Monday, 31 December 2012

Essay: Review of 2012

2011 was my first full year of writing reviews, focused largely on fantasy. It was also the year I discovered both the pleasures and the pitfalls of self-published books, and that not every big-name author is to my taste. This year I set out to be more selective, and learned how to determine in as short a time as possible whether a book is for me or not. According to Goodreads, I read 102 books this year plus 7 others I attempted but abandoned: 8 rated 5* (7%), 39 rated 4* (36%), 43 rated 3* (39%), 10 rated 2* (9%) and 9 (including the 7 abandoned) rated 1* (8%). That’s an average rating of 3.2, marginally down on last year. Two thirds of my reading was fantasy this year. [Edited to add: Gender rating: 42 of that 109 (39%) were written by female authors, as far as I can tell. Some authors use initials to hide their gender, and some names are ambiguous, so if I had no idea I assumed male.]

It was also another inexpensive year. I bought a total of 149 books, mostly ebooks but a few actual books and one audiobook. However the average price was only £2.15 (around $3.50), down from £2.91 ($4.70) last year. 40 were completely free, either permanently or a special offer (such as Amazon’s Kindle Select program), and a few were a reward for a Kickstarter donation. A further 68 were below mass market paperback rates, costing me less than £3.50 (around $5.65). Not all of these were self-published books, either; mainstream publishers are also beginning to appreciate the value of special deals, and Amazon’s Daily Deals and seasonal promotions regularly came up trumps. I don’t accept free books for reviews and naturally I don’t download pirate ebooks, so anything that helps to keep down the cost of my reading helps. I never read a book just because it’s free or cheap, but if I’m dithering between options, I’ll usually go for the cheapest.

Best of the year

Temeraire by Naomi Novik: the Napoleonic Wars with dragons. A crazy premise, but it works beautifully, both on the level of historical detail and the social nuances of the era, and the dragons. Plenty of action, and the most interesting character by far is Temeraire the dragon. Review here. The follow-on Throne of Jade was just as good.

Voice of the Lost by Andrea K Höst: a wonderful follow-up to The Silence of Medair, with a surprise twist on almost every page, and yet all perfectly logical. Believable characters in an unusual setting. Review here.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani: a delightful YA fairy-tale with surprising depth, and an intelligent final twist. Review here.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson: I was disappointed by Elantris, but this one was a quantum leap better. Great magic system, some memorable characters and an action-packed finale. Review here.

Honourable mentions

Lots of good reading this year. Here are just a few:

Michael J Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series came to a dramatic conclusion, the six books improving in quality and depth with every volume. Series review here.

Stephen Deas’ Memory of Flames series rolls on with fast-paced action, fascinating if not necessarily likeable characters and fantasy’s meanest dragons. First of the series is The Adamantine Palace.

Funniest book of the year - Robert Bevan’s Critical Failures, about a group of table-top games players magically transported into their own characters and world, with interesting results.

My favourite sidekick - Lysander in Duchess of the Shallows by Daniel Ravipinto and Neil McGarry, a thoroughly enjoyable character-driven fantasy.

An intriguing and thought-provoking war between angels and demons in Tristan Gregory’s Twixt Heaven and Hell.

Charlotte E English’s main character has wings and a timid personality, but Draykon overcame all my initial reservations and produced a terrific readable story.

More of my best reads on my other blog here.

Self-publishing review
This year about half my reading has been self-published, although the distinction is increasingly blurred. Self-pubbers are picked up by publishing houses mid-series, traditionally published authors self-publish their experimental work or back catalogue, authors ‘publish’ with tiny independents which still expect them to do all the grunt work and even the big six publishers are muscling in on the act, seeing self-pubbers as another market to be tapped. But for the first time there are signs that big publishing and authors are reaching a more grown-up relationship. Authors no longer have to make the difficult decision between a standard contract which gives them the freedom to write but with virtually no control over marketing, or self-publishing which has all the control but also all the work. Hugh Howey, the author of the surprise hit 'Wool', recently negotiated a deal where he retains all the rights to his ebooks, while the publisher markets the printed books. Authors with a proven selling record have power, and are finally realising it.

But for the vast majority of self-publishing authors it's a dispiriting business. They might sell a few copies, but getting reviews, and getting noticed amongst the deluge of books now swilling around on Amazon is increasingly difficult. It's tempting to game the system, but Amazon is clamping down on authors who write reviews as a favour to fellow authors, even though they might be genuine, while being unable, it seems, to do anything about the flood of paid-for reviews. It is also nerve-wracking to rest your authorial future on a mega-corporation like Amazon, whose goal is to shift product. Amazon has been very kind to self-publishers to date, but that is a marketing strategy focused on profit margins and scoring points off the big publishers, and could change overnight.

I’ve been saddened, too, by favourite authors who have disappeared. Sue Rule, who wrote the unforgettable Shehaios trilogy, reports on her last blog entry that she’s no longer writing fiction owing to an ‘overdose of reality’. Amy Rose Davis, whose ‘Ravenmarked’ was one of my most enjoyable reads of the year, has genuinely vanished, no longer to be found on Goodreads, Facebook or Amazon, and I have no idea why. I can only worry about her, and hope for the best.

