Friday, May 28, 2010

Corvus: Oath of Vengeance by James Thomson - Viking Week

I am extremely chuffed to feature our friend Darren from Bookzone 4 Boys here at MFB. I love Darren's blog but due to a hectic work schedule for both of us, we've not had much of a chance to chat recently. So when he sent me a message yesterday saying that he's just finished reading a YA novel, centred on Vikings, I thought: brilliant! I must get that to read. Then he offered me the review for Viking Week and I was over the moon. But, over to Bookzone:

OK... we all know that vampires are pretty damn cool, although they would be no match at all for ninjas in a “Who is the coolest” contest (unless they were vampire ninjas like in Nick Lake’s Blood Ninja). We also have cool werewolves courtesy of Steve Feasey’s Changeling series, and then there’s the multitude of cool zombie stories around these days. I bet if you asked a group of teen boys and girls what the coolest book or movie “vocations” are it would be one of the above. I think I would also be safe in betting that not one them would laugh in the face of popular opinion and vote for Vikings!

Why is this? After all, if you look at the evidence then Vikings should at least be making a regular appearance in the Top 5. They were, after all, some of the greatest adventurers the world has ever known. They travelled far across Europe, even reaching North Africa, and battled the vicious waters of the Atlantic Ocean, making it as far as America in their wooden ships. They had a great mythology, with stories of Valhalla, Ragnarök and a God for almost every occasion (including, of course, the mighty Thor). And above everything else, their prowess in battle is also legendary, so much so that we “celebrate” their memory every time we go berserk. Not bad for a bunch of farm boys who initially only set out to find more fertile land.

So just why is it that Vikings do not appear to be a popular theme in YA and children’s books? Is it a fault of our education system? After all, last time I looked neither vampires, ninjas or zombies were in the National Curriculum. Or maybe it is the fact that the Vikings have a reputation for having pretty much pillaged, burnt, looted and murdered their way across most of England. Does this make them a subject that authors have been scared to tackle for fear of being accused of glorifying these violent excesses?

Whatever the reason for this dearth of Viking stories, one author has now decided to go against the trend, and in doing so James Thomson has delivered an action packed adventure romp that deserves to be big hit in the young adult market. How’s this for a synopsis?

Corvus Gunnarson returns home after a period of exile to find his parents murdered and his two sisters captured by the ruthless warlord Wulfric Cold-blood. Corvus swears an oath of vengeance and sets out to find Wulfric and rescue his sisters. His quest takes him on a journey from the fjords of Norway to the shores of Saxon England and beyond. On his journey he encounters giant sea serpents, armies of warriors, knights and shape-shifting berserker wolves. A thrilling, epic tale of bravery, honour and revenge.

Corvus: Oath of Vengeance is the first book in a new series following the adventures of the book titular main character. And it does exactly what it says on the tin book cover. Bravery? Corvus possesses this by the bucket load, and proves this in battle scene after battle scene. Honour? When Corvus makes an oath he has no intention of ever breaking it, even if he risks angering the Gods. And revenge? The thirst for vengeance drives Corvus throughout the story.

Unusually for a YA book, the main character is an adult. Corvus’ age is not actually mentioned in the text, but the description of him would make him 18 or 19 at the very youngest, but as he has spent at least a couple of years fighting for the King of Denmark my best guess would be that he is in his early twenties. Despite this I think this story has great appeal to the 11+ age range, and I don’t think they will have too many problems identifying with Corvus. They will be able to sympathise with the anger he feels at the injustice suffered by his family at the hands of Wulfric. But whereas modern boys may have a quick scuffle when they are angry with someone, Corvus sets off on a journey to another country with an axe in each hand, and boy does he know how to use these axes in a fight. The battle scenes are very well written; they are breathless and bloody – just the way we like them. Lines such as “slicing his arm in two”, “[the axes] cut deep, virtually severing his leg above the ankle” and “the patch of earth in front of him tuned red with gore” are just three of the phrases we are treated to as Corvus hacks his way through the foes that he finds himself up against. And then there’s the Blood Eagle, the Viking torture method of choice – just go look it up on Wikipedia!

When I was in my teens I devoured the Conan books by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp, and elements of Corvus remind me very much of those. Conan regularly found himself fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds, and the same is the case for Corvus. The two characters also share a strong sense of honour – Corvus certainly isn’t your everyday raping and pillaging kind of Viking. In fact, he is more likely to fight for a Saxon village than against them. And finally, like Conan, Corvus is a born leader, even if he does not yet realise it for himself, and he forges bonds with a number of secondary characters who then happily follow him into battle.

I am a little ashamed to admit that had I seen this on a shelf in a book shop I probably would not have bought it – I would never have thought I would find a Viking story so appealing. My thanks therefore go out to Graeme Maynard at Boxer Books for sending me a copy and thereby showing me the error of my ways. This book is a definite page-turner and kept me captivated throughout. Like most first-in-series books it does end on something of a cliffhanger with many loose ends left untied, but many kids, and boys in particular, will not mind this, as like me they will feel hungry for more and look forward to the release of the second book in the series.


Fab! I love the whole premise, as well as the main character's name: Corvus. Strong indication there of ties to Odin, with his crows and such!

Thanks Darren, for this review and for taking out the time to do it, it's much appreciated.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Celebrating Tamsyn Murray's Book Launch for Stunt Bunny: Showbiz Sensation

Mark and I were so pleased to be invited to Tamsyn's newest book launch for Stunt Bunny: Showbiz Sensation held at the Women's Library in the City earlier this evening.

