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W.M.M. van der Salm-Pallada "A Fantastical Librarian"
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The Rabbit Back Literature Society
The Rabbit Back Literature Society
by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Edition: Paperback

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Something special, 10 Feb 2014
The Rabbit Back Literature Society is something special. Originally published in 2006 it was translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers. It's hard to judge how successful the translation is as I'm unfamiliar with both Finnish and Finnish literature and I don't know whether the translation has kept the rhythm and the beats of its original language. Unfamiliarity with the original language also makes it hard to judge some of the linguistic quirks of the novel as it's unclear whether things that bugged me were due to authorial choice or whether this is just a normal Finnish practice. One of the things that I really had to get used to was the fact that our protagonist, Ella is often referred to by not just her first and last name, but even by her full name, Ella Amanda Milana. This just felt strange to me and shook me out of the narrative a number of times at first.

Jääskeläinen gives us a fascinating narrative, which frames a mystery which is unravelled in sometimes almost dreamlike flashbacks related by the members of the Rabbit Back Society. These members run the gamut of genres and are all successful authors. Some of them receive more page time than others and not all the members spill as part of The Game, which is the way we get to know some of them better. The three other members, other than Ella, the reader gets to know well are Martti Winter the successful literary writer, Ingrid Katz, the YA writer, and Arne C. Ahlqvist a.k.a. Aura Jokinen, the SF writer. Through them we get glimpses of the legendary and mysterious Laura White and the genesis of the Rabbit Back Literary Society. I found their reminiscences fascinating and often chilling, but they always handed both Ella and the readers clues to solving the mystery of Laura White and the reputed first tenth member of the Society.

The Game the Society members play with each other is an interesting device, which allows Jääskeläinen to showcase the somewhat sinister undertones to the Society and give his protagonist a way to get to the bottom of the book's central mystery. It's also very much not a game and seeing the lengths they will go to in obtaining what they want can be somewhat disturbing. The book is also rather meta at some points, concerned as it is with writing and writers. However, it's also very much a literature scholar's narrative as Ella often approaches events from this angle and connections are drawn between books, authors and themes, all to aid Ella in solving the puzzle. The structure of the novel is interesting; the interweaving of third-person past and present, interleaved with first-person narration and fragments from newspaper articles, creates depth and background to the text without Ella or the narrator having to tell the reader things outright.

Jääskeläinen's book is more magical realist than straight-up fantasy, but I can see it appealing to those who like supernatural mysteries. I really enjoyed The Rabbit Back Literature Society. It was an interesting story, with some fascinating exploration of the human psyche and an intricate narrative structure. If you're looking for something speculative outside of the norm, then The Rabbit Back Literature Society comes highly recommended.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Seers
The Seers
by Julianna Scott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.68

4.0 out of 5 stars Fun second outing for Becca, 5 Feb 2014
This review is from: The Seers (Paperback)
Julianna Scott's debut The Holders took me by surprise last year. The book had sounded like a fun, interesting read, but I was taken completely unaware by how much I loved the story. It featured a great protagonist with a very distinctive voice in Becca, an interesting concept in the Holders and their abilities, and the romance between Alex and Becca was delicious. So The Seers was a book that I was really looking forward to and it was definitely worth the anticipation. It was a fun continuance of the story and I got answers to some of the questions I was left with at the end of the previous book.

Becca remains awesome. When we start the book she is still learning about her abilities and her new life. She's also trying to come to grips with the reality of her father. They are in the middle of re-establishing their relationship and I liked the way Scott handled this tentative rebuilding of trust. To top it all off, Becca is also still developing her relationship with Alex, trying to figure out how they work together and what the influence of the Anam bond is. I loved the growth in Becca; she has to learn so much, become much more self-assured and learn to stand up for herself instead of just for others. And she does so without ever losing her lovable, sarcastic self. Becca is just so completely relatable. The scene where she overhears people talking about her and judging her rather harshly, hit me in the gut, as that feeling of just wanting to hide is so recognisable.

