LIST: Books to read

I’ve recently finished Thumped, sequel to Bumped, by Megan McCafferty, The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb (thanks to Chris at calmgrove for that recommendation!), and Jasper Fforde’s third in the Last Dragonslayer series, The Eye of Zoltar, all of which I’ve enjoyed tremendously. Reviews will be written up after Easter, so sorry for the delay!

I’ve currently got on the go Oliver VII, also by Szerb, and Selected Poems by Louis MacNeice. To start is Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver, a recommendation by Firefly back in August last year.

We’re going away for Easter to north Wales, and I’m wondering how many of Susan Cooper’s The Grey King and Silver on the Tree related locations we can visit in two and a bit days! Cader Idris (which actually looms large in The Eye of Zoltar, too), or the Bearded Lake, maybe (no afanc, I hope!). We’ll see.

Cadair Idris (image from Wikipedia, reproduced under creative commons licence, user NotFromUtrecht)

Cadair Idris (image from Wikipedia, reproduced under creative commons licence, user NotFromUtrecht)

Wishing you a Happy Easter!

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Lists, Not A Review, Poetry, Read on my Kindle | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

REVIEW: Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry – B. S. Johnson

2013 Picador paperback cover (by La Boca)

2013 Picador paperback cover (by La Boca)

Picador 2013, originally published by Collins 1973

The title of this novel may seem a bit rude, but it refers to a method of accountancy invented by an Italian monk in the late fifteenth century (apparently).

Christie Malry, being a simple sort of young man, needs to earn a living. And so, being without any sort of qualifications, and with a fear of criminal methods, he begins work at a bank. After a few months of this menial occupation, something better comes along, namely an accountancy position at the firm of Tapper’s, which manufacture cakes and sweets. It’s while undertaking his accountancy training that he comes across the system of double-entry book-keeping (which Johnson informs us was invented by a Tuscan contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Luca Bartolomeo Pacioli), and which inspires him to set up a system of moral double-entry book-keeping. For every ill the world enacts upon him, he will take some revenge, some counter-measure, against Them.

How Christie gets on in this endeavour, while making friends at his new place of work and meeting a fabulous girl called the Shrike at the Hammersmith Palais, is detailed in this short novel (187 pages). It sounds quite dull when summarised, but is funny and mordant, and very very aware of its artificiality. Johnson addresses the reader directly, not describing Christie except in such terms as to specifically request that the reader uses their own imagination, and there are frequent references to the fact that everyone in the book is a character in a novel, such as, “‘Parsons looks like being indisposed for the rest of this novel,’ went on Headlam.” (p95)

This does create something of a distance, but Johnson writes his creations with a dash of humanity so that although they are obviously not real, it’s almost possible to forget it. As a result of the unreality, the first occasion of Christie and the Shrike having sex (which is described in the most wonderfully dead-pan kind of way) is an unrealistic fantasy of sex but which is far from soft porn. Then there’s Christie’s mother, who has one chapter of exposition and then dies, and which provokes this bit of dialogue:

SUPERVISOR: Where were you yesterday afternoon?
CHRISTIE: At my mother’s funeral.
SUPERVISOR: Why didn’t you ask permission?
CHRISTIE: She died at very short notice. In fact, with no notice at all, on the evening before last.
SUPERVISOR: Long enough for you to arrange the funeral for the next day?
CHRISTIE: There wasn’t any more time. It’s a short novel.

pp 39-40

Christie’s revenges for being subjected to incessant advertising, general exploitation by his place of work, dressings-down by his boss, and other such irritants, are usually inventive, and detailed in example double-entry sheets for each month. The revenges become more and more elaborate and detailed, and then Johnson ends the book in the only possible way.

I’d never really heard of Johnson before, but this reissue of the last novel to be published in his lifetime comes with an informative introduction by John Lanchester. Johnson was apparently one of the best-known novelists in Britain in the 1960s and 70s, known, as the blurb states, “for his forthright views on the future of the novel and for his unique ways of putting them into practice.” Normally I’m not a huge fan of such artificiality and metafiction, but Johnson writes very well, and his prose and plotting is amusing and thought-provoking. I enjoyed this a lot.