A whole load of people from Twitter were in attendance and some of us knew each other from previous events. Thank heavens! No awkward silent moment. *shifty eyes* But importantly, it was great to be able to share this lovely milestone with Tamsyn. As always, she was a very gracious hostess and made all her guests very welcome, laying on soft drinks and wine and a variety of really good nom snacks.

But enough of me blabbing, here are some photos. I even made sure to get Tamsyn's awesome shoes in.

Poor Tamsyn, I hadn't even said "hello" to her and I had her posing by her books!

Here are some of the books in question - that cover is just awesome and made of win.

Tamsyn delivering her thank you speech, looking demure and lovely and sweet. But we know better...

Harriet looks amazing on the cake. We sadly couldn't light the candles as it would have set the smoke alarms off.

Tamsyn signing some books for her adoring fans.

Tamsyn feeding the fans some Harriet Cake.

Some fans and friends hovering near the food tables.

Parting and final shot of the table with My So Called Afterlife and Stunt Bunny: Showbiz Sensation neatly on display.

We wish Tamsyn the best of luck with Stunt Bunny here at MFB. Humour books for younger folk is difficult to do, but from other reviews I've seen, I suspect that she's managed to pull it off. Our review will be up soon.

Raven: Blood Eye by Giles Kristian - Viking Week


For two years Osric has lived a simple life, apprentice to the mute old carpenter who took him in when others would have him cast out. But when Norsemen from across the sea burn his village they also destroy his new life, and Osric finds himself a prisoner of these warriors. Their chief, Sigurd the Lucky, believes the Norns have woven this strange boy's fate together with his own, and Osric begins to sense glorious purpose among this Fellowship of warriors.Immersed in the Norsemen's world and driven by their lust for adventure, Osric proves a natural warrior and forges a blood bond with Sigurd, who renames him Raven. But the Norsemen's world is a savage one, where loyalty is often repaid in blood and where a young man must become a killer to survive. When the Fellowship faces annihilation from ealdorman Ealdred of Wessex, Raven chooses a bloody and dangerous path, accepting the mission of raiding deep into hostile lands to steal a holy book from Coenwolf, King of Mercia. There he will find much more than the Holy Gospels of St Jerome. He will find Cynethryth, an English girl with a soul to match his own. And he will find betrayal at the hands of cruel men, some of whom he regarded as friends...

An opening line that starts thus:

'I do not know where I was born. When I was young, I would sometimes dream of great rock walls rising from the sea so high that the sun's warmth never hit the cold, black water....I know nothing of my childhood, of my parents, or if I had brothers and sisters. I do not even know my birth name.'

..really does make you want to curl up and read more, doesn't it? And it now annoys me in retrospect that it's taken me a while to sit down and read Raven: Blood Eye because I could have hung around with Osric (Raven), Sigurd and the boys, a whole lot earlier. But, having said that, I strongly believe in a bit of chaos theory: things come to you when you're ready.

So, Raven came to me and I fell in love. First of all, having met Giles Kristian at the book launch for the second book: Raven: Sons of Thunder, I was struck by how charming he was, but also how immersed he was in his writing. During his speech when he thanked various people for their help he mentioned things like: steering the dragon ship along the whale road and he mentioned skalds and other words which now escape me, as it was some time ago. I initially thought, yeah yeah, Kristian, good one, playing the game, live up to the heritage and the writing and the research. But honestly, having read both these books, in rapid succession, I now suspect that that speech was probably more real than I had anticipated.

When I say this novel is immersive, I mean it. It's written in a very macho way. No, that sounds wrong. It's written in a manly way, hua! How can I describe it? The writing reflects the characters, the age and the rough camaraderie and friendship that bonded these raiders and warriors together. Therefore the use of language is strong, sometimes violently over the top, as it is seen from Osric's point of view initially and he's only a young boy.

You can't write about Vikings and tough guys without violence and death. But there are ways to do so and still retain your reader's belief in your characters and the action. Mr. Kristian manages that with devastating ease and bearing in mind, this is his debut novel, you can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, he was channeling something from a previous life? I'm kidding, of course, about the previous life thing, but honestly, the battle scenes are nasty and vicious and yet they never made me want to put the book down and I never caught myself thinking, okay, this is rubbish, it's going a bit over the top and becoming pointless and gratuitous. And yes, that rumour you've heard about the blood eagle explained in great detail, but not with relish, is as grim as you can imagine. *shudder*

The story is held together by Osric/Raven. A deeply human character with flaws, hang-ups and strengths and insecurities, we at first experience the terror of the raid on his village coupled with the fact that he can actually understand and speak these invaders' language! Having been found two years before, no one really knows anything about Osric. He's an outsider in the village, mainly because of his one red eye. The fact that he can't remember anything about where he comes from or what had happened to him, sets him apart from the small community he lives in, and he is treated a bit disdainfully.

As he's taken by Sigurd and his crew he realises it's a case of sink or swim and slowly but surely, he comes to be accepted, firstly by Sigurd, then other members of the crew. He's given his new name and a new life opens before him. The action is thrilling and wild and practically non-stop. And I'm also pleased to say that the characterisation is rich, as is the world-building.

Raven: Blood Eye is a really neat (if bloody) package that ticks all the right boxes when it comes to what epic historical fiction is all about, and then some. I've noticed some people liken it to other writers such as Bernard Cornwell, Tim Severin and others and honestly, it's as good as that and the even better thing: there is more to come.

