Review: Canary by Duane Swierczynski

9781444754186It’s been awhile between drinks for a Duane Swierczynski novel but as always it has been worth the wait. Straight away its like jumping on a runaway train with that instant pleasure of having no idea where Duane Swierczynski is going to take you this time.

After the brilliant insanity of the Charlie Hardie series Duane Swierczynski grounds this story in college in Philadelphia. Sarie Holland is an Honours student who stays well away from trouble. That is until she gives a friend a ride and is left holding the bag. Busted by the cops she’ll do anything to stay out of trouble including turning into a confidential informant. A role she quickly discovers she has a talent for.

The only problem is someone appears to be bumping off snitches and that’s when trouble doesn’t just come looking for Sarie it is literally hunting her on the streets of Philadelphia. Now this Canary must unearth the rat who is helping bump off Philly’s CI’s while keeping her family in the dark about her new after school job AND study for her final exams. You just know this isn’t going to end well for a lot of people. And in Duane Swierczynski’s hands that’s just the beginning of the fun.

This is probably Duane Swierczynski’s most conventional crime novel since The Wheelman (and yes there is a link if you keep your eyes open). Packed full of the humour, unpredictable plot twists and history of Philadelphia’s underbelly fans have to come to expect this is another original page-turner that keeps the throttle on full right until the end.

Buy the book here…

Review: Touch by Claire North

9780356504582 (1)The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August announced the arrival of a very special talent. Claire North maybe the pseudonym for Catherine Webb (and Kate Griffin), who has already published a number of books, but Harry August was something else entirely. It was bold, intelligent, gripping and mind-blowing. Before the real identity of the pseudonym was revealed I was prepared to believe that Claire North could have been any already majorly established author, the writing was that good. With her follow-up novel, Claire North not only confirms that she is worthy of comparison with established authors, she leaves them all for dust.

The premise alone of Touch is enough to give you goosebumps. Where Claire North takes it is places you couldn’t possibly imagine. The main character, who we become to know as Kepler, is able to transfer their consciousness between bodies with only a touch. Kepler has lived for centuries. Changing bodies at will. Staying for a time in a life they find interesting, others only fleetingly. Kepler has taken over bodies when hired to and has been a facilitator for others with the same ability. But now someone wants Kepler dead and they don’t care how many hosts they kill to achieve the task.

Touch is an intensely gripping cat and mouse game where the mouse inhabits the cat and vice versa. Kepler must work out not only who wants to kill them but why. Kepler does this by inhabiting/kidnapping the would-be assassin across Europe following leads and clues back to a mysterious organization hell-bent on tracking down Kepler’s kind.

Claire North slowly builds the rules of this universe where some people can transfer bodies simply by touch. But where there are rules there are those that wish to break them and where there are people different from the rest there are people who want to eliminate them. Claire North also imagines all the possibilities that go along with this gift which takes on some truly mind-bending situations. North’s imagination is seemingly bottomless as she conjures up ingenious methods of escape, subterfuge and counter-measures. Which means you are not only kept guessing but totally unprepared for where she takes you which makes the book even more entertaining and thrilling.

The tension and stakes slowly build as we slowly get to understand who and what Kepler is. How their life has shaped and tortured them and the mistakes made along the way. The mistakes that are now coming back at every different angle. The intensity builds and by the closing stages of the book you can hardly keep up but Claire North makes sure you do.

Not only is Touch totally addictive it is also totally un-gendered. Kepler could be male or female. In fact throughout the book Kepler is both and has swapped between genders their entire life. The other ‘ghosts’ as they are known do the same thing so become undefinable by gender. They’re not male, they’re not female. They’re both and they are neither. And in the end it doesn’t even matter. Which frankly is perfection and just one example of Claire North’s skill as a writer and storyteller.

Seriously I cannot get over how amazingly good Claire North is. I could have read this book forever.The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was so smart, ‪Touch‬ is beyond genius. This will be one of THE books of 2015. Mark my words.

Buy the book here…

Review: Resistance by John Birmingham

9781742614052John Birmingham takes up where he left off at the end of Emergence. Dave is enjoying a well-earned rest after the battle of New Orleans while the rest of the world is coming to terms with the fact that monsters (Orcs, dragons, super-sized bugs, you name it) are now among us and wanting to re-subjugate their old food source. However human technologies are proving more than difficult, if not impossible, for them to overcome. New hordes of monsters soon start popping out all over the world and Dave quickly realizes that superpowers do not mean he is infallible. In fact they can even make him a bigger arsehole that he was previously.

You can tell Birmingham is having a lot of fun with The Dave as he is now known. But he also knows the limits. Dave is not hero material. He’s a pig and his new over-extended ego only expands these notions. While recovering in Las Vegas (of all places) following events in Emergence Dave really goes to town. But just when you think JB has tipped The Dave too far into chauvinistic, a-hole extraordinaire he brings his hero crashing down to earth, literally and figuratively.

JB keeps the action coming thick and fast and choosing to put us inside the heads of some of the monsters is brilliant, both for some wicked laughs and to set up some very nice spanners in the works. But the book is all about The Dave. He may not be the hero we deserve and may not want to be the hero we need but he is slowly learning the hard way how to be both.

I have no idea where book three is heading and cannot wait to find out. The even better news is the way John Birmingham has written this series I won’t have to wait too long.

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Review: Oliver Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

9781471149047I missed this Pulitzer Prize winning novel the first time around and after watching the first 15 minutes of the new HBO mini-series I know I had to read the book. Reading a book whilst simultaneously watching the television show has its own challenges but for the most part I managed to read behind watching the TV show which just finished screening here in Australia..

The book is made up of short stories all set in the small coastal Maine town of Crosby featuring to various degrees Olive Kitteridge. We are introduced to Olive through her husband Henry. In other stories Olive pops up in or is mentioned on the fly. But as we get to know Olive through others’ eyes, and then her own, we get to meet a complex woman who is often misunderstood and maligned. Olive is a blunt, no-nonsense Maths teacher who only gets blunter and less tolerant for nonsense as she gets older. While to others, especially her son, she appears uncaring and brutal she is in fact a very caring and sympathetic person who is much-loved by her husband Henry whom she is fiercely protective of. Through Olive we get a fantastic insight into getting older and the fears, joys and sadness that it brings.

The TV series is a distilled version of the book focusing much more on Olive. It does a fantastic job of capturing Olive’s journey but at the expense of her surroundings. The book captures more of the town and the other people living in it and Olive’s story is interspersed with the tribulations of others. The mini-series is much more linear and continuous whereas each story in the book is self-contained and can be read and appreciated on their own. Both the book and the TV series suck you into their world and it was an absolute pleasure to read and watch both.