One of the new characters introduced in The Seers is Bastian. I liked the addition of this complicated character as he creates some interesting tension, not just plot-wise, but between Becca and Alex too. I loved that for a change it's the guy in the relationship who is insecure and scared of losing the girl, instead of the other way around. While there is never any doubt about Becca's feelings, I love that she and Alex need to communicate about the situation and Alex's reaction and that it doesn't magically disappear. Apart from this effect on the narrative, Bastian is an interesting character in his own right. I loved his conflicted position within the Bhunaidh and the way that in many ways he's a lot like Becca. Their friendship develops in a fun way and I love its snarky nature.

The one thing I missed was a bit more in the way of recapping from the previous book, because I was a little adrift in the first few chapters of the book. Still, once I'd re-acclimatised to the story and the characters, I was just as immersed in this book as I was in The Holders. The plot is exciting with lots of deviousness and secrecy. The Bhunaidh are a rigid, arrogant bunch, all about appearances and I completely sympathised with Becca when she wants to hit them over the head. In the Bhunaidh, Scott shows us a completely different aspect of Holder society than the one we've encountered at Lorcan and while I found them awful human beings, I loved the way Scott structured Bhunaidh society linked to abilities and their strength. The Seers also further develops Becca's and through her the reader's knowledge of Holder abilities and what they are able to do, what their limits are and that not all abilities are equal. We also learn more about the Anam bond, including the fact that same-sex bondings occur, which was one of the questions I was left with after the last book.

I flew through The Seers and having finished it, I can only say that I'm sad to have to wait another year to return to St. Brigid's. I really want to know what happens next, how everyone will deal with the fall-out of the events of this book and how the story will end. The Seers was a great second book in this series, but doesn't really stand alone, so I'd recommend going back and reading The Holders if you haven't done so yet. If you have read The Holders and were unsure about picking this one up, I recommend you do, as it's even more entertaining than its predecessor and Becca's story is wonderful.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


Known Devil (Occult Crimes Unit Investigation 3) (Occult Crimes Unit Investign 3)
Known Devil (Occult Crimes Unit Investigation 3) (Occult Crimes Unit Investign 3)
by Justin Gustainis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Hugely enjoyable, 3 Feb 2014
In 2012 I developed a taste for supernatural police procedurals, when I read Scott Sigler's Nocturnal and Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London and Justin Gustainis' Evil Dark was the one that confirmed that these sorts of books were really my thing. After finishing Evil Dark I was really looking forward to reading the next instalment in the Haunted Scranton series and, after two years, this weekend I finally got to return to Scranton and Detective Sergeant Markowski and friends. Known Devil was a blast, with the same sense of humour that had me chuckling out loud when reading Evil Dark and another action packed adventure.

We once again follow the tale of Stan Markowski, his partner Karl Renfer and Stan's daughter Christine. Stan is almost your typical plain clothes detective seen in so many crime novels and TV shows, except for the fact that he works in a unit concerned with supernatural crime. Still, Stan is a cop in a familiar mould, dedicated, determined and stubborn, but with a heart of gold. Yet Known Devil sees Stan taking some hard decisions to keep his loved ones safe, decisions that will affect his far beyond the scope of this novel. One of these loved ones is his partner and best friend Karl. I love the progress Karl makes during the novel. Still adjusting to his status of being undead and having fangs, he's learning what this means for his life and how it limits what he can do. Especially the therapy to desensitize him to crucifixes is genius. The other loved one closest to Stan is his daughter Christine. Her role is a little smaller this time around, but I like how Gustainis works in their close relationship and their evening breakfast talks about the cases Stan works.

Known Devil's case is a good one, with plenty of action, danger and some surprising twists. We get the return of some known antagonists and I loved the scenes with the Fangsters, vampire mobsters, and those with the bomb squad. There were some elements that made me a bit twitchy, mainly to do with the fact that when Stan ignores a direct order from his boss no one calls him on it, in fact their departmental white witch, Rachel goes out of her way to help him afterwards. While it fits the narrative and Stan's character and his relationship with his boss, I just couldn't imagine Lieutenant McGuire just letting it slide like that.

As last time what made the book for me were all the real-world references which where tweaked to fit this alternate reality Scranton, which is filled with supernatural creatures and thus caters to their needs as well. There is the elf Thorontur, nicknamed Thor, though he doesn't resemble Chris Hemsworth. The head of the vampire mobster family is called capo di tutti vampiri and drives a car with the vanity plates BATDAD1. The department shrink is called Doc Watson, and the department witch Rachel consults an academic journal called Journal of the American Magical Association or JAMA for short. And that's just to name a few. Picking up on these Easter-egg-like elements was huge fun and Gustainis does them very well.

