Sunday, 3 August 2014

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler


I almost don’t know where to start talking about Kindred. It’s emotionally challenging yet deceptively easy to read. It combines straightforward prose with horrific themes. I was totally engaged reading it, but was left feeling wanting. My heart wants to passionately recommend it, but my brain is slightly more reserved.

On her 26th birthday, in 1976, Dana, a young black woman, is pulled abruptly from her life in California into early nineteenth-century Maryland. She’s thrown back into this society where slavery is the norm. That the consequences of this time travelling for Dana are dire is made clear in the prologue; she is going to come to serious harm. As the story resets, Dana tells it from the beginning chronicling her experiences.

The first timeslip occurs as Dana and her husband Kevin are unpacking in their new home. Their relationship in their own time is not wholly accepted. Kevin is white, and they’ve faced some opposition from both families. But, the contemporary realities that matter most are that Dana is a smart, educated woman, free to marry whom she chooses. The contrast with her status when she travels back in time could not be starker. Which is the point of the story, and makes it all the more disturbing when both Dana and Kevin too catch the rhythms and slip into their expected roles in order to survive.

I loved the practical approach the couple take towards time-travel; packing essential items to grab hold of, worrying that the shift might happen when taking a shower, reading up on the history and geography of the area. It also made me think hard about resistance and compliance, and the difference between personal survival and fighting for a wider cause. Dana’s resilience is amazing, as is her patience and endurance. But, by the end of the book I was still left with so many questions about the technical aspects of the time travelling as well as what impact Dana actually had and whether it was worth her suffering.

None of my questions detract from the brilliance of the writing; I was hooked from beginning to end. It is also a devastating portrait of slavery and the inhuman acts people are able to inflict upon those they have designated other. It’s one of those books I’d like to sit and discuss, and I’ve added Butler to my list of authors I want to read more.

My copy of Kindred came via Bookbridgr, my thanks. It is available now from Headline as an eBook and in Paperback.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Book Shopping

Today I felt like visiting a bookshop I hadn't been to before, so I took a trip to Foyles at the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. I've been past the centre before, on the way to the Olympic Park, but never ventured inside - wandering around shops that are not bookshops is not my idea of a leisure activity. It was worth the trip though, the Foyles is a lovely shop. It's a decent size (although a fraction of the size of the Charing Cross Road shop), with a good range of both kids' and adult fiction on the ground floor. I exhibited no willpower whatsoever and came home with two picture books, one YA novel, a reworked fairy tale and a Booker longlist title.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Penny Dreadful Books by Christopher Edge

  Twelve Minutes to MidnightShadows of the Silver ScreenThe Black Crow Conspiracy

There are three books in Christopher Edge’s Penny Dreadful series, featuring Penelope Treadwell, the thirteen-year-old proprietor of The Penny Dreadful magazine and author of the chilling Montgomery Flinch stories that have made the magazine so popular. Her uncle, William Wigram, her best friend Alfie, and the somewhat unreliable actor Monty Maples assist Penny in running The Penny Dreadful, but she is definitely the key to its success. The books combine supernatural, mystery and crime, in a late Victorian setting.

The first book in the series is Twelve Minutes to Midnight. The patients at Bedlam are compulsively writing strange stories, prompting the doctor in charge to appeal to The Penny Dreadful for help. There are some wonderfully horrible characters, and the story is well told and exciting. We find out just how sharp and clever Penny is, as well as brave.

In the second book, Shadows of the Silver Screen, Penny tries to help Maples in his acting career (and keep him happy) by agreeing for them to be involved in filming a new talking movie. But, there is more than a movie being filmed and once again Penny is drawn into terrible danger.

The most recent book, and my favourite, is The Black Crow Conspiracy. The plot is crazy and creepy, the villains are dastardly, and the danger is greater than ever. A Montgomery Flinch story is eerily similar to an actual crime, stealing the Crown Jewels. The real theft is part of a much bigger plot to steal the throne itself. Kaiser Wilhelm makes a memorable baddie. I also liked this story as Penny is growing up into a young woman – not an easy transition to make in a series, but handled well here.

I enjoyed all three books in the series, and I love the cover art, it’s striking and bold. The stories are action-packed and a bit scary, and I love the turn-of-the century setting. All round recommended.

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.