Friday, November 30, 2012

Dead Winter by C L Werner

More than a thousand years after the Age of Sigmar, the Empire he struggled to create rests on the edge of destruction – the reign of the greedy and incompetent Emperor Boris Goldgather has shaken down the great and prosperous edifice of his erstwhile realm. Without warning, a terrible and deadly plague strikes, wiping out entire villages and leaving towns eerily silent through the long frozen months. As the survivors struggle to maintain order and a worthy military presence, vermin pour up from the sewers and caverns beneath the cities, heralding a new and unspeakable threat – the insidious skaven!

Finding myself reading another Time of Legends novel kind of happened by accident. As we mentioned back here, Liz and I went off to the inaugural Black Library Weekender a few weeks back. There I finally got to meet Clint Werner, the first and only man cool enough to carry off wearing a rattlesnake on his hat. After that, it was pretty much a given that I was going to have a go at something he'd written! 

Dead Winter is set in the Empire at a time when the scurrying hordes of Skaven are setting in motion a grand plan to destroy the world of man. Werner is no stranger to the ratmen of Skavenblight, having penned several novels centred on them already, and there's no mistaking how firm a grip he has on their shadowy culture as things get underway. But there's more to Skaven here- the backbone of Dead Winter lies with the plague-riddled lands of men, where the tightfisted arrogance of Emperor Boris 'Goldgather' is threatening to do the Skaven's job for them. 

What ensues is classic Warhammer- everything either balanced on a knife edge or teetering towards destruction as Werner starts building the pace, bringing together rat-catchers, a plague doctor, a fallen priest of the god of death, Skaven infighting, plagues and the occasional giant spider into an atmospheric whole that bodes very well for the rest of the series (but not so well for the poor Empire!)

Devious, bloody and fun, with a great cast of characters and a rich setting, this was a fast and enjoyable read and I look forward to seeing exactly how far Mr Werner can twist the knife.

You can read an extract here, or visit Clint's website here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

At Yellow Lake by Jane McLoughlin

Etta, Peter and Jonah all find themselves at a cabin by the shore of Yellow Lake, and flung together in the terrifying series of events that follows. 

Jonah has come to Yellow Lake to try to get in touch with his Ojibwe roots. Peter is there to bury a lock of his mother's hair - her final request. Etta is on the run from her mother's creepy boyfriend, Kyle, and his dodgy friends. 

But as the three take shelter in the cabin, finding surprising solace in each other's company, they soon realise that they have inadvertently stumbled onto the scene of a horrifying crime, and Kyle and his cronies have no intention of letting them escape. 

What to say about At Yellow Lake that the handy synopsis doesn't give away? Not much, actually.  

What I found interesting about At Yellow Lake is that the author used three very distinctive voices to tell the story - the three points of view came from the three main characters.  And yes, they are all main characters rather than one main with a side of two secondary characters - this surprised me.  I felt for Etta and Peter and Jonah, their voices were fresh and new but it also made me cringe.  Especially Jonah's voice - there was this naivety about his expectations (go live in the woods and live off the land like his ancestors did) that made me deeply uncomfortable.  Not just because of his innocence but because you kind of know that things are going to go tits-up sooner or later. 

Because of this, my own hesitancy, I don't think I enjoyed At Yellow Lake as much as I should have.  And it's weird - I think it's because I knew A Bad Thing was going to happen, that I expected it to happen, so rather than looking forward to it, it made me worry for the characters - again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it did hamper my enjoyment of a book that is technically well written and in some places running amuck with achingly beautiful prose. 

Also, I think the overall plot, the danger the kids are in is actually incidental to the actual story - bear with me as I explain what I mean (it's not a criticism).  The story for me is about three kids, who are terrifically alone in this crowded world of ours, who for reasons of their own, go to great lengths to be cut off from society.  It's about kids who don't see themselves as part of a community or family and they feel weak and powerless because of their loneliness.  But once they find one another, there is conflict and tension, but a bond of camaraderie forms and they stand together in the face of adversity.  And that's what this book is about.  It's also about survival and how doing the right thing for the wrong reasons sometimes turn out to be the better thing to do, rather than inaction. 

I enjoyed At Yellow Lake, I'd recommend it as a thoughtful read for strong independent readers from say 12+ who are maybe a bit more mature in their reading tastes.  Personally, I would have liked a longer book and I felt that the ending was exactly as it should be, but again, there were scenes, especially when Etta, Jonah and Peter were together, that I would have liked to have been deeper, less rushed.  

Find the author, Jane McLoughlin's website here and At Yellow Lake's been longlisted for the Carnegie.  Find the whole giant list here.   

Monday, November 26, 2012

Favourite Childhood Books Part Two - The Moomins by Tove Jansson


When Moomintroll learns that a comet will be passing by, he and his friend Sniff travel to the Observatory on the Lonely Mountains to consult the Professors. Along the way, they have many adventures, but the greatest adventure of all awaits them when they learn that the comet is headed straight for their beloved Moominvalley.