A thank you to authors

I’ve enjoyed some great reading this year, with fewer disappointments and what-was-I-thinking moments. Even when a book was not to my taste, I could admire the originality and energy and the quality of the writing. So, to all the authors whose works I’ve read and reviewed - a big thank you. I hear a great deal these days about authors behaving badly, but I have never encountered anything but politeness from authors I’ve reviewed.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

My fellow blogger Nathan has written some new fantasy reviews that might interest you over on Fantasy Review Barn, the blog I share with him:

The Pratchett review is part of Nathan's project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here. The Barney Awards (our 12 Days of Christmas irreverent best-of list) continues until 5th January.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Essay: Reasons Given For Not Reviewing Self-Published Books

...and a few reasons why it might be a good idea

I’m a big fan of self-published books, which give me some of my best reading at a very good price. But not everyone is so enamoured. Book review bloggers love to read, they love to write reviews, they love to connect with other readers. But a lot of them just won't touch self-published books. Here are some of the reasons they give:

1: I can get all the books I want from the traditional publishers. This is actually a perfectly good reason. Nobody can read every book published each year, even the most voracious readers can only get through 300-400 a year, if they gobble them up at the rate of a book a day or so. Most will read 1-2 per week, some less than that. So reviewers have to be selective, and choosing to read only the output of publishing houses is as good a method as any other. It's the safe choice.

2: I don't have time. This is a curious one. Superficially it makes no sense, because if you have time to read one book, you have time to read a different one. Does it take more time to read a self-published book than any other kind? No, actually, they're often shorter, but that's not really what this is about. It's not the reading time that's at issue, it's the time to find self-published books that you might want to read. Many book review bloggers are sent free books by publishers in the hope that they'll publicise them. Often they buy their own books as well. So there's always a huge pile of books waiting to be read. When they finish one, they just go to the bookcase or fire up the Kindle and pick another that appeals. It takes virtually no time because they are choosing from a limited supply (of hundreds, maybe, but still limited). But how do you find self-published books? Amazon has endless thousands of them, and it can be daunting to trawl though the lists reading the reviews, the blurb and perhaps the sample. And it takes hours. Ideally you want some recommendations, but that's hard to find because - guess what - many bloggers won't review self-published books. So it's easy to see why many bloggers stick to what's most readily available. Another safe choice.

3: Self-publishing authors might behave badly. It's true that some self-published authors react very badly to critical reviews. It's equally true that some traditionally published authors throw hissy fits from time to time, too (or their agents, spouses and publishers do). But there is a more fundamental problem with self-published authors, which is that the relationship is much more personal. Reviewers have no contact with a traditionally published author, because review copies are sent by the publisher or the marketing department to the blogger, either on request or unsolicited. Self-published authors, however, are doing all their own marketing, so they necessarily have to contact the blogger direct. This immediately creates a cyber-relationship between author and reviewer. Instead of dealing with author S Smith, suddenly  you're exchanging emails with Sarah, who apologises for the delay in responding but she had to take her two-year-old to the doctor. This creates a real problem for reviewers: it's very tempting to agree to read a book just because the author seems like such a nice person, but what if you absolutely hate it? Can you really write a critical review? So it's easier just to say upfront: no self-published authors.

4: So much self-published work is terrible. Now I have a lot of sympathy with this point of view. Traditionally published books have been through some sort of selection process, they’ve been edited and tinkered with and polished so that the amateur mistakes have been weeded out. I may not enjoy the story, but I won't be distracted with creative approaches to spelling, punctuation and grammar. Self-published books haven’t necessarily been subjected to the same quality control - or any editing process at all, it sometimes seems. And given the vast numbers of self-published books being released nowadays (many times more than traditionally published), it can give the impression that they’re all rubbish. In my experience, traditionally published books conform to a rough bell curve - a small number of amazing ones, a much larger number of good and quite good ones, and a small number of terrible ones (terrible to me, that is). Self-published books fit exactly the same distribution - BUT there is also a long, long tail of books below my personal threshold of readability. Then the problem becomes one of finding the enjoyable ones (see point 2 above). So again, it’s easier to just say no.

5: They don't generate hits on the blog. This is an interesting one, which translates into: no one's ever heard of them. Well, true, but only up to a point. Most are unknowns, but there are actually quite a number of established authors who have made the switch to self-publishing. A lot of romance writers are jumping ship, for instance, because of the very restrictive contracts the publishers impose. Working independently, they have more creative freedom, can interact directly with fans and also make more money. Some authors stay with a publisher for their mainstream books, but self-publish their back catalogue, edgier work or anything that doesn't fit the publisher's marketing strategy. But yes, most self-publishers are unknowns. Then the question becomes whether a blogger wants to inform readers about interesting books regardless of where they come from (assuming they can find them, see point 2 above). But again, sticking to the well-known names is very much the safe option.

So, OK, there are some good reasons for reviewers to avoid self-published books, and that's their decision to make. Self-published books are the risky option - you never know what you're going to get. It might be a masterpiece, it might be a trite rehashing of an already overused story, riddled with typos, bad grammar, poor writing and cardboard characters, or it might be a stream of abusive emails from the aggrieved author. But even if you could find the masterpiece amidst all the rubbish, are there any reasons to review self-published books rather than mainstream?