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Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

9780575097582I’d been meaning to get to this series all of 2014. After being totally amazed by both The Girl With All The Gifts and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August I asked the person the Australian publisher who had recommended them both what I could checkout next. And this was the series they said. So having failed to get around to it in 2014 I thought I’d kick off with book one first up in 2015.

I think part of the reason I kept putting off the series was the quote from Diana Gabaldon that the series was like “if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz”. Not because I have anything against a Diana Gabaldon quote (I am loving Outlander, can’t wait for Part 2 of Season 1 and now know why early in my bookselling career so many people kept asking for the next book in the series!). The reason I think I delayed was because I already had my “Harry Potter for Grown Ups” obsession in 2014; The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman. So two in one year didn’t feel right. So again, new year, new obsession. And I am definitely obsessed with this series.

To sum the book up it is a British police procedural full of wicked humour and a big dollop of magic. Peter Grant is a freshly minted police constable in the London Metropolitan Police Service. He’s hoping against hope he gets assigned somewhere glamorous and not given a boring desk job. When he attends a brutal murder scene and takes a witness statement from what turns out to be a ghost his concerns about a boring assignment are completely forgotten. Instead Peter is introduced to London’s underworld. No, not the underworld of gangs, drugs and crime but the underworld of wizards, vampires, nymphs and river gods. And things are not on the up and up in this under world. On top of territory disputes there are other tensions bubbling to the surface. Tensions that threaten to burst onto the streets of London in a full-scale riot. Peter must navigate through his new circumstances learning not only the craft of magic but careful diplomacy at the same time as tracking down a spirit which appears to be at the heart of all the violence and trouble that is slowly flooding the streets.

I am well hooked on this series and cannot wait to get into the rest of the books. The humour is that pitch perfect British variety that combines the sardonic with surreal in perfect balance and the blend of London history, real and magical makes for truly entertaining reading.

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Review: What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

9780804171632I read this after listening the fabulous Bookrageous Podcast which read and discussed the book for their book club and then interviewed the author. It is a fascinating look at what is happening inside our minds when we read. The author, Peter Mendelsund, is a book designer for Knopf in the US but also has a background in music. He uses his knowledge of design, music and books to explore and to try and make sense of what happens when we read books.

The book itself is intricately designed. There is no way an ebook or other digital edition could do the way the book is presented justice and I highly recommend completely avoiding this book in any other form than print. The text is interspersed with illustrated examples and cues and the form and use of text is also important in conveying the processes reading has on our minds.

I never do this but I found myself marking numerous pages as I ploughed through this book and ended up reading the book in a day. We all have a sense of what we think happens when we read. For many people they describe it as like seeing the movie in their head and most of this book debunks this “myth”. Much of what prompts our imaginations when we read are not visual descriptions but instead other signifiers and traits that stimulate memories of familiar places, people and experiences. More often than not we fill in gaps that aren’t given to us on the page. However I did wonder if your life has had fewer experiences does this limit or diminish the effect a book can have on your imagination? Or is it the opposite? Are our imaginations more free if they are not limited by experience?

The book shows that reading provokes our minds and senses unlike any other medium. Different books (fiction, non-fiction) and different genres (mystery, literary) do this in many different ways. Peter Mendelsund likened this to travelling down a road. Some roads we fly down in our cars while others we walk down more slowly. Some roads (and therefore books) are designed to be travelled slowly and allow closer inspection and reflection. Some roads/books are designed to be quick and driven through at speed. Things rush past because the destination is more important than the surrounds. And some roads/books are both.

One of the things I began thinking about while reading this book was that it would form the basis of an interesting study on the differences between print books and ebooks and how readers interact with them. A lot has been made regarding the impact reading on tablets has on our eyes and brains but there is nothing I’m aware of that looks at whether there are any different mechanics in how we read print versus digital. Two examples Mendelsund uses in the book look at how our eyes and minds actually read ahead. I have occasionally caught myself doing this and have found myself unable to do this with an ebook because of single page layout and lag when “turning” a page. The other example is daydreaming while reading. I find I also do this while reading certain books but much more rarely if I am reading an ebook.

This book made me think a lot about my own reading and I can’t wait to look out for examples when I read my next novel. One of the great mysteries for me as a reader is what makes a book grab me and what makes me put a book down. The processes Mendelsund outlines in this book have given me a greater understanding of what is happening in my head when a book magically grabs me and what is not happening when I just can’t get into a book. I think this book would also give writers a fascinating insight into their craft and the reactions and mechanics words on a page stir up inside readers’ heads. The what and how a character or setting is described is just as important as how each is not described. That balance between the two is the magic, readers and writers alike, endlessly pursue.

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Review: The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos

9781409151340This is George Pelecanos’s first collection of short stories and once again demonstrates his consummate class, not just as a crime writer, but a writer.

The title piece is the longest of the collection but Pelecanos saves it for last. The preceding stories are a blend of what makes Pelecanos great. Stories about the street, with all the grit, soul, flair and despair that lives there.

The standout piece is Chosen. A short story that originally appeared with the eBook of The Cut and is pretty much Spero Lucas’s origin story. The piece is about Spero’s adoptive parents and how he and his brothers came to be adopted. Pelecanos tells it from the father’s perspective and I have to admit to having a few tears in my eyes at the end of the story. There was no crime in this piece. It was just life; pure, simple and beautiful. And what Pelecanos manages to capture and convey so well in all of his writings.

The title story was a whole lot of fun. Set on a television production Pelecanos was able to weave in his experiences on shows like The Wire and Treme into a very cleverly plotted murder story. There were some great in-jokes as well as a couple of scathing portrayals but at the same time a story with heart.

This is a great showcase of George Pelecanos’s tremendous talents and I can’t wait for the next novel.

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Review: Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty

9781846689819Sometimes a recurring crime character is brought back and the story feels forced or the attempt feels lame. But then there are those rare times when, despite the series being over, the character comes back and exceeds what has been done before. And that is exactly what Adrian McKinty has done with Sean Duffy.

In the last Sean Duffy book, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone, it appeared the series had finished with a bang. Adrian McKinty had flagged his intention to halt the Duffy books at three and had given us a more than satisfactory conclusion. Better to finish wanting more than for a fantastic character to get stale. However an idea came to McKinty for a book four but he still resisted until he dreamt how he would end that book and that was all he needed to give us book four in the Sean Duffy trilogy.

Not only has McKinty done it again in this book I think he has exceeded himself. The Sean Duffy trilogy was already something special and Gun Street Girl not only reaffirms that but makes it even better.

