Saturday, February 27, 2010

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

Here is the blurb:

When Ted and Kat watched their cousin Salim get on board the London Eye, he turned and waved before getting on. But after half an hour it landed and everyone trooped off - and no Salim. Where could he have gone? How on earth could he have disappeared into thin air? So Ted and his older sister, Kat, become sleuthing partners, since the police are having no luck. Despite their prickly relationship, they overcome their differences to follow a trail of clues across London in a desperate bid to find their cousin. And ultimately it comes down to Ted, whose brain works in its own very unique way, to find the key to the mystery. This is an unputdownable spine-tingling thriller - a race against time.

I had to read this book for a book club and, admittedly, wasn't too keen on reading it. Well, that all changed after the first chapter.

Ted, the narrator of the story, has Asperger Syndrome and sees the world around him very differently. When he meets his cousin for the first time, he is a little apprehensive but Salim puts him at ease from the start and they become comfortable with each other very quickly.

Then the unthinkable happens and Salim disappears from the London Eye. Ted tries to explain his theories and observations to his parents and the police, but nobody listens to him. Except for his sister. Together they try to figure out what happened and how Salim could have disapeared from a sealed pod they never took their eyes off.

Ted's voice is fabulous. You see the world around through his eyes. He wants to be a meterologist when he grows up and throughout the story he compares his observations to different weather phenomena. I absloutely loved the clarity and logic he used to follow the clues. Ted explains everything in a manner that makes you, the reader, see the world with different eyes.

The chapters are short and move the story along very quickly. The way Siobhan Dowd trickles in the clues is fantastic and the ending was completely unexpected, with a sudden race against time to save the missing boy I had not anticipated at all.

I started to read 'The London Eye Mystery' because I had to, but I finished it because the story pulled me in and didn't let go. I would recommend this book to anybody who enjoys reading a story with a very special voice, a voice that makes you look at the world in a new way.

Siobahn Dowd tragically passed away in 2007. All her royalties from her books go to a trust created just before her death, the Siobhan Dowd Trust, a charity set up to support the joy of reading for young people in areas of social deprivation. For more information go to

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Thirteen Curses by Michelle Harrison


Trapped in the fairy realm, Red must beg an audience with the fairy court. There, she strikes a bargain. Her brother will be returned – but only if she can find the charms of Tanya’s bracelet, scattered in the human world.

Returning to Elvesden Manor, Red is assisted by Tanya and Fabian, and a desperate hunt begins. Soon they make a shocking discovery. The charms are now cursed with the twisted qualities of the thirteen treasures they represent ... and the longer they are missing, the worse the consequences will be.

Can Red, Tanya and Fabian find all the charms? And even if they do, will the fairies keep their promise?

I loved The Thirteen Treasures so was interested to see how the follow-up had moved the characters on. The first change is that Red is now the main protagonist. Tanya had her host of problems but in comparison to Red they were fairly minor. The cover and title reflect this and I’m impressed by the author’s and Simon & Schuster’s attention to detail. The world that Harrison created springs back to life, picking up where the last book left off. Because Red is the main character the book seems a little more adult too. That’s not to say that Tanya, Fabian and Florence don’t get a look in. Happily, they all play a part in this story which eased me into the change of protagonist.

We find Red in the land of fairy searching for her abducted brother. She soon falls foul of the forest’s twisted wise woman and becomes her prisoner. Warwick, the manor groundskeeper, is trapped there too and they help each other escape and search for James. The resulting visit with the fairy court leaves Warwick in prison and Red searching for the thirteen charms from the bracelet which appeared in the first book. Red’s meeting with Warwick gives her a chance to share her sad back story with the reader and, in my opinion, this gives the book a real depth. Red isn’t as instantly likeable as Tanya but I understood why and was prepared to stand by her when she snapped at people and put her quest first. In fact, it’s quite refreshing to have a main character who has outbursts of temper, isn’t always selfless and can be thoughtless!

It’s the tiny details in this book that make it stand out; the parallel world of fairy and how it relates to ours, the folk law or the bitter-sweet (or bitter-bitter much of the time) nature of fairies and how they can ruin lives. I found myself swept up in the story and often felt sorry for poor Fabian who doesn’t have the gift to see fairies but tags along throughout.

The search for the thirteen charms is thrilling and dark. Without giving too much away it gets spooky and dangerous. There are tunnels, graveyards and abandoned churches! The way that the charms have been twisted to curse the finder with their literal meaning is such a great twist! As time goes on the way that the curse reacts is more extreme. The best twist of all is kept for the end, it’s beautifully done and rounded the book off perfectly. A word about the illustrations; they’re cute and are also by Michelle Harrison. I think they help give this book a slightly old-fashioned feel. Both of these novels will stand the test of time, I think. They have a timeless air that leads me to imagine them being read twenty years from now.

Check out the author’s website at and watch out for the third book due out January 2011.

*reviewed by Esssjay (Sarah Bryars who is on her way to a holiday and didn't have a chance to sign in to post this!)*

Thursday, February 25, 2010

My So-Called Afterlife by Tamsyn Murray


Lucy Shaw is a ghost with problems. First, she’s stuck haunting the men’s toilets on Carnaby Street, not the best place to spend eternity. Second, no-one can see or hear her. And third, the man who killed her last New Year’s Eve is still on the loose. Is it any wonder her mood is blacker than a tramp’s fingernails?

So when a lighting engineer called Jeremy walks into the toilet and asks her what she’s doing there she’s not exactly Miss Congeniality. But given that he’s the only person who can see her, she decides to overlook the fact that he’s drippier than a toddler’s nose and accepts his offer of help. Before she knows it, she’s out of the toilet and meeting other ghosts, including the emotionally unstable Hep and the lip-smackingly gorgeous Ryan.

Together, they track down Lucy’s killer, encountering meerkats, exorcists, and the world’s stroppiest tattoo artist along the way. Will their efforts to catch Lucy’s murderer succeed? What happens if they do? And just how do you go about snogging the boy of your dreams when you don’t actually have lips anymore?

Argh! Tamsyn Murray is the biggest pain in the world. My So-Called Afterlife is annoyingly good. She makes writing look so effortless. It's when you're on a train and you've reached your final destination and you're still sitting there, five minutes on, reading, until your co-passenger gently nudges you with a "Do you think we should get off now?" that you realise you've been hooked.

I wasn't sure what to expect from My So-Called Afterlife, I have to admit. I wasn't sure if it was going to go the melodramatic and heartwrenching way or if it was going to go over the top and utterly silly in a Derek Acorah kind of way. I was in for a big surprise and one I should have seen coming. It didn't go either of these two ways. It went a different way. It went the Tamsyn and Lucy way.

Ms. Murray's managed to write a humourous, pithy novel from point of view of a murdered girl, who for some reason, has not moved on, and haunts the Carnaby Street men's toilets in London. It's not The Lovely Bones at all - it's better because there is resolution, soaring moments, action, angry ghosts, weepy moments, kissing moments, jokey moments, friendship moments and feelgood moments. It works on many levels and it's cheering and heartwarming and lovely.

Lucy's a cool mouthy girl with an amazing sense of humour and with a strong sense of who she is in a world that's gone off kilter. It's not like she expected to be murdered in a public toilet! She's been trying to talk to people for months but no one sees her, until Jeremy walks in off the street and he actually sees her. Their first meeting is a treat to read - I rocked with laughter because it is written to feel very real.

