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Kate (Oxford, Oxon United Kingdom)

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by Neal Stephenson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A triumph, 22 May 2015
This review is from: Seveneves (Hardcover)
On a day that started like any other but became known as Day Zero, an unidentified `agent' blew up the moon. Upon impact the moon broke up into seven pieces, the Seven Sisters, that continued to orbit the Earth. For a week, everyone's biggest fear was the identity and nature of the unknown agent. Could what happened to the moon happen to the Earth? But then Doc Dubois, celebrity astronomer and TV scientist, woke up with a shock - the biggest threat to the Earth wouldn't come from a repeat of the moon's fate, it would come from the moon itself. Dubois must inform the world of its approaching annihilation, of the Hard Rain that would fall, that would destroy life on Earth, in less than two years.

The International Space Station, `Izzy', immediately becomes the focus of Earth's attention as its leaders attempt to pacify the world's population with the promise that although they might die their species will not. Izzy will become the hub of an Ark, lots will be cast, a few thousand people will be saved, the DNA and embryos of many other species and humans will be stored aboard. There is hope. Even though most have little cause to do anything but despair.

Seveneves is an extraordinary, magnificent novel. Within its 900 pages it contains an astonishing and meticulous depiction of mankind's efforts to survive, day by day, bolt by bolt, as the Space Station is transformed. We grow enormously close to its crew, especially Dinah, an expert in robotic technology, and Ivy, the Station's commander, but there are others, including Dubois, and the numbers grow as more and more people are rocketed to the Space Station, attaching new habitats. Many of these early arrivals are mere sacrifices, giving their lives as they work tirelessly, endlessly, to build habitats that others may live in. Humanity cannot survive without extreme heroism on the part of many. Sometimes the maddest of ideas turn out to be the best of solutions - mankind is evolving fast to survive.

Two thirds of the novel follows in enormous detail life, sometimes barely a life, aboard the Space Station as well as the other vessels and habitats that work towards the survival of the Ark. Hundreds of pages are devoted to this, no detail is too small, nothing too little not to worry the crew and scientists. There are countless problems to overcome. But the detail never becomes too much. It is absolutely fascinating. This is hard science fiction and it is done brilliantly - the tension never eases, the human drama increases, everyone trying not to look at the Earth they have left behind. This effort to detach emotionally from Earth's fate is powerfully moving and is never lost amongst the science. The goodbyes are dealt with quickly but how could they be done differently? This is too huge. The trauma is too great. Survival is in the detail.

The final third moves us on five thousand years and from this point on the novel shifts in another direction entirely. Now the author directs that attention to detail to describing the future of humanity. This section strongly contrasts with what has gone before and it does take some getting used to but it does succeed, largely because of the lavish descriptions of the new worlds and technologies and its treatment of the bioengineering that has transformed mankind. The play of the book's title means something here just as it did at the beginning with the moon's Seven Sisters. There are some huge ideas at work in this final section, some of which also take us right back to the start. I found the ending completely satisfying.

For me, the first two thirds of this novel is nigh on perfect science fiction. If you were to give me a checklist of what I wanted from SF then this would tick most of the boxes. The plot seemed made for me - end of the world, space stations and space ships, heroism, weakness, action scenes that take the breath away and ideas and visions that make the jaw drop. This had it all. My only issue with this part of the novel was that one baddie in particular seemed too conventional and familiar. But this was more than compensated for by the other characters, not least of whom is the incredible Tekla. There are so many strong women in this book. I appreciated every one of them. Dealing with loss is something that everyone in this novel must endure and as the book goes on the pain of this only increases.

Seveneves is the first Neal Stephenson book I've read. I was attracted to it by its themes and promise of hard science fiction. I love SF brickbooks and Seveneves proved irresistible. This is a saga to lose oneself in. It is rich, layered, alive. Its detail is absolutely fascinating and complements perfectly the scenes of high drama. The meticulously presented ordeal of surviving day by day on the Ark contrasts with the later section's elaborately developed and grand view of mankind's future. Seveneves is a triumph - I cannot praise it enough. I'm grateful for the review copy.

by Paul Finch
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love Heck! Great crime fiction, 13 May 2015
This review is from: Hunted (Paperback)
Detective Sergeant Mark `Heck' Heckenburg's secondment to the Lake District is over and he's back with the Serial Crimes Unit - and not a moment too soon. Heck's boss, Superintendent Gemma Piper, has had her interest piqued by her mother's suspicion that the recent gruesome death of her golfing friend, Harold Lansing, was in fact a gruesomely elaborate murder. Heck is sent to Surrey to help the local police to investigate, only to find that they already have their suspicions. It soon transpires that something very wrong and strange is taking place in the leafy suburbs of Surrey. Heck and his Surrey colleague Gail Honeyford begin to uncover evidence of other strange deaths - killer spiders and scorpions in cars, loose scaffolding, rogue blimps and more. As the body count rises, Heck and Gail find themselves on the hunt for one or more murderers who display no sign of motive, picking victims with no apparent connection, and, if the possible sightings are to be believed, of the most peculiar appearance.

