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.

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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.

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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

DWJ March – Favourite villain

P1020421Again, this is another difficult choice, because Diana Wynne Jones was excellent at providing realistic antagonists, whether human or otherworldly, ranging from malevolent goddess embodied in a doll, the Monigan, from Time of the Ghost, to the warlock Balsam brothers in Charmed Life, or nasty siblings Shine and Archer from Archer’s Goon, or the even nastier Mr Chesney from The Dark Lord of Derkholm, who doesn’t see Derk’s world as anything but a playground. The way that Jolyon’s presented in The Game reminds me a little of Mr Chesney, too, though his villainy is rather different.

Then there are the various earls in the Dalemark quartet, as well as evil mage, Kankredin, and the evil done inadvertently by characters who think they’re doing the right thing. Kathleen’s awful aunt Duffie in Dogsbody makes everyone in her house miserable, but she’s horrifyingly realistic. Sybil and Sir James in The Merlin Conspiracy have that satisfactory hamartia which makes their eventual downfall inevitable, but it’s the almost inexplicable hatred that Japheth and Joel have for Nick that’s scary and horrifying.

Or there’s the otherworldly Laurel from Fire and Hemlock, using up lives, and not caring who gets hurt in the process, and Mr O Brown from Enchanted Glass, who’s not quite the same person as in Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are various unpleasant witches, such as the Duchess in The Magicians of Caprona (whose ending always makes me think of Webster’s The White Devil) or Gammer Pinhoe losing her mind and persuading her family that murder is a good solution to their problems in The Pinhoe Egg (though Jed Farleigh is equally unpleasant).

P1020424I think, though, that the best villain is Orm Pender, Reigner One, from Hexwood. Not content with making sure he stays at the top of a galaxy-wide commercial enterprise – for centuries – by any means necessary; lying, cheating, betraying and murdering; he is a sadist who cultivates the appearance of a kindly old man, whose mental powers can compel almost anyone. It doesn’t help that he’s surrounded himself with less powerful but also unpleasant people. By the time he appears on Earth, the reader already realises that he is not a nice man, but it’s the revelation of how he has created the Reigners’ Servants which is particularly sickening, and particularly what he does to Kessalta. One feels like cheering at the way he’s finally out-manoeuvred.

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REVIEW: The Regeneration Trilogy – Pat Barker

Penguin e-book cover page

Penguin e-book cover page

(Penguin e-book, 1996)

The trilogy of books, set during the First Wold War, takes as its starting point the arrival of Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart, a hospital in Edinburgh for soldiers suffering from “shell-shock”. His friend, Robert Graves, a captain in Sassoon’s regiment, had essentially rigged a medical board in order to avoid court-martial after Sassoon had openly and vociferously objected to the conduct of the war.  Although Graves feels similarly, he also thinks that Sassoon’s protests are not the way to go about things. Dr Rivers, who’s had some success in treating patients there, soon realises that Sassoon is torn between feeling that the army command is wasting the lives of men and also wanting to get back to the fighting: it is however, his duty to return the man to the trenches. Craiglockhart was also the meeting place of Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, maybe the best of the war poets, and there is a lovely scene in which Sassoon looks over some of Owen’s poetry, and revises ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.

Although Barker uses real people as characters in the novels – Rivers, Sassoon, Owen and Graves – there are also imagined characters, such as Billy Prior, who is an oddity in Craiglockhart since although he’s an officer he’s also working class, and he’s resolutely hostile to Rivers (at least at first). Prior is definitely shell-shocked, and Barker does an absolutely fantastic job of portraying the nightmares and obsessive behaviours characterising the condition in her characters.

Regeneration, the first in the trilogy, is set primarily at Craiglockhart, and although Sassoon is perhaps the main character, Barker certainly doesn’t concentrate on his experiences: as the trilogy expands, it’s really telling Rivers’ story, and Prior’s. Compared with her treatment of Prior, I think Barker is a little more tentative or respectful in her characterisation of the real people: with Prior she had a lot more freedom, and so he’s much more vividly portrayed. There’s a really awful bit towards the end of the first book where Rivers’s “talking cure” is contrasted with the brutal methods of a fellow-doctor, Yealland, in dealing with war-induced disorders by the use of electro-shock ‘therapy’ to cure flexures of the body and loss of speech. Rivers is morally conflicted throughout the three books about the morality of what he’s doing, however, and questions whether his apparently gentler way of sorting out psychologically-induced physical symptoms is actually any better than Yealland’s, since they’re both trying to cure patients sufficiently to send them back to war, and the same awful conditions.