Reasons to review self-published books:

1: They're cheap. Generally speaking, self-published books are less than half the price of the typical mainstream book. You can buy 2-3 self-published books for the cost of one mass market paperback, and 5-6 for the price of a standard hardback. For those of us feeding our reading habits ourselves, that makes a significant difference. For those who accept free books for review, self-published authors are almost always willing to send an ebook.

2: They're more original. Obviously, traditional publishers put out a certain amount of truly imaginative work as well, but on the whole they tend to be conservative, to run with what's selling well at the moment, to prefer books that fit a certain style. They’re slow moving, too; very often they’re busy pumping out look-alike books long after the market has moved on. Self-published authors have no such constraints. They can cross genres with impunity, write exactly what they want, respond instantly to trends, be as different as they like. This doesn't always work, of course, but even the slightly wonky efforts can be hugely rewarding to read.

3: I like to reward initiative. It’s a struggle for authors to be noticed. Only a small proportion ever get picked up by a publisher, and until recently the rest might as well not exist. They were invisible. Not so any longer. Many rejected hopefuls turn to self-publishing in despair, and others just don’t want the hassle of all those rejections. Many of them work hard to present their work professionally and to market it, in a climate which is openly hostile towards them. It can be dispiriting, so it’s nice to give a helping hand to those who deserve it, and are not getting help or money or encouragement from anyone else.

4: Self-published authors are nice people. Yes, yes, I know a few of them behave appallingly, and quite a number of reviewers have been burned by that. But I’ve never yet had a bad response from an author, and I don’t pull any punches, either. If a book has flaws in my opinion, I say so in my review. I’ll quite happily hand out 1* and 2* reviews to books that just didn’t work for me, and no one’s ever got stroppy about it. On the contrary, some of the most gracious messages I’ve received were in response to poorly rated books, and some authors are abjectly grateful for any review at all. But when I’m genuinely able to write a glowing review for a self-published book, I really get a buzz out of that. I realise that a big-name author neither knows nor cares what I think of his/her work, but self-published authors do, and I enjoy being able to make their day.

5: I don’t care where a book comes from. I would guess, actually, that most readers feel that way. Apart from formula books (like romances, for instance), few readers slavishly follow specific publishing houses. Authors, maybe, but not publishers. It’s the story that matters, and the writer who created it, the way it was published is irrelevant.

6: I might be the first to spot the next best-seller. Actually, I’m not terribly bothered about this, and it’s not why I read self-published books, but it’s definitely fun to be the first to post a review, and to find the real gems amidst all the junk. It’s also nice, in some ways, to watch a self-published author grow from nowhere and become successful.

7: The next book will arrive quicker. You would think, wouldn’t you, that as soon as an author hands the finished manuscript over to a publisher, then the book would appear in the stores a fixed amount of time later? Not so. Part 5 of a mega best-selling series that millions are panting to get their hands on can be whizzed through the process in a matter of weeks. For most authors, however, it’s a more leisurely business, and will be slotted into the publisher’s marketing schedule whenever convenient, which might be years away. Self-publishing authors don’t have that problem. They still have to go through the usual steps of editing, finding cover art and so on (or they should!), but then it’s straight off to Amazon. So fans don’t have to wait so long between books, and with the traditional fantasy trilogy, that's a significant difference.

OK, so there are more reasons to read self-published books than there are not to read them, but that doesn’t mean everyone should immediately change their reading habits. For those who are happy with traditionally published authors, that's fine. I'm not suggesting that anyone should fill their Kindle up with self-published books. But there are good, readable self-published books out there for those who want to try them. The real problem is - how to find them.

You might think that the Amazon bestseller list would be the way to go. Amazon posts the top 100 books in the fantasy genre, both free and paid-for, and surely any self-published book which makes it into the paid-for list will be worth reading? You might well think that, but you'd be wrong. About half the list is self-published, and while they're obviously popular, the question of whether they're worth reading is debatable. Those that I've read vary from brilliant to - well, unreadable (by me, anyway, although obviously a lot of people are unconcerned about creativity in the grammar, spelling and punctuation departments, and are relaxed about plot and characterisation too). Most are just meh - books that could have been better with a decent editor in the development process, to tighten up the plot and improve characterisation. The ideas are often good, but the execution is not always that great. Mind you, exactly the same could be said of some of the traditionally published books on the bestseller list.

It has to be said - the most popular books are not always the most intellectually satisfying, and this is probably true in all genres. My (admittedly limited) research into this suggests that most self-published fantasy that does well tends to be fairly simple: a single protagonist with a linear plotline and straightforward language, written in such a way that the reader never has to wonder exactly what is going on. This is in sharp contrast to some traditionally published successes, which tend towards the convoluted - multi-book series where you have to take notes as you go along, or reread regularly, or where the reader is parachuted into the middle of the action without any explanation or all of these (Malazan, I’m looking at you here).

