Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review - The Twelve

The Twelve – Justin Cronin          
For me, “the Passage,” Justin Cronin’s first book was a hit. Although I was not a massive fan of the format in which he changed the cast of characters about a third of the way into the story, it seemed to work. I found that Justin could write action pieces well and invoke tension into his prose. I was really looking forward to “The Twelve” then.
The blurb:
At the end of THE PASSAGE, the great viral plague had left a small group of survivors clinging to life amidst a world transformed into a nightmare. In the second volume of this epic trilogy, this same group of survivors, led by the mysterious, charismatic Amy, go on the attack, leading an insurrection against the virals: the first offensives of the Second Viral War. To do this, they must infiltrate a dozen hives, each presided over by one of the original Twelve. Their secret weapon: Alicia, transformed at the end of book one into a half human, half viral - but whose side, in the end, is she really on?
I am going to be upfront and say I was left pretty underwhelmed by this book. Maybe I am in a funk at the moment as the last three books I have tried (“Darth Plagueis” and GGK’s, “The Summer Tree”) I didn’t enjoy as much as I thought I should have or as much as other reviews suggested I should have.
I found the characters in, “the Twelve,” far less engaging than Justin’s first book. Justin adopts a similar format to, “the Passage,” although this time I did not feel a sense of annoyance or loss when the book moved on to introduce a whole new cast. Whether that was a good thing or not, I am not sure.
That does not mean I did not enjoy any characters in this book. Lila in particular is very interesting. Justin does a magnificent job of portraying her madness and the conflict she feels in knowing she is mad.
Sara is also an intriguing character and the only one I felt myself routing for throughout the novel.  I think this is because she is the only character that seems to remain consistent throughout.
Quite often Justin Cronin introduces a character, and just as you are getting to identify with them and look forward to uncovering their story, he moves on to another POV. This is a classic technique to leave the reader wanting more. However, I found that when Justin did return to said character, they no longer acted the same way as when we last saw them. There are reasons for this and these are explained but it made the reading process very disjointed.
The “virals” themselves could not possibly live up to the fearsome creatures we met in the first book and that is because they were now too familiar and we know more about them. Justin knows this and to his credit embraces it. Rather than give the reader more of the same, he focuses on the plot around their existence which suddenly becomes more complex and mysterious.
There are also several “cool” scenes throughout the novel. These help elevate the story from being almost bland in places to enjoyable with interludes of information. The chapter in the fields is excellent for example, as is a scene towards the end.
These rare scenes are so good, that you wish the whole novel was more like them. It is no coincidence that both scenes feature characters that have been developed and are consistent either.
For the most part though, the constantly shifting time periods and the large cast of mostly generic characters left me frustrated as I tried to work out who was who. Maybe, this is where the Kindle fails, as I was not aware of the appendix at the back which helps with the characters until I had almost finished the book. Would this have helped? Probably, but a book shouldn’t have to rely on such things.
Cronin’s writing is still very good however. The way he writes scenes is effortless, describing settings briefly without impeding on the story. The dialogue is good, although there are a few borrowed phrases when he goes for humour here and there.
I’ve read some reviews that complain about the Hollywood style ending engineered towards the forthcoming films. I have to say I don’t agree with these, but then again, I didn’t find the final climax to be anything to spectacular. If anything it was disorganised and rushed.
“The Twelve” then was a bit of a disappointment. It had many good things about it, but overall, I found the story dull and I struggled to care what was going on, especially around the second third. This left me annoyed as I really wanted to enjoy the novel as others have.
My rating: 7.0

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (JS)

The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz By L. Frank Baum
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Now I know that after seeing the title of this review, you are now singing in a high-pitched voice the tune from the film, the book though is not quite a sugary as that.
Here is the blurb- though I am sure that everyone knows the story:
Dorothy thinks she is lost forever when a terrifying tornado crashes through Kansas and whisks her and her dog, Toto, far away to the magical Land of Oz. To get home Dorothy must follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City and find the wonderfully mysterious Wizard of Oz. Together with her companions the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion whom she meets on the way, Dorothy embarks on a strange and enchanting adventure.

 I have always had a soft spot for the Oz books, there is something the stories that appealed to me, and when I saw the trailer for the new film, I suddenly felt the need to reread them again.
This is not a long story and is certainly not complicated and I am sure that most people have seen the Judy Garland film at some point of their life so think they know all about it.
However, there are no ruby slippers in the book, these ones are silver and the Tin Woodsman axe is not just for show as he shows on numerous occasions saving the companions on their journey.
There are some great touches; the Emerald City for a start is only green, as everyone has to wear spectacles when they enter. The wearer of a cap controls the Winged Monkeys, but only for three wishes. There are fighting trees, and a land and people made completely of china that have to go off to be mended when they are broken.
Though there is violence in the book that was not in the film it is not overly dwelt on and villains (the wicked witch of the west for one), are quickly beaten. This is not complex writing; it is actually quite plain and simple,  the book will not take long to read and does not have pages of descriptions. This is a fun strange little book; with characters that all have back stories which make them come alive for the reader, whose friendships make them able to overcome all obstacles.
I would recommend this book, particularly for those amongst us, who have been forced to sit through the film over the years and know all the words to ‘Over the Rainbow’, to see where the story actually came from. Thanks to reading this one and enjoying it, I am now revisiting all the other books and the other much more strange characters that are there.
7 out of 10  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Review - The Summer Tree