Posted in 2013 New Reads, Fiction, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

REVIEW: Perfiditas – Alison Morton

'Perfiditas' e-book cover

‘Perfiditas’ e-book cover

Self-published/SilverWood Books 2013

Inevitably, a review of this book will contain spoilers for the first title in the series, Inceptio, so if you haven’t read it and don’t like spoilers, look away now…

Perfiditas is set seven years after Inceptio (which came as something of a surprise, since I’d assumed the first book was set in our present day, which was perhaps silly of me). Carina is still working for the PGSF (the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, a sort of cross between MI5 and MI6 and the US Special Forces, maybe), somewhat complicated by the fact that her husband has just been appointed legate, or head, of the organisation. She’s also just won the position of strategos (head of strategy) in the recent reorganisation, and starts the book slightly distracted from making her first presentation by a friend, Mossia Antonia, who’s angry with and worried about her lover and employee Aidan, who’s accused her of unfair working practices and stolen from her, and now disappeared.

Carina’s investigation of Aidan’s disappearance reveals a conspiracy, leading to her own hurried departure from PGSF and the legate’s imprisonment. She resurrects her criminal identity, Pulcheria, from the previous book, and the rest of the team, firstly to extract Conrad from prison, and secondly to find out what’s going on, who’s behind it, and how to stop them.

This novel is much more straightforward, plot-wise, than Inceptio, since there really is only the one plot strand, and the book’s all the better for it. Carina shows her competence and care for her team and her friends and family, and there’s a lot more detail of the Mitela family and the political web which binds the chief families together, which is interesting (and allows Morton to circumvent due process in the legal system when it comes to one of the chief conspirators). I didn’t like the ending, though, or at least the revelation of the identity of one of the conspirators, partly because Morton had drawn him as a really interesting character, and partly because it allowed Conrad (ugh) to be right about him rather than Carina.

I dislike Conrad because he’s a typical alpha male, always convinced he’s right – unfortunately events seem to prove this belief founded, which is annoying – and he still doesn’t trust Carina – who is eminently competent – or, indeed, anyone else, to do a job properly without him. He’s always so serious, and there’s absolutely no levity or silly side to him. He doesn’t consider the difficulties to Carina of their relationship – though I do think she’d be better off in the Department of Justice where she started her career in law enforcement, where she wouldn’t have to negotiate her work around her husband as boss: it makes the power dynamics in the relationship feel off, since there’s no sense that Conrad is the junior partner in a civilian situation.

Apart from that, I found the casual use of torture in the book rather uncomfortable: when extracting information from four of the conspirators, Carina and her colleague Justus essentially beat them up, and there’s no real acknowledgement that it’s wrong – it’s justified in this context, because the conspirators are planning worse (and indeed she discovers are doing worse):

‘You don’t like this side of it, do you?’ Behind the curiosity in [Justus’] eyes I saw unexpected sympathy. ‘I remember from before, you preferred to trick them.’

‘I’m realistic enough to know we don’t have time now,’ I conceded. ‘But no, I don’t.’

I’d given up counting how many laws I’d violated.

(p109)

That doesn’t sound like someone who believes torture is wrong, and when the evidence thus extracted is presented to the investigators afterwards, it’s not seen as inadmissible, either.

The conspiracy itself seems realistic enough, though their methods seem unnecessarily vicious for a country which has had predominantly women in charge for so long (but then, maybe no worse than the Taliban’s treatment of women in Afghanistan during their regime).

So, not bad, and an interesting exploration of Roma Novan society, though with the reservations expressed above.

Note: I received an ARC free from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Fantasy, Fiction, Read on my Kindle, Reviews, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

REVIEW: Bumped – Megan McCafferty

'Bumped' Corgi UK paperback cover

‘Bumped’ Corgi UK paperback cover

(Corgi 2011)

I’d been meaning to read Bumped for ages, having previously read and enjoyed McCafferty’s excellent Jessica Darling series, to which I was introduced by my sister back when Sloppy Firsts was first out in 2001. Bumped is quite different in premise to that series, which is firmly rooted in the real world and real world events, being set in a near future earth in which a virus means that almost all people become infertile as adults, making teenagers almost the only people who can reproduce. Thus condoms are proscribed, teenage sexuality is encouraged, and young mothers encouraged to (essentially) sell their children to older couples. Melody makes a few references to other cultures such as “the awesomely abundant Chinese”, but otherwise the book focuses on what is happening in the United States. The book’s told from the alternating viewpoints of separated-at-birth identical twins Melody and Harmony, and each has a nicely differentiated voice.

