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The Painted Man (The Demon Cycle, Book 1)
The Painted Man (The Demon Cycle, Book 1)
by Peter V. Brett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Farm boy wants to save the world from demons, 28 Mar. 2015
Arlen, Rojer and Leesha live in a world where demons are real and control the night. They rise at sunset and feast on anyone not protected by wards - magical symbols that can repel a demon's attack if drawn correctly. Arlen and Rojer have each suffered loss at the hands of the demons and that loss has transformed each of their lives.

Arlen, who is gifted with drawing wards, is determined to become a Messenger - one of the few brave enough to risk the open road, carrying messages and goods between the various city states and villages. Rojer is apprenticed to be a Jongleur - an entertainer who usually accompanies the Messengers to spread what happiness they can. Leesha is training to be a healer and dreaming of a life outside the small village where she lives. The lives of all three will converge as they each stumble on a way to battle the demons and potentially save all of humanity ...

Peter V. Brett's fantasy novel - the first in a trilogy - takes the hoary old cliché of the farmboy saving the world and plunges him into a world filled with demons while teaming him up with a small town boy and a smaller town girl. I enjoyed the depiction of the demons, who fall into different types (each with their own abilities and vulnerabilities) and a lot of thought has been put into the history of this world (which is a vaguely post-apocalyptic Earth). However much of the book falls into stock territory with Arlen, Rojer and Leesha all having predictable storylines within the book while the cod-medieval setting gives plenty of scope to trot out taverns and horse riding. Brett does have a stab at subverting the patriarchal sexism common to this type of book through the establishment of a Council of Mothers that supposedly advises one of the Dukes (although we never really see that) but otherwise women are confined to the crone/virgin/wife/whore stereotypes and we get bonus rape as a means of driving two characters into each other's arms. There's also a thinly disguised Arab-style world filled with sexist, racist and double-crossing thugs, which I found distasteful. Ultimately the writing is fine and I kept turning the pages but there wasn't enough here that was new for me and I found the sexism and racism depressing, so ultimately I won't rush to check out the remaining books.

Review copy from publisher.


NOS4R2
NOS4R2
by Joe Hill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Charlie Manx is coming to take you to Christmasland ..., 27 Mar. 2015
This review is from: NOS4R2 (Paperback)
When Vic McQueen gets on her Tuff Burner bike, she can find things. The bike allows her to access the Shorter Way Bridge, a gateway that takes her wherever she needs to go. But using the bridge means paying a toll – a physical one that threatens Vic’s health and sanity – and she’s not the only person with a gift. There are others who can access this mysterious inscape, including the notorious child killer Charlie Manx, who kidnapped children in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith and took them to Christmasland.

Vic first encountered Charlie in 1996 when she was 17 years old and only just managed to escape with her life. It’s now 2012 and Charlie’s intent on revenge. He’s kidnapped Vic’s 12 year-old son, Wayne, and is determined to take him to Christmasland, but Vic’s equally determined to get him back, whatever the cost …

Joe Hill’s festive-themed horror is a blood-chilling take on vampires, family and love that will ensure you never look at Christmas in the same way again. Vic McQueen is a great character – flawed and broken – I loved the contrast between her relationships with her father and her son, Wayne. I also loved her relationship with Lou, an overweight man with a good heart whose love for Vic prevents him from asking questions he needs to. Charlie Manx is also a great villain who’s convinced that he is the hero of his own story, although I would have liked a little more on the psychological effect that the Wraith has on him because for me it was slightly underdeveloped, but what is on the page makes up for that, notably his relationship with the creepy and pathetic Bing who serves as his Renfeld. The star of the book though is Christmasland and specifically what it does to its child inhabitants, which both chilled me and creeped me out and left me unable to listen to Christmas songs. The slow change that comes over Wayne as he’s taken to Christmasland and his attempts to fight it was real eebie jeebie stuff and the final battle was filled with enough thrills and ick to keep horror fans entertained. Ultimately, I thought this was a fun, creepy and effective horror novel with great illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez that kept me entertained from beginning to end and I’m really looking forward to reading Hill’s next novel.