The story focusses on Lucy but her supporting cast is strong. Jeremy turns out to be a genuinely decent guy who takes it upon himself to try and figure out what's preventing Lucy from moving along. He seems taken aback with his own ability to see Lucy the ghost but you know, he deals with it pretty smartish and without much hassle. When Lucy tells him her story he starts poking around and investigating her murder himself.

Through Jeremy she meets Hep, a suicide, who has anger issues. Hep's not moved on either and it's through Hep that we experience the wilder emotions that Lucy no doubt feels to a certain extent but never acts on. Hep's story is particularly poignant and I cried like a little girl as I read it through. Hep teaches Lucy how solidify enough in order to move objects or have some kind of impact on them, and soon the two of them become friends. Lucy's final member in her supporting cast is the vastly sweet Ryan who passed away in a car-wreck but it left his father in a coma. Ryan's gift is unique and as him and Lucy start spending time together it's apparent that they are meant to be together.

Deeply moving and beautiful and funny and quirky, My So-Called Afterlife is a must read. It's being marketed as a teen read from Piccadilly Press and to be honest, if you're an adult and you enjoy books with a touch of supernatural to them, you'll thoroughly enjoy MSCA.

My So Called Afterlife by Tamsyn Murray is released today - 25th Feb - and should be available online and at all good book stores! Find Tamsyn's website here and this is her blog. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview and competition with the lovely Ms. Murray.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Thousand Sons - Graham McNeill

The Great Crusade is at its height, and the Thousand Sons are its most dedicated warriors. Though utterly loyal, the Legion of Magnus the Red is viewed with suspicion for its arcane methods. Feared by the Imperium he has sworn to serve, Magnus is called to the planet Nikaea to answer charges of sorcery.

When the ill fated primarch foresees the treachery of Warmaster Horus and warns the Emperor with forbidden powers, the Master of Mankind dispatches Leman Russ, Primarch of the Space Wolves, to attack Prospero. But Magnus has seen far more than the betrayal of Horus and his revelations will seal the fate of his Legion forever.

When I opened A Thousand Sons for the first time, it was with unusually high expectations, contrary to my normal approach- the story of Magnus the Red and his condemned Legion has surely got to be one of the most eagerly awaited instalments of the Horus Heresy series, and combined with the knowledge of how addictive Graham's writing is and teasers like this it was nigh on impossible to avoid it.

The problem with high expectations is, of course, that it creates a greater scope for disappointment. I was expecting a lot from A Thousand Sons- I wanted to know what the Legion was about, who these Marines were who had so blatantly thrown their lot in with the forces of Chaos. I wanted to understand how their fall came about, and why. I wanted sympathetic characters, drama, and thundering action.

And Graham has delivered the goods, and more. The book comes in at 558 pages, and not one of those is wasted, the writing lean and tight. The seamless way that the various subplots and concepts come together, while still delivering a clear picture of the Legion and it's history without it ever feeling too 'heavy' is testament to Graham's ability to tell a damn fine story.

The story primarily follows Ahriman, Chief Librarian of the Thousand Sons and his relationship with Magnus the Red, but also touches on the human 'remembrancers' who follow the Great Crusade, and the picture that emerges is a far cry from from what you might expect from a Legion that history records as being condemned for their treachery and sorcerous ways.

It's an interesting mix and keeps things fresh, even while you're trying to decide whether to weep or rage as events are set in motion that will lead to the savagery of the Space Wolves being unleashed on the erstwhile brothers. As Dan notes in the clip linked above, it's a tragedy that unfolds, one that leaves you with bittersweet musings on what might have been if things have worked out differently.

But that's part and parcel of what makes A Thousand Sons, and the series, so unmissable.

..... now all I have to do is survive the wait for Dan Abnett's follow up, Prospero Burns. Aaargh.

**Edited to add Competition News!**

Just got the go-ahead to give away two copies of A Thousand Sons by the awesome Graham McNeill. This is a superfast competition - email us at: myfavouritebooksatblogspot (at) googlemail (dot) com with your name - entries no later than this Sunday, 28th February 2010. We'll announce who the two winners are on Monday and the boys from Black Library will be sending it out to you. Please note this is UK only!

CJ Skuse - Pretty Bad Things - Interview

CJ in Vegas, casing the joint

Smug cannot begin to describe the fact that I managed to get an interview with debut novelist: C J Skuse, author of Pretty Bad Things. Having read her answers, I totally now get her characters even more.

Here we go:

1. Can you introduce yourself to MFB’s readers?

My name is C.J. Skuse. I come from Weston-super-Mare, I’m 29 and I’ve been writing since I was 17. Pretty Bad Things is my first novel for young adults and is being released by Chicken House in March 2010.

2. Is Pretty Bad Things the first novel you’ve ever written?

No, I actually started writing my first novel when I was 17. I sent it out to fifty literary agents, one after the other, and got about fifty straight rejections back during the course of ten years. I wrote another one after that, but they didn’t want that one either, so then I got the hint that maybe my writing was a bit rubbish, so I enrolled at University and did two degrees in creative writing. It wasn’t until I’d graduated that people started to take me seriously. These courses, along with my two previous novel attempts, were the best learning curves, and I really couldn’t have written PBT without them.

3. What was your inspiration for Pretty Bad Things?

So many things inspired PBT! If you’re into movies, you can probably see the film references in there (Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers, True Romance, in fact any Tarantino movie!) but it’s not compulsory to know these films to enjoy the book. Music was a huge inspiration too. I’m heavily influenced by rock music when I write, specifically New Jersey band My Chemical Romance (fyi this is the only reason the twins come from NJ) so listening to their music really helped draw certain scenes out of me. For Paisley’s more angry moments, I found Slipknot, Linkin Park and Foo Fighters particularly helpful.

4. Why write for teens?

I started writing when I was 16/17, so every time I go to write a character now, they are always around that age. I think I am emotionally stuck at 17. I still have the same hang ups, fears and rages I had then and a lot of unsolved angst from around that time too. Because I’m quite a passive person, I guess I invented a character like Paisley to kick ass on my behalf because I just don’t have the courage to, a bit like Beau!

5. Paisley is such a wild yet likeable character – how did you manage to keep her from becoming nasty enough to dislike?

I don’t know if I have kept her from being disliked. She’s one of those people for whom trust doesn’t come easy so her defences are always up, but when you know more about her and what she’s been through, you can understand why. I just hope readers will be able to laugh at the funny parts and relate to her total disregard for authority, and perhaps note those few places where her vulnerability comes through. She’s hard-edged because she’s had to be.

6. In complete contrast we have Beau – the quiet studious one, the voice of reason for most of the book. Was it a conscious decision to write Beau’s character this way?

Yes it was, because Paisley is so full on with everything she says and does, I think you need an antidote to that. Someone to point out that, in fact, what she sometimes says and does is downright ridiculous or just wrong. I’d write a Paisley chapter where she’d just be swearing and complaining and it would be one liner after one liner, and it would be a relief to get to a Beau chapter where I could change down a gear, be a bit more poetic, notice the surroundings a bit more etc. A whole book written in Paisley’s voice would be so frenetic I think it would be too much. Beau acts as the perfect balancer.

