’s got his sights set on Ben in particular. He’s also convinced he’s being watched, and he cannot work out who around him is trustworthy. Life has become very complicated for poor Ben.

It quickly becomes clear to Ben that there is more to his city than meets the eye. He needs to start looking up, and down, to see all that is going on. I really liked this layering effect, which allows for the ordinary world to co-exist with two opposing groups of more extraordinary folk. Look up for the Watchers, look down for the Legion. They both seem dangerous, their interests definitely conflict, and they both want Ben. For the future of just about everything it’s vital Ben makes the right choice, but which one is right?

I loved this story. It’s exciting and a bit scary at times. The characters are good; I especially enjoyed Jago Moon, Lucy Lambert, Ruby Johnson, and Claw Carter, even though I didn’t like them all. I think the mix of girl and boy characters works well too. Ben has difficult choices to make, and it’s not always clear that he is leaning the right way. I think that considering he has to adjust super quick to a world he hadn’t even dreamed of he does OK. I hope he’s ready for the next challenge though, as the battle continues in the second book, The Feast of Ravens.

The Claws of Evil and The Feast of Ravens are both published by Usborne. My copy of The Claws of Evil is from my own ridiculously overcrowded shelves.

A few further book suggestions sprung to mind for anyone who enjoyed this book. In the same age range Rob Lloyd Jones's Wild Boy is brilliant, and for older readers both The Feathered Man by Jeremy de Quidt and Black Arts by Prentice and Weil are adventures full of sinister goings-on.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Dark Vision by Debbie Johnson

Dark Vision  
I’m a bit torn by this book; my opinion is inconveniently divided between enjoying the story and not enjoying specific bits of it.

To the positives first, of which the book does have many. Dark Vision has a good story and doesn’t mess about in the telling of it. Lily has had a strange childhood, orphaned at a young age she’s grown up with a cold, hard, and strict grandmother. This coupled with her propensity for disturbing visions triggered by touching another person has left her socially isolated and the least tactile person in the world. Her carefully closed off lifestyle is about to get exploded when Gabriel appears beside her one night and begins to explain who she really is: not Lily McCain but The Goddess. So begins a crazy ride featuring all kinds of supernatural entities and the destiny of the world.

Lily is an interesting character, seriously damaged and with a stunningly low opinion of herself for the most part – understandable considering her upbringing devoid of affection and status as the school freak. She’s scared of emotions and has tried to seal herself off from the pleasure and pain of life. She does have one friend, the brilliantly fierce Carmel. With a friend like Carmel you’re in a good place; she’s loyal, funny, outspoken, a right laugh, and she’ll kick anyone’s butt if they give you hassle. I love her for her lack of judgement of Lily’s idiosyncrasies, and so does Lily. Considering everything, Lily’s doing OK although it’s hard for her to find the joy in life, which actually becomes much more pronounced the more she finds out about her new role.

Dark Vision gets a big tick for having interesting and diverse female characters, amongst the humans and otherworldly types. For once the male characters are much less rounded out. Mostly they’re all major eye-candy or manipulative; apart from Gabriel who combines both those traits with an over-bearing sense of duty. I feel like I ought to complain that the men are a bit limited but I’m a bit dazzled by their hotness and propensity for near-nakedness. As is Lily. After a lifetime of no touching all this flesh is temptation city, especially as she can touch vampires without it causing any unpleasant visions. The emerging sexuality theme is cool but I did get a bit tetchy about the sexual power thing. Lily gets a kick out of turning Gabriel on, fair enough, but really: ‘It was the same power all women feel when they realise the control their bodies have over men.’ I have about a million problems with that statement, but I’ll confine myself to noting that not all women feel like that, not all women nor all men are heterosexual, and not all women conceptualise sex as a power struggle. This kind of thing crops up occasionally in the book and it’s the universality of Lily’s statements that annoy me.

