Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest Blog - City's Son Extract from Tom Pollock

Mark and I randomly met this young chap on Twitter and then consequently at a few events around London.  It took me - yes I am slow - a little while to put things together, realising that he was that Tom Pollock who was being published by that Jo Fletcher Books.  

Subsequently, we've been chatting on and off and although MFB no longer take part in official blogtours, we wanted to make sure we tell our readers about Tom's upcoming novel - The City's Son.  We are big fans of urban fantasy and especially UF set in the UK and it so happens TCS is exactly that. 

Tom let us have an extract of his new novel, introducing us to the two female characters: Beth & Pencil. 

Chapter 2

‘Beth, come on,’ Pencil whispered, ‘we need to go.’
Beth studied the picture she’d sprayed on the tarmac of the playground. She flipped her aerosol over a couple of times in her hand. ‘Beth . . .’
‘It’s not finished yet, Pen,’ Beth said. In the dim backwash from the lights nearby she could just make out the Pakistani girl’s fingers worrying at her headscarf. ‘Don’t be chicken.’
Pencil paced fretfully back and forth. ‘Chicken? What are we, like ten? Have you been sniffing your own paints? I’m not kidding, B. If someone comes, this will get us expelled.’
Beth started shaking the spray can up. ‘Pen,’ she said, ‘it’s four a.m. School’s locked up. Even the rats have given up and gone home. We covered our faces from the cameras when we jumped the wall, but there’s sod all light there anyway. There’s no one around and we can’t be ID’d so what exactly are you worried about?’ Beth kept her voice calm, but there was a taut knot of excitement in her chest. She swept her torch over the picture at her feet. Her portrait of Dr Julian Salt, Frostfield High’s Head of Maths, was coming out well, better than she’d expected, especially for a rush job in the dark. She’d got his frowning eyebrows down perfectly, and the hollow cheeks and the opaque, threatening glasses. The weeds bursting through the tarmac added to the effect, looking like unkempt nasal hair.
In fairness, Beth had also given him necrotic peeling skin and a twelve-foot-long forked tongue, so she was obviously using some artistic licence, but still . . .
It’s unmistakably you, you shit.
‘Beth, look!’ Pen hissed, making Beth jump. ‘What?’
‘Up there—’ Pen pointed. ‘A light . . .’
Beth glanced up. One of the windows in the estate overlooking the school was glowing a soft, menacing orange. She exhaled irritably. ‘It’s probably just some old biddy going for a midnight wizz.’
‘We can be seen from there,’ Pen insisted.
‘Why would anyone even care?’ Beth muttered. She turned back to the picture. Everyone in year 12 at Frostfield knew she and Salt were enemies, but that was just the usual teacher-versus-student aggro, and it wasn’t why she was here. It was the way Salt treated Pen that demanded this retribution.
She didn’t know why, but he seemed to derive this vicious delight from humiliating her best friend. Salt had put Pen in maybe half the number of detentions he’d sentenced Beth to, but she was always like on the verge of tears when she came out of them. And in Monday’s maths lesson, when Pen had asked to go to the toilet, Salt had point-blank refused. He’d gone on talking about quadratic equations, but he hadn’t taken his eyes from Pen. There’d been this smile on his face as though he was daring her to defy him – as though he knew that she couldn’t. Pen’d kept her hand raised, but after a while her arm had started to shake. When she’d doubled-over with the pain of holding it in, Beth had dragged her bodily her from her chair and bundled her out of the room. As they ran down the corridor, they’d heard the laughter start.
Afterwards, standing behind the science block, Beth had asked, ‘Why didn’t you just leave? He couldn’t have stopped you, why not just walk out?’
Pen’s face was fixed in the clown-smile that meant she was panicking inside. ‘I just . . .’ She’d half swallowed the words, and kept her eyes fixed on her shoes. ‘I just thought every second that went by, if I could hold on just one more second, one more, it would be okay. And I wouldn’t have to . . . you know.’
Cross him. Beth had filled in the end of the sentence.
She’d hugged her friend close. Beth knew there was strength in Pen, she saw it every day, but it was a strength that withstood without ever resisting. Pen could soak up the blows but she never hit back.
It was then that Beth had decided that something needed to be done. And this – this was something.
She trained the beam of her torch onto the painting and the tension in her chest was replaced by a warm glow of satisfaction. A nightmare in neon, she thought. Ugly suits you, Doc.
‘Beth Bradley,’ Pen whispered. She still sounded scared, but this time she also sounded a little reverential. ‘You are a proper grade-A nutcase.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ Beth said, a smile creeping onto her face. ‘But I am really good—’
A high-pitched whine cut through the night: police sirens, fast approaching. Instinctively Beth dropped to a crouch and yanked her hood up over her short, messy hair.
‘Bloody hell,’ Pen whispered, her voice panicky, ‘I told you they’d seen us! They must have called it in – they probably think we’re here to steal something.’
‘Like what?’ Beth muttered back. ‘The canteen’s secret recipe for mouse-turd pie? It’s not like the school’s got anything worth nicking.’
Pen tugged Beth’s sleeve. ‘Whatever – we need to get out of here.’
Beth yanked her sleeve away and dropped to both knees, frantically adding extra shading to the jaw-line. This had to be just right.
‘B, we need to go!’ Pen was hopping from foot to foot in agitation.
‘Then go,’ Beth hissed.
‘I’m not going without you.’ Pen sounded offended.
Beth didn’t look up. ‘Pen, if you don’t get running, and I mean right now, I’ll tell
Leon Butler it was you who Tipp-Exed that poem on his desk.’
There was a moment’s shocked silence, then, ‘Bitch,’ Pen breathed.
‘Leon, my lion, I would be all your pride. And not merely in it . . .’ Beth quoted in a
sing-song whisper. She couldn’t help grinning as Pen took off, swearing under her breath. Beth got her feet up under her, ready to run even while she drew. The sirens were
really close now. Waaaoooh— The whine soared once more, then cut off in mid-cycle. She heard car doors open and then slam. There was a rattling on the gates behind her. The school was locked up and the cops were climbing in just like she and Pen had. Beth sprayed colour into a fat cluster of warts under one eye.
The shout sent a jolt of fear down her spine. Gross enough, she thought. She stuffed her stencils and paints back into her rucksack, snapped off the torch and ran. Heavy boots thudded on the tarmac behind her, but she didn’t look back, there was no point in showing them her face. She sprinted with her head down, the wind rushing in her ears, praying that the police behind would be laden down with stab vests and truncheons, praying she’d be faster.
She looked up, and panic clutched at her gut. The cops were chasing her into a dead end. The highest wall in the school reared in front of her. It backed onto the dense tangle of scrub and trees around the train tracks: ten smooth, unclimbable feet of it. She drove her legs harder, trying desperately to build momentum, and jumped.