7. If money was no option and PBT was being made into a movie – who would play Paisley and who would play Beau?

Anyone I say would be way too old if it ever got made into a film but I’d absolutely love Dakota Fanning to play Paisley. Beau, for me, has always been Gerard Way (MCR lead singer) so the dream would be if Gerard Way lost fifteen years and played him because he’s written in his own image. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) has always reminded me of Beau too. Failing that, Chris Colfer (Kurt in Glee) and Steven R. McQueen (The Vampire Diaries) both have Beau-like qualities about them.

8. Both Beau and Paisley come with a huge amount of back story. What came first – their back story or their current story?

Back story definitely. I had a lot of time to really research these characters and their home lives (down to the kitchen cabinets they had in their home in Jersey!) because I wasn’t really working to a tight deadline, so I could really build the foundations of who they were. If there is to be a sequel, more of that will come out.

9. Are you a big fan of Las Vegas? I ask as I had this impression whilst reading PBT that I was there, experiencing the noise, the glitz and the heat of the Strip.

I only went there for four days and I wasn’t really a fan until I left it. I found it pretty scary. It was like entering a board game. I gradually came to realise that when you’re there, you just have to play the game, have the experience, and try not to lose all your money.

10. What do you do when you’re not writing?

I re-write. Or I read. And I go to the odd rock concert. That’s pretty much all I’ve ever wanted my life to be until I can afford my dream smallholding in the Lake District. Of late I’ve been Googling Robert Pattinson quite a bit too which takes up a fair bit of time.

11. What are your favourite TV shows?

At the moment, Glee and Being Human are my appointments-to-view. Anything else I can take or leave. I get sucked in to things like X Factor, I’m a Celebrity…and all of that, because it’s total light relief. I love sitcoms from the 70s onwards too so I’ll always watch an episode if anything’s on, regardless of how many times I’ve seen it before. I also find Robson Green’s Extreme Fishing strangely watchable.

12. Did you have a soundtrack for writing PBT?

Big time! The soundtracks and the movie posters to my books are always worked out before the books are even finished! MCR, Paramore, Slipknot, Linkin Park, Foo Fighters, Biffy Clyro, Kings of Leon etc etc. Music is a huge inspiration for my writing and I could go on for days listing bands and songs that have helped me write particular scenes, but they’re the main ones.

13. Can you hint to us about the follow-up novel to PBT or is it Top Secret at the moment?

I’m working on about three different books at the moment, most namely my second book for Chicken House which is due for release in 2011. I’m always a little hesitant to say too much about it too early in case a sneak steals my idea, but I’ll happily tell you more nearer to publication! I’m also working on a very tentative sequel to PBT, though depending on how well PBT is received, it may never see the light of day. And I’ve also gone back to the book I was writing before PBT to see if I can patch it up, more because it’s just something I need to finish for myself.

14. What are you reading / what do you enjoy reading when you’re not head down writing?

I like YA books. I can relate more to teenage characters than I can to adult ones. I loved the Twilight books and I’ve just finished reading all the Harry Potters straight through, which I thought were incredible. I like Christopher Moore, Kevin Brooks, J.D Salinger, Stephen King, those kind of geniuses. I read graphic novels and comics as well. My New Year’s resolution was to read more classic novels, so I’ve started with the Narnia books and To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m gearing myself up for Charles Dickens too.

15. Any advice for young aspiring authors?

There’s no point doggedly sending your work out to agents and publishers if it’s not as good as it can possibly be, so I would recommend anyone truly serious about getting published (if they can afford it) to do a creative writing degree and preferably an MA in Creative Writing. Your writing will improve ten times over I guarantee it and you’ll meet some incredible people and make good contacts too. It’s the best thing I ever did and I would definitely not be published now without it.

*** Competition News***

So, as a superfast competition, one lucky person gets the opportunity to win my finished (and unread) copy of Pretty Bad Things before it's release in March 2010. I'm letting this run until Sunday, 28th Feb. I'll announce the winner AND post the book out to said winner on Monday, 1st March.

Tell MFB who would be your perfect partner in crime (famous or non-famous) and why. The winning comment will be twittered and you'll receive the tidy copy of PBD to read at your leisure. The competition is open to UK peeps only as I'm paying postage. will choose the winner!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Pretty Bad Things by CJ Skuse


When they were six, twins Paisley and Beau Argent made the headlines. They were the “wonder twins”, found alive in woods after three days missing– spent looking for their dad. But now at sixteen, life’s not so wonderful. Lied to by their money-grabbing grandmother they’re still clueless about their dad’s whereabouts. Until they find an old letter. That’s when they decide to hit the road – and make headlines again. Holding up candy stores in Las Vegas might be extreme but if they can get on the news, and tell their dad they need him, they might get the reunion they never thought could happen.

**please note, there are some slight spoilers further below in this review, but none should detract from the awesomeness of this book**

I read Pretty Bad Things in maybe four hours, maybe a bit less. Not because it’s lightweight. To the contrary: PBT is a wild ride and the story has these chunky boots that climb into your head, with its hang-ups, attitude, sass and all.

At the age of six Paisley and her brother Beau became famous overnight. They survived for three days, on their own in the forest, eating a packet of sweets Paisley had in her pocket. Their mother had just died from an overdose of drink and drugs and there’s still no sign of their dad. Well, it turns out that good old dad did something really silly: he decided to try and rob a well known establishment and got nicked for it, sent to jail.

So the twins got to grow up with their ruthless and grasping grandmother who toured them around tv shows and radio stations, letting them tell their stories over and over again. Meanwhile the money came rolling in to secure their future.

But it doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s just the start of an amazing story that had me alternatively sobbing / shouting with joy, into a tissue on the 73 bus.

Paisley is the girl most of us wish we could have been at school. The wild child. The destructive one. The one you were a little bit afraid of but admired nonetheless. She’s got an awful relationship with her grandmother (affectionately known as the Skankmother) and has been sent to be educated at a variety of boarding schools after it transpired that she could not be controlled. She got herself tossed out of four or five different schools for a variety of reasons. She is on her way to the loony bin if she doesn’t watch her step.

From the above description you may think “why the hell would I care about such a monstrous child?” and the honest answer is: Paisley’s voice. You can easily appreciate exactly where she comes from. As the more dominant one of the twins, she’s the one who took care of them in the forest when they got lost. She’s the one that stood up to her mother when her mother beat her and Beau and put them in the basement or locked them in cupboards whilst going on a drinking binge. Paisley and Beau have not had pretty lives.

Paisley managed to escape to a certain extent, with her grandmother paying for her to be educated elsewhere, where she would be less inclined to influence Beau. It’s hard on the twins. Beau acts as the voice of reason in their relationship. He’s steady but scared of his grandmother and would rather do her bidding than rock the boat.

When Beau discovers an entire box full of letters from his father which had been hidden from them, he sits down to read them all; ten years worth of letters. The most recent letter is a revelation. Their father is just up the road in Las Vegas! Beau sends Paisley a letter which completely takes the wind from Paisley’s sails: her father is alive, out of jail and he is living in Las Vegas.