Melody’s adoptive parents are “Wall Streeters turned economics professors”, and have foreseen this commodification of teen pregnancy, with the most genetically advantageous teens commanding pre-birth contracts from would-be adoptive parents; Ash and Ty have thus done what they can to increase Melody’s value on the pregnancy market – good school, tutors, any number of extra-curricular activities. As a result, Melody has signed up for a good contract with the Jaydens which includes college tuition, a car, and a post-partum tummy tuck. Contrasting with this is Harmony, who’s been brought up in a religious commune, Goodside, whose response to the Human Progressive Sterility Virus is to marry off teenagers within the commune, and measure their worth by the children they produce. At the start of the book, Harmony has stunned her twin sister by suddenly turning up – they have never previously met – at the age of sixteen, when Melody’s on the point of being matched with a suitable baby-father.

Gradually the reader becomes aware that Melody’s lack of enthusiasm for the idea of pregnancy stems from an experience with her friend, Malia. Despite the detachment drugs, despite the cultural pressures, Malia wanted to keep her baby, and blamed Melody for failing to support her. It also turns out that Harmony isn’t telling all the truth, either, about why she’s suddenly left the commune to find her sister. It’s not a surprise to find out that there’s a case of mistaken identity, and the furore which results, but McCafferty runs with it very nicely, setting the story up to be continued (in the sequel, Thumped).

There’s a lot of slang and euphemism, as well as tech speak which takes a little while to get into – calling someone “reproaesthetic” for example, rather than beautiful, or referring to sex to get pregnant as “bumping” – but makes sense within the context of the novel.

It’s a satire on teenage sexuality, though maybe not a very obvious one, and Melody is increasingly angry at the way that her fertility and that of her friends has become a commodity to be sold off. It’s this more reasoned distaste for the process which makes her, in my opinion, a more likeable protagonist than Harmony, who has a capacity to delude herself which is quite extraordinary. It’s something of a shock to realise that Melody’s parents have encouraged her fame for monetary gain, too. I also liked Melody’s friendship with Zen, who’s not a suitable partner, despite his high intelligence, due to lack of height (and his mix of Asian-Hispanic genes isn’t acceptable to those couples who want nice white blue-eyed blond babies to adopt), and how this changes with Harmony’s advent into their lives.

McCafferty presents information in a pleasingly non-info dumping kind of way, but puts the reader in the middle of the story, with things from the past coming out in an organic way. The bit where Harmony and Jondoe make their scheduled public appearances, and he’s mobbed by rabid fans is reminiscent of modern-day celebrity, and is genuinely disturbing.

There are some really mixed reviews on Amazon, so this may not be your cup of tea. However, I really enjoyed this, though with the reservation that the ending is not entirely resolved, and really does require the sequel.

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Fiction, Reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

REVIEW: Inceptio – Alison Morton

'Inceptio' e-book cover

‘Inceptio’ e-book cover

(self-published/SilverWood Books 2013)

The premise for this book, the first in a series set in Roma Nova, is that Rome never really died out, but colonisers left the city during the downfall of the Roman Empire to found a new colony (somewhere around Slovenia) which has existed to the present day. Since the men of Roma Nova’s twelve founding families were always off fighting for the colony’s existence, the government was taken over by women, and as a result Roma Nova is a matriarchy. Quite apart from this, the world and its history has developed quite differently from ours: in America, for instance, where our protagonist, Karen Brown, grew up and lives, the Dutch retained a much greater influence on New York, in particular, than in our world. When Karen inadvertently seriously annoys one of the founding families when volunteering in Kew Park, she is put onto a watch-list by the security services, fired from her volunteering job, and it even makes trouble for her at work (for an advertising agency). Her mother was from Roma Nova, and her father naturalised American, but both died when she was young, and she spent the rest of her childhood on the Nebraskan farm of her father’s relatives.

Very soon, she’s pitching for a job for a Roma Novan client, Sextilius Gavro, and meets Gavro’s very attractive interpreter, Conradus Tellus. Not long afterwards, however, Karen’s world falls apart, particularly in realising that the security services are concerned that this new association with a foreign power will lead to loss of influence over Brown Electronics, Karen’s father’s company, which she had not previously realised would come under her control at the age of twenty-five. Fearing for her life, she takes sanctuary in the Roma Novan embassy, and once there finds that she’s heir to the Mitela family’s wealth and influence, a position of high status. Under attack from a covert security services fixer, Jeffrey Renschman (though it’s only later that his personal animus against Karen becomes apparent), she heads off to Roma Nova, and connects with her grandmother, head of the Mitela clan, and other family, reverting to the name given her by her mother, Carina.