Giles Kristian, please, don't stop writing! Raven: Blood Eye and Raven: Sons of Thunder can be found online as well as other good high street bookshops. And this is Giles' website.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beowulf and Grendel - Movie Review - Viking Week

Write-up taken from the IMDB site

The blood-soaked tale of a Norse warrior's battle against the great and murderous troll, Grendel. Heads will roll. Out of allegiance to the King Hrothgar, the much respected Lord of the Danes, Beowulf leads a troop of warriors across the sea to rid a village of the marauding monster. The monster, Grendel, is not a creature of mythic powers, but one of flesh and blood - immense flesh and raging blood, driven by a vengeance from being wronged, while Beowulf, a victorious soldier in his own right, has become increasingly troubled by the hero-myth rising up around his exploits. Beowulf's willingness to kill on behalf of Hrothgar wavers when it becomes clear that the King is more responsible for the troll's rampages than was first apparent. As a soldier, Beowulf is unaccustomed to hesitating. His relationship with the mesmerizing witch, Selma, creates deeper confusion. Swinging his sword at a great, stinking beast is no longer such a simple act. The story is set in barbarous Northern Europe where the reign of the many-gods is giving way to one - the southern invader, Christ. Beowulf is a man caught between sides in this great shift, his simple code transforming and falling apart before his eyes. Vengeance, loyalty and mercy powerfully entwine. A story of blood and beer and sweat, which strips away the mask of the hero-myth, leaving a raw and tangled tale.

I don't know how many people actually know about this movie or how many people have watched it. It was released in the States and I had to order in my dvd copy in from the US as it was nowhere to be found here in the UK. It was only at the end of last year, after Christmas that I picked up a UK copy. On blu-ray, for a fiver. What went wrong, I wonder?

It's not the best movie ever made but it is definitely one worth watching. Gerard Butler convinced as a Beowulf struggling with his own identity. Grendel's character is not just a crazed monster on a rampage for the sake of going on a rampage. There are two sides to each coin.

In this version we have a very human Beowulf confronted with all he has done in the past, what he is prepared to do now for fame and for money. Is it the right thing?

The landscape is beautifully evocative and harsh and wild and looking at it, you can appreciate why stories like Beowulf and Grendel resonated for so long in the oral history and memories of people.

I'm not going to pretend to be a scholar of the original story but I felt that the reworking of the story for this film was done with a sensitivity a lot of big Hollywood movies completely manage to miss out on.

My copy of the book Beowulf, as done by Seamus Heaney is one of my all-time favourite books of all time. He manages to capture the wild essence of the story, of heroes who walk the fine line between being a hero and villain and about monsters so terrible they haunt your waking hours.

This movie is a definite favourite too. In fact, I'm popping along to go and stick it in the player right now, to be honest!

I know some people will watch this, waiting for the in your face machismo and it's there in the various battle and action sequences but it's a slower, deeper story that lingers and makes an impression.

I love how with only a few changes and a bit of tweaking of the overall story and characters, our perceptions of the overall story changes. It's by far better than I expected and something I am happy to recommend to others to try.

Happy watching!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan


The Viking King Authun leads his men on a raid against an Anglo-Saxon village. Men and women are killed indiscriminately but Authun demands that no child be touched. He is acting on prophecy. A prophecy that tells him that the Saxons have stolen a child from the Gods. If Authun, in turn, takes the child and raises him as an heir, the child will lead his people to glory.

But Authun discovers not one child, but twin baby boys. Ensuring that his faithful warriors, witness to what has happened, die during the raid Authun takes the children and their mother home, back to the witches who live on the troll wall. And he places his destiny in their hands.

And so begins a stunning multi-volume fantasy epic that will take a werewolf from his beginnings as the heir to a brutal viking king, down through the ages. It is a journey that will see him hunt for his lost love through centuries and lives, and see the endless battle between the wolf, Odin and Loki - the eternal trickster - spill over into countless bloody conflicts from our history, and over into our lives.

This is the myth of the werewolf as it has never been told before and marks the beginning of an extraordinary new fantasy series from Gollancz.

A superbly written fantasy epic that spans hundreds of years of our history to bring Norse legends and the myth of the werewolf to blood-curdling life.

I already gave a bit of spiel about me liking Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan. It's a winner - for me at least - on various levels.

Allow me to digress here for a bit. Last year Mark and I attended Dragonmeet only for one thing: to sit in on a talk by a handful of authors, amongst them David Devereux, Stephen Deas, Johnny Nexus and MD Lachlan (aka Mark Barrowcliffe). The talk had to do with gaming and writing and it was probably one of the funniest and interesting talks I've been to. What came out is that most of the authors on the panel were all gamers or at least ex-gamers but that a lot of them had interest in the occult. MDL mentioned this a few times and this made me itch to read Wolfsangel more. I suspected dark dealings, spells, evil, witches...interesting things.

And I wasn't disappointed. MDL takes a story and imbues it with a wild dark magic that lifts an almost standard quest adventure (historical) fantasy into something vivid, gritty and wonderfully epic.

The king's action at the beginning of the novel is so imaginatively over the top, I initially thought it was a dream sequence. Little did I know this was in fact the tone of the entire novel. King Athun leads a raid on a small village with the express desire to steal away a baby boy, to take him back to his own kingdom and raise him as his own. Only thing is, when he finds the boy, he discovers not one but two boys. Twins. He takes the decision to raise one and send one to be raised by the witches who sent him on this quest in the first instance. Athun's word is law - his thanes, friends and fellow warriors - obey his instructions and stay to fight the people from the village and surrounds, ensuring their king's escape. This opening salvo is already seeped deeply with the magic of the otherworld. It shows us the iron-hold of the witches on a king and a king's hold on his people.

The boy who is taken by the king, Vali, grows up a little bit spoilt and is sent off to be fostered. His life is not too bad, a bit of practice with a sword, but mostly Vali is an easygoing kid who is more than just a bit in love with the lovely Adisla.

The twin brother given to the witches were sent off to the Beserkers to be raised. And boy, did they turn this child into a feral beast! The author uses reserves of imagination here yet he doesn't bombard us with the grimness of the boy's education. It is what it is. Fact. Move on.

On one level we have an almost basic quest happening here: Vali has to prove his dedication to his friend and true love Adisla by following the orders of his step-father to go off and hunt down one of the wolves that's been preying on travellers. This leads Vali to capture his twin brother Feileg. Their society is so steeped in lore that when Vali sees his brother's face for the first time he thinks he's being tricked by a witch, a demon, and doesn't realise that it is in fact his brother. He carries him back to the settlement where Adisla takes pity on the feral boy-man. Her kindness to him, generates a loyalty and love within Feileg, something he's never felt before. When pirates / raiders attack and Adisla is taken, Vali and Feileg set off to bring her back.

MDL has taken this recognisable tale and spun it through various layers, using some pretty impressive story telling skills and what I can only assume was insanely fun research to create a dark mysterious world that feels like it's walking side by side with one we know. There are monsters, battles, love, betrayal, witches...the works.

What sticks Wolfsangel together is the sense of place and of time. The characters are well developed yet not all of them are likeable. Which in itself is a feat. They stick in your mind, they make you wonder about the bigger story here, the story of Odin, Fenris and Loki. How the humans in this story try and cope with the choices they make, but are they really making it or has it all happened long before?

I can maybe gab on a lot more about Wolfsangel (I'm sorry MDL, the next time we meet, your ear will be bent!) but I think what it boils down to is this: epic storytelling never grows old, especially if you have someone like MD Lachlan to tell it to you. But please, don't take my word for it. Go read it for yourself.

Find MD Lachlan's site here. Wolfsangel was released last week through Gollancz.

Viking Week

Welcome to Viking Week

This week we’ll be reviewing books and movies that can lay claim to the slightest bit of Viking/Norse/ Icelandic traces within their pages. Obviously it’s only a week long so we can’t really cover all the good books and movies out there as part of Viking Week but we’re sure gonna try. We've got a shelf of books and movies that we read and re-read and watch and re-watch. I don't know why. Maybe it's the high concept and the improbability of a man, his crew and a boat raging against the storm and nature, with a mixture of superstition and awe tossed in for good measure. It asks for good storytelling and there has been some good stories told and we're hoping to showcase them this week. Apart from the pic above, this week will be sans any horned helmets!

First up will be a full review of Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan, later this evening.

But before I review it, I just wanted to say that reading Wolfsangel made me realise a) MDL can in fact write a blood good yarn and that he would make the skalds from back in the day, very happy indeed, b) there aren't enough books about werewolves and Vikings, and c) I am so glad this is a series because looking at b, I'm keen for this to be amended.

Out of all the books that's come out thus far, this year, Wolfsangel has been a personal favourite of mine. I was keen to see how it got "done" and how he was going to pull it off.

I read part of it whilst on holiday in South Africa and then finished it off here in the UK and I can't press it upon enough people that if you are a genre fan, a werewolf fan, a history buff or a Viking fan, then this is definitely one for you. It breaks boundaries and is a piece of anchor-tough writing. New writers can do worse than check it out on how to handle exposition, back story and writing tough gritty fantasy-slash-historical fiction with elements of the supernatural and not lose plot or voice.

But, much more later this evening!

**artwork from robflc1892's deviant art page

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bristol Comic Expo

Speed of Light in Bristol - photo courtesy of Mark

We headed off early morning on Saturday to get to the Bristol Comic Expo held at the Ramada. Thankfully we stayed at the Mercure Hotel which was between the two, probably the better looking as well as the better air-conditioned.

Anyway. We got to the Ramada and hey presto, collected our weekend badges. And I was immediately pissed off. No goodie bags. 10am on the Saturday and no more goodie bags. Was this just truly bad planning or couldn't they give a hoot? Also, no plans and no programmes were handed out. A truly shambolic start. However, we managed to find a "map" of the layout of the hotel and some info about signings, panels and whatever.

The traders hall was amazing - a great buzz but boyo, the heat was already pretty high by 11am. Mainly because the hall was quite small so apart from the grin-and-bear-it traders, the place was packed to the rafters with sweating punters, most of them unused to the hot weather so they were all wearing leather jackets. I personally think there should be a law against wearing leather jackets to cons because you know, unless you are in Moscow or you are Keanu, the look sucks ass and you smell like one.

The chaps from Com X.

But I digress. We whizzed around the traders hall, said "hi" to a few people we knew, amongst them John from London's Forbidden Planet and his Bristol shop team. We also bought some goodies from 'em.

Forbidden Planet stall at Ramada

I also spotted the amazing Garen Ewing with his copies of Rainbow Orchid on sale. We chatted for a while and he was very sweet and gracious. We shared a few moments of geekness over TinTin, which both of us love.

Garen Ewings The Rainbow Orchid, Volume 2 on display.

The 2000AD stand was packed full of Dredd, Durham Red, Nikolai Dante and ABC Warriors. I hesitated over the Nikolai Dante books but moved swiftly on when Mark firmly shook his head "no". We were on a tight budget and so had to be super selective about what we bought.

I stopped to check out these classics turned into Manga. They looked lovely. But I got dragged away.

We then headed off to go and have lunch with Mike Carey and Joel from Tripwire magazine. Lunch was down at the Spyglass. The weather was gorgeous. The setting was perfect and the conversation veered from books, to politics, to previous cons. It was all good.

