Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blood Harvest by SJ Bolton


NOW YOU SEE HER... Gillian is haunted by the disappearance of her little girl two years ago. A devastating fire burned down their home, but she remains convinced her daughter survived.


NOW YOU DON’T... Ten-year-old Tom lives by the town’s neglected churchyard. Is he the only one who sees the strange, solitary child playing there? And what is she trying to tell him?


NOW YOU RUN... There’s a new vicar in town – Harry – and he’s meeting the locals. But menacing events suggest he isn’t welcome. What terrible secret is this town hiding?

In Blood Harvest we meet the lovely Fletcher family, mum Alice, dad Gareth and sons, Joe and Tom and daughter Millie.  They have just moved into the village of Heptonclough and built their new house by the church(es) and graveyard. 

The book opens with Tom and Joe having a great look around the graveyard and a bit of a game.  It is when Joe hears Tom calling to him, and realises Tom is too far away to be doing so, and that the voice is far too near, that the icy cold drops of terror roll down your spine.

Harry, the new vicar, senses that someone is watching him whilst he's preparing the church for service.  It's been closed down for several years as an awful accident happened there some time ago and because of that no one wanted congregate there any more.  Harry is determined to gather his new flock together, no matter what it takes.

Evi is a psychiatrist and has started seeing Gillian, a young bereaved woman who had lost her home and her small daughter in an awful fire not too long ago.  Gillian is grieving and heartbroken but she appears to be flourishing under Evi's guidance.

When Gillian becomes obsessed with Harry and thinks she's fallen in love with him and that he was "the one", Evi resolves to stay away from Harry, even if it means putting her own blossoming feelings second. 

Tom and Joe come to realise that someone is out there, watching them.  Joe has sort of made friends with her and will speak to her when no one else is around.  The times that Tom does see her, he is scared out of his wits.  She's odd-looking, with hands and feet and a head too big for her small child-sized body.  And when Millie is stolen from a harvest festival and then found up in the gallery rafters of the old church, they are convinced that it is this strange girl who is to blame.

His parents doesn't believe Tom when he speaks about her.  He becomes obsessed with keeping the house locked up, checking the doors and windows.  His previously close relationship with his brother Joe disappears and he becomes withdrawn and obsessive.  His parents hand him over to Evi to try and figure out what's going on.  The fact that he hears voices, this little girl's voice, has his mother Alice worried about schizophrenia.

As the story unfolds, strand by strand, SJ Bolton gives us exactly what we want.  A twisty tale full of tension and no little terror.  There were some instances, whilst I was reading this (alone) whilst away from home, that I literally felt myself pinned to the bed by terror.  I couldn't even reach out to turn off my light.  I was scared out of my wits.

SJ Bolton is a superbly subtle writer.  She knows her audience exceedingly well and she plays us like a finely tuned instrument.  She manages to to give us very real characters who act and react in a very human and honest way to various pressures placed on them.  The thriller aspect of the novel, or rather the psychological impact of the novel is tremendous.  We are never quite sure if Tom and Joe are crazy - are they seeing and hearing this girl?  And if so, who is she? And does she have anything to do with the disappearances of other girls in the area, as well as Millie's kidnapping?  And if it's not her doing all these things, then who is it really?

By far the most noticeable character arc/development within Blood Harvest is that of Harry, the new vicar assigned to Heptonclough.  Harry is a such a nice guy.  I warmed to him as a character and all I wanted was for him to come out on the other side of this in good order, with maybe a chance to win Evi's hand.  I obviously will not tell you what happens but I was hugely sad when I closed the covers of the book and had to say goodbye to Harry, Evi and the Fletchers.  They had really got under my skin as characters and I did dash away a bit of a tear at the end.

SJ Bolton's writing is going from strength to strength.  She really has become, without a doubt, one of the UK's top thriller writers.  Her planning and pacing is immaculate and kudos to her editor Sarah for allowing Ms. Bolton to tackle such varied stories within each standalone novel thus far.  I am really looking forward to reading Now You See Me and this time, for sure, I won't be waiting until the paperback comes out!

If you're tentative about reading thrillers and think they are all about the crazy action and breathless pace, put your doubts in your pocket and give SJ Bolton a try.  Her writing will surprise you and shock you.  It is spine tingling stuff and it is just so well written and thought out. I am about to blaspheme (look away!): I think that in SJ Bolton we have someone who can take on Tess Gerritsen at her own game and win.  For sure.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

PBS #5: Me and You by Anthony Browne



One day, a girl came into our house, ate my porridge, broke my chair and fell asleep in my bed.  I wonder who she was?

This is a thoughtful retelling of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story.

It left me with a sense of peculiar sadness and I'm not sure why.  Actually, I think I know.  I think it's because of the artwork - it has a peculiar quality to it.  Unlike most picture books where the artwork truly invites you in with vibrant colours and over the top drawings, Me and You has made use of subtler tones.

On the one hand we have the pages illustrating the young girl leaving her home with her mum.  The artwork is quiet, grey, dull.  She's dressed in a hoodie and the area does not look very nice.

Contrasted wildly with the greyness of the young girl's world, we have the home of the bears.  A wonderfully large home, far brighter and more interesting.  There is also a cohesion in the family in that it has a mum, dad and boy bear - a family unit.  They go out and do things together.

The girl spots a balloon whilst she's standing in front of a shop window with her mum and she runs off to catch it.  She doesn't pay attention where it's going and before she knows it, she's lost and the balloon is entirely out of her reach.

She wanders around and finds the wonderfully large and beautiful home of the bears.  She does exactly what Goldilocks is meant to do - basically invades their home and privacy and eventually falls asleep in the bear junior's bed.  The bears return home after a lovely stroll out and discover their house broken in to.  They sneak around and find the girl asleep.  They confront her and she runs away.

Soon the artwork changes again to reflect the greyness of the girl's surroundings and as she flees the bears and their neighbourhood, she runs deeper into the darkness.  But it ends well, with a great blast of colour.

I think that this one is by far the most subtle picture book I've read in ages.  I think young folk would like it for the obvious Goldilocks story but I think slightly older, more advanced readers, would notice the contrast between the girl's drab life and that of the bears and it will make them wonder.

It's a beautiful book but it's definitely one that makes me feel melancholy.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The SJ Bolton Experience

Mark and I were invited by Lynsey from Transworld to attend something a bit unusual for a book launch.  I am a big fan of SJ Bolton - she writes very creepy thrillers - and so when the invite came through, I barely glanced at it and immediately emailed Lynsey back to say "ohmygodyes".



Turns out the new book - NOW YOU SEE ME - is reminiscent of Jack the Ripper's reign of terror in olden day London town.  And what would be a better way to launch a Jack book...than by having a guided Jack the Ripper walk?

I confess: I do not know much about Jack, at all.  Obviously I know who he is, about his lore, a few bits of info about his killings, but I am by no means an aficionado.  So this evening was not just going to be fun, it was going to be educational too.

Well, there we were, lurking outside Liverpool Street Station along with Keith from Books and Writers, the guys from Goldsboro Books, Miles from Milo Rambles blog and Tom from Crime & Publishing along with Mr. Tony Lee and his lovely bride, Tracey.  We were joined by author du jour, SJ Bolton (who looked immaculate as always) and a swathe of Transworld people.

Whilst we were standing, we became aware of this odd bloke staring at us.  He wore a bowler hat, was completely dressed in black in this suit that is maybe a bit...not quite right, and most curious of all, he carried this unlit lantern.  We traded stares with him, with each other.  Lynsey revealed that this is in fact our guide.  I thought "oh great, creepy deluxe!" Just who I want to show me around the remote alleys of London as frequented by Victorian London's most infamous killer.