Hunted is the fifth Heck novel but the fact that it was my first didn't matter at all. I was thrown into the story immediately and there were enough small clues to allow me to pick up on a little of what had gone on before without spoiling the plots of the previous novels - which is just as well as I immediately bought the four other books.

First and foremost, Hunted`s story is fabulous. The crimes and murderers are intriguingly original and unusual (not to mention imaginative) and they are described in a clinically gory and horrific manner that is really rather thrilling. I'm not going to lie, there was a lot here that appealed to the macabre-loving element of the crime-fiction-reading side of my brain. But Hunted is not a traditional melodramatic crime fiction novel - its roots are grounded in reality and so there is a section of the book that plunges us into another crime world, that of gangs and gangsters. There are a lot of red herrings in this investigation. All of them must be followed diligently and, very cleverly, one or two of them after all may yield their own surprises (as well as the odd death trap) in the path of our intuitive and resourceful detectives.

Heck is a fantastic creation. I liked him instantly. There is a Past to him, a fair bit of which (but not all) seems to involve `the Super', but it's not laboured and it serves its role without distracting Heck from his focus. And he is very focused indeed. But he's also good at the social game and he has to be, moving around police forces and colleagues. He's also not frightened of sticking up for people who need a bit of support and here he provides that to Gail Honeyford who, for a newly introduced character, is a very interesting figure indeed and I hope we meet her again. Gemma Piper is another character I liked immensely. I enjoyed the interaction between these characters.

The mix of gritty detective fiction with flamboyant and dramatic crimes works wonderfully in Hunted. It is very well written and it has quite a pace to it. I had high hopes for it and it exceeded them. I did not want to put it down. I now consider myself a fully fledged fan of Heck and look forward to encountering him again - it's good news indeed that I now have his other investigations ready to read. I'm grateful for the review copy.

The Chosen Queen (Queens of the Conquest 1)
The Chosen Queen (Queens of the Conquest 1)
by Joanna Courtney
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Light and entertaining historical fiction, 13 May 2015
1055, England: Edward the Confessor is a much loved but ageing, heirless king. But there is no end to the list of those with a claim to the throne, thanks to a web of marriages among the land's most ambitious, fractious noble families. Edyth Alfgarsdottir is the blossoming daughter of Alfgar, Earl of Mercia, the son of Lady Godiva, a formidable woman who still influences the court. Edyth, her family and the rest of the court are gathered at Westminster to hear the king announce the name of the new earl of Northumbria. Alfgar is confident the earldom is his but his hopes crash when Edward gives the title to Lord Torr Godwinson, brother to Edward's Queen and member of an increasingly powerful family that includes Torr's brother Harold, Earl of Wessex. But Torr has none of the nobility and honour of his elder brother and the insult is too much for Alfgar to bear. He threatens the King - Alfgar and his wife and children are cast out, banished from England, left to seek refuge with Griffin, the charismatic King of all Wales. It is from that point on that life begins to get very interesting indeed for our young heroine, Edyth. History is on a collision course with Hastings and Edyth is caught at the heart of it.

There is no doubt at all that the years 1055-1066 were amongst the most tumultuous in England's history, the perfect subject for a historical novel, but we're now distanced from it by almost one thousand years. We all know what happened at the Battle of Hastings but the years and events preceding it are far less well-known, not least because English history was about to become Norman, not Saxon. Joanna Courtney is to be congratulated because in The Chosen Queen she throws us into the drama of these days by successfully focusing on one particular element of it - the life of a young noblewoman who experienced events better than most, and harder than most, thanks to her highborn birth and her illustrious marriages. But because we know what happened at the Battle of Hastings there is also a powerful tension running through this novel. We are spending time with people whose days are numbered.

Edyth Alfgarsdottir is an absolute delight, a spirited, brave and determined heroine who, despite her rank, learns more than she should about hardship, scrambling to survive, and death. But she also has her mind set on love and love is the dominant theme that runs through this emotional novel. Without doubt, these are the hardest of times and men especially have to live the lives of warriors - threat comes from kinsmen as much as it does from the Viking north or the Norman south. Only Edward is holding it all together and it's obvious that time is running out on peace. But despite all of this, love runs through these men and women's veins every bit as much as warfare and ambition.

At the beginning of the novel Edyth is a witness to a beautifully romantic handfast union between Harold of Wessex and the Lady Svana. This is a marriage without the blessing of the Church, made surrounded by nature, directly before God and one another. It is this ideal that Edyth seeks for herself, knowing only too well (especially after observing the appalling Torr) the opposite. The relationship between Edyth and her Welsh King Griffin is wonderfully told and sets a tone for the book - and Edyth's life - that continues until the last pages. Griffin is not the last love of Edyth's life, nor, perhaps, the most significant, but their relationship is one among several colourful and rich episodes within The Chosen Queen that goes straight to the heart of the reader.

