Sunday, 30 June 2013

Showcase Sunday #25

Inspired by Celine from Nyx Book Reviews, I've decided to combine several weekly wrap-up memes into one post. Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea. Stacking the Shelves is hosted at Tynga's Reviews, and Sunday Post is hosted at Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer. Letterbox Love is a special British book-haul meme hosted by Lindsey at Narratively Speaking.

Last Week:

We found a new place to live! It's been a bit stressful, as our landlord has defaulted on his mortgage payments, and so the bank are taking this flat. We have to move out because the bank wants to sell the flat on. We had to look for somewhere else very quickly, at short notice, and so things have been quite slow on the blog and on Twitter recently. But thankfully we've found a really nice place! Not looking forward to the move itself, but I am looking forward to arranging and decorating a new place, and to having a bit of outside space for barbecues too, which we've never had before. Let's hope for some more sunny BBQ weather! :-)

Last week's posts:

Book Review - Entanglement, by Douglas Thompson

Star Ratings, Helpful or Just Stressful?

New Goodies:

Gears of War: Judgement
Gears of War games are pretty much must-buys for us,
because they are one of the few games of this type that you
can play 2 player, splitscreen. My husband and I like to play together,
and it's kind of a shame more of today's games don't do this.

No new books!

Yes, I've achieved what I thought was impossible. A week without any new books at all. Not from The Works, not from Amazon or Waterstones, not from NetGalley or publishers, or even from the library. Amazing, huh? I have to admit, I feel a bit weird...


Thursday, 27 June 2013

Entanglement - Book Review

by Douglas Thompson

Elsewhen Press
Amazon (UK)(USA)

In 2180, travel to neighbouring star systems has been mastered thanks to quantum teleportation using the 'entanglement' of sub-atomic matter; astronauts on earth can be duplicated on a remote world once the dupliport chamber has arrived there. In this way a variety of worlds can be explored, but what humanity discovers is both surprising and disturbing, enlightening and shocking. Each alternative to mankind that the astronauts find, sheds light on human shortcomings and potential while offering fresh perspectives of life on Earth. Meanwhile, at home, the lives of the astronauts and those in charge of the missions will never be the same again.

Best described as philosophical science fiction, Entanglement explores our assumptions about such constants as death, birth, sex and conflict, as the characters in the story explore distant worlds and the intelligent life that lives there. It is simultaneously a novel and a series of short stories: multiple worlds, each explored in a separate chapter, a separate story; every one another step on mankind's journey outwards to the stars and inwards to our own psyche. Yet the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts; the synergy of the episodes results in an overarching story arc that ultimately tells us more about ourselves than about the rest of the universe. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Douglas Thompson has written stories for past issues of a magazine that I've been editor for, including 'Dissemblance', which appears in this collection. So naturally, when he asked if I'd like to review this book, I was intrigued! Quick disclaimer: I had nothing to do with the editing or publishing of Entanglement, and was not required to write a positive review.

Entanglement is a collection of short stories that are all part of one larger story, centred around the invention of Dupliportation technology, which has finally allowed humans to walk on other planets. This means that the book is an interesting blend of short story and novel, as the stories, though many of them could stand alone, really must be read in order and are all part of the larger story. I’ve only read one other thing that’s sort of similar, Asimov’s Foundation series, but those stories were separated by long periods of time and so this book has quite a different feel. It’s very interesting, and the stories are all fairly short and quick reads. I raced through, and really enjoyed it.

Dupliportation technology is influenced by the ansible from Ursula Le Guin’s fiction (I love Le Guin’s stories, and it was nice to see her actually mentioned by the characters in this book), and, as suggested by the book’s title, by real science: quantum entanglement. A very simplified explanation: the technology is sent through space to another world, where doubles of the human explorers are created. The consciousness of the explorers is then transferred to these doubles while the original bodies sleep on Earth. This is a fascinating method of visiting other planets, which I haven’t seen done in science fiction before. Because the explorers sleep and then enter another world, it’s strongly linked to dreaming, and the theme of dreams runs throughout the whole collection. In fact, the stories themselves often have something of a dream-like quality, which really suits the book.

I found most of the stories fun and interesting, with a good mix of tense, thoughtful, dreamy, funny and absurd. A book like this couldn’t have worked if the author had taken things too seriously, but thankfully Douglas Thompson gives us changes of tone, style and pacing when needed. The technology aspects are written well and not bogged down with too much explanation, and the science and more fantastical elements mix very naturally. The characters on Earth tend to be more interesting than the actual explorers, who are really just there to observe and report. Some of the stories worked less well for me than others, with one or two that were a bit forgettable, but most have really stayed with me. I also found a lot of the linking stories to be very compelling, particularly anything involving Guy Lecoux.

Many of the stories have quite a classic sci-fi feel, something like Ray Bradbury stories, which felt a little odd at first, a kind of mix of nostalgic and new. I thought this worked in some places and not in others. There is a very exploratory feel to the collection, which science fiction doesn’t tend to do so much these days, and the humans have quite an astonishingly gung-ho attitude in some parts. Where these stories differed from classic sci-fi was in their more cynical outlook; humans walking on other worlds would be an incredible and uplifting thing, but also hugely destructive to both humans and aliens. In these stories, the humans find that they are not necessarily as intelligent or morally superior as we often like to believe that we are. Even though rules are put in place to try to prevent too much interference, the human explorers still manage to cause plenty of harm in their blundering about and their assumptions about intelligent life. I really liked this aspect of the book.

What worked less well for me was Earth itself, which felt a bit old-fashioned with an almost 50s feel, though I can’t quite put my finger on why this was. Perhaps the attitudes, perhaps the characters coming almost exclusively from neat, traditional family units, perhaps something else. The alien worlds also seemed a little too similar to old Earth societies sometimes, with in most cases one leader, and often some form of hierarchy. At the very end of the book, we get an answer as to why Earth may have seemed this way, and why the aliens were limited by human experience. This last story provides a twist that might be frustrating in any other novel, but actually works very well for this book and added a new element to the stories, changing everything.

This is a clever book, packed with ideas, and I loved the idea of linking short stories with the same technology. The book asks some fascinating questions about dream and reality, intelligence, and how humans view their world. As ‘philosophical science fiction’, I think it works very well. I particularly enjoyed getting to know recurring characters over the course of the collection, and found the stories to be memorable and absorbing.

Thank you to the author for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Star Ratings - Useful, Or Just Stressful?

The Bad: I've been thinking about book reviews and star ratings quite a bit recently. I've purposefully avoided giving star ratings on my blog because it feels a little awkward to rate books sometimes. Perhaps I really enjoyed something, but it had so many flaws that it doesn't feel right giving it 5/5, or perhaps I end up being very critical of a book, but when it comes to choosing the stars, I think it deserves a good rating overall. This can be confusing, and choosing star ratings can be so stressful sometimes. If you just don't give stars at all, then you're simply putting across your thoughts on a book without scoring it. It feels somehow less judgemental, and more understanding of the very different ways in which people can like or dislike books.

The Good: On the other hand, I know star ratings are actually very useful for readers. When I'm reading a review, I like to quickly look at the star rating for an overall feel of where the reviewer placed the book, and then read the whole review with that in mind. Star ratings can also help to show that, although a reviewer may have had a lot of negative things to say about a book, in the end it was still very much worth a read. Or the reviewer may have liked most aspects of the book, but in the end it's still only 3 stars because it didn't amaze them or blow them away.

But Goodreads Makes Me!: Added to this is the fact that I end up having to give star ratings on Goodreads anyway, so it's not like I'm getting out of all that angst of trying to decide if a book is 3 or 4 stars (the hardest distinction, I think. When it's 1 or 2 or 5 stars, you tend to have a gut feeling about it). So perhaps I just ought to put the star ratings on my blog too, to make things a bit easier for readers. I don't really have any issues with rating movies. Just... something is holding me back from using star ratings with books.

The Three Star Problem: One of the big problems with star ratings is what the ratings actually mean. Again, this tends to be the biggest issue with the 3 star reviews, and is what I think of as the Three Star Problem. What does 3 stars mean? On Goodreads, 3 stars means 'I enjoyed it', but elsewhere 3 stars means 'it was okay.' The latter is a 2 star rating on Goodreads, but almost everywhere else 2 stars means 'bad'.

Half Stars: There is also an issue with half stars. Do you do halfs or not? You can't on Goodreads, but there's nothing to stop you from doing them on your blog. Giving half stars may seem a bit silly at first, but actually, as you rate more and more books, you start to feel a bit odd about how different in quality the books that are given the same star rating can be. So that one was a 3 star, but this one was better than that... oh, but it's not really as good as that other book that I rated 4 stars, so, um, 3 and a half? It makes sense, but then again, that way madness can lie. I have my own Goodreads rule: if I ever feel the urge to give a book a half star, I simply round up. But if I could give half stars, well... I'm still a bit undecided on them.

Out of Ten: Of course, there is the other possibility: marks out of 10 instead. This is what Fantasy Faction currently uses, a site I write occasional reviews for. And in some ways, it works really well. 5/10 sounds better and is more meaningful than 2 and a half, even though it's really the exact same thing. And doesn't 7 sound much fairer to a good book than 3 and a half? The possible issue with marks out of 10 is that it comes across as a bit overcomplicated or picky. There's something to be said for the simplicity of 5 stars. But then again, books are complicated, and can't be wedged into 5 star ratings easily, which is why so many people do add half stars.

So, help me out. :-) What do you think? Do you use star ratings and if so, why? Do you like half stars, or do you find them unnecessary? Do you think it's important for reviews to include ratings?

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Showcase Sunday #24

Inspired by Celine from Nyx Book Reviews, I've decided to combine several weekly wrap-up memes into one post. Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea. Stacking the Shelves is hosted at Tynga's Reviews, and Sunday Post is hosted at Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer. Letterbox Love is a special British book-haul meme hosted by Lindsey at Narratively Speaking.

Last Week:

Urmmm. Okay, I've had a really boring week! Why don't you tell me about your weeks instead? What have you been up to? :-)

Last week's posts:

Book Review - The Humans, by Matt Haig

Book Review - The Reapers are the Angels, by Alden Bell

Recipe! - Ancient Roman Cheesecake

New Goodies:

edited by Lynne M. Thomas,
John Klima, and Michael Damian Thomas,
and with an introduction by Amber Benson
(i.e. Tara from Buffy! - how cool is that?)
Thanks to Apex for sending the review copy!

Hope you all have a lovely week! :-)


Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Reapers are the Angels - Book Review

The Reapers are the Angels
by Alden Bell

Amazon (UK)(USA)

Zombies have infested a fallen America. A young girl named Temple is on the run. Haunted by her past and pursued by a killer, Temple is surrounded by death and danger, hoping to be set free.

For twenty-five years, civilization has survived in meager enclaves, guarded against a plague of the dead. Temple wanders this blighted landscape, keeping to herself and keeping her demons inside her heart. She can't remember a time before the zombies, but she does remember an old man who took her in and the younger brother she cared for until the tragedy that set her on a personal journey toward redemption. Moving back and forth between the insulated remnants of society and the brutal frontier beyond, Temple must decide where ultimately to make a home and find the salvation she seeks. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

This book surprised me in all the right ways. It’s an unflinching and often brutal zombie story, and yet it’s also hauntingly beautiful, moving, and told in the voice of such a unique and interesting character. In its themes and writing style, it really is very different from any zombie (or any paranormal creature) story that I’ve read before.

The main character is Temple, a wonderfully resourceful, thoughtful and independent teenage girl, who has been left alone in a post-apocalyptic world in which most of the Earth’s population has been zombified. She has accepted her situation with surprising grace and maturity. Rather than long for a world that no longer is, or attempt to change it, she has adapted, and she finds beauty in all the little wonders of nature that still exist. This is not the kind of zombie novel where the characters are searching for a cure or a safe haven, or even battling against hoards of zombies just to survive. This is something very different. This is a story about survival, but perhaps more about survival of the soul than of the body. In that way, it is somewhat akin to Warm Bodies, another very unique zombie story that I’ve recently read and loved. Be warned, though; this has none of the romance of Warm Bodies. It is harsher, and in some ways an even stranger book, but just as clever and astonishing.

The zombies in the story are the slow moving, lurching kind. In fact, they rarely pose much of a threat to Temple, and only seem to be a problem if humans are caught unaware, or if people attempt to remain static and walled up in large communities. Temple understands that she is living in a new kind of world, the kind where it is better to keep moving, constantly, and she finds a quiet joy in this. She travels, discovering new places and new people, and she accepts that if the zombies get her, it will be because she has been careless. In this way, the zombies are more like predatory wild animals than monsters, and, in fact, the true dangers of this world come from other humans. I only really have one criticism of the zombie aspect, and that’s the scenes with the mutants, which just felt a little too video-gamey and, for me anyway, didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book.

While staying in a community of survivors, Temple is attacked and forced to defend herself. She kills a man, and then must flee his brother, who wants revenge. Meanwhile, Temple has taken on a mentally handicapped man who cannot fend for himself, trying to take him to whatever remnants of family he has left. The story is therefore half quest, half chase, but the pace, while fast, is not frantic. Temple accepts everything that happens to her, even the basic unfairness of being blamed for killing a man in self-defence, a man who was clearly in the wrong. His brother knows this too, and even regrets having to kill Temple, but he is still set on this course, as if he has no other choice. Both he and Temple almost seem to be bound by deep, raw laws of the world, and both have a strong belief in fate, or at least in some kind of order and meaning that drives them. It is tragic that the deep bond between them is one based on revenge and death.

The feel, story and themes of the book give it a very Wild West feel, so much so that I would call it a Zombie Western. The new post-apocalyptic world seems to suit Temple’s free spirit better than the old world would have; she is at home in a life without restrictions and the complicated rules of society. The revenge theme, particularly, based on a deep feeling of duty rather than justice, fits very well into the book’s style. I found this fascinating, particularly when combined with the lyrical quality of the writing. It’s not just a Zombie Western, it’s a beautiful Zombie Western, which is even more surprising.

The Reapers are the Angels surprised and delighted me. I found it moving, tragic, and beautiful. It’s a fairly short book, well paced, and I was captivated until the very end. (Proof of this: I read most of it on a train, with no seat, sitting uncomfortably on a suitcase with screaming children nearby, and as soon as I started reading I didn’t even notice anymore. And let’s just say, it’s a good job that my stop happened to be the train’s final station.) If you love zombies, or even if you’re getting a little tired of them by now and would like something a bit different, you should definitely consider adding this to your ‘to read’ list.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Humans - Book Review

The Humans
by Matt Haig

Amazon (UK) (USA)

The narrator of this tale is no ordinary human—in fact, he’s not human at all. Before he was sent away from the distant planet he calls home, precision and perfection governed his life. He lived in a utopian society where mathematics transformed a people, creating limitless knowledge and immortality.