More extracts can be found at the blogs below during the next few days. 

Wednesday - Fantasy FactionThursday (Release Day!) - Pornokitsch

Monday, July 30, 2012

Shut Out by Kody Keplinger


Most high school sports teams have rivalries with other schools. At Hamilton High, it's a civil war: the football team versus the soccer team. And for her part, Lissa is sick of it. Her quarterback boyfriend, Randy, is always ditching her to go pick a fight with the soccer team or to prank their locker room. And on three separate occasions Randy's car has been egged while he and Lissa were inside, making out. She is done competing with a bunch of sweaty boys for her own boyfriend's attention

Then Lissa decides to end the rivalry once and for all: She and the other players' girlfriends go on a hookup strike. The boys won't get any action from them until the football and soccer teams make peace. What they don't count on is a new sort of rivalry: an impossible girls-against-boys showdown that hinges on who will cave to their libidos first. But what Lissa never sees coming is her own sexual tension with the leader of the boys, Cash Sterling…

I have huge love for Kody Keplinger but was very late reading The Duff. Once I had though I ordered her other two books as quickly as possible. I adore her heroines; flawed, damaged and real. Initially, Lissa doesn't seem to fit this mould - after all she has a steady boyfriend in Randy and seems grounded and mature. However, it isn't long before the cracks appear. Her mother died in an accident that left her dad in a wheelchair. Desperate to ensure that nothing awful befalls her family again she craves control. However, she suffers from severe anxiety - her need to keep everything ticking over almost overwhelms her. Her adult brother doesn't tell her where he's going and her dad keeps sneaking food he shouldn't have. To top it all off the soccer and football teams at Hamilton High have a longstanding rivalry that is seriously upsetting Lissa. Randy constantly leaves her to settle scores, even when they're having a bit of erm, alone time in his car.

And so the "hookup" strike begins. The girls band together in an attempt to stop the crazy rivalry after a soccer player gets seriously hurt. For me the book took off at this point. I already had a great deal of sympathy for Lissa before but her character is laid bare during the strike. With the help of best friend Chloe we start to see the person Lissa could be if she wasn't restrained by her need for control. Chloe is a fabulous character; quite open about her love of sex and often shunned by other girls at school because of it. However, as is always the way, the boys don't get criticised for being single and having multiple partners. In the many meet-ups that the girls have to coordinate their attack Chloe is often openly attacked for her lifestyle. Chloe, the opposite to Lissa, refuses to let these attacks effect her and stands up for herself. I think it's interesting and refreshing that the author didn't feel the need to give Chloe a moral storyline and she allowed Chloe to stay true to herself throughout.

Of course the main part of this story is Lissa, Randy and Chase. I thought I pretty much understood her and Randy's relationship from the beginning but I was mistaken. Then there's Chase who surprised me by not being someone who I would have picked for Lissa. Normally it's pretty clear how things are going to go but I really wasn't sure about Chase to begin with. As the plot progresses Lissa loses sight of her goals and gets blindsided her own personal agenda. I loved this part of the plot, it really illustrated how driven she was. As she starts to step out of her confines she makes a few mistakes at first but the ending is wonderful. Shut Out was a bit of a slow grower for me but at about the one third point I couldn't put it down. The only sad thing is that now I have to wait for a new Kody Keplinger book to be published.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

It was like a nightmare, but there was no waking up.

When the night began, Nora had two best friends and a boyfriend she adored. When it ended, she had nothing but blood on her hands. Chris was dead. Adriane couldn’t speak. And Max, Nora’s sweet, smart, soft-spoken Prince Charming, was gone. He was also—according to the police, according to her parents, according to everyone—a murderer.

Desperate to prove his innocence, Nora’s determined to follow the trail of blood, no matter where it leads. But Chris’s murder is just one piece in a puzzle that spans continents and centuries. Solving it may be the only way she can save her own life.

The Book of Blood and Shadows really took me by surprise, for many reason.  I know my Tudor history and I have read a lot of books on John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and magician / wizard, which is why I knew who Edward Kelley was.  None of this will make sense to you until you sit down and read the book, but Edward Kelley is deemed to have been a charlatan, a hoaxer who brought a lot of the sciences of the day in disrepute.  So it came as a surprise to me that one of the characters in the book, through letters, is Elizabeth Weston (his step-daughter) and it was interesting to see how Ms. Wasserman gave a different slant on Kelley to what I've heard of in the past.

The Book of Blood and Shadows surrounds Nora and her friends translating Latin works as extra credit towards starting university.  It was really interesting seeing how well Ms. Wasserman set up the scenes, allowing us to see and assume what we do as the novel starts off.  As we follow Nora quite closely, we are very involved with her own discoveries, as she translates the letters of Elizabeth Weston, the daughter of the woman who married Edward Kelley and followed him to Prague.  The work is given to Nora to do as it was low-key and deemed unimportant by the professor they worked for as it was written by a mere woman.   Nora swallowed the insult, mentioning a few times that she was the better translator, compared to Max and Chris, yet because she was the girl, she was given a rubbish job...or so it would seem.  As she falls deeper and deeper into the mystery contained within Elizabeth's writings, we are drawn closer into conspiracies, mysterious societies, plots and mysteries European cities.

I enjoyed The Book of Blood and Shadow but I worry that YA readers who aren't used to the (I don't want to use the word formula as it isn't quite that) patterns / beats that are hit when thrillers / quest novels are written, might lose interest as it's not action all the time with a lot of time spent on exposition and the reading of letters and proposing mad theories.  I realise too that it sounds like I'm saying YA readers only want action, which is utter tosh, of course, but it's not your average YA novel, that's the thing, so I urge readers who pick this up and think they're not getting what's been promised, to keep reading as it will surprise you.

Nora is a very complex character, a mouse really, who undergoes this great character arc by the end of the novel, setting us up for a sequel or two.  Questions raised in the novel get answered but not all of them, there are a few reveals, some of which are obvious, some of which aren't.  Most of all though, I finished reading TBOB&S and I wanted to travel back to Prague.  Like Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, this book is steeped in location, location, location.  You cannot shake it off and it stays with you longer than the characters, to be honest.  To me, the places Ms. Wasserman describes became further characters in the book, and that is no mean feat for any writer to accomplish.

Give The Book of Blood and Shadow a try, stick with it - it is richly researched and can come across as a bit dry in places, but once you start putting together the clues in the book, and as Nora races to complete the task she takes on, you'll find yourself leaning into it, wondering more about the mystery behind it all and how much of it is real, and how much of it is made up.

Find Robin's website here and here is her introduction over at Atom's website about her novel.

US Cover which is very creepy! Look into her eye!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dead Rules by R.S. Russell


When high school junior Jana Webster dies suddenly, she finds herself in Dead School, where she faces choices that will determine when she, a Riser, will move on, but she strives to become a Slider instead, for the chance to be with the love of her life--even if it means killing him.

I heard about this book on Twitter and the lovely Emma from Book Angel Booktopia sent me her copy (thank you!). I've only just managed to get round to reading it but wow, if ever a book was right up my street it's this one. It follows the story of Jana Webster, of Webster and Haynes. The Haynes here is Michael Haynes, Jana's serious boyfriend and together they're the perfect couple. The book opens to find Jana on a bus. She's not sure what she's doing there or why she's wearing a uniform she doesn't recognise. All around her are weird looking kids who appear to be wounded or damaged in some way. In her first class she meets Beatrice who has a yard dart sticking out of her head. Yep, Jana fell, died and when she "woke up" she found herself in Dead School.

Jana clearly has a lot to deal with what with being dead and knowing that Michael is still alive instead of by her side. She soon learns that she's a "Riser," one of the good kids as apposed to a "Slider" who died doing something bad. The Sliders are closer to earth but as a result can have more of a presence in the physical world. If Jana wants to put things back to how she feels they should be she needs to rejoin Michael by killing him. At the beginning of the book I didn't really have much sympathy for Jana's quest. I definitely felt bad about her predicament - Dead School has all sorts of rules that make her existence monotonous and constricting. But as the book develops we find out more about her history, her model mother and her self-imposed solitude which made me feel for her.

Meanwhile, in the land of the living Michael and his friends are carrying on. Without giving away too much of the plot I really didn't foresee the way everything unfolded. It's beautifully done too - there's an offhand comment here, a curious action by a character there. Gradually, Jana is forced to confront the truth. I may not have liked Jana all the way through this book but I had to admire her single-minded determination. She's used to being alone so doesn't worry about conforming the way the other Risers do. As a result she's an interesting main character. I need to add a word about Mars Dreamcote, Dead School attendee and Slider. He feels a connection to Jana and although she is committed to Michael there's definitely something between them. He takes Jana under his wing and encourages her to see outside of the confines of Dead School consider the possibilities of her new existence. His story is as engaging as Jana's and I'm really wishing for a sequel to this but I've searched everywhere and found no news of one yet.

I found Dead Rules very addictive. I wasn't sure if it was because of the way that pupils' death stories are gradually revealed or whether it was Jana's dawning realisation that her life wasn't quite as she imagined. Ghoulish yet amazing, a real revelation and I loved every page.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Punisher: Girls In White Dresses by Greg Hurwitz & Lawrence Campbell

In black vans and under cover of night, they descend on the little Mexican town of Tierra Rota, abducting its women and returning them days later like broken dolls. And no one can stop them. That is, until one brave soul approaches Frank Castle with his heart in one hand and a bag full of money in the other.

Now Frank's no bounty hunter, and definitely no hero, but there are some things the Punisher just can't abide..

I've been a Punisher fan for a long time; I've never really gotten comfortable with the spandex and eye-laser brigade.  The likes of Judge Dredd, Batman and Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, have always been my comic book heroes. But, truth be told, Mr Castle and I had a bit of a falling out a few years back after some storylines strayed into silly territory and put me off. Then a quiet conversation at a signing at Orbital Comics steered my towards Garth Ennis' Punisher Max series and all was forgiven. It was a real running-towards-each-other-in-a-meadow kind of moment and I haven't looked back yet.

So naturally, when I find myself opening a Punisher by a artist or writer I've not read before, it's with the kind of expression usually reserved for new fathers changing their first nappy.

The thing you notice about the trade paperback of GIWD is that the style of the cover art bears no resemblance to the dark, brooding menace that Laurence Campbell's stylish mastery of shadows evokes within. It's the perfect match to Greg Hurwitz's tight, almost spartan, but nonetheless eloquent script and they mesh smoothly, letting the story breathe and develop, even when nothing is being said. The colouring is also spot on- the muted shades used complement and emphasise the sharp contrasts of Campbell's art. And thus, saving myself a thousand words:

Their Punisher is a dark and almost elemental presence, haunted by his memories and the knowledge that the war he has chosen to fight is without end. There are no pithy one-liners or outrageous heroics here, just a methodical and pitiless tightening of the noose. Given the fallout of the gang wars coming out of Mexico on a depressingly regular basis, there's really no other way it should be played. It's as violent and gritty as I want my Punisher to be, but more than that it's the look 'behind the curtains' into the reservoir of simmering rage that drives Frank Castle, and the fallout when the lines in his black-and-white, good-vs-evil universe blur. It's that connection, that glimpse of the man behind the skull that lifts GIWD to something special and has earned it a pride of place on my shelves. Most awesome indeed.

You can visit Greg Hurwitz's site here, or Laurence Campbell's here (he's also on twitter as @getcampbell).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter

Katarina Bishop has worn a lot of labels in her short life. Friend. Niece. Daughter. Thief.  But for the last two months she’s simply been known as the girl who ran the crew that robbed the greatest museum in the world. That’s why Kat isn’t surprised when she’s asked to steal the infamous Cleopatra Emerald so it can be returned to its rightful owners.

There are only three problems.  First, the gem hasn’t been seen in public in thirty years.  Second, since the fall of the Egyptian empire and the suicide of Cleopatra, no one who holds the emerald keeps it for long, and in Kat’s world, history almost always repeats itself.  But it’s the third problem that makes Kat’s crew the most nervous and that is simply… the emerald is cursed.

Kat might be in way over her head, but she’s not going down without a fight. After all she has her best friend—the gorgeous Hale—and the rest of her crew with her as they chase the Cleopatra around the globe, dodging curses, realizing that the same tricks and cons her family has used for centuries are useless this time.

Which means, this time, Katarina Bishop is making up her own rules.

I have so much love for Ally Carter's Heist Society novels.  This is the second novel in what I hope will be a multiple-book series.

The above write-up pretty much tells you the set-up.  I was shocked to find the thieving nearly done before we were halfway through the book...I thought: what the hell, Ally? What's the rest of the story going to be about? See, the previous Heist Society took practically the entire book for them to break into the museum and steal the painting and see the end of their nightmare situation.  In Uncommon Criminals, we see them do the deed pretty swiftly and it left me wondering...but then, Ally being Ally and a sneaky writer, pulls the rug from under her readers and more importantly, Kat, and hey presto, the con is on, again.

The thing that makes Katarina Bishop such a great character is how much internal conflict she has.  She comes from an entire family of thieves and con artists.  She wants to be a normal girl, but nothing about her is normal.  No one in her life allows her to be normal - she is a product of the society she's grown up in.  And even if she's trying to fool herself into thinking that she's being a thief for the good, a thief is still a thief.  Married with this internal conflict, is the feelings she has for the lovely Hale.  I love how strong Hale is, how completely competent and how he seems to have his very own story and it might not be the happiest of stories.  It is so easy to see how the two of them should fit together, yet there are obstacles, mostly of their own making.

Happy sigh. And lets not forget the actual conning and thieving.  It's handled really well, with a deft touch by Ms. Carter and we are left wondering "will this work?" and what I like the most is the way the plans come together and how quick they are to improvise and do clever things.

This isn't a long review.  It doesn't need to be.  If you've read any of Ally's books, you'll know she's a great writer.  If you haven't, give it a whirl.  Her Gallagher books are hugely popular for younger teen readers whereas Heist Society is maybe aimed for a bit older.  Also, I'd hasten to add, it's a great book to hand over to boys who like reading - hopefully the cover won't make them run a mile, but let me just say: if I were a boy, I'd want Kat on my team when it comes to planning logistics for an invasion. She has plans for her plans.  

My only regret is reading this so quickly - because it's a very very long wait until the next book - 5th February 2013 which just so happens to be my birthday.  *pointed look*

However, you lucky bunch of readers, here's a link to the opening chapter of Uncommon Criminals.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Seeing by Diana Hendry


"What gave me a sudden shiver was the notion that there were two of me. The little sister me, who was good and mostly kind; the girl Alice and Dottie knew. And then there was this other me, the one lurking inside me, eager for danger and risk, for something that could be as wild as the sea in winter. For Natalie."

Nothing ever seems to happen in the quiet, respectable seaside town of Norton. The war is over, and everyone's thrilled to be living peacefully - everyone but thirteen-year-old Lizzie, who's so bored she feels like she could scream. Until wild, dangerous, break-all-the-rules Natalie arrives. Lizzie is drawn irresistibly to the exciting new girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and as the girls grow closer over the summer, Lizzie discovers a new side to the town - and to herself - that she had never imagined before.

Natalie and her young brother, Philip, let Lizzie in on a secret. Despite what everyone thinks, the danger of war is still hanging over them. Philip has a 'second sight', and all around him he sees evil: apparently innocent people, hiding in this quiet town until the time is right for revenge. Natalie and Philip call them 'Left-Over Nazis'. It's up to them to root these people out and force them out of Norton. Lizzie is swept up in what begins as an exciting game, but as the children begin to target their neighbours, the consequences of Philip's 'gift' spiral quickly out of control.

A chilling, powerful tale that will linger with you long after the final page, from Whitbread Award-winner Diana Hendry.

I first heard about The Seeing at the Random House Book Blogger's Brunch and thought it sounded like an eerie tale. Ironically my mum would have been a year younger than Lizzie was in 1956 and know from the stories she's told that the fifties were no picnic. Rationing only ended in 1954 and the war was still raw in people's memories. However, it's only a year until Harold Macmillan says we've, "Never had it so good," so truly an odd time. Lizzie and Natalie can't remember the war but the signs of it are all around them. It's also a difficult time for both of our main characters but for different reasons. Lizzie's sister Lal is about to get married and is an adult now leaving Lizzie feeling left out and just a kid. Natalie is new to the area but her dad was a casualty of the war and she's obviously being neglected by her mother. The two form an unlikely friendship and from this point the story spirals into one initially of unease and then later downright danger.

The prologue tells us that something terrible is going to happen but the author weaves such a spell that I spent most of the book in a state of dread. Thirteen is a difficult time and Lizzie is keen to get away from her safe existence; she abandons old friends and is overjoyed when Natalie shows an interest in her. Where Lizzie has a comfortable and well-off life, Natalie is obviously poor and where Lizzie is quiet and obedient Natalie is wild. But Natalie does take notice of Lizzie and with eight-year-old Philip they begin the, "game," of rooting out LON's or Left-Over Nazi's. This involves Philip having a vision and Natalie interpreting it to identify the person hiding in the community pretending to be normal. Once they find their target they expose them by sending them letters or bullying them as they go about their business. This obviously has a life-altering effect on the individual but Natalie sees it as her duty and Lizzie is happy to go along with her.

From this point onwards the book is nothing but dark and disturbing. It becomes clear that Natalie's motivation is her awful home life and the loss of her father. Philip is haunted by the, "bastard uncles," who visit his mother but also seems to have some real psychic talent which adds an element of mystery to the story. For Lizzie's part she's struggling with the girl that everyone sees from the outside and the part of her inside that feels different, who wants more than the quiet safe life that she endures. But as the story progresses and Lizzie and Philip start to think for themselves, Natalie becomes more unpredictable.

The Seeing is a slim book of less than two hundred pages but that doesn't detract from a truly powerful tale. I loved that the story was part first person point of view from Lizzie, part diary-entry from Natalie with added letters from a painter on the beach to his sister. The painter - Hugo - gives an interesting adult view to the events making the story all the more macabre.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian

England is at war with itself. King Charles and Parliament each gather soldiers to their banners. Across the land men prepare to fight for their religious and political ideals.
Civil war has begun. A war that will rip families asunder and change everything. 