I had a great time with Known Devil and tore through it in a single sitting - with a break for food and putting the kids to bed - chuckling all the while and reading out good bits to my husband. Like Evil Dark, Known Devil stands alone quite well and you don't have to read the previous books to enjoy this one. However, if you haven't read any of these books before then you are in for a treat as they are hugely enjoyable. Meanwhile, Known Devil is a very enjoyable read that ends on a satisfying note, but leaves the door open for more adventures. I sincerely hope this isn't the last time we will see Stan, Karl, Christine and the rest. I'd love to return to Scranton in the future, but I'll have to settle for catching up on the first book in the series, Hard Spell, which I haven't read yet.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Golem and the Djinni
The Golem and the Djinni
by Helene Wecker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant story and a stunning debut, 2 Feb 2014
Helene Wecker's debut novel has been praised by many of the bloggers I follow, it made the Locus Recommended Reading for 2013 and I wouldn't be surprised to see it appear on several awards shortlists. And it's no wonder, because it is a remarkable novel. A historical fantasy, the book is set in turn-of-the-19th-century New York, mostly in the Jewish and Syrian communities of that metropolis, though Wecker takes us along on long jaunts through the city. Written in beautiful prose and filled with wonderful characters, who have been haunting me ever since I've finished the book, The Golem and the Djinni is a book to savour slowly and deliberately. Nevertheless, I found it a fast read as I found myself immersed in the narrative and unable to put the book down.

As the title of the book gives away, the protagonists in the book are a golem and a djinni. The choice for these two supernatural entities is refreshing as it moves away from the more well-known supernatural creatures we usually run across in fantasy. Both of these characters are lonely creatures as they are the only one of their kind in New York and they have to keep their true nature well-hidden or risk destruction or imprisonment. I loved Chava as she is a wonderful combination of naiveté and unexpected insights. One of the main questions of the book is whether she could possess a soul given her dark creation, but after spending only a few chapters with Chava the reader will never doubt it. The djinni is something different; he is far more aware of being different and considers himself above humans. He has an uneasy partnership with the man who frees him from the ubiquitous lamp and the only human he really connects with is Matthew, one of the neighbourhood boys. Ahmad is a curious mixture of arrogant fire spirit and empathetic victim and the only one he can really be himself with is Chava. In the crowded anthill that is New York these two lonely souls find each other and of this meeting grows a fascinating friendship.

Wecker spends a lot of time filling out the history of several secondary characters, which was disorienting at first, but started to make sense after the second such seeming digression. What seemed strange at first was that several of the more important secondary characters didn't get such a detailed background, but having finished the book it makes sense. Wecker chooses only to elaborate on history that is germane to the narrative; if a character's history doesn't influence the novel, then it doesn't get explained. In the end, these digressions enrich the novel and create an extra layer of depth to the narrative. They did do some weird things to the pacing of the novel, mostly giving it a rather slow build-up, but it smoothed out in the latter half of the book.

The atmospheres of the Jewish neighbourhood and Little Syria were stunningly created. Wecker manages to drop in details without seemingly trying to show off all her research. I loved the Radzin bakery, where Chava works, and the coffee shop in Little Syria owned by Maryam Faddoul and her husband. We also get glimpses of different parts of New York--the parks and squares Ahmad haunts in his night time walks and the illicit pleasures of the Bowery and the stately homes on Sixty Second Street. The Golem and the Djinni are both outsiders within groups already considered outsiders, since both of these communities consist of recent immigrants, many of whom don't even speak English and can't communicate with those beyond their neighbourhoods easily, which makes these communities little islands in the large sea that is New York. Through Chava and Ahmad, we get an inside view through outsider eyes, which is very interesting.