So where else can a hopeful reader look? The book bloggers often don't review self-published books, but there are quite a few which specialise in them, if you trawl around. There are a few websites which actively encourage self-publishers, like There are websites like which include an active literature forum. Amazon has a very useful feature: ‘Customers who bought this also bought...’. Find a book you like, and Amazon will suggest up to 100 more of similar type. My preferred source is Goodreads, which connects you with like-minded friends, has specialised discussion forums and has an interesting recommendations feature. I get most of my suggestions from one or other of these sources. But the principle of caveat emptor applies: read the blurb, read the reviews, read the sample. Then, and only then, decide whether to buy. Of course, this applies equally to traditionally published books.

About half of my reading these days is self-published, and although I still come across the odd turkey, most are perfectly competent, readable efforts, well-presented and free from the most egregious errors, and a few are outstanding. Am I just lucky? No, I put a lot of effort into weeding out anything laced with poor grammar or spelling, a writing style that doesn’t sit well with me or plot features that I just don’t enjoy. But what’s left is mostly indistinguishable from traditionally published books. Which is exactly as it should be, of course.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Darker Angels' by M L N Hanover

This is the second of the ‘Black Sun’s Daughter’ series of urban fantasies, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Abraham. The first, ‘Unclean Spirits’, was a bit spotty, overfull of angst, shopping sprees and housecleaning, not to mention a certain amount of breathless sex. This one is a lot better in all respects. I find the three blokes a bit hard to distinguish, though, and even though I know there’s an ex-priest, a calm chanting one and the love interest, it still took me most of the book to get straight which one was which.

The plot this time involves an ex-FBI agent who’s been tracking down ‘riders’ (demons of some sort who latch onto a human, inhabiting their body), and wants the gang to kidnap a child because... OK, never mind about the plot. There are some dramatic encounters which never go quite the way they’re supposed to and it makes for a solid, pacy read. There are also the beginnings of depth to the characters and their relationships, and now that Jayné (the heroine, and if you think that name is bad, the sidekicks are called Ex, Chogyi Jake and Aubrey; but the FBI agent is Karen, so make of that what you will). Where was I? Oh yes, now that Jayné has calmed down a bit, she’s beginning to show signs of intelligent life. She thinks the way to wind down after a close encounter with a ‘rider’ is a night of heavy-duty clubbing, but it’s better than break-the-bank shopping binges, I suppose. She’s still not got much self-confidence, but the author is allowing her to grow rather well from book to book, and the dynamic between her and the three sidekicks is beginning to blossom nicely.

The story this time is set in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, and the setting is beautifully realised, and feels totally real and atmospheric. I’ve only been there once, many years ago, but some of the descriptions brought back vivid memories. The voodoo background is perfect for the story, too. There is some rather heavy-handed drawing of parallels between the Katrina-wrought changes and the events of Jayné’s life, but it does give the book a bit of much-needed depth.

A small quibble. I don’t expect to see punctuation issues with a book put out by a major publisher, but this one repeatedly had lines that went: ‘Blah blah blah, I said. It drove me nuts. Hiring a decent editor is not just for self-publishers. But it’s a minor point in a book which builds to a terrific finale. Again, nothing quite goes according to plan, but (as in the first book) I like the way that Jayné doesn’t quite turn into the all-powerful kick-ass heroine, gets injured and needs help and support from a few of her friends.

To be honest, I’m not much enamoured with urban fantasy. I like the big sweep of a created world, and it seems a little odd to me for characters to battle demons and then drive off down the I10 or pop into a Starbucks to check their email. But I’m very much enamoured of the writings of Daniel Abraham, so I’m definitely on board for the whole series. This was a step up from the first book, and the more credible heroine, evocative setting, breathless finale and greater depth make it four stars.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

My Other Blog: 12 Days of Christmas Barney Awards

Over at Fantasy Review Barn, my fellow blogger Nathan and I will be sharing some of our favourite reads of the year in the Barney Awards for 2012 - one lighthearted award for each of the 12 days of Christmas.

You can find the blog here.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Fantasy Review: 'The Sound of Shiant' by Hereward L M Proops

It's hard to know how to categorise this. It's historical fiction, certainly, and it's a murder mystery complete with investigating detective, and there's enough paranormal flavour to make it (I suppose) fantasy, so take your pick. The setting is Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides, and the dialogue is littered with plausible Scottish dialect and Gaelic, but don't let that put you off, because it's all very easy to read.

The plot is simple. It's 1882, and policeman Edmund Forrester is asked to investigate the disappearance of a young man from a fishing boat. The boat owner swears he fell overboard during a storm, but the victim's parents think there's more to it and the incident occurred in the Sound of Shiant, a mysterious body of water near the Shiant Islands hedged about with rumour and myth. Naturally, as soon as the hero begins to investigate, he's faced with opposition and downright obstruction from most of the locals, with a few more helpful souls and even just a teaspoonful of romance (sort of). Oh, and there’s a comic relief sidekick, as well.

My biggest problem with the book is the historical details. I don't know what Stornoway was like in 1882, so I'll assume the author's done his research there (although I did wonder a bit at the idea of pubs with booths), and London's Metropolitan Police did indeed have a Criminal Investigation Department and a small number of Detective Inspectors at that time (although only just). And all the characters seemed to smoke cigarettes constantly which seemed a bit unlikely. It was the divorce that got me. Forrester is divorced from his wife, yet he attends her second wedding, which takes place in church with the bride wearing a white dress amidst the usual celebrations. Why did they divorce? Because he devoted too much attention to his job.

Now divorce in 1882 was a very rare business indeed (a few hundred cases a year), and involved proving in court adultery, cruelty, desertion, bigamy or something equally major (and no, being obsessive about your work was not one of the allowable causes). There was always blame (one spouse had to sue the other for divorce), and even a hundred years later it was incredibly unusual and stigmatising for both parties. To this day it remains difficult to remarry in church (in England, anyway; Scotland is a little different). As for the white dress - you had to be rich to wear anything so impractical (even for a first wedding). It's not that any of this was actually impossible, I don't suppose, but the implausibility of it grated on me, and I almost gave up at that point.

What kept me going was the setting, the beautifully described Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides, or nowadays Na h-Eileanan Siar) and the waters round about. There was Gaelic and dialect scattered about everywhere, which seemed to my inexpert ears to sound exactly right. My Gaelic is negligible, but even so I recognised a few phrases and even spotted the odd occasion where a character mistranslated for the non-Gaelic-speaking main character.

Unfortunately, a nice way with language isn’t enough, and the book was a disappointment to me on almost every other level. The murder mystery wasn’t any mystery at all, the supernatural aspects were revealed in the prologue and the ‘hero’ is one of the most uninteresting and unlikeable I’ve ever come across. Determination to get to the bottom of things is a fine quality in a detective, but in this case it manifests as an aggressive refusal to give up, wilful disregard for his own or anyone else’s safety and some breathtakingly stupid decisions. Plus he decided at an early stage that the supernatural element was involved, even when he was told repeatedly that such things belonged to mythology. It’s an odd thing when the sophisticated English detective is more superstitious than the traditional islanders. A strange book. I couldn’t get past the improbabilities, but for those with a better developed ability to suspend disbelief this is a perfectly readable little story. Two stars for the atmospheric setting and the Gaelic.

Fiction Review: 'The Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro

Goodreads has 42,945 ratings of this book, and 2,892 reviews. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said already, and considerably better than any combination of words I can come up with? Nothing at all, probably, but I’m going to have a bash anyway.

I first read this many years ago, and regarded it as one of the best books I’d ever read. This time, I tried the audiobook version, read by Dominic West, who has the appropriate gravitas for Stevens the butler. The plot - well, it hardly matters, being merely a vehicle to demonstrate the buttoned-up and rather tragic personality of Stevens himself, reminiscencing on the past glory days of the house where he serves. His memories of past events, coloured entirely by his own fossilised perspective of the professional nature of being in service, form the body of the story.

This has to be one of the finest descriptions of a single mind I have ever read. The author uses language with such skill that the reader completely understands Stevens and his world view, while also appreciating that the events described solely from his perspective are capable of alternative interpretations. While Stevens performs his duties with impeccable care, he is completely oblivious to the social nuances emanating from the people and events around him, which leads him occasionally to behave in misguided, almost wilfully blind, ways. Meanwhile his employer, Lord Darlington, is equally misguided in his efforts to promote the cause of Fascist Germany and equally oblivious to political nuances. Several times Lord Darlington is referred to as an amateur in politics, which contrasts elegantly with the professionalism of the butler.

I am not sure that I agree with the apparent suggestion of the later parts of the book that master and servant have both wasted their lives on inappropriate efforts. History is written by the victors, and if the war had turned out differently, then those who, like Lord Darlington, made approaches towards Hitler would have been fêted as heroes, not lambasted as near-traitors. And any employee who has done his job to the very best of his ability for many years can hardly be said to have wasted his life. I’m not sure that Stevens would ever have been capable of a normal life, regardless of occupation, so it seems unlikely that he made unreasonable sacrifices for his job. Frankly, I wondered quite what Miss Kenton saw in him.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, I still see little wrong with this book. The language is perfectly tuned for the voice of Stevens, the insight into his personality is profound and there is enough social commentary hidden below the surface to satisfy the need for depth. Five stars.

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

My fellow blogger Nathan has written some posts that might interest you over on the blog I share with him:

The Pratchett review is part of Nathan's project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here. Note that the blog has had a name change - it's now Fantasy Review Barn.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Daughter of the Flames' by Zoë Marriott

This is a short but very readable young adult book, with the standard-issue feisty female lead, plenty of action, large dollops of angst and a romance at its heart. It doesn’t stray very far from fantasy conventions: the heroine is the heir to the kingdom, brought up in secret in a religious order, the only survivor of a massacre by the villain, and there’s no real-world messing about with giving him a believable personality or realistic motivations - he’s essentially barking mad. The plot is the usual series of set-piece narrow escapes and dramatic encounters, while the heroine gears up for her save-the-world role. This makes for a fast-paced roller-coaster ride, and it’s all fairly entertaining.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Mystery Review: 'Brilliant Prey' by Brenda Wallace

The pundits say that the opening of a book is the most important part to captivate the reader, and I suppose it’s just as important as a way of losing the reader, too. So it is with this book. I had only got to page 2 and I was floored by a simple puzzle. Our heroine receives a letter which contains six hangman puzzles, which she and her sister proceed to solve in no time - all by themselves. Forgive me for being stupid, but isn't hangman a game where both sides, originator and guesser, have to participate? It's not like a cryptic crossword puzzle, where the whole point is to deduce the answer by yourself.

So that set me off on the wrong foot straight away. Then there were a bunch of new characters introduced, a lot of brand-name dropping (do we need to know the heroine has a Gateway computer?) and then more puzzles... And I couldn't get interested because half my mind was still trying to get past the hangman incident. Now maybe there’s some ingenious way to play a one-sided game that I don’t know about, and if someone explains it to me I’ll give this book another go, but for now it’s just too off-putting for me to concentrate on the rest of it. Lots of people seem to like this, so I guess it’s just me. One star for a DNF.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Affirmation' by S J Faerlind

I read Prophecy, the first book in the Lirieias Children series, a few months ago and I enjoyed it although I had some issues, but after that slightly tentative debut this is a much more assured piece of writing. The story picks up exactly where the previous book left off, with the Gryffin split into two camps, Kratyn the rebel taking his supporters elsewhere, and Jurel uniting with the Orryn to attempt to defeat the aggressive Lord Defender, ruler of the plains humans, in the belief that Anarion is the Child of Prophecy.

The first book spent a lot of time introducing the various races of Gryffin, Orryn and humans (and not forgetting the tiny Grovale, who act as servants for the Gryffin), and building the characters, particularly the strangely bonded pair, Anarion the human/Orryn and Teryl the Gryffin. This one hits the ground running, with action almost right from the start, but theres enough information to remind readers of events and characters from the first book. I enjoyed seeing the extraordinarily timid Orryn coming out of their sheltered valleys and undertaking dangerous missions on their own. The author cleverly shows us some fairly familiar human activities, like music-making, dancing and the copious consumption of beer, through bemused Orryn eyes (although surely they have music in Orryn society?). I loved the way they diligently took notes of everything they saw, in a properly scientific manner. The Orryn make a refreshing change from the typical fantasy hero type, who is often brimming with self-confidence, or at least a willingness to swing a sword where necessary. The Orryn, by contrast, are so averse to aggression that they keel over into unconsciousness whenever confronted with it.

The magic system is made clearer in this book, and it turns out to be rather simple, but powerful in an ingenious variety of ways. I very much like the way humans need to power their magic with stones, but the Orryn have an innate ability. This distinction leads to some surprising (although completely logical) differences in their abilities. More specifically, both races have some powers which the other is incapable of. As with most fantasy, magic is used both to spring surprises on the characters, and also to enable them to get out of trouble, but the possibilities are laid out well in advance so that it never feels like a cheat.

I grumbled a bit in my review of the first book that too little was revealed about Sharra (Anarions mother) and the Lord Defender (the villain of the piece). Both omissions are rectified very satisfactorily in this book. The Lord Defender, in particular, steps out of the shadows now and becomes a character in his own right, and although it doesnt entirely make his motivations clearer (but then Ive never understood the desire for global domination, frankly, so maybe thats just me), nevertheless it makes him a more real and rounded person instead of a nebulous bad guy. I rather like his sidekick, Branden, too, who's rather more intelligent than is usual for the villain's henchman.

The ending was something of a surprise, not exactly a let-down, but a relatively low-key moment. But then the whole book is very much about the characters and how they come to adapt to their changed circumstances rather than being a high action affair, so this was very much in keeping with the rest of the book. In fact, the last few chapters, and especially the revelations regarding Jinelle and Bashide, were very moving. It's not an easy task to create non-human characters that resonate with the reader just as much as humans while staying true to their own natures, but this is something the author has achieved magnificently, as well as creating clearly distinct cultures, even amongst the various humans. This book is a huge step up from its predecessor. It's still rather wordy and formal, but that is, after all, part of the Orryn nature, so it's highly appropriate. In the end, it's the characters who stick in my mind - Anarion and Teryl, the enterprising Kaidal and Talla, Shayla, dignified in captivity (and perhaps influencing the Lord Defender in positive ways), and many more. A thoroughly enjoyable read, and a good four stars.

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

My fellow blogger Nathan has written some posts that might interest you over on the blog I share with him:

Nathan also has a project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Romance Review: 'A Scandalous Season' by Nancy Lawrence

This is a gentle Regency romance which starts with rather a splendid flourish, but degenerates quite quickly into a dull and predictable tale. This sort of book inevitably runs on rails - heroine meets hero, dislikes him on sight, begins to like him but there are insuperable obstacles and so on and so forth. It’s entirely up to the skill of the author to overcome the constraints of the formula and develop the characters and plot-twists in interesting ways. In this case, the heroine has a certain naive charm, but the hero seemed to veer from sympathy to sneering dislike to anger and back again at the drop of a hat. The conceit of two men competing for the lady as a wager is a very overused one, and again, the hero wavers, telling himself one minute that such a thing is despicable behaviour and the next chasing after her enthusiastically. I also wasn’t very enamoured of the author’s habit of telling us the thoughts of several characters, jumping from one to another within the scene. There’s no law against it, but it does make the story somewhat unfocused, I find. For those who enjoy Georgette Heyer, this is a pale imitation, nothing but froth, but is a pleasant enough way to pass the time, if you don’t mind the mistakes. I do; there are numerous editing errors, and the third use of ‘ingenious’ instead of ‘ingenuous’ was the final straw. One star for a DNF.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Mystery Review: 'The Dark Shepherds' by Ian Kennedy Martin

So - there's an alcoholic ex-cop, half Welsh and half Irish and a quarter Corsican (I may have got this slightly wrong), and there's a murderer, with multiple identities, always on the run. And yes, the murderer is a main character, who gets his own point of view. And there's a murder in Paris and another one at a vineyard, seemingly not connected, and it's all very complicated and written in a style which is perhaps meant to be ironic noir, or stylishly gritty, or possibly satirical, I can't really be sure. Basically, I found it very hard to follow, and wasn't interested in the characters either, so I'm abandoning ship. The author has a distinguished career behind him as a screenwriter of cop shows, so possibly things perk up later on. One star for a DNF.

Fantasy Review: 'The Bones of the Earth' by Scott Bury

[Review rewritten for greater accuracy and clarity]

This is a curious book. The setting is unusual, sixth century Eastern Europe, although it didn’t feel any different from a great many other fantasy works in that respect, at least not in the early parts. The protagonist, Javor, is an interesting character, an immature fifteen year old who doesn't fit in at all with his family and society and is shunned as an outcast. Of course, he has strange powers, not yet fully developed and... Well, I think we can see where this is going.

Now there's nothing wrong with retelling a familiar story, and this one has some nice original twists. Still, it does feel rather hackneyed at times. There’s the wise old mentor guiding the young man along and encouraging him to fulfil his true potential. There’s the inevitable quest, there are a couple of magic gizmos and some monsters to be defeated - and no, there’s never any doubt that they will be defeated. However unoriginal the trappings of the story, though, it’s refreshing to see a hero who is, in many ways, very unhero-like. He seems, to my inexpert eyes, to be almost autistic in his aversion to social interaction. This might be a part of his abilities or it might be unconnected, but it’s interesting.

So, having defeated a few monsters, the hero and his mentor are about to set off on a journey to Constantinople when - the book ends with the dispiriting words: ‘End of Part 1. The remainder of The Bones of the Earth: Initiation Rites can be purchased for 99 cents on Smashwords.’ Well, no it can’t. If I want to read the rest of the story, it seems my only option is to pay the full cost of the whole book, having already paid for what is apparently only a sample. If I were enthralled by the story so far, perhaps I might do that, but while it has its moments, it's a bit meh, so I think I'll pass. One star for a DNF.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Mystery Review: 'Landed Gently' by Alan Hunter

This is the fourth of a very long series featuring the genial but persistent detective, George Gently. As the terrible pun of the title suggests, this episode sees Our Hero staying with the great and the good (or at least the rich and titled) over Christmas, where the festivities are inevitably interrupted by a murder. The setting, a large country house of some antiquity, gives the book the atmosphere of Agatha Christie fanfic. I usually enjoy the period details of these books, written in the fifties, but this is ground that has been covered a thousand times before - the creepy attics and winding stairs, the secret passages, billiard rooms and libraries, the butler and housemaids, the dressing for dinner and stuffy formality. There are some details of the meals which would interest foodies, but otherwise I found it a little ordinary.

The characters never quite seem to work in these books. Gently himself is almost too self-effacing, allowing others to take the lead in the investigation and then mildly asking the one crucial question that reveals the significant little detail. But this is better, perhaps, than the over-the-top buffoonery of his superior, who blusters and expostulates his way through the interrogations, completely confident in the innocence of the aristocracy and insistently looking for the murderer amongst the obviously less trustworthy lower classes. Then there is the lady of the house, who lies outright to the police and, when pressed, has hysterics or falls into a swoon at Gently's feet. Did women ever fall into swoons under stress? Perhaps Victorians struggling for breath in their tightly-laced stays, but certainly not normal, healthy women in the more accommodating fashions of the nineteen fifties.

The ending was slightly melodramatic, but not a huge surprise, on the whole. The murderer was apprehended, justice was done and so on and so forth, according to the conventions of such books, and no tricks were employed by the author to deceive the diligent reader keeping track of the likely suspects, so a satisfactory conclusion all round. The series isn’t great literature, and doesn’t compare with Agatha Christie, but this is a pleasant, undemanding read with an interesting backdrop of upper class and upper middle class life at the time. Three stars.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Life Shift' by Michelle Slee

I have no idea how to categorise this - paranormal with essence of quantum physics, I suppose, and not really a romance, being more about love and consciousness and being a parent and (perhaps) destiny. Whatever it is, it’s a perfect example of the value of Goodreads - there I was, trawling through the digest of posts on the Goodreads forums I frequent when I came across a post by the author mentioning this book. A couple of clicks later, I was reading the sample, came to the end, clicked again and... just kept reading. So, the value of Goodreads combined with Amazon, I suppose.