You know, if learning about things you were generally clueless about was always this much fun, the world might be a shinier place than it is right now. Sadly, that’s not going to happen, but at least history stands a chance with writers like this championing it.
I’ll freely admit that what I knew about the English civil war before opening The Bleeding Land could have been jotted down on the back of a postage stamp. It wasn’t on our school curriculum other than in a passing mention; two, perhaps three sentences to sum up such a bitter conflict. So I opened the covers with equal parts anticipation and trepidation- the last thing I wanted to find lurking in there was a political thriller. Intrigue, innuendo and the thousand possible meanings of a smouldering stare are wasted on me.
I really should've known better.
There’s a line from a Marilyn Manson ditty that goes ‘the death of one is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic’ – it’s an insidious but undeniable truth. The reality of war loses its sting when it’s rendered down into faceless numbers. The battle of Stalingrad saw at least 1,970,600 casualties. It’s just a number you skim over. But each one of those was a life, each with its own story and The Bleeding Land, while set in a time of epic conflict, isn’t about the numbers. Far from it. It’s about a family caught up in that conflict, about the awful decisions they’re forced to make as the world they know crumbles around them and allegiances, both old and new, become matters to fight -or die- for. It’s about the all too real complexities and emotional toll of trying to balance heart against mind. And it was that solid grounding, combined with well realised characters which drew me in and made me care and coloured every single action sequence with tension.
The story centres on the fate of Edmund and Tom Rivers as they are drawn into the gritty, sordid reality of that war, and the consequences of the decisions that set them on different paths. Paths that you know are destined to collide and most likely with tragic results. Anyone who’s read Giles’ Raven series (and if you haven’t , you should, asap) will know how good he is at bringing his characters to life, and TBL proves no exception.  The mad heroism is scaled back, and the pace is a steady one rather than the headlong rush of that series, but TBL is a different animal and the story benefits from it. The scope, research and smooth delivery that made Raven impossible to either ignore or put down shines through again, vividly evoking the chaos of battle and bloody glory of the age in with a definite and unmistakeable energy.
Marvellous stuff all round.
Buy it! Read it! 

You can read our wee interview with Giles here, visit his website here or watch the amazing trailer:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

US Cover 

Supernatural fantasy has a new antihero 

Life sucks, and then you die. 

Or, if you're James Stark, you spend eleven years in Hell as a hitman before finally escaping, only to land back in the hell-on-earth that is Los Angeles. Now Stark's back, and ready for revenge. And absolution, and maybe even love. But when his first stop saddles him with an abusive talking head, Stark discovers that the road to absolution and revenge is much longer than you'd expect, and both Heaven and Hell have their own ideas for his future. 

Resurrection sucks. Saving the world is worse.

I've come to Sandman Slim quite late - it's been on my radar for a while now and when I eventually succumbed, just before going on holiday, I could not believe I've waited this long.

Sandman Slim is simply put, balls to the wall fun - there is violence, bad words, more violence, a gripping storyline, a fantastic anti-hero (who I have a crush on, not sure what that says about me), and a world so rich, so diverse, it blew my socks off.  Also, the secondary characters are well developed, interesting and you know they have lives going on in the background rather than waiting around for Stark to turn up.

This is going to be a super short review of Sandman Slim - because basically I'd rather have you pick up the book and read it for yourself than read my tedious words of praise.  It's urban fantasy.  It's gritty, it feels real, it's sarcastic and mean and nasty in places but the thing that Kadrey manages to do is make you feel so much empathy for Stark that within a few pages of you starting Sandman Slim you are rooting for him...come hell or high water.

The writing is noirish, introspective, tough talking and in some instances, quite introspective and in others, staggeringly perceptive, sad and beautiful.  I loved all of Sandman Slim.  I love the mythology, I love that it takes place in LA and I love the elements of magic and realism and mysticism that's been used.

Kadrey deserves a pat on the back for giving us a fully fledged hero, flawed, charming, charismatic, rude, obnoxious and mouthy, yet very likeable and relatable.  Also, the set pieces are so well done - going from low key revelations (with bigger implications) to full blown Michael Bay explosions and action sequences, to quieter moments where blood has to be sluiced off and reality has to be checked.  I've bought the next 2 books to read on my kindle and can't wait to indulge.

UK Cover of first book 

Sandman Slim is for people who like Gaiman, Mike Carey's Lucifer and Felix Castor books, Ben Aaronivich's sequence of London based urban fantasy police procedurals and the Johannes Cabal books by Jonathan L Howard.  There were hints of The Crow, Constantine (the graphic novels rather, also by Mike Carey, better known as Hellblazer) and a bit of Mignola thrown in for good measure when it comes to the layered world that Stark inhabits.

Do yourself a favour, if you're not entirely sure about urban fantasy, but you like noir novels, pick up a copy of Sandman Slim.  You genuinely can't go wrong - the writing is superb and with a rich cast and a world that feels real enough to make you check under your bed and not trust a magician you see on TV as far as you can throw him, because you know, are you sure it's only done with special effects.....

Find Richard Kadrey's website here.  The Sandman Slim books are now out in the UK too, and these are the covers - which I quite like.  Pity I started with the first US edition...but now that I'm buying them on the kindle, I suppose it doesn't really matter...(goes to add the UK editions to her wish list regardless).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cover Love - Rosemary Clement Moore

I am a big old fan-girly fan of Rosemary Clement Moore's books - her writing is great, her romances are swoony, her main characters are funky and cool and different and fallible and sweet and I just lovely everything about her books.  Including her covers.

Just look at that picture - this is her brand new novel SPIRIT AND DUST that's coming next year. You know, I think even for those people who do not read, this cover will appeal.  Great job, publishing guys! I don't know if this is coming to the UK, I do hope so.  I am probably her maddest fan and tend to press her books into everyone's hands whenever I'm in Foyles or Waterstones. If you've fallen victim to me...I'm not sorry.