She beats up another girl in school to secure her expulsion and flies to California where she rescues Beau from her grandmother’s house and together they embark on an adventure the likes of which America’s not seen since Bonnie and Clyde/Thelma and Louise.

After fruitlessly searching Las Vegas, with no sign of their dad, Paisley comes up with this idea to steal sweets from various sweet and candy shops dotted all around Las Vegas. The reasoning is: their exploits would no doubt go up on the large external tv screens that line the streets and this would mean that their dad would know that they were around and try to find them.

It’s an insane plan and one that works, eventually, and then stunningly well. With each robbery their fame grows. Different factions form – those who are Team Paisley and Team Beau – and they garner a huge following online. Their most dedicated fans realise there is definitely something behind them holding up these candy shops. The media goes mad, they can’t believe that America’s sweethearts from ten years ago have turned into villains – robbing shops and creating all kinds of chaos. They search for the twins’ grandmother who runs around giving various heartbreaking interviews about how she’s tried to control them but all they ever did was break her heart, steal her things and burn down her house.

Most poignant for me was when the twins had the opportunity to go online and check out these forums that had been set up on their behalf. How people and kids identified with them, what they were doing (even if it was a bit villainous) and how they rooted for them because it would mean that if Paisley and Beau could get their dream fulfilled of being reunited with their dad, anything could happen for anyone else. Beau and Paisley were living the lives many kids were too scared to live for themselves. They identified with the twins and it meant that their fanbase just keeps growing and growing. And it’s not just kids. It’s adults too. Soon the twins are almost too famous to pull off any robberies. They become victims of their own fame.

Beau and Paisley become true anti-heroes. Their actions become wilder and wilder. Yet they aren’t purposefully malicious. Just clever and desperate to find their dad and they are prepared to do almost anything to realise their dream. Add to that their psychotic grandmother who has machinations of her own and a will as stubborn as Paisley’s and you just know you’re heading for a disaster of some sort.

Pretty Bad Things will raise several eyebrows once it’s released. Some people are bound to be upset by the language, the way Beau and Paisley go about trying to find their dad, the blatant references to sex and drugs (and rock n roll) but for those who can take this in their stride, and see past the brazenness of the characters, you’ll be swept off your feet, rooting for these two amazingly real and honest characters.

I can’t recommend Pretty Bad Things enough – it is definitely for a slightly older audience, fifteen upwards or for younger mature readers who won’t be cowed by the characters or their actions. And to be honest, I’m pretty sure that a lot of adults / older readers, will easily be able to identify with the characters and appreciate the breathless quality of the writing as they rocket around Las Vegas on their quest.

This is CJ Skuse’s first novel and it’s being published by ChickenHouse. Find the Facebook page for Pretty Bad Things here.

Friday, February 19, 2010

**Guest Blog** - House of War by Hamilton Wende

As regular readers of MFB should know by now I'm a sucker for any type of quest/adventure novel with the guts to be unique and well written. I have a troop of authors whom I love and am always on the look out for new people to add to the list.

Naturally I was incredibly excited to spot this "new guy" via a Facebook group that I belong to. I checked out his website: - and in a fit of budding fangirly-ness, contacted him via his agent Ron Irwin who in turn kindly put me in touch with Mr. Wende.

Bearing in mind I've not read House of War and that they don't know me from Adam, I think they reacted with great dignity about being contacted out of the blue with a request to write MFB a guest blog. The reason I approached them is simple: the write-up about House of War spoke to me and I wanted to find out more about Hamilton, his writing and the book. So, before I bore you all to death with my waffling, I'll hand the blog over to Hamilton Wende, freelance journalist, producer, action adventurer and all round gracious guy, to tell us about his upcoming novel and how it came to be written:

About my latest book:

House of War is a unique novel – an ‘English Patient’ for the War On Terror. It draws its inspiration not only from Michael Ondaatje, but also from Graham Greene, John Le Carre and Dan Brown. It is a thriller set in contemporary Central Asia, complete with warlords, Al Qaeda renegades and NATO troops, but with flashbacks to the character’s pasts in the United States, the former Soviet Union and the former southern African country of Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe.

The novel works on many layers. It has a clear, driving narrative that is cinematic in style in its fast-paced cutting from scene to scene. The reader follows the journey to the ruins of an ancient Greek city founded by Alexander the Great in today’s war-torn northern Afghanistan in bite-sized chunks. Each scene is a little like a potato chip, drawing the reader to want just one more, and then another, and another.

At the same time, it is a blend of psychological thriller, spy story, romance, and a quest novel - a search for a long lost copy of Alexander the Great’s Royal Diaries hidden in the ancient city of Ay Khanoum, located deep in the hostile territory of today’s northern Afghanistan. What makes the book unique as a thriller is that woven as a parallel thread into the action of the contemporary adventure is a deeply-researched story of Alexander the Great and, Roxane, his first wife and the love of his life.

How it all started:

In 2001, only weeks after 9/11, I found myself on a steep hillside alongside a T-54 tank dug in on the front lines with the Northern Alliance troops. Below us was a wide gravel plain that stretched to the horizon where the Taliban had their front lines. A clear, cold river ran through the no-man’s-land between us. The sound of gunfire echoed sporadically through the autumn air.

One of the Northern Alliance soldiers, completely unconcerned about the gunfire, banged his fist on what on what seemed to be an ordinary chunk of rock between us. ‘Iskander,’ he said loudly while banging on the rock. ‘Iskander.’

At first I couldn’t understand what he was getting at. Then, suddenly, it dawned on me. That chunk of brown rock was part of the remains of an ancient Greek ruin from the days of Alexander the Great.

He was reaching out to me, trying to share something of his pride in his homeland and its ancient history. It was an extraordinary moment of human solidarity. I wanted to pause and try to speak to him through our interpreter, but there was a real war going on around us and we had journalistic deadlines to meet, so I couldn’t spend any time with him. I snapped a few photographs of him and the front lines and then we had to rush off to film something else.

Some months later I returned to Johannesburg. I couldn’t forget that Afghan soldier and his proud, insistent ‘Iskander, Iskander.’ Because of him I began to research the history of Alexander in Afghanistan. One morning I found an old copy of Scientific American from 1982 in the Wits University library. It was perhaps the last scholarly article on Afghan archaeology written since the Soviet invasion, about the discovery of a lost city founded by Alexander the Great in Northern Afghanistan called Ay Khanoum.

I flipped through the pages, and – it hit me like a bolt from the blue: The cliff face in an old black and white photograph in Scientific American was the same cliff face in one of my photographs from the front lines.

I had been to Ay Khanoum without even knowing it. Call it fate, synchronicity, chance, but the threads of the Moirai are spun deep and wide indeed. I had my story - thanks to that Afghan soldier and his insistence that morning on the front lines in dragging me out of my fear and showing me something that I would never have discovered without him. Now all I needed to do was to find Claire and Sebastian, Abdulov, Mahmood and the others to go on the fictional journey with me.

I hope you enjoy going on it too!

