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sjhigbee (Sussex, UK)

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Black Dog
Black Dog
Price: 5.48

5.0 out of 5 stars Neumeier's take on weres is far from black, 26 April 2014
This review is from: Black Dog (Kindle Edition)
This is an interesting twist on the supernatural world, with an innately difficult relationship between the short-fused, shape-shifting black dogs, their human relations and the Pure – those rare individuals whose magic can calm and civilise the darker instincts of the black dogs, who all too frequently slide towards darkness and bestiality. Neumeier’s hallmark is setting up a world with a set of magical laws – and then introducing a number of individuals who subvert those laws. So her fantastic landscapes are complicated by messy relationships, giving plenty of tension in amongst the action scenes and making them matter.

We first encounter the three siblings on the run. Natividad, one of the protagonists, is twin to fifteen-year-old human Miguel and both of them spend much of their time trying to keep their older black dog brother, Alejandro, calm enough to keep his shadow at bay – the shadow that causes him to shapeshift. I very much like the fact that anyone dealing with the black dogs in human form has to take care not to extend eye contact and keep their body language submissive. It’s details like this which elevate the run of the mill to the above average.

Neumeier certainly drops us right in the middle of the action. The attack that wipes out the youngsters’ village and orphans them is the aftermath of a recent war fought and won against the vampires. Most black dog clans fought against the vampires, who managed to keep their existence and that of any other supernatural beings below human radar with their mind-fogging skills. Now that they have gone, the black dog clans are counting the cost – and some opportunistic, brutal individuals are making a play for the power vacuum opened up by the defeat of the vampires. Neumeier’s is a great proponent of ‘show, don’t tell’, so these slices of information unfold within the story – but what it means is that the reader is presented with a strongly crafted world with a detailed backstory every bit as riveting as the narrative arc within the book. The other main character in the book is Alejandro, who now has to try and demonstrate sufficient control to get himself and his siblings accepted by the Dimilioc clan – and if he doesn’t it will mean almost certain death. Through his viewpoint, we learn about the issues black dogs face if they are to keep their humanity and not slide into feral strays that end up ripping their own family apart, before going on the run.

I really enjoy the fact that Neumeier always portrays the cost involved in being part of a magical/supernatural community – and the cost is invariably high. I’ve read one or two protests at the manner in which Natividad agrees to pair up with any of the black dogs offered to her, when she turns sixteen. I didn’t have a problem with this aspect of the story. She is a fertile female within a community of half-animals – it is a consequence of this difference that such terms are negotiated, and Neumeier makes it clear that the humans within the clan are also part of the ranking. If they cannot contribute something useful, they will be right at the bottom of the heap – a miserably uncomfortable spot…

I’m conscious that this review gives the impression that this is some worthy read full of interesting world-building and complex characters – and not much else… What I haven’t mentioned is that from the moment I picked up this book, it hauled me into the world and I read faaar into the early morning to discover what happened. Once more, Neumeier has produced a cracking, satisfying read – and I’m hoping that Black Dog is the start of a series as I want more of this excellent world.
10/10


Acid Sky
Acid Sky
Price: 0.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The sky isn't the limit for this science fiction adventure, 26 April 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Acid Sky (Kindle Edition)
For those of you who have read and enjoyed Anson’s offering Below Mercury, this book goes back into pilot Clare Foster’s past and gives us a slice of her training, when she first visited the skies above Venus. If you enjoy your science fiction on the hard side, then Anson is your man. His world-building is a geek’s dream, with beautiful line drawings of the various craft he portrays in his story. As you can see from the examples I have included – which show up a treat on my very basic Kindle – he has included all sorts of small details, some of which are mentioned in the book, and some are implicitly alluded to. There is also a section at the back of the book with plenty of extra details about Venus, the acid sky and those amazing craft. However, I have read plenty of amazing futuristic worlds depicted by science fiction authors, who wouldn’t know narrative pace if they fell over it in a wormhole… Anson is one of the other sort – those who not only have an excellent grasp of all the techie toys, but nevertheless can also spin a great story and write convincing characters.

Which is just as well, because his protagonist is young Clare Foster and the nature of the storyline means that this could have gone oh so horribly wrong. Dedicated, talented and extremely hard-working, nevertheless Clare is greener than a four-leaved shamrock when she finds herself on the huge carrier Langley, which is harvesting elements from the surrounding skies as well as providing a convenient stopover for traffic moving back and forth to Mercury.