While I adored The Chosen Queen, it also takes more than a few liberties with historical accuracy and, I would argue, authenticity. I am a bit of a purist when it comes to history - especially medieval history, which I know a fair bit about - and I am also no fan of romanticised history. However, The Chosen Queen is the exception that proves the rule, pulling me in by the extraordinary storytelling gift of the author. I never felt that I was back in 11th-century England - the language, sensibilities and relationships are too modern for that. The men in particular seem out of place. Also, many of the names have been `modernised' as an appendix tells us. This I found completely unnecessary and very hard to excuse. For instance, Gunnhild becomes Hannah, Burgheard becomes Brodie, Gytha becomes Crysta and there are many more changes. This threw me out of the historical period and setting far more than I would have liked. Nevertheless, I was able to ignore this more than I thought I would and was able to enjoy the story and the characters enormously for what they are.

Joanna Courtney knows how to pull on the heartstrings of her readers - this is a light yet deeply emotional read and the pages fly through the fingers. It might be history romanticised and tidied up but it still has a considerable impact. I cried my eyes out on several occasions - there are shocks in here, not least during the Battle of Hastings itself. I never expected the Battle to make me weep but it did. Joanna Courtney tells her story with great enthusiasm and skill. It kept me reading late into the night and by the end I was an emotional wreck, left longing for the sequel! I can't wait for it.

One point, though: don't read the family trees at the beginning, they give away an awful lot more than the date of the Battle of Hastings. I'm grateful for the review copy.

The Silvered Heart
The Silvered Heart
by Katherine Clements
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved the heroine from the very first chapter and from that moment I was hooked, 13 May 2015
This review is from: The Silvered Heart (Paperback)
It is 1648, Charles I has been imprisoned by Cromwell, and England, its land and families, have been devastated by Civil War. Heiress Katherine Ferrers is to be married off to Thomas Fanshawe who will not only gain a bride but also her inheritance of the family home of Markyate Cell. The War refuses to end as armies rally for that one last push and the roads that cross England are dangerous places, the refuge of defeated soldiers and the displaced, men turned highwaymen. Kate and Rachel, her companion and maid, learn this all too well on their journey to Fanshawe and his house, Ware Park. What happens to Kate on the road shapes her life from that moment on. But before it can change her future, Kate must endure years beside a distant, neglectful and loveless husband, neither of them wealthy as they once were, with Kate scraping an existence from an impoverished estate while her husband stays in London and plots with fellow royalists. Meanwhile, the new King Charles waits impatiently across the Channel.

In The Silvered Heart, Katherine Clements returns to the English Civil War, a time that she first depicted in last year's The Crimson Ribbon. While much of that book dealt with a woman's lot in London, The Silvered Heart moves the action into a countryside ravaged by war, its grand homes ruined by cannon, the fields neglected. Katherine Ferrers is, in my opinion, a far more spirited heroine than Ruth and Lizzie in The Crimson Ribbon, events seem more real and desperate. Inevitably, as before, men take the lead in fighting the War, plotting for or against the King, but Kate has no choice but to take charge of her new estate, such as it is, and to take matters into her own hands. As in the previous novel, the heroine falls for an unsuitable lover, but here that love takes second place to Kate's determined efforts to survive and her strong sense of self. I liked that.

This is a beautifully written novel. Several houses play an important part in the novel and each is richly painted. As we tour these houses, their past grandeur hidden by debris and fallen plaster, it's easy to imagine them before our eyes. The atmosphere of war and danger is also very well created. Kate never knows who might arrive at her door next, demanding all her food, her horses, their lives. Kate has a very strong sense of place, history and order. All of these things are assaulted by the Civil War and by her marriage. And so she decides to fight back. Kate Ferrers becomes a notorious highwaywoman, a price put on her head.

There is much that is romantic about the world portrayed in The Silvered Heart. This is, after all, at least in the second half of the novel, the tale of a highwaywoman's adventures, albeit based on the story of a woman who actually existed. There is glamour, disguise, excitement and the thrill of the chase, all partnered with Kate's love for her fellow bandit, a love story that is painfully fragile and vulnerable. The reader longs for them to escape time after time with their ill-gotten gains. But there is another side to it. The people they rob and intimidate may be as poor as themselves. Kate is also very afraid, not entirely competent. But more than that - this was an especially harsh period in English history and one can never forget that it's this despair and desperation that brings Kate to the perilous life of highway robbery.