When I read the Moomins as a child I don't think I really appreciated how surreal they are. I simply accepted their strange life and adventures. I didn't really understand, for example, that some places in the world had almost total darkness in the winter. To me it was just the world of Moomins where folk tales ruled. Take Comet in Moominland where Moomintroll has a bad feeling that something bad was going to happen. He trusts his gut and travels to the Lonely Mountains to find out more. This journey isn't simple though, it's arduous, difficult and almost ends tragically. However, Moomintroll and Sniff find the wandering and wonderful Snufkin who spends his life travelling the country. Together they find out more about the mysterious comet which is bringing the feeling of unease to the creatures of the valley.

Snufkin is a brilliant character. He always knows what to do for the best and makes sure they get to the mountains unhurt. The messages are gentle but quite profound. For example Sniff wants to keep some garnets that Snufkin has discovered. Sniff is scared off by a dragon and Snufkin gently reminds him that some things are better to appreciate from a distance without the need to take them. The lessons and messages in Moominland are never heavily laboured and I love the books because Moomin is allowed to do what he likes yet he's wild and responsible in equal parts. 

These are definitely books that you can appreciate for different reasons as an adult and at times you can sense that Tove is destined to end up writing for adults. Multi-layered and gorgeous - if you've never read them before give them a go. The television programme really caught the flavour of the books for me. So, before I finish, here's one of the more bizarre, beautiful and slightly scary episodes of The Moomins: The Lady of the Cold.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Host by Stephanie Meyer

Disclaimer: I read The Host back in 2008 and did a review for The Book Swede and I spotted a lot of excitement about The Host movie online this week and thought I'd copy across my review here. I think it would be interesting to go back and re-read The Host to see if my opinion changed.  To be honest, I'm not sure it would have.  Unlike Twilight, The Host has not left a weird feeling in my mind, if I can call it that.  Anyway, enough babbling. Here's my dusted off review: 
Melanie Stryder refuses to fade away. The earth has been invaded by a species that takes over the minds of their human hosts while leaving their bodies intact, and most of humanity has succumbed. Wanderer, the invading 'soul' who has been given Melanie's body, knew about the challenges of living inside a human: the overwhelming emotions, the too-vivid memories. But there was one difficulty Wanderer didn't expect: the former tenant of her body refusing to relinquish possession of her mind. Melanie fills Wanderer's thoughts with visions of the man Melanie loves - Jared, a human who still lives in hiding. Unable to separate herself from her body's desires, Wanderer yearns for a man she's never met. As outside forces make Wanderer and Melanie unwilling allies, they set off to search for the man they both love. 
I genuinely can’t imagine a scarier scenario. Aliens invade Earth. And they stay. Not only do they stay to co-habit Earth, they take over by bonding with the humans (whom they call their host) in a parasitical way. They repress the host’s personality completely and take over their day-to-day lives. In some instances, the host personality dies and is overcome by the “soul” implanted into its body. Humanity becomes changed forever by the souls who find that they bond truly well with their human hosts.

I don’t like bugs – no matter how beautiful. So I had a preconception about how this was going to turn out already, and in the back of my mind, I ran through the various horror movies out there in the same sort of genre and I sort of despaired. How to do something new and fresh? The concept already had my skin crawling before I even read The Host by Stephenie Meyer. Which is not the best way to start reading a book to review.

I know the author through her Twilight books she did, in the past, and was unsure how she was going to handle this futuristic, Sci-Fi styled book with its overtones of horror and romance.

The fact is: she pulls it off. The aptly named soul, Wanderer, becomes implanted in a rebel human, Mel. Mel is a fighter and she refuses to let Wanderer take her over completely. She becomes a passenger in her own mind and slowly but surely a strong relationship grows between host and soul. We follow them on a journey filled with hate and despair as they strive to find Mel’s brother and her boyfriend/lover, Jared. A group of humans headed by Mel’s uncle, Jeb, (who immediately in my mind turned into Sam Elliot) discover Wanderer and Mel, in the desert, close to death. And this is where the story genuinely unfolds and the author’s writing skills comes to the fore.

A tremendous amount of internal dialogue and keen observations on human behaviour is dotted through the book. It is beautifully written and the style is consistent all the way through. But having said that, I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief that the souls were all such gentle folk, even the Seekers, the ones who hunt humans and bring them in for implantation. Wanderer is rendered as incredibly saintly, yet all through the book I felt that I wanted to throttle her, to make her be more proactive and less reticent. Which, naturally, from a writer’s point of view is exactly what you want to do: stir up emotion in the reader. Mel remains as an interesting counter-point to the very selfless Wanderer (or Wanda) and I found it interesting to follow the storyline to see how the author played it out right to the very end.

It is a good book, no doubt about it. It is skilfully written with a lot of thought having gone into the society the souls press upon humanity. 

The movie is out next year and here's the trailer and it looks like fun...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dark Eyes by William Richter

Wally was adopted from a Russian orphanage as a child and grew up in a wealthy New York City family. At fifteen, her obsessive need to rebel led her to life on the streets.

Now the sixteen-year-old is beautiful and hardened, and she's just stumbled across the possibility of discovering who she really is. She'll stop at nothing to find her birth mother before Klesko - her darkeyed father - finds her. Because Klesko will stop at nothing to reclaim the fortune Wally's mother stole from him long ago. Even if that means murdering his own blood. But Wally's had her own killer training, and she's hungry for justice.

I enjoyed this book so much but am peeved that it's got the crappy tagline of: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for teens, this debut thriller introduces our next big series heroine! 