The Summer Tree – Guy Gavriel Kay
GGK is an author I have been meaning to try for a long time. Several people I know hold him in high regard and he regularly gets high reviews. I decided to start at the beginning of his work although I was aware that this was supposedly inferior to his latter work.
The Blurb:
Five young people find themselves flung into the magic land of Fionavar, First of All Worlds, to play their part in the vast battle against the forces of evil led by the fallen god Rakoth Maugrim and his dark hordes. This is the first book in a fantasy trilogy in the "Lords of the Ring" tradition.
As a rule I am not a fan of mixing the real world with a fantasy world. I prefer my fantasy to be firmly that. There are exceptions of course, King’s Dark Tower series does it effortlessly and so does Enid Blyton. Most books though I think suffer for it.
The reason I don’t like it is demonstrated perfectly in the Summer Tree. Whenever, someone is transported to a mysterious realm it is hard to make it feel realistic. I would expect to see people scared out of their wits and struggling to get their head around the concept. Of course, I can understand why authors don’t bother with this as it would make for some pretty dull reading but GGK does not even attempt to deal with the situation. His characters so readily accept what happens to them that it completely dilutes its effect.
More so they do not seem the slightest perturbed by the use of magic or outlandish creatures and take it mostly in their stride. This annoys me to the point of distraction.
So that pet flaw aside are the character’s any good? Well to begin with, I would have to say, “no.” GGK flits around multiple view points but spends so little time on each that it is hard to remember who is who and get a sense of who they are. A third of the way into the book and I only just began to get a sense of the identity of one or two of them. Maybe that is just me but I would have preferred a little hand holding to begin with.
I have also read a lot about how wonderful GGK’s prose is, so I was therefore shocked how annoying I found it at the start. I have never been one that believes one should adhere to the common writing rules but one I do agree with is the overuse of adjectives spoils a scene. Also in dialogue if you need to use an adjective to describe how someone spoke a sentence rather than use “he said”, or “she replied,” then your dialogue is not clear. The reader should be able to discern how the character is feeling without being told. GGK does this in abundance at the start of the book, for example, “he intoned lugubriously,” Really?
So “The Summer Tree” did not get off to the best of starts in my opinion and this is where I am glad I begin my reviews 150 pages or so into the book. It is so easy it enjoy the climax of a novel and forget all that has come before it.
“The Summer Tree” did improve. It never reached the dizzy heights for me to rave about it, but the plot had a little more to it, the characters established themselves a little better and the prose improved tenfold. There was still far too much labouring on about the history of Fionavar for my liking, which rendered some scenes bland. But there were some very good scenes in there too. By the end of the novel, I can honestly say I enjoyed the experience enough to know I will be reading the next in the series.
My rating: 7.2

Saturday, November 24, 2012

On writing

On Writing – Update
Jacqui asked me why I hadn’t posted an update on my writing the other day. I told her it had only been a few weeks to which she pointed out my last update was 10th October. Wow, has it really been that long? Sorry for going dark on you all, I didn’t mean to!!
Any long term reader of the blog will know that when the writing is going well I post regular updates, when it is not going well I tend to keep quiet. After all there is only so many times a man can whine about having no time in the day.
As it happens progress has not been too bad. It is not as good as I had hoped but I have been more inconsistent than anything.
Back in October I was called to do Jury Service - a process that is both interesting and mind numbingly boring at the same time. The endless hours of waiting around, did allow me to do quite a lot of writing however so that was good. The bad news was that I was off work for two weeks, which meant stupidly long hours when I returned and which I haven’t really stopped doing since.
During the last couple of weeks I have also picked up a virus - Sinusitus (is it a virus?), which has meant after sorting out work and the kids I have mainly wanted to just go to bed.
At some point between my last update and the present, I realised I was being stupid in beating myself up in not getting writing done.  It was really getting me down and I was stressing as each day passed and I hadn’t found the time to progress the novel. One morning I woke up and decided it didn’t matter. If I don’t get the time, I don’t get the time. I am honest enough with myself to know when I am slacking on the writing front and at the moment this really is not the case. I therefore shouldn’t beat myself up when I am not writing due to factors beyond my control.
The last few weeks I have found some sort of rhythm again. The target of 500 words tends not to happen. Instead I have bursts of writing over 1,000 words every 2-3 days. Far from ideal but the book is progressing slowly.
Last time:
Total words book 2: 46,246
Total words book 2: 59,242

Friday, November 23, 2012

Book Review - The Silver Skull (aka The sword of Albion)

The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn

The Silver Skull

With this book, I did my classic habit of like the look of the cover, blurb sounds interesting, and on special offer!

Did not know the author at all, but it is a period of history that I like with the added bonus of fantasy thrown in, so how could I resist.