This is what the new book's all about:

Speaking to the dead is no new thing for Daisy Goodnight. The living, on the other hand, can occasionally be a problem. Especially when they knock you out, kidnap you, and force you to be their magical police dog. 
Donald Maguire—mob boss, extraordinaire—has a missing daughter and Daisy is his first choice to track her down. But he didn't actually ask her for help. When she woke up in his guest bedroom, she was told. But why her? And who--or what—in the world is the Black Jackal?

Find out more about Rosemary here.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Fright Forest: Elf Girl and Raven Boy by Marcus Sedgwick


From the creators of the Blue Peter award-winning Funniest Book with Pictures "Raven Mysteries" team, this is the first in a humorous and magical adventure series, "Raven Boy And Elf Girl", perfect for readers of 8+ about Raven Boy and Elf Girl's magical, humorous and creepy adventures as they battle to save the world. Eep...the adventure begins! Raven Boy has short black spiky hair, amazing night vision and can talk to animals. Elf Girl is light of foot, sharp of mind and...elfish all over. She hadn't expected to meet Raven Boy; it's not that often someone falls out of the trees and squashes your home flat like Raven Boy did. Before they know it they are plunged into some very strange, creepy, altogether spooky and hilarious adventures as they save their world from trolls, ogres, witches and things that slither and slide in the fiendish forest.

Not having read a book for younger readers in a while this title caught my eye. It sounded quirky, fun and potentially full of humour so I was looking forward to getting started. Raven Boy was quite happily sleeping in a tree (his favourite place to be) when he's rudely thrown out and lands on Elf Girl's hut, squashing it flat. Elf Girl is understandably upset with him but they have barely enough time to argue when another tree is mysteriously toppled towards them. Something definitely strange, dangerous and awful is happening in the forest - Elf Girl's family have disappeared, trees are being uprooted everywhere and they're both hungry and alone. Through necessity at first they team up, despite the fact that they spend more time bickering than anything else!

However, as the story progresses they find out more about each other. Each scrape and near-disaster brings out their individual strengths and they start to work together as a team. However, they still bicker - mostly about what Raven Boy's real name is and whether Elf Girl actually knows how to use her family's magic bow or not. It becomes clear that there's no one else prepared to get to the bottom of the whole disappearing forest problem. Together they overcome awful foe; trolls, witches, monsters and more. Both of them have special talents including Raven Boy's ability to speak to animals which leads to the inclusion of wonderful Rat into their team.

Fright Forest is full of magic but also lots of unanswered questions. Where is Raven Boy's family? Why has he never celebrated his birthday? I loved this book. I adored Rat, the camaraderie between the two main characters, the monster at the witches house and the trolls. I can't wait to read the next in the series so I can find out more about them all. Also, a word about the brilliant illustrations by Pete Williamson (who also did the illustrations for the Raven Mysteries) - they're absolutely perfect for the quirky nature of this book. I think the drawing of the landlady is my absolute favourite with her mad hair and pipe. The humour is perfect too - I loved the moment when Elf Girl accidentally kicks Raven Boy's ice-encased body down a hill. A brilliant start to a new series and I'm looking forward to Monster Mountains.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge

In the city of Lovecraft, the Proctors rule and a great Engine turns below the streets, grinding any resistance to their order to dust. The necrovirus is blamed for Lovecraft's epidemic of madness, for the strange and eldritch creatures that roam the streets after dark, and for everything that the city leaders deem Heretical—born of the belief in magic and witchcraft. And for Aoife Grayson, her time is growing shorter by the day.

Aoife Grayson's family is unique, in the worst way—every one of them, including her mother and her elder brother Conrad, has gone mad on their 16th birthday. And now, a ward of the state, and one of the only female students at the School of Engines, she is trying to pretend that her fate can be different.

I had the chance to read The Iron Thorn whilst on holiday in Marrakesh.  I'm not bragging about this, but want to explain how great writing can take you from your physical location and transport you to another place and time entirely, and make you forget that you are in one of the most exotic places on earth.  The Iron Thorn did that, with ease. 

One of the things (there are many) that CaitKitt excels at is world-building.  Rich and glorious, we are thrust page first into a hustling bustling Steampunk world where gears grind, mysterious machines run on steam and the hints of the something more, the something other is so well handled, I fell for it: hook, line and sinker.  Set in an alternate 1950's Massachusetts, the city we find ourselves in is called Lovecraft.  It's been a few weeks now since I've read The Iron Thorn but I can still remember snatches of the writing, the feeling it evoked of a world both foreign yet familiar.  It kept me off-kilter just enough to be able to easily identify with the characters as they move through the city, make their escape and leg it to Aoife's dad's home called Graystone.  All of this is to try and rescue Aoife's brother Conrad who had sent her a coded message, asking for her help. 

Through Aoife and her friend, Kal and their guide, Dean, we are shown a world that on the surface is upheld strongly, seemingly by sheer force of will by one man and his Proctors: Grey Draven. (I squealed with delight when I read the name because, you know The Crow reference made me ecstatic).  The world is divided by people who believe in all things mechanical and "normal" and logical...and then there are those who see the world as not quite a logical place.  These people are seen as enemies of the city of Lovecraft and they are actively sought out, interrogated and publicly executed. 

I desperately needed to know what Aoife's story was - what was this thing that is looming ahead of her when she turns sixteen? Will she really go insane? Is her mum completely mental and who are the Proctors really? And is her brother insane and where is he? And why did her dad disappear and never keep in touch with her? 