But all of this is suddenly threatened when an earthly being opens the doorway to the same technology that the alien planet possesses. Cambridge University professor Andrew Martin cracks the Reimann Hypothesis and unknowingly puts himself and his family in grave danger when the narrator is sent to Earth to erase all evidence of the solution and kill anyone who has seen the proof. The only catch: the alien has no idea what he’s up against.

Disgusted by the excess of disease, violence, and family strife he encounters, the narrator struggles to pass undetected long enough to gain access to Andrew’s research. But in picking up the pieces of the professor’s shattered personal life, the narrator sees hope and redemption in the humans’ imperfections and begins to question the very mission that brought him there. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

There’s a lot to like about this book. It’s well written, clever and funny, and the characters all feel incredibly real. The main character (and narrator) is an alien in the form of a human man, taking the identity of the professor who has solved a critical maths problem, and so must be eliminated along with his family before the other humans can become aware of his breakthrough. At first he is repulsed by everything human, then begins to change and to eventually empathise with them. This journey is subtle yet surprisingly quick, as the narrator is first won over by small things, and then by the incredible depths of human feeling. His observations about human life are often funny, and sometimes quite revealing. The people the alien comes into contact with are part of what makes this book so successful; Andrew’s wife and son (and the family dog), in particular, are wonderful characters.

The aliens themselves are extremely advanced compared to humans, and clearly feel themselves superior. They prize logic above emotion, and yet act a little irrationally when it comes to humans, insisting on extreme measures and worrying constantly about a kind of contamination, that their agent among the humans may become corrupted and begin to sympathise with them. This leads to a lot of tension as the main character does indeed begin to care for the humans. There’s an air of menace running under the surface of the whole book, even in the most mundane scenes such as sitting on a sofa and sharing peanut butter with a dog. There is also an interesting question running through. The aliens believe humans to be monsters, but in their cold methods and intervention, are the aliens any better?

Unfortunately, I did have a few issues with the book. The story and the science fictional elements are almost background to the true theme, which is exploring what it means to be human. There were some elements that were almost forgotten about because they were not useful to the theme, such as the simple matter of how the narrator intends to get his words to the aliens, or why there are not more repercussions after a certain event at the end (being vague on purpose to avoid spoilers). I also found the fact that the original Andrew has been killed to make way for alien-Andrew to be more than a little disturbing, and breezed over a bit too easily to be anywhere near realistic. Andrew may not have been a good person, but he does not deserve to have his entire personality and identity replaced with another version of himself who chooses different paths while posing as him, and who becomes what is clearly shown to be a 'better' version of him. The more you think about it, the more horrific it is, really. I think I would have liked it if this had been touched on a little more.

There were also times where the story became lost entirely in reflection, which was good at points and a little tiresome at others, and the slightly triumphal tone of how special humans are did sometimes become annoying. This may be because the ‘humans are special’ trope is vastly overdone in the kinds of science fiction stories I read and play. On the other hand, there were some genuinely beautiful parts of the novel where we are reminded of what’s really important in life, and to appreciate what we have, and overall the message was a good one.

Choosing an alien point of view to show us a new perspective on what it means to be human is obviously useful, but does also present certain problems. The first is that it has been done many times, and though this book was enjoyable and clever, I didn’t feel that it added anything really new. The second issue is that the alien has come to a very tiny, specific part of the world – the UK – and into a very particular kind of experience – British, male, white, academic, wealthy. This isn’t so much about what it means to be human as what it means to be those things, and when the narrator is constantly telling us about how humans believe or do certain things, this niggled at me a bit. The alien also knows enough about Earth to accuse humans of being cruel in their lack of care for the people on their planet who are starving and suffering, yet does not care about them at all himself or even consider them in his ponderings on what it means to be human. But then, perhaps that’s actually a very astute comment on what it means to be human after all!

The greatest strength of the novel was in the characterisation of Andrew. And by that, I mean both Andrews. There’s the original Andrew, the self-obsessed and arrogant professor who is taking his family for granted and in very real danger of losing it. And then there’s the alien Andrew, who desperately tries to fit in and then, against all his expectations, actually does begin to fit in. We see the original Andrew in the gaps he’s left, and in the ways characters react to the imposter Andrew, and we begin to see a little of the man this Andrew must have been, long ago. This is perhaps the deepest and most honest examination of a character that I have ever seen in fiction.

So, there’s a lot to like about The Humans, and also some elements that I thought let the book down a bit. It’s a reflective story without much action, and on the whole this is a very good thing. The characters are what’s important here, and these are all extremely well written. Thoughtful, clever and funny, I enjoyed the book, and despite a few issues, overall I found its message to be both moving and uplifting.