The year is 1985 and The Troubles are still in full, nasty swing in Belfast with the flames about to be fanned by the so-called Irish-Anglo Agreement. Sean Duffy is now and inspector and in charge of CID at Carrick RUC. When a local bookie and his wife a killed in what looks like a professional hit Duffy only takes a passing interest letting his detective sergeant take the lead and blood two new detectives. However when the case takes a nasty turn Duffy dives in up to his neck of course ruffling any (and all) feathers that get in his way. The bodies start piling up as Duffy quickly uncovers a plot well above his pay grade. But to crack this case he’s going to need someone to talk but the first thing they teach you in Northern Ireland is to never talk, especially to the RUC,  even when you’re supposed to be on the same side.

Full of McKinty’s wickedly black humour and brilliantly plotted this just maybe the best book in an exceptional series so far. Sean Duffy has come a long way from The Cold, Cold Ground but it is starting to leave its scars. I was reluctantly happy to see the series finish after three books but I think there is possibly a little more life in this awesome series to come. At least I hope so!

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Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

9780349134284This is an incredible exploration of grief, family and identity and the pressures of expectations that come from each.

The book opens with a death, one that nobody else knows about yet, the death of Lydia Lee; middle child of Marilyn and James and sister to older brother Nathan and younger sister Hannah. Lydia’s death and its aftermath exposes the cracks and fault lines in the family life and tenuous relationships of the Lee family. Feelings and incidents that have gone unspoken all come bubbling to the surface as each family member tries to come to terms with the circumstances of Lydia’s death and the parts of her life they didn’t know about.

Celeste Ng tells the story in an intricate chronology that mixes together past, present and even the future all in a non-linear fashion. While this could get easily confusing in her hands you are never lost. Instead you slowly gain an insight into each member of the Lee family, their experiences, hopes and dreams. How those have shaped them and influenced others around them.

James Lee is from a Chinese background and Marilyn is not. Their relationship in 1950s America has been controversial with Marilyn ostracized by her mother following their marriage. James is a professor of American History who has always strived to fit into the country his parents adopted. Marilyn was a gifted scientist who gave up her academic studies to start a family with James. Both these experiences have fed into what each of them expects of, and for, their children.

While this is ultimately a very sad story it is also a moving and insightful story about the weight of identity. How that weight is put on us by people around us and how that weight is passed down generations and how the best intentions can have tragic and unforeseen consequences.

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Review – An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

9781472120151One of the most uncompromising, unflinching, page-turning books I have read in a long time. It is a harrowing story that forces you to confront and challenge many important issues; gender, poverty, race and class to list but a few.

Mireille is visiting her Haitian parents in Port-au-Prince with her American husband and baby son when their car is stopped and Mireille is kidnapped. Her kidnappers demand a ransom from her wealthy father who refuses to pay. What follows is thirteen days of horror and deprivation.

The novel is told in two distinct parts; before and after. During Mireille’s horrific ordeal we get flashbacks to her life before; her childhood growing up in America, the wealth her family enjoy and the story of how she met and fell in love with her husband. Interspersed with the flashbacks is Mirelle’s father and husband’s story as they come into conflict over what should be done to get Mireille back. And all the time Mireille must endure the torment of her captors.

Roxane Gay does not take a backward step throughout the novel. You are forced to confront, firstly what her captors do to her and what this means for Mireille afterwards. Mireille must change herself to survive, she must bury her humanity to somehow protect it. She is broken mentally and physically and must somehow find a way to put herself back together, if that is even possible, a recover what humanity she has left. Gay’s portrayal of the post traumatic stress Mireille suffers is as honest, raw and emotional as the trauma she experiences.

While what happens to Mireille is confronting Roxane Gay uses this to open your eyes to other aspects we should also confront. She challenges us as a reader to explore the way we think about gender, race and class. Gender is at the heart of the violence that is done to Mirielle but the cause is wealth and poverty with everyone’s perceptions clouded by race.

This a novel that will shock you, surprise you and make you rethink your view of the world and the people in it. It is exactly what all great fiction should do and does so with style, honesty and empathy. It will strike a nerve, it will make you angry and break your heart and is a novel you will never forget, and nor should you.

Buy the book here…

Review: Emergence by John Birmingham

9781742614045John Birmingham delivers in spades in the first book of his explosive new trilogy.

Dave Hooper is not your typical hero. In fact he is a bit of an arsehole. He works on the oil rigs and blows most of his pay packet on booze, drugs and women much to the ire of his very-soon-to-be ex-wife and two kids. Dave is nursing a particularly nasty hangover on the way to work when all hell literally breaks loose.

Dave’s oil rig has been drilling deeper than anyone ever has before. And they may have just drilled too far. A barrier sealing off our world from another has been broken and creatures that haven’t been seen in millennia have come through and begun feasting on a long-lost delicacy; human meat. And so begins the adventures of Dave Hooper who is inadvertently thrown into this maelstrom and in the process inherits some kind of superpowers to fight these monsters from below. As Dave, the military and the outside world try to come to grips with what is happening more ‘gaps’ in the barrier appear and two worlds who haven’t been in contact for thousands of years will erupt. And an overweight, barely sober, safety engineer appears to be our only hope of survival.

Birmingham mixes up a combination of Middle Earth orcs with a Marvel universe sensibility but with his own trademark humour and insight firmly stamped all over any comparisons. As with Birmingham’s previous books he creeps in a geo-political undertone to the consequences of what he puts in motion which only makes the reading more fun. The next two installments in the trilogy have already been written and will be released throughout 2015. I can hardly wait to see what happens next (especially after the epilogue!!!)

Buy the book here…

Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

9781846689666It would not have surprised me if this had won this year’s Man Booker Prize. My heart was supporting Richard Flanagan’s magnificent The Narrow Road To The Deep North but I had a feeling this was going to get the nod. In the end it didn’t win but it would have been a deserving winner if it had.

This book ticks a number of boxes for me. It is about a dysfunctional family, it is predominantly set in a college and does both with a very clever twist. It is also told in a non-linear fashion by an unreliable narrator (whose unreliability is perfectly understandable). Just like Jeffrey Eugenides did with Middlesex this is also a compelling exploration of nature vs nurture told with an originality that is fascinating, entertaining, tragic and endearing.

The book is told by Rosemary who in her 40s is looking back at her life. While Rosemary is an unreliable narrator she is upfront about it and in recounting her story out-of-order our judgements and sympathies about her are tempered in different lights.

Rosemary’s childhood was far from normal. She and her twin sister Fern were the subject of a social experiment conducted by her father. The experiment seemingly ended when Rosemary turned five and Fern was sent away. This event was the beginning a fracture that slowly tore the family apart. Rosemary and Fern’s old brother Lowell would eventually run away from home, barely staying in contact, and the unspoken blame for both events would erode Rosemary’s relationship with both her parents and make it hard for her to form any new ones through school and into college.