The plot is both subtle and intricate, coming full-circle in a way I hadn't expected but felt perfect and it almost audibly clicked into place. Its ending is marvellous and emotionally fulfilling, though one wonders what will happen in the future and how the two will adapt in the years to come. I loved The Golem and the Djinni. I think it is an amazing book and if this is what Wecker does in her first novel, we can only look forward to what she'll do next, because it will be fantastic. If I'd read this book when it came out it would have made my top ten debuts hands down and it's hard to imagine it won't make my favourite 2014 reads in December. I highly recommend The Golem and the Djinni, it's a brilliant story and a stunning debut.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Emperor's Blades: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne: Book One
The Emperor's Blades: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne: Book One
by Brian Staveley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Traditional epic fantasy in an updated version, 27 Jan 2014
One of the ARCs being given away at World Fantasy last year was Brian Staveley's The Emperor's Blades. I'd seen some talk about it and it looked interesting - epic fantasy is always of interest - so I snagged myself a copy, deciding to save reading it till closer to publication. In the meantime, I'd heard lots of bloggers I respected say good things about the book and I found myself looking forward to starting the book to see whether I'd enjoy it as much as they did. The answer is yes, yes I did.

The book is told through three strands, one for each of the titular Emperor's children: Kaden, Valyn, and Adare. Kaden is the heir, by dint of his inheriting the imperial fiery eyes and his gender, even though Adare is technically the eldest. All three are very different people, made more so due to the differences in their rearing. Kaden was sent early on to be raised by the Shins, an ascetic order of monks that reveres the Blank God. His world has been limited and bare and his training has been cerebral and one of learning to deny the self. In almost complete opposition to this, Valyn was trained to become part of the Kettral, elite and merciless mercenaries, living a life where survival means winning and where combat and physical strength are key. Valyn was taught to be a leader, to lead a wing and command, while Kaden was to be taught how to be emperor after his time with the monks. Adare was raised at the palace and unlike her brothers she was raised not to lead, but to administer, to become Minister of Finance to the Empire and at the same time, her sex means she'll never rise above that station; she can't sit the throne and she has to marry for the good of the Empire, not for love, as is often the case for those of royal descent, especially women.

I liked all of the narrative strands, but Valyn's was my favourite. I tend to have a weakness for his sort of military training narrative and his story is at once exciting and horrifying. He's also a very sympathetic character, one who tries to adhere to his beliefs and values in an environment where not all of them are seen as positive. The boys' sections outweighed Adare's chapter, though that might be because they are less constrained and in the more action-heavy areas of the narrative. Still even in her smaller number of chapters she becomes a well-rounded character, smart, tough-as-nails, her father's daughter in many ways and I really liked her as a character. I had a far harder time connecting to Kaden, who at first is rather strange, mostly due the outlook on life that has been ingrained into him by his education with the monks. But he honestly grew on me and by the end of the book I was genuinely rooting for him as well.

I liked the way Staveley treated his women, or rather how he challenged his male characters' reaction and treatment of women. Most of his female characters have agency, even those who are circumscribed in their actions, such as Adare. While he does at times write from a male gaze, when his characters, especially Valyn, treat their female companions like they might be less competent or more in need of protection due to their sex, they get called on it, more often than not by the women themselves. This happens quite often between Valyn and his best friend Lin, who calls out Valyn and their friends time and again and even gets Valyn to be aware of his behaviour without her prompting. Also Adare breaks out of the mould by not only becoming a Minister in the Emperor's council, but by demanding justice for her father - loudly, I might add - and taking an active hand in obtaining it when it turns out to be the only way. And she takes the lead in her relationship with Ran il Tornja, something which felt boundary-breaking for a woman in her situation.

All of this is set against the background of a really interesting world. The Emperor's Blades is epic fantasy by the book, but certainly not by rote. There is a lot that is familiar in the world, but it is done well and in some cases with an interesting twist. I loved the Kettral, both the mercenary company and the giant birds of the same name that serve as their transportation. Staveley creates an interesting religious spectrum, in which the Shin are developed the most clearly and I found their beliefs fascinating, if rather harsh. Similarly, the mystery surrounding the Csestriim and the Nevariim is quite interesting and while the reader is given some history on the former, I hope we'll learn more about the latter in the future.

The Emperor's Blades is an interesting and enjoyable start to the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne and if this is only Staveley's first novel I'm excited to see how he'll grow into his craft. If you love traditional epic fantasy, but would like to see a more updated version then The Emperor's Blades is a book you'll want to read. I am looking forward to reuniting with the siblings and seeing where their story takes them next in the second book The Providence of Fire.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


Shadowplay (Micah Grey)
Shadowplay (Micah Grey)
by Laura Lam
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.36

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gorgeously written, 26 Jan 2014
Discussing Shadowplay is impossible without revealing some major spoilers for the previous book Pantomime. If you haven't read it and want to remain unspoiled, please read no further. You've been warned: here be spoilers!