The premise is that the main character, Christine, starts to experience flashes of another life, where she’s married to a man she barely knows and a daughter she doesn’t remember at all. Only problem is - both she and the man are married to other people. There ensues a great deal of discussion of electrons and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Schrödinger’s cat, but it never gets heavy enough to qualify this as science fiction. This part of the book involves Christine in a lot of angsting of the this-can’t-really-be-happening-to-me type, interspersed with the far more interesting reveals about the ‘other’ life, where many things are the same but a few key things are different (Christine’s job, for instance - she’s a theology lecturer in the ‘other’ life, but some sort of office drone in this life; if the actual job was mentioned, I must have missed it).

Most of the book runs on fairly simplistic and predictable rails - increasing amounts of hopping about, Christine ‘remembering’ more about her ‘other’ life, including her feelings for ‘other’ husband Matt, and trying to reconcile this with her feelings for her husband in this world, Damien. And, perhaps more profoundly, she recalls her love for Teresa, her daughter with Matt, while with Damien she’s been unable to have children. I would have liked more detail about some of the people in Christine’s two lives, and the places are merely sketched in. The writing style is a little too sparse for my taste, and there’s a great deal of dialogue, making it seem more lightweight than it really is.

There are some improbabilities - the terribly convenient appearance of a quantum physicist, who not only explains the sciencey bits but also talks about souls; and the astonishing coincidence of Christine encountering surely the only NHS doctor in Britain who listens to her, believes her and doesn’t instantly put her on anti-depressants or have her sectioned. And then, almost too quickly, the end is rushing up at a rate of knots. I rather liked the ending, actually, which eschews the obvious options and instead takes an unexpectedly grown-up line (although the characters worked out how to get there a bit too easily).

This is not really a profound book, despite the quantum physics and discussion of consciousness, the characters don’t have much depth and it suffers from a writing style which is almost skeletal. It would have been improved, I think, by taking a little more time to describe the settings and allowing the characters to show their feelings and personalities in subtler ways, rather than expressing everything in dialogue. Nevertheless, I found it an easy, enjoyable read, hard to put down, with an unexpectedly sophisticated ending, so despite the flaws I’m going to give it four stars.

Fantasy Review: 'Moon Over Soho' by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the second in a series of urban fantasy/police procedurals set in London. They are rather whimsical, in a very British way, so if you’re allergic to self-effacing heroes, dry, understated humour and a severe lack of gun-battles, you should probably avoid this. I liked the first in the series, ‘Rivers of London’ (bizarrely called ‘Midnight Riot’ in the US), with a few reservations, but this one worked even better, I thought. It’s always a problem writing the first of what could be a lengthy series, since you have to establish the characters, the premise and the setting, while also constructing a major plot and weaving in a number of subplots which will run for some time. The second attempt is often much easier with the heavy lifting already done, as it were, and such is the case here.

The big attraction for me is the central character, Peter Grant, a fairly ordinary London copper who has been co-opted into the Metropolitan Police’s ‘magic’ department to train as a wizard after showing signs of magical ability. Unlike many such fantasy works, however, Peter doesn’t become all-powerful overnight, nor does he display unusual levels of ability. On the contrary, he struggles to learn anything at all, his spells often go wrong, and he regularly has to fall back on his not especially quick wits to get him out of trouble, leading to a surprising amount of (very entertaining) destruction of property. He is very male, however, which means that it isn’t always his brain which is doing the thinking, and in this book this leads to some improbably athletic sex.

The other characters are mildly interesting in their different ways, but not particularly compelling. The river spirits, who were a feature of the previous book, have a very small role in this one, and one-time potential girlfriend Lesley (a fellow cop who magically lost half her face in the first book) is sidelined here, but clearly is going to be developed further in future books. It’s a curious thing that almost all the female characters are either termagants (Tyburn, Stephanopoulos) or evil vampire-like creatures (several of those) or in some way weird or eccentric (Molly, Peter’s Mum). Then there’s the one who could be described literally as a man-eater. Ouch.

I do like a book that makes me laugh, and this one is laugh-out-loud funny (for those who get that low-key British humour, of course). I do wonder just how this sort of thing plays elsewhere - all those references to postwar architecture and A-roads and chavettes and Morse, and sly digs at Cheam and the peaceable nature of Glaswegians. Some of it is so subtle that many of the jokes must whizz over the heads of non-Brits. I’m sure I missed a few myself. The descriptions of London - Camden Market and Soho and the Trocadero - are probably less problematic, since the author describes them well enough for the reader to get some idea.

The plot - well, it’s not really the point of a book like this. Let’s just say that it’s a bit flimsy, but it serves well enough to get Our Hero to the appropriate number of setpiece encounters, where his limited magical abilities combined with some improvisation more or less get him out of trouble. As is usual in this type of book, the main plotline is neatly sewn up, with a scattering of characters and incidents left to bubble up in future books in the series. I’m not a big fan of urban fantasy as a rule, as it veers too close to horror for my taste, but this one is milder than the previous book in that respect, and the humour and gentle charm made it a totally enjoyable, if lightweight, experience. Four stars.

Sunday, 2 December 2012