Bitterblue
Bitterblue
by Kristin Cashore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing conclusion to a trilogy, 25 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Bitterblue (Paperback)
It’s 8 years after Graceling. Monsea is free of Leck’s monstrous rule and is trying to move forward. Bitterblue now sits on the throne and her advisers are instigating policies aimed at pretending that Leck’s reign never happened but Bitterblue isn’t convinced that the policies are working. Concerned by what’s happening to her kingdom, as much as by the gaps in her own memory, she decides to disguise herself to see the city for herself. While attending the story-telling sessions in a bar, she meets Saf and Teddy – two young men who can tell her more about Monsea than any of her advisers. Bitterblue wants her kingdom to heal, but how can that happen when no one is quite sure what happened during Leck’s rule?

The conclusion to Kirstin Cashore’s GRACELING TRILOGY is intended to be a story about reconciliation with the past and healing a nation but the plot is muddled and filled with dead ends while Bitterblue as a protagonist lacks agency and spends much of her time waiting for people to tell her answers. While I had been looking forward to the return of Katsa and Po, their arrival simply created more unresolved storylines as their Council continues its work in deposing cruel tyrants and reforming their kingdoms. There’s a lot of repetition within the story with Bitterblue constantly asking her advisers what happened during Leck’s rule and them constantly avoiding providing answers, which would be fine if Saf and Teddy provided answers instead but unfortunately they get caught up in the obligatory love plot with Saf in particular behaving like an absolute jerk. I did like nod to FIRE and the sense of continuity and the use of cyphers in the story is interesting and well handled but ultimately this tiptoes around its subject matter in a way that really doesn’t do it justice. As a result, this wasn’t the conclusion I’d hoped for to this trilogy, although I would check out Cashore’s next book.

The biggest problem for me is actually Bitterblue. She knows something is wrong but never really confronts anyone (and when she does she backs off easily) and the love story with Saf plays out like every YA love story ever and Saf’s petty and sulky behaviour made me wonder what she sees in him. I just wanted some agency and determination on her part to drive the plot forward.


Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone Trilogy)
Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone Trilogy)
by Laini Taylor
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Overblown and crowded conclusion to this fantasy trilogy, 23 Mar. 2015
It’s immediately after DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT. Jael has led his Dominion troops into the human world where he hopes to get hold of their weaponary to crush the chimaera once and for all and start a new war against the Stelians. The only hope is for Karou and Akiva to find a way for the remaining chimaera and Misbegotten to work together but given the millennia of enmity between the two that’s no easy task.

The conclusion to the SMOKE & BONE TRILOGY is an overblown, crowded affair left bloated by the romance elements. If you’re a fan of epic romances filled with a lot of blockages before an eventual happy resolution, then you’ll enjoy this as there are a lot of breathless descriptions of how Akiva and Karou feel about each other coupled with a whole lot of roadblocks to them being together, which really irritated me. Coupled with this is that there are so many strings to the overall story that at times the book felt overcrowded, especially when Taylor introduces a new plot around human scientist Eliza who has secrets that will impact on Karou and Arkiva’s struggle. For me Eliza’s introduction simply came too late in the trilogy for me to care about her situation. I was also disappointed with the resolution to the Jael plot line, which felt very anti-climatic, mainly because so little time was devoted to it, even though the whole book is structured around it. I did enjoy the scenes with Mik and Zuzana, which brought some much-needed levity and a less complicated love story and I admire the scope of Taylor’s imagination and the vividness of her descriptions. Ultimately, although this book wasn’t the conclusion I’d been hoping for, I would definitely check out Taylor’s other books.

I think that the main reason this book didn’t work for me is because the love story between Akiva and Karou is so samey – the whole will they/won’t they, misunderstandings and obstacles to true love become repetitive (especially given the events in the previous books) and the breathy descriptions of how they feel about each other really began to irritate me. I’m not a romance fan anyway, which is probably why I reacted so strongly to it, but when it came at the expense of the wider plot, it did annoy me.


