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Reviews Written by
J. Shurin "carnivore" (London)

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Feast, Famine & Potluck
Feast, Famine & Potluck
Price: £4.37

5.0 out of 5 stars A feast, 5 Sep 2014
Feast, Famine and Potluck, edited by Karen Jennings, was last year's anthology from Short Story Day Africa. With two stories on the Caine Prize shortlist - including the eventual winner, "My Father's Head" - this collection hasn't been short of praise. And, honestly, it deserves every word.

Feast contains an eclectic collection of stories that uses its theme - food - as a way of talking about everything from families to futures. As well as the superb "My Father's Head" and "Chicken" (the two already recognised by the Caine Prize), I was particularly impressed by Jayne Bauling's "Choke" (the tension between spiritual and actual hungers, with a clever and satisfying resolution) and Hamilton Wende's "Fizz Pops" (the awkwardness and introspection of adolescence). A great collection from start to finish.

You Don't Know Me
You Don't Know Me
Price: £3.60

5.0 out of 5 stars Beats bullying with style, 5 Sep 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: You Don't Know Me (Kindle Edition)
You Don't Know Me has a lot stacked against it. The premise is utterly improbable (the core story involves four girls winning an X-Factor-style competition sponsored by a Facebook-style site), the lead character is the popular hot girl (and not, on paper, sympathetic) and, in essence, we're supposed to feel for some bullies.

Except... not really.

Somehow this manages to combine the best trashy escapism of Gossip Girl with real emotional depth when discussing a harrowing and important topic. Sasha and her friends are simply ordinary girls, who screw around with music for fun. When a video they made (for themselves) sneaks into a talent competition - and then they (kinda) win - they're blown away. But the Evil Marketing people want more of a story, so they spin Sasha and two of her friends against the four girl, Rose. The 'hot girls' dump the 'fat girl' - the drama the show wants. Just at the cost of four lives.

Off the back of books like Glaze, it is nice to read another novel that juggles both the power and the danger of social media - instant access, global power - all lovely things, but with a real, human cost. And You Don't Know Me isn't shy about tackling the horrors of online bullying: how words go somewhere and are read by real people. Anonymity isn't power, it is cowardice. The whole set-up is implausible, but what Ms. Bennett does with it is extremely clever, and she uses the outlandishly impossible as a means of talking about the deeply personal and everyday.

I'm not particularly sympathetic to 'self-selected celebrities', but with her one work of fiction, Ms. Bennett does what ten-thousand magazine articles can't, and reminds us that they're human too. I don't even mind the Evil Marketers taking a beating - this is a good cause after all.

Sir John Hawkwood a Tale of the White Company in Italy (Classic Reprint)
Sir John Hawkwood a Tale of the White Company in Italy (Classic Reprint)
by Marion Polk Angcllotti
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.03

4.0 out of 5 stars A characterful swashbuckler, 5 Sep 2014
A pulp author for titles like Adventure, Angellotti's best-known creation was the English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood. Apparently this book is the first (a novel collected from a long-running serial), but there are other Hawkwood adventures that follow. I'm interested how they work chronologically, as this one feels a bit like "Hawkwood's Last Adventure".

Sir John Hawkwood follows Hawkwood as he navigates the swamp that is 14th century Italian politics - near-perpetual warfare and bickering between city-states and microduchies. Hawkwood gets caught between the proverbial rock and unboiled pasta when his odious employer asks him to kidnap the local princess. One thing leads to another, and Hawkwood winds up kidnapping her anyway, because, pulp - and, like a sitcom, people do all sorts of stupid things rather than just talk to one another. The plot is silly, and although the swashbuckling does have a pleasant fizz, the real strength to this book comes with Hawkwood as a character. Sir John was a noble knight, but now lives in the chivalric gutter - he drinks, he works for coin, his boss is a fool and, lo and behold, he's not super-proud of himself. His self-awareness - self-loathing, even - is what makes him a fascinating character, and gives his motivation the ring of verisimilitude ('truth' in pulp is a bit much).

It is hard not to contrast the lessons of Sir John Hawkwood with our contemporary, grimdark fantasy. Here we have a character that has done wrong and knows it, that wallows in the error of his ways, that has turned away from the light; you name it. Nor does Sir John Hawkwood brush over the harsh realities of the setting and the brutal pseudo-historic atmosphere. But the book captures a man wrestling with his demons without a) denying them (the flaw of epic fantasy) or b) indulging them for the sake of prurience (the flaw of grimdark). I'm not holding this book up as a masterpiece of literature, but it does leap over a few hurdles that - 103 years later - fantasy authors are tripping over today. The prose is decidedly purple, but the end result is still worth a read.

Bleeding Violet
Bleeding Violet
Price: £3.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A hidden gem, 5 Sep 2014
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This review is from: Bleeding Violet (Kindle Edition)
Dia Reeves' Bleeding Violet is about a mysteeerrious small town with an overtly-magical atmosphere and a (slightly odd) female protagonist hanging with a group of Chosen One-type boys. It isn't a totally dissimilar premise to some other great recent fantasy books such as Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys or Robert Jackson Bennett's American Elsewhere.