A few months later, after settling into life in her new homeland, shopping, investing her now considerable wealth, she proposes a scheme to combat drug smuggling, and gets enlisted into the police force for an undercover mission.

Given the premise, Morton does nicely giving the details of her alternative universe, particularly changes in global politics and technology, and sets up Karen’s departure from the Eastern United States with real incentive. By making her a patrician who also has no sense of her real status in Roma Nova also makes her more relatable as well as the reader’s guide to this new world, as well as giving her access to high ranked politicos such as the Imperatrix, which wouldn’t have been the case if her mother had just been an ordinary citizen.

Karen/Carina works nicely as an undercover operative, but Roma Nova, in retrospect, does seem a bit restrictive – though maybe that’s understandable given its history – even if crime does occur and career criminals do exist.

I enjoyed this as an entertaining alternative universe thriller, but there are a couple of reservations I have. The first is that I never entirely believed in Carina and Conrad’s relationship: it’s all a bit insta-love, and although things don’t go smoothly for them, there’s nothing in the way he’s portrayed, apart from his fierce desire to protect her from harm, which seems remotely attractive. He’s easily angered, doesn’t trust her to make her own decisions – doesn’t actually seem to trust her at all, properly – and there’s way too much angst in their relationship for me to enjoy it. I actually much preferred Carina’s relationship with her handler at the Department of Justice, Cornelius Lurio, who does trust her, praises her good job, and who actually makes her laugh (though their sexual relationship is described in a way which makes her seem worryingly passive, since she admits she doesn’t “love him, or really lust after him”).

The second is that I think Morton tries to pack in a bit too much plot, such that the time frame seems a little hasty, and characterization is limited. I’d like to have seen a bit more bonding with Carina and her grandmother, for example, and an acknowledgement that her friends back in America were still in contact with her even after her move to Roma Nova – or, if this wasn’t possible, an explanation of why. The crime thriller plot in the main part of the book works quite well, even if Renschman’s part in the last part of the book seems a little unnecessary.

Anyway, I enjoyed this enough to read the sequel, Perfiditas (review to come later). Inceptio, by the way, is Latin for a beginning, or an enterprise, which nicely sums up both the plot of this book and its starting point as the first in a series.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Fantasy, Fiction, Read on my Kindle, Reviews, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

REVIEW: Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

'Fangirl' UK paperback cover

‘Fangirl’ UK paperback cover

(Macmillan 2014)

I picked this up in Foyles in Stratford a few weeks ago, having vaguely remembered that Jenny at Reading the End had enjoyed Eleanor and Park, also by this author: I read a bit in the middle, and was hooked.

Cath and her twin sister Wren are off to university in Lincoln, Nebraska. For the first time, they’ll be separated, because Wren wants to start university not as a twin but as herself, and Cath is left upset and off-balance by this decision. Terrified by the newness of the place, it takes her some time even to find the dining room in her own residence hall, and it’s only by the determined and exasperated intervention of her older room-mate, Reagan, that she starts loosening up a little and exploring parts of the campus apart from her room and lecture halls. She signs up for a creative writing class, writes with a fellow student, Nick; eventually makes friends in her other classes. Then there’s Levi, Reagan’s boyfriend, who’s friendly and charming to everyone, and who scares Cath at first – making him wait outside their room when Reagan’s not there, for example – before they become friends.

The book’s also about Cath’s fan-fiction. She’s a prolific writer, who has fans of her own, writing fic about a series of children’s fantasy novels, reminiscent of Harry Potter, about a boy named Simon Snow and his career at the Watford School of Magicks, and his antagonism with room-mate Tyrannus ‘Baz’ Basilton Pitch. Cath wants to finish her epic fan fiction (in which Simon and Baz are actually in love – reminiscent of Harry/Draco fan fiction) before Gemma T. Leslie, the books’ actual author, brings out the final book in the sequence and, as it were, sets the canon in stone.