Laura Lam's debut Pantomime was exquisite. Not only was it wonderfully atmospheric and exciting, it also featured an intersex protagonist, something I at least hadn't seen written about before and it was done beautifully and with care. So to say that my expectations were high for Shadowplay would be an understatement. To my delight, Lam managed to meet all of them and even left them behind with her second book in the Micah Grey series.

After the climactic events of Pantomime, Micah and Drystan find refuge with an old mentor of Drystan's, Jasper Maske and move from the circus ring to the magic theatre stage. I loved how Lam managed to find them a new place but with a similar enchanting atmosphere to the circus. The magic we see them learn under Maske's tutelage is a well-developed mix between sleight-of-hand and illusions. Maske's teaching of magic and séances was interesting and cool and even drew back the curtains on some of the mechanics of illusion. In a way the story evoked The Prestige somewhat in its rivalry between Jasper Maske and his former partner Pen Taliesin. I loved this plotline and Lam plays it out beautifully.

Jasper Maske is a wonderful paternal character in need of redemption. This is given to him by the family he collects around him consisting of people who find refuge in his old, run-down theatre. Lam makes him both sympathetic and a bit mysterious, without having him become pitiful due to his past. The main other new addition is Cyan, a Temnian girl who's run away from home to escape her parents' disapproval of her abilities. She's a wonderful addition to the mix, creating a bit of tension between Micah and Drystan, but also just interesting in and of herself. Other characters who play their part are Lily Vere, Maske's lady love, and Pen Taliesin and his grandsons, who are the main adversaries in this book. And of course there is the Shadow who has been looking for Micah to return him to his parents.

Lam also expands the reader's knowledge of Ellada, both in the book's present and its past. In the present we learn more about the current political situation through the presence of the Foresters, a group who protests the current distribution of power between classes. I expect them to play a larger part in the next book, but in Shadowplay they are one of the signals that all is not well in Ellada. We learn more about the past and Ellada's history with the Chimaera and the Alder through the memories imparted to Micah by the Phantom Damselfly, whose name turns out to be Anisa. I loved Anisa's memories and the way she can still be a character with agency despite having been 'stored' on a disc. Lam also uses Anisa and her memories to create a greater story arc. Where Pantomime was intimate, a coming-of-age story if you will, Shadowplay widens the scope to becoming a saving-the-world story in the rest of the series.

It's hard to talk about the book without giving too much away, which might make this review seem somewhat vague, however I truly adored Shadowplay. Lam's writing is gorgeous and with Shadowplay she's proven she's here to stay and has put herself on my must-read list. While the story can be read without having read Pantomime, not having read it takes away from the story Lam is weaving and I highly recommend you pick it up before reading Shadowplay. If you have read Pantomime, you probably don't need me to convince you to go read it. Shadowplay was brilliant, even if it ends on somewhat of a cliff hanger, and I can't wait to find out what happens next.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Almost Girl (Riven)
The Almost Girl (Riven)
by Amalie Howard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.92

4.0 out of 5 stars A clever, exciting novel, 24 Jan 2014
The cover for Amalie Howard's The Almost Girl really caught my attention when it was launched and when I read the blurb I looked forward to the chance of reading this. When I started the book I was a bit disconcerted to get a huge Terminator vibe from the book. Not that the specifics of the two are very similar, apart from Riven being sent from a parallel world that felt very futuristic and where there had been an AI war, but it did remind me of it. However, this vibe quickly faded and then I was just sucked into the story and didn't emerge, or should I say evert, until I finished the book.

Told from Riven's first-person viewpoint, she's the story's beating heart. I thought she was a wonderful character and one that goes through and interesting transformation. She starts out as an angry, mission-driven, and lonely individual and she ends this book in a completely different place. She's still a professional soldier, but she's let down her walls and let in her emotions and I really liked how Howard effected this change. Riven has a wonderful chemistry with Caden and I spent the book rooting for them to get together, but it's not Caden that changes Riven, or at least he only is one of the reasons she grows and not even the most important one. While the romantic element of the story was lovely, it's also about more than Riven and the boys. It's about Riven and Riven, because she finally learns the truth about herself and her family. She learns to understand and trust herself fully, not just the rational part of her, but her emotional side as well. And she finally understands the true nature of Neospes society thanks to her time in our world.