The central character, Hanna, is half African-American/half Finnish, and this informs not only her approach to the world around her, but how the world approaches her. Her background also adds a lot of depth to the way the book tackles the (incorrect) assumption that the Special Boy has to be the Chosen One. Hanna is not a sidekick, a 'love interest' or the 'comic relief' - she's the agent of her own narrative and - as it turns out - she's the one the 'meta' story is about.

Bleeding Violet is also a (bless it) self-contained story, and not the start of a series. It wrestles with the mommy issues and the boyfriend issues and the fitting in issues and the crazy portals filled with necromancer issues, and still manages to wrap it all up nicely in a single volume.

This is a Gaiman-like book in its 21st century spin on magical realism, but brilliantly written, with an intense, provocative and deeply likable central protagonist. A terrific book and easily one of the best fantasies of the year.

Speak for the Dead: A Bragg Thriller
Speak for the Dead: A Bragg Thriller
Price: £3.05

5.0 out of 5 stars Bragg goes ballistic, 5 Sep 2014
The fifth Peter Bragg book, Speak for the Dead (first published as San Quentin), is notable as an example of the Bragg 'formula'. The PI is introduced to his new case with a dramatic hook, then has a ticking clock to solve it. Often with a woman or two involved (because, because). In the case of Speak for the Dead, the hook drags Bragg to San Quentin: a foiled escape attempt has left a group of hard-core bikers holding hostages. Although official policy is "no negotiation", they're valuable enough that the warden has asked for Bragg to come up with an alternative plan.

When Bragg talks to the prisoners - chilling, as the scenes inside San Quentin are remarkably atmospheric - he learns that their motivation for escape might be, well, "altruistic". The Biker-in-Chief has a younger brother who is currently being investigated for murder. In turn for a ceasefire, Bragg promises to investigate.

Again, Bragg winds up terrorising a small town - this time with deliberate insensitivity given the situation he's left behind in prison. Bragg is always, as previously noted, the self-aware type of detective - prone to thinking about the impact that he has on people's lives and the moral repercussions of his actions. With the accelerated time-line of Speak for the the Dead, he's forced to put all that aside, and he plows through the town like a cannonball. Vampish teenagers, Nazi sympathisers, angry bikers, corrupt local authorities - Bragg uses and discards them all, and suffers the (largely internalised) consequences later.

As with all the Bragg books, this is an engrossing mystery - the perfect balance of fast-paced formula and carefully-crafted protagonist. Highly recommended to crime and adventure readers of all shapes and sizes, these are modern classics of the genre.

The Missing and the Dead: A Bragg Thriller
The Missing and the Dead: A Bragg Thriller
Price: £3.05

5.0 out of 5 stars My favourite Bragg mystery, 5 Sep 2014
The second Bragg mystery, The Missing and the Dead (first published in 1982) is easily my favourite of the series.

Bragg sets off on the trail of another PI - a missing investigator from an insurance agency. Again, there are a dozen false (but interesting) leads: the investigator's cases, his snotty sister, his new wife, his old girlfriends... Eventually Bragg winds up - in all places - at an artists' colony, where he finds that other investigators may have also been involved. What starts as a simple case becomes a convoluted one, and Bragg has no idea what's coming for him. However, what makes this book particularly interesting is that, from the opening pages, the reader does know.

The prelude to The Missing and the Dead sets up a serial killer (an artistic one!) and even as Bragg pursues one lead after the other, we've already been set up with the "right" answer. Our semi-omniscience puts us in the enjoyable position of following two parallel investigations: watching Bragg go about his business and, at the same time, following the same clues to see if we can identify the killer first.

A cunning twist on the 'serial killer' genre, a clever mystery and a terrific, empathetic protagonist - these all add up to another terrific mystery by Jack Lynch.

The Dead Never Forget: A Bragg Thriller
The Dead Never Forget: A Bragg Thriller
Price: £3.05

5.0 out of 5 stars The start of a terrific mystery series, 5 Sep 2014
The first book in the series, The Dead Never Forget (originally Bragg's Hunch) has, perhaps, the most traditional of all the openings - a mysterious figure walks into Bragg's office and hires him for a job. In this case, the figure is the (house-sized) goon of Armando Barker, a "retired" mobster who is worried about a series of increasingly gruesome death threats. He's not so bothered about himself (he's a mobster and he's a got a goon), but Armando has a young daughter, and if the wannabe assassin is serious...

Bragg throws himself into the case with the best of intentions, but runs into a series of dead-ends. Investigating Armando's quasi-legal present (a restaurant, a daughter, a mistress, etc) is getting him nowhere. But after a death or two, Armando opens up about his past - it seems that whatever is going on, it started in the small town of Sand Valley.

Despite its California location, Sand Valley is Justified territory - and Bragg's arrived at the worst possible time. As he pokes around in Armando's past, Bragg gets mixed up the town's political, social and criminal tensions. The "dodgy enterprises per capita" ratio in Sand Valley is extremely high, and Bragg has to choose his allies and enemies carefully. The finale is wonderfully explosive as it all kicks off at once.