Random thoughts on writing and the creative journey:

I was born in the States but have spent most of my life in South Africa, with some side trips to live in Japan, Paris and lots of time in London. I have also traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. This sense of being on the move through our world and a career working as a foreign correspondent for many of the big networks such as CNN and BBC means that I am fascinated by boundaries and identities and how we never have a fixed ‘being’, but one that changes constantly as we grow and travel and learn. In my writing - both fiction and non-fiction – I like to explore the paradox between where we find ourselves and where we want to be.
I am fascinated by characters who have parallel lives and a sense of adventure about living those lives. Pain in life is a given – as the Buddha said ‘All life is suffering’, but it is the courage to move beyond it, to ‘travel’ through it, if you like, is the core of all our human stories from the time of Homer and his ‘Odyssey’.

I like wide landscapes, hard choices and people finding ways to live their lives with love and generosity of spirit in the midst of so many things that bring fear and rage into their lives. In the end, I am an optimist and my books reflect that. I believe in karma – not something that is a kind of airy-fairy ‘energy’, but in the karma of difficult, usually frightening choices, with all their consequences. Perhaps we cannot escape the Moirai and the strings of our fate, but we can choose within their web to keep fighting for love and hope. That belief is the core of my fiction.
I write about those who have, as Tennyson said, ‘become a name for roaming with a hungry heart’. In the end, we are all doing that, and those are our myriad stories, even if we never find a way to – or never want to - leave our hometown.

A little career biog here….

I am a freelance writer and television producer based in Johannesburg. I work all over Africa for a number of international networks including CNN, the BBC, ARD, ZDF, and a number of others.

I am the author of six books.

The House of War A love story and thriller about searching for the lost diaries of Alexander the Great in the badlands of northern Afghanistan while being hunted by Al Qaeda. will be published by Penguin in 2009

The King’s Shilling. A novel about WWI in East Africa published by Jacana in April 2005. It has been on the bestseller lists in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and was long-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Award in 2006

Deadlines From the Edge: Images of War from Congo to Afghanistan. Stories about working as television news producer in different parts of Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. It was published in 2003 by Penguin SA. Now republished by Mousehand on POD and available at Amazon, Kalahari etc.

True North; African Roads Less Travelled is a non-fiction account of my work as a journalist in Africa. It was published in 1995 by William Waterman in Johannesburg. It was nominated for the 1995 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. Now also republished by Mousehand on POD and available at Amazon, Kalahari etc

A children’s picture book I wrote, The Quagga’s Secret, published by Gecko Books in Durban was selected as one of the ‘1995 South African Books of the Year’ by Jay Heale of Bookchat. In 1999 it was selected by Cambridge University Press in South Africa for inclusion in an English anthology of South African writing that is distributed nationally.

I also am the co-author of a young adult novel, Msimangu’s Words, which was published by Maskew Miller Longman and was a finalist in the Young Africa Award 1992.

I have also written a number of radio features for the BBC, including regular contributions to From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4. I am also a regular columnist in The Star.

My articles have appeared in many international and South African newspapers and magazines. Including National Geographic Traveler, GQ, The Chicago Tribune, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, The New Zealand Herald, The Star, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Independent, Business Day in Johannesburg and many others.
Thank you very much Hamilton for indulging me and chatting to us about House of War. I look forward to indulging in a copy! I've also popped by Amazon and they have several of Hamilton's books in stock.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Need by Carrie Jones

Sarah Bryars has kindly offered to review Need by Carrie Jones for MFB. I am very pleased that she did because it's a fab novel, one I raved about madly last year when I bought the hardcover in from the States. Now it's come to the UK, thanks to Bloomsbury, and I can't be a happier fan-girl. Here you go, Sarah's review:


Following the death of her beloved stepfather, Zara is forced to leave Charleston and her mother to live with her grandmother, Betty, in Maine. The move is bad enough, but when Zara realises she has been followed across the country by a strange man, things get even worse. Local boys are disappearing, she hears a voice calling her name in the night, mysterious figures seem to flit in and out of the shadows of the forest, and Zara’s sure her mother and Betty are hiding something from her. Life is made a little easier by new-found friends Issie and Devyn, and possible love interest Nick, but even they are keeping secrets from her.

The blurb on the back of this suggests that Need is a kind of mash-up of Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer which made me raise an eyebrow. Part way through I changed my mind; it’s true! Need has an atmospheric, almost hypnotic quality to it which I wasn’t expecting. Added to that is a growing feeling of unease and dread. Zara is sent to her grandmother’s house when her mum finds her behaviour after the death of her stepfather worrying. Once there she finds the lifestyle a complete culture shock; the weather, the clothes and the sense of isolation all make her wish she could go home.

The tension soon ramps up as she sees a man, pointing at her from the side of the road. She recognises him as the same one she saw on the way to the airport. Once at her grandmother’s she sees him again and when she leaps out of the car to see where he went all that’s left is a trail of glitter. Zara uses phobias as a coping mechanism, she chants them to herself in times of stress and each chapter starts with a different phobia which is a nice touch. Her first days at school see her making new friends and enemies; Issie and Devyn are sweet characters. I started to warm to Zara as her relationship with Issie developed. Nick is also an intriguing character; throughout the book I was first for him then unsure of his motives. As a whole, the supporting characters are both entertaining and intriguing – they add to the growing mystery.

Zara discovers that the problem with Maine is pixies added to which boys are going missing. The deeper that Zara gets into the problem the more creepy it becomes. The pixies in Need are much like the fairies in Wicked Lovely, just plain nasty at times. As the snow begins to fall and the sense of isolation and danger increases I was whipping through the pages to find out what was going to happen! Without giving away too much of the story, pixies aren’t the only things that Zara has to deal with. The mother/daughter relationship was really well handled too, the distance that had grown between them was caused by secrets which slowly unravel. The tight band of grief that is strangling Zara slowly starts to loosen in Maine. She starts to open up and she allows little bits of information to slip out which start to put the jigsaw together.

The ending was quirky enough to make me want the sequel. In fact, it’s the sort of ending that plays on your mind a bit. I kept thinking, “Well, what’s going to happen with that?” To sum up, Need has enough to offer which is different to make this series gripping. For me, there can never be too many supernatural beings anyway, so there’s more to love!

Need is out now from Bloomsbury UK and the sequel will very soon be with us!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Lord of the Mountain by James Lovegrove


Tom Yamada seems like any 15-year-old but he's actually a supreme martial artist, training daily to face a terrifying challenge when he turns 30. It's his destiny to fight the 5 Lords of Pain - demons who have been trying to break into our world for centuries. But something's gone wrong. Tom must face the 5 Lords now - and no way is he ready. If he loses, a new Dark Age will begin. No pressure, then ...

First book in a brand new Barrington Stoke series. Visit the new Lords of Pain website at

Lord of the Mountain is the first book in a five part series written by James Lovegrove (he of Age of Ra fame ) for younger folk.

Personally I think James is an amazing writer - skilled at turning his hand to various genres and age-groups and making it work. When I heard about this series he's putting together called "Five Lords of Pain" I was struck by the utter coolness factor and of course, being the greedy little guts that I am, I desperately needed to read the first book.

I sat with it yesterday morning and read it twice. It gets better with each reading. It also cries out to be read aloud.

The story moves rapidly. There is no superfluous information thrown into the storyline. It's linnear and cleverly written so that you get a stack of information without realising you're getting a stack of information about who Tom is, why he's training, who his family is, why he's set to combat the Lords of Pain and what would happen if he fails.