I may as well have my second moan now, which is about the stropping off Lily does frequently. It’s the same thing that irritates me in a fair few YA novels I’ve read recently. It’s as if none of them are capable of having a reasoned conversation instead of a knee-jerk emotional reactions. Lily has many opportunities to question different people about her situation but always stops short. Granted I’ve never been tasked with the fate of the world, but I think I’d be on a serious fact-finding mission as a matter of priority. For me, the use of a tantrum to move on the plot, it’s not my favourite thing.

But, although I do have issues with the book I did also enjoy much of it. I like Lily’s stubbornness, I like the ambiguity of motives, I like sexy vampires. Overall it is a fast and fun read that reminded me a bit of the Sookie Stackhouse stories. A second book is due to be published next year; it’s very likely that I’ll read it.

Dark Vision is out now from Del Rey; they kindly sent me a copy for review.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Blackberry Blue by Jamila Gavin

Blackberry Blue: And Other Fairy Tales

Jamila Gavin has created six beautiful, magical fairy tales. These new tales are so perfectly done that they seem as if we’ve known them all our lives. In Gavin’s inspirational preface she talks about her love of fairy tales growing up. The tales she tells here are all in the European tradition but the protagonists of the stories come from a more diverse range of backgrounds. Her explicit aim is to allow many more children to directly relate to the heroes. From my, admittedly limited perspective, she has done a wonderful job. The stories are exciting, frightening and magical with beautiful, brave heroes and malevolent foes. Just as the best sort of fairy tales should have.

The title story Blackberry Blue is my favourite. It is so magical it is truly enchanting. Blackberry is a foundling taken in by a kind couple unable to have a child of their own. Blackberry is the most beautiful, perfect baby:
‘Her skin was as black as midnight, her lips like crushed damsons, and her tightly curled hair shone like threads of black gold.’
She grows into a lovely young person who captures the heart of Prince Just. There is a touch of Cinderella about the tale, and the descriptions of her magical dresses are gorgeous. One had ‘a skirt of bluebells, trimmed with forget-me-nots and with a bodice of daffodils.’ Who wouldn’t want to wear such a dress?

Of course, true love cannot run smoothly and the couple have to overcome certain obstacles to be together. Gavin has used many of the most popular themes in these tales: the power of true love, bravery, and loyalty; wicked stepparents and their horrible children; people turning into animals. Animal transformation can reveal the true nature of a person, good or evil.

This raven may not have good intentions but it does look awesome. The illustrations throughout are gorgeous (although my photos don’t do them justice). Along with the typesetting they give the book even more appeal. The picture of Emeka the Pathfinder becoming the Green Man is one of my favourites.

Emeka and his sister Joy are those most lovely of fairy-tale children: kind, considerate, loyal, brave, devoted. Poverty forces them from the family home, much to their mother’s distress. She cannot bear to be parted from her ‘beautiful son, with his shining black eyes and glowing skin like gold buried in the dark earth, so brave and bold’ and her ‘most precious and loyal daughter, whose laughter tinkles like bells across the universe.’ If she knew the trials they must face I think she would have been even more reluctant to let them go.

I love Blackberry Blue and it’s a book I would gladly recommend. It deserves a place on the bookshelf in every home with children, and a fair few without too.

Blackberry Blue is published by Tamarind in Hardback. I am most grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy. I shall treasure it.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

A Wicked Pursuit by Isabella Bradford

A Wicked Pursuit - Breconridge Brothers 1

A Wicked Pursuit is the first novel in the new Breconbridge Brothers series. And what fun it is. If you are in the mood for a bit of romance Georgian-style with a dash of steamy romping, then really look no further. I’m not sure much else needs to be said to recommend it, not to me anyway, but I’ll continue…

Harry Fitzroy is the most eligible bachelor of the season and he’s looking for the future Lady Breconbridge. His attentions have alighted on the beautiful and captivating Lady Julia Barclay. Unfortunately his attempts at a proposal end in a horrible accident, leaving him bed-bound. Julia’s true character is revealed during Harry’s convalescence, leaving him to draw closer to her sister Gus. Gus is the quiet and understated to Julia’s vibrant and showy. It is Gus, of course, who is the hero of the sickroom. As Gus and Harry spend time together an unlikely romance develops, which could easily lead to Gus’s ruin.