That said, the pyrotechnics are a distraction. What The Dead Never Forget does most admirably is seed the idea of single, unknowable force that's driving all the events of the book - a dark matter that's wholly undetectable, except for the fact that Bragg knows it must there for everything else to make sense. As Sand Valley catches fire (in some cases literally) and things start blowing up, Bragg steadily homes in on this invisible factor. As much as I appreciated the razzle-dazzle of the cinematic action sequences, I found Lynch's intricate plotting all the more impressive.

The first in a series of engrossing mysteries - the perfect balance of fast-paced formula and carefully-crafted protagonist. Highly recommended to crime and adventure readers of all shapes and sizes, these are modern classics.

Smiler's Fair (The Hollow Gods)
Smiler's Fair (The Hollow Gods)
by Rebecca Levene
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Adventurous, brave and magnificent, 31 July 2014
What do we think of as the hallmarks of 'good' epic fantasy?

Strong characterisation - Smiler's Fair has a half dozen, from a disenfranchised noble with a bloody habit, a woman in the unhappiest of marriages, a sex worker with a succession of unusual clients, the last warrior of his clan (keen on vengeance, drinking) and even the 'traditional' orphan with a mysterious fate (and it is).

Compelling magic system - Smiler's Fair only scratches the surface, but from prophesy to sorcery, there's clearly magic of all sorts lurking behind the scenes (and a build-up that promises much more of the same).

Unusual world-building - In Smiler's Fair, the Sun and Moon fought, and the latter lost. Now the Moon's loyal followers have degenerated into a race of man-eating fiends that live deep underground. And the Sun's victory is a Pyrrhic one - because if anyone stays in one place too long, the underground creatures will sense them and start digging for the surface. As a result, a world where everything is transient - from cities on ships to the titular Fair. A world where people cannot afford to put down roots, and civilisation is slowly fading away.

The quest - And here we have several, as the war has left its legacy in many ways. A half-dozen powers all struggle to wrest control of the world (and its gods) (and its magics), and our heroes are integral to their plans...

And yet...

Smiler's Fair also has what it takes to be more than good - it is great. Magnificent, even.

Because epic fantasy isn't just about the size and the grandeur and the spectacle (although that's all there a-plenty), it is about adventure. And you can't get that without surprise. It doesn't matter how spectacular the road is, if you already know what's around the corner, there's no adventure to it.

Smiler's Fair has everything that I know and love about epic fantasy, yet re-interpreted and presented in a way that kept me rapt from start to finish - pardon the cliche, but 'on the edge of my seat'. This is a book that holds your attention in so many ways - a fascinating world, brilliant characters, twisty plot and, best of all, a genuinely wonderful and surprising story.

Smiler's Fair is the epic fantasy I've been waiting for - riveting, compelling and adventurous.

Recipes from a Normal Mum
Recipes from a Normal Mum
by Holly Bell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good for normal cooks as well, 28 July 2014
I love it. I'm fairly rubbish in the kitchen, but this was a surprisingly un-intimidating, easy-to-use and fun book with some fantastic recipes. Despite being a dedicated carnivore, I highly recommend the (charmingly named) Man Quiche and, above, all the Lasagna. Definitely, DEFINITELY the lasagna.

A terrific book for normal mums and dads and those without kids but looking for fantastic meal suggestions.

Vivian Versus the Apocalypse
Vivian Versus the Apocalypse
Price: £1.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Poor Apocalypse has no idea what's coming..., 27 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I'm not sure how I found this, actually. But I'm very glad I did. The Rapture cometh and, guess what, Vivian isn't taken home to our Lord. And that's despite being a Very Good Girl. Left with her outspoken (not-Good) friend and a kitchen filled with canned goods, Vivian needs to figure out what the hell heaven is going on.

Most of the book, say, 90% of it, is a completely distinctive take on apocalyptic literature. These are ordinary, flawed, vulnerable people who are neither heroes nor villains, trying to figure out where they fit in the new world. And everyone else they encounter? Kind of the same - as Vivian and her friends go on a road trip, they find a world that's just plain confused. There are problems, but it isn't exactly Mad Max - more, "burger places get really expensive". Everyone slogs on with a thin veneer of sanity, but it is clear that, under the surface, people are struggling.

This messed up world reflects, of course, the confusion within Vivian herself - who is she in this new world? For that matter, who was she in the old one? This is an insightful, enjoyable trek that gets extra points for avoiding satire, instead, it treats the topic of Christian conservatism like it does everything else: with sensitivity. Vivian's world isn't one of heroes and villains, instead it is one of empathy and fragility.

That said, there is a 10% infusion of Epicness - mostly at the end - that left me bored. I was very happy with Vivian et al. finding themselves and one another. Finding The Absolute Answer and The Big Villains? That ruined the suspension of disbelief. Vivian's real challenge was to fix her own life, not the entire world (Alas.) Overall? Great book. Multiple un-Raptured thumbs up.

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