This is the description:
1588: as the Spanish Armada prepares to sail, rumours abound of a doomsday device that, were it to fall into enemy hands, could destroy England and her bastard queen once and for all. Enter Will Swyfte. He is one of Walsingham's new breed of spy and his swashbuckling exploits have made him famous. However Swyfte's public image is a façade, created to give the people of England a hero in their hour of need - and to deflect attention from his real role: fighting a secret war against a foe infinitely more devilish than Spain...For millennia this unseen enemy has preyed upon humankind, treating honest folk as playthings to be hunted, taken and tormented. But now England is fighting back. Armed with little more than courage, their wits and an array of cunning gadgets created by sorcerer Dr Dee, Will and his colleagues must secure this mysterious device before it is too late. Theirs is a shadowy world of plot and counterplot, deception and betrayal, where no one - and nothing - is quite what they seem. At stake is the very survival of queen and country...

As the description says, the story is set in Elizabethan England with the threat of invasion by Spain hanging over the country and starts with an attack on the Tower of London. Lights are seen under the Thames, the gates unfasten, and guards are transformed and killed.

A prisoner who has been held in the Tower for years is released and disappears into the streets of London.

Elizabeth’s spymaster Walsingham then calls in his small team of spies, chief amongst them Will Swyfte to recapture the prisoner who wears a mask of silver which is vital in the defence of England.

Will is described in pamphlets and by word of mouth as the hero of England someone that the people can rely on, a public face for the defence of the realm

Though he is a hero, Will is involved with the others in his team in a very different fight than the people suspect. They not only seek to defeat the Spanish but also the Unseelie or Unholy Court that look to destroy all of England and who look down on humans as less than animals.

Will is a great character, and very human, he drinks and knows many of the prostitutes of London, where he goes to relax. He has great banter with his servant- Nat, but he has dark side as he never forgets his lost love Jenny, who vanished due to the Unseelie Court who are behind many peoples disappearances.

The writing is fast paced especially towards the last third of the book and very enjoyable, and as the chapters are quite short, you tell yourself, you will only read one and end up reading more. There is plenty of action, with a touch of horror, a description of a straw man burning, makes you go a trifle cold.

There are many good side characters, though I did find Grace- Jenny’s younger sister annoying. As the story develops, you get an insight into many of their back-stories, which help the reader understand many of the characters actions, which is good especially in the case of Mayhew one of Wills band of spies. 

The detail of the period is very good and adds to the story appeal. I also liked the Unseelie court themselves, the descriptions of the grey shadows and the images that they can show is very good, I would have liked maybe a bit more of them

This is the first in a series, and you can see the strands of the story that will continue on, but there is a definite conclusion to this one so the reader is not left on a cliff-hanger. Would recommend this as a story with many different elements so there is very much something for everyone, and I will definitely be reading book number two.

8 out of 10

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book Review - Darth Plagueius

Darth Plagueis – James Luceno

As a rule I am not a fan of the Star Wars novels and the EU. I am such a massive fan of the films - where was the announcement on this site Rob? I hear you ask – Chillax, I reply, it was old news within seconds and the world had already spoken about it to the nth degree – anyway, I digress, I am such a massive fan of the films that anything in the EU that even slightly doesn’t ring true irks me. I often spend pages of the novel thinking, “Han would never have said that,” and get too distracted by the whole thing.

The novels I have read all seem to be stories told with an attempt to fit the characters in and make it “Star Warsy,” rather than a good story where the characters slot in effortlessly. I have yet to read a SW novel that does not borrow a few lines of dialogue from the films to make them sound authentic.

Darth Plagueis captured my interest though. A figure only mentioned in passing in the films, captured my imagination completely. Who was the Sith Lord that trained Sidious? When the reviews of the book were strong I was curious enough to give the book a whirl in celebration of the announcement of the new trilogy.

The Blurb:

He was the most powerful Sith lord who ever lived.
But could he be the only one who never died?

Darth Plagueis: one of the most brilliant Sith Lords who ever lived. Possessing power is all he desires. Losing it is the only thing he fears. As an apprentice, he embraces the ruthless ways of the Sith. And when the time is right, he destroys his Master - but vows never to suffer the same fate. For like no other disciple of the dark side, Darth Plagueis learns to command the ultimate power . . . over life and death.

Darth Sidious: Plagueis's chosen apprentice. Under the guidance of his Master, he secretly studies the ways of the Sith, while publicly rising to power in the galactic government, first as Senator, then as Chancellor, and eventually as Emperor.

Darth Plagueis and Darth Sidious, Master and acolyte, target the galaxy for domination - and the Jedi Order for annihilation. But can they defy the merciless Sith tradition? Or will the desire of one to rule supreme, and the dream of the other to live forever, sow the seeds of their destruction?

I was disappointed. I wanted to enjoy the book and in parts I did but at no point did I revise my above opinion on Star Wars books. Luceno is an accomplished writer and his knowledge of the Phantom Menace is vast. However, I found the book to be a bit all over the place if I am honest.

Darth Plageuis is interesting enough to begin with, but his character gradually fades away to be replaced by Palpatine. I was disappointed by this as I wanted to read about the Sith that trained Palpatine and not the senator of Naboo himself. By the end of the novel I am still struggling to think of anything interesting to write about Plagueis as a character.