There are a lot of questions and the majority of them are answered by the end of The Iron Thorn but because of the way the book ends, we know we are in for a bumpy ride in the other two books that are due for release.  

When Aoife and the two boys turn up at Graystone we are very much worried for their well being.  Especially when we realise that actually, this deadly virus Aoife may/may not have, seems to be genuinely real and an actual threat.  As things are pieced together (best invention: Graystone, the clockwork house!) by Aoife and Dean, the bigger scale of their quest is revealed and what Aoife's task is. 

I'll admit it: this book is not for the lazy or faint-hearted.  CaitKitt expects you to keep up.  There is action, there is exposition, there is awful sexism that Aoife fights against (you go girl) to a certain extent and we know things are going to come to an ugly head sooner rather than later, there is a multi-layered BIG story at the core of this.  And of course, like Buffy, Aoife has the power to either destroy or save the world. 

I spoke to Mark about this extensively when I finished reading The Iron Thorn - the ending reminded me of the movie / graphic novel Watchmen where the world is brought to the brink of disaster and something awful happens, but for the good of the world.  In the end.  And I'm wondering if this is what The Iron Thorn was about? I don't know, but I want to know more. 

Full of great literary references, The Iron Thorn is a book for confident readers - be they YA or adult.  As I said, she expects you to keep up as she delves deep into the multiple layers of truth, history, myth and lies.  The alternative-world-mythos she created is complex, easily tying in with our own, but giving it enough of an eerie slant to make it feel creepy and shivery.  There are scenes of pure magic and scenes of genuine unpleasantness.  I don't know if The Iron Land will appeal to everyone - even hardened steampunk fans, which I am not, by the way - but it ticked the boxes for me: I felt like I was there and  I was at turns both in love with Aoife, frustrated and annoyed by her, and wanted to shake her and slap her for being a damn fool.  Kal, well, Kal drove me nuts and not in a good way and Dean was lovely and a bit swoony, and the perfect foil to Aoife.  The characters felt very real and I'm looking forward to finding out more about the nasty piece of work that is Grey Draven, and I liked the world, the alternate history and hope more of that is elaborated on in the upcoming sequels.  

Definitely give this a whirl if you're in the mood for a dark, steampunk fairy tale full of atmosphere, drama and action.  I read it in temperatures of around 37C and yet it made me shiver.  This is a good thing!

Find Caitlin's website here and find her on twitter as: @caitkitt 

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Wrath of Iron by Chris Wraight

After months spent in the service of the Chaos god Slaanesh, the ruling classes of the Contqual sub-sector have finally brought true damnation upon their people - innumerable hordes of foul and lascivious daemons swarm from a tear in the fabric of reality to embrace their mortal pawns and drive them on to ever more depraved acts of worship. It falls to the merciless Space Marines of the Iron Hands Chapter to cleanse these worlds of the warp's unholy taint, and it is upon the surface of Shardenus that the fate of a billion lost souls will be decided.

Having devoured Chris Wraight’s previous offering, Battle of the Fang, in record time and with no little pleasure, it was a no brainer to pop Wrath of Iron into my hand luggage for our recent holiday. 

It lasted a day, reminding me why Kindles are worth twice their weight in gold for holiday breaks.

Wrath opens with a clever gambit- it’s the start of the Iron Hands led invasion, but seen from the defenders’ point of view. Defenders who are convinced that they’re loyal to the Imperium. It’s an early, unexpected twist (and no, this isn’t a spoiler) that lets Wraight demonstrate how devastating it is for normal men to try face up against Space Marines, establishing this early so that the you can understand their effectiveness in the battles to come without him having to put the point across each time.

The target of the Iron Hands wrath is Shardenus Prime, a massive heavy industry based Hive City comprised of a central spire supported by six others, each heavily defended by deadly weapons and soon-to-be-revealed minions of chaos. It’s too big a target for the Iron Hands to tackle by themselves, not with the deadline they’re working to, and as such they are supported by Imperial Guard and a titan legion. 

The respective commanders and a handful of individuals of these support factions play a large role in Wrath, and it’s through their frustration and suffering under the ‘do this or die’ orders of the Iron Hands that we get to experience the reality of the Iron Hands’ sociopathic tendencies and disregard for any considerations beyond the successful execution of their mission. These threads (including that of an Imperial assassin - always cool) come together around the foundation of the Iron Hands' story, expanding the scope of the struggle and providing both a contrast to highlight the scope of the Iron Hands' obsessive nature and a respite from the same. These threads are distinct, but mesh smoothly and, importantly, are each brought to a suitable conclusion. 

By the time Shardenus Prime begins to yield its secrets and the reasons behind the Space Marine commander’s haste becomes apparent, you’re able to see both sides of the story.. but of course by then it’s too late for the poor old Imperial Guard to do anything except try and survive. The final confrontation is a maelstrom of action, both physical and psychic, delivered with a ferocity that must've made his keyboard smoke when he wrote it. 

This was a great, fast read. Despite their cold hearted bastardness, Wraight has made the Iron Hands an interesting, complex Chapter to delve into and I know I’d like to have more of the same. Please. 

You can read an extract here.