In The Silvered Heart, Katherine Clements has created a wonderfully enjoyably novel that mixes perfectly a realistic, harsh portrait of country life during the Civil War and the Protectorate with the romance of adventure and an unsuitable love affair. The story is held together by Katherine Ferrers - I instantly fell in love with her, I was desperate to see how life turned out for her. She is charming and lovely, and also cross and brave. Everyone loves her, except the man who should love her the most, and it's this charisma that creates problems between Kate and her maid Rachel. This is an interesting relationship, although Rachel suffers by comparison to Kate. She is overshadowed and, as a result, her character is much more two-dimensional, as is the character of Kate's lover. It's hard to shine next to Kate, she's such a fabulous, dominant personality and a wonderful narrator, for this is Kate's story told in her own words. Intriguingly, though, there is some hope for her husband - this world is not black or white.

The Silvered Heart is a substantial book, covering several years of history, but I read it in its entirety in just one day, despite work and everything else that stole hours away from it. I loved the heroine from the very first chapter and from that moment on I was hooked - by the characters, the story, the historical and geographical setting and by Katherine Clements' gorgeous writing. This increasingly emotional read made time stand still for this reader at least. I'm grateful for the reveiw copy.

A Killing Moon (DI Damen Brook 5)
A Killing Moon (DI Damen Brook 5)
by Steven Dunne
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.58

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful and disturbing story investigated by an intriguing bunch of detectives. Great stuff!, 13 May 2015
Caitlin Kinnear is out on the town in Derby, knocking back the shots with her best friend. In the morning she is due to return home to her family in Ireland. She never arrives. It takes a while before she is reported missing, her friend in Derby and her family in Ireland both assuming she has stayed on with the other. When, finally, she is reported missing, no leads are found to indicate that she has done anything more than lose herself on purpose. But DS Noble is interested. He works with DI Damen Brook, the master solver of cold cases, and it's rubbed off. Noble examines Derby's other cases of lost young women and discovers there are similarities and links. Brook isn't keen - until, that is, he discovers that taking on the case could irritate his boss. From that point on, there's no stopping him. It's just as well. Especially when the body of another young woman turns up.

A Killing Moon is the fifth in Steven Dunne's DI Brook series but it's the first I've read. I'm relatively late to crime fiction and so I'm particularly fond of a series I can leap into. This worked particularly well here. I understand that DI Brook has deep troubles in his past, many of which he now appears to be reconciled with, but these have left him with attitude - his sarcasm is almost professional in its quality, he has little patience for American turns of phrase used by his British colleagues and he is an expert at putting people down with a lash of his sharp tongue - so sharp that his victims don't immediately feel the pain that's coming. But Brook is also deeply respected and, when you get to know him a bit (as we are privileged to do so), then his qualities of loyalty, courage and decency come to the fore. We do get a little glimpse of a private life through his text messages to his daughter. Brook is an intriguing man. He irritated me a little at times but I grew to like him very much indeed. I also had a lot of time for Noble and other members of Brooks' team.

It doesn't matter how much you like the detective and his or her team if you don't enjoy the story - I really liked this one. Dunne takes us into a darker side of Derby life, one that feeds off cheap migrant labour and exploits local waifs and strays. This is a dangerous underworld, full of secrets and codes, sinister allegiances and prejudices, and yet the family is paramount, almost.

But this is not a straightforward mystery of gangsters and their vulnerable human prey. Far from it. A Killing Moon is full of twists, surprises and red herrings. The novel follows the format that the reader knows more about the case than the detectives but even we don't know it all. Our knowledge does mean, though, that we have every reason to fear for Caitlin and the other missing girls. Things get very tense indeed.

I liked A Killing Moon very much, especially enjoying the characters of Brook and Caitlin. The pace did falter for me at times during the first half of the book but this was more than compensated for by the excellent and exhilarating second half and the fantastic ending. Derby is not a city I know at all but I liked its depiction here. Brook appreciates the countryside on his doorstep and there is a strong contrast between the city and the peaks outside, reflecting Brook's personality. It's a clever book, thought-provoking and very well written, also frightening and sinister in places. Steven Dunne has won me over with A Killing Moon. I've now bought the first two in the series and I'm looking forward to reading them very soon. I want to know much, much more about DI Damen Brook. I'm grateful for the review copy.

A God in Ruins
A God in Ruins
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An emotionally draining, powerful, wonderful novel, 13 May 2015
This review is from: A God in Ruins (Hardcover)
Two years ago, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life caused a stir that still continues. This week, its companion novel A God in Ruins is published. These two novels complement each other, you don't need to have read one to enjoy the other, but if you have read Life After Life and you loved its tale of Ursula Todd, then I think there's a good chance that you will be blown away by this new story of her brother Teddy. I enjoyed Life After Life very much, finding it extremely clever, but it engaged my heart far less than my head. I expected something similar from A God in Ruins. I was in for a shock. A God In Ruins turned out to be one of the most emotionally powerful novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I have no hesitation in declaring that it will be a contender for my top novel of 2015. If you loved Life After Life, even if you just liked it as I did, you will adore A God in Ruins.