Palpatine is not anything different from what we see in the films (I know this should be a good thing given my earlier comments) but there is no development of his character as his path to the darkside is generally skipped over. Although, there is an interesting segment of the book when we first meet him, scenes like this were few and far between. There is also a horrendous gloating speech at the end of the novel that had more in keeping with a “Scoopy-Doo” cartoon than a Star Wars piece of fiction.

What we get as a result is a history type text book of the events as they unfold. Dare I say it but it feels more like a fleshed out timeline, especially the latter parts where the plot shadows that of the Phantom Menace.

Others have praised the master manipulations of Plagueis and Sidious but I found it all rather bland and boring. Characters enter the story and then depart without getting any real sense of who they are and as a result I didn’t really care.

In keeping with the textbook theme, the ending of the novel felt more like a footnote to the Phantom Menace than a climax to a riveting story. James Luceno attempts to fill in the blanks and answer some questions not resolved in the films.

Maybe, I suffered from not having read any of the other EU books which I am told introduced a lot of the characters that I did not identify with. James Luceno is clearly a skilled writer and I can see how other regular readers of the EU have enjoyed this book but as a standalone novel I was not convinced.

My rating: 6.5

Monday, November 19, 2012

Book Review - The Railway Detective (JS)

The Railway Detective by Edward Marston

The Railway Detective

Review by Jacqui Slaney

I have always liked detective books, especially those set in an earlier time such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh to name two authors. Therefore, when I saw a series of books set in Victorian England, I was interesting the description sounded interesting, so I thought I would try it.

This is the description:

In 1851 England, the city of London anticipates the grand opening of the Great Expedition. Excitement is mounting with each engineering triumph of the railways, but not everyone feels like celebrating. A sudden attack hits the London to Birmingham mail train and it is looted and derailed. Planned with military precision, Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck fights to untangle a web of murder, blackmail and destruction. As Colbeck closes in on the criminal masterminds, events take an unexpected turn when the beautiful Madeline, daughter of the injured train driver, becomes a pawn in the criminals’ game. With time, running out, good and evil, new and old, battle against each other. But will the long arm of the law have speed on its side? Full of historical detail, unexpected twists and memorable characters, this is a mystery that will surprise you at every turn.

The story opens with violence, the mail train is robbed of its gold bullion and when one of the crew tries to resist as they see that their beloved engine is about to be derailed they are seriously assaulted.

Scotland Yard investigates and they soon decide that there must be inside knowledge of the trains’ cargo. This is where you first meet Inspector Colbeck and Sergeant Leeming who are given the case to solve.

I glanced at reviews before I purchased this book, as I did not know the author and the majority of them raved about how good the book was, so thought I would be onto an entertaining series.

 I started to struggle with the book though quite quickly although there were plenty of elements that should have made it good.

The story is set at the beginning of the expansion of the Railways so you have the conflict between landowners and the railway owners. The police force themselves were changing from consisting of ex military men to having a proper detective branch, so you have conflict between Colbeck and his superior who interferes with his work. You even have a love interest with a romance starting between Colbeck and Madeline.

However, I just could not get involved in this story; I found it dull.

Looking at what I have written, that sounds harsh, but unfortunately, it is true, all the things were there that’s should have made it a good read but they just did not gel for me.

I found myself flicking through pages trying to get into the story, but without success.
Looking back at the reviews, I can see that some people struggled but the majority seem to give the story and the writer ringing endorsements.
To me the characters were flat and did not get my interest even when they were in trouble.
I am a bit stubborn, so I did hold onto the end and so am able to say that by the end I had found the story had picked up slightly and came to a satisfactory conclusion.
Would I read the next one? Not at this time.

Would I recommend this one, well this is only my opinion, another reader might find it as good as the other reviewers did, but I do not think I could actually recommend this book to anyone.