The tour got underway once everyone was gathered.  Our guide, "Frank" took to his role of creepy tour guide with gusto.  It is difficult to explain his schtick - it's sort of dead-pan psycho with a bit of a Tyler Durden, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp on a good day, thrown in the mix.   I admit it - I was dubious.  But once you get over the initial oddness, and you just accept that he's pretty damn good at what he does, you are happy to follow him around.

He took us all over the East End and spoke eloquently, with a trained orators voice, about the various Jack the Ripper murders, where they took place, some of the lore surrounding the killings.  But he also gave us interesting asides about the places we walked around.



Following Frank it was really interesting to see how people reacted to his very pale face, his tallness, his odd attire and the lit lantern he carried.  They stared, they giggled and some just preferred not to notice.  They realised pretty quickly though that this was a Jack the Ripper tour and some people stopped to briefly speak to him.  We also had the occasional person linger amongst our group to listen to him or take a photo or six.



At the end of the evening we ended up at The Bell and Frank became Ben, much to our collective reliefs.  Ben was far more lovely than strange-staring-eyed-Frank and also easier to get a laugh out of.  SJ Bolton gave a great speech and did some singing of books.  It was an incredible evening and Transworld really outdid themselves with their hospitality and putting the tour together.  We are genuinely happy to have been part of it.

At the moment I'm reading SJ Bolton's previous novel, Blood Harvest and the opening few pages creeped me out no end.  We'll be reviewing Blood Harvest and Now You See Me very soon!

Oh, friend and fellow blogger Keith has already written his review of Now You See Me as well as a further write-up on the tour.  Check it out.

This is the very creepy book trailer they created for Now You See Me.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Carte Blanche - Jeffery Deaver

I was so sad that I could not make the champagne reception for the new 007/James Bond novel by Jeffery Deaver yesterday.  I swooned when I saw the photos of the event, with the marines rapelling down from St Pancras Station ceiling - the car, the bike, the dolled up ladies and the hunky boys in uniform.  It sounded fabulously over the top and great fun.

I am waiting to receive some high res images from yesterday so will upload those shortly.  But it looked fantastic. 

However, I have just received - into my grubby paws, the actual book.  Now, I don't do this often and this is honest to goodness not bragging, but it is a gorgeous looking book.  Hence this blogpost.  Imagine the Marks & Spencer voiceover lady as you read this, with dramatically swoony music in the background and the smell of gunpowder and blood up your nose:

Front cover / dust cover


The dust-cover is lovely thick paper and it's matte. The print as you can see is a wonderful rich red with Jeffery Deaver's name being partially faded out by the "smoke". The smoke itself has this glint to it that says "touch me". The circle and 007 at the top of the page is glossy red and embossed. It looks and feels great.

Actual cover of hardback

End papers

I took the dust-cover off and a tiny gasp of surprise. The cover itself is embossed with the circle and 007. I am a geek, I know. I love it. The end-papers are silvery with a muted gloss, and the smoke from the dust cover is echoed inside.  

Back cover of Carte Blanche
And that has to be the best quote ever: "Our mission is simple.  We protect the Realm...by any means necessary."

Spine
 I love the look and feel of this book - it feels rich and well made in your hands.  Does this sound odd?  I think not.  I know a great many of my booky friends examine books in the exact same way.  I've not read a single word of Carte Blanche as yet and have no idea if it lives up to its glorious cover, but one thing is for sure, if looks could kill...

And thank you for allowing my very self-indulgent post. That lady from M&S can stop speaking in her dramatic breathy voice now!

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters


Various copies of the book exists, this is the front cover of mine
Amelia Peabody is Elizabeth Peters' best loved and brilliant creation, a thoroughly Victorian feminist who takes the stuffy world of archaeology by storm with her shocking men's pants and no-nonsense attitude!

In this first Egyptian mystery, our headstrong heroine decides to use her substantial inheritance to see the world. On her travel, she rescues a gentlewoman in distress - Evelyn Barton-Forbes - and the two become friends. The two companions continue to Egypt where they face mysteries, mummies and the redoubtable Radcliffe Emerson, and outspoken archaeologist, who doesn't need women to help him solve mysteries - at least that's what he thinks!


I am sure there are others like me, who have eyed up this series from afar, alongside the MC Beaton books and other historical fiction series (I'm specifically thinking about the one that takes place in ancient Rome as well as the series featuring a sleuthing monk as main character) and felt a bit at a loss.  Can you start anywhere?  Is it best to start at the beginning.

In this instance, I decided to start my Amelia Peabody experience right from the beginning.  I wanted to know as much as I could about the character and her adventures because I like to think that if I had lived back then, and I had been a lady of means, I too would have travelled the world in an eccentric fashion.

On the surface, Amelia is very much a product of the Victorian age.  Very proper (in some matters), forward thinking, highly educated (due to her father's belief that a woman does have a brain and needs to use it), and dauntless.  Also brave.  Very brave.  She is a big girl, tall, well endowed but of a certain age.  She believes herself unattractive and unmarriageable.  Although there had been some interest in her after her father's passing, which left her extremely well off, she is not fooled.  And that is what I loved about Amelia - terribly forthright and no-nonsense, yet deep within she is this fantastic dreamer.  But more of that later.

As well learned as Amelia is, very little prepares her for her actual travel.  She has a companion whom she does not like very much, and so decides to send her back to England as soon as possible.  Whilst sojourning in Rome she meets the wonderful Evelyn who honestly suits Amelia to a T.  The two strike up an amazing friendship - one that had me giggling and laughing out loud.  Amelia's no-nonsense factoid world is unexpectedly invaded by a very determined young woman called Evelyn and instead of Amelia pampering this delicate flower, she finds Evelyn quite stubborn and unexpectedly creative.  She arranges for various outfits for Amelia's wardrobe and quite alarms Amelia that she gets away with it!

Evelyn's story is closely tied in with the entire plot for the novel, but I'll do my best not to give anything away.  Needless to say Evelyn and Amelia's travels do not go quite as planned.  Once they get to Egypt and Amelia secures a boat for them to travel down the Nile (or rather, up the Nile) things go a bit...wrong.  There are delays with getting the boat prepared and fitted out to her exacting standards (imagine brand new hangings in the parlour to match her new red dress (!!) as well as a piano being installed) but once that is underway, and they've managed to antagonise the brilliantly grumpy Radcliffe Emerson and his younger brother, Walter.  The sparks fly.  Radcliffe is beyond rude.  He is opinionated, arrogant and blinkered.  But he is a brilliant archaeologist.  Walter on the other hand is a lovely guy and falls for poor Evelyn so loudly all of Egypt could hear it.  He is in deep contrast with his brother and fully aware of how boorish Radcliffe is. 

They set off for their designated dig and Evelyn is a bit heart sore.  Eventually Amelia and Evelyn's boat is ready - they have a crew, provisions, everything is ready and they too set sail for their adventure.

Obviously there are some obstacles along the way - mainly Amelia who insists on stopping at as many historical sites as they could as they travel along the Nile.  She clambers everywhere and gets as mucky as you can imagine.  In this respect she is completely the rebel and I loved her for it!  Her vigorous brain is well informed and nothing seems to monumental a task to complete.  It is also this behaviour that reveals what a dreamer she is. 

They eventually happen to meet up with Emerson and Walter again and this is where the nitty gritty of the novel takes place, at this remote dig with the rumours of treasure, rebel kings and the disappearance (and reappearance) of a mummy who seems extraordinarily fascinated with Evelyn.  It is a set-work of fantastic characterisation, peppered with political and local knowledge against a colourful backdrop of a changing world.  I love Ms. Peters attention to detail and how vibrant her character (both main and secondary) are.  They really made such a great impression.