This review is not an easy one to write. While we are familiar with some of the characters who return from Life After Life, the emotional impact of A God in Ruins relies on you knowing as little as possible about it when you begin. So, instead of giving anything away, this review aims to tell you something of why it has left such a significant and, I am confident, lasting impression on me.

In Life After Life, Ursula Todd lives a succession of alternate lives, each one ending in a different way, time or place, but always resulting in yet another rebirth, a new life living another possibility. Her younger brother, World War II bomber pilot and countryside poet, Teddy, featured incidentally but memorably in several of these lives. In A God in Ruins, we have Teddy's story - one life but not told in a conventional manner. The novel moves through Teddy's life, jumping backwards and forwards, chapter by chapter, but also within chapters. The story is told by a wise narrator who leaves clues to future, present and past, as we learn to know Ted Todd very well indeed, as we do everyone else in his life. The narrative moves between generations, different perspectives of the same event are provided, memories come and go, places are visited and revisited. It is organic and whole. A God in Ruins is a brilliantly structured novel, its strands knitted together expertly, beautifully.

A God in Ruins lulled me into a false sense of security. It moved gently as it invited me, the reader, to want to get to know Teddy, introducing me to a young child describing nature to his glamorous, rather eccentric aunt Izzy on a meandering country walk, before moving me on with a jolt to another generation in a much different time. But slowly and surely, everything begins to knot together and that is when the heart becomes engaged and emotions start to build. I loved Teddy - not just the child but the man he becomes, so much so that I am tearful even thinking about him!

Just like Life After Life, A God in Ruins is a novel about war. Teddy's experiences as a pilot of Halifax bombers colours his entire life, affecting every relationship, and we are immersed in the depths of pain and turmoil that hide in Teddy's heart.

I'm not going to tell you here about what happens to Teddy, or about any of the people who move through this novel and Teddy's life - each of them will grab hold of you, your feelings towards them will change, you will care deeply, maybe even dislike one or two of them intensely. But I will say that one of the reasons that I loved this book so much is because it made me think deeply about how little we might really know about those we love, how rewarded we would be if we dug a little, even if it also hurt a bit. The themes here are huge - life can be short; it is important to live that life fully and well.

A God in Ruins is a melancholic novel, it has scenes that are extremely upsetting, the more so because Kate Atkinson has the gift of making us care about her characters. But there are many light moments, humorous phrases, which contribute to the novel's intense sense of being about the lives of real people. The relationships in it are complex and so believable and recognisable. The dialogue is spot on. All linked by the knowing, compassionate and very human voice of our author's persona.

At the heart of this remarkable, wonderful book, though, is Teddy - I'm struggling to think of any other character in a novel I've felt so drawn to. Prepare to laugh and cry - and possibly cry an awful lot - as you get to know this man as he lives through his life, teaching us as he goes about what the years have taught him about home, love, family, war, nature, duty and death. I am overwhelmed. I'm grateful for the review copy.

At the Ruin of the World
At the Ruin of the World
by John Henry Clay
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling account of the demise of Rome's western empire, 13 May 2015
By the mid 5th century AD, Rome's emperors were hanging on to the western empire by their fingertips. Britannia had been abandoned to the Saxons and much of the west was under the control of Goths, Alans, Franks, Sueves and more - their friendliness to Rome unreliable, their alliances not to be trusted, nibbling into the edges of Rome's diminishing borders. But by 448 both Rome and the tribes were faced with another threat entirely; Attila the Hun and his face-scarred horsemen were advancing from the East, Attila's mind set on claiming the emperor Valentinian's sister as his wife, along with half the western empire as her dowry. To stop the Huns, Romans must unite with Goths but that can be achieved only through the most delicate negotiations between powerful personalities on both sides. It's into this fragile, violent world that John Henry Clay throws us in At the Ruin of the World. Clay focuses in particular on one Roman family, the Philagrii, who had an enormous impact on the late Roman western empire and, as a result, on the rise of the medieval kingdoms of Europe.

Everything is at stake in At the Ruin of the World, the theatre of war is huge, but the novel brings this astonishing time to live by focusing on the experiences of individuals and portraying their life in wonderful detail in cities across the west, especially Arles, a vital Roman port, Clermont to the north, and also in Rome itself. But also depicted are the Goth centres of Toulouse and Bordeaux. This Romanised Gothic world is absolutely fascinating to read about and not at all how I had imagined it. This might have been a dangerous transitional period of history but this novel shows us that education, politics, military training and philosophy and so on were still important elements of town life for those who continued to define themselves by their Roman class.