This sounds like a pretty bald summary, but Fangirl is just delightful. Cath is nerdy and bookish and bright, despite her apprehension, and her friendships with Reagan and Levi grow naturally and organically. She gets into trouble for submitting a piece of fan-fiction for her creative writing course, not understanding her tutor’s view that she’s plagiarising – to her mind, she has written something entirely new, just using the characters Leslie has created – and only at the end of the book, once she’s finished her fic, can she write about something personal and important. But Rowell never minimises the importance of fan fiction in Cath’s life (or indeed in Wren’s, even if she isn’t quite so invested), nor suggests that fan fiction isn’t a valid form of expression.

The supporting characters are excellent, too. Wren finds the freedom of college life a little too heady, and it’s only the intervention of their father after she’s hospitalised with alcohol poisoning which brings her closer to her sister again. Their father is also really interesting – as is the way the two girls are concerned about him – but their departure from home prompts him to make some changes to his life so that they won’t worry so much. Reagan is fun, too; at first inclined to ignore her younger room-mate, she sees that unless she does something about it, Cath will not go anywhere or see anything, and so makes her come to breakfast with her, and when Cath’s meeting Nick at the library in the evening to write with him, encourages Levi to meet her and walk her back to her room. Cath’s at first distrustful of Levi’s charm and affability, and says some amusingly sarcastic things about him:

“I didn’t know you had a mother,” he said. “Or a sister. What else are you hiding?”

“Five cousins,” Wren said. “And a string of ill-fated hamsters, all named Simon.”

Levi opened his smile up completely.

“Oh, put that away,” Cath said with distaste. “I don’t want you to get charm all over my sister – what if we can’t get it out?”

p80

I really like the way all the characters seem entirely realistic. Levi is really sweet in a way that isn’t sickly and he’s certainly no bad boy romantic typical of YA fiction. He has difficulty reading, though he has an excellent memory for things said, and the first time Cath really connects with him other than as the nice boyfriend of her room mate is when she ends up reading aloud S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to him for his class assignment. Reagan is sardonic and cynical, but ultimately kind-hearted, and she and Cath achieve a genuine friendship. It’s also lovely to see how Cath grows in confidence in the academic year over which the book is set, both personally, and as a writer.

The UK paperback also has some lovely illustrations of some of the characters on the inside covers, by Noelle Stevenson:

Art is Cath and Wren's dad, by the way

Art is Cath and Wren’s dad, by the way

 

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Fiction, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

DWJ March: the end

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the Diana Wynne Jones posts this month, even if I haven’t posted about the books I’ve been prompted to re-read (Power of Three, Charmed Life, Witch Week, and Enchanted Glass) by Kristen at We Be Reading, who’s hosted the celebratory month. Or indeed even about the books or series highlighted. I’d have commented more frequently on Kristen’s blog had WordPress or Blogger allowed me to do so (I don’t know which blogging platform had the problem, because I was able to comment on some posts…). Anyway, thanks to Kristen for hosting!

A round-up of my DWJ March posts:

All my books

Favourite cover

Favourite main character

Favourite supporting character

Favourite villain

Review of The Islands of Chaldea

Review of The Game

If any of this has encouraged you to try a book by Diana Wynne Jones, then it’s been worthwhile!

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Not A Review, Re-read | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

DWJ March – The Game: Diana Wynne Jones

P1020421I’d originally intended not to review anything for DWJ March except The Islands of Chaldea, but I picked The Game up a couple of weeks ago to re-read (since I’d only read it once before), and thought I might as well post my thoughts on it to coincide with Kristen’s prompt.

'The Game' (2007 hardback cover)

‘The Game’ (2007 hardback cover)

(HarperCollins 2008)

Hayley Foss, who lives with her strict grandparents (well, with her very strict grandmother and more easy-going grandfather), is abruptly packed off in disgrace to Ireland to join her cousins in Aunt May’s guest house. What makes the banishment hard to take is that she doesn’t really know why she’s caused a problem – she knows it’s something to do with her friends, musicians Fiddle and Flute, but not why walking in the mythosphere would destroy her grandfather’s work and annoy Uncle Jolyon.

Once at the Castle, as her cousin Mercer calls it, Hayley is plunged into an entirely different world to the strictly regimented one with which she’s familiar: there are many cousins, sons and daughters of several aunts: the Tighs and Laxtons, naughty Tollie (who’s Mercer’s son), and Troy and Harmony, children of Aunt Ellie, who lives in Scotland. She’s initiated into “the Game”, which Harmony manages for all the children: since Hayley’s entirely unfamiliar with it, her first trips are with Troy. They walk strands of the mythosphere and retrieve various items, and Tollie nearly always cheats.