5 out of 10

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review - Ender's game

Ender’s game – Orson Scott Card
I really want to be a fan of sci-fi novels. I love Star Wars more than is humanely healthy (although ironically I haven’t read many of the EU books), I am also a big fan of Alien movies, predator, total recall and a lot of other films within the genre. When it comes to books though, I just cannot get into them.
The books I have tried all seem to be unnecessarily scientific, to the point where they are pretentious. For example, Dan Simmon’s Hyperion is supposed to be an absolute classic. Whilst I enjoyed parts of it, there were large portions of the novel where I zoned out as all the technical babble just bored me.
Still, I am convinced that there are sci-fi novels out there that I will enjoy.  Ender’s Game is my attempt to find one of these. I have often heard it mentioned with fondness and so the premise sounds quite good.
The blurb:
When humanity is under threat from an alien race, Ender Wiggin, at the age of six, leaves his family on Earth to journey to the Belt. There he enters Battle School, where his life is strictly disciplined by mind games and computer mock-battles fought in deadly earnest. Instinct, compassion and genius make Ender unequalled. But while he trains, the invasion approaches fast. And Ender will be pushed to the limits of endurance, for he is a unique destiny...
Yes, Yes, YES. Finally a sci-fi novel that is a great story and has good characterisation, without all the scientific detail weighing it down.
Ender is a great character. Monitored at an early age, he has always stood out as a highly intelligent child with massive potential. He has grown up hating his brother, Peter, who he views as cruel and dangerous, whilst at the same time fearing he may share the same traits himself. His only true love is reserved for his sister Valerie who is the opposite of Peter.
When Ender is approached by the IF to join the battle against the Buggers, he sees it as an opportunity to escape his life and also save the life of his sister and parents in the process.
Ender is immediately likeable. He is a victim but has a strong moral compass and is not afraid to stick up for himself. When he joins the academy, the teachers are keen to isolate him from the other students and push him to his limits at every turn. The result is a relentless assault on Ender’s endurance and Orson Scott Card (OSC) does a terrific job of making the reader empathise with Ender whilst also tempering this by demonstrating his superior ability.
The novel feels has a classic schoolyard feel to it. The bullies take out their frustrations and own inadequacies on Ender whilst he struggles to win them over. However, underlying this, you get the sense of a far more serious issue of the potential threat of the Buggers and the mystery of just how and why Ender is being manipulated so much.  
The supporting cast is solid. The few friendships Ender does manage to make are interesting as they always seem on the verge of betraying him. The enemies are more than cardboard cut outs, each having a reason to despise Ender.
OSC also ensures that Peter and Valerie are not forgotten and both grow in stature as the plot progresses, so that they are involved in an important sub-plot.
The pace of the story is good. Despite the novel being focussed on Ender’s development, you always get the sense that it is moving towards something. Ender’s growth is well portrayed as his development from a scared boy into a confident teenager.
OSC uses a good technique to having each chapter open with a short conversation between two senior officials discussing the current situation and Ender’s progress. It is effective as it draws the reader’s attention to the sub-plot whilst not detracting from Ender’s story.
The ending is great. I for one was not expecting it despite having an inclining that something might happen. Many may feel cheated but I think it is a great way to wrap up the novel and definitely leaves you thinking long after you put the book down.
The sci-fi genre is very broad. It is the sci-fi set in space that I really wanted to find a good story too. I found that in Ender’s Game and will definitely be reading more of the series.
My rating: 9.2

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review - Monstrous Regiment (JS)

Monstrous Regiment- by Terry Pratchett

Review by Jacqui Slaney

As I have said in other reviews, I have read many of the Discworld novels and do have my definite favourites that I have read countless times. I had read this novel when it came out, but it was not until I recently reread it that I realised how good it was, this is the description:

It began as a sudden strange fancy . . .

Polly Perks had to become a boy in a hurry. Cutting off her hair and wearing trousers was easy. Learning to fart and belch in public and walk like an ape took more time . . . Now she is enlisted in the army and searching for her lost brother.

 However, there is a war on. There is always a war on. And Polly and her fellow recruits are suddenly in the thick of it, without any training, and the enemy is hunting them. All they have on their side is the most artful sergeant in the army and a vampire with a lust for coffee. Well . . . They have the Secret. And as they take the war to the heart of the enemy, they have to use all the resources of . . . the Monstrous Regiment.

The story is set in a small country called Borogravia that is always in a state of war with its neighbours. Men are MIA everywhere and there is little to country about from his army and its belief in its ruler the Duchess. After her brother disappears, Polly decides to leave the family Inn and join the army disguised as a boy. She signs up with Sergeant Jackrum and his squad of new recruits, among whom are one reformed vampire (only drinks coffee), an Igor, and a religious fanatic who talks to a pocket-sized picture of the Duchess. It soon becomes obvious there is something a little different about these latest recruits, who do not only use socks for keeping their feet warm, but Jackrum will look after them and has promised that nothing will happen to his boys.

Many reviews say this is slower than the other books in the series and is not so good because of that. This to me though had the feel of The Night Watch, as it is a bit darker with a slight edge to the humour, as always though the writing is intelligent and you are shown the horrors of war in a subtle thought provoking way.

You have a few characters from the other books such as Vimes who is an observer for Ankh Morpork and you have William de Worde as the war reporter. But the main characters are the squad. Each of them does have its own story, and my only complaint is that I would have liked to see some of them developed more.

I did like Jackrum who is an excellent character though, as is lieutenant Blouse, and the story is told through Polly, so you get her perspective on things, which is funny particularly when she is appointed as Blouse’s batman.

This is another good book if you haven’t read any of the other Discworld novels and I would recommend it.

8 out of 10

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book Review - Bethany's Sin

Bethany’s Sin – Robert McCammon
I will level with you. As a huge Robert McCammon fan and having only read most of his later material (Swan Song onwards), as much as I wanted to read his back catalogue, I was a little hesitant in case it didn’t live up to my expectations. Robert has said himself that his initial few novels were where he learnt his trade in the public eye so to speak and thought they were a weaker standard.
At the end of the day though, it is Robert freaking McCammon. On a bad day he is 90% better than most authors.
The Blurb:
Despite its eerie name, Bethany’s Sin is a pleasant place. After a life of grim poverty, this new community seems like heaven to Evan Reid and his family. With its quaint shops, manicured lawns, and fresh summer smell, the town charms the Vietnam veteran, his wife, and their daughter like nowhere else they have ever been. But beneath that cheerful façade lurks something deadly.