She falls foul of a fellow officer – and rather than just put up and shut up, as she is advised to do, she decides to mete out her own revenge. With startling consequences… The early stages of this book is full of Clare’s experiences as a pilot and the pace is not exactly leisurely, but it isn’t a foot-to-the-floor adrenaline rush, either. But what it does do, is make us really care about Clare and get to know her thoroughly before she is plunged into her adventure. As well as give us plenty of insights into just how everything works on this world, with all the checks and balances and safety regulations, we get the sense that those living and working in this hostile environment know it well and have more or less got it under control… Until it all goes wrong, of course. It’s a very neat trick. I cannot recall reading a book where I minded so much about the technology and what happens to it. As for Anson, this is his second book and it shows. The pacing is more sure-footed and while he takes risks with the particular storyline he has chosen, I think his depiction of Clare has managed to avoid the accusation that he has set up his female protagonist as a sex victim in a lazy plot device. The situation she finds herself in is all too believable – and Anson’s handling of the whole incident is well done. I’m looking forward to reading Anson’s next book. His particular format of juxtaposing the impressive technical ingenuity alongside the frailty and inherent rule-breaking that goes on in any human community makes for some riveting storytelling.
9/10


The Islanders
The Islanders
Price: 3.49

5.0 out of 5 stars A Guide through a Dreamy Archipelago, 26 April 2014
This review is from: The Islanders (Kindle Edition)
The Dream Archipelago is a vast network of islands. The names of the islands are different depending on who you talk to, their very locations seem to twist and shift. Some islands have been sculpted into vast musical instruments, others are home to lethal creatures, others the playground for high society. Hot winds blow across archipelago and a war fought between two distant continents is played out across the waters. The Islanders serves as an untrustworthy but enticing guide to the islands, an intriguing multi-layered tale of a murder and the suspect legacy of its appealing but definitely untrustworthy narrator.

Whether this book could be called a novel is a matter for debate – the overall narrative spine of The Islanders is a visitor’s guide to some of the islands within the Dream Archipelago with a series of short, factually concise guides to a range of islands. At the same time, we become increasingly aware that this task is doomed to failure. Because of temporal anomalies that are now routinely used by aircraft to shorten flights, it is very difficult to accurately map large sections of the Archipelago. It gets worse – even trying to standardise the names of these islands proves a challenge as there are frequently anything up to three alternatives names for each one. And at least one of the poorer, less attractive islands appears to have appropriated the name of one of its more prosperous, popular neighbours in the hope of attracting a section of their tourist trade.

Who has embarked on this project of writing a gazetteer? We are never told. At least we are on solid ground at the beginning of the book – the famous novelist, Chaster Kammeston has written the Prologue – an oblique and rather qualified approval of the whole undertaking. However, one of the sections near the end of the book describes Chaster’s death – so how can he have read and approved of the manuscript sufficiently to have written the Prologue? Again, don’t expect Priest to provide any answers.

If the book has merely contained a series of tourist guide details about a bunch of non-existent islands, it would have joined my growing pile of DID NOT FINISH books on the grounds that Life is too short. But Priest is a fine writer – and mixed in amongst the clipped, impersonal island descriptions are a number of vivid characters, some amusing, some dark and some plain sad. A handful of these characters, including Chaster, constantly keep appearing and reappearing, building up a drifting, insubstantial plot that shifts as soon as you start to rely on it as the thread that will pull this book into a coherent whole. Even the chronology jumps around – nothing is certain.

So... did I enjoy this? Oh yes. Priest’s evocation of a vast, shifting population of islands that are resistant to any firm cataloguing is a temptingly attractive backdrop to his flickers of characterisation and drama. I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come.
10/10


The Mad Scientist's Daughter
The Mad Scientist's Daughter
Price: 5.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Mad About The Mad Scientist's Daughter, 26 April 2014
The strapline on the cover of this intriguing book is A Tale of Love, Loss and Robots. And that is exactly what it is about.

Finn looks and acts human, though he has no desire to be. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection. A billion-dollar construct, his primary task now is to tutor Cat. As she grows into a beautiful young woman, Finn is her guardian, her constant companion… and more. But when the government grants right to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world, and her heart.

If you’re looking for a slam-dunk, action fuelled adventure full of clear-cut baddies and heavy-tech weaponry, then don’t pick up The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Because this offering is on the literary end of the genre, with nuanced, three-dimensional characterisation and coolly sophisticated prose that places this book in a heavily contemporary setting, due to the recent crash in civilisation – and also accounts for the sudden, huge reliance on robots, as their tireless assistance is needed to provide vital labour in rebuilding society. Not that this is the focus of this tale.

This story concentrates on Cat and her relationship with the world, after having been tutored by a robot for all her formative years. And, by default, Finn’s relationship with Cat also is under close examination. Because the bond between them is heart and engine of the book, it has to be pitch-perfect. And it is. Don’t expect any black and white answers – this book is beautifully complex and Cat’s life unfolds in unexpected and sometimes disturbing directions. Cat is a challenging protagonist. At times, I really disliked her selfishness and assumption that her needs are paramount – but then, she was brought up by an endlessly patient mechanoid, whose main task was to entertain, teach and befriend the little girl. Why wouldn’t she believe her wishes were of supreme importance? However, this book cleverly displays her patent shortcomings – and then has her face a series of life events that challenge her assumptions. And as she gradually learns that much of the blithe assurances she and her father mouthed back in those early days were far too cosy and simplistic, we get a ringside seat to her suffering and gradual maturity. By the end of the book, I was thoroughly rooting for her – and for Finn, whose initial purpose is far from clear cut.

Clarke’s clever examination of this complicated and often emotional subject assumes her readers are equally intelligent and willing to allow her to gradually unfold some of the major problems surrounding close relationships between humans and robots in a thoroughly grown-up manner. I loved it and will be recalling this classic book for a long time to come.
10/10


Flare
Flare
Price: 2.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Apocalyptic science fiction written with flair, 26 April 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Flare (Kindle Edition)
Malcolm King is a journalist living in trendy Hove on the south coast of England. His days are taken up with video meetings and research on the internet while he writes articles for magazines around the world. When a solar flare of unprecedented magnitude hits the Earth, effectively hurling us back to the stone age in a matter of hours, Malc is thrust into a terrifying new world as he travels the length of the country to find his young daughter.
Faced with difficult choices at every turn, Malc draws his strength from those around him; Emily, a tough, no-nonsense soldier with a soft spot for lost causes and Jerry, a disgraced astrophysicist who may be the only person left who understands what's happening with the sun. With their help, he must struggle to answer the ultimate question. What won't he do to get his daughter back?

What actually caught and held me was Grzegorzek's protagonist, Malc. He is thoroughly believable as an ordinary chap caught up in a series of unthinkable, violent adventures as he is yanked from his everyday existence with a suddenness that snares us into the story faster than you can say aurora borealis. Malc is decently normal, without an ounce of testosterone-driven anything - which I found immensely refreshing and utterly realistic. He's a magazine journalist - why wouldn't he vomit at the sight of his first dead bodies? I also enjoyed the fact that his female companion, Emily, is an ex-soldier with the REME. So she is the one who can handle herself when it all kicks off.

In addition to having a believable and appealing protagonist, Grzegorzek is adept at spinning an engrossing tale with plenty of incident. This doesn't read like a first novel, and when I looked him up, I discovered that he has two other crime novels published with Amazon. So while the early parts of the book were reasonably familiar - once Malc sets off to rescue his daughter, Melody, I found myself right alongside for the ride. Grzegorzek has a knack for delivering interesting, believable characters in a few short sentences and Malc encounters some real slimeballs, along with some remarkable kindness. There are also politicians - guess whereabouts they come on the sliding scale of morality?

Overall, this is an entertaining, well written thriller that bounces along and is yet another demonstration of the strength of talent out there in the Indie market. Any niggles? The formatting is a bit peelie-wallie in places - the new chapters turned up in a different position on the page almost every time. But that is a relatively easy fix and certainly wasn't going to stop me finding out what happens next. I understand that there is going to be sequel - which I'm certainly going to track down when it comes available. Apocalyptic science fiction is back on my reading list, again, thanks to Flare...
9/10


The Backworlds
The Backworlds
Price: 0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Step forward Backworlds..., 2 Sep 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Backworlds (Kindle Edition)
This YA offering seemed intriguing and when I read the first page in the Sample, I was impressed with the strong, readable style and the vivid characterisation. So I downloaded it onto my Kindle. Would it continue to be as enjoyable, or be somewhat

The initial couple of chapters pack a real punch - Craze's hurt and amazement at his father's double-cross is believable and immediately had me rooting for him. Pax shows her experience in the slick handling of her protagonist - too much fury and resistance would have unduly slowed the pace, while a mere defeated shrug would have still had the reader convinced that his father was a solid bastard, but would not necessarily have engendered quite as much sympathy for the main character.
After his unpleasant ejection from his village, the story follows a familiar pattern - an inexperienced youngster having to make his way in an innately hostile and uncaring world. This time around, the worlds are hostile with knobs on. In the aftermath of an interplanetary war, no one is particularly welcoming - except for the two aviarmen he encounters on his first journey offworld... And immediately the three of them spin off into an adventure, while trying to find a foothold somewhere to make their fortunes.

The writing is pacy, direct and readable. Pax knows how to write an interesting, detailed character, provide an entertaining and believable backdrop, while keeping the action coming. I was swept along with the action and particularly enjoyed the colourful dialogue.

Any niggles? The only grumble I've got is that the book wasn't long enough. Having said that, it was being offered for free, and the sequel is under 2.00 - am I going to buy it? Of course - I want another slice of Craze's adventures.


Earth Star
Earth Star
Price: 3.85

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gold Star for Earth Star, 2 Sep 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Earth Star (Kindle Edition)
This anticipated sequel to Edwards' highly successful debut YA science fiction Earth Girl, recently hit the bookshelves and I scooped up a Kindle copy. Would it live up to the high standard set by the first book in this entertaining and original series?

This interesting concept is braided into the idea that Earth is now a backwater, largely inhabited by those unable to survive on other planets, and large tracts are now deserted and falling into ruin. But as a great deal of knowledge has also been lost in the social upheaval engendered by the flight to new planets, archaeologists from all the colony worlds congregate in the race to discover some of the scientific advancements now denied to humanity. It's a cool twist - the world that comes closest to this idea is Eric Brown's fabulous depiction of Paris in Engineman, which I think is one of the best slices of world-building I've ever read...

In addition, the story in Earth Star is pacy, event-filled and engrossing such that I didn't put the book down until I'd finished. Jarra's adventures in Earth Girl were exciting enough - but everything moves up a gear in this second book, when an alien spaceship appears. This being Edwards, of course, this often-covered science fiction plot device doesn't settle into any sort of generic tale, but is given an extra twist. Jarra is pitchforked right into the middle of the action, along with her boyfriend. And before you roll your eyes at the notion of a teenage girl finding herself right in the middle of a major flap about an incipient alien invasion - there is a solid reason why she is there. And it works, in my opinion.

In amongst all the non-stop action, we also have Jarra's relationship with her boyfriend deepening and her fear of commitment addressed. We meet other interesting characters - and learn a bit more about some of the main protagonists that appeared in Earth Girl. Niggles? Um. No. Not one. I just relaxed into this enjoyable, thoroughly readable book and am very much looking forward to reading the third book in the series to discover what will happen next.


The Little Broomstick
The Little Broomstick
by Mary Stewart
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars The magic of this broomstick still glitters..., 2 Sep 2013
This review is from: The Little Broomstick (Paperback)
This classic Fantasy tale - knocking around long before Harry Potter was a twinkle in Rowling's eye - was always a firm favourite with all my classes when I taught. I dug out my copy and read it to my granddaughter. Despite the unfashionably long descriptive passages, the narrative was sufficiently engrossing that it held her rapt right through to the end.
Quite right, too. I'd forgotten what a little gem it is, with beautifully flowing and evocative prose the whips the story along at a fair clip. Mary Smith is ten years old and due to an unfortunate illness and bad timing, finds herself parked with Great-Aunt Charlotte in her large house, Red Manor, in the heart of Shropshire right at the end of the summer holidays. There is nothing much to do. Until she encounters a beautiful black cat called Tib with glowing green eyes, who leads her to a rare flower in the middle of the woods...

And from that beginning, the adventure whisks up its young readers and doesn't let up until the final page. Plain Mary Smith is an enjoyable, appealing protagonist who is just the right mix of innocence and quick wittedness. But there are also a strong cast of supporting characters - particularly the wonderfully creepy Madam Mumblechook and her sidekick, Doctor Dee.

Endor College, educational establishment of witches and black magic, is vividly described and until I read this again to Frankie, I'd forgotten just how disturbing it is. Under the cosy touches - `Badness me' as an exclamation, for instance - there is real menace. Stewart's wonderful description of Tib does more than mark her out as a cat lover - it also highlights the contrast between the lithe, independent creature who befriends Mary and the twisted toadlike thing he becomes thanks to Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. And the reason why they expend all this magical energy and effort to transform Tib and a host of other creatures? Because they can...

Stewart gives youngsters a powerful insight into the nature of evil - all too often it isn't about world domination with overblown, pantomime-type characters that slide into the ridiculous. It is about people in everyday situations who abuse the power they have to twist and torment those powerless to prevent them.

I'd also forgotten the poignant and fitting ending - which is (perhaps intentionally) diffused by the description of the top range of broomsticks available from Harrods... All in all, this slim volume is - like the best of children's literature - a really good read for fantasy fans of all ages and I particularly recommend it to those who enjoyed Harry Potter or anything written by Diana Wynne Jones. I'm delighted to see it is now available as an ebook as it has been out of print for far too long - do yourself a favour and download it. Even if the children in your life are long gone, I guarantee that you'll thank me...


The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined
The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined
Price: 6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Solutions for the current broken educational system, 2 Sep 2013
Over the years, a distressing scene has been replayed in homes across the land far too many times... A panic-stricken child finally realises that parents aren't - after all - capable of helping out when really needed. While said parents, irritable and helpless when confronted with modern Maths/Chemistry/typically hard subject, find they aren't remotely equipped to assist with homework. Tempers fray under the pressure and the generation gap yawns into an unbridgeable chasm. However this scene can be consigned to history, thanks to Salman Khan and his Khan Academy.

I first heard about the Khan Academy from the talented science fiction writer Tricia Sullivan at Eastercon, where she enthused about teaching herself Maths up to calculus level, thanks to the online lessons now available to anyone with a computer and internet connection. Immediately, I checked it out and was extremely impressed at the extensive series of colourful, unthreatening lessons and the self-testing tasks to ensure you have fully grasped the concept before you move on.

So it was a real treat when my mother sent me this book thank you, Mum!). Khan had lots of fascinating things to say about the current, unsatisfactory manner in which we teach children. As an ex-primary school teacher, I found myself muttering in agreement at his observations at the broken-backed system that - as far as I can see - is in place as a cheap way of keeping children off the streets rather than equipping them with relevant knowledge fit for the 21st century. Khan suggests that instead of having a teacher deliver a lesson to a group of children in a totally arbitrary manner, they learn individually at their own pace using modern technology with the teacher acting as enabler. He also suggests that a far more creative, wide-ranging curriculum should be in place, where children undertake complex self-directed tasks in groups. A revolutionary approach to state-funded education? Absolutely. But our current system produces far too many children unable to master the basics, who, frustrated and angry, become an unemployable underclass. Government's constant tinkering only further undermines discouraged teachers and destabilises an already creaking system.

Read Salman Khan's solutions to our educational problems - and then could someone point the Minister of Education in the direction of this book? Please?? We cannot go on squandering our most precious resource - our children.


The Shadow of the Soul: The Dog-Faced Gods Book Two (Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy)
The Shadow of the Soul: The Dog-Faced Gods Book Two (Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy)
Price: 3.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Success for this Soul, 2 Sep 2013
This book plunged right into the action and didn't let up until the final page - and though at no time was I floundering - Pinborough is far too accomplished a writer for that - I did get the sense that I would have better appreciated exactly what was going on if I'd tracked down the first book, A Matter of Blood, before launching into The Shadow of the Soul. However, it didn't take long to get drawn into this gritty police procedural tale that felt far more like a Rankin whodunit than your average Dark Fantasy crime story. Cass Jones is a typically overburdened inner-city detective with a dysfunctional family life, rather than the supernatural, angst-driven beings that often inhabit urban fantasy crime novels.

Pinborough has successfully managed to come up with a flavour all of her own in this increasingly popular sub-genre. Second books in a trilogy often lack pace as they simultaneously have to produce a complete story arc, yet leave/produce a series of vital plot points dangling for the final book to solve. But this story whisks along as we get increasing insights into the Network and the strains within the apparently invulnerable organisation, as Cass Jones is still desperately trying to come to terms with what has happened to him and his family during the previous book. All these concerns are woven through the current investigations with deftness and skill that ensure this is a solid page-turner.

So, does the denouement pack sufficient punch? It needs to - Crime/Dark Fantasy genres require a strong ending to be regarded as successful and as Pinborough has braided these ingredients together, she has to pull off a really gripping conclusion that provides genuine shock value. Which she achieves with style. As Cass struggles to cope with the new set of facts he uncovers after investigating the events that have befallen his troubled family - the crimes he has also been following also get tied up in a way that I didn't see coming.

This second book has been sufficiently gripping that I'm going to hunt down the first and third offerings in this disturbing, compulsive series - and I recommend that you give it a go. But start with A Matter of Blood - writing this good deserves to be read in the correct order.


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