Thank you to Canongate Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Ancient Roman Cheesecake

I’ve been playing around with some ancient Roman recipes recently, and wanted to share this one with you. The ancient Romans had two kinds of cheesecake, a savoury version (libum) and a sweet version (savillum). Savillum was eaten as part of secunda mesa (dessert) and was one of the Romans’ favourite sweets. It might also be offered as a sacrifice, though a lighter (and more cake-like) honey cake was more often used for this purpose. Here is a recipe from Cato’s De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture), from around 160 BC.

Cato says:

Take ½ pound of flour, 2½ pounds of cheese, and mix together as for the libum; add ¼ pound of honey and 1 egg. Grease an earthenware dish with oil. When you have mixed thoroughly, pour into a dish and cover with a crock. See that you bake the centre thoroughly, for it is deepest there. When it is done, remove the dish, cover with honey, sprinkle with poppy-seed, place back under the crock for a while, then remove from the fire. Serve in the dish, with a spoon. (translation from LacusCurtius)

And here’s a version you can try. You'll need the following ingredients:

15 Bay Leaves
3 Eggs
225g Ricotta Cheese
½ Cup of Plain Flour
½ Cup of Honey (Make sure it’s good honey! This will be the main flavour)
1 Teaspoon Grated Orange Zest
1 Teaspoon Lemon Juice
Poppy Seeds/Nuts/Honey to Drizzle

You can find the recipe on here. Don't forget to grease the sides of the dish so the cheesecake doesn’t stick too much. I would advise leaving the cake to cool and fully set before eating. I served it chilled with warm honey drizzled on top, and it was yummy! You can then choose to sprinkle on a topping if you like - poppy seeds as Cato suggests, or nuts if your prefer. Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Showcase Sunday #23

Inspired by Celine from Nyx Book Reviews, I've decided to combine several weekly wrap-up memes into one post. Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea. Stacking the Shelves is hosted at Tynga's Reviews, and Sunday Post is hosted at Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer. Letterbox Love is a special British book-haul meme hosted by Lindsey at Narratively Speaking.

Last Week:

It's been quite a busy week for me, but have also been getting a lot of great ideas for the book I'm writing (why do ideas always come when we're busy?), so I'm looking forward to getting to those scenes. :-) We're also searching for a new flat/house, and have seen a few places but nothing that's really wowed us yet, so wish us luck!

Last week's posts:

Book Review - Supernatural Freak, by Louisa Klein

Book Review - Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane, edited by Jonathan Oliver

Poetry Book Review -  Scarred Canvas, by R C Edrington

The Fantasy Assassin (on Fantasy Faction)

New Goodies:

Thanks to the author, and Hannah of Once Upon a Time 
for sending me the review copy!

Midsummer Magic, by Julia Williams
99p on kindle. Looked intriguing!

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett
Kindle daily deal. 2013 Clarke Award winner!

Hope you all had a lovely week! Did you get any new goodies? :-)


Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane - Book Review

Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane
edited by Jonathan Oliver
Amazon (UK) (USA)

They gather in darkness, sharing ancient and arcane knowledge as they manipulate the very matter of reality itself. Spells and conjuration; legerdemain and prestidigitation – these are the mistresses and masters of the esoteric arts. Magic comes alive in their hands. British Fantasy Award nominee, Jonathan Oliver, gathers together sixteen stories of magic, featuring some of today’s finest practitioners, including Audrey Niffenegger, Christopher Fowler, Gemma Files, Thana Niveau, Robert Shearman, Will Hill, Sarah Lotz, Storm Constantine, Dan Abnett, Sophia McDougall, Alison Littlewood, Lou Morgan, Gail Z. Martin and others. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Magic is my absolute favourite subject matter in fiction, and so a whole anthology of stories based on this theme definitely grabbed my attention. Most of the stories in the collection lean towards the darker side of the subject, exploring more sinister uses and sources of magic. There are stories about demons, magic used to kill and hurt others, dark energy, obsession, curses and more. The cover really does a great job of capturing the mood of the collection; it’s definitely dark fantasy, and many of the images and atmosphere of the stories will linger with you.

As with all short story collections, there are going to be some stories that are a hit and some that are a miss, and this is likely to be very subjective. Personally, I found this quite a strong anthology, with plenty of stories that kept me interested, and I think there will certainly be something here for everyone. The majority of stories were enjoyable, many very gripping or moving, a few forgettable ones (and one I would really like to forget), and some that I would happily read if they were to be turned into longer novels or series. In general the stories are quite short and well paced. I found myself reading through the whole collection very quickly.

Although I really enjoyed the collection, I did feel like it might have been nicer to have a bit more variety in the settings and type of magic used. The majority were set in modern day or more recent past, and the magic tied to the supernatural, giving the collection an urban fantasy feel. I would have liked to see a little more mysterious, unfamiliar, traditional fantasy, and fairytale magic explored as well, and it would have been interesting to see how the authors might have given that a dark twist and their own original spin.

My favourites in the collection were The Wrong Fairy, by Audrey Niffenegger, a wonderfully atmospheric story involving fairies, addiction and madness; Do As Thou Wilt, by Storm Constantine, a unique and clever look at modern witches and the power people have, with some very subtle magic; MailerDaemon, by Sophia McDougall, a very creepy, and at the same time surprisingly beautiful story; Buttons, by Gail Z. Martin, a great little urban fantasy; The Art of Escapology, by Alison Littlewood, another creepy story in a very different way, well told; and Shuffle, by Will Hill, which managed to tell a lot of story with so little revealed, as if the story itself is a magic trick.

I enjoyed this collection, and I think those who like stories about magic, urban fantasy, or dark fantasy involving the supernatural, will easily find something to like here.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Scarred Canvas - Poetry Book Review

Scarred Canvas
by R C Edrington

Release Day Review

Amazon Link (USA) (UK)
Publisher Link


R C Edrington has contributed many poems, including some in this collection, to past issues of Polluto magazine that I have edited. So when he asked if I would like to review his new book, I was very intrigued. (Quick disclaimer: I had no involvement in the production and publication of Scarred Canvas, and certainly was not required to give a positive review.)

Scarred Canvas is a collection of R C Edrington’s “gritty, urban poems” (Amazon description). They deal mainly with drug addiction and all the horrors and pain this leads to, both for the addict and the people around them. We are shown heroin use, cravings, violence, despair, desperation for the next hit, scrounging money, relationships shattering, prostitutes, broken homes and empty hotel rooms, the dark side of Hollywood, and all the collateral damage of addiction. These poems don’t hold back; they’re real, dark and vivid, often brutal and unpleasant, and always honest.

The poems are told with a powerful voice, in first person from the view of the addict. This is a risky choice, as there is a danger that the poems could become one long drug-confused or drunken babble, losing perspective and meaning. The author never allows this. Both the tone and reading-order of the poems is chosen carefully, slipping down further into the misery and pain surrounding the narrator and then diving back up again for air, seeing glimmers of hope or re-connection with life, only to fall back into the cycle of addiction again. The poems most closely connected to drug use are perhaps a little too similar in places, but this does emphasise the feeling of inevitability and hopelessness of the poet’s situation at this point: another empty room, another empty syringe, another empty life. This means that the poems that deal with something slightly different really stand out, such as noticing the pain in a stranger’s eyes. This gives the impression of a person who has almost, but not entirely, lost connection with the world. These are beautiful moments that open up the obsessions (including a deep self-obsession) of the drug user to show other kinds of people and other lives, all united by pain and loneliness, and a deep sense of searching for something that they can’t quite find.

It soon becomes clear that this collection is about so much more than drug use. As much as it is about despair and pain, it’s also about love and the need to connect. The poet’s search for love seems constantly mixed up with sex and drugs, with imagery that compares drugs to sex and sex to drugs, and love to addiction and pain and need. There are relationships in which everyone is using everyone else, or everyone is pretending as fiercely as possible that they have found something meaningful, or in which one side can only take, or where it seems like everyone involved is really too much in love (and in hate) with the drugs to be able to feel anything else. The narrator blames those who leave him, but cannot connect with or commit to those who actually do feel something deeper. There is a desperate need to connect with others’ pain, as if misery doesn’t just desire company; it feeds on it. At the same time, it is those moments of connecting with strangers through their own heartache that offer the moments of greatest clarity and beauty in the collection.

The greatest strength of the collection is the poet’s wonderful use of imagery, comparisons and descriptions that reveal deeper layers and conjure pictures that will stay with you for a long time. My particular favourite poem was the one that gave the collection its title, Scarred Canvas, in which a brief glimpse of a stranger’s pain is so perfectly captured. There are little points of haunting beauty in every poem, no matter how grim the subject, that show that life can be cruel and spectacular at once. I don’t think the poems, grim and hard-hitting as they are, would have meant quite as much without these moments.

Gritty, brutal and honest poems from a skilled poet, with some wonderful imagery that will stay with you long afterwards. Scarred Canvas is a strong collection.

Thank you to the author for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Supernatural Freak - Book Review

Supernatural Freak
by Louisa Klein

When paranormal expert Robyn Wise is offered an outrageous sum of money to cure a boy who is turning into a dead tree, she's very sceptical. A politician ready to pay that much to make his son stop growing branches instead of hair? Come on! She's more likely to be abducted by aliens. This is a trap. Or much worse. And, of course, it's much worse.

The child is turning into a dark portal, created by a powerful entity determined to absorb Fairyland's power. This means that not only queen Titania and her court are in danger, but the very balance of the magic fluxes.

Robyn'd rather stick a pencil in her own eye but, to learn how to destroy the portal, she has to sneak into the Wizardry Council, a place full of wizards who are hiding something—though it’s certainly not their dislike of her. There, she discovers a terrible secret that could help to overthrow Fairyland's enemies for good, but puts her in the midst of an ancient and deadly war, and not as a bystander, but as the main target. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

I’m not quite sure where to begin with this review; I had such mixed reactions to the book. So, I’m going to begin by saying that, despite the issues I had with it, I really enjoyed reading it and laughed out loud at several points. The story was packed full of supernatural stuff, a little crazy, and a lot of fun.