Firefight: A Reckoners Novel (Reckoners 2)
Firefight: A Reckoners Novel (Reckoners 2)
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

3.0 out of 5 stars Tepid second novel in a superpower series, 23 Mar. 2015
It’s almost a year after STEELHEART. Newcago is rebuilding after Steelheart’s rule but by killing him, David and the Reckoner’s have attracted the attention of other Epics keen to punish them. It soon becomes clear that someone is sending the Epics to Newcago and all suspicions point to Babylon Restored (once Manhattan), ruled over by the water-controlling High Epic known as Regalia.

David, the Prof and Tia head to Babylon Restored to meet up with another team of Reckoners to try and discover what Regalia is up to. But everyone in the team is holding secrets and some are far more dangerous to the world than others …

The second in Brandon Sanderson’s RECKONERS SERIES is a tepid affair that expands on the world-building in STEELHEART but does little with the characters – notably the supporting characters who are little more than stock affairs. The whole book revolves around secrets but the reasons why some of the characters keep those secrets are often flimsy – existing only to give grounds for the plot events that follow – and there’s an awful lot of the book that involves characters deliberately not talking to each other or holding off on having conversations that, logically, they should be having. This is particularly so in the case of Megan, who reappears in the book as there’s a key plot event that involves her but at no point does David seek to dig into it, even though he should be doing so given his feelings for her. All of this is a shame as there are some great things about the book – I like the detail that Sanderson gives to the powers his Epics have and the thought he’s also put into their weaknesses – particularly in the case of Regalia who operates in the context of very clear rules. I also enjoyed his reimagining of Manhattan as a sunken city and the effect that Regalia’s rule has had on its inhabitants. However the book didn’t come to life enough for me, especially as characters such as Prof and Tia don’t really come to life on the page, which means that some of the pay-offs lack the impact that they should have done. As a result, I can’t say that I’m going to rush to read the next in the series, although I will probably get around to checking it out.


Steelheart (Reckoners 1)
Steelheart (Reckoners 1)
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Action-packed first in a series set in a twisted world of superpowers, 23 Mar. 2015
Ten years ago, a bright light appeared in the sky. People called it the Calamity and although no one knows what caused it, it did coincide with humans suddenly developing superhuman powers. But these humans – nicknamed Epics - did not use their power for good. Instead they used them to abuse and rule and conquer.

Ten years ago, David saw one of the most powerful of the Epics – Steelheart – murder his father. Since then his only concern has been to get revenge. He’s been studying all of the Epics, learning their strengths and their weaknesses and he knows that Steelheart is not as indestructible as he seems because he’s seen him bleed …

Brandon Sanderson’s superhero fantasy - the first in a series – is an action-packed affair premised on the idea of great power becoming a great corrupter. Although aimed at a ‘grown up’ audience, the fact that David is 18, coupled with the coming-of-age themes and simple plot means that it would equally play well with YA readers. There’s a lot of world building in the book, which I really enjoyed – especially as Sanderson spends time establishing how the Fractured States came into being and the different powers and vulnerabilities that each Epic has. However the plot itself is slim – little more than an account of taking on – and taking out – various Epics and the Epics themselves are two-dimensional generic evildoers (although there is an opening for them to become more nuanced in later books). I also found David’s quirk of constructing tortured metaphors a little annoying after a while, while the obligatory romance with fellow Reckoner Megan for the most part played out fairly predictably. Saying that, the supporting characters have a lot of potential, specifically the Prof who formed the Reckoners and has secrets of his own and Cody a Scots/Tennessee guy with a penchant for big guns and tall stories and I also liked Abraham, a Canadian who believes that one day there will be Epics motivated to do good. Ultimately, there’s a lot of set-up to the book but Sanderson does it at a good enough pace for this to be an enjoyable enough read and with the set-up out of the way, there’s scope for the remaining books to go deeper and be more interesting. On that basis, I’ll be interested in checking them out.