While on one of these trips, the last game, Hayley finds herself separated from Troy, and discovers that she’s involved in some prophecy which has to do with why she and the other children shouldn’t be playing The Game, and why Uncle Jolyon doesn’t like her.

In this rather short book, Diana Wynne Jones weaves myths and legends (particularly Greek myth, but Baba Yaga turns up in an unusually benevolent guise), the stars and constellations, while Hayley discovers her heritage and is able to fulfil the prophecy. It’s fun and interesting, and there are lots of lovely hints about myths which are never fully explained – Actaeon and his dogs, for example – or updated: Sisyphus is doomed to never-ending paperwork, for example, rather than pushing a boulder up a hill. While Hayley is on her visit to the mythosphere with Flute, they encounter a whole series of little vignettes of swan-related legends from Swan Lake to The Wild Swans to what appears (to an adult reader) to be the start of Leda’s encounter with the swan, which are over with in half a paragraph.

The book is also a little frustrating, because one wishes, reading it, that there was just more of it. Because it’s short, and there are a lot of characters, only a few are characterised in any detail: Hayley, Troy, Harmony. There’s also so much invention that one wishes Jones just had gone into things in a bit more detail – not spelling things out, but expanding on the family relationships, in particular, and Hayley’s life with her grandparents.

So my conclusion is that it’s probably great for a younger reader, since Hayley’s a lovely character and her adventure both is fun and has stakes, but I was left wanting more.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Re-read, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

REVIEW: Torrent – Lindsay Buroker

Torrent e-book cover

Torrent e-book cover

(self-published e-book, 2013)

Book 1 in Rust and Relics series

Delia and Simon are wandering around Arizona in their campervan using Delia’s archaeological knowledge (and her Indiana Jones-ish bullwhip skills) and Simon’s tech wizardry to locate and retrieve historical artefacts to later sell for their business, Rust and Relics. The book begins underground, in a former mine up in the hills not far from the town of Prescott, when they hear a scream, and come across a recently and violently decapitated body. Understandably scared by this, they flee the scene, but when returning to their van they find that their expensive metal detector has been stolen: the only people around to have stolen their equipment appear to be the riders of two motorcycles which have been left parked on the trail.

On returning to their campsite in Prescott after informing the police, they meet up with Delia’s childhood friend, Artemis, a former professional tennis-player still troubled by the knee injury which ended her career. Temi wants a job, and – reluctantly, since they are not earning a lot of money from this venture – Delia and Simon decide to take her on. That evening, the campsite is attacked, and the strange creature which appears to be killing people is somehow connected with the odd bikers, Jakatra and Eleriss, who seem to have advanced technology such as weapons which can cut holes in rock. Are they aliens, or elves? as Simon suggests, and what is this jibtab that they’re hunting? Delia ropes in her friend, Autumn, to help with analysis of blood found after the monster attack, and she, Simon and Temi try to figure out what is going on and how to help.

I have really enjoyed Buroker’s books, since first getting started on The Emperor’s Edge series a couple of years ago, and Torrent is no exception. Although set on what’s recognisably a real world Earth, though with alien elements, which is rather different from the Emperor’s Edge series, it’s exciting and fast-paced, with a bit of mystery and a lot of action. The characters are interesting and their interactions amusing, and I liked the allusions to their backstories and families which made them realistic – Simon’s Native American, from the Pacific Northwest, and Temi and Delia are from a Greek survivalist community. All three are young, and trying to prove themselves successes – particularly to their families.

I can see it making a good film or TV series. I’m not altogether sure how plausible some of Simon’s tech and his apps are, particularly the underground cavern-finding he does at Eleriss’s behest, but that didn’t distract too much from the fast-moving plot. Delia narrates: she’s got a nice line in snark, and self-deprecation.

There’s certainly a lot set up for further books in the series, and Buroker is prolific enough that it won’t be long to wait for the next one! I’m certainly looking forward to the next book.