This is a wonderful exploration of families, siblings and growing up and our are ideas about what they are and should be. It is one of those great novels that not only make you think but change the way you think. Full of humour, empathy and sadness it will ultimately reaffirm the power and importance of family, whatever shape or form it comes in.

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Review – The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

9781444776775Translated by David Mitchell and his wife Keiko Yoshida this is a fascinating look into the world of autism. Written by a 13 year old boy, using an alphabet board, this book is a first hand account of what it is like for somebody with autism.

There is not a lot known about autism and I personally do not know anybody diagnosed with the disorder. The are a lot of myths about autism and assumptions made by people like myself who have no second hand experience with the disorder. A book like this gives an amazing insight and perspective into what the disorder is like and the effects confusion and misunderstanding has on those diagnosed with autism.

The book is set out as a series of common questions about autism that Naoki tries to answer. His answers are clear and empathic. They do not offer solutions or any advice but simply convey what dealing with autism is like for him and an attempt to try an explain the reason behind behaviour and emotional responses. There are no clinical explanations just the thoughts and observations of a thirteen year old boy which ultimately give a unique and brilliant insight into a disorder we still know so little about. Interspersed with Naoki’s answers and observations are short stories he has written that further demonstrate the intelligence, empathy and creativity he possesses.

This is a remarkable book about a remarkable disorder written by a remarkable person.

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Review – Once Upon An Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

9780007514274I am a huge Oliver Jeffers fan but have to admit his last few picture books haven’t hit the mark. That of course excludes the absolutely brilliant The Day The Crayons Quit he did with Drew Daywalt last year which was simply outstanding. Oliver Jeffers illustrations have always been outstanding but it was his stories that seemed to have drifted. Partnering with another writer seemed like a great idea but Jeffers has absolutely knocked it out of the park with his new book, Once Upon An Alphabet: Short Stories For All The Letters.

As the subtitle suggests this is an alphabet book with a difference. Jeffers gives four pages to every letter of the alphabet including a short story about each one. The stories are fabulous and deliciously absurd. Some are interconnected and others stand alone. There are funny stories, sad stories and typically Jeffers-esque morality tales. There are heroes, there is wisdom and best of all illustrations that burst, bubble and run wild over all the pages.

This is vintage Oliver Jeffers and I cannot wait to  share this over and over with my kids as there is so much to explore and enjoy in this marvellous picture book.

Buy the book here…

Review – The Drop by Dennis Lehane

9780349140728This is absolute vintage Dennis Lehane. Contemporary Boston, working class neighbourhood, crime is not about right or wrong it is about survival and everyone has their own choices to make.

Dennis Lehane originally wrote this as a short story called “Animal Rescue”. He then turned it into a screenplay which is about to be released as a film starring James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy (set in Brooklyn instead of Boston). He then adapted the screenplay into a novella.

What I really loved about this book was it was vintage Lehane distilled into a potent and heady brew. Lehane has recently been working on a multi-generational, historical epic. Book three of which is due out early next year. This was a return to his working class roots where right and wrong a luxuries people cannot afford.

Bob tends bar for his cousin Marv. Marv was a loan shark and fence back in the day but those days are long gone. The Chechens, amongst others, have moved in and Marv now works for them. His bar, their bar now, is one of many drop points where money is collected from all the night’s many activities across the city. Bob is just trying to keep his head down and avoid any trouble. Except trouble has just walked in and wants to rob the joint.

Lehane effortlessly bring his characters vividly to life. This is a true craftsmen at work, building his pieces, putting them together and then sadly watching them fall apart. If you have ever wondered why such high praise is heaped upon Dennis Lehane, The Drop is why.

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Review – Lock In by John Scalzi

9780575134348I’ve been dying to read this since Scalzi published his oral history, teaser novella earlier this year. You don’t have to read the novella before this but I would highly recommend doing so because it shows the true depth of the world building Scalzi has imagined for our near future.

To set things up a flu like virus has ripped through the world infecting millions. Many died but there were also survivors, a small portion of whom became “Locked In”. Thier minds were perfectly fine but they became trapped inside their bodies. Billions of dollars was thrown at finding a cure for the virus but instead of a cure a different solution was discovered. “Locked In” people were able to transfer their consciousness to specially designed robots known as Hadens allowing them to rejoin the world. This lead to other discoveries and innovations that have had a fundamental impact on society and the world.

Scalzi tells the story like a classic detective mystery; two FBI agents, one a veteran the other new on the job. The twist being the new agent on the job is a Haden. Their first case together is a bizarre one. One man is dead and an “Integrator” (a human who can integrate their minds with Hadens) is found at the scene. As the FBI agents try to piece together what has happened they are quickly enveloped in a world of big business, politics and technology where nobody is who they seem.

This was a lot of fun and I don’t think Scalzi is finished with this world just yet. I can’t wait to see the stories he comes up with if he does return.

Buy the book here…

Review – Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

9780434022786With cover quotes from Kevin Power, Philipp Meyer and Jenni Fagan there was no way I was not going to read this. Throw in a rave review from John Harvey describing it as the best novel he’s read since Peter Temple’s Truth and it was practically drop everything to read this book. And everything they said about this book was true and then some.

Set in Montana in the early 1980s the main character of the novel is Pete Snow, a social worker who covers a large swathe of territory across a number of semi-rural communities. It is Pete’s job to step in when things go wrong in families although that didn’t stop his own family falling apart. Pete’s wife Beth has left him taking their daughter Rachel and they are not living in the best environment to raise a teenage girl. Meanwhile Pete’s efforts to get a child away from his mother and into a good home unravel at every turn. When an eleven year-old-boy, who has been living off the grid with his father, wanders into the local school Pete is determined to help in any way he can.

Pete is drawn into the boy and his father’s world. A world of paranoia and distrust of authority. A world dominated by survival and nothing else. And as Pete slowly wins their trust he discovers secrets and lies that will rip open wounds and leave fresh scars for all involved.

Smith Henderson tells Pete’s story with tender power and fierce precision presenting a man who in spite of his flaws is determined to help those in need. What makes Pete’s story more tragic is the plight of his daughter. We get her side of the story in short, sharp vignettes at the end of chapters in a series of interview questions answered in the third person which gives Rachel’s story a detached and melancholic quality which, as we learn more, tragically becomes more and more apt.

I was totally enthralled and enraptured by this book. From the subject matter, to the structure, the characters and the language this is an astonishing debut. Smith Henderson manages to combine the raw intensity and emotion of Philipp Meyer with the haunting descriptions and beautiful language of Kevin Powers while delving into the dark shadows of society in a deeply personal and confrontingly honest way like Jenni Fagan. This is a very close contender for my book of the year.

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Review – All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon

9780241003312One of my favourite books of 2013 was A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra so when he reviewed this book in the New York Times I took notice.