I admit.  I fell in love with Ms. Amelia Peabody and she has become my heroine.  I will be reading the rest of the series this year and by all counts, I am in for a big treat.  I have heard tremendous things about it and I hope you enjoy the ride with me.

The Amelia Peabody books are published by Constable (Constable and Robinson) here in the UK.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Haunting Violet Book Launch


I was so excited to be invited by the lovely people at Bloomsbury to the Alyxandra Harvey meet and greet yesterday held at the Bloomsbury offices. I arrived, a bit overheated but right on time (I got a bit waylaid on Oxford Street and found myself having to rush!) to find a fabulous group of bloggers already there. I met the lovely Carly from Writing From the Tub Karen from Teenage Fiction For All Ages and Sammee from I Want To Read That. We were whisked upstairs to meet Alyxandra who is, quite frankly, one of the most inspirational young adult writers I've met.

Here we all are with a copy of her latest book, Haunting Violet.




From left to right: Sammee, Karen, Alyxandra, Carly and me. Massive thanks to Carly for this photo.

I knew Haunting Violet would be right up my street and I'm already a quarter of the way through having started it on the train home last night. Alyxandra said yesterday that she loves research so much that she sometimes gets carried away and could forget to write the actual book. This is so apparent in Haunting Violet and she gets the Victorian tone so right. One of my favourite authors is Sarah Waters and I'm getting exactly the same feel of authentic setting alongside a strong thread of the supernatural in this book. Anyway, I'll save this for the review and giveaway at the end of June!

We were lucky enough to have Alyxandra all to ourselves and asked a whole load of questions about her writing, the books she has planned and the upcoming next book in the Drake Chronicles. I was struck by just how hard Alyxandra has worked for her success. She began writing at fourteen and had written a massive twenty-six books before she landed an agent. Ironically it is Haunting Violet that got her her agent but the Drake Chronicles were published first (Bleeding Hearts, the fourth in the series is out in October in the UK by the way).

I was struck by just how passionate Alyxandra is about her fans. She obviously thoroughly enjoys interacting with them and discussing their ideas and thoughts. We all chatted for a while about her books, writing habits (an average size novel normally takes her around three months to complete) and interests (historical fiction from Egyptian to Regency and beyond and the paranormal genre). I think we could have happily talked to her for hours. To celebrate the upcoming Haunting Violet release there was an amazing cake which we all admired before devouring.


Haunting Violet is released on 4th July in the UK and, as I mentioned, MFB will be doing a giveaway at the end of June to celebrate. Alyxandra is currently doing a tour of the UK, details of which can be found here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Lost Book of Salem by Katherine Howe





While clearing out her grandmother's cottage for sale, Connie Goodwin finds a parchment inscribed with the name Deliverance Dane. And so begins the hunt to uncover the woman behind the name, a hunt that takes her back to Salem in 1692 . . . and the infamous witchcraft trials.

But nothing is entirely as it seems and when Connie unearths the existence of Deliverance's spell book, the Physick Book, the situation takes on a menacing edge as interested parties reveal their desperation to find this precious artefact at any cost.

What secrets does the Physick Book contain? What magic is scrawled across its parchment pages? Connie must race to answer these questions - and reveal the truth about Salem's women - before an ancient family curse once more fulfils its dark and devastating prophecy . . .


Apparently, over in the States, the book is called The Physic Book of Deliverance Dane, which certainly has a ring to it.

Either way, the book is such a special treat.  It is a dual narrative, set both in our "modern" time as well as in 1692, working forwards from there, giving us snippets of Deliverance Dane's heritage to her daughters and granddaughters.

What struck me the most about Ms. Howe's novel is the quality of the writing - it borders on poetry in some instances when she describes this hidden house the main character, Connie, has to live in whilst clearing it.  I got a great sense of place and luxuriated in the description of the house and the tanglewood garden.  What also helped was that the novel takes place over Summer so the writing has a cloying, dreamlike feel which suited the narrative perfectly.  I loved Connie's character and the mystery surrounding the fantastically named Deliverance Dane.  I could just imagine someone like Jethro Tull or even Fleetwood Mac writing a song in her honour.

US Cover and title - very pretty!

I digress. The novel is wonderfully layered as we have Connie who is quite pragmatic and sensible working on her big dissertation for her Phd.  She grew up in unusual circumstances as her mum travelled with her a lot.  Her mum is a seeker and is convinced she can heal people by the laying on of hands.   Connie can't help but feel like her mum is play-acting at it all and that she runs away from confronting the reality of life.  Case in point, leaving her grandmother's house to lay undisturbed for several years, acruing taxes, before doing anything about it - i.e. asking Connie to go clear it out over the Summer holidays and get it ready to put on the market.

On the one had we have a pretty rubbish situation for Connie, a personal dilemma, and on the other hand, we have her very demanding tutor at university asking her to start work on her dissertation and to work hard at getting hold of some kind of original source.

As Connie finds evidence of Deliverance Dane in her grandmother's old cottage and she starts researching Deliverance, we move backwards and forwards in time in an attempt to make sense of both their stories.  I read another review that said the novel was weighed down by description.  One person may have thought that but I loved it.  I found it interesting and enjoyed Connie's process at figuring out what exactly was going on even if she occasionally came across as being a bit silly when it came to making sense of personal names and different spellings of items listed in old catalogues and diary entries.  I suspect the author showed Connie making mistakes like this to prevent us from thinking that Connie was a knowitall and we all know no one likes a knowitall!

It is a novel that looks at the past and how it informs us in present.  It is a story of a young woman who discovers much about herself in the process of the novel and can be seen as a rite of passage novel.  The research she goes in to to discover what she needs to find about Deliverance Dane and her own family history is thoughtfully written.

If I am pushed, I'd say that I genuinely did not like her mother.  I know why the author wrote the character the way she did, but I found myself skipping the dialogues Connie ended up having with her mum.  She was maybe a bit too new agey and it didn't ring true to me.

I can definitely recommend this as a lazy summer's read by the pool or on the beach.  It is a fun historical novel, firmly anchored in the witch trials of Salem but told in a very private and beautifully evocative way.

Find Katherine Howe's website here.  The Lost Book of Salem is available (and has been for some time now) in the UK from Penguin.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook: A Guide to Swashbuckling with the Pirates of the Caribbean by Jason Heller

 
In the tradition of our popular "Batman Handbook" and "Indiana Jones Handbook" comes the world's only guide to emulating the most popular pirate in motion picture history: "Captain Jack Sparrow". Illustrated with film stills, line drawings, and helpful diagrams, "The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook" will cover everything a swaggering swashbuckler needs to know, including: How to sail a ship; How to climb rigging; How to decipher a treasure map; How to break a curse; How to survive being marooned; How to battle a sea monster; and much, much more. With skills derived from all three films-and up-to-the-minute data regarding the forthcoming "On Stranger Tides" - this handbook will be a surefire hit with Pirates fans of all ages.
 
Receiving a copy of this in the post was such an unexpected treat.  With its tongue firmly in its cheek, this guide sets about to explain to us smelly landlubbers exactly how to behave as a pirate.  It covers recruitment in detail, deciphering treasure maps, how to survive when marooned, how to sail a ship and so on and so on.
 
It is a great resource for those who are interested in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, including the most recent: On Stranger Tides which had just been released.  It is an insider's guide to all the trickster ways of Captain Jack Sparrow, complete with diagrams, illustrations and random bits of very rubbish (and occasionally) some good advice.
 
There are some great bits in this guide book, including things like Pirate Insults and a very important guide on getting a Treasure Map tattoo.  What I loved though is the following regarding the whole thing about no women on board a ship: 'Being obligated to hide one's gender to serve as a pirate is, of course, ludicrous. In fact it flies in the face of one's primary yet unspoken tenets: that social conventions and stereotypes are there to be shattered and that a pirate, of all people, should know better than to judge and look down on others.'  Rar! Were pirates the first feminists?
 