The Eye in the Door is set mostly in London: both Rivers and Prior now living and working there after departure from Craiglockhart. The novel looks much more at conditions on the home front for people stigmatised by the war, particularly homosexuals, conscientious objectors (“conchies”) and pacifists, and striking workers. The treatment of men and women in prison for objecting to the war, and for hiding deserters, such as the mother, Beattie Roper, of one of Prior’s old friends (who may have been imprisoned as a result of false testimony) is appalling and inhumane. The ‘eye in the door’ refers to the eye painted on the door of Beattie’s cell where Prior meets her, and which haunts him afterwards. Homosexuality, and its demonization by a command eager to promote the ideals of comradeship and close male friendship but less eager to consider that all this intensity might encourage ‘unnatural’ relations, is dealt with interestingly. There’s a contrast between Sassoon’s acceptance of his own homosexuality with Owen’s unrequited love for him, Prior’s indiscriminate bisexuality, and the court case involving actress Maud Allan (playing Salome in Wilde’s play) which, being in the news, creates a great deal of talk and focuses attention on homosexuality.

Lastly, The Ghost Road sees Prior and Owen sent back to France, and their journey towards death is told in conjunction with Rivers’ memories of how death is treated by the Melanesian islanders he had once lived with and whose culture he had studied.

Regeneration and its sequels are extraordinarily moving and very eye-opening (particularly about conditions in Britain during the war), and she doesn’t focus just on the men affected by war, but on women as well, such as Beattie Roper and her daughter Hettie, munitions worker Sarah Lumb, who meets Prior and has a relationship with him, and others. All three books are each not long, but Barker manages to convey a lot – primarily with dialogue, though she has a painter’s eye for a vivid image – in them, and she makes you really care about the characters, real or imagined.

The Ghost Road deservedly won the Booker Prize in 1995, though the other two novels are equally good: the whole trilogy is highly recommended.

Regeneration (1991)
The Eye in the Door (1993)
The Ghost Road (1995)

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

REVIEW: Wounded – Lindsay Buroker

Wounded e-book cover

Wounded e-book cover

(self-published e-book, 2014)

Wounded was billed as a romance on Amazon, but I thought I’d try it anyway because I really like Buroker’s writing, having enjoyed The Emperor’s Edge series of steampunk fantasy novels, and a couple of related novels, Encrypted and Decrypted, as well as her Flash Gold novellas set in an AU 19th century Yukon. At some point I will get round to reviewing some of these, since so far all I’ve managed was the first in the Emperor’s Edge series.

Tara works for an online business and has just arrived at Salmon Creek Eco village near the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington for a stint as an intern working there in exchange for blog posts about the village and its self-sufficient, back-to-nature ethos. As she arrives, however, she stumbles into a feud between the village’s inhabitants, and their neighbour, Malcolm Ashcroft: whenever their pigs get loose, they inevitably make a beeline for Ashcroft’s land, annoying him; and some of their livestock have been killed and mutilated, which annoys them, assuming that Malcolm is responsible.

Getting to know Malcolm, Tara becomes convinced that, despite circumstantial evidence, he’s not the night-time trespasser and chicken beheader that Sam Jackson, in charge of the community at Salmon Creek, thinks him. She puts her expertise in internet marketing to good use in helping Malcolm out with his grandmother’s notes on mushroom collecting, and they start investigating a case of fungus theft which turns into something much more serious.

It’s a testament to Buroker’s ability to spin a plot that none of this seems in the least contrived and is completely plausible. Tara and Malcolm and the other members of the eco village are nicely drawn, and there’s a bit of fun poked at the conventions of the romance novel:

The fitted gray T-shirt highlighted muscular back and shoulders, with arms to match. Why was it always the utter asshats that had such nice bodies?

Of course Malcolm turns out to be nicer than this terrible first impression, and his back story, and part explanation for why he’s been so un-neighbourly, is given in a realistic sort of way. I love the way that Tara googles him after their second meeting, finding out that he was a ‘smoke-jumper’, a sort of mobile fire-fighter, and that he survived a bush fire which claimed the lives of the rest of his team-mates. Their growing camaraderie and feelings for one another grow naturally and the conclusion to their adventure is rather sweet.

The fact that Malcolm’s grandmother was an expert on fungi becomes relevant later on, when they discover who’s actually been behind the attacks on the eco-village, and there’s a great action climax after a lot of running (or driving) around.