The book is written in the voice of the main character, Robyn, who has a sarcastic and wry sense of humour, and who never seems to view the world or the dangerous situations she is in entirely seriously. This gives the book a lovely light-hearted feel, perhaps something akin to Buffy or Charmed, and there always seems to be a faintly teasing undertone, as if the author knows the story (and the whole genre) is a bit silly, and is going with it enthusiastically. There were points where the humour even seemed to take on a slightly camp or bizarre quality, and sections where I wasn’t entirely sure if I was supposed to be taking the characters/situation seriously or not. For instance, there is a wizard named Gock Wang. At first I thought this was Robyn’s nickname for him, but no, it does actually seem to be his real name. Strange... but kinda works. It’s that sort of book.

The characters themselves are mainly well written and interesting. I have a soft spot for supernatural fiction in which the heroine has a gang of helpers (again, that Buffy/Charmed feeling). I loved the idea of the stuffy but sweet ghost in Robyn’s attic, the geeks, the fun-loving uncle, and the magical friends. I also liked the brief glimpse of Robyn’s parents. One character, who looks set to become a love interest, was a little more irritating at points, and I found that some of Robyn’s uncle’s jokes fell very flat (but maybe they were supposed to!). Robyn herself is an oddball. She’s so flippant about the supernatural aspects of her life, but didn’t seem too impressed with the idea of saving the world. She seems a little wrapped up in her own world, and her little quirks (her collection of action figures based on a beloved cartoon, for instance) were wonderful. She does seem to stereotype people very easily, however, which became annoying. Overall, I thought all the different personality types of Robyn and her friends made a nice, fun mix.

Unfortunately, the characters’ speech was often jarring. Many of them sounded exactly like each other, or used colloquialisms that seemed out of place. Everyone called each other ‘mate’, from the modern characters to the wizards who have been alive for centuries, and even a faerie! At other points, slightly weird words and phrases called attention to themselves. ‘Cut a caper’ and ‘British aplomb’ are two that popped up a lot, and were very noticeable every time they did. I liked that the main character had such a mixed European background, and that she could speak several languages, but her obsession with ‘typical’ traits of each was a little weird. This was especially the case with British people, and so we are reminded constantly that the British should be unflappable and in control at all times.

The story itself was fun and incredibly fast-paced, which meant that the book was a very quick read. At points it did become almost a little jumbled, with perhaps just a bit too much going on. Having said that, the author does handle it well, and though it’s a bit of a whirlwind, she never lets it get out of control. Some bits felt a little unresolved – the abomination and the exact fate of the dark elf, for one – and everything was rounded off very suddenly at the end. However, this could have been to leave things open for a sequel, which I very much hope there will be! I would like to read more about these characters and their adventures.

The book has some issues, mainly with some out-of-place words and phrases and slightly awkward dialogue. There were also some bits that bemused me a little. But the story and characters are so much fun, and the quirky, wry, and sometimes bizarre humour really lifts the book. I enjoyed reading it. I think this has promise, and could become a great series. I’m definitely intrigued to read more!

Thank you to the author for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Showcase Sunday #22

Inspired by Celine from Nyx Book Reviews, I've decided to combine several weekly wrap-up memes into one post. Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea. Stacking the Shelves is hosted at Tynga's Reviews, and Sunday Post is hosted at Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer. Letterbox Love is a special British book-haul meme hosted by Lindsey at Narratively Speaking.

Last Week:

Sunshine!  :-D I've done a big spring clean, tidied up my office, and put a jug of yellow flowers on the desk. Now it really feels like summer!

Last week's posts:

Book Review - Any Other Name, by Emma Newman

Top Ten Books That Feature Travelling

Richard and Judy Book Club Reading Challenge - Sign Up

New Goodies:

The first books for the Richard & Judy Book Club Challenge (hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea), arrived for me to pick up at the library. Yay! Looking forward to this challenge. :-)

by Simon Mawer

How has your week been? Doing anything fun in the sun? :-)

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Any Other Name - Book Review

Any Other Name
by Emma Newman

Cathy has been forced into an arranged marriage with William - a situation that comes with far more strings than even she could have anticipated, especially when she learns of his family's intentions for them both.

Meanwhile, Max and the gargoyle investigate The Agency - a mysterious organisation that appears to play by its own rules - and none of them favourable to Society.

Over in Mundanus, Sam has discovered something very peculiar about his wife's employer - something that could herald a change for everyone in both sides of the Split Worlds. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Warning: slight spoilers if you haven't read the first book. 

I was really excited about this book as I loved the first one and was anxious to see what would happen next. It didn’t disappoint at all! The characters continue to be interesting, the stakes are even higher, and there is plenty of intrigue all round.

Cathy is now being forced into a marriage she does not want, and the author does a good job of making us feel the tension and desperation that Cathy is going through. This is really her worst nightmare coming true, and it soon gets even worse. It seems that Lord Poppy, insane and temperamental as he is, is nothing compared to Lord Iris, the Fae lord in charge of William’s (and now Cathy’s) family. Escape becomes even more unlikely, and Cathy’s situation even more dangerous.