A very charming cosplay chap we met on our way to the station to go and draw some cash.

We briefly popped into Mercure to drop off our goodies we had collected thus far. And whilst there, we headed up to the fifth floor where the rest of the Con was taking place. Mark ended up playing some Wii hack and slash game whilst I tried wandering around the larger traders hall but I didn't get very far...I manhandled the lads from the 501st Legion and old Darth into a huddle against the wall and took a few photos.

Then we legged it over to the main hotel again for The Losers talk with creators Jock and Andy Diggle. It was a very informal and fun talk, with Jock starting off asking the audience a few questions, to make up time whilst Andy went looking for a random loot bag with goodies from The Losers movie. Eventually, once both of them were there, the real talk began. More than anything, it was like sitting in a room with a bunch of your mates talking about a favourite book that got itself turned into a movie. They stressed that they had no imput into the movie whatsoever but that they got to visit the set and were struck by how close the cast were, calling each other by their Loser names.

Jock (in the blue shirt) and Andy chat about The Losers.

I sent Mark off to get copies of The Losers signed by the two of them whilst I stayed behind to listen to the DC Universe talk. Bob Wayne, DC VP of Sales previewed the forthcoming noms from DC with the help of Paul Cornell, David Hine, Lee Garbett, Jesus Saiz and Ramon Bachs.
I'm not going to say anything further because I'm going to let some of the photos talk for me.

Bob, Lee, Paul

Afterwards I got to go and talk to Robin Furth who has been working on Stephen King's Dark Tower. A tremendously nice lady, we spoke whilst Mark was still in the queue to get The Losers stuff signed. I urged her to get an online presence and we swapped emails. I am really very excited to read the graphic novels of this series. I'm coming late to them, but I'm sure they will be fun.

Below are pics of some of our loot we either got free or bought or took with us to get signed.

We had a great time, and staggered to bed at around midnight Saturday night. Bristol treated us really well. Sunday morning was mostly spent recuperating after Saturday night, a long walk around Bristol town centre and all along the river, then chatting to various artists and writers, before packing the tiny blue Polo to carry us home.

It's been a very long, very busy weekend and now I can go and collapse for an hour before I have to come back to write reviews for this coming week.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dead In The Family by Charlaine Harris

*** Review Contains Slight Spoilers ***


If you think your family relationships are complicated, think again: you haven't seen anything like the ones in Bon Temps, Louisiana. Sookie Stackhouse is dealing with a whole host of family problems, ranging from her own kin (a non-human fairy and a telepathic second cousin) demanding a place in her life, to her lover Eric's vampire sire, an ancient being, who arrives with Eric's 'brother' in tow at a most inopportune moment. And Sookie's tracking down a distant relation of her ailing neighbour (and ex), Vampire Bill Compton.

In addition to the multitude of family issues complicating her life, the werewolf pack of Shreveport has asked Sookie for a special favour, and since Sookie is an obliging young woman, she agrees. But this favour for the wolves has dire results for Sookie, who is still recovering from the trauma of her abduction during the Fairy War.

It's all about family . . .

I love Charlaine Harris - there, I've said it. I'm only missing the Aurora Teagarden stories before I have the full set. To say I was excited about reading Dead In The Family is a massive understatement. After wrenching it from Liz's hands I started reading on the train on the way home. The book opens finding Sookie dealing with the awful aftermath of the fae war. I'm glad that the reader gets to make this journey with Sookie rather than joining her months afterwards. It becomes apparent from the first few chapters that things are changing in Bon Temps. Amelia returns home leaving Sookie alone in her house. Well, almost alone as Eric is firmly by her side helping her recover. Four weeks later and Sookie is sunbathing again and has regained some of her sparkle.

Sookie, as generous as ever, makes the slightly unwise decision to let the Shreveport pack use her land. True to her character she is happy to help but finds that sometimes this can end up causing more trouble than it's worth. This opens a fascinating storyline that touches on the politics that Sookie has got herself tied up in over the years.

I felt that Dead in the Family is almost a return to a more traditional Sookie Stackhouse novel. With the closure of the gate between Bon Temps and the fae world and Amelia's absence the plot is able to concentrate on the actions of shifters, weres and vampires with greater effect. Yes, there are still some fae present but it reads like a natural progression. After all, fans wouldn't expect Claude to just disappear and with Sookie's heritage this part of the storyline flows. I loved the reintroduction of the importance of Vampire Bill's database and the way that, despite her misgivings, Sookie just can't stop getting involved in his (after)life.

I only have one slight misgiving which is the new creation of Eric's maker Ocella. I'm not going to say who this new vampire is as I don't want to spoil it. The character is brilliantly deadly and twisted but I'm not sure about the historical basis for him. It works for Elvis/Buba as this character is harmless but I'm not sure how Ocella's "child" will be received. I felt a little uncomfortable but then maybe that's just me. I'm interested to see how other readers feel. Sookie shares the readers discomfort I think, so from that point of view I think that Charlaine Harris is showing that not everyone should be brought back from the brink of death.

However, there's far more to celebrate than worry about in this latest offering. Apart from everything I've already mentioned I was happy to see the FBI back again and some interesting Bill back-story and extra trouble for Sookie in the form of a body on her land. I enjoyed Dead In The Family enormously, it had everything I could ask for from Sookie and a few tied-up loose ends that I wasn't expecting.
One more thing - as lovely as the UK cover is I adore the illustrations on the US covers so I'm adding it here in all its glory!

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork



It surrounds Pancho. His father, in an accident. His sister, murdered. His own plans to trace the killer. And D.Q. – a guy Pancho’s age who is dying of cancer. That is, if he’ll ever shut up.