Oh ffs, get a grip.  Wally is nothing like Lisbeth Salander - LS is a psychopath.  Wally isn't anything remotely like Lisbeth.  Besides, it's a tagline that would maybe attract adult readers as I'm not entirely TGWTDT had that wide a teen readership...and so it makes me think the publishers are desperately trying to mark this as something with cross-over appeal and maybe trying too hard.  

With that mini-tantrum out of the way: I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Eyes.  In fact, I loved it so much I want to write fan-fiction, but I have good impulse control so I won't.  Dark Eyes is a mixture of adult thriller (NOT Girl With a pointless Dragon Tattoo) and the best of YA contemporary your ten quid can buy.  It's feels gritty and very real and in Wally we have a unique and strong heroine who doesn't allow herself to be pushed around.  She's living on the streets, a voluntary choice, and she's the leader of a small team of homeless kids who steal and hustle cons on tourists and unsuspecting locals. There are four of them, Ella, Jake, and Trevin.  Ella and Jake are a couple (their brief histories and why they are on the street is explained too, which was nice) and then there's Trevin who just seemed to lovely to be real. 

Dark Eyes is a twisty turny modern thriller set on the streets of NY where the city and outlying areas are used to great effect.  If I closed my eyes whilst reading it, I could easily imagine the long sweeping aerial shots of the busy roads, of sunsets and dawns over the city.  Tremendously atmospheric, the city with its ebbs and flows formed the perfect backdrop to Wally's story.  There are just enough mention of touristy places to orientate me, and more than plenty of mentions of places I've never heard of to intrigue me.  More than anything I want to find a map and look up the settings used for the book.  Is that mad? Shut up, read on. 

And what a story it is.  Who Klesko is is easily deducible and it's a nice token from the author, giving us that sly nod, letting us in on the secret.  What we need to figure out though is not only who Wally's real family is, but what's the story behind the story - why was Valentina Mayakova abandoned in a Russian orphanage, who are her parents, why was she brought to America...and who is her mum? And what's the story with Klesko, what exactly does he want and who is his murderous sidekick, called Tigr?  

All these questions are answered and a few more - what worked well is the way the story was told, in a strong unaffected voice, with side-chapters and pieces given to a concerned policeman who enters the story pretty near the start as he investigates the death of one of Wally's team.  We get the more formal police procedural, the more serious story from NYPD Detective Atley Greer. 

Richter doesn't pull punches - there's cussing, sexy times, action, guns, fights, other words, Dark Eyes is aimed at more mature readers (nothing to do here with age, btw) and to be honest, Wally's the kind of MC who you know is a bit of a poser (she admits this herself) but you like her and want her to figure out the mystery surrounding her heritage and you want her to come out ontop, swinging. 

The ending is tied off neatly, but with enough of an opening for a second book.  And I'm super pleased that there is a second book called Tiger and it's already been pre-ordered - due out next year.  

Dark Eyes is a satisfying read and definitely one I'd recommend to you guys, if you look past the utterly rubbish Lisbeth Salander faux quote. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake



It's been months since the ghost of Anna Korlov opened a door to Hell in her basement and disappeared into it, but ghost-hunter Cas Lowood can't move on. 

His friends remind him that Anna sacrificed herself so that Cas could live—not walk around half dead. He knows they're right, but in Cas's eyes, no living girl he meets can compare to the dead girl he fell in love with.

Now he's seeing Anna everywhere: sometimes when he's asleep and sometimes in waking nightmares. But something is very wrong...these aren't just daydreams. Anna seems tortured, torn apart in new and ever more gruesome ways every time she appears.

Cas doesn't know what happened to Anna when she disappeared into Hell, but he knows she doesn't deserve whatever is happening to her now. Anna saved Cas more than once, and it's time for him to return the favor.

Anna Dressed in Blood was my favourite book of last year - hands down. In fact Liz and I have a little Anna fan club going on - no, really, we have badges and everything. I was so looking forward to reading book two and getting immersed in the world again. At the end of book one, Anna has sacrificed herself by passing on to another place taking the awful Obeahman with her. Cas is aware that he should be moving on, his athame has been purified so he can get back to the business of sending malevolent ghosts on their way - right? Well, not quite because Anna is turning up in Cas's dreams and eventually into his daylight hours and it's obvious that she hasn't passed on to a peaceful place. He's tormented with the knowledge that she's clearly in trouble but he can't help. He turns to his friends, Thomas and Carmel who encourage him to let it go. Even Gideon, his dad's advisor and voodoo practitioner Morfran warn him about messing with the door to the other side.

Cas won't let it go though, of course, and his search for help takes him to London so my wish at the end of book one to find out more about Gideon is fulfilled. However, it's in the UK that the story gets very scary. I compared Kendare Blake to Stephen King before and I say it again now - this lady can certainly write horror. I got chills as they entered the forests of Scotland - it was, without a doubt, one of the creepiest passages I've read. I won't spoil it for you but I think what happens to them there is loosely based on a real forest in Japan that I saw on television years ago. I also especially enjoyed the trip they make to see Thomas's aunt - I'll never look at gingersnaps the same way again!