Rush of Blood
Rush of Blood
by Mark Billingham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Structured crime thriller that doesn't quite hit its mark, 21 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: Rush of Blood (Paperback)
Angie and Barry, Dave and Marina and Ed and Sue all meet on holiday in Florida. They hit it off and over the next fortnight, they go out and share laughs but on the last day, the daughter of one of the other guests at their resort goes missing. Nevertheless, when they get back to the UK they agree to meet up for dinner at each other’s houses – starting with Angie and Barry. Over the next few weeks, the couples meet up and get to know each other better, which means that character flaws and tensions all start to come to the fore. And of course, the disappearance of the girl dominates all of their discussions. Then a second girl goes missing in the UK and the couples begin to realise that one of them could be responsible …

Mark Billingham’s stand-alone crime thriller sits outside his successful TOM THORNE SERIES (although Thorne himself does make a delicious cameo). It’s a very structured piece, built broadly around the three dinners and although I enjoyed the way he weaves the events in Florida with the burgeoning relationships that develop between the couples, the final quarter seems very rushed and I wasn’t particularly convinced by the revelation of the killer, especially in terms of why they did it. I was equally unconvinced by Marina and Dave’s relationship – for me, they were the most underdeveloped of the couples with Dave in particular coming across as a stereotypical computer geek while Marina’s self-confidence issues get a predictable back-story. I also wanted a little bit more on Ed and Sue’s marriage – there’s more emphasis on Ed than on Sue with the result that she’s slightly under-baked on the page. However there’s a lot to enjoy here as Billingham slowly ratchets up the tension and gradually reveals information so that the book keeps you guessing until the end. He also does a good job in depicting the dinners themselves in all their awkward and stilted glory as games of one-upmanship take place and tensions are revealed, especially as the alcohol flows. All in all, even though the book didn’t quite come good for me, it did keep me turning the pages and, as always, I will check out Billingham’s next book.


The Bat: The First Harry Hole Case (Harry Hole 1)
The Bat: The First Harry Hole Case (Harry Hole 1)
by Jo Nesbo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3.0 out of 5 stars Harry Hole's first outing is a decidedly mixed affair ..., 20 Mar. 2015
When Inger Holter, a minor Norwegian celebrity is raped and murdered in Sydney, Detective Harry Hole is sent to liaise with the Australian investigation. Harry isn’t content to sit on the side-lines, however, and he has an ally in Australian detective Andrew Kensington, who involves him in tracking through Inger’s last known movements and checking out her criminally inclined boyfriend, Evans White. It soon becomes clear that Inger is the latest in a serial killer’s long line of victims but the closer Harry and Kensington get to the truth, the closer the killer gets to them …

Jo Nesbo’s first Harry Hole novel is a decidedly mixed affair. First published in 1997 but not translated into English until 2012, the first third of the book is gripping as Harry develops a friendship with Kensington and the two start to piece together what happened to Inger. I particularly enjoyed the way Nesbo weaves Aboriginal myth stories into the text and Harry’s descriptions of Australia – notably when he has to visit a small hippy town. However the plot itself judders along in a predictable fashion (with logic at times being sacrificed for the purposes of getting to the next plot event) and despite Nesbo’s red herrings, it’s pretty obvious who the killer is while some of the deaths are signalled too far in advance. I also found Harry’s relationship with Birgitta to be rather dull, although I did enjoy the insights into Hole’s background – probably because this is the first Harry Hole novel I’ve read so it’s new to me. The denouement was, for me, just downright silly and had me rolling my eyes, but it’s testament to Nesbo’s easy writing style (together with Don Bartlett’s smooth translation) that I stayed with this until the end. Despite the faults, there was definitely enough here for me to check out the other Harry Hole novels.

One of the best elements of the book is the relationship between Kensington and Harry and I would have liked to have seen more of this than Harry’s relationship with Birgitta. Nesbo uses it to explore Australian history and mythology in a way that works well with the themes and plot of the book and feels very natural. Hole’s background with his family also fascinated me but the recovering alcoholic plot line has been done to death and plays out in a predictable way.