Jason Heller does a rum-job (see what I did there) in having put this little tome together.  He writes in an easy to read style and never strays from "character" putting across the various tenets of the Pirate Code across.  Mixing fact with fiction the handbook becomes an easy way to educate younger readers about pirates and what their lives were really like. 
 
As a big fan of the movies and of Captain Jack Sparrow (I named my dog after him, fer heaven's sake!) the book is a great resource even for those who may not expect it to be.  It is a fab addition to my library which is sadly lacking in pirate literature. This will however be rectified, I think.  It is out at the moment so grab it up - it will make a great present for reluctant readers as it is such a varied read, with lists, illustrations and asides, that it doesn't actually feel like you're reading or learning.  I'd recommend this for readers aged 12+.
 
Do check out the Amazon page for this book as it is loaded with some fantatic reviews from other reviewers.
 
The book is published by Quirk Books.  Do check out the link as you can actually look at the first nineteen pages of the handbook to give an idea of the quality and layout. 
 
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me...

Friday, May 20, 2011

Dead Men Walking by Steve Lyons



When the necrons rise, a mining planet descends into a cauldron of war and the remorseless foes decimate the human defenders. Salvation comes in an unlikely form – the Death Korps of Kreig, a force as unfeeling as the Necrons themselves. When the two powers go to war, casualties are high and the magnitude of the destruction is unimaginable.

Gunthar Sorenson is a mine overseer, a mine of limited ambition and imagination, whose most outlandish achievement has been to date the planetary governor’s daughter, albeit in secret. So when one of his teams report finding something strange deep in a vein of ore, his curiosity is piqued; the governor’s daughter has spoken of rumours of such things, of strange constructs that powerful men have been whispering about. Thinking to curry some more favour with her, and perhaps her father, he descends into the mines to see this old, rune-marked thing for himself, never imagining the devastation that its discovery presages.

As the Necrons rise and the city falls, an Imperial Guard troopship is rerouted to the planet, bringing the famed Death Korps of Krieg into the fray. Notoriously stoic and fanatically devoted to life -and death- in service to the Emperor, it’s abundantly clear that winning hearts & minds isn’t on their agenda. As the war spreads and the world is torn apart, the story opens up, following the fate of Gunthar, his erstwhile flame as well the ageing commissar Costellin, assigned to the Death Korps.

I liked the way Lyons opened up the story behind the Death Korps- not by trying to get under the skin of one their men so much, but via the metamorphosis of the PDF volunteers, notably Gunthar, who have the dubious honour of being trained by Death Korps personnel. Very interesting stuff indeed, especially as by this time X is a well established & sympathetic character. The Death Korps are the stars here, and are far more interesting than the Necrons, who don’t really seem to do much except react after their initial assault.

There’s little glory and as much hope in DMW, just a desperate, bloody war of attrition and a tragic twist that really brings life in the 41st millennium home.

You can read an extract here...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Infiltrators by Philip Etienne and Martin Maynard


Apologies for the poor quality of the cover jpg!

Philip Etienne and Martin Maynard are two of London's most successful villains. They specialize mainly in drugs, trading huge amounts of cocaine, ecstasy, crack and cannabis. They also deal in guns, stolen cars, credit cards and pretty much anything else that comes their way.


And business is booming; crime does pay. Martin drives a brand-new top-of-the-range BMW, Philip a slick Mercedes. When they hit town their wallets are fat with banknotes. If a deal looks good they can lay their hands on hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash at a moment's notice.


They can be contacted only through word-of-mouth recommendation. Only too aware that you can never be sure who's listening in, they never brag about their exploits. Tough, streetwise, professional and absolutely fearless, they're the kind of men other crooks feel comfortable dealing with. And that's just the idea, because Philip and Martin are undercover police officers. Revealed for the first time, The Infiltrators is the breathtaking story of Scotland Yard's covert operations from the two men in the front line. It's an intense, unpredictable world of gangsters, drug dealers, contract killers and gun runners where any mistake can have lethal consequences. We're lucky they're the good guys ...

I've had a battered copy of The Infiltrators sitting on my shelf for ages now and I decided to give it a read as it is non-fiction and I find the whole undercover thing very interesting. I did not expect to lie on the couch all of Saturday, battling a sore head, utterly immersed in their story.

In reading the Infiltrators, I found an incredibly interesting story of two regular guys working for the police, living normal lives as and when they can, but also doing very scary and dangerous things as they belonged part time to this group of undercover police that worked all across the UK.

The write-up above make these guys sound like Don Johnson in Miami Vice.  Glitz and glam - which their lives in reality are not.

I give great credit to the writer they worked with to tell their story! The narrative flows well and as we switch from Martin to Philip's stories throughout the novel, we catch a glimpse of exactly how much goes on in and around us that we are blissfully unaware of as everyday public.  The stories, as they are told, are concise and to the point.  There is a chance for both Martin and Philip to convey their thoughts and feelings but these are never glamorised or dumbed down.  We are at all times fully aware how much these guys are putting on the line.

I loved The Infiltrators.  It has really opened my eyes to a completely different world that is happening right next door to my quiet suburban life. Not everything is as it seems - the wide-boy in his flash motor and loud pumping music may be someone far different to whom I take him to be.

The "boys" as I now refer to Martin and Philip in my mind, take us through how they started out at first, deciding to become police officers and how things worked for them to join the specialist undercover team.  Admittedly some things were glossed over and not mentioned in detail, such as the actual training that goes in to making an undercover operative.  Yes, some of it got mentioned, tantalisingly so, but I am far happier to not know all of it, because I do like some mystery and "what-if."  We are taken through some of the cases they worked, some in great detail, other only mentioned in passing. 

The book is far more interesting and riveting than any episode on TV of cops under cover or movie I have ever watched.  I suppose it is because I know it is real and that these guys do this crazy job, not for the fame and glory, but because they want to make the UK a better place, and in doing so they put their lives on the line.  I found out far more about how the Yardies work and drugs and how to fold dirty money than I anticipated, how to drop offs and how to refrain from being an agent provocateur. It is genuinely fascinating as it also doesn't shy away from how living double lives like this take its toll on the boys' respective families as well as psychologically.  It is a thoughtful, honest account of two guys' going into crazy situations and praying that nothing goes awry.  I was very much aware of how tense I became in certain places whilst reading it, having to share some scenes with Mark, by reading it out loud.  That does not happen to me very often.

I didn't realise this before I started reading The Infiltrators, but it won the CWA Non-Fiction award back in 2001.  I mean, that says it all. I did some more rooting around and also found this extract here from The Guardian.  I highly recommend The Infiltrators as one of the best non-fiction books I've read in a very long while.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Die For Me by Amy Plum


Synopsis

My life had always been blissfully, wonderfully normal. But it only took one moment to change everything.

Suddenly, my sister, Georgia, and I were orphans. We put our lives into storage and moved to Paris to live with my grandparents. And I knew my shattered heart, my shattered life, would never feel normal again. Then I met Vincent.

Mysterious, sexy, and unnervingly charming, Vincent Delacroix appeared out of nowhere and swept me off my feet. Just like that, I was in danger of losing my heart all over again. But I was ready to let it happen.

Of course, nothing is ever that easy. Because Vincent is no normal human. He has a terrifying destiny, one that puts his life at risk every day. He also has enemies . . . immortal, murderous enemies who are determined to destroy him and all of his kind.

While I'm fighting to piece together the remnants of my life, can I risk putting my heart—as well as my life and my family's—in jeopardy for a chance at love?

I'd heard loads about Die For Me before I'd finally got hold of a copy and was hoping it would get me out of my grump slump I've been in whilst I search for a new book to adore. So was this the one to do it? Well, sort of - but let me explain. Katie's parents have died in a car accident so she and her sister Georgia move to Paris to live with their grandparents. They begin school there and at the start of the book are desperately trying to move on from the past. Katie has become reclusive, seeking refuge in books and coffee bars. It's at one of her afternoons out with a book that she first sees Vincent and they are drawn to each other. Coincidence continues to throw them together until she starts to see past his arrogant exterior to the loving yet secretive boy that he is.

Vincent's true nature means that Katie has some major readjustment to go through if their relationship is to continue. Aside from this she's also forced to start concealing things from her family yet also face up to the losses of her past. Initially (hence my continued grump) I found Katie to be too self-absorbed for me. Obviously she's going to be having suffered a major loss but I also found her inner-monologue relating to whether she should be with Vincent a little much. However, once their relationship reaches an understanding the book really took off for me. Katie went from being grieving, confused teenager to driven, focussed and kick-ass and at this point I began to start appreciating Die For Me.

Vincent lives with friends in a fabulous, ancient and huge Parisian house. As Katie becomes more entangled in Vincent's life she discovers exactly what he and his friends really are. Also, they have enemies which makes Katie's life suddenly filled with danger and intrigue. I really love the setting of Die For Me and it's obvious that the author is in love with Paris and France in general. You can tell by the descriptions of the city, the coffee bars, the food and (especially) the hot chocolate. As well as being enthralled by the story I also wished I was there experiencing the city for myself. The ending is suitably exciting and I was pleasantly surprised by how gory it was - not at all what I was expecting. I found Die For Me a bit of a slow-grower but by the end I really had taken bookish Katie to my heart.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

1986, The Panama Hotel.



The old Seattle landmark has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made a startling discovery in the basement: personal belongings stored away by Japanese families sent to interment camps during the Second World War. Among the fascinated crowd gathering outside the hotel, stands Henry Lee, and, as the owner unfurls a distinctive parasol, he is flooded by memories of his childhood. He wonders if by some miracle, in amongst the boxes of dusty treasures, lies a link to the Okabe family, and the girl he lost his young heart to, so many years ago.

Now and again a book comes along that you want to get the world to read.  Because the story is just that good.  And you wouldn't have known about it had it not been because of word of mouth.

When Allison and Busby sent me a copy, after I saw Dove Grey Reader's write up about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I read the opening chapter.  And knew that this was not a book to read in public.  I am a giant old weepy girl when it comes to some books and I just knew this book would touch my heart strings.

Jamie Ford's writing is uncluttered.  It's not particularly flowery and he doesn't really faff around very much with being purposefully poignant about things.  Instead, his writing has a great honesty to it and his characters glow richly because of it.

It is 1986.  The novel starts with the recently widowed Henry Lee is walking past the Panama Hotel in Seattle.  It was once the gateway to  Japantown but now it was a crumbling relic of another world.   A crowd is gathered there and as Henry looks on, the belongings of Japanese familes, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during WWII, are brougth out.  The owner leans in and picks up a bundle and when he opens it up, it is a beautifully decorated Japanese parasol.

The visual imagery of this scene is so strong I had to swallow a lump in my throat.  You really feel drawn to Henry.  You want to know what these items mean to him and what stories these items had left to tell this very modern world.

We are transported with Henry Lee, back to 1940's Seattle, at the height of the war.  Henry lives there with his parents, Chinese immigrants to the US.  Henry is a bright, sensitive boy who has to make do with a scholarship to the local school, Rainier Elementary, where he is verbally abused and picked on because he is Chinese. His parents do not want him to go to the school in their own neighbourhood, they want him to be American and ask him to speak English at home, even if they can't understand it themselves. 

Whilst at school he comes to meet Keiko Okabe, a Japanese American girl.  In the eyes of their schoolmates Keiko and Henry are the same - they have black hair, they look Asian.  None of them seem to realise that these two young people are very different, being Chinese and Japanese respetively.  The world saw them as not belonging.

It is during this time of awful awful suspicions, where FBI raids are more and more common, curfews are in place and blackouts are mandatory, that these two young people find strenght and courage within each other and an innocent love that will see them through some dire times ahead.  Especially when Keiko and her family are taken with other Japanese during the evacuations and sent to internment camps.  Henry and Keiko cling to the promises they made one another, and it is now, forty years later, when Henry watches that parasol unfold that past and present mingle.

In the basement of the hotel, amongs the items still left undiscovered, Henry's search is not just to find items from the girl he'd lost, but also for a way to come to terms with what he had been a witness to, all those years ago.  He tries to make sense of his very modern Chinese American son and the reasons why his own father, a nationalist, acted the way he did, treating his son (Henry) the way he did and the awful consequences of his actions.  Henry is searching for himself, for something invaluable.

Jamie Ford writes a story within a story, almost a fairytale, and in Henry he creates a wonderful character who reminded me of someone who keeps being surprised by the harsh realities of the real world.

I never knew about the Japanese internment camps in the States and it shocked me deeply.  But it is the understated fashion Mr. Ford tells Keiko and Henry's story, that gives it the impact and the pathos.  Yes, it is deeply sad at times but it also is uplifting and gently humourous in places.  It proves that human spirit can keep growing in the most awful of circumstances and I loved it.

It's a wonderful, thoughtful novel without pretensions.  The strenght of the characters and the gripping storyline marry seamlessly, as does the writer's ability to showcase Seattle in the "then" and "now". 

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet surprised me - rich in dialogue, peopled with great characters and rooted firmly in the best of American traditions, family, honesty and friendship the book is a feast.  It's taken a while to get to the UK but the good folks at Allison & Busby definitely have a winner on  their hands. 

Find Jamie Ford's website here, with Allison & Busby's site here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

PBS #4 Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie On The Road

Welcome to MFB's fourth Picture Book Saturday.

I must apologise for the behind-ness of this feature.  I have no other excuse other than: a crazy life in which Saturdays aren't really my own.

However, I have now got my act in order and so pleased to offer regular reviews on some excellent picture books sent to us by various publishers.


Today's Picture Book Saturday features Joel Stewart's fabulous Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie on the Road.

The book opens with this great image of Dexter and the Beastie standing on the roofs of a town, hooting and tooting on their horns.  It is night time and the stars and half moon is out.  They are kicking up a racket and an angry speech bubble from a garret tells them to Be Quiet!

By refusing to Be Quiet and To Behave, Dexter and the Beastie get thrown out of town.  Straight out, into the deep dark scary forest.  They don't stay frightened for very long.  They walk along, tooting and hooting on their horns and trumpets when they unexpectedly come across the tremendously charing Sir Percy Pecket who loves their hooting and asks them to assist in waking up his Beloved, the Princess Philippina.  The Princess awakes and like Sir Percy she adores the hooting and joins in with her flute.  But then the Princess asks Sir Percy if he's taken care of that pesky dragon problem.  Sadly, he did not and so Dexter, the Princess and Beastie all set off to give the Frightful Dragon what for.  Only, it turns out the Dragon is actually quite cool and he learns to tapdance to their tunes.

Well, the story continues apace, with the Princess, Dexter and Beastie and the Dragon giving performance here there and everywhere.  Until they realise they just cannot stop!

Needless to say, this is a great picture book.  The language is wonderful and the illustrations are quirky and fun and I quite would love a Big Blue Beastie of my own.  Now, please?  Their adventures are over the top, loud and funny and they meet unexpected characters who act in charming and eccentric ways.  It's a book about friendship and music, packed with comedy and giggles.  I loved it and can highly recommend it to readers both very small and very old.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Caution: Here be Monsters - Steve Feasey Blog Tour

It is our great pleasure to host Steve Feasey on MFB as part of his galloping blog tour to celebrate the release of his newest (and final) novel in the Changeling books: Changeling - Zombie Dawn.

I've had the opportunity to chat to Steve on several occasions and he's such a cool guy. He's basically a geek, you see. He knows stuff about stuff. Like creatures and monsters and how important it is to have a 'tooling up' scene for your heroes in a book full of action.

I've asked Steve to chat to MFB today about monsters, and those that inspired him whilst growing up. And he's given us a great piece which I am very proud to share with y'all.





Go on, admit it, you love monsters. How could you not? Great supernatural creatures have always been at the heart of horror fiction because when we read horror and dark fantasy, we want to be entertained; to be drawn out of our normal lives and plunged into a world of the paranormal. And we want monsters. At least, I do.

As part of this blog tour, in my guest blog over at Mr Ripley’s Enchanted Books, I explain why Alien is my favourite movie, and surprise surprise my reasons for loving that film are mostly taken up with the monster. I love the originality of that creature, and I salute Carlo Rambaldi for creating that head with the primary and secondary mouths – genius! Because monsters and the larger-than-life problems that they pose make great reading, as the protagonist has to overcome insurmountable odds if he or she is to survive (and hopefully save the day). Great monsters create great conflict, and great conflict is the very essence of great story.

When I was still in shorts and knee-high socks, I discovered Greek mythology. I loved those tales, and they led me onto mythology from other cultures. And the stories I liked the most were the ones with the great monsters in. I liked anything where the hero had to cross over into the Underworld, and if the same story happened to involve kickass monsters – and they usually did – I was in my element. My particular favourite was Heracles (Hercules if you must, but I always resented the way the Romans stole the Greeks’ gods and goddesses). I loved the whole half-man, half-god thing and although I know he’s not exactly a great role model – he’s set those twelve tasks after committing infanticide for heaven’s sake – he does hit the Yee-ha button when it comes to monster slaying. Of the vile creatures he has to face and vanquish, the one that always stayed in my mind was the Lernaean Hydra - a monster so fiendish that as you lop off one of its heads, it grows two back in its place! Of course, old Herc figures out an ingenious way to defeat it, but the image of that self-regenerating creature stayed with me for a long time.

Illustration of the Lernaean Hydra

Old legends and myths are rich hunting grounds for writers. I still love reading them, and use a lot of the creatures I discover as inspiration for the monsters (both heroic and malevolent) in my books. I remember reading a couple of lines about the hierarchy of angels in ancient Jewish texts. One line described the Arel as defenders of the human realm from demonkind – a kind of winged vigilante gang – and I was struck with the idea for Moriel the battle angel (who’s still one of my favourite characters in the Changeling books – You want kickass? She’s got it in spades!).

If I had to give one piece of advice to aspiring writers about creating their own monsters, it would be to really sit down and work out what makes them tick. In the same way that you need to crawl under the skin of your characters, you need to know your monster. It might be something you’ve borrowed from legend. It might be a classic trope such as a vampire, werewolf or zombie. But it needs to be your take on it. You need to know the creature inside-out and upside-down. Because if you do it’ll be real, and the readers will love discovering how your hero is going to finally put a stop to its dastardly shenanigans.

Here be monsters! Oo, I do hope so.


The map is in public domain at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carta_Marina.jpeg

I loved this blog post - thanks Steve!  Find Steve's very cool blog here

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Killing Place by Tess Gerritsen


Something terrible has happened in the snowbound village of Kingdom Come, Wyoming. Twelve eerily identical houses stand dark and abandoned. Meals remain untouched on dining room tables. Cars are still parked in garages. The human occupants have vanished, seemingly into thin air. This is the unsettling place where Maura Isles finds herself trapped during a snowstorm. She has joined a group of friends on a drive to an isolated ski lodge, but when a wrong turn leaves her car stranded in deep snow, she stumbles down a private road into the valley of Kingdom Come, where she takes shelter - and disappears. Days later, Jane Rizzoli flies to Wyoming to search for her missing friend. A crashed vehicle has been found with four badly burned bodies still inside. The authorities assume that one of the women is Maura. But is it? Jane Rizzoli's search for the truth leads her to Kingdom Come, where a terrifying and gruesome discovery lies buried beneath the snow.I realised as I went through the blog over the weekend that I've not actually reviewed this absolutely excellent novel by one of my favourite crime writers, Tess Gerritsen.  I have no idea how it slipped through the cracks, but I'm happy to share my thoughts on this one with you.




Like many other people from the UK I first read Tess Gerritsen a few years ago - a woman's magazine were giving away the first book in the Isles/Rizzoli series and I remember being smitten with Ms. Gerritsen's incredible ease of writing.  I subsequently bought the next few books in the series and kept up to date with all the happenings and read the books more for pleasure, than for review.  That is bad, I know, but allow me my vices!

I've decided to review The Killing Place because it is by far the scariest and most intimately clausterphobic of her novels that I've read thus far.  Maura meets a friend and colleague at a conference and agrees - very unlike Maura - to spend time going away on a skiing trip with him and some friends after the conference.

Unfortunately the weather closes in, blanketing the world in snow, and they become badly lost.  But it is when the car they are in goes off the road that they realise they have to do something or they may all die, that matters kick off.

They find their way into the deserted private community of Kindom Come.  The houses are all empty, abandoned, and in each house the same picture of a dark eyed man staring pensively in to the sky hangs on the wall.  There are signs throughout the small village that something had happened - but what?  What mystery have they stumbled upon?

When Maura's return flight lands and she's not on it, the irrepressible Jane Rizzoli starts worrying.  She knows that this is not the way Maura does things - punctual, timely and tidy in all things, Maura's life is ruled by her own imposed rules and her non-appearance worries Jane more than she'd care to admit.  When she in turn flies off to Wyoming to figure out what's happened to her friend, and they subsequently discover a burned out car with four bodies in it, the logical conclusion is that one of the bodies might be Maura's.

Twisty and turny, The Killing Place held me spell-bound.  I literally could not stop reading the book as I desperately needed to know how things panned out.  Gerritsen's plotting is razor sharp and immaculate.  Her characterisation of Maura deepens our understanding of this wonderfully intense yet reticent character whilst Jane's concern for her friend allows the readers to glimpse how close they have become.

What I loved most about The Killing Place is Maura's determination to live.  She keeps moving ahead, against all expectations, even when you think that all hope is lost, she digs deep and continues.  It is a wildly creepy novel, because of the setting of Kingdom Come.  The mystery as to why it was abandoned sits at the back of your head whilst you're reading and each nightmarish glimpse of a clue, with each twist and turns, Gerritsen lures you along, taking you deeper into the layered story. Just superb.  I remember closing the book and heaving a sigh of relief and wiping a way a tear or two. 

Gerritsen is a fantastic writer and all her books are imminently readible but there is a magic to The Killing Place that really stays with you for some time after you've finished reading it.  I know it makes no sense reading The Killing Place for a summer reads, what with it being set in Wyoming during winter, but trust me - it is a wholly satisfying read for the beach or a lazy day in the backgarden.  Because come winter, you wouldn't want to go anywhere it snows.

The Killing Place has been out now for some time, in both paperback and hardback.  Find Tess Gerritsen's website here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

MFB hosts Stop #7 - A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

MFB is the seventh stop on the blog tour for A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and you can read the seventh extract below. If you’ve missed the first one, visit The Mountains of Instead to start the tour.

A MONSTER CALLS BY PATRICK NESS


EXTRACT 7


LIFE WRITING

Stories, Conor thought with dread as he walked home.