I really enjoyed this book. My enjoyment of YA, whether it be contemporary, horror or fantasy, is always based upon the journey that the protagonist makes. Girl of Nightmares portrays some of the heartbreaking aspects of growing up - like first loves and succumbing to peer pressure. I loved the characters even more in book two despite the fact that I wanted to bash their heads together. There wasn't the urgency for me in this book though, despite the subject matter and their journey. At times it's quite a somber read with little let-up and when I finished I did a little internet searching to find that (as far as I'm aware) there'll be no book three. I feel that there should be another. Of course I'm going to say this, I'm heavily invested in Anna and the gang. However, if this is to be a duo then once I've come to terms with that I'm sure I'll be happy with the outcome. I can't say more without giving it away - there's so much I want to discuss with you about this! 

Anna, Cas, Thomas and Carmel - I've loved you guys - farewell. 

Friday, November 09, 2012

Devil's Peak by Deon Meyer (My New Obsession)

When I fall for a writer, with a backlist, I tend to fall hard.  It happened with John Connolly the last time in a big way.  I could not read enough John Connolly.  I scooped loads of his books up and stuffed them into my head.  Now I'm on a tiny sabatical before I burn out on Connolly. 

Then, a few weeks ago, I discovered this South African crimey thriller writer, Dean Meyer.  I read an interview with him hosted by a fellow review blogger here in the UK.  I liked his honesty and I thought his books sounded interesting.  Set in SA, where I'm from, I was intrigued to read what he'd done, having not been "home" for several years myself.  I thought I would have a decent distance to judge adequately how a foreigner would read the books, or rather, someone who's never been to South Africa and only knew of it as the place that gave birth to Apartheid, the place Mandela was locked away in and all the trouble with the ANC and the place where lions walk the streets.  (Sorry, I had to put that in there: if I had a pound for every time I was asked this question or one similar, I'd be able to dine out at Claridges at least three times a year).


I bought in two titles to read by Deon Meyer.  The first was Devil's Peak.  It's the first part of an ongoing series featuring a Cape Town police detective called Benny Griessel. This is the write-up nabbed from Amazon:

The former freedom fighter known as 'Tiny' has finally achieved his dream of a peaceful life. But then his beloved son is taken away from him. In that moment, he unleashes himself upon a corrupt South Africa. His victims are those guilty of crimes against children.
He goes by the name of Artemis.
Benny Griessel, a fading policeman on the brink of losing his job, family and self-respect, is assigned the case. Benny knows that this is his last chance - both his career and the safety of Cape Town are on the line.
But then Benny meets Christine, a young mother working as a prostitute, and something happens that is so terrifying that the world will never be the same again for Benny, for Christine, or for Tiny.

Within a few pages I was fully immersed in the world created by Meyer.  I felt so much empathy for this freedom fighter called Tiny because Meyer took great care to produce a well rounded, interesting, conflicted character.  Let's be clear here: this surprised me, as I remember the fears we had growing up about these freedom fighters, these boys and men who would kill and destroy and burn homes and schools and innocent people in order to get the point across. The old adage of: someone's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist, is an adage I grew up with.  For Meyer to take someone whom I thought of as the "enemy" growing up in SA and making him an character I have so much empathy for, turning him into an actual living breathing person, not just a faceless frightening person, making him someone I cared deeply about, is testament to Meyer's skill as an author. 

Tiny is supposed to be the antagonist in Devil's Peak but he's also the hero - in my opinion, he is. His character development is handled with such skill and everything he did you believed in.  His motivations were clear and you are with him every step of the way as he goes through his various "kills".  I sobbed my eyes out a few times - thank heavens for waterproof mascara, Mr. Meyer! 

Onto Benny Griessell.  What a complete fuck-up of a main character.  Benny is basically a victim of his own abuse.  And I utterly loved him for it. He is messed up, and piteous and whiny and so completely self-absorbed that it takes him most of the book to realise exactly how badly he has screwed up his life.  His wife kicks him out because he's a drunkard and she's had enough.  He tries to stop drinking and goes through this whole period of withdrawal.   His boss (Mat Joubert) gives him a talking to that made me crow with laughter and admiration because I could hear it so clearly spoken in my head.  The dressing down Benny gets, the complete telling off is worthy of an award in itself.  I kinda wish I was clever enough to scan that speech in to copy it in here, but I actually read it out to Mark and we both collapsed laughing at it because of it's sheer brilliance.  Needless to say: tough love is strong and living well in Deon Meyer's writing. 

And through all of this, Benny's been tasked to track down Tiny and to stop him.  Tied in with all of this (makes big hand gestures) we've got a young woman named Christine telling her story to a hapless priest somewhere in South Africa.  Somehow her story is connected to all of this and as the narrative moves ahead it becomes more and more clear how it fits in with Benny and Tiny's story. 

I have feelings about this book, about the writing, the settings, the people, the author.  And it's kinda canted over into being wholeheartedly smitten with the entire package, reader, I won't lie.  The book has shown me what a good writer can do, like John Connolly's novels: it makes you believe in characters who have dubious morals and it makes you love them, just a little bit, and care about them and how things work out for them ultimately. 