The novel has at its heart three young people whose lives we follow over a decade - Ecdicius, a young patrician of the highest order struggling to learn the craft of a soldier and commander worthy of his father Eparchius's respect; Attica is Ecdicius's sister, betrothed to her ambitious and flawed cousin Felix; Arvandus, a young man who has had his inheritance stolen by Rome and is now determined to make a name for himself, whether it's by working for the Romans or the Goths, he cares little. We follow all three of these lives, as they touch and as they move apart, and through them we witness some of the key events and personalities of this dramatic period.

This is a thrilling read and there is far more to it than the Huns, who are only one of the many enemies to Rome featured in the novel. With so many tribes on the move, the beauty and splendour of a city such as Arles is threatened along with the lives of everyone in it. Not even Rome is safe. There are battles and skirmishes galore, the organised, pompous Romans contrasting with the more flamboyant Gothic princes, kings and soldiers. Politics and warfare vie for attention in this gripping novel.

But the violence is also shown on a more intimate level. All three of our heroes endure it (most poignantly, Attica) and more than one of them inflicts it, their personal stories highlighting the grander dramas of which they play a part.

During the second half of At the Ruin of the World, when the Philagrii are at their most powerful, we are taken to Rome, a city suffering from its recent sacking. This is my favourite part of the novel - Rome itself now feels as if it is that ruin at the end of the world, its glories all around but broken, sold for scrap, overrun by barbarian soldiers, the streets full of terrified citizens. The novel forewarns us that a series of deaths will take place that will have catastrophic consequences for Rome. As we watch them, one after another, the tension builds as Rome leaves its past behind. The ending is extremely powerful.

But At the Ruin of the World is also a novel of hope. It portrays the origins of medieval Europe in compelling fashion. People think of themselves in a different way, as do our three heroes, and it is fascinating to watch them live their lives, with all their personal tragedies and achievements, all set against the most exciting and dramatic backdrop of Rome's fall. At the Ruin of the World is much more focused on interpreting the lives of real historical figures and events than Clay's previous novel, The Lion and the Lamb (set almost a century before) and both are extremely successful and beautifully written.

The Lion and the Lamb was one of my very favourite novels of last year and John Henry Clay has done it again with At the Ruin of the World (incidentally, what a great title). Firmly routed in history, this is a compelling and addictive account of the demise of Rome's western empire, focusing in particular on one family that was influential in both the fields of battle and politics. I'm grateful for the review copy.

Bite: The most gripping thriller you will ever read
Bite: The most gripping thriller you will ever read
by Nick Louth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A book of two halves, one better than the other, 13 May 2015
Amsterdam is hosting a scientific conference on parasites to which many of the world's leading pharma bosses and tropical disease experts are drawn. All want to hear Erica Stroud-Jones speak about her cutting-edge research. Rumours circulate that Erica is about to announce a cure to the disease that kills millions of people every year - malaria. But the night before the conference begins Erica disappears from the hotel room she was sharing with her boyfriend of just a few months, American sculptor Max Carver. Max is frantic, desperate to interest the local police force in her disappearance but to no avail. If anything, they view him as a subject. When Max spots a young woman stealing Erica's laptop from their hire car, he runs after her, embarking on a cat and mouse hunt that will lead him into a very dangerous world indeed, a dark place ruled by somebody lethal.

But Amsterdam has much more to contend with than a stolen scientist. A plane bound for the city is attacked by a terrorist. He bears no bombs or bullets. Instead he releases something into the cabin that likes nothing better than to bite. It's not long before Amsterdam is facing an epidemic which the conference experts must combat before they, too, fall victim.

The title of Bite is an appropriate one. This is a book that made me itch, alive as it is with the whine of mosquitoes, the itch of their bites and the heat of the fever they induce. It's also a thriller that's divided in two. Much of the book focuses on Max's hunt for the violent and bloody men he believes hold Erica. Max hasn't known Erica for that long and it is clear to him that there is so much he has yet to learn about her. It's the mystery of Erica that we discover in the other half of the book. Scattered throughout are journal extracts in which Erica recalls her time as a researcher in sub-Saharan Africa some years before. Although these are presented as pieces from a journal, they read in a much more flowing and accessible format than that suggests. They present a vivid, shocking and bare account of a nightmare that Erica and her colleagues endured for months.

Bite presents itself as `the most gripping thriller you'll ever read' which, I think, is a mistake. It isn't the most gripping thriller I've read, in fact it doesn't come close, but while I was reading it I felt compelled to finish it. This was largely because of the African sections of the book, which are by far the most involving and interesting elements of the story. Although, having said that, I also found them difficult to read. They include detailed descriptions of psychological and physical torture. The scenes in modern Amsterdam also include some horrific moments. This is a novel that I often found quite unpleasant.