Posted in 2013 New Reads, Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction, Re-read, Read on my Kindle, Reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

REVIEW: The Islands of Chaldea – Diana Wynne Jones

2014 e-book cover

2014 e-book cover

Since Diana Wynne Jones’ death from cancer in 2011, fans of her books (of whom I count myself) have had to satisfy themselves with a fair number of novels and a couple of collections of short stories, primarily written for children. The Islands of Chaldea was completed by her sister, Ursula Jones, after Diana’s death, and was published at the start of March this year. Of course, there was no way that I was going to miss out on this, so I pre-ordered an e-book version and read the whole thing on the day it downloaded.

Twelve year old Aileen is a trainee wise woman, living with her Aunt Beck, who is the strongest and best wise woman (or witch) on the island of Skarr, northernmost of the islands of Chaldea. Aileen starts the book miserably convinced that she will never become powerful like her aunt, since she was meant to have a vision, but has seen nothing, in her recent initiation. Abruptly, however, the two are summoned to the castle of the local king, Kenig (who is a relation), and dispatched on a quest. Ten years previously, the largest and easternmost island, Logra, was separated from the other three islands by a sort of magical barrier. The high king of Chaldea, Farlane, whose son, Alasdair, is a hostage in Logra, reports that the spell can be breached and Prince Alasdair rescued if “a Wise Woman journeys from Skarr, through Bernica and Gallis, and enters Logra with a man from each island.”

Forced into this by the High King, King Kenig and Queen Mevenne, Beck reluctantly takes Aileen, Kenig’s younger son Ivar (who’s seventeen), and Ogo, who’s a Logran, left behind at the age of five in Skarr when the barrier went up. However, it’s not long before things start to go wrong: the money they’d been given for their travels turns out to be mostly stones, the clothes packed for them are full of the wrong sort of herbs, and the men hired to take them to Bernica make it obvious that they’ve been paid to make sure that they don’t reach their destination. In Bernica, after being assisted by a monk called Finn, and a couple of the many rulers, Aunt Beck is almost turned into a donkey, and they reach Gallis eventually where Aileen meets her cousins for the first time.

So, what did I think?

Well, The Islands of Chaldea is mostly very good, particularly in the early parts: Aileen’s narration is nicely done, and the world-building is sufficiently detailed not to overwhelm the plot. Skarr is rather like Scotland, Bernica like Ireland, Gallis like a cross between Wales and France, and Logra like England, and the customs and landscape of the four islands are well-distinguished. The rivalry between Donal, Kenig’s elder son, and Ivar is convincing, and Aileen’s distrust of Donal is borne out by later events. As well as magic-workers, there are also priests and monks and nuns of an unnamed religion, who have various roles in each of the islands – particularly in Gallis – and there is a lovely bit when Beck, Aileen, Ivar and Ogo are starting off on their journey, accompanying the priest of Kilcannon to his fane, when his unexpected arrival catches the novices out in roistering.

It’s about when they’re leaving Bernica that things start to go a bit wrong: the narrative starts rushing, and the author seems to have lost a grip on the characters and how long they’ve been travelling. There are still some good bits, but the climax, although nicely done, is awfully reminiscent of Drowned Ammet and The Crown of Dalemark, and the ending itself is just far too neat. Endings in Diana Wynne Jones novels are usually bittersweet or open-ended, full of potential – just consider Kathleen and Sirius’s parting at the end of Dogsbody, or the entirely new world created in Witch Week – so to have this one tie up all the endings so neatly felt wrong. I also felt rather cheated with the revelation of Ogo’s identity, because it seemed like a cop-out.

I think, given that, as Ursula Jones notes in her Afterword, Diana “left no notes: she never made any. Her books always came straight out of her extraordinary mind onto the page, and she never discussed her work while it was in progress. There was not so much as a hint of what she was up to…” it’s a pretty good completion. The characterisation does change, and I’m not altogether sure I like Aileen at the end compared to how she is at the beginning, nor how Ivar turns out; though Ogo’s development is done rather better. There is a good deal of humour in the book, as one would expect, as well as danger and excitement.

It’s impossible to tell how Diana Wynne Jones herself would have completed this (though I wonder what Neil Gaiman, who was a close friend, would have made of the commission, had he taken it on) it’s not a bad effort to close a writing career which has given so much pleasure to me and to many other fans. It’s not her best book (though I’d have great difficulty in defining just one for that title), but there is much to enjoy in it – and you may not have the same quibbles with it that I did.

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Fantasy, Fiction, Read on my Kindle, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments