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Steve D (London, England)

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Gathering (Chronicles of Empire 1)
Gathering (Chronicles of Empire 1)
Price: £0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars so you feel like you get to know them as they get to ..., 8 Nov. 2016
On the face of it, you would think that Gathering (the first book in Brian G. Turner’s ‘Chronicles of Empire’) is a fairly standard fantasy novel, where a group of disparate travellers come together - more by luck than judgement - and find themselves drawn into a greater quest to put the world to rights. And if it were to be presented to you as that you might well think ‘ho hum’.

But hold your horses, because Turner subverts your expectations straight away, in the prologue, by introducing an element which effectively subverts those thoughts, an element which underpins the whole tale and keeps you on your toes, awaiting the next surprise.

For me, it was these hints at something more going on beneath the surface that kept me turning the pages. The chapters are each told from the point of view of one of the characters, and are kept refreshingly short, which serves to create pace and drive the story forward. The city of Corianth – to where the travellers journey on the promise of work and a future - is well realised and has the feel of the ancient world about it, and the action scenes convey the confusion of the battlefield with aplomb. Suffice to say, nothing is quite as it seems, and there are forces at work beyond their comprehension.

There are plots within plots and conspiracies within those plots, and a group of characters who are drawn with subtlety and whose backstories are gradually elaborated upon, so you feel like you get to know them as they get to know each other.

As a personal thing, I tend to find in novels with multiple viewpoints that some characters work better than others, and that was also the case here. I was really drawn to Erin, Dalathos and Ezekial. Dalathos, in particular, is a character who plays with the fantasy norm, and his friendship with Ulric has the ring of some of David Gemmell’s classic relationships. On the other hand, I wasn’t so keen on Jerine and Sirath and I think this was largely because I didn’t quite buy into their relationship or get why they liked each other so much. I would’ve liked a bit more zip and zing in the dialogue, more humour and banter, as I always find this helps to bring the characters to life – in any book, not just this one. It’s a personal thing, but it always seems to be those characters who work best for me. Jerine and Sirath are likeable people but their stories didn't hold my attention as much as Dalathos or Erin, or intrigue and excite me as much as Ezekial.

But that really is a minor niggle. I enjoyed Gathering very much. I am quite jaded on fantasy at the moment and have largely moved away from it over the past couple of years, so I was expecting to find this a bit of a struggle. Instead, I found it to be a fast-paced and refreshingly different take on the genre, and there is much promise for future instalments. In particular, I can’t wait to find out more about the surprise elements mentioned earlier - and which I have no intention of spoiling – and where they will take these unsuspecting characters.

A debut twenty years in the making, this is an exciting and intriguing beginning.

Danse Macabre
Danse Macabre
Price: £2.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a terrific story for a bleak winter night, 23 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Danse Macabre (Kindle Edition)
This is a terrific story for a bleak winter night. We see the world from the point of view of Blue, a young girl, whose trials and tribulations are stalked by crows, the mysterious 'Him', and a snail. She is an intriguing character who comes alive through her actions, and it was only as I approached the end of the story that I realised it had all been done without her uttering a single word.

Dark, creepy, unsettling, wreathed in atmosphere, and holding a sting in its tail. Fans of Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie should enjoy this.

Echopraxia (Firefall)
Echopraxia (Firefall)
by Peter Watts
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Echopraxia, 8 Sept. 2015
This review is from: Echopraxia (Firefall) (Paperback)
'Echopraxia' begins a few years after the events of Watts' previous novel, 'Blindsight'. You don't necessarily have to have read one to read the other, but I would recommend it. 'Echopraxia' introduces us to the character of Dan Brüks, a biologist who has exiled himself to field study in the Oregon desert after his life fell apart when one of his experiments had been used by others to cause large scale bloodshed. Dan's only company, apart from rodents and snakes, are the inhabitants of a monastery a few miles away, members of the Bicameral Order - a hive mind which speaks in tongues and needs augmented human jargonauts to translate for them. They leave Dan alone and he leaves them alone. Until one night when the zombies come.

Before he knows what's happening, Brüks has escaped to the safety of the monastery. It is here that the novel's cast assembles, including the vampire, Valerie. Yes. Valerie the Vampire. And, as funny as that sounds, she is the scariest character I've encountered in a novel in an age. Fairly soon, when the main thrust of the story moves beyond Earth (for reasons I won't spoil), and when Dan and the crew of the spaceship Crown of Thorns are forced into close proximity and enclosed spaces, Valerie haunts the shadows and nooks and crannies of the vessel, stalking Dan, ramping up the fear and paranoia in deliciously frightening ways. Even when she's not present in a scene her presence still looms, lurking at Dan's and, by extension, the reader's shoulder. Chilling mind-games and moments of sheer terror are sprinkled throughout the book.

The story also connects, as you would expect, with 'Blindsight', but not necessarily in the ways one might imagine. It is less a direct sequel than it is an extension of Watts's universe. This is very much Dan's tale. He and the characters around him are excellent and I genuinely liked all of them. This doesn't mean they are all nice people, by any means.

'Echopraxia' surprised me. In many ways, it is a re-run of 'Blindsight''s main story, and yet it somehow manages to be completely different. It is still unforgivingly heavy on the science but I didn't find it difficult to follow. Perhaps it is not as revelatory as its predecessor, but it is still fabulous stuff, consistent, hard as nails, and right on the bleeding edge of science fiction.

Note that Watts's short story 'The Colonel', available for Kindle or for free via the Tor website, is worth a read before starting 'Echopraxia' as it helps to provide a bit of extra context. It also works as a bridging story between 'Blindsight' and 'Echopraxia'.

Death Descends On Saturn Villa (The Gower Street Detective Series Book 3)
Death Descends On Saturn Villa (The Gower Street Detective Series Book 3)
Price: £0.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Death Descends On Saturn Villa, 8 Jun. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I've been looking forward to this book since reading the first two entries in the series last year. I thoroughly enjoyed both of those novels, loved the characters, the humour, the mysteries. So, yes, my expectations were heightened going into this one - and we all know that's a recipe for a fall from grace (Grice?).

Unfortunately, I am quite confused by this book. The first half to two thirds of it are the problem. The normally sharp and witty dialogue seemed a little forced and repetitive, and I got the sense that it was trying to be a little too clever for its own good. The endless put-downs of March seemed to be every other line. The result is that it felt like some kind of bizarre comedy, unlike the previous novels where I thought the story and the characters came first and foremost, and the humour as an extension of that, and it all began to feel a little tedious. Maybe my expectations were too high, but this one felt clunky to me because everything I loved about the first two seemed to be missing here.

But then it somehow managed to turn things around in the last third. Even though the problems didn't entirely go away, the plot started to come together in clever and satisfying ways, and the book ends in such a fashion that the first two thirds seem like something of a long-forgotten dream. I suspect that some editing could've reduced my problems with it - the plot, as intricate as it is, would probably have been better served if 100 pages shorter. Did I mention that this 400-page novel has over a hundred chapters in it? Crikey.

Anyway, long and short, I ended up enjoying it but wishing the beginning had matched the ending. I like it when authors experiment with narrative tricks but those used here weren't entirely successful for me. It's the weakest of the three books, but then the standards had been set so high, perhaps I wanted to love it just a little too much.

Red Country (First Law World 3)
Red Country (First Law World 3)
by Joe Abercrombie
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Red Country, 18 Nov. 2013
I've been wanting to read this book for over a year, patiently waiting for it to arrive in paperback. It got to the point where I considered the Kindle version, but his books have these wonderfully tactile covers that I feel like it would be a crime to not read the physical book. So I've waited and waited. And for the third book in succession Joe Abercrombie has entertained, thrilled and enthralled me from the first page to the last.

Where Best Served Cold was his version of a revenge thriller, and The Heroes his war story, Red Country is his - I have to say - loving tribute to the Western. The story starts as Shy South and her surrogate father, Lamb, return to their farm after a trip to the town of Squaredeal to sell their produce, only to find their home razed to the ground, old farmhand Gully hanging from a tree, and her young brother and sister gone. Shocked, scared and furious, they set off in pursuit, off into the west where the gold rush beckons and people head to make new lives despite the constant threat from the savage Ghosts.

I think it's probably fair to say that unless you're a fan of Hollywood's once-dominant film genre, Red Country might not have the same effect on you as it has had on me. The atmosphere and knowing nods to Western movies from the 40s through to the 70s and onward positively drip from the pages. So many of the cliches of that genre are taken here by Abercrombie, turned inside out and plonked down in his fantasy world. From the wagon trains being circled to hold off an attack by axe and bow wielding natives, to stampedes, to the siege as two outlaws try to hold off an army, to the shoot out in a dusty street, it's all here and more. The influences are many, the most obvious being John Ford's magnificent The Searchers, some hints of Rio Bravo and The Wild Bunch, a dash of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a sprinkling of Eastwood's 'Man With No Name', and a whole heap of the brilliant HBO tv show Deadwood - it's a positive treasure trove of iconic moments.

As usual, he doesn't skimp on the characters either, and he has a particularly strong bunch here, all of whom are trying to escape their murky pasts in one way or another. From Shy and Lamb through Temple and Cosca and on to the ageing scout Dab Sweet and the mysterious Savian, he eeks out detail and relationships with that rare and assured touch that has become so apparent in his writing. Nervous ticks or monosyllabic answers are capable of conveying everything a character is feeling. Possibly my favourite relationship in the book was that between Lamb and Savian - and they barely say a word to each other! Beyond that, the dialogue is just about perfect, so much so that you can almost hear it drawling from the lips of John Wayne or Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood, and it is so funny at times - laugh out loud kind of funny. Plus he writes some of the best action scenes: the ones in this book took my breath away at times, they are so exciting, and terrifying, too. The scene during the storm is so vivid. Real 'big screen' writing, if you like.

I thought the pacing was just about spot on. I never once felt that it was dragging, and even had to force myself to slow down and drink it all in, because I didn't want it to finish too soon. As I turned the last page and read the final paragraphs it was with the goosebumps you get when you feel that something is just *right*.

In the end, though, one question did arise: if Joe could capture the Western vibe so perfectly in a fantasy setting, why not just write a Western? Suddenly, characters from his previous books were speaking in the aforementioned Western drawl - something which they didn't have prior to now - and it was impossible not to imagine them all wearing Stetsons and packing six-shooters (there are no guns in Joe's First Law world, yet he somehow still manages to give that impression). I also have to wonder if anyone who's never enjoyed the Western genre will see what all my fuss is about.

For me, though, Red Country is an absolute joy. At the moment Joe Abercrombie can do no wrong in my books. He may lack Erikson's inventiveness or Martin's publicity, but he is a damn fine teller of stories. I believe he's working on a Young Adult trilogy next. I can't wait.

`What are you going to do?' whispered Temple.
`There was a time I'd have gone charging over there without a thought for the costs and got bloody.' Lamb lifted the glass and looked at it for a moment. `But my father always said patience is the king of virtues. A man has to be realistic. Has to be.'
`So what are you going to do?'
`Wait. Think. Prepare.' Lamb swallowed the last measure and bared his teeth at the glass. `Then get bloody.'

Desolation Island (Aubrey/Maturin Series, Book 5) (Aubrey & Maturin series)
Desolation Island (Aubrey/Maturin Series, Book 5) (Aubrey & Maturin series)
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Desolation Island, 23 Oct. 2013
This is the fifth of O'Brian's books in his 'Aubrey/Maturin' series. In this one, Captain Jack Aubrey is delighted to have been awarded command of the Leopard, with a mission bound for Australia. What he doesn't know, at first, is that he is to transport a hold full of convicts, something which infuriates him as a navy man. But his friend Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and spy, twists his arm before he can reject the commission. Maturin has his own reasons, for amongst the convicts is a woman who has been charged with espionage on behalf of the Americans, and Britain and America are on the verge of war.

I'm starting to find O'Brian's books to be the perfect remedy when I feel in need of a complete change of pace. I read a fair amount of historical fiction, I suppose, but - apart from Hilary Mantel - I'm finding his writing more immersive than any other in its evocation of a time and place, its grasp of character, and dialogue that just seems right. It doesn't mean that I suddenly have a grasp of all the nautical terms, though - I still struggle with those, but I'm less concerned with it now, and don't find myself stopping reading to find out what it all means.

Desolation Island has some thrilling moments (especially one prolonged sequence where the Leopard is fleeing from a Dutch Man of War in the midst of a ferocious storm), some great surprises, several laugh out loud moments, and a brilliant ending.

Loved it.

Logitech UE 900 Noise Isolating Earphones
Logitech UE 900 Noise Isolating Earphones
Offered by Hand Held Audio Ltd.
Price: £279.90

24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Logitech UE 900 Earphones, 9 Oct. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I had been using UE Triple-fi 10s for over five years when, finally, the sound started to go from one channel (and a replacement cable made no difference). Having had such reliable service from the TF10s (when I had previously gone through two pairs of Shures in less than three years) I knew that I wanted to stick with UE, and I really wanted the 900s, but I was put off by the price. I did lots of research into other brands and nearly drove myself crazy trying to decide but, in the end, I knew the indecision was being caused by the fact that I really wanted these.

I'm happy to report that since I received them any misgivings I had about the price have become non-existent. These are fabulous earphones. I have spent the last few days working through my music collection, hearing detail in the songs that I either hadn't noticed before, or hadn't heard in so long that I'd forgotten about them. The sound is crisp, bass punchy, and I have really noticed how well the vocals come through. The soundstage is spacious and really gives the music room to breathe. I was fortunate in that the silicon tips that were on the earphones out of the box are a perfect fit. I briefly tried the Comply tips and another pair of the silicons, but immediately went back to the original ones. The sound isolation is very good indeed, better than the TF10s I find, although I have had to stop myself using them whilst walking along the street as, even with the volume right down, I found I wasn't as aware of my surroundings as I should be. On the tube, though, they are fantastic.

So, excellent earphones. But what I really want to note is Logitech's customer support. The UE 900's come with the blue (mic) cable attached and I was blown away immediately using them as was. But I decided to switch to the black (audio) cable just to check everything was working and immediately noticed a slight bias in the sound towards the left channel. I spent a couple more days listening to this to see if it was my imagination, switched back to the blue cable and found that it wasn't. I contacted Logitech by email and asked them if they had any possible solution, and received a reply within a few hours saying they would send me a new cable without further question. I was very pleased with this - although at this price it is the least you should expect.

Obviously, I can't judge long-term durability as yet, but I would hope that they will last at least as long as the Triple-fi 10s. I will edit my review at a later date should this prove not to be the case.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 23, 2014 5:50 PM BST

The Black Dahlia (L.A. Quartet)
The Black Dahlia (L.A. Quartet)
by James Ellroy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Black Dahlia, 9 Oct. 2013
This, the first book in Ellroy's 'LA Quartet', is a work fiction based around true events: the horrific murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in 1947. The story itself covers the period 1946 to 1949, and is about LA cop Dwight Bleichert and his partner Lee Blanchard, two ex-boxers who become obsessed with the investigation for quite different reasons. I don't know much about the real-life case, apart from the fact that it was every bit as gruesome as Ellroy describes it herein. There's a lot of detail of Bleichert and Blanchard's investigation, naturally, but how much of it holds true to the real investigation I don't know - not a great deal, I suspect, else Ellroy's story would be quite different.

What I can say for sure is that The Black Dahlia is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended. Quite apart from the murder itself - and in typical Ellroy style - he paints a disturbing picture of LA in the 40s, and the people who inhabit it. Racism, sexism, in fact every kind of bigotry you can imagine, is exhibited by the characters, some of the cops being the worst examples. Corruption is rife, from the ruthlessly ambitious wannabe-district attorney Ellis Loew downwards. The cops will stop at nothing to get a conviction, even if it means withholding or even faking evidence. You suspect that Ellroy has an axe to grind, given his own mother's murder (I haven't read his book about this, called My Dark Places).

This is nothing new if you've read Ellroy before, so I knew what to expect. It's tough to look beyond the depravity but, if you can, you find a warts-and-all portrayal of police procedure coupled with visceral characterisation. Hard-boiled does not even begin to describe it. It's difficult to say I enjoyed a book this full-on, but I did find it extremely compelling, stark, and unsettling - as I have done with his other books that I have read. Ellroy is a brilliant, brilliant writer. I just wouldn't want to meet these people in real life.

Prophecy (Giordano Bruno 2)
Prophecy (Giordano Bruno 2)
by S. J. Parris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Prophecy, 9 Oct. 2013
I've been sitting here for about ten minutes trying to think what to write Suffice to say, reading another Tudor period book straight after Bring Up the Bodies was probably not such a great idea And Prophecy is not such a great book - it's not awful, either, it's just rather average.

I've read a fair number of historical murder/mystery/thrillers and I am quite a fan of the sub-genre. I read S. J. Parris's first 'Giordano Bruno' novel, Heresy, a few months ago and pretty much all of my issues with that book are repeated here, apart from one notable one: Giordano Bruno himself. Okay, so he was a real person, but - in this book - he is one of the most incompetent and ineffective agents you can imagine. He stumbles about from one dangerous situation to another, is handed clues on a plate (rather than by actual investigation), allows vital evidence and even suspects to escape, for no better reason than because the book would be much shorter if he didn't do so. For almost the whole book he worries that he is being followed, so every time he goes outside Parris repeats his feelings of being watched. And yet, despite this feeling he has, he still ducks into dark alleys. Hmm, I wonder what's going to happen. D'oh! It gets tiresome very quickly. And he is a worryingly two-dimensional character. There is no hint of humour or depth about him. His internal monologues are also repetitive; he worries about this, he worries about that, then a few pages later he worries about them all over again.

It's not that I think S. J. Parris (or, to give her her real name, Stephanie Jane Merritt) is a poor writer (she's doing a damned sight better than me at it, after all!), but I didn't feel there was any verve or style to the writing, the sort of turn of phrase or characterisation or excitement that picks you up and sweeps you along for the ride. Unlike the first book, and very much like Hilary Mantel, she decided to write this one in the present tense. It should, in theory, provide a lot of momentum, driving the story forward. However, instead of conveying the sense of time and place through character and action, she does it through page after page of monotonous description. The book frequently gets bogged down in this mire, which is a shame, and it failed to excite me on any level because any sense of tension flies out of the window.

I think I probably read this at completely the wrong time, straight after such a masterpiece, but I looked back at my comments on Heresy and realised that nothing had changed. You would, perhaps, expect there to be an improvement and evolution in both the characters and writing between the first and second books but I didn't really get that feeling. I did like that it was set in London this time, though.

Bring up the Bodies
Bring up the Bodies
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bring Up the Bodies, 9 Oct. 2013
This review is from: Bring up the Bodies (Paperback)
Considering its predecessor was called Wolf Hall (the family home of the Seymours), it is not until the start of this sequel that we are actually taken there. Picking up a couple of months after the climax of the first book, which chronicled the rise of both Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, we now come to Anne's downfall, whilst Cromwell appears like a man riding the crest of a wave, the surfboard bucking beneath his feet, one misstep threatening to tumble him into the jaws of the waiting sharks. He's made a lot of enemies, Cromwell, in his climb to become Henry's chief minister and advisor. Anne, meanwhile, three years as queen, has failed to provide a son and heir to the throne and - as rumours begin to circulate of the King's deficiencies in the bedroom being to blame, and of Anne's infidelities - suddenly Henry's eyes come to rest on young Jane Seymour (who, at this stage, I am assuming was fresh from her role in Live and Let Die, and was far too young to have considered Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman). Well, the writing is on the wall, isn't it? And, of course, it falls to Cromwell once again to facilitate the King's desires, knowing well enough the treacherous waters into which they will take him.

I suppose, in the wrong hands, telling a story to which everyone knows the outcome could be something of a poisoned chalice, a turgid drudge to a predictable conclusion. In the right hands, though, knowing what the outcome will be can lead to heightened tension: you know what's going to happen but you are so involved that you can only look on, helpless, as the characters fulfil their roles in the tragedy. Mantel's are most definitely the right hands. Perhaps her cleverest, neatest and best trick is to relate the events in the present tense. In doing so, she got me right inside Cromwell's head, seeing this vivid, dangerous world through his eyes. Much as he seems to be riding that wave, I felt as if I was riding his thoughts, watching him cajole and manipulate and fight for every inch of ground he could gain.

I know some people struggled with Wolf Hall but, for me, Mantel's prose is immaculate. It demands concentration, for sure (a slight distraction can lead to having to re-read a paragraph or page to grab back the thrust of a thought or scene), but it carried me from conversation to memory, flitting with Cromwell's thoughts to another half-formed memory, but always brought me back to the crux of the matter, the point of the scene. It is also riddled with caustic wit and profound observation. I frequently laughed out loud as I read: Cromwell is the master of the put-down, even if he internalises it. One such moment that stuck in my mind occurred early on, when Cromwell is visited by an enemy, the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner:


'In practice, Stephen, upwards, downwards -- it hardly matters. "Where the word of a king is, there is power, and who may say to him, what doest thou?"'

'Henry is not a tyrant,' Gardiner says stiffly. 'I rebut any notion that his regime is not lawfully grounded. If I were king, I would wish my authority to be legitimate wholly, to be respected universally and, if questioned, stoutly defended. Would not you?'

'If I were king . . . '

He was going to say, if I were king I'd defenestrate you. Gardiner says, 'Why are you looking out of the window?'


Mantel's style is not the most descriptive - you'll rarely find detailed descriptions of rooms, buildings, attire etc - and yet the time and place seems to come alive through her words. The characterisation is pin-sharp, if seen through a Cromwell-tinted lens. Everything is seen through his eyes and, whether or not he agrees with him, he will do what he has to do to meet the needs of his King. You fear for him at the same time as standing agog at the audacity of the actions he takes.

Bring Up the Bodies is a triumph from the first page to the last, in my opinion. For me to read a book that contains literally not one piece of action, and yet to come away thinking that the pacing was phenomenal, never dragging for an instant, shows to me just how good a writer she is. It is completely absorbing, immersive, exciting and scary.

It is far and away the best book I've read so far this year.

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