One of my main issues with the novel was caused by the character of Max, the boyfriend turned detective. He gets battered about an awful lot, losing teeth and so on. And yet by the next chapter he's picked himself up and carrying on as `normal' in his new superspy and ruthless guise. Likewise, the woman (Lisbeth) Max befriends in the chase is also confused. My other main issue is with the epidemic aspect of the thriller. I was interested by all the science but this part of the novel never takes off. It all seems rather low key and undramatic. It couldn't compete with Erica's experiences in Africa. However, even Erica remains distant, slightly vague.

For much of the time Bite wants to escape expectations. It's presented as a gripping thriller but it wants to be more than that, hence the harrowing sections in Africa and its depiction of the moral issues surrounding Big Pharma's investment (or lack of it) in the treatment of malaria in Africa. There is some fine writing on show here and it's in these sections that Nick Louth comes into his own. However, in other sections the writing, especially the dialogue, is a little odd. Max's repeated use of `ain't', for example, really stood out to me as out of place. Despite all this, though, Bite is an intriguing and pageturning novel with some surprising twists, albeit one that for me proved rather disappointing. I'm grateful for the review copy.

The Infidel Stain
The Infidel Stain
by M. J. Carter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Immensely powerful portrait of early Victorian London - outstanding, 13 May 2015
This review is from: The Infidel Stain (Hardcover)
The year is 1841 and Captain William Avery has sold his commission and returned from India to England. His peaceful and unsatisfactory life in the west country is interrupted by a message from Jeremiah Blake, Avery's partner in investigations in India, asking him to meet him in London immediately. Their superior in India has put another case their way. Aristocrat and reformer Viscount Allington wants them to investigate the especially brutal and bloody murders of two London printers, both of whom had their faces and hands pressed deeply into ink, their bodies discovered draped over their printing presses. The `new police' have shown little interest in linking or solving the crimes. Lord Allington wants the murderer found, removed from the streets. Only then will his lordship be able to continue his good works and the worthy poor return their focus to the salvation of their souls.

The investigations take Blake and Avery into the rotten heart of London's filthy streets. This is the time of the Corn Laws, the Chartists and extreme poverty and injustice. It is also very cold. The contrast to India is difficult for Avery to handle. Blake is remote once more - there is more on his mind than he will admit and he's clearly not well. But as the pair dig deeper into the stews of Soho and the Rooks they are drawn together once more as they combine their heartfelt drive to put right the injustices and hardships they uncover. The bodies accumulate in a city that has rebellion on its mind. Avery and Blake are caught up in it, violence and corruption on every side, murder and venality underfoot, and trapped in the middle are the innocents, or those who used to be innocent but have now lost it in an effort to stay alive.

The Infidel Stain is an immensely powerful book. For the first half, I enjoyed a compelling and intriguing murder mystery, involving disguise, subterfuge and cunning, but in the second half everything explodes as we gradually learn the wider context of the crimes - I was riveted to every single page. I became extremely stirred up! I was enraged by the conditions on London's poorest streets, so expertly and evocatively recreated by M.J. Carter. I remember reading the leaflets and petitions of Chartists and reformers when I was at University and when I read this I wanted to read every one of them again. The Infidel Stain made me angry with Victorian complacency and hypocrisy to a degree that I haven't felt in a long time.

M.J. Carter expertly gives us a focus for our anger - young Matty, a street seller who found one of the bodies, and her small brother. These two people aren't sentimentalised, they're no angels (on the contrary), but they bring home in a powerful and emotional fashion the nature of a child's life in London's prisons, London's streets - or on the streets of any city - for those for whom there is no family or state to care. I cried as I raged.

But quite apart from the story of these two siblings, M.J. Carter brings 1840s' London to life, from its pubs (I couldn't resist looking them all up) and shops to its workhouses and prisons. The streets themselves are vividly realised. You can almost smell the stench and feel the weight of the muck on your trousers or skirt hems. Without doubt, The Infidel Stain presents the most compelling portrait of early Victorian London I've read since I devoured The Quincunx by Charles Palliser many years ago. This is also the time when newspapers began to be circulated, their stamp duty abolished so that the poor could read, or learn to read, the press for the first time. The rise of journalism (and the police force) is an important theme in The Infidel Stain and it's a fascinating one.

The mystery itself is an extremely good one. It kept me gripped throughout the book and it was a worthy mystery for our two fine `detectives' to investigate. While you don't need to have read the preceding The Strangler Vine to enjoy The Infidel Stain, I think the latter works even better if you have. The Strangler Vine is a fantastic novel, as rich in Indian colour and atmosphere as The Infidel Stain oozes London grime and injustice. It also guides us through the uneasy relationship between Avery and Blake in a way that is wonderfully sensitive. There is so much unsaid in this relationship, so many character changes that have taken place in both men as they each allow themselves to be known, that it is an absolute treat to see this develop further in The Infidel Stain.