I really liked the setting, which Buroker realised nicely – I also liked the couple of digs at the Twilight phenomenon by Tara when realising that the lab they’ll visit with a sample of a particular fungus is in Forks. Altogether, it was more of a mystery or adventure novel kind of plot with a romance as a secondary element, which I liked. I also liked the little nod (maybe unintentional) to Buroker’s protagonist, Tikaya Komitopis, of the Encrypted and Decrypted books of the Latin name of the crucial fungus Fomitopsis officinalis.

This was a fun read, with plenty of action, and appealing characters.

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

REVIEW: Wild Justice – Kelley Armstrong

2013 Sphere e-book cover

2013 Sphere e-book cover

(Sphere e-book 2013)

Francis Bacon wrote: “Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office.” This book, the third in Armstrong’s series following Nadia Stafford, a former Canadian police officer turned contract killer, considers the act of revenge, of killing to avenge a perceived or actual wrong.

The two previous books in the series, Exit Strategy and Made To Be Broken, were crime novels with hitmen as detectives, dishing out retribution as they saw fit (it’s a bit odd that one can read a book in which the protagonist and her allies can kill so easily, even if those killed are criminals themselves, and actually find oneself rooting for Nadia and her colleagues). A traumatic event in her childhood, the rape and murder of her cousin Amy, has haunted Nadia for twenty years, and her shooting of rape suspect Wayne Franco seven years previously, cost her a job she loved. The suspect in Amy’s murder, Drew Aldrich, was never convicted. This event has shadowed Nadia’s life and has been referred to in both previous books. In Wild Justice, after she has to abort a hit, which leads to the death of the woman the hit was meant to protect, her mentor Jack gives her the chance to confront Drew Aldrich, who Jack has tracked down despite the man’s several aliases and changes of town.

However, confronting Aldrich leads to the uncovering of memories Nadia has buried for years, and she’s determined to find out who really did kill Amy and bring him to justice. While she is doing this, she also resolves unfinished business with Quinn, a federal marshal who also moonlights as a hitman, and with whom she’s broken up recently after having been in relationship for about six months; and with Jack.

While you could read Wild Justice without having read either of the first two novels in the series, it makes more sense, and one is much more invested in the outcome of the novel, having read Exit Strategy and Made To Be Broken. I try to be relatively objective in these reviews, but I really can’t say how much I enjoyed the Nadia-Jack pairing and how it came about in this book: they had been avoiding the issue over the previous books, and I thought Armstrong handled that build-up and its resolution really well. Again, it seems odd that one would root so much for a love interest who is nearly seventeen years Nadia’s senior and who has been killing people for money for nearly thirty years, but Jack is right for Nadia because he understands the dark parts of her psyche that make her able to kill, and is willing to do anything he can for her.

I love the way Armstrong writes their dialogue: Jack’s Irish, though he’s lived in the US for years, so that his accent only comes out with people he trusts, and, like many Irish people, his speech is liberally peppered with ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’, which Nadia occasionally makes fun of, along with his tendency to speak in a kind of telegraphese, omitting pronouns and extraneous adjectives. Their attraction to each other is realistically depicted, as are the effects this has on their relationships with Quinn and Evelyn, Jack’s former teacher and mentor. While the reader knows a lot about Nadia already from the previous books, Jack has remained something of an enigma – as he has to her. In this we learn more about him, and there’s a real sense of how he’s changed from someone whom Evelyn describes in Made To Be Broken as having had “the worst case of fuck-the-world rage” she’d ever seen to a man who talks Nadia down from nightmares, and seriously engages with her about what they both want from their relationship.

I should add: in case you think the book’s all about Jack and Nadia’s romantic issues, it certainly isn’t – Armstrong’s plotting is excellent, and the build-up to Nadia’s quest and its resolution are very well done, making one invested in the pay-off. I think that’s one of the reasons I like this series so much: the characters are real and with problems they try to resolve, even if it’s often in a way that most of us wouldn’t dream of!

I don’t know if there’ll be any more in the series: Armstrong seems to have brought Nadia’s journey to a good conclusion, but she has left room for further stories if she wants.

I really enjoyed this, but suspect that you won’t enjoy the book as much or feel so invested in its conclusion without having read the first two books.

Posted in 2014 New Reads, Crime fiction, Fiction, Read on my Kindle, Reviews, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments