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sjhigbee (Sussex, UK)

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Glass Thorns - Thornlost (Glass Thorns 3)
Glass Thorns - Thornlost (Glass Thorns 3)
by Melanie Rawn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A topnotch, original read, 5 Nov. 2014
This is the third in the series – and no, this isn’t a trilogy, which I didn’t realise when I first started reading it. So is this fairly densely written book worth reading, given that nothing will be fully resolved? This series is described as high fantasy in all the publicity material – and if you want battles, enraged dragons, blood and gore, then give this series a miss because it offers something different. Though if you haven’t read Glass Thorns, which I’ve reviewed here and Elsewhens – see my review here - then put Thornlost on one side and read those first. There are some series where you can pick up what is going on without losing too much – this isn’t one of them. No doubt you’d be able to make sense of what is happening, but the world-building and character progression is so layered and detailed, I think you’d lose far too much if you jumped in with this, the third book.

It follows the fortunes of a magical theatre group striving to get to the top of their profession. Cade, one of the main protagonists, is also dogged by glimpses of the possible futures, many of whom predict they will burn out and Mieka, his closest friend, will die overdosing on thorn and drink. Like many modern pop groups, when the going gets tough, they all rely on drink and stimulants to get them through a performance – or help them unwind when adrenaline-fuelled after the show. Touchstone, their theatre group, is now well established and they are all famous. They have also drawn down some unwelcome attention – Cade, in particular, is very wary of other people outside a small circle of trusted friends knowing about his ability to see slices of the possible future, which leave him shaken and undermined. But there are others who have become aware of his abilities and are waiting to scoop him up and use him for their own ends…

The story arc doesn’t take a great leap forward and while I love those stories which whisk you up into action-packed adventure that leaves you wanting to draw breath by the time you put them down – a book that gives you such a wealth of detail and layered experience of the characters that I’ve actually dreamt about this world provides a special joy. I always feel a stab of sorrow when I finish one of these books – it is different to anything else I’ve recently read and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Glass Thorns - Elsewhens (Book Two)
Glass Thorns - Elsewhens (Book Two)
Price: £4.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stylish and unusual read..., 5 Nov. 2014
It is always enjoyable and intriguing to read something that stretches the genre in a different direction – and Glass Thorns certainly does that. Apart from the fact that it has many elements taken from Fantasy – a Late Medieval/Early Modern historical feel, complete with horse-driven conveyances; a number of races rubbing shoulders, including Elves, Wizards, Fae, Trolls, etc; women relegated to a subservient role – there are also aspects of this book that would fit quite happily in a hard science fiction read. The fact that the narrative is powered by attention to and details from the world (which in a sci fi book would be all the techie toys); main characters are defined and moulded by their interaction with the magic system (think of post-humanity in the likes of Alisdair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks novels); and the pace is outright leisurely – which is certainly also the case in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2313.

However Fantasy fans are generally used to a lot more action than Rawn offers, here. So does she pull it off? As far as I’m concerned – yes. I loved it right from the start. Cade’s twitchy, neurotic but brilliant character had me immediately hooked. I love the setup of the magical theatre group struggling to establish themselves – the concept is original and gives us a specific slant on the society from the viewpoint of a couple of self-absorbed, egotistical characters, whose job as actors take them outside the conventions of class.

Rawn manages to beautifully balance the touchy, over-controlling Wizard, with the devastating charisma and chaotic abandon of Mieka, Touchstone’s glister, whose imagination releases and shapes Cade’s raw magic stored in the glass withies. He is also the other viewpoint character in the book. As Touchstone learn their repertoire and go on an extended tour, this book charts their progress and particularly the relationship between Cade and Mieka, which is often tense and explosive. So if you’re looking for a swash-buckler, full of gory action and breathless non-stop action, then give this one a pass – it doesn’t tick any of those boxes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with those books – but this novel is attempting to do something different.
I loved it – from the odd words, which were easy enough to understand without resorting to the glossary in my opinion - right through to the cliff-hanger ending. And one of my priorities for February is to track down the next book in this fascinating series, Elsewhens and see where Rawn takes it.

Half A Crown (Small Change Trilogy Book 3)
Half A Crown (Small Change Trilogy Book 3)
Price: £6.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Strong ending to an outstanding series..., 5 Nov. 2014
This is the final book in this riveting alternate history series, and my strong recommendation is that if you pick up Half a Crown without reading the other two – don’t. While Walton has structured each book so that it can be read as a standalone, you will lose a great deal in the narrative progression and some of the nuances Walton has woven into the storyline. She is a subtle writer, who assumes her readers are capable of drawing their own conclusions, without it being necessary for her to spell out every consequence of the scenario she has depicted. And I love the play on words with the title of this particular book – customary Walton sharp cleverness…

We have moved on some twelve years since the ending of Ha’penny. Elvira Royston, Inspector Carmichael’s adopted ward, is about to be presented at court as a debutante, so we have the same narrative structure that has worked so well in the previous two books – a dual narrative between Carmichael and his stiff reserve hiding another, forbidden lifestyle, and a younger female protagonist. Elvira does not have the poise and self assurance of either Viola or Lucy, but she is just as feisty. Walton has managed to pull off a tricky issue that could have tripped up a less skilled writer – each of her female protagonists featuring in the trilogy have their own quite separate voices, giving each book a different emotional tone.

It was interesting to note that in this final book, which ramps the climax up to the point of life and death – it starts far more quietly with a longer buildup than the previous two volunes. But as ever, once the action begins, Walton’s stylish, understated prose belies the tension that pings off the page. I was hooked. Despite needing to get up and get going – I was stapled to the book and going nowhere until I found out exactly what would happen next.

The other issue Walton has to consider with this, the third offering in the series, is a sense of predictability. But once it all starts to kick off, I couldn’t work out what would happen next and certainly didn’t see the denouement coming – particularly as Walton doesn’t necessarily have her stories end, ‘and they all lived happily ever after…’ However she produces a fitting and satisfactory conclusion to this fascinating and chilling alternate history series. If your taste runs to this sub-genre, don’t miss it – Walton is one of the most talented fantasy writers producing work today. Whether you agree with her take on this intriguing exploration of an alternate history, or not – I’ll guarantee that Walton’s world will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book.

Ha'penny (Small Change Trilogy Book 2)
Ha'penny (Small Change Trilogy Book 2)
Price: £5.22

5.0 out of 5 stars Clever, sharp writing and a cracking plot..., 5 Nov. 2014
I have a real weakness for well told alternate histories and absolutely loved the first book, Farthing, in this alternate Britain where we come to terms with Hitler’s Nazi Germany after initially joining the war. So in the early 1950s, the Nazi party runs Europe and is still fighting Russia and disturbing rumours percolate of death camps and gas chambers for any remaining Jews – although these are officially ignored or scoffed at.

However, the character who bounced off the page for me in Farthing – Lucy Khan – isn’t in Ha’penny. Would I still enjoy this book without such an outstanding protagonist? It has a real feel of an Agatha Christie whodunit during the investigative process where we follow Michael Carmichael’s efforts to discover who blew up a well-known actress and her companion. But under this apparently cosy surface is the darker underbelly of this novel – England is sleep-walking towards a dictatorship and Walton makes this seem chillingly plausible. For those of us who might bluster it could never happen here, in the cradle of democracy – just see how it’s done. A weakened opposition, a population demotivated to care overmuch about the political process – and an underclass feared and hated by almost everyone and used as a convenient scapegoat by politicians for the financial stagnation and hardship the country is suffering. In Ha’penny it is the Jews - but insert any other social minority that may spring to mind…

Because when I read this book, I became aware that Walton isn’t writing about the past – she is flagging an urgent warning about the present. This book series should be required reading in all schools and colleges in my opinion – democracy is fragile and particularly in this country, I think we are waaay too complacent about our political system.

However, this book is a dual narrative – and alternating with the chapters where Carmichael is attempting to track down the bomber, is Violet Larkin, an actress from a high-born family raised in a draughty castle. Her parents’ desperate wish for a son to continue the family living at Carnforth Castle means there are six girls. They didn’t go to school, or indeed, receive much attention at all. So were largely left to their own devices. Viola describes a childhood where the siblings spent hours together playing or feuding, before adulthood scattered them. The family are, apparently, loosely based upon the Mitfords.

Viola rejects the life of a debutante to become an actress and is officially snubbed by her family, although her sisters do keep in touch from time to time. Celia marries Himmler and is living in Nazi Germany, while Siddy has become an active communist and tries to persuade Viola into helping with a scheme to try to bring about the end of the Third Reich. However, Viola isn’t interested – she’s apolitical, assuming that what the papers say is right. Her heart and soul is wrapped up in her acting career and she has just landed a plum part. In the current fashion for gender swapping classic roles, Violet gets to play Hamlet… And furthermore, the Prime Minister will be attending with a distinguished visitor – Adolf Hitler is on a state visit to the country and will be coming to see the play. I lost my heart to Lucy Khan by the second page of Farthing – it took me a little longer to fully bond with Viola Larkin. She is a far more nuanced, complicated character, who has weathered a tricky start in life to find her own personal haven and is very reluctant to give it up and face what is going on around her. Throughout the book, she gradually begins to realise the truth of the situation – and then is confronted with the question, what should she do? Walton’s exceptional writing drew me right into the heart of Viola’s dilemma – and while my jaw dropped at her initial reaction, it didn’t take me long to realise that it was absolutely plausible.

I may have given the impression that this is a somewhat grimly turgid political tome, with a slight leavening of a whodunit adventure. Nothing could be further from the truth – Walton is always all about entertaining her reader and ensures that the storyline is king. It is what she also manages to pack between the lines with her sophisticated, understated prose that makes her a shining talent. And this book is every bit as gripping and suspense-filled as Farthing – and leaves Inspector Carmichael with a spiffy new job, heading up the British equivalent of the Gestapo… I can’t wait.

My Real Children
My Real Children
Price: £5.69

5.0 out of 5 stars A real gem..., 5 Nov. 2014
This review is from: My Real Children (Kindle Edition)
This book is different from anything else that Walton has written – but then books with a storyline like this aren’t exactly crowding the bookshelves. By a spooky coincidence, I’ve recently read and reviewed Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which is the nearest book to My Real Children that I’ve come across – although there are some important differences. Patricia’s life apparently divides at a particular point in her life, when a single event and two decisions cause two different futures to come to pass – so this is more Sliding Doors than Groundhog Day.

There is also a real sense of ambiguity about the whole business – Patricia is suffering from dementia and has been battling with it for some time. So… is this a complex illusion brought about by a damaged brain? At this point, the two alternate lives seem to collide – she gets muddled as to which nursing home she is living in and although she hasn’t yet mixed up the children, she knows it will only be a matter of time. The impact of her different lives doesn’t just affect her family – the world is quite a different place and I found this to be a fascinating consequence. Intriguingly, it wasn’t the life where she was fulfilled and happy that had the best outcome…

This isn’t a doorstop-sized tome, so of necessity – given the span of years that it covers – Walton has had to skim over quite a lot of important events in order to fit it all in. But I didn’t feel the book was unduly rushed or that I’d been short-changed in any way. Like Life After Life, there are some bleak, miserable periods and terrible events interspersed with shafts of happiness and examples of human goodness. Unlike Life After Life, the worst of the savagery wasn’t always visited upon Patricia directly. Walton is excellent at summoning up the flavour and feel of an era and I was intrigued to note how nostalgia steadily drifts into alternate history, as political events increasingly diverge from our own timeline. Focused as I was on Patricia’s personal story, it took a while for the penny to drop – but when I went back and reread the sections, I was able to appreciate the subtlety Walton employs with occasional mentions of events, before the shock of the major crisis which changes the whole political backdrop forever…

Walton always writes with intelligence and coherence, giving this story an interesting twist at the end, thus making a remarkable and memorable read even more so. If you enjoyed Life After Life, track down My Real Children – it is every bit as engrossing and enjoyable. Walton just goes from strength to strength and this book establishes her as one of the foremost and most interesting writers of her generation in any genre.

by Jan Morris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Hav is a must-have read, 5 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Hav (Paperback)
Well, this is different… It has an unusual history, too. Jan Morris is a renowned and respected travel writer with such books as Venice and Europe an Intimate Journey under her belt. The first half of this book, then known as Last Letters from Hav, was first published in 1985 and it wasn’t until after the 9/11 effect rippled around the world, shifting political and cultural stances, that Morris considered writing a follow-up charting that type of changes she’d noted while travelling to actual places.

So she wrote the second section and the book in this form was published in 2006. I have something of a soft spot for well-conceived imaginary places – but this is a tour de force. Morris has not only written extensively about the physical geography, describing the buildings and topographical features – she has also provided a vivid historical and political backdrop. During the first section of the book, Hav is a comparative backwater. Athough situated geographically between East and West, it is a cultural and political melting pot with a number of immigrants from France, Turkey, Greece, China, India – as well as the mysterious indigenous cave-dwelling population… She captures Hav’s faded splendour and idiosyncratic customs, many originating centuries ago when Hav was part of the Silk Route and Venice had a series of warehouses backed by powerful merchanting families to protect their valuable assets. Though I constantly had to remind myself as I got caught up in the welter of small details Morris continually drops into her narrative – Hav doesn’t exist.

All this is impressive enough – but for me, the genius of this book is what happens in the second half after the Intervention. Morris revisits Hav and charts how it has changed since the… um – Intervention. No one would be stupidly crass enough to use the word invasion… And indeed, Life for many of Hav’s population has changed for the better. The harbour and merchandising section of the town is now far busier and more dynamic. Hav’s unique snow raspberries are now being industrially produced, canned and exported around the world as a luxury item, instead of being picked wild by the indigenous population and sold at premium rates to the best hotels for food connoisseurs. But people are reluctant to talk openly to Morris – even people she’d known well during her six month stay back in the 1980’s – and they are certainly reluctant to say anything remotely critical about the current regime.

Morris makes a note of the differences between the old Hav and the post-Intervention version, both physical and cultural. The picture she builds of a newly emerging society that has been blown apart and reformed is detailed, nuanced and wholly realistic. The overall result is unique, clever and extremely thought provoking – especially as I’m sure that we can see reflected in Hav’s journey, echoes of many other similar real places scattered around the globe. This remarkable book keeps scrolling through my head whenever I’m not thinking about other stuff – and I have no doubt at all that it is one of my outstanding reads of the year. If geographical politics interests you on any level at all, track it down. It’s worth reading.

Reave (Reave Series Book 1)
Reave (Reave Series Book 1)
Price: £2.18

4.0 out of 5 stars A memorable read..., 5 Nov. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is a really interesting read. Miller writes with great force and intensity that swept me up when reading the sample, so that I’d clicked on the Buy button without even thinking about – no matter that I’m stacked up with books, both actual and virtual, that will probably keep me occupied for MONTHS, if not years…

Miller manages to convey the sense of constant danger and fear very effectively – Aster’s desire to stay hidden, warring with her thirst for knowledge, is palpable and had me onside within a handful pages. This is a brutal world – Aster’s fear and Aggie’s terror on her behalf make that only too clear, however Miller juxtaposes the brutality by having her characters talk as if they are in a 19th century drawing room… It took me a while to get my head around it – but it does work. Aster has been eavesdropping on her employers for the last ten years – small wonder that she talks like them and is able to argue and tease out her own emotions with subtleness and sophistication unusual in a domestic drudge.

When the latest in a steady line of Leaders takes over, her existence starts to change in startling ways. For starters, she is prised out of the shadows where she prefers to lurk, and put in the way of a particular reave… This is courtship with a different twist – because it really is courtship. Unlike so many modern books, this is conducted at a very sedate pace that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jane Austin novel. I enjoyed this – it made a sort of sense within the world, given her understandable fears and the manner in which she had been press-ganged into domestic slavery.