It was after school, and he’d made his escape. He’d got through the rest of the day avoiding Harry and the others, though they probably knew better than to risk causing him another “accident” so soon after nearly getting caught by Miss Kwan. He’d also avoided Lily, who had returned to lessons with red, puffy eyes and a scowl you could hang meat from. When the final bell went, Conor had rushed out fast, feeling the burden of school and of Harry and of Lily drop from his shoulders as he put one street and then another between himself and all of that.

Stories, he thought again.

“Your stories,” Mrs Marl had said in their English lesson. “Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell.”

Life writing, she’d called it, an assignment for them to write about themselves. Their family tree, where they’d lived, holiday trips and happy memories.

Important things that had happened.

Conor shifted his rucksack on his shoulder. He could think of a couple of important things that had happened. Nothing he wanted to write about, though. His father leaving. The cat -wandering off one day and never coming back.

The afternoon when his mother said they needed to have a little talk.

He frowned and kept walking.

But then again, he also remembered the day before that day. His mum had taken him to his favourite Indian restaurant and let him order as much vindaloo as he wanted. Then she’d laughed and said, “Why the hell not?” and ordered plates of it for herself, too. They’d started farting before they’d even got back in the car. On the drive home, they could hardly talk from laughing and farting so hard.

Conor smiled just thinking about it. Because it hadn’t been a drive home. It had been a surprise trip to the cinema on a school night, to a film Conor had already seen four times but knew his mum was sick to death of. There they were, though, sitting through it again, still giggling to themselves, eating buckets of popcorn and drinking buckets of Coke.

Conor wasn’t stupid. When they’d had the “little talk” the next day, he knew what his mum had done and why she had done it. But that didn’t take away from how much fun that night had been. How hard they’d laughed. How anything had seemed possible. How anything good could have happened to them right then and there and they wouldn’t have been surprised.

But he wasn’t going to be writing about that either.

“Hey!” A voice calling behind him made him groan. “Hey, Conor, wait!”

Lily.

The eighth and final extract of A Monster Calls will be posted on Patrick’s author page on Waterstone's, Thursday 12th May…

You can follow Patrick on twitter, become a fan on facebook, or visit his website.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

City of Fallen Angels Bloghunt








Six questions.



Six blogs.




One chance for fans in the UK and Ireland to get their hands on the letter that Jace writes to Clary in City of Glass before he leaves on a life-threatening mission. I'm super excited about this as I heard that readers in the US who purchased their book from Barnes and Noble got a copy but we didn't. I needn't have worried - Walker Books have got it all under control and we can get a copy too.

Each question is on a different blog, and the answers lie in City of Fallen Angels, the latest in Cassandra Clare’s bestselling The Mortal Instruments series.

Once you’ve answered all the questions, put the first letter of each answer together to create a word. Email that word to Undercover Reads, and Walker Books will send you a beautiful print of Jace’s letter, complete with the Morgenstern Seal.

The fifth question is…

5. What is the title of chapter four of City of Fallen Angels?

Got the answer? Okay, make a note of it and then the sixth and final question will be unveiled on Serendipity, on Wednesday 11th May.

If you’ve missed any of the questions, start the hunt at The Crooked Shelf

Friday, May 06, 2011

Dead Beautiful by Yvonne Woon


Synopsis

Desire. Danger. Destiny. Little did I know that this is what I would find at Gottfried Academy.

Coming from sunny California, the mist-shrouded Academy was a shock, with its strange customs, ancient curriculum and study of Latin - the language of the dead. Then I discovered that the school has more than one dark secret... I also discovered Dante. Intelligent, elusive and devastatingly gorgeous, most people can't decide whether they love, hate or fear him. All I know is that when we're together, I've never felt more alive - or more afraid.

I hadn't really been aware of Dead Beautiful until about a week ago. I started seeing it mentioned on Twitter and then walked into my local Waterstones and picked it up from the shelf. It's got a great synopsis and I always love a fish out of water story line so I took it home (with other books but this isn't the time or the place to discuss my obsessions). I read it in a week which is pretty slow for me - although I read the last third in a matter of hours, flipping the pages like a woman possessed.

Renee's parents die in mysterious circumstances and she's sent to Gottfried Academy on the East Coast. Gottfried's is exclusive and virtually unheard of. The dress code is archaic and Renee is faced with more rules than she's even known and a whole list of subjects that make no sense to her at all. Instead of lacrosse and history she's expected to learn Latin and horticulture. Against her wishes she makes the move but soon makes friends in the spooky, Gothic school. There's more than a few mysteries at Gottfried. The previous term a pupil called Benjamin was found dead in the grounds, his tie stuffed into his mouth. She's replacing a girl who left under suspicious circumstances and then there's Dante who barely speaks to anyone, except Renee. Nathaniel, Eleanor and the Grandfather are great characters, I could have quite happily read more about them. There's also some very thorough research and mythology in place that gives Dead Beautiful a solid foundation to build upon.

I enjoyed this book but I found I didn't love it. I'm not sure if it was a pace thing or the dialogue but it didn't grab me a hundred percent. It could be that I'm still in mourning after having finished an awesome book and am still searching for something to fill the void. Having said that as the mystery unravels the last third of the book flies. There are some original new twists to the paranormal genre and the relationship between Renee and Dante is very touching. The last chapter is simply gorgeous and although I've heard that there's a sequel on the way Dead Beautiful would be perfect as a stand alone such is the strength of the symmetry of the plot.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Ritual by Adam Nevill




And on the third day things did not get better. The rain fell hard and cold, the white sun never broke through the low grey cloud, and they were lost. But it was the dead thing they found hanging from a tree that changed the trip beyond recognition.


When four old University friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect with one another. But when Luke, the only man still single and living a precarious existence, finds he has little left in common with his well-heeled friends, tensions rise.


With limited fitness and experience between them, a shortcut meant to ease their hike turns into a nightmare scenario that could cost them their lives. Lost, hungry, and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, Luke figures things couldn’t possibly get any worse.


But then they stumble across an old habitation. Ancient artefacts decorate the walls and there are bones scattered upon the dry floors. The residue of old rites and pagan sacrifice for something that still exists in the forest. Something responsible for the bestial presence that follows their every step. And as the four friends stagger in the direction of salvation, they learn there are some things worse than death…


I started reading this while we were en route to Paris, courtesy of Eurostar, and by the time we hit the Channel I was profoundly glad we’d chosen to go on a city break rather than go camping.


By the time we got to Paris I was promising myself I’d never set foot in a forest again.


The Ritual starts off with a familiar enough premise, that of a small group of old friends going hiking together (happily, there are no virgins or teenagers in sight) but the tension is there from the get-go. Things go downhill faster than a suicidal lemming as the characters head off the beaten track in the vain hope of finding a shortcut to ease the strain being felt by those too unfit and unprepared for the planned hike, let alone the creeping terror that awaits them.


Adam evokes the oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the ancient, primal forest in vivid detail, bringing it to life and making it an utterly believable backdrop for the horrors to come- the first night at the abandoned house is a masterclass in creeping horror. The characters’ plight, particularly that of the main character, Luke, is made all that more desperate because they’re fleshed out enough as things progress for you to care about them. Their problems are problems we can all relate to- there aren’t any outlandish I-was-a-SAS-commando figures here, just four guys with contemporary problems and who’ve grown apart under the pressures of life.


Adam took the second half of the book in a direction I certainly wasn’t expecting, and while this is no bad thing, is did feel like it took a few chapters to find its pace again. But given how fast it reads, and the truly chilling content packed into it, it’s not anything to complain about. Bleak and uncompromisingly creepy, this was made to be read on a dark and stormy night. If you dare.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Chime by Franny Billingsley


Briony knows she is a witch. She knows that she is guilty of hurting her beloved stepmother. She also knows that, now her stepmother is dead, she must look after her beautiful but complicated twin sister, Rose. Then the energetic, electric, golden-haired Eldric arrives in her home town of Swampsea, and everything that Briony thinks she knows about herself and her life is turned magically, dizzyingly, upside down.