Standing back from my obvious infatuation, I would say that as a "foreigner" some aspects would seem difficult to understand but only initially because everything is within context.  Meyer never shies from writing honestly about corruption and the harsh realities of living and working in South Africa.  It's a very real world, inhabited by people of all colours and creeds and to Meyer's credit, he doesn't hold back or rather, to me it doesn't seem like he's holding back and he gives us the full scope of life on the force, the difficulties, the politics, the realities.  I also think that Meyer's got an incredible eye for detail and his observations and commentary hits home.  It made me smile wryly and nod and it shocked me too - racism is still there, but not in the way most people would expect.  But then, there's also friendships and compassion that transcends gender and race and that's incredibly important to point out to first time readers too, I think. 

I'd also like to do a shout-out to Mr. Meyer's translator as he writes the books in Afrikaans and it is then translated into English (and various other languages) which in itself is incredible as although I'm supposed to be Afrikaans and can understand it really well, trying to speak it, nevermind translating it, blows my mind.  Stupidly, I didn't make a note of who the translator is and I'm sorry, but really, they have done an amazing job because the writing flows beautifully and there is a lyricism to the prose when it comes to describing the characters' emotions but also the beauty and realities of this world, that gives me shivers.  It shows that Mr. Meyer and his translator must work very closely on keeping the integrity of each book. 

I went straight from reading Devil's Peak into the second Benny Griessell novel: Thirteen Hours.  Which, although it's still a Benny Griessell novel, is completely different to the first novel which was a very intimate character study of two very different men and a tormented woman, set against a backdrop of a country still struggling to make sense of the big issues that face them.  I'll review Thirteen Hours next week but basically: you'd be a fool not to want to read it.  My third Deon Meyer title should be delivered in the next few days and I can't wait to read it - it's not a Benny Griessell novel, but a standalone, and I can't wait to indulge.  

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Two DNF books

It's rare for me to not finish books.  But two of them really got under my skin for various reasons, so I thought I'd quickly blog about them and ask if anyone's read them and what your thoughts were on them.

The first DNF for me was:

Deadly Little Secret.  They concept is super intriguing:

Until three months ago, everything about sixteen-year-old Camelia's life had been fairly ordinary: decent grades; an okay relationship with her parents; and a pretty cool part-time job at an art studio downtown. But when Ben, the mysterious new guy, starts junior year at her high school, Camelia's life becomes far from ordinary.Rumored to be somehow responsible for his ex-girlfriend's accidental death, Ben is immediately ostracized by everyone on campus. Except for Camelia. She's reluctant to believe he's trouble, even when her friends try to convince her otherwise. Instead she's inexplicably drawn to Ben...and to his touch. But soon, Camelia is receiving eerie phone calls and strange packages with threatening notes. Ben insists she is in danger, and that he can help – but can he be trusted? She knows he's hiding something...but he's not the only one with a secret.

I've just checked and Twilight was published back in 2007 and this was published in 2009.  I thought that maybe, it was an accident that things were similar, and I still hope it is...but basically, the whole opening sequence and a lot of the novel is very similar to Twilight.  Mysterious boy saves girl from certain death by pushing her out of the way, the boy touches her and they both get tingles.  In class she's made to work with him on something but things go awry and she's sure he hates her and she pines for him.  But there's more - her friends, the secondary cast is peculiar in that they don't take Camelia's concerns seriously when it comes to her being stalked by someone and threatened, in a very obvious way.  They seem clueless and focussed only on their own little dramas and don't seem to realise how frightening the situation is their friend finds herself in.  Instead, there's more focus on who the hot boy is, the rumours about him, and how her bff is keen to get into anyone's pants to the extent I wished ill on her head. 

The fact that Camelia doesn't bother telling an adult about the fact that she's being stalked and threatened really angered me.  It sends such bad messages and it makes you wonder why you wouldn't tell anyone you're being sent threatening notes or when you know someone's been in your room.  Especially as a teen, this is so awful and so frightening.  And yet, somehow, Camelia manages to completely sweep this under the rug and focus wholly on the hot boy whose touch she craves.  I felt a bit ill about it.  They seemed so clueless and unable to grasp the situation, I gave up reading it.  I felt as if I was reading a dumbed down book and although I'm pretty good as suspending my disbelief, I just couldn't believe that a character who came across as relatively levelheaded can make a series of really ill-informed decisions and come across as a victim.  I don't know if she redeems herself, and sadly, I'm not sure I care.  This book gave me really mixed feelings and the message and story was blurry.  Has anyone read this and is it worth completing? Please, do tell me. 

My second title I've not finished was Thirteen Orphans by Jane Lindskold.  I thoroughly enjoyed my previous outing with Ms. Lindskold and thought the Thirteen Orphans sounded rather splendid.  Here's the write-up. 