The plot twists also worked. And since I’ve stopped reading the book, Aster has stayed with me in the way that really strong, well written characters do. However there is a hole in the narrative. Aster has been trapped within the walls of a house for ten years, working unremittingly to keep it spotless with a team of other servants. Although she occasionally refers to ‘them’, other than Agatha, her protector and carer, we never see her amongst the community of other servants. We see plenty of interactions with the guards – but I wanted to see her alongside her fellow workers. A couple of short scenes would have told the reader so much more about her status and how she was regarded – especially when her fortunes began to change. However, that really is my only niggle and if you want dystopia adventure with a different voice – this is a very promising start to a series by a strong, talented writer.

Jazz and Die (A Jordan Lacey Mystery)
Jazz and Die (A Jordan Lacey Mystery)
Price: £3.59

4.0 out of 5 stars A jazzy whodunit, 5 Nov. 2014
I was looking for some light relief after a series of rather gruelling reads – and was delighted to discover that Jazz and Die ticked the box. While it is a murder mystery, Whitelaw doesn’t see fit to provide us with all the gory detail and Jordan is great fun as a protagonist. She is breezy and opinionated – and I loved her hands-off attitude to Maddy’s touchy teen sensibilities. I hadn’t read any of the previous Jordan Lacey novels, but Whitelaw is far too canny an author to structure this particular slice of her adventures such that we need her backstory to fully appreciate this book.
In amongst the whodunit mystery, Whitelaw provides us with plenty of details about Jordan’s life and without letting the narrative pace drop, she also gives us enjoyable descriptions of Swanage Jazz Festival. And – yes – there really is a Swanage Jazz Festival every summer. I’m not a jazz fan, but even I was fleetingly inspired to give it a visit. I thoroughly enjoyed Whitelaw’s snappy word pictures of a part of the world I know very well – and she uses a dramatic, beautiful backdrop to great effect.
Meantime, the mystery romps along and takes a darker turn, forcing Jordan to flee. The hunter becomes the hunted… Whitelaw manages to ramp up the action without losing the amusing nuances in the relationship between Jordan and Maddy – along with a sudden change of scenery. And yet another twist in this enjoyable murder mystery, which leads to a satisfying climax. All in all, I read this in one greedy gulp, while Himself has gone out and ordered the rest of the Jordan Lacey mysteries after devouring this one.
And if your taste runs to the cosier end of murder mysteries without sacrificing any of the excitement and tension, then look out for these books – they are great fun

Price: £4.80

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breed is a blast, 5 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Breed (Kindle Edition)
This is an OTT protagonist who has been brought up on the wrong side of – well, everything, really. Breed, unsurprisingly, has Mother issues as his isn’t exactly brimming over with fond maternal feelings for her part-human son. Here’s a thing - my enthusiasm for anti-heroes has somewhat waned. Initially I thought I might have a problem – but Davies is far too canny to ringfence Breed as a mere grotesque with no moral compass. We learn of his vulnerabilities as he is pitchforked in the middle of his full-on adventure – not that he wears his heart on his sleeve. In fact, I’m not even sure he has a heart… But the humour certainly lightens things up and there isn’t an ounce of self-pity in his characterisation. Additionally, he doesn’t undertake his quest alone – along the way he picks up several companions.

The first is a scholarly priest, Tobias. I don’t think I’m revealing too much if I let on that they don’t meld all that well as a team. The tension between the pair of them creates all sorts of enjoyable tension and comedy, as well as pulling the story forward. The second companion is a revolting vagrant who is happy to answer to Breed’s name for him – Tosspot. Surprisingly, this mismatched trio, with another character also thrown into the mix, manage to more or less muddle their way through most of the plot, before events overtake them.

While the storyline follows the classic epic Fantasy narrative – a quest to find a particular artefact with great power for good or evil, Davies’ choice of protagonist and his happy band puts quite a different spin on this setup. Most other books featuring anti-heroes and starting with an epic fantasy scenario soon deviate into something else. However, Breed holds true to the classic epic fantasy trope, which gives the story an interesting twist right at the very end, which I absolutely loved.

All in all, this outrageous, riotous blast of adventure delivers in all the ways that matter and I am eager to read the sequel – soon as you like please!

Black Dog
Black Dog
Price: £4.99

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.

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