A Most Wanted Man
A Most Wanted Man
by John Le Carré
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Le Carre at his angriest, 19 Mar. 2015
This review is from: A Most Wanted Man (Paperback)
Brue Freres is a private British bank based in Hamburg that’s been in in slow decline for the past decade. It’s currently run by Tommy Brue who’s 60-years-old, on his second marriage and estranged from his only daughter. When Tommy gets a phone call one night from Annabel Richter, a young German human rights lawyer, he realises that the bank’s darkest secret is about to be exposed. Annabel represents Issa, a young Chechen refugee who holds the key to one of the Brue security vaults but whose terrorist links has also made him a target for the German, British and US intelligence services.

Annabel believes that Issa should leverage the security vault to buy himself his safety but Issa sees the money as tainted and wants nothing to do with it. As the security services move in, it becomes clear that Annabel, Tommy and Issa are pawns in a wider game that’s been decades in the making …

Set against the backdrop of the War on Terror, this spy thriller is perhaps one of John Le Carre’s angriest books. His views on how to gather intelligence on Islamist extremists sets out the compromises to be made and the difficulties that intelligence agencies face are dark and cynical. He also doesn’t hide his anger at the brash arrogance of the Americans and how their resort to torture and imprisonment is ultimately self-defeating. Unfortunately, Le Carre’s rage comes at the expense of the characters here. Tommy and Annabel sailed too close to stereotype for me – Annabel with her family issues and liberal guilt and Tommy with his family issues and attraction for the younger woman. Meanwhile Issa is too much of a cypher with Le Carre leaving it open to interpretation whether he is terrorist or terrorised. However, the floppy haired Gunther Bachmann just about made up for that (although I wish his relationship with Erna Frey had been developed further and indeed, I wanted to see more of her interaction with Annabel), plus I really enjoyed the delicate way Le Carre draws out the histories and competing interests of the various players, particularly in the scenes where the higher ups are brought in to rule on the proposed plan. Although this isn’t vintage Le Carre (lacking the subtlety of his earlier works), it was still an entertaining read that kept me absorbed from beginning to end.


The Tenderness of Wolves
The Tenderness of Wolves
Price: £3.13

5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and assured award winning debut historical thriller, 18 Mar. 2015
It’s 1867 in Canada. Mrs Ross lives with her husband and adopted son, Francis in the frontier town of Dove River. When she finds her neighbour, the trapper Laurent Jammet, brutally murdered in his cabin at the same time as Francis disappears, she fears the worst. The local magistrate, Andrew Knox, asks the local branch of the Hudson Bay Company for assistance and they send the brutal Mackinley (who sees the case as an opportunity for advancement) and the clerk, Donald Moody (a recent émigré from Scotland) to investigate.

But Dove River is a town full of secrets and not everyone wants to see Jammet’s killer brought to justice. Mrs Ross’s only chance is to strike out and follow the killer’s trail herself, no matter where it takes her …

Stef Penney’s debut novel is a gripping and assured historical thriller that deservedly won the Costa First Novel Award in 2006. Penney alternates between first person, third person limited and third person omniscient points of view throughout the text to great effect, although my favourite sections are those told by the enigmatic Mrs Ross as she recounts her life in Scotland (where she spent time in an asylum), her marriage to Mr Ross and her love for Francis. I particularly admired the way she weaves in a historic tragedy that’s still gossiped about in Dove River, namely the disappearance of the Seton sisters and the pall its cast over the lives of some of the cast together with the details she gives about the lives of the main cast. There’s an overriding sadness to the text, each of the characters has suffered loss and each has hopes and ambitions for the future, whether it’s Donald’s love for the beautiful Susannah, Mr Sturrock’s hopes to prove an Indian written culture or Mrs Ross’s desire to exonerate her son. Also great is the description Penney gives of the Canadian wilderness and its effects on her characters and the historical detail she gives to bring life to the period. My only gripes are that one of the revelations is telegraphed a little too heavily and feels out of keeping for the time (especially the reaction of one of the characters to it) and the ending is open, but these are small issues given that the book had me gripped from beginning to end and I can’t wait to read Penney’s next book.


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