As far as college freshman Brenda Morris knows, there is only one Earth and magic exists only in fairy tales.
Brenda is wrong.
A father-daughter weekend turns into a nightmare when Brenda’s father is magically attacked before her eyes. Brenda soon learns that her ancestors once lived in world of smoke and shadows, of magic and secrets.
When that world’s Emperor was overthrown, the Thirteen Orphans fled to our earth and hid their magic system in the game of mah-jong. Each Orphan represents an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. Brenda’s father is the Rat. And her polished, former child-star aunt, Pearl—that eminent lady is the Tiger.
Only a handful of Orphans remain to stand against their enemies. The Tiger, the Rooster, the Dog, the Rabbit . . . and Brenda Morris. Not quite the Rat, but not quite human either.
I loved that it delved deeply in Chinese mythology and that it started off with Brenda and her dad.  I thought it was brilliant and unusual...and then things started bugging me.  Brenda's voice was super young and naive for someone who is in college.  Well, I say that, but she also displays a tremendous amount of knowledge about the game mah-jong, even if they've only ever played it occasionally.  I've played monopoly a few times but I really don't know it very well or well enough to name you every square or car-thinghies. I also tend not to be able to recognise characters from Chinese food menu's, whereas she has no trouble doing so when she speaks to her dad and they talk about Chinese writing.  As someone from South Carolina, surely Brenda would have had interaction with people of colour? Especially in college? In Thirteen Orphans she mentions how little contact she's had with black people, especially black men.  So she had this image in her head about meeting this one chap they're searching for "the Dog" from the Orphans' and his name is RipRap.  And that when she sees him she's surprised that he looks decently dressed and his voice doesn't sound like a black man's voice. This just made me go what the actual crap?  Later on she has to tell her mum she's got an internship with her Auntie Pearl (also a mixed-heritage lady who looks more white than Chinese) and she doesn't tell her about the fact that RipRap will be part of the entourage because not only is he an unmarried single man...he is also black.  Dun dun dunnnnn!
That was enough for me.  I can understand the author trying to make a show of  the inter-racial-ness of the the cast of characters but by harping on about it ALL THE TIME made me lose my will to read and to make Brenda be the mouthpiece and so clueless...and not genuinely naive enough not to come across as racist and bigoted..bah. Not for me, at all.  Uch.  This book frustrated me so much - it held so much promise but I just really couldn't cope with it further and put it down in favour of something else.  We need more diverse characters in books - that is 2000% true, but this is not the right way to do it.  I spoke to another blogger about it via email and scanned two sections to her to see if I was being silly about things and said blogger confirmed that I had not lost my mind and that yes, it was as dubious as I felt it to be. And these two sections were only one of many.  To show you what I mean, here you go. 

and also:

Loads of people seem to have enjoyed the book if you check out goodreads, but sadly, in this instance it just wasn't for me. I'd love to hear from people who've read these books, the series, basically to see how it goes as, even though I'm sore I didn't like it, I'm still tempted to continue reading, to find out what the story is behind all of the shenanigans at the start of the book and if it improves. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Black Library Weekender - Our Write-Up

We drove up super early to get to the Weekend held up in Nottingham this weekend past.  It was held at the Nottingham Belfry and we were worried about various things, for instance:

Crowding / Over-crowding
Queues for signings / getting into talks
Quality of rooms

Frankly, it was a doddle.

We arrived at quarter to nine after leaving the house at ludicrous o' clock.  Officially the "doors" opened at ten but there were a few people wandering around touching the books put out on display.  And there was a huge selection of books out on display.  All the gorgeous new hard covers and some print on demand titles too.  And of course, there was all the art you could buy. *swoons*

Mark ran around and picked up a stack of titles to purchase after we got our passes.  It was busy, but friendly and everyone circled the tables in the foyer for ages, choosing and deciding what to get.  I enviously watched one guy pick up several pieces of art and wanted to claw his face off from jealousy but didn't. I know how to behave in company.

From L/R - Christian Dunn, Nick Kyme, Laurie King, Graeme Lyon - Black Library Editors
Whilst the talks were underway, there were also signings. The talks were varied and interesting.  I sat in on the Writing for Black Library panel and I have to say, the questions that were asked this time around, compared to the questions asked at the Black Library Live showed how the audience had taken Christian and Laurie's advice on board from previous talks.  The big news here, for me, really, was that Hammer and Bolter will cease to be later this year.  But! Christian hastened to add that they will still be releasing short stories via the website, every Monday - so you can pay and download them for minimal amounts and get the stories you'd like to read.  He also pointed out that it won't just be the stalwarts writing but also newbies.  Laurie fielded questions about the open submission period and revealed that they got over 3000 entries in that period and that he's worked his way through maybe 1500 of those - it's a long process and he asked everyone for their patience.  Christian mentioned that he would be throwing open the door to some themed anthologies in the future and that it won't be widely announced, but that it would be on the website so it's a good idea to keep an eye out.

The "boys" also told the audience that the best way to get a foot in the door is to be already published - they acknowledged that it was a Catch 22 situation (how can you get published if you can't get published) but they mentioned that if you've been published in an online magazine or an anthology in Real Life to actually mention that in your covering letter and to remember to provide links to the actual product, and not to be vague about it.

I asked the question about them perhaps holding a weekend event or a day event for aspiring writers in order to talk characters and plotting and crafting plots etc. and they said it's something they are thinking of doing for sure, because clearly, looking at the subs they received and the popularity of the Weekender, there is a hunger for this.  So definitely something for the future.  Personally, this pleased me immensely!

Other bits of advice was general - read the guidelines, be thorough, be alert, don't try and do something so new it scares the editors.  Show you can do "traditional" well before attempting to go off the rails.