Neospes and its tech are fascinating and politically it's also an interesting place. It is very much a dystopian world, with an almost post-apocalyptic feel. Neospes' limitations on robotics and AI development makes for some interesting inventions to keep to the letter of the law but still be able to have the advantages of androids and other AI tech. The Vectors, who are for lack of a better description zombie androids, are gruesomely inventive. And they inspire a particular sense of dread, especially the later iterations. However, there's also a bit of authorial handwavium, where the tech seems plausible, but I still had a lot of questions. For example, if Earth and Neospes are parallel worlds, what happened to make their development diverge so much from each other? How are they so alike, yet Neospes seems to be centuries farther along in its development? How come they all speak the same language? What I did like is the idea of everting sickness; not just the fact that jumping between the worlds is physically harmful, but that those who evert to Earth from Neospes are somewhat allergic to our reality. It did make me wonder whether that shouldn't work both ways. Wouldn't Earth-born humans be allergic to Neospes?

Despite some of the more scienc-y questions it raised and its echoing of the Terminator vibe in the beginning, I had a fantastic time with The Almost Girl and I can't wait for the second half of the duology to discover how the story resolves. The Almost Girl is a clever, exciting novel with the perfect dash of romance thrown in. Howard writes a compelling story - she throws in some really ingenious twists to the plot, which ratchet up the tension to page-flipping, "can't put this book down" heights - in a very readable writing style, which makes for a very smooth reading experience overall.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Tudor Conspiracy: Elizabeth's Spymaster Two (Elizabeths Spymaster 2)
The Tudor Conspiracy: Elizabeth's Spymaster Two (Elizabeths Spymaster 2)
by Christopher Gortner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-written characters and a captivating plot, 21 Jan 2014
I first encountered Christopher Gortner's writing last year when I reviewed The Queen's Vow, about Queen Isabella of Castile. I loved the book and I was intrigued with this next book, written under a slightly different name - his biographical fiction is published as CW Gortner - and with a different approach to historical fiction. I have a weak spot for historical crime fiction and this historical mystery is close enough kin to that as makes no difference. Not having read the first book in the series, an oversight I'll have to rectify in the future, I was worried that I might have missed too much back story, but luckily this book stands alone pretty well and the important bits get re-introduced quite organically in the narrative.

The Tudor Conspiracy contains a nice mix of historical and fictional characters. The book's main character Brendan Prescott is fictional and a great protagonist. He's a very sympathetic character, even when he does some pretty stupid things. While some of his actions could be ascribed to grief, his interactions with Sybilla, one of Mary's maids of honour, killed me; I couldn't believe he'd do that. I loved his squire Peregrine, who is your typical scampy side-kick and Brendan's fiancée Kate. They formed a wonderful adoptive family and their chemistry was wonderful. Gortner's portrayal of Elizabeth and Mary is interesting too. Gortner shows Mary's softer side; he doesn't just show her as the religious zealot responsible for so many deaths that she was nicknamed Bloody Mary. Instead he shows her compassion for others and the way her loyalty to her mother guide her religious beliefs. The more I read about her, the more I pity her. Elizabeth is a mix of a calculated survivor and a lonely girl desperate to have the love of her sister. Gortner's portrayal of the Dudleys surprised me at first, but when I started to think about it I realised that Dudley is often portrayed as a venal and ambitious man, when not shown from Elizabeth's point of view and at least in this book she seems not to be as smitten with him as she's usually shown to be.

The plot is based on a true historical event, the Wyatt conspiracy, is quite interesting - it was also one I wasn't familiar with - and the powers that Gortner positions behind it are somewhat unexpected. In addition to the internal politics, there are also influences from outside who impact English politics--Ambassador Renard and the Spaniards. While seemingly a straightforward marriage proposal from Charles V to bring England back into the Catholic fold through a union between his cousin and his son, Philip had grander plans and played for future stakes as it were. Gortner managed to slip some surprises into the narrative that were very skilful sleight-of-hand and which made the story even more complex and exciting.