Set in Russia in 1986 the book follows the events surrounding the nuclear reactor meltdown in Chernobyl. The story doesn’t deal with the accident directly but instead on what it means for four characters who are caught up in the inescapable events in different ways.

We follow a gifted surgeon, Grigory, who is sent to the site of the accident to help coordinate efforts and his ex-wife, Maria, who is trying to survive the breakdown of their marriage. We also follow two young boys. Yevgeni, Maria’s nephew, is a 9-year-old piano prodigy who is trying to come to terms with his gifts amongst a miserable existence in a Moscow slum. And Artyom who lives on a farm inside the Chernobyl hotzone. Whose whole life is literally evaporated piece by piece.

Central to the novel though is the end of the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl Meltdown is the tipping point for the end of the empire. No safety or evacuation plans were in place. Nor was there adequate medical aid on hand as to prepare for an accident was to admit weakness in the Soviet regime. The accident and the Soviet Union’s response was the catalyst for the people of the Soviet Union to stop believing in the regime. Three years later the Berlin Wall came down. Two years after that the Soviet Union was no more.

Through his characters Darragh McKeon explores the many impacts this has on individual lives. The humanity that some try to cling to and the utter disregard the Soviet regime has for human life. What makes this novel even more relevant and poignant today is the fact that Chernobyl is situated in Ukraine (there is even references to a Korean Commercial Airline that Russia shot down three years before). A moving novel that gives a unique insight into a catastrophic event that still reverberates in the world today.

Buy the book here…

Review – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

the-bone-clocksAfter only reading Cloud Atlas I was already in awe of David Mitchell so I dove straight into his new novel at the first available opportunity. And once again was swept away by the storytelling, the language and the imagination.

The book has been described as “his most Cloud Atlas-y novel since the global phenom Cloud Atlas” and I can’t wait to read his other books. The structure is very similar although doesn’t cascade back again like Cloud Atlas did. This book reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman however David Mitchell’s writing writing elevates the novel to a new level. This could easily be classified a genre novel like a Gaiman or Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August but the depth and extent of Mitchell’s writing does separate him and means his books get the literary fiction tag instead of science fiction.

The novel opens in 1984 in England. We meet Holly Sykes, aged 15, who has run away from home. In the process Holly becomes part of a chain events outside her, and our, comprehension. Holly inadvertently makes a promise the consequence of which will have repercussions for many lives.

The story then jumps 7 years and we appear to start again. Like Cloud Atlas it feels like a whole new story until links between them slowly bubble to the surface and a tiny bits of the truth begins emerging. At this stage, hardly even half way through the book I was totally in love with this novel. I knew I didn’t want it to end and just wanted to continue being lost.

Mitchell keeps jumping forward into the future and other people who are a party of Holly’s story. Each piece reveals a tiny bit more of the bigger picture but is also wonderfully self-contained. I would take a single novel from one of these stories any day. To have them all join up together is even more special and indicative of the genius that David Mitchell is. The climax to the novel tests the limits of your belief but in David Mitchell you trust. And just when you think the story may have reached too far past the incredible Mitchell brings you back to a compelling and evocative conclusion.

David Mitchell fans will absolutely love this book and it will definitely create new ones too. There are references and characters from other books tying everything together into the David Mitchell universe. As a new fan of Mitchell I am going to dive straight into another novel because I am just in awe of his writing and need to get back to his universe as soon as I possible can.

Buy the book here…

Review – When The Night Comes by Favel Parrett

9780733626586Past The Shallows was an exceptional novel and Favel Parrett has out done herself with her new book. When The Night Comes is a story of growing up, both as a child and as an adult. It is about journeys into the great unknowns. And that anything in life is possible.

The story alternates between two points of view; Isla, a young girl who has moved to Hobart with her mother and younger brother to leave behind their life on the mainland. And Bo, a Danish sailor who crews an Antarctic supply ship, the Nella Dan.

Parrett’s writing is truly mesmerizing. Her words immediately draw you in and you are swept away. Poetical, evocative and truly moving Parrett will not only have you immediately falling for her characters but she will also have you falling in love with a ship.

Favel Parrett has carefully crafted an exquisite novel. Skilfully written, elegantly constructed, beautifully told and an absolute pleasure to read and experience.

Buy the book here…

Review – Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

9780340822807This is an absolutely wonderful coming-of-age novel by a writer who cannot put a foot wrong. David Mitchell doesn’t just get inside the head of a thirteen year old boy but brings teenage adolescence to life like I have never read before. David Mitchell captures the innocence, the naivety, the pain and the joy so acutely that you are transported back to your own time as a teenager.

Jason Taylor is navigating the thirteenth year of his life and it is of course a tumultuous one. It is 1982 and Britain is about to go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. At home something is happening between Jason’s parents and his sister is about to leave for university. Meanwhile at school Jason tries, fails and tries again to fit in with the other boys.

The novel brilliantly captures and portrays the inner battle everybody goes through over who we are and who we want to be. Jason is desperate to fit in with the other boys and stave of the bullies. He suppresses parts of himself to fit in; his bookishness, his poetry, his stammer. His loyalty to true friends is tested by their relative popularity. Everyday is a constant tightrope where one false move could see him become the class laughing-stock. David Mitchell mixes this all in with the ups and downs of life as seen through the eyes of a thirteen year old boy.

I’m loving how all of David Mitchell’s novels are interconnected no matter how unrelated they appear. I could seriously live off nothing but David Mitchell books but with only two more books to read I’m also dreading running out of new material.

Buy the book here…

Review – Never Let Me Go by Kazou Ishiguro

9780571258093I’ve been on a bit of backlist bender lately and with one of my favourite books of 2014 being compared to this I thought I’d give it ago. This is one of the most haunting coming of age novels I have ever read. Set in England in an alternative late 1990s the story is narrated by Kathy who is a carer for a series of donors. Kathy is looking back on her life which brings her back to her most formative years at the exclusive Havisham School.

At first Havisham appears to be an elite school for the brightest and gifted. But as we slowly learn more about the school and its students we discover what their gifts really are and what they are being prepared for. Central to the story is the friendship of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. Each of whom is struggling to come to terms with what is expected of them and what their future holds. The naivety of the three main characters is slowly eroded as they age however there is always acceptance of what their role in life is meant to be.

Ishiguro underplays his hand perfectly making any revelations seem normal and familiar. And in doing so makes the story even more tragic. A morally complex look at the value of life that acutely captures the fragility, despair and uncertainty of growing up.

Buy the book here…

Review – Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

9780732295547This book needs to come with a warning that if you don’t have time to read it the rest of the day don’t start it! Lauren Beukes takes her writing and her dark imagination to another level following the utterly amazing The Shining Girls.

Beukes has chosen Detroit for the setting of this novel, the perfect place for broken things. Detroit is a broken city and is literally broke (bankrupt to be exact). Once an industrial heartland its industry is now broken and run down. Families are broken and so is any sense of community.

Detective Gabi Versado is trying to make sense of the small horrors she sees everyday. Her daughter Layla tries to make sense of a teenage world where social media is more of a social weapon. Johnno is a broken journalist who has gravitated to Detroit to try to find a story no one else is looking at. And TK is a man who is slowly putting his broken life back together and trying to help those around him do the same. When a brutal murder occurs and the victim is found in a bizarre, possibly ritualistic, fashion the whole city threatens to explode.

Beukes alternates between her characters with expert precision, unfolding the story and their connections to it with subtlety and skill. At the same time she explores a broken city and the places where it is trying to grow back. There is a supernatural theme to the killings and like True Detectivethe lines between imagery and an actual otherworld are so entwined and blurred that the truth is almost lost and everyone with it.

There are so many elements Beukes has combined in this totally absorbing and addictive thriller confirming her as one of the most original and exciting writers of the crime genre (and other genres) at the moment.

Buy the book here…

Review – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

9780340921586My obsession with David Mitchell continues and is getting more intense. There are books you devour. There are books you savour and never want to end. And then there are David Mitchell books which are both.

I went with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet because there was a reference and crossover with The Bone Clocks. It is the most linear chronologically of David Mitchell that I have read so far but in no means does this curb his imaginative scope. It is a love story, a historical novel of the highest class, it is a Japanese story of intrigue, honour and betrayal. It is quietly simply one of the most beautifully books I have ever read.

Set at the turn of the 19th century in Nagasaki the book focuses on a Dutch East Indies trading outpost, Dejima. Foreigners are not allowed on Japanese soil so the Dutch instead have created an artificial island from which they are allowed to trade. Jacob De Zoet is a new arrival tasked with the inevitable job of cleaning up the outpost’s highly corrupted books. De Zoet becomes not only enchanted and intrigued by the tightly closed and controlled feudal Japanese society but also a young midwife who is determined to learn the best of Dutch and European medical practices.

David Mitchell plots his story magnificently. Slowly placing all his pieces on his rich board before scattering things in ways only his imagination could conjuror. Rich in historical detail, deep in cultural complexities and with the perfect mix of tragedy and intrigue. David Mitchell is an absolute genius and I have to read everything he has written.

Buy the book here…

Review – The Final Silence by Stuart Neville

9781846556951Jack Lennon returns in Stuart Neville’s relentless new thriller.

It has been a while between drinks for Jack Lennon. We last caught up him in Stolen Souls and we left him a lot worse for wear. The intervening period though has not been kind. Suspended from the police pending multiple reviews of his health and performance Jack has developed some extra bad habits to the ones he already carried, mainly involving painkillers and alcohol. His relationships are in free fall including, sadly, the one with his estranged daughter who his is the only family he has left.

Just when Jack thinks things couldn’t get any worse an ex-girlfriend contacts him. She has just inherited a house from her uncle. An uncle she never met who lost contact with her family years ago. She has contacted Jack because she has found something in a locked room. A journal detailing murders going back two decades and it appears there are links to her father, a prominent Belfast politician. She can’t trust him and she can’t go to the police so instead she has turned to Jack, who can’t even help himself at this point.

I really love what Neville has done with the Jack Lennon character. He was only a few mentions in The Twelve before assuming the lead in the next two books. He is not your typical flawed detective, flawed is too nice a term for Jack, yet he still manages to keep your loyalty.

Stuart Neville doesn’t take his foot off the pedal once in this gripping thriller and once again demonstrates why he is the crime writer everybody is and should be talking about at the moment.

Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

9780434020805I think I loved this even more than The Magicians (which if you haven’t read beware spoilers ahead). The first half of The Magicians was like an adult Harry Potter and full of the wonder of discovering magic was real. The second half was an exploration of what happens to people who discover a new power. It was much darker, which I really liked, and you really got to know the negative sides of the books characters which is not something many books of this genre do.

The Magician King picks up where The Magicians ended. Quentin, Elliot, Janet and Julia are now the Kings and Queens of Fillory but Quentin is growing restless. He wants a purpose, a quest, an adventure and he will do anything to find or create one. Interspersed with Quentin’s story are flashbacks to Julia who went down a very different (and much darker) path to gain her magical knowledge. And as before there a dues to be paid for gaining this power.

Grossman again finely balances a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, referencing other familiar stories, while slowly turning what seems to be an innocuous and manufactured quest into something far more important. We explore more of Fillory and the expanded universe and (much to some characters’ shock and horror) revisit Earth and the ‘real’ world. I also felt I reconnected to the characters after becoming detached from them after some of the questionable decisions they made in the first book.  Loose ends from the first book are also nicely tied up and the ending is both highly satisfying as a reader and nicely sets up the third and final book in the series.

This truly is a brilliant series and while I’m late to the party in discovering it I get the advantage of reading all three books in the trilogy close together with the final book, The Magician’s Land due out next month. And I will be reading that one straight away!

Buy the book here…

Review – Life Or Death by Michael Robotham

9780751552898The advanced reading copy bills this as “the best novel yet from Michael Robotham” which is a big call considering his previous nine novels. While I’m not a fan of the Joe O’Loughlin novels that has nothing to do with Robotham’s writing just the fact I don’t like psychological thrillers. But what all Robotham’s books have in common is precision plotting. Robotham knows exactly how to unfurl a story, keeping you interested and guessing in equal measure. My favourite Robothom was Lost (aka The Drowning Man) which demonstrates this perfectly. But I have a new favourite Robotham now because this is beyond doubt the best novel yet from Michael Robotham.

The idea for this novel came to Robotham over twenty years ago, well before he’d written his first book. But Robotham didn’t know if or how he could pull the story off. Nine best-selling novels later he knew how he was going to do it and it was worth the wait.

Audie Palmer has spent the last ten years in prison for an armed robbery that netted 7 million dollars. Money that has never been recovered. Everybody wants to know where the money is; other prisoners, guards and various law enforcement. Audie has survived beatings, stabbings and other assaults and is finally due to be released from prison tomorrow. Except he has just escaped. And so begins an epic thriller. Nobody knows why Audie has escaped but they think it has to do with the money. As Audie’s plan unfolds we learn that there are stronger motivations than money. Motivations that people will kill for, motivations people will live for.

This is far and away the thriller of the year. It will keep you glued to end of your reading chair, it will keep you guessing until the very end and, best of all, it will break your heart.

Buy the book here…

Review: The Fever by Megan Abbott

9781447235910I have been meaning to ready Megan Abbott for ages. I’ve only heard good things, in particular her latest books, so thought I’d begin with her brand new novel. Abbott’s last few novels have all been set in the world of teenage girls, a world she has been exploring because ‘Noir suits a 13-year-old girl’s mind’

Not only is The Fever a fantastic noir crime novel but it is a great exploration of the secrets and lies of teenage life and the hysteria that can so easily get whipped up now in a world of social media, Google and 24 hour news.

One morning in class Deenie’s best friend Lise is struck down by what seems to be a seizure, she is later rushed to hospital and put on life support. Nobody knows what caused the seizure. When other girls are struck down with similar symptoms confusion quickly turns to hysteria as parents and authorities scramble for answers. Are the recent student vaccinations to blame? Or is it environmental? And what steps are authorities taking to protect other children?

Abbott tells the story from one family’s point of view alternating between Tom, a teacher at the school, his son Eli, who is the object of a lot of girls’ affections and younger daughter Deenie, whose best friend Lise is the first girl struck down with this mysterious ailment. Each point of view is almost a different world giving not only a different perspective to the story but a different emotional intensity and sense of urgency.

The secrets and lies of teenage lives coupled with the paranoid and hysterical nature of parenting in the 21st century make for a truly feverish and wickedly noir-ish read.

Review: The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty

9781846689833This is a seemingly dramatic departure from Adrian McKinty’s usual books but he pulls it off marvelously. Based on a true story McKinty heads to the South Pacific circa 1906 to tell a tale of mad Germans, sun worship and possible murder.

Will Prior, is an ex-English lieutenant who finds himself in German New Guinea after the horrors of the Boer War. As an ex-military policeman he is asked by local authorities to investigate the strange death of a man from a neighbouring island where a new, cultish society is trying to establish itself. Calling themselves ‘cocovores’ they believe that sun worship and a diet of coconuts will lead to immortality. Will’s investigation is quickly stonewalled by a group under the influence of more than just the sun and tropical fruit and he must tread carefully if he wishes to ever leave the island in one piece.

McKinty has obvious fun telling this story. Coming off the brilliant Sean Duffy series was always going to be a challenge and going outside his usual zone is a stroke of brilliance. There is a real 19th century flare to McKinty’s writing and characters in this novel and the atmosphere he creates on the island of Kabakon, which the ‘cocovores’ inhabit, bubbles away nicely with a sinister air never too far away. The combinations of malarial fever and heroin induced dreams also means the lines between sanity and insanity intertwine until the truth of what really happened on Kabakon is possibly indeterminable.

This may not appeal to all the Adrian McKinty fans but I think it is going to win him a few new ones.

Buy the book here…

Review – The Magicians by Lev Grossman

9780099534440I have been meaning to get round to this book for a while (thanks mainly to the Bookrageous podcast) and with the final book in the trilogy due out in August I thought it was about time I got started. My first impression of the book was that this was Harry Potter for adults. Instead of a 12-year-old boy going off to school to learn magic and wizardry this is about a 17-year-old boy going off the college, in upstate New York, to learn magic and become a magician.

There are some similarities with Hogwarts, the Harry Potter novels and other fantasy classics like The Chronicles of Narnia but Lev Grossman acknowledges all these sources in clever and often humorous ways so you never get a sense of them being ripped off in any way. Grossman has also constructed his own unique and vivid world(s) so you know you are definitely in a different type of story.

One of the other big differences is the main character, Quentin Coldwater. He is not your like-at-all-costs hero. He is a flawed character which isn’t apparent at first but manifests itself as the book goes on. He is struggling to find himself and has an almost superiority complex which is only fed more by learning to become a magician. Grossman packs all of the years of magic college into the first half of the book. This is not one book for every year of college and it is college life warts and all (pardon the pun). And when Quentin and the friends he makes finish college they don’t set out on a big adventure or quest but instead waste their new-found knowledge and skills on drinking, drugs and sex. (This strand of the story reminded me a bit of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.)

The major difference though is the tone of Grossman’s novel. Often books of this type have a sense of earnestness. The heroes of the story are the chosen ones with a strong sense of their purpose and what is right. Grossman flips this on its head. Instead of earnestness there is a layer of cynicism and the characters purposefulness alludes them (for different reasons each).  Instead a sense of entitlement clouds their judgements, destabilizes their relationships with each other and ultimately leads to tragic consequences.

While this does make everything sound dark and broody everything is tempered with an epic, adventurous narrative that moves along at an addictive pace. It was refreshing to have a main character who was not perfect, was guilty at times of being selfish and struggling to find his own identity. I also really enjoyed the way other worlds weren’t the escape people hoped them to be, especially if what you are trying to escape is yourself.

I can’t wait to see where Grossman takes the story next.

Buy the book here…

Review – The Damned Utd by David Peace

9780571224333I have tried and failed at reading David Peace before. I’ve have always wanted to get into his books in particular The Red Riding Quartet (which I cheated and watched the films instead, which were superb). For some reason I have never been able to get into the rhythm of his writing and with a writer like David Peace if you don’t have the rhythm you are lost.

A couple of readers, who I really respect their taste, have been going nuts for David Peace’s Red Or Dead and with it being World Cup time I decided I would check out one of David Peace’s football novels.

I have been attempting to get into poetry this year and one of the ways I have found that has made poetry most accessible to me as a reader has been via audio. A poem read aloud brings the words to life which sadly I am unable to do reading them. So when I spotted an audio version of The Damned United I jumped at the opportunity to listen to it. (The fact it was read by John Simm from Life On Mars was icing on the cake.)

9780571239139From the opening lines I was entranced. David Peace is utterly hypnotic. The repetition, the short, sharp visceral use of language had me utterly enthralled. It was like a chant that just swept me up into the turmoil that was the life of football manager Brian Clough.

Brian Clough became manager of Leeds United in 1974 and only lasted 44 days in the job. Peace tells the story of his tumultuous 44 days in charge interspersed with flashback to Clough’s early days as a football manager and the success (and havoc) he wrought up until landing the Leeds United job.

This was one of those absolutely amazing book experiences. David Peace’s novels are often described as streams of consciousness but after listening to The Damned United I would describe his work more as verse novels. The imagery he conjurors, the sounds and atmosphere he recreates through words is my definition of poetry. I’m going to listen to as many of his novels on audio now that I can find and wish to the book gods that someone records an audio version of Red Or Dead (or maybe have a crack at it myself to see if I now have David Peace’s rhythm).

Buy the book here…

Buy the audio book here…..

Review – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

9780340822784Where has David Mitchell been all my reading life? People have raved to me about David Mitchell many times and after seeing the excitement over proof copies of his new novel, The Bone Clocks, (due out in September) I finally decided to find out what all the fuss was about. Cloud Atlas was universally declared as the place to start and David Mitchell immediately blew me away.

On the surface Cloud Atlas appears to be six separate stories and they each work independently of one another. The stories range from  a colonial journal, to  a 1970s political thriller through to post-apocalyptic vision of our world. Each story is a magnificent piece of storytelling. Mitchell’s use of language is staggering in its skill, imagination and breadth. Each story takes his writing to new levels with the sixth story astonishing in its linguistic achievement and storytelling.

But the genius of Cloud Atlas is the way that David Mitchell has joined these stories together. The stories are interlocked in intricate and subtle ways. At first it feels like you are adding layers and when you reach the apex of Mitchell’s timeline you begin peeling them back. But it is even more than that. It is very much a sextet of stories. Each carefully arranged and conducted by an author who is unconfined by time, space or genre and utilizing the limitlessness of his imagination.

Each year I manage to discover a new author who I have missed along the way. This year’s discovery is a goldmine and I cannot wait to devour David Mitchell’s other books.before diving in to The Bone Clocks which has been described as “his most Cloud Atlas-y novel since the global phenomenon Cloud Atlas”. Can’t wait!!

Buy the book here…

Review – Sand by Hugh Howey

9781780893198Hugh Howey hooks you once again in another brilliantly imagined world. This time in a world of sand.

Sand covers everything. It has buried cities, it has buried people and it has buried secrets. People carve out an existence literally by hand. Everything is scarce, especially hope. One of the booming trades though is diving. Using specially designed suits ‘divers’ are able to dive beneath the sand dunes, recovering valuable artifacts from a buried world hundreds of metres below the ground.

Diving is a precious skill, one four siblings have been passed down from their father. However when he walked out on their family 12 years ago everything they had built and worked for was lost and their family broke apart as they tried to survive and find their place in this harsh and desolate world.

Rumours exist of a lost city full of treasures deeper than anyone has ever dived before. Vic, the eldest sibling and best diver doesn’t believe the rumours but her brother Palmer does and he has a lot to try and prove. Finding the lost city could be the way to put his family back together but there are many dangers buried above and below the sand.

Howey proved with the Wool Trilogy that he is a master of world building and all the different stories you can find inside. He does it again with the sand and dunes giving his imagination even more space to grow. The sand diving aspect is fantastic adding another dimension to the tradition of desert ‘seafaring’. Howey wraps the story up nicely with just a hint that their might be more of this world to explore in the future.

Buy the book here…

Thoughts on: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

What a fabulous, fabulous, FABULOUS start to the new reading year. I’ve been waiting for years to read The Sparrow and I was so pleased that it was as wonderful as everyone who recommended it to me said it would be. And to have Sci Fi elements in it when I told you guys 2011 would be my year for Sci Fi? I must be dreaming.

Don’t wake me.

The Sparrow was riding on the backs of tonnes of positive reviews, but one thing that irked me as I deliberated whether or not to purchase a copy, was no matter how intensive the review, the story never seemed to be told. The blurbs, whether snatched from the back of its latest published cover, or created via the original skill of the book blogger, seemed defiantly mysterious. It frustrated me to no end. And now I’m going to frustrate you by doing the same thing.

Here is what you need to know:

The year is 2019, and life on another planet has managed to broadcast their brand of haunting, soulful music light years away, audible to those on Earth who are willing to search for it. A team of people come together to form a spaceship expedition to this distant planet, not really knowing what to expect and quite frankly, are ill-prepared for what they do find. The novel flits between the era of 2019 and 2060, but of course, time is very much different when you’re travelling light years from home. Nestled within the story of these star-crossed voyagers is love, hope, life, death, desolation and redemption – it’s still stuck in my head from yesterday and I suspect I will think about it often throughout the coming week.

If you worry that this is all sounding a little too weird and futuristic for you, fear not. If anything, The Sparrow is a beautifully-written religious parable where the characters stand in the face of unimaginable beauty and unimaginable tragedy, and try to find in both of these, the existence of God. It is clearly easier to find His existence in one particular face, much harder in the other.

As someone who is still not sure whether she can properly handle hardcore science fiction novels where the dialogues appear more to be equations than conversations, I cherished reading this novel. Cherished it for its philosophical scope and the love between the characters, who, having travelled to a distant planet and experiencing things beyond belief, became all the more human for it.

Highly, highly recommended.

***

Year of First Publication: 1996

Year of This Publication: 1997

Number of Pages: 502

Book Challenges: The Chunkster Challenge 2011;  2011 Futuristic Sci Fi Reading Challenge

The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory

I’ve been fortunate enough to receive an advanced review copy of Philippa Gregory’s The Red Queen, her latest novel and Book 2 of her War of the Roses series. As it is not due out for another two months or so in Australia, I’ve refrained from linking to it, and have posted an image and link to the first book in the series which is for all reading purposes the CURRENT book, or at least until September sometime.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the series about The White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, who seems to have ascended the English throne as both Queen Consort and Queen Mother thanks in part to her feminine charm.

Margaret Beaufort, The Red Queen, is an entirely different specimen. Idolising Joan of Arc, Margaret was first married at the tender age of 7, before papal dispensation was granted to the newlyweds as they were found to be too closely related. Her second marriage as a pious child-bride to Edmund Tudor resulted in the birth of her only child, Henry, a son. By the end of her teens, Margaret Beaufort was widowed and felt herself governed by God, apparently having received a number of visions telling her that her son would be the King of England.

As fate would have it, Henry Tudor does eventually become King in line with Margaret Beaufort’s prophecy (Henry VII), but I suspect that Philippa Gregory’s point of view is that it was less divine intervention and more a mother’s plotting that gave Henry the beloved throne.

I’ve enjoyed collecting this series partly for the story of the women involved -the third instalment is about Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, The White Princess– and partly for the glorious covers.

Caution must be taken with evaluating The Red Queen for its historical contribution to the world of literature, as Philippa Gregory’s work is often (highly) fictionalised in parts. The tone is, as always, engaging, personal and dramatic, but even so I am not sure I enjoy this book quite as much as her earlier works (which includes The Other Boleyn Girl), perhaps because I couldn’t identify with Lady Margaret Beaufort herself. To me this story painted her as a conniving horror of a woman, jealous of Elizabeth Woodville’s beauty and grace, and capable of organising the murder of children just to have the crown for her son.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised given the atmosphere of the times, but nevertheless, whilst it was an enjoyable and quick read about the (possibly) power-hungry grandmother of that other insane person, Henry VIII, I am looking forward to catching up with The White Princess later on next year for some much-needed R & R .

What a horrible, power-lusty character Lady Margaret was in The Red Queen! I’ll be interested to see who agrees with me when the book is released – perhaps I have become fragile over time, and everyone else will think she was absolutely grand. I bet Henry VII thought so.