As soon as they enter their new house, Evan is consumed by fear. He can’t place its source, but there is something about the town’s mayor, Kathryn Drago, which makes him uneasy. By day she is a harmless retired archaeologist. But at night she leads an Amazonian cult whose next ritual calls for a secret ingredient: the blood of Evan Reid.

Bethany’s Sin is your classic horror story told extremely well. The story focuses around a young family moving to a new idyllic town to set up a new life for themselves. On closer examination, the perfect setting and manicured lawns are not so innocent as they seem.  Bethany’s Sin will not win any points for originally but that should not detract from the execution of the prose or the enjoyment from the story.
The protagonists of the novel are the husband and wife duo of Evan and Kay. Evan is a Vietnam vet who experiences frequent nightmares as a hangover from his traumatic time in the war. He is also blessed/cursed with odd dreams that seem to predict the future. Kay is his ever supportive wife who has landed her dream job and yearns to build a new life for her family.
Both characters are well portrayed and have confidence in their beliefs. As things unravel McCammon draws out the conflict the married couple experience well. They are both torn between what they believe and supporting each other in their marriage. The nice thing here, is that unlike so many stories, where all the strange instances happen to one character who is more open to them and the other characters remain blindingly sceptical throughout, in Bethany’s Sin, both Evan and Kay witness weird events and are aware of things not being quite right but react in very different ways.
The concept is refreshing and helps to demonstrate the mysterious power that resides in the town. You really feel the sense of helplessness as Kay is unwittingly drawn towards the terror and Evan struggles to oppose it.
The story itself obtains the correct balance between drawing out the mystery without being too frustrating. You know immediately what is going on but not why or how. As other characters enter the foray the mystery only deepens.
Some of these characters receive their own mini POVs and special mention goes to Neely who really is an excellent character.
Having said that, Bethany’s Sin is not as polished as McCammon’s later work. There is an annoying trope he uses in repeating a word at the end of the sentence. I assume this is meant for dramatic affect but is way over used to the point where it becomes irritating and distracting. Distracting. Distracting.
The ending of the novel is well done. The inevitable showdown is giving a large amount of time to resolve itself without feeling too drawn out. One thing about McCammon is that his stories always have satisfying endings.
Overall then, I thoroughly enjoyed Bethany’s Sin. Is it my favourite McCammon book? No. But is it head and shoulders above a lot of other horror books out there? You betcha.
My rating: 8.5

Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review - Hanging Hill

Hanging Hill – Mo Hayder

Mo Hayder’s standalone novels have often received mixed reviews. The majority loved “Tokyo,” whilst “Pig Island” was loved by some and derided be others. Personally, I loved both and admire the fact that Mo is prepared to try different styles and genres. Mo has always been a consistently good author for me and as “Hanging Hill” seems to fall somewhere in between her Jack Caffrey series and her standalones in terms of style I was looking forward to reading it.

The Blurb:

What if you found yourself divorced and penniless? With no skills and a teenage daughter to support? What if the only way to survive was to do things you never thought possible?

These are questions Sally has never really thought about before. Married to a successful businessman, she's always been a bit of a dreamer. Until now.

Her sister Zoe is her polar opposite. A detective inspector working out of Bath Central, she loves her job, and oozes self-confidence. No one would guess that she hides a crippling secret that dates back twenty years, and which - if exposed - may destroy her.

Then Sally's daughter gets into difficulties, and Sally finds she needs cash - lots of it - fast. With no one to help her, she is forced into a criminal world of extreme pornography and illegal drugs; a world in which teenage girls can go missing.

Two sisters intent on survival. Until one does something so terrifying that there's no way back . . .

“Hanging Hill” is told from the point of view of two sisters who no longer speak to each other and live very different lives. At first glance Zoe is your stereotypical female cop with a chip on her shoulder and something to prove. Mo Hayder though has always been one to go further than your average stereotype and does so again here.

Zoe is vulnerable but is also a very able cop. Her love live is tumultuous and despite the belief that she is happy being a lone wolf, she really is the opposite, needing company and support. She is a strong belief in evidence based police worker and so when a psychiatrist is brought into the investigation of a murder she is immediately opposed to the idea. This makes for a good dynamic as Zoe has something to be at odds with her colleagues about other than the typical “I am a woman but that shouldn’t impact on me doing my job and being treated equal.” The conflict is well portrayed as Mo successfully strikes the balance of Zoe the crusader and Zoe the deranged.

Sally on the other hand could not be more different. She is weak in comparison. Divorced and struggling for money she fails to see some of the most obvious things going on in her daughter’s life. She also has the annoying quality so often seen in people of wishing to do the honourable thing by getting herself out of the mess she created and in doing so not accepting help when she really should.

The secondary characters are all well depicted and so the ingredients are there to support a decent plot which Mo delivers with her usual no nonsense style that does not hold back on brutality.

As with most books in the crime genre, the investigation into the murder is compelling as clues are rifled though and witnesses are examined. What makes “Hanging Hill” stand out is the unexpected events that occur along the way. Sally’s inclusion in the plot means that Mo has the freedom to tell a far more interesting tale which is cleverly linked to the main plot.

The pace of the novel is just right, with events taking a nice turn mid way through the novel, which creates the drama towards the end. Mo is one of the best authors at creating tension when the protagonist is hiding from the evil killer. I read Tokyo years ago and yet I still remember one of the scenes from that book vividly. She achieves the same feat here in another scene.

Whilst good, the climax of the novel does feel as everything comes together and falls into place a little to nicely in the way the characters all converge. What is great though, is the way things are wrapped up. Sometimes it is refreshing when things occur beyond the protagonist’s control. The ending is harrowing – just how I like my novels to be and once again Mo Hayder has hit the mark for me.

My rating: 8.6

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Review - Red Country

Red Country – Joe Abercrombie

Red Country was one of my most anticipated novels this year. I enjoyed the First law trilogy but it was Joe’s follow-up novel Best Served Cold that I really sat up and took notice as to how good Mr. Abercrombie actually was. When “The Heroes,” was released Joe cemented his place as one of my favourite authors. Expectations were high going into this book to say the least.

The Blurb:

Shy South comes home to her farm to find a blackened shell, her brother and sister stolen, and knows she'll have to go back to bad old ways if she's ever to see them again. She sets off in pursuit with only her cowardly old step-father Lamb for company. But it turns out he's hiding a bloody past of his own. None bloodier.

Their journey will take them across the lawless plains, to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feuds, duels, and massacres, high into unmapped mountains to a reckoning with ancient enemies, and force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, a man no one should ever have to trust . . .

For ages I have been looking for a good Western series to get my teeth into and I am yet to find one. There have been other books that have been standalone and whetted my appetite such as “the Sister’s brothers” but an actual series remains illusive. “Red Country” has now made that appetite ravenous.

With Joe Abercrombie, you know you are going to get three things: 1) Great characters, 2) Violence and 3) Great humour. “Red Country” has all of these in abundance.

Every character oozes charm and depth. Not just the main characters, hell not just the secondary characters but also the tertiary characters as well. As the blurb indicates the book centres on Shy South and her quest to find her stolen sister and brother.

In “Best Served Cold,” the protagonist was a strong woman, ruthless and cold. In “Red Country” Shy South starts off in the same mold, but slowly evolves into a softer woman. It is an interesting exercise as the typical trope is to have a character start off weak and become strong. I wouldn’t go as far as to say Shy gets weaker but as other characters emerge and become more dominant, she questions her own actions and she is suddenly unsure of herself and those around her.

It makes for compelling reading and allows the other characters to emerge to the foreground. No one takes advantage of this more than “Lamb.” Lamb is a character many of the Abercrombie’s fans will be familiar with. What I love most about him is that with other characters of his ilk they can become very boring very quickly. Abercrombie has managed to make Lamb interesting over a number of books now and I still want to read more about him. The scene where Lamb emerges as the character we all know and love is one of my favourite scenes ever.

Other fan favourites also return. It would be easy for Abercrombie to use these prominently and be sure of another hit release. However, although significant, these characters make way for his new creations too. What we are left with is the perfect blend of old and new characters and a delightful book.

I am not reticent in saying that the characters are key for me in any book, but the plot also has to be good too. “Red Country” does not purport to have a complex plot but nor does it need to be. It is a classic quest story whilst subtly introducing the reader into new settings and a world that is arguably progressing. Having said that, just because it is uncomplicated it does not necessarily mean that it is weak.

Abercrombie, manages to get the pace spot on between the action sequences and the character development. Although he uses multiple view points, the book is firmly focused on the “Fellowship” which is the right thing to do. If there is a weakness, then there are a few chapters after a certain event that are slow, but this is inevitable as the story builds towards its conclusion.

Speaking of which, the climax of the novel is excellent. As with Abercrombie’s previous work, you know that not everyone will get a happy ending. It is realistic and you have to be realistic about these things. Joe makes sure all loose ends are tied up nicely and nothing is left unclear, well almost nothing.

Overall, Joe has written another winner. My expectations for Red Country were impossibly high and Joe has still managed to surpass them. Contender for book of the year for me.

My rating: 9.5

Monday, November 5, 2012

Book Review - Game of Kings (JS)

Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

The Game of Kings

Review by Jacqui Slaney

I had vaguely heard of this author, but had never actually read any of her books. Then a friend asked if I knew the series as they had heard good things, so I actually looked at the description of series. What I read caught my interest, as I do like this period in history so I was intrigued enough to buy the book, despite the huge pile of other books waiting for me to read.
This is the description:

 The opening book in the world famous Lymond Chronicles, Dorothy Dunnett's bestselling series. Lymond is back ... the whisper spreads quickly on that warm August night in 1547. Francis Crawford of Lymond, and outlawed rebel, is in Edinburgh again ... and his arrival in Scotland ignites a series of explosive events. Against a background of political intrigue and violence, Lymond is tracking three men, one of whom holds the only answer he can give to the world, the parliaments and the men who condemned him.