The Tudor Conspiracy is a fantastic read, with well-written characters and a captivating plot. Gortner's Tudor Court is a far less glamorous and far more dangerous place than we've seen it portrayed as on both the large and the small screen, but for all that it is far more compelling. I'm planning to check out the previous book, The Tudor Secret, and I'll definitely be along for Brendan's next adventure, The Tudor Vendetta, next year.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Visitors
The Visitors
by Rebecca Mascull
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.59

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting and evocative, 18 Jan 2014
This review is from: The Visitors (Hardcover)
One of my biggest fears is losing my sight. The thought of losing my vision and the ability to read and to watch my girls freaks me out even to contemplate. So when I read the above cover copy for Rebecca Mascull's debut novel The Visitors, I was immediately captured by the visual of this little girl completely cut off from sight and sound and I wondered how Mascull would portray her and let her tell her story, as from glancing at the first few pages I'd seen the book was told in Liza's first-person perspective. The answer to that question is beautifully. I found Liza's story haunting and evocative and if it hadn't been for the pesky need for sleep and the fact that I have two toddlers running around, I would have finished this book in one sitting.

Adeliza, the book's narrator, is a fascinating character. I loved the way that Mascull managed to convey her world even though she was deafblind and could only experience it through touch and smell. Adeliza is born with bad eye sight which slowly fades as her cataracts worsen. She isn't born deaf, but contracts scarlet fever when she is two and becomes deaf from complications of the disease. Mascull's description of the slow retreat of Liza's senses and her growing isolation happens within the first page and a half, but is vivid and gripping, leaving me in no doubt as to her writing chops. The need to communicate is paramount in all humans and it is a relief when Liza gets the opportunity, as her growing frustration and the helplessness of not just Liza but those around her as well is almost painful. When Lottie grabs her hand and manages to connect, it forms a crack in her closed shell of a world, one that is opened further by having her undergo an, at the time, dangerous procedure which allows Liza to regain her sight. Throughout all of this we follow Liza and her voice is compelling, especially once she starts exploring the world with her new abilities. It's an almost magical experience and Liza's joy and wonder radiate of the page.

Liza's almost constant companion and her window on the world is Lottie. A young woman from an oystering family, who do seasonal work at Liza's father's hop farm, she is a wonderful character, loving and clever. The book is as much about the love and friendship between her and Liza as about anything else. Without Lottie, Liza would have no voice, no way to have broken from her dark shell and their mutual devotion is touching. The older Liza gets the more of a well-rounded person Lottie seems to become, more of an individual with her own needs and desires, mirroring Liza's ability to see people separate from their meaning to her.

Lottie's twin brother Caleb is both alluring and mysterious, somewhat of the strong, silent and broody type. Given Liza's strong attachment to Lottie it's not surprising she'd love Caleb as much as she does, though at the same time it shows how much of a little girl she still is. Father is loving and protective and I loved that he learned all the ways to communicate with Liza. He was far from the stereotypical Victorian father figure, who is only seen at a distance and is a stern presence in his children's lives. Instead he's a warm and comforting presence in Liza's existence and their bond is genuine and deep. Mother is a far more distant figure, though given her fragile (mental) health that isn't surprising. Nevertheless, she does truly love Liza, like her father and they try to do their best by her. The Visitors, the ghostly presences only Liza can see, are fascinating. Especially at the beginning I wasn't sure whether they were real or just signs of Liza's underused optical nerves firing at random, but I love how they are brought along and how Liza's understanding of them develops. In the end, they are a solid part of the plot and I thought they were a wonderful creation.

Some of the most powerful scenes in the book are those set in South Africa during the Boer War. While I knew it was a war between the Dutch and British immigrants, the particulars of that war were unknown to me and as such The Visitors proved educational. The visual descriptions are evocative and sometimes even disturbing. Caleb's voice in his letters is distinct and the situations he relates, especially of his experiences at the refugee camp that Lottie and Liza later encounter, are harrowing and the latter feels rather current if one considers the pictures we see of modern refugee camps in Syria, Chad, the Sudan, or Kenya.