I liked and enjoyed this talk tremendously - the four editors really gave the impression that they enjoyed what they did and although they joked around occasionally things were professional.  It gave me the idea that writing for BL means that you become part of their family - and that is rather special in this day and age.  Good luck to everyone who'll be going for those open windows in the future! May the scrivening gods be on your side.

Next up, we broke for lunch - you could either order a whopping meal via the bar staff or you could join in in the "packaged" lunch from the main cafeteria which was not too shabby - fresh sarnies, crisps, a drink, a piece of fruit and a choccie for £7.  Enough to sustain you till dinner, basically. It was low key and without much fuss and got some food in your belly.

Mark sat in on one of the immensely popular Horus Heresy talks after lunch (although to be fair he went to all of them) whilst I got some books signed by James Swallow, CL Werner (the coolest guy at the Weekender #fact) and Rob Sanders.  I also told Rob that I enjoyed the talk he did with Andy Smillie, Chris Wraight and Rob Sanders on the Space Marine Battles because he always talks so enthusiastically about the Space Marines and how he enjoys making them 3D characters rather than just killing machines.  I do think Rob is one of the shining stars of BL because he's a writers' writer and clearly enjoys his craft.  This is also true of James Swallow who I think eats, sleeps and drinks story.

As I enjoy the Warhammer fantasy novels I dragged Mark to the Time of Legends panel hosted by Nick Kyme, Chris Wraight, Josh Reynolds and CL Werner.  They spoke enthusiastically about what they're working on, the things that make the series stand out for them and the scope for future additions.
All very exciting.

The Heresy panels were very well attended, and the vibe around the whole series was one of genuine excitement and passion. The various writers and editors took turns sitting in on these and fielded the questions thrown at them with enthusiasm, even on the Sunday morning. Saturday night had seen the writers spitting into two teams to tackle a fun quiz set up by Christian Dunn, with Andy Smillie keeping score in his own special way on a Thunderhawk shaped card. It was very, very funny and a good precursor to a few drinks in the hotel bar afterwards... I called time and retired to our very comfy room while Mark 'took one for the team' and stuck around to chat over a pint or two.

Sunday also saw us sit in on the Gamebooks panel with Christian Dunn, Jonathan Green and Graeme Lyon, which became a wide ranging discussion of the appeal of gamebooks, how to expand it to younger readers who hadn't grown up with them, their appeal and suitability for reluctant readers in particular and things that people would like to see explored in this type of product. It fired up our enthusiasm for the books all over again and we could see Jonathan's eyes lighting up as some of the ideas were fired at them, and he went away muttering about Titans. We can only hope..

Graeme Lyon, Jonathan Green, Christian Dunn

The Big Announcement of the weekend was that the phenomenal talents of Neil Roberts and Dan "Oh God that's the opening line of one of my books"Abnett have been marshalled to produce a 100 page, full colour, hardcover Horus Heresy graphic novel. It'll be set after the events of Dan's novel 'Know No Fear' and should be ready in time for the 2013 Weekender. And the intention is for there to be more than one, and for this to be released initially as a collector's edition shortly before going up for general sale, which is a relief. Neil made a point of stressing how excited he was to be working on the project and that his intention was to make it 'the best graphic novel you've ever seen, a $500 million movie in your hands', and from the glimpse we were given of some of the pages he's done already, I don't think he's kidding:

Tres exciting!

The Belfy had ample parking space for everyone who drove up.  The staff were, as a whole, rather splendid and welcoming and friendly.  They helped and advised where needed and I got the chance to briefly chat to the girl running the bar/ coffee area and she was hugely complimentary about everyone attending BLW2012, saying that everyone came across as so friendly and patient, happily waiting to be served.  This pleased me hugely because not only did they make a good impression on attendees, we made a decent impression on them.  This is rather splendid.

And that's the other thing that made the Weekender gel for us- the people. Sure, the talks were cool, there was loads of loot to buy and drool over but without the right kind of vibe things just wouldn't have gotten off the ground the way that they did. One of the key things that came up in various conversations was how much better a two day event was - it took that awful must-do-everything pressure off, giving both sides a chance to have a chat without stewards having to ask them to hurry along because the queue was growing. It was great seeing the writers being able to walk around and stop and chat or sign things off the cuff, and I'm sure it made a nice change for them too.

Everyone who attended was there because of a shared enthusiasm and as testament to the hard work, dedication and passion of the Black Library crew and the calibre of the product that they are putting out there. This is only going to get bigger and better. Well done guys.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Constable and Toop by Gareth P. Jones


Sam Toop lives in a funeral parlour, blessed (or cursed) with an unusual gift. While his father buries the dead, Sam is haunted by their constant demands for attention. Trouble is afoot on the 'other side' - there is a horrible disease that is mysteriously imprisoning ghosts into empty houses in the world of the living. And Sam is caught in the middle - will he be able to bring himself to help?

Blue Peter Award winner Gareth P. Jones has woven a darkly comic story, a wonderfully funny adventure that roams the grimy streets of Victorian London

I read this book a while ago after receiving a copy from Hot Key Books. To be honest I wanted to read it because of the beautiful cover and I love anything to do with Victorian London. I was also intrigued by Sam, a child who can see ghosts. At first he's quite introverted - used to doing as he's told. But the arrival of his uncle who needs hiding from the police reveals parts of Sam's dad's life that he knew nothing about.  The first few chapters introduce the reader to quite a few characters. First there's murder victim Emily who's encouraged not to follow The Knocking which will move her on to the next world - her spirit is pretty much kidnapped by an unknown assailant. Then there's Lapsewood, a ghost who thrives on order and whose afterlife is staid and controlled until he's threatened with being despatched to The Vault. 