D.Q. is writing “The Death Warrior’s Manifesto,” a guide to living out his last days fully. He needs just one more thing: the love of the beautiful Marisol. But as Pancho tracks down his sister’s murderer, he finds himself falling for Marisol as well . . .


And choices that seem right and straightforward become tender, tentative, real. While D.Q. faces his own crisis of doubt, Pancho is inexorably drawn to a decision to revenge his sister and her death, or to embrace the way of the Death Warrior and choose life.

I have such fantastically positive feelings towards this unexpected treasure that came my way, I am still bouncing up and down about it.

Our main character Pancho is bent on revenge. He is determined to find the killer responsible for the death of his sister. He's frustrated in his quest by the fact that a) no one is taking him seriously and b) he's been sent to live at St Anthony's (an orphanage) where he has to live until he is old enough to make her own way in the world.

The fact that he implicitly believes that his sister was murdered is such an all consuming thought for Pancho that nothing else matters. He knows he'll kill the person responsible, once he finds him. He practically knows his life is over and he's fatalistic about it and almost comes to see himself as untouchable, a dead man walking.

Pancho's strength of character in this novel is amazing. I genuinely rolled my eyes when I read the write-up about this thinking, oh wow, this is going to be a dull one dimensional character blah blah. And boy, I couldn't have been more wrong. Pancho, we discover is this truly complex, wonderfully sullen but smart kid. He's not stupid, but because he is tall and athletic he knows he looks the part of the dumb kid who is going straight to jail, someone who drinks and smokes and who is on the cusp of joining some kind of Latino gang, yet, he's anything but. I loved this contradictory character so much. Especially when he's faced with his nemesis: DQ.

DQ is a fellow boarder at St Anthony's. DQ is actually there by choice, unlike most of the other boys. DQ's mum left him there, as she went off to find herself, after a disastrous nervous breakdown. DQ, it turns out is super intelligent and deeply funny. He is also dying. And the very moment Pancho turns up at St Anthony's, DQ knows that Pancho is going to be his guy, the one who will be sticking with him and helping him prepare for the inevitable.

The author writes these two characters so well. There is an honesty here that had me gulping back tears. Emotions are raw, and the real-life situations they find themselves in are heartstoppingly achingly real and in some instances, cringeworthy.

We follow Pancho as he slowly but surely pieces together the story behind his sister's death. As we witness the variety of emotions he goes through, peppered with his thoughts about his future, what could be, what it will be and coupled with DQ's growing reliance on Pancho as a helper, Pancho's character genuinely runs the gamut of emotions.

I can't think of anything more awful, for someone to know the inevitable outcome of their life-story and yet feeling that they have to continue on that route, because what else is out there for them?

This is true for both Pancho and DQ. DQ's character is the easiest one to identify with and have empathy for. His illness is awful and debilitating and although very few of us can imagine what it must be like, we can put ourselves in a situation like that because we've all at one time been ill enough to think "oh my god, I'm dying." Contrasted with the vigilante in the making Pancho, I think very few of us ever felt strongly motivated enough to want to kill someone to the point where you don't care what's going to happen to yourself after the fact, and that is where Pancho's character holds us off for a while.

Our two characters are wise and funny throughout. Pancho doesn't like talking and he doesn't like focussing on thinking, but being around DQ he can't help but stop and think. And he doesn't necessarily like it. Their banter is very funny and deeply moving. As their friendship grows and DQ's illness becomes worse due to treatment, Pancho is there to help out. Stoic and a bit annoyed by it all, but he does it and is probably initially not sure why he's doing it.

When DQ's mum turns up, insisting that he comes back with her to live at her new home with her new husband on their beautiful new homestead, DQ rebels and acts out, demanding that Pancho come with him. Pancho is not at all keen as he thinks DQ's mum is more than just a bit nuts and he gets that she doesn't understand her son at all.

They strike a compromise and DQ and Pancho eventually move in with his mum. I winced when DQ's mum showed what she thought of Pancho by making him bunk with the farm-help. DQ stands up to her and we have the two friends bunking together. There follows some deeply surreal bits where his mum insists that DQ take part in some kind of holistic healing and things go not entirely the way she wants it to. But completely the way we, as the readers, want it to go.

Of course, I've hugely simplified this story, there is much much more to it, including a girl, a knife fight, gangster confrontations and boxing oh, and rickshaw rides. Trust me. It works.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is a tour de force of what writing for teens can be like when you create characters that leap off the page with a plot and sub-plot that weaves and intermingles so coherently and in a realistic fashion, that it feels like you are right there.

If you read one teen novel this year, read this.

Find Francisco X Stork's website here. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is out from Scholastic in June later this year.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff


Willie Cooper arrives on the doorstep of her ancestral home in Templeton, New York in the wake of a disastrous affair with her much older, married archaeology professor. That same day, the discovery of a prehistoric monster in the lake brings a media frenzy to the quiet, picture-perfect town her ancestors founded. Smarting from a broken heart, Willie then learns that the story her mother had always told her about her father has all been a lie. He wasn't the one - night stand Vi had led her to imagine, but someone else entirely. As Willie puts her archaeological skills to work digging for the truth about her lineage, a chorus of voices from the town's past rise up around her to tell their sides of the story. Dark secrets come to light, past and present blur, old mysteries are finally put to rest, and the surprising truth about more than one monster is revealed.

I fell in love with this cover, then read the write-up on the back and I had to read it. And I am so incredibly pleased that I did. Sometimes books come along and they make you feel richer for having read them. The Monsters of Templeton is a book like that, for me.