Cathy now has to deal with the expectations of two powerful and manipulative Fae lords, as Lord Poppy has certainly not forgotten the painting and the Iris secret he’s demanded from her, and now Lord Iris has his own expectations too. I found the sinister interactions with the Fae even better than in the first book (have I mentioned how much I love evil Fae?), and, perhaps a bit worryingly, or perhaps in contrast to Lord Iris, I’m becoming really fond of Lord Poppy! He’s such a wonderful character, and has some fantastic lines.

In the first book I liked that Cathy didn’t give in on what she wanted. She argued, she fought, and she plotted, and she continues to do so in this book. Again, she doesn’t give Will an easy pass; he might be trying, but he’s really doing so for the wrong reasons. Cathy also faces up to her father a little more, and the two actually come slightly closer to understanding each other. It’s tragic that her father seems so intent on maintaining the status quo of their society, given his own history. The characters and their reactions all felt very believable to me, and the book doesn’t really pull punches or offer easy solutions. The patriarchy of the Nether society hurts everyone caught up in it, including Will, and yet so many seem determined to simply accept it.

However, there are also plenty who are unhappy, and who would perhaps fight for change if they felt they had allies. One of the best moments in the book is a scene in which Lucy makes Cathy realise that she is not as alone as she thinks. She is not the special, different girl who wants more independence; she is only one of many. This is where Cathy finally manages to stop looking down on the other women of Nether society, and begins to think about how she can try to change things. I liked how Cathy was able to see and admit her mistake in this, and that she immediately began to think about helping others.

Will, on the other hand, gave me some trouble in this book. I really want to like Will, but he seems far too eager to see himself as the victim simply because Cathy is ‘being awkward’. I think he’s learning, painfully slowly, but then... well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers but, let’s just say he really pushes into sinister territory here. And then it becomes clear that Will actually is a victim too, in a similar way, and despite the slightly disturbing poetic justice of this, I do feel sorry for him. And now he’s dealing with some heavy duty Nether society politics, and he really is a little too naive for all this. There are plots weaving around him, and he’s just as much the pawn of the Fae as Cathy. I’m definitely curious to see where the third book will take him after the dramatic events at the end of this book.

The storyline with the arbiter and the gargoyle, the wizards, and the mystery surrounding the destruction of the chapter continues in this book, though it is really Cathy and Will who are centre stage. This was a bit of a shame, as I really love the arbiter and the gargoyle, and am dying to know what’s going on behind the scenes here and how it all connects to the Fae and the Rosas. I love Sam and enjoyed seeing him become a bigger character, and am really intrigued by the introduction of Lord Iron. Just as with Cathy and Will, things are becoming more sinister on this front too; in fact, the second book is darker all round. The ending wraps up some things but leaves some pretty big cliffhangers, and I can’t wait for the next book!

Any Other Name is as exciting and entertaining as the first book, exploring the characters more deeply and plunging them into even more danger and scheming. I love this world and these characters, and can’t wait to return to it to find out what happens next!

Thank you to Angry Robot and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Top Ten Books That Feature Travelling

I haven't done a Top Ten Tuesday post in a while, mainly because I was starting to list the same books over and over! So, despite totally being able to fit a moving castle (with doors that open onto different locations) into this category, I'm going to hold back from adding Howl's Moving Castle to the list AGAIN, as I think you've all got the idea by now...

This week's topic is:

Books That Feature Travel in Some Way

1) The Odyssey. Well, this is pretty much the travel fiction, right? A fantastic story that tells of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus' journey home from the Trojan War, and the strange things he faces on the way.

2) The Black Magician trilogy, by Trudi Canavan. There's a really great subplot involving travel in these books.

3) Sharps, by K.J. Parker. The fencing team is travelling to another country to compete in a tour of competitions, but are they just pawns in a larger political plan?

4) The Spellcoats, by Diana Wynne Jones. All the books in this series involve travel, actually, but this was my favourite one. It involves a river journey, and I thought the story and world-building were wonderful.

5) The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula le Guin. Okay, this one pops up on my lists quite a bit as well, but it really needed to be included in this category. This book is one long journey across the frozen lands of a distant planet, and it is so beautifully and vividly described.

6) The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett. It's not the only Discworld book involving travel, but it is one of my favourites, and, along with its sequel The Light Fantastic, it does pretty much explore the whole Disc.

7) The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. Another one involving travel through a frozen landscape. This is a memorable book, and one of my favourites when I was younger.

8) Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Great book, and lots of travel in this one! By sea, by train, by carriage... across a large part of Europe.

9) Railsea, by China Mieville. This is a bizarre and fun mix of stuff, involving rail travel across the 'railsea': large stretches of flat ground crisscrossed with rails, and where giant burrowing creatures lurk.

10) The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Travelling through Middle Earth! :-)