Rebecca Mascull's The Visitors might seem a slim, little book at 256 pages, but it certainly packs a punch. It is a stunning story, told in beautiful prose and clear visuals. Mascull's debut combines many elements - history, friendship, romance, ghost stories, adventure - and melds them into a distinctive and unique blend. The Visitors tells a story that will haunt the reader beyond its pages and I for one am glad to have been haunted by it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The League of Sharks (Junk 1)
The League of Sharks (Junk 1)
by David Logan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.24

3.0 out of 5 stars Insanely entertaining, but with problems, 13 Jan 2014
The League of Sharks is a fun YA novel about a time-traveling teen. The premise of the book is insane: time-travelling shark men? How on earth was Logan going to make that work? But the book also sounded insanely entertaining and it was. However, no matter how much it entertained me, The League of Sharks is very much the equivalent of a big summer popcorn film. One you enjoy hugely, but you shouldn't ponder too closely or critically afterwards, otherwise you'll break its magic. Something that is distinctly difficult if you are to write a review for a book. As such, even if this review might be quite critical in places, one thing that should be remembered at all times, reading this book was just plain fun.

Our hero, Junk, is a cool protagonist with an interesting development throughout the novel. I loved the description of Junk's reaction to the birth of his sister and the stunts he pulls in making her look like the bad one and how it backfires on him. The dynamic felt quite recognisable and felt very much like your typical sibling rivalry turned up to eleven. What made Junk more than a spoiled brat was the fact that Logan showed us his feeling of being displaced by his sister in his parents' affections - a feeling all elder siblings will probably recognise to some degree - and that once she was taken, he genuinely misses her. At the end of the book he clearly has grown up quite a bit and has learned to think beyond his own immediate emotions and desires and put himself in other people's shoes.

Junk acquires a number of companions in the future, all of whom will help him in his quest. The first is Garvan, who sees Junk as a prophesied saviour and becomes his staunchest ally. Then there is Lasel, a young thief, who helps Junk and Garvan and becomes somewhat of a love interest for Junk. The last two additions are Doctor Otravinicus, who can help them find the League of Sharks in return for helping him find the Room of Doors, the key to Junk's time travel, and Cascér, a Pallatan a.k.a. shark woman, who is recruited by Otravinicus. They deal with other people on their journey, but these are the most important. While all of them are fun, somewhat-fleshed out characters, they all seem to remain stuck in their archetype. They add to the feeling that this is a book more geared to the younger end of YA, a feeling re-enforced by Junk's age progression. We start with him being far younger than your regular YA protagonist and when we get to the meat of the story he is still only fifteen.

The world building of the narrative was cool, more so for the future version of our world, than for the current one. I liked the concept of the Room of Doors and the way humanity was gone and animals had evolved to take our place due to genetic modification. One aspect that especially pleased me was the way Logan created languages for his future people. I loved that there was a glossary in the back of the book and while perhaps not developed as full languages, there did seem to be some thought of declination and grammar rules. The language geek in me rejoiced at that.

The book does require a lot of suspension of disbelief and sometimes a little too much. For one, the fact that twelve-year-old Junk can run away and earn his money as a sailor for three years seemed a little far-fetched. Similarly, the three million years into the future just seemed so ridiculously far into the future, that it lost me. And lastly, and most strongly, the fact that all the animals have developed into a humanoid form, though some more so than others, just puzzled me. For the shark men and birdmen their ancestors are easily identifiable, while Garvan is identifiable by his size, but both Lasel and Otravinicus are portrayed as almost completely human-looking. I kept wondering why. Why would all animals have evolved into bi-pedal creatures, who communicate through vocalized language, close enough to human languages that Junk can easily pick it up in about three days? That just didn't make sense to me and I had a hard time setting that aside. It would have been interesting to have seen some explanation for this or even to have Junk at least consider the question, because now it all felt a little "Star Trek" alien--give them a weird forehead and coloured contacts and you're done.

Despite my problems with suspending my disbelief, I had oodles of fun reading The League of Sharks. It's madcap and very well-paced and I found myself rooting for Junk intensely hoping he'd succeed in getting his sister back. The book ends at a natural break, though it contains a cliff hanger of major proportions and the story isn't resolved. The League of Sharks is definitely a fun story to read together with your young teen, but there is plenty of entertainment value for adults as well.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


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