It's Mortal Kombat for a younger generation. Only this time, there aren't any other fighters to take on the bad guys. It's only Tom. If he fails, the world will fall to the Lords of Pain and humanity will be enslaved. That's it. No pressure then, right Tom?

Heavy going for such a slender book for the younger folk but to be honest, Mr. Lovegrove pulls it off with aplomb. I am chomping at the bit for the other books, I want to find out the challenges Tom will face. Something's gone awry and instead of battling the Lords of Pain in 15 years' time, they've decided to challenge him now, fifteen years too early. This means that Tom has to get his head into the game much faster than he and his tutor, Dragon, anticpated. You realise that like all teenagers (and adults) Tom is good at putting things off: I'll train harder tomorrow, I have plenty of time to do that as an adult or I'll eat better food when I'm older and in the meantime I'll enjoy junk food cos I like it. All of this conspires to a feeling of dread as you realise what's happening and that he has to face the Lord of the Mountain far sooner than he could have dreamed. An awful situation! Dragon starts drilling Tom intensively in various weapons and fight techniques. But as a reader I thought: frack, no way in hell is Tom going to pull this off! It's too soon, dammit!

The Lord of the Mountain is such a fun book - I loved it. It has enough martial arts info to keep all martial arts fundies happy and Tom as the reluctant hero is someone you can root for. Written for readers with reading difficulties I'd push this up a notch and say that everyone should give it a try - the writing is excellent, the plot runs smoothly and it's also quite a visual book so you can literally see it all take place in your mind's eye, which is something I love. The cover totally rocks your socks off too - the manga inspired cover is very clever and the depiction of the Lord of the Mountain on the front is just perfect.

Do check out the Lords of Pain website for more content, events and free stuff! Also do look at the Barrington Stoke website for upcoming and existing titles - many authors whom I've read in the past (before my blogging days) are listed and I for one can't agree more with the first line on their site: Barrington Stoke believes in stories.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

We're back!

(illustration from The Wild Thornberrys)

Mark and I arrived ridiculously early this morning back in London. There was no traffic and the taxi took a mere 50 mins to travel from Heathrow back to Kent. How good is that? And he wasn't even going fast - it was a leisurely cruise, setting the day up for us quite nicely.

We took the day off to download our photos (lots of them) opening stacks of book parcels, cuddling the dog, doing clothes washing, going shopping for supplies for the house, and generally just relaxing after 24 hours of travel.

Our holiday has been one of the best we've had in a long old time. I forget how beautiful South Africa can be and how generous and kind it's inhabitants. I am looking forward to going back in maybe 2012. This time - we've been thinking about it - spending a longer time at the Kruger / similar nature reserve, maybe even travelling to Namibia to go to the Etosha. I feel wildly invigorated and can't wait to start putting down my thoughts on screen. I have an entire moleskine filled with words, sights, scents, and sensory images. It was a slap in the face to realise this had been on my doorstep all my life but because it was so expensive as a "local" it was not ever something my parents entertained doing with us kids.

Meeting up with family and friends both in Johannesburg and Cape Town was equally amazing. I met great nieces and nephews I'd never met before. Mark met his niece and nephew for the first time too.

I probably spent way too much money but I keep thinking to myself: buy local, help the economy. So I hope the bit I did spend both in the Kruger and in Cape Town helped...and that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. *shows off the shinies she now owns*

We came home to some gorgeous books. I am very much looking forward to indulging in the next few weeks.

I also bought some books over in SA. The first one I'm really excited about:

Alexander McCall Smith's Folktales from Africa (kid's book published by CanonGate)


A Game Ranger Remembers by Bruce Bryden

I realised that when I was younger I read a lot of local non-fiction and local folktales but as an adult I can't remember these stories that I grew up with and I think that's sad, so I'm looking forward to revisiting some much loved books from my past - most of these are in Afrikaans and I doubt they've been translated, but where they have, I will make sure to review them on here.

Not a lot will be going on on the site for a few days, I'll do my best though - we took a lot of books with us to read but were so busy that we didn't really get the chance to laze about and read! I know, am utterly disgusted with myself. So, lots of reading to catch up on! But here are a few pics from our holiday:

Sunrise over Africa. I couldn't believe this view!

Shortly after arriving at the Kruger National Park we entered through the Phalaborwa Gate and maybe twenty minutes along the road, heading towards our camp, we spotted this male elephant grazing a few metres off the side of the road. We were lucky to see quite a few elephants during our stay, including a breeding herd of maybe thirty females and younger elephants.

Female hyena with her young cub - so incredibly cute, the cub that is. The mom was very fierce but beautiful. I was shocked by their size - much larger than I thought they'd be - and also incredibly powerfully built.

Sunset in the Kruger. Our first night there. We had stupendous views over the valley below us. I took around thirty photos of sunsets and sunrises whilst staying there.

Our last day in the park, as we were travelling to the gate to leave, we came across this giant herd of buffalo, there must have been around a hundred or more of them. An amazing sight.

We spotted several giraffes. These animals are HUGE and beautiful. Utterly out of proportion yet stunningly graceful and peaceful to watch.

I suspect that zebras are the jokers of the animal world. We sat and watched these guys play around for around twenty minutes. We were struck by how incredibly healthy all the animals in the park appeared and then realised, of course they would look that good - it's the rainy season in the Kruger so they are feeding exceedingly well.

We took a drive down to the Satara rest camp and had lunch there. In front of our car, playing in the water from a running hosepipe, were a plethora of birds. I spotted this handsome lad chirriping away and snuck up on him with my camera.

Mark was dozing in the cottage at our rest camp, Olifants, when I heard noises from the front of the verandah. I looked up from where I was writing and spotted an entire troop of juvenile baboons with their "nanny" getting up to all kinds of nonsense. I called out to Mark and he immediately took over photography duty as he was taller than me and could film over the fence that separated the baboons from us. They visited with us for maybe two hours before heading off.

Mark and I got a personalised tour of the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Our friend Michelle works there on a volunteer basis. Her enthusiasm is catching and I think we spent around five hours strolling around - we got to go behind the scenes and met the people who make the magic happen. We also got the chance to meet some penguins face to face. Here I am looking nervous as hell whilst cuddling a female King Penguin. Beautiful creatures and very funny too.

I'll be posting more pictures - I did warn you that you'd be bored of photos! - later on this week as I make sense of them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Aya of Yop City - M. Abouet & C. Oubrerie

I like to keep an open mind when it comes to trying new books, so when I slipped Aya from the shelf it was with a sense of cautious anticipation -I really had no idea what to expect.

The story opens with the elders of the titular Aya’s family debating who the father of her child could be and from there fractures into several different storylines as the various family members go on with their lives, gradually building up an image of life in the Ivory Coast in the late 70’s.

It was only after I realised that Aya had been on my reading pile for close on a fortnight that I started realising that I was only reading in fits and starts, and the more I thought about it the more I realised that the reason for this is that it simply wasn’t holding my attention for very long. I’d read a section, find myself thinking about something else, find an excuse to go make another cup of tea and put it aside for the next day.

And that’s the problem; it reads like an inoffensive soap opera. The characters’ lives are mundane, and the divergent stories diluted the drama and prevented it from building enough momentum to make me want to find out what happened next. Perhaps this was intentional, a mechanism to suggest the sleepy pace of life in old Africa, and as such it enjoys a measure of success -but it comes at a price.