A straight literary novel with an unexpectedly quirkiness to it, it really managed to get under my skin. I desperately, keenly, wanted to find out about the prehistoric monster, I wanted to find out why Willie’s heart was broken, I wanted to find out who the other monsters were in the book but most importantly, I wanted to find out what the dark secrets were!

Lauren Groff, the author, was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers in 2008 and so she’s not someone whose name I recognised outright. I do sometimes think it’s good going in not knowing much about the book, the writing, the author. I closed my eyes and plunged in.

Groff’s writing is yum. Chapter One opens with: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”

Wow. Amazing first line. And it only gets better. “It was one of those strange purple dawns that color July there, when the bowl made by the hills fills with a thick fog and even the songbirds sing timorously, unsure of day or night.”

It’s hard for me to explain what makes this book work for me. I suppose it’s a combination of the luxurious writing, the really funny instances in the novel when Willie is determined to show her mum that she has trouble with her mom (an ex hippy) dating a preacher, the almost dream-like quality of Willie’s thoughts about the trouble she finds herself in (trying to run down your married lover’s wife with a plane is not a good thing), and then the challenge her mum sets her: try and figure out who your dad really is.

As Willie uses all her skills as researcher and scholar, she uncovers a plethora of backstory from her family’s past and the inhabitants of Templeton. Here we segue into chapters that vary dramatically in voice and tone, as the author uses letters and diary entries to tell the story of various people from Willie's rather large and extended family and other players in Templeton’s history.

My mind boggled as I read these – just how did Ms. Groff keep it all straight and level in her head as she wrote it? These chapters could so easily have changed the pace of the novel, made it a dull read and perhaps distance the reader, but instead we have a rich tapestry that luxuriously drapes over you and draws you snugly into the narrative.

Look, I’m probably still too in love with Monsters of Templeton, a month after reading it, but you guys should know me by now. I’ll be honest about things. If you want something very different and wonderful to read, check this out of the library or invest some cash in buying a copy. Vividly quirky and richly evocative and utterly real, Monsters of Templeton stands as one of my favourite reads of 2010. Eventhough it was published back in 2008!

Also, the ending is really good. Really good. I was smiling through my tears. I just had to add that.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Heroes of the Space Marines - Legends of the Space Marines - (various)

Space Marines epitomise the war-torn Warhammer 40,000 universe. These short story collections focus entirely on these superhuman warriors, telling high action tales of heroism and savagery.

I decided to read these two anthologies back-to-back, for no real reason other than I thought it would make a neat two-for-the-price-of-one feature; the stories in the anthologies are all stand alone and make for bite sized forays into the battle-drenched world of 40K, although Nick Kyme’s Salamanders feature in both books, tying in with his Tome of Fire trilogy; his story “Fires of War” serves as a prequel to Salamander and his Tome of Fire trilogy.

I have to admit that I was expecting the stories to revolve around singular Space Marine heroes- there are characters in 40K lore whose names stand out from the rest and I was expecting (a.k.a hoping) that the anthology would be exploring their rise to legendary status; this was re-kindled when I saw “Legends” was on its way, but it was not to be (but then The Horus Heresy is already covering a lot of this ground one way or the other).

The ten stories that share the 408 pages of Heroes are a good mix of stories, opening with Graham McNeill’s “The Skull Harvest” which follows the continuing story revolving around Honsou, the enigmatic foe that features in his Ultramarines series. The stories race along nicely, averaging no more than 50 odd pages apiece (apart from Nick Kyme, who checks in at a greedy 79 pages, although it’s no hardship to remain in the Salamanders’ company for that bit longer).

My favourite offering of Heroes though has to be Steve Parker’s "Headhunted", which follows a Deathwatch kill-team as they board an Ork hulk and hunt down the Boss. The Deathwatch are a really cool concept, an elite, secretive group recruited from any of the loyalist Space Marines chapters and tasked with hunting down the most dangerous foes of mankind. It’s atmospheric, the characters are interesting, and it conveys a real sense of deadly urgency and danger- and does it all in 53 pages.

Legends, blessed with some fabulous cover art, weighs in at heftier 539 pages which are again shared amongst 10 stories and a wide variety of legions. It keeps to the same formula, providing a good mix of stories from different perspectives, with Paul Kearney’s The Last Detail being the one that stands out for me. Set in the aftermath of a titanic battle between the loyalist Dark Hunters and the chaos tainted Punishers, it follows the story of a native boy and his father as they uncover a survivor amongst the carnage, a setup that serves as a canvas for Paul to show the gulf between the Marines and the people who they are ultimately there to protect.

On the flip side, CS Goto's "The Trial of the Mantis Warriors" could have benefited from a tighter edit. Revolving around the thoughts of the Chaper Master of the Mantis Warriors as he is interrogated for alledged heresy, it drops into flashbacks of the events leading to the heresy which can work well. However, there's a deluge of new characters, places and Chapters in short order, and it's hard going figuring who fits where and who's doing what. I got it in the end, but only after going back and forth several times to work it out.

Overall, I really enjoyed these- the short stories are great for quick reads when commuting and the like, and each sports a good variety of stories that keeps them interesting, preventing them from becoming ten stories of different Space Marines shooting different aliens.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Blood Rock - James Jackson

1565, Malta - and the greatest siege the world has ever known.

The legendary Hospitaller Knights of St John stand alone on the island of Malta against the tide of Islam. The Ottoman Emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent, has sent the greatest armada that ever set sail to wipe them off the face of the earth. Time is running out . There is a traitor among them. Malta's doom is sealed.