Captain Avery notes at one point that London, the world, is growing noisy. The printing presses, the steam engine railways, new farming and industrial machinery, the calls to arms of the militants - everything is changing and this superb novel captures the moment perfectly. No longer can the poor rely on aristocratic charity - they need laws. M.J. Carter takes us into both worlds, one struggling in its death throes, the other struggling to be born, and Avery and Blake are our guides. I thought it would be difficult for The Strangler Vine to be topped but The Infidel Stain is a book of the year for me and it's one I'll remember for a long time. I'm grateful for the review copy.

Poseidon's Wake (Poseidons Children 3)
Poseidon's Wake (Poseidons Children 3)
by Alastair Reynolds
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything I want from science fiction and more. Including elephants., 13 May 2015
Crucible, a planet distant from Earth, is now a colony for both humans and a dynasty of intelligent elephants. They are watched from orbit by an unknowable artefact, Mandala, which waits surrounded by the debris from its inexplicable, monstrous attack on a massive transportation vessel decades before. Ndege Akinya, an old woman, is imprisoned within her own home on Crucible, held responsible, at least in part, for this `Mandala event'. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this would mean the end of Akinya influence on mankind's fate among the stars. But then Gliese 163, a far off system, begins to transmit, in Swahili, `Send Ndege'. Ndege is too old and frail to go on a journey that would take so many years. Instead, Ndege's brother Mposi and her daughter Goma with her wife Ru, a carer of the remarkable Tantor elephants, embark on the vessel Travertine.

But they are not alone. Another member of the Akinya family, Kanu, has been told of the message by an AI `friend' called Swift. Kanu, his one-time wife Nissa, and Swift set off from Mars for Gliese 163. Neither expedition has any idea what to expect but both are certain that their destination many hold the answer to the mystery of the Mandala and the Watchkeepers whose presence menaces the Earth's solar system just as it does Crucible.

This is just the very beginning. Alastair Reynolds launches these two ships into a distant, different place, a star system that holds many surprises, many of them deeply personal to the Akinya family. But it's not just about the destination. The journey is a difficult one, highlighting the fear that worries the passengers and crew. Since the Mandala event, conspiracy theories have flourished, along with cults and terrorism. All of these are to be found on the vessels. Arrival is not a certainty for everyone. And then there's the challenge of what they face when they finally get there.

Poseidon's Wake is the third novel in the Poseidon's Children trilogy, a set of books which are linked by the Akinya family but cover great swathes of time and space. This novel is as much a standalone as the preceding two but I think that the books really do deserve to be read in sequence. If you've read all three then you will know about the overwhelmingly powerful force of Eunice in the lives of her family and descendants. She's important here, too. And then there are her elephants. These wonderful animals have formed a significant and especially enjoyable thread through the novels and that continues in Poseidon's Wake, more than ever. Kanu was once a merman and he is a reminder of this universe's predilection for transforming humans, in lots of cases to live for many extra decades, even centuries, but most memorably in the way that many took to living in the sea. While this book removes us from the ocean world and into space, we're still rewarded with glimpses - it's good to see Arethusa again - and the title of the novel (and trilogy) hints at its continued significance and meaning.

This richly layered novel is full of themes and an important one here is the suspicion between AIs and humans. AI Swift is an intriguing member of Kanu's crew and his kind forms a link between human beings and the mysterious builders of the Mandala and the Watchkeepers. Intelligent life has expanded way beyond a head, two legs and two arms and it's not just the elephants who prove this.

I have enjoyed all three books very much indeed - I think that Alastair Reynolds has created an extraordinary universe and I love how he moves it on with each novel. There is something very organic about the growth of these books. Everything is linked in such clever, imaginative and meandering ways. Man's responsibility for the environment and the crucial importance of his response to the strangeness beyond his world are key to the way that I view the trilogy and that continues in Poseidon's Wake. This means that the book appeals to my heart as well as my head.

The story itself is a thoroughly enjoyable one. It's a very substantial book but it moves along at a pace. I couldn't wait to find out what what would happen next while all the time I was entertained by a succession of fascinating characters. These are intriguing people, no longer defined by gender or sexuality, but all with a good tale to tell.

I realise that I'm not able to tell you the best bits about this fantastic, enormously rewarding book because that would be giving the game away and you really need to discover it for yourself - the second half of the novel comprises one jaw-dropping moment after another, building up to a marvellous cimax. This book gives me all that I want from science fiction - there are wonders and mysteries, booby-trapped planets, alien technology, awe-inspiring panoramas, space and spaceships - and elephants! And manipulating its way through the heart of it is surely one of the universe's most dysfunctional, astonishing families, the Akinya.

Having completed the trilogy I now want to return to its beginning and re-read. Alastair Reynolds is one of my very favourite authors, every book is a much-anticipated event, and with Poseidon's Wake he shows yet again why that is. I loved every single page. I'm grateful for the review copy.

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