Oubrerie's illustrations are warm, bright, his characters expressive and, while hardly groundbreaking, they lend Aya a quirky, retro feel that sits well with its period setting.

If you’re feeling nostalgic about life in an African state, then perhaps Aya is for you. If you’re looking for something a bit more entertaining or gripping, it’s probably best to keep looking.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

No Way Out by Gene Kemp


Alex is my twin. We're not identical or anything. But something holds us together even when we argue and fight - something secret. We're telepathic. And I can hear him now. 'We're prisoners, Adam'. It was supposed to be a normal family holiday. Nothing to report, apart from the usual bickering. But this is different. This town is weird, with its time-warp houses and zombie inhabitants. Worst of all, no matter which way we run, there's no way out. The people are closing in. Now they're after our sister, sweet little Emmy. We've got to save her - from the chanting, the madness and from the ancient curse.

This snack-sized book arrived from Faber Kids and I quickly read through it in one sitting. Clocking in at a mere 108 pages I have to admit to feeling cheated: the story has incredible scope but it all feels like it was written in a great rush and the ending didn't satisfy.

I really didn't get to know Adam or Alex very well - Alex came across as obnoxious and irritating whereas Adam was his complete opposite and almost too nice to believe. When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere it's the boys who slowly realise that things aren't quite what they seem once they stumble across a very medieval-type village. The parents seem truly dim and plodding whereas the disabled and mentally undeveloped Emmy's character is never fully realised and she's used as a plot device instead of a real character.

I feel sad that I didn't enjoy No Way Out as much as I should have - it is a tremendous premise but it lacks something. I'm inclined to say that maybe it lacks more words, a more elaborate set-up and execution and better character development. It's a bad thing when you put a book down and feel like you've missed something. I've re-read it just to make sure that I'm not being unfairly harsh and I have to say that it's not something I enjoyed or would recommend to others.

No Way Out by Gene Kemp is published by Faber & Faber on March 4th.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Archangel's Kiss by Nalini Singh

Here is the synopsis from amazon:

Vampire hunter Elena Deveraux wakes from a year-long coma to find that she has become an angel-and that her lover, the stunningly dangerous archangel Raphael, likes having her under his control. But almost immediately, Raphael must ready Elena for a flight to Beijing, to attend a ball thrown by the archangel Lijuan. Ancient and without conscience, Lijuan's power lies with the dead. And she has organized the most perfect and most vicious of welcomes for Elena...

Isn't the cover gorgeous? When I first saw it I was totally blown away. 'Archangel's Kiss' is the second book in Nalini Singh's 'Guild Hunter' series after 'Angel Blood' and came out last week. I spent the beginning of the week checking online every night to see if it had arrived in one of my local book stores. You could say I was eager to read it;D.

I LOVED this book! It starts off days after 'Angel Blood' ends and Elena has to get used to being an angel, retrain her body and learn to fly. She also needs to find a place in Raphael's life as his permanent companion. Most of the other Archangels and Angels see her as a pet, something Elena is not too happy with.

After the death of one of the Archangels (they rule world, each taking care of a territory) one Angel has decided he/she has what it takes to become the next ruling Archangel. And is prepared to show it with twisted mind games and attacks on both Raphael and Elena. Then he/she breaks one of the Angels' most sacred rules, maybe the only line left that they will never cross, and Elena has to hunt in earnest. But will she be strong enough?

The whole way through I was amazed how realistic the characters were. I know they are Archangels, Angels, Vampires and a Vampire Hunter, but the world Nalini has created is totally real. There was nothing I thought was exaggerated or over the top, everything fit together seamlessly.

I really liked how alien and inhuman Raphael was. At no point do you forget that he is an Archangel and has lived for centuries. His cruelty and brutality were sometimes a little hard to take, but really pushed the story forwards. Elena is a great counterpart. She clings to her humanity while at the same time trying to find her place in a very different world.

This book has everything you want: fabulous main and supporting characters, great story, chemistry that jumps off the page and all taking place in a world you can believe in.

I cannot wait for the next book in the series and am desperate to find out how Elena's and Raphael's relationship develops. Nalini's website is here.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Letters to Cathy by Cathy Cassidy


Have you ever had a crush?
Fallen out with your best friend?

Cathy Cassidy is here for you.

There are no questions Cathy hasn't been asked and isn't afraid to answer, from growing-up to dating, making friends, following your dreams and much more. Through the happy times, the mad and crazy times and the days when you simply find yourself asking "Why?" - whatever's bugging you, Cathy can help.

I'm a newcomer to Cathy Cassidy and I've got to admit, I'm glad I've discovered her. I recently read Ginger Snaps and loved it - I was surprised by how much this tiny book tackled and the positive message it conveyed.

Then I met Cathy in person at the Puffin media event and I was blown away by her presence. Here is someone who deeply cares about her audience. It wasn't just a gimmick. This is exactly who she is, there is no pretend. You know how you can sense a person's "real-ness"? Listening to Cathy chat about how she came to writing, her writing career and what lead her to become such a success, I felt inspired and wanted to jump up and clap like a lunatic. Fortunately I refrained. Did I mention I got her autograph???

I subsequently came home and devoured Letters to Cathy written by Cathy as an overall book of advice to her readers about subjects as far ranging as bullying, confidence dilemmas, boys, growing up, friendship, family matters and it also deals with sad things like bereavement etc.

I was initially a bit hesitant thinking it was going to be a bit preachy and dull but I found that this book was written for me, afterall. I'm 36 (going on 37) and so much of Cathy's advice to her readers can be applied to me...even at 36.

Advice on how to pretend confidence, how to keep your friends, how to stop being down on yourself, to keep on dreaming, all these things are aimed right at me. My heartfelt opinion is that every girl from the age of 6 should be given a copy of this to read and to keep it on her bedside table. To be honest, there is some ready advice here for boys too but I fear that the very pink cover will detract our macho brethren from picking it up but maybe, just maybe, a book like this (if it doesn't already exist) can be done for the lads?

Written in an easy conversational style, Letters to Cathy is a treasure trove. I forget utterly how painful it is growing up, how scared and emotional I was at certain times in my young life and reliving that with her readers and fans was really poignant. But as I said above, some of the advice still works for me. A book like this is invaluable and I would recommend it to be bought now, immediately, by everyone who reads this blog post. Maybe not everything in here will reflect what you're going through but there are life lessons in here which are given with deep sincerity and love. I admire Cathy for tackling such a variety of subjects and for being so gutsty in answering these letters from her fans, but most importantly I am incredibly proud to see such a large variety of young people write in with their problems - the mere fact that they feel they can do that just goes to show their respect for an author whom they admire. These letters are dealt with sensitively and each letter is given it's due attention. After each section Cathy gives websites and other books by a variety of authors and publishers to read for further information or inspiration.

Cathy is my heroine for 2010 and I'm hoping to do an Author of the Month event with her later this year, depending on her schedule of course. Find Cathy's very cool website here. Letters to Cathy is out now from Puffin UK.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest


In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

I will put my hand up and admit: I bought Boneshaker for the cover alone. I know, I know, I’m fickle. I was going to read it too, but initially it was for the cover only…and then I started reading it over breakfast and then I had to retire to the lounge and lie on the couch and the next thing I knew it was quarter past six and Mark was home going: “Where’s my food, woman?” (at this point I rang Dominos so I could continue reading).