I was supposed to review Chime weeks ago.  But I couldn't.  I didn't have the words.  Honestly, I have not read a book as wonderfully strange and unique as Chime for the longest time.  I had too many images in my head and too many thoughts.  I couldn't even express myself on twitter coherently.

I'm attempting a review now, so please bear with me.  Or ignore this review and just go and buy a copy.  You won't regret it.

Briony's voice is deeply unique and wistful and strange and peculiar.  We meet her as she is locked in jail for witchcraft, awaiting the trial and her execution.  We very soon come to realise that Briony's life before being accused of witchcraft is as different and unique as anything we may have come across before.

The village she lives in is near the swamp.  Briony has been warned to stay away from the swamp and she's made promises to do so.  In the past she was a wicked wolfgirl running wild through the swamp, listening to the voices in the air around her.  She caused the waters to rise, for the swamp sickness to come, for the fire to happen in the library, for her Stepmother to die.  She's also the cause of her sister, Rose's, unfortunate condition.

Briony holds up a facade to the world around her.  She has given up her life and her wild ways to take care of Rose.  She hates herself for Rose's condition and for the murder of her Stepmother.  But no one knows how her (Stephmother's) death had truly happened.  Only Briony knows and she's scared.  She is living a wicked lie. And her Stepmother always knew she was a wicked girl.

Into Rose and Briony's life comes a young man, a boy-man called Eldric.  Eldric is a wonderful character and he is both charmed and intrigued by both Rose and Briony.  Rose treats Eldric with disdain and shies away from him, but Briony is deeply intrigued, although she knows she must not be.  She is wicked and awful, after all.  But Briony and Eldric hit it off in a fantastic way.  They become great friends and start their own Bad Boy / Bad Girl club.  They make up Latin words and do crazy things.  Eldric teacher her how to box.  There is much flailing about and much laughter.  The romance between Briony and Eldric is so great as it develops slowly with a great many laughs and a great many random adventures.  I love that Eldric remains a true enigma to Briony.  I love that it wasn't an instant romance.  I love that she was wary of him, circling him, like a real wolfgirl.  I also love that Eldric understands Rose.  I enjoyed the fact that they had a rapport and that really endeared him to me even more.  Rose's character is seemingly the least complicated one - she is the most wistful character to me, too.  Her odd utterings and wilful behaviour is that of a much younger child.  That the girls are twins must make this even stranger still as Briony is the one turning into a young woman, and Rose is too, whilst remaining mentally a child.  But then, as writers are often fond of doing, Rose's character is both childish as well as older than her years.

When Rose falls ill with the dreaded Swamp Cough and although Briony's now dead Stepmother had warned her to stay away from the Muggy Mun, Briony knows she has no choice.  She has to turn to this creature of darkness for help.  And of course, we the readers think: what is this girl on about? A Muggy Mun? Dark Ones? Swamp things? Brownies? And then slowly but surely we realise that all these creatures are in fact very real.  Or are they?

We are never quite sure about Briony's mental state.  She seems playful, highly strung, very intelligent but she is also an incredibly unreliable narrator.  And as the entire book is written from her perspective, it is hard work to distinguish fact from fiction or rather, what Briony sees as fact and fiction.  And there were times when I did wonder if she was completely and utterly crazy.  Or just pretending to be.

I've made a mess of this review.  So I will defer to my friends Ana and Thea over at the Booksmugglers who did a far far better job than me reviewing this truly excellent and superb book.  I mean, Ana gave it a nine.  A nine! Also, this is a great interview with the author over at The Enchanted Ink Pot (what a great blog name!)

I know that as an aspiring writer, when agents and publishers talk about voice, and that they'll know it when they see it, they mean Franny Billingsley and this book.  I love it with all my readerly writerly heart.  I know some people may not get Briony's oddness but I suspect that if you give it a chance, you will and it will lift you up and carry you away away.  It took me ages to get my head out of the story afterwards and pick up something else.  The voice stays with you for a long time, as does the story.  It's definitely going into one of my Top 12 for 2011.

Give it a try.  It'll surprise you. Find Franny Billingsley website here.

**Competition News**

I have two copies of Chime to give away to two lucky UK winners.  I'll let the competition run until Tuesday 10th May.  In order to be in it to win it, leave a comment below about some of your favourite writers or books. They don't have to be new / modern writers.  We are always keen to find new good books to read on MFB.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

Synopsis

Sam leads a pretty normal life. He may not have the most exciting job in the world, but he’s doing all right—until a fast food prank brings him to the attention of Douglas, a creepy guy with an intense violent streak.

Turns out Douglas is a necromancer who raises the dead for cash and sees potential in Sam. Then Sam discovers he’s a necromancer too, but with strangely latent powers. And his worst nightmare wants to join forces . . . or else.

With only a week to figure things out, Sam needs all the help he can get. Luckily he lives in Seattle, which has nearly as many paranormal types as it does coffee places. But even with new found friends, will Sam be able to save his skin?

Many t.v. programmes come and go but one that I mourn the passing of is Reaper. There's something about a boy who's Joe Average in a normal job suddenly realising he's anything but. This is what drew me to this book. Sam's a college drop-out working in Plumpy's fast food restaurant flipping burgers when a chance encounter with a necromancer called Douglas promises to make his life very uncomfortable. Douglas isn't happy to find Sam as he should have got clearance from the Seattle council before moving into the area. Sam has two choices; leave the city he's lived in all his life or let Douglas train him and learn to use his (weak) powers.

I loved this book from the opening chapter. Sam's voice is brilliant; he comes across as kind, funny and quirky. If you judge a person by his friends then Sam must be awesome. There's Ramon who's known Sam since 6th grade and only works at Plumpy's to keep him company. Brooke is a firecracker hidden inside the body of a wholesome cheerleader. Then there's Frank, a newcomer at Plumpy's who earnest, kindly and hardworking. From the moment Douglas appears (wanting to know why a stray potato has broken his taillight) Sam's life goes from everyday drudgery to chaos and mayhem. He has to face up to the fact that he's a necromancer and has no idea how to harness his powers. This revelation leads him to look to his past for answers whilst trying to steer himself and his friends to safety.

As with all the best stories there's no easy answer for Sam and he has to adapt to his new life. One of the many fantastic things about this book is the dialogue. The friends are funny, really funny. I laughed openly at many of the situations in this book. It's not often that I get to say that some of the best lines in this book are uttered by a decapitated head but in this case it's true. However, it's not just wise cracks and smart one-liners. There's some seriously brilliant world building at play and great use of both first and third person narrative. Normally this change of point of view would jar but here it works perfectly. There's so much going on that I could have happily read another three hundred pages. We get a glimpse of some great and complex characters that I hope will all be making a reappearance in a future book. Hold Me Closer, Necromancer represents everything that's fantastic about urban fantasy; a richly-imagined world, brilliant characters, sinister moments and an old-fashioned compelling storyline.

This book was also a finalist in the William C. Morris YA Debut Award which only began in 2009 but anything which highlights great YA fiction gets a big yes from me. I was asked this weekend if I'd read any proper books. My response was to laugh (this isn't the first time I've been asked unfortunately) but I'd love YA books to start getting more respect. I'm not going to go off on a rant but there's so much good writing out there of which this book is one that I do get quite tired of it being so casually dismissed. I bought my copy of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer from Foyles which is my favourite place to peruse US titles but it's also freely available on Amazon and Book Depository. I'm not sure if a publisher in the UK has picked this title up yet but I hope so - the wider audience this fantastic book gets the better.