I wasn’t sure I was going to like Harry. He seems fairly shallow initially, although it was impossible to knock his joie de vivre. He’s full-on with everything, there’s ‘no halfway with Harry’. He’s basically beguiled by Julia’s heaving bosom, forgetting to ask whether they’d actually get on with each other. His first impression of Gus is lamentable, mistaking her for ‘some plain-faced servant’. His accident is the making of him, giving him time to reassess his priorities. Gus is rather impressed with his courage and fortitude. She also knows that her sister will never accept Harry after what has happened. But, even Julia has the opportunity to become a nicer person by the end of the book, despite my grave misgivings.

I enjoyed all the medical details, especially the society doctor Sir Randolph’s pandering to his patient’s whims. Physicians had little choice but to demur to their patients for the sake of the patronage they received from their wealthy clients. Harry gets to call the shots over his treatment; and he thinks it’s Gus who will make him feel so very much better.

A Wicked Pursuit is a perfect Sunday afternoon treat. It’s light and enjoyable, and I felt I was in safe hands with the author. A little bit of escapism to brighten up the day!

I received a copy of the book from Headline through their Bookbridgr scheme.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Glaze by Kim Curran

Petri Quinn knows demanding the future now is a nonsensical request, but she appears to be the only one bothered by the chant at the student demo. And she’d rather be part of something than excluded, again. She’s the youngest in her peer group so she’s still impatiently awaiting her neural implant. As soon as she turns sixteen she too will become connected.

Glaze is the ultimate social network. It allows people to connect and access information with the twitch of an eye. It binds them together, making for a happier and safer society. Petri’s mum Zizi is one of the brains behind the technology, along with Max White, owner of WhiteInc. The pair don’t always see eye-to-eye on how best to develop Glaze, and judging by the current hostility between them, right now they are having a pretty major disagreement. But, we’re left in no doubt, right from the start of this amazing story, that something is very wrong indeed.

I thought Glaze was brilliant. We’re thrown into the action and the characters from the very beginning. Petri is smart but isolated. She has one decent friend, and a huge crush on the school’s most popular boy, Ryan McManus. Her relationship with her mother is not easy. Zizi’s earnest views about a fair society sit uneasily alongside her place on the board of a vast multinational corporation. She irritates the life out of Petri, unsurprisingly, and for an ostensibly progressive parent she shares far less with her daughter than she could. Still, luckily for us that means we get to plunge deep into a dark rabbit hole of social control and personal responsibility along with Petri.

Petri’s life starts to spiral into a world far removed from her comfortable, safe existence. The more she learns about Glaze, and about her father figure Max, the more sinister things become. She stumbles into an underground anti-Glaze group and sees what it’s like to live beyond the monitored places. One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the book was that Petri is dealing with all this major revelation stuff, but she’s also going through normal growing up things, like learning about yourself and first kisses. I loved that she was still able to keep pretty focused on the major problems; the cute boy may well be distracting but there are bigger issues to deal with.

Glaze feels almost too close to the possible to be comfortable. The idea of passively accepting increasingly invasive technology and the potential for it to be used as social engineering ought to be a concern for everyone in an increasingly connected world. Curran draws out how much we love feeling connected with people we identify with, whilst highlighting how this can be manipulated into altering behaviour. Do we really want our free will played with in this way?

I loved Glaze. It’s exciting and tautly written. I wanted to keep reading to the end, because there was no point at which I felt I could just leave it there for a while. It is YA, but I don’t think I was actually conscious of that whilst I was reading – which makes it a pretty excellent crossover title into adult fiction too. Glaze is good. You should read it.

I was extremely fortunate to get an advance copy of the book; my huge thanks to the author. Glaze is available now as an eBook. Hopefully a paperback will be available soon.