Boneshaker was one of 2009’s most anticpated novels. It was a genre-mash-up. Steampunk and zombies with a bit of fantasy, a bit of western and a bit of sci-fi thrown in for good measure. I genuinely didn’t think it was going to work but then I didn’t really reckon with Ms. Priest’s writerly prowess. It’s sickening to see how easy she makes it all seem.

Her characters are richly depicted with the main character Briar (once known as Briar Blue, having been married to Leviticus Blue) being wonderfully enigmatic and flawed. When we first meet Briar we know only the rumours about her, who she used to be, but even that is hazy. It’s as if we learn about Briar by looking in a badly speckled mirror – there is taint where there maybe shouldn’t be. Her relationship with her young son, Zeke (Ezekiel) is strained. It makes for interesting reading, as we walk with her through the house her father had owned before the Blight, and she hesitates going into Zeke’s room as she’s not ever been in there, is such a explicit moment because we learn so much about this intensely private woman, that it made my eyes water.

Zeke is one of life’s good guys with a penchant for hanging around with bad guys and who is destined to get into trouble. He’s a clever kid, he wants answers to the questions he’s almost too afraid to ask his mother. Was his father genuinely the destroyer of Seattle, was his grandfather really the guy who broke prisoners out during the Blight and set them free and if so, surely there’s more to the story than just that? There are these questions he wants answered, and more. So he runs off to the city within the walls, hoping to find answers.

Boneshaker is at it’s heart a deeply emotional story about family and the lies we tell to keep everything neat and tidy, without thinking about the repercussions. It’s about trying to find the truth and facing up to your past. It’s also how people can lie and deceive in the wake of an awful disaster and how quickly lies and half-truths can spread in Chinese whispers, poisoning others.

Ms. Priest’s writing is engaging. I had no idea I had torn through the book at such a rapid pace. I felt that she had done great work with her supporting cast and enjoyed the overall world she had created. The setting of Seattle is new to me (I only know modern day Seattle from seeing it on TV and reading about it in books) so I genuinely didn’t mind that she had taken liberties with its history etc. I found it very interesting how subtly she used the dialogue to indicate time (era) as well as the various characters’ upbringing. It’s clever and handled well so that I only became aware of it part-way through the book.

Briar’s quest to find her son after he disappears into the walled off city rife with “rotters”is such a desperately wild and brave act, I loved her for it. A completely different world, with very much different, almost older, set of values exist on the other side of the wall. For sixteen years the people living inside the walls of the old Seattle have battled amongst themselves and the rotters. Those on the Outskirts (outside the wall) live dull lives, struggling to make ends meet whilst the Civil War continued to rage seemingly unabated for far longer than in Real History. Briar herself works in a water-purifying plant and it’s hard grueling work. In between reading Boneshaker, you can close your eyes, and you can feel the oppressiveness of the world created, the muted colours of rusts, greys and browns getting under your skin.

Overall you have a very different type of book on your hands. Ms. Priest is a very good writer, keeping the narrative tight and interesting. The world is explained easily, you quickly become familiar with its various quirks and although you know that things are moving ahead very quickly, the writing never feels rushed.

I enjoyed Boneshaker and will recommend it to readers who are keen to dip their toes into something slightly different. The steampunk elements are there but they are in the background and character and plot is king in the novel and reigns supreme, and to be honest, this works really well for me as I’m in theory a techie, I can’t stand techie-writings and descriptions.

Find Cherie Priest’s website here and the official website for the world Cherie's created titled The Clockwork Century here. Boneshaker is out now and should be available for purchase online (as I don’t think a UK publisher has picked it up yet).

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner


The most powerful advisor to the King of Sounis is the magus. He's not a wizard, he's a scholar, an aging solider, not a thief. When he needs something stolen, he pulls a young thief from the King's prison to do the job for him.

Gen is a thief and proud of it. When his bragging lands him behind bars he has one chance to win his freedom-- journey to a neighboring kingdom with the magus, find a legendary stone called Hamiathes's Gift and steal it.

Simple really, except for the mountains in between, the temple under water, and the fact that no one has ever gone hunting Hamiathes's Gift and returned alive.

The magus has plans for his King and his country. Gen has plans of his own.

The Thief is a rare combination of travel journal, quest and well, boasting. I bought it after Ana over The Booksmugglers became rabid about it and it languished on my bookshelf for a while before I succumbed to its charms.

It's a hugely charming little book. Very unassuming, pretty enough cover, clever premise...but does the story hold up, do the characters sizzle and does it keep our attention?

Yes, it does, very much so. Unexpectedly funny and amusing, Gen's character is a treat to read. Mutinous, sulky, hurting from being made to wear shackles, his voice is fresh and vibrant, with cutting observations of his travelling companions. You would assume someone who's just been dragged out of prison after stealing things from the King's chamber directly, would know how to shut up and stop bragging - no, not Gen or Eugenides to give him his full name. It's what he does - he's a loud braggart and he very quickly makes himself home in your head as you read The Thief.

Gen's journey with the Magus and his two helpers (whom he names Useless the Elder and Useless the Younger) is peppered with conversation and we learn that the object Gen's supposed to steal is in fact something which is a rumour, a myth, a legend.

As the story develops you come to suspect that all is not what it seems with our young thief. The way he tells the stories of the gods is a clever ploy used by the author to show us that Gen may have had a completely different upbringing to what we suspect, yet nothing is ever further explored so we are left suspecting, but never being quite sure.

His behaviour towards the King's Magus and his two helpers is one of sullen compliance. He makes sure they do the majority of the work whilst he builds up his strength from languishing in prison and being malnourished.

Gen's task is almost unsurmountable. I couldn't figure out where the author was going with The Thief. It's difficult to describe the story without doing spoilers so what I will say is: Gen is everything and nothing what you expect him to be. He's manages to double-cross the double-crossers and surprise everyone by his actions, even himself.

Just a fab read - there are several more in this series and I'll wait a while before I read them because I need time to luxuriate in reading them back to back.

Find Megan Whalen Turner's website here and a full review of the series - thus far - over at Ana and Thea, The Booksmugglers!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


Three more reviews by me (The Liz) should be up over at - under the UK books sections.

Books reviewed for them this month:

  • Divine by Mistake by PC Cast (Mira)
  • Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit)
  • Savannah Grey by Cliff McNish (Orion)
Do pop along and read them. As usual my review for Mr. Shivers flies in the face of several other reviews...not entire sure why, but there you go! If you have a present to buy for a teen in the next few weeks, make sure to buy Savannah Grey by Cliff McNish. It's a very different novel, quite dark, but with a very memorable main character who evolves some interesting weapons of her own to save our butts from a vile bad guy. And then, if you're in the mood for something sexy, for older readers (read "adults") then you can do worse than picking up a copy of Divine by Mistake by PC Cast. Humorous and racy, this will be right up your street. An English teacher gets transported to another world and becomes the blessed of Epona, ancient Celtic warrior and horse makes for interesting reading and it is good fun with laugh out loud sections.

I hope you enjoy these reviews I've done for "elsewhere".