But one man will never yield. Englishman Christian Hardy will stop at nothing to save the island. With a band of close companions- the Moor, a genius inventor of demonic weapons, Luqa, a young orphan set on becoming Christian's protégé, Hubert, his longstanding friend and spiritual counsellor and Maria, a beautiful noblewoman who rejects the sanctuary of Sicily to be with him. With the help of these steadfast comrades, Christian must now summon all his courage to face an unbeatable enemy, and change the course of history . . .

When we were in Malta last year, I spied a copy of Blood Rock on a rack in the supermarket and congratulated myself on spotting a promising looking holiday read; unfortunately the price tag of 18 euros put me off and I returned it to the dusty rack it probably still calls home.

A couple of weeks ago I glimpsed a copy of it on a bookshelf and promptly bought it- there was a feel of ‘unfinished business’ about it. Armed with my memories of Valetta, I cracked it open and met the main character, one Christian Hardy, a roguish figure with a chequered past and a ready sword.

Soon enough, Hardy is drawn into the Great Siege by notions of honour, duty and the unspoken promise of a beautiful woman. Battle is soon joined and Hardy appears to be in his element as he pushes himself to the edge against the invading Turks. But a traitor lurks amongst the Order, dispensing poison and betrayal from the shadows; the ranks of those Hardy can trust thin as the Siege builds to its climax.

However, for all of the action and the intrigue, I felt quite ambivalent towards Hardy and the fates of his comrades. Considering his role as the hero, his character isn’t really explored, leaving him a bit.. flat. The supporting cast of characters suffer from the same dereliction, which left me struggling to find a reason to root for them. Added to this, while the deprivations and the acts of desperate heroism of the Great Siege are well documented, the action is robbed of its chance to redeem the story as much of its potency is lost by being largely glossed over and Hardy’s seeming indifference to the terrible danger and suffering around him.

Unfortunately, all things considered I have to say that if asked to recommend something for this period or setting, I’d point you in the direction of Tom Willocks’ The Religion.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Radiant Shadows by Melissa Marr


The events of Fragile Eternity have left the faery world off-balance, its key players fighting to maintain control over their world - and its secrets... Devlin lives in a world where everything is beautiful, ordered... and cruel. As a prominent member of the High Court and a half-brother to Sorcha, the High Queen, he's one of the most powerful faeries of the old guard. Ani lives in a world where every line is blurred. Half human, half faery, half in the decadence of the Dark Court and half out of it, her life of dive bars, tattoos and street fights couldn't be farther from the clean lines of the High Court.

But you can't choose where your heart will take you, and when Devlin and Ani meet, two extremes of the faery world collide - with passion, violence and heat; for better - and for worse ...

I don't know about you but whenever a longed for sequel in a series is published I experience a range of feelings; nervous that I won't love it and increasingly sad as I read that it will be over soon. Or will I feel disappointed? Like I said, lots of feelings.
I had a little shimmy through Fragile Eternity to remind myself of the events that lead up to this one. Marr has a brilliant talent to show enough of characters in previous books that they don't feel like strangers in the next. As a result I felt I had an idea who Devlin was. He and Ani take the limelight in this book and I warmed to them both immediately.

All I knew about Ani from previous books was that she's the irrepressible daughter of Gabriel. Gabriel is head of the hunt and Ani has inherited more from him than her human mother. In Radiant Shadows we find that Ani is changing and that her blood means that she's potentially deadly. I was used to Dark Court fae feeding themselves upon the emotions of others but Ani is an anomaly, she can feed from both emotions and touch - a dangerous combination. As a result more than a few fae want her dead and the likes of Irial are experimenting on her to discover how she can help the Dark Court. Unfortunately for Ani she had attracted the attention of Sorcha - ruler of the High Court and her twisted sister Bananach, the terrifying bird-like faery who is becoming more deadly with each instalment.

Another main character in Radiant Shadows is Rae, a ghostly girl who wanders into faery and asks Devlin to protect her. He hides her away, his secret, telling no-one that she exists. She can take over his body and also walk within people's dreams. She isn't simply Devlin's friend though. Unbeknownst to him she befriends Ani in her dreams, willing the two to get together. Ani is a fabulous character; gutsy, reckless, loyal and frustrated by her limited role in life. She feels that she is changing, becoming less mortal and more hound with every passing day but her father won't take her seriously and scares away any potential partners. As soon as she meets Devlin the action picks up its pace and (as predicted by Rae) events begin to unroll. Their complicated relationship develops in a surprising way; Devlin is used to rules and following order whilst Ani can barely control her impulses.

Meanwhile Sorcha is a mess in this book. She took on a touch of mortality when she turned Seth into a faery which was evident at the end of Fragile Eternity. The end result is that Sorcha has lost interest in her land and disorder begins to intrude. I was intrigued by Bananach's motivation for taking Seth to Faery but in Radiant Shadows her motives become clearer and the road to war seems inevitable. I can only bow down to the intricate web of Marr's plot as decisions made in earlier books come out to play. There's one more book to go in the series and although Radiant Shadows has a satisfying conclusion there are still many unanswered questions.

In case anyone is wondering, Aislinn barely appears in this book. I must admit that I'm pleased as she did iritate me a little in the last book. I love Seth, so this has probably clouded my judgement a little but this argument is one for another day! In terms of female protagonists Ani is right up there alongside Leslie who I adored - oh, and Donia.

I loved Radiant Shadows and was sad to have finished. When the last book comes out I wonder if Marr would consider doing a book that delves deeper into the world and gives a little more background on characters like Rae or Niall. I'm envisaging a glorious coffee table type book with amazing drawings. Excuse me while I dream about that for a while.