Lapsewood is offered a second chance though - to be a Prowler and track down rogue ghosts (those who've ignored The Knocking - the sound which heralds entry into the next world). But ghosts are going missing and this draws together the stories of Sam, Lapsewood and also Clara who's just moved in to a haunted house. The murders are cleverly mixed up into the story of haunted houses and their resident ghosts. I was transfixed from the first few pages. I fell in love with the ghost world that the author has created - there's loads of brilliant little details too like the receptionist who's reading the complete manuscript of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Even though the subject matter is fantastical there's wonderful material here that all sorts of people can relate to. Firstly there's Lapsewood who's in his early-thirties and stuck in a rut. He's not doing the sort of work he dreamed of and finds it impossible to try for the things that his heart desires. Initially, at the beginning of the book he isn't sure that he wants to change and actively fights against it but as the story develops he starts to take chances and surprises himself. Sam has to deal with loss and secrets. After his mother dies he feels alone and is bullied at school for being different. His family has secrets and he has to come to terms with the realisation that perhaps he doesn't know his father as well as he thought. He also has to accept himself, strange gifts and all which is perhaps the hardest thing.

Constable and Toop is a magical book. It's the kind of read that I would have loved to have been given as a child at Christmas. It's got the right combination of mystery, ghosts and excitement. Scratch that - I would be over the moon if someone bought this for me now! I also think this is a good book for boys with it's male protagonist and a good dose of horror. A special book that I'll definitely read again. 

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Great Betrayal by Nick Kyme

Thousands of years before the rise of men, the dwarfs and elves are stalwart allies and enjoy a era of unrivalled peace and prosperity. But when dwarf trading caravans are attacked and their merchants slain, the elves are accused of betrayal and the peace begins to fracture..

This is the first instalment in a new six book series under the banner of the Black Library's Time of Legends series (essentially  the fantasy equivalent of the record breaking Horus Heresy saga) and delves into the story behind The War of Vengeance, the great conflict that would turn the dwarves and elves against each other.  I don't play Warhammer and only have a sketchy idea of the history behind the races, so it seemed a perfect fit to see if this was something that Joe Average could pick up off the shelf and enjoy- more often than not tie-in fiction comes across as having a lot of baggage of the do I need to read all 18 of the previous books to understand it variety. 

The novel opens with a huge, 42 page battle scene illustrating what the dwarves and elves had accomplished together, then switches to the story proper as cousins Morgrim and Snorri explore some of the ancient, abandoned tunnels beneath the mountain stronghold they call home. It's a decision that soon leads to Snorri earning his future nickname 'Halfhand' but it also sets them on a path that neither of them could have foreseen. Snorri, a prince amongst his people, burns with the desire to prove himself to his father, to try and match the glory his father earned in the long years of war it took to secure the mountains against the orks and other menaces that had plagued them. But it is a time of peace, and his ambitions are stymied and his frustration manifests itself in impetuous outbursts and biting retorts, all wedges in a widening gulf between him and his father. Morgrim is his steadying influence, a solid and sensible presence and a good foil for Snorri's brash arrogance.

The Elvish homeland at this time is beset by civil war between the High and Dark Elves, and commando- like parties of Dark Elves are loose in the mountains, seeking to stir things up between the dwarves and the High Elves. Their ruthless cunning and cruelty is matched only by their paranoia and one-upmanship, all of which is shown in the thread of the story that follows one such group. Suspicion and xenophobia soon follow in the wake of the rising bodycount in the hills, and much of the novel revolves around the resultant turmoil as the peacemakers on both sides strive to hold back the mounting tide of anger and fear. Snorri, never a friend of the elves and buoyed by the company of belligerent advisors, becomes the figurehead for the rebellion against his father's edicts while Morgrim fights to moderate his cousin's attitude and to pull his people back from a war that increasingly seems inevitable.

There are multiple storylines woven through TGB that Kyme uses to flesh out his world, providing different viewpoints on the events that Snorri and Morgrim are at the forefront of, expanding the scope of the principal thread of the story, hinting at hidden plots and generally keeping it fresh and the reader hungry. The path that the story follows twists and turns, balancing gentle worldbuilding and intrigue with beautifully savage action and this, combined with a cast of well plotted and interesting characters, is what kept me turning the pages. He's managed to seed the novel with sense of the epic scale of the brewing conflict, making it a meaty and most satisfying read right up to the merciless death that brings TGB to a close. If you've never liked or understood Dwarves, either in Warhammer or general fantasy, you'll be wanting to grow a beard and carry an axe by the time you finish this. It approaches their culture with respect, eschewing cheap shots and short cuts, and in doing so, makes it all feel very 'grown up'.

So, could Joe Average pick up and enjoy The Great Betrayal? A resounding yes- and more than that, he should. This is good, solid fantasy writing that deserves a prominent place on any bookshelf. 

You can visit Nick's website here, or read an extract of TGB here.