As you can see from the description, the book is set in the 16th century and as you can imagine it is full of the intrigue and political upheaval of that time. There is a boy king on the throne of England and a small girl child on the throne of Scotland and England want desperately for a marriage between the two, so Scotland can for once and for all be brought under their control.
Lymond the youngest Crawford son is seen as a traitor to Scotland as he has supposedly in the past sold all the families secrets to the English for gold, and seems to stop at nothing to get what he wants. Now he has returned following his exile and immediately causes uproar by arson, robbery it seems attempted murder.

This is a complicated story and not for anyone who fancies a light easy read before bed. Take it from me, if you read it at night then prepare to be up late, as the intelligent writing and superb characters catch hold of your attention.

I will admit that I struggled with the book at first, and was not sure if I could keep up with the extremely fast-paced plot, and struggled trying to keep up with the numerous characters and keep them straight in my head as to whom they were. Quotes in different languages thrown into the mix only added to my problems.

I persevered though; I found slowing down my reading speed helped a lot. I do have a bad habit of reading fast, which does not normally matter, but with this book, slower was definitely better.
The further into the story I read, the more enjoyable I found it and started to get a feel for the people in it. Lymond is a great character and he soon became a favourite of mine, although he is violent when it suits him and completely ruthless, and stops at nothing to get what he wants, he is one of the better main characters that I have read for a while.
To be fair though all the characters are real and have their own stories, I could go on for ages about all of them, but I will say that I liked Christian, a woman who helps Lymond when he is injured. As she is blind she does not know who he is, and with her, he shows a different side of his character. Will Scott is good, a young man who joins Lymond and wants to prove himself as better than his master, and when he tries, makes a great hash of it.

The author is obviously very intelligent, has a great knowledge of her subject, and does not dumb anything down for her readers. It is a tough read, but let me reassure you completely worth it. You get to the stage with it, that even when you are not reading, you are thinking about the story and that to me is a sign of a good book.

9 out of 10



Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review - The House at Riverton

The House at Riverton – Kate Morton

Continuing in my quest to read books outside my normal genres, I noticed that Kate Morton’s books were dirt cheap on the kindle at the moment. This book was hugely popular a few years ago and was plastered everywhere whenever I got on the train to work. The premise sounded intriguing enough and so I took the plunge.

The Blurb:

Summer 1924: On the eve of a glittering Society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again. Winter 1999: Grace Bradley, 98, one-time housemaid of Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet's suicide. Ghosts awaken and memories, long-consigned to the dark reaches of Grace's mind, begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge; something history has forgotten but Grace never could.

It is fair to say the House of Riverton is a slow burner. I never mind this when reading in fact I prefer it to constant all out action the whole way through. I say that with a caveat, I don’t mind slow burners as long as the characters standout as interesting and life-like.

Sadly, for the majority of the House of Riverton the characters are rather bland. The story is narrated by Grace who is a chambermaid at Riverton. Along with the Hartford sisters Hannah and Emmeline the characters are main focus of the novel.

Grace is an old lady recalling her past when she is the stoic maid, careful not to overstep her mark and mindful of her duties. She looks and she hears things but rarely forms any opinions of controvsary. Occasionally she will stick her neck out and perform a sneaky task for Hannah but beyond that is largely just the fly on the wall she purports to be when the director of the film that is being made of the events at Riverton comes enquiring for some inside information.

Emmeline, the younger of the two Hartford sisters fares little better. Although she has some spunk I found her to be largely two dimensional. She is often pigeon-holed into a certain trait as she is mentioned throughout the novel. At first being the needy little sister and later the out of control party animal.

Hannah on the other hand is an interesting character. Kate Morton really does a great character study on the repressed woman yearning for some excitement in her life. The only problem is that quite often Hannah finds herself conforming to the rules society opposes on her. Nevertheless, Hannah’s frustrations and angst are well handled and I found myself routing for her.

The secondary characters are solid enough. Without delving into spoiler territory Kate Morton explores the effects of war to good effect with one character and creates some excitement with a love triangle with another. Most of them are fairly forgettable though such as Teddy who no more that a plot device.

The problem I had with the House of Riverton is that nothing much happens. As I mentioned earlier, I do not need action on every page, but you have to give the characters something to work with. Quite often the events that do occur are so banal and tedious that no wonder the characters are bored of their lives. Maybe, that was the point but it did not make for very stimulating reading. I think there were several opportunities to add a bit of detail to certain events that disappointingly are summarised. One example of this is how Grace love interest is wrapped up. Kate spends a brief page recalling how things end with someone she loved deeply as if it was of no consequence. It is a shame as this was one of the more interesting subplots of the novel.

The plot is always building to the mystery of what happened at Riverton. We are fed various snippets throughout the story but you always get the sense that the book will be judged on the conclusion.

As it happens the conclusion is very good. It is not perfect and it does not make up for the rest of the novel but it is satisfying. The secret that Grace has been hiding her whole life is fairly obvious but still well written. I think the issue I had with it is that once Grace reveals what really happened at Riverton, we don’t get to see the reaction of anyone – so to a certain extant you are left feeling with a sort of “What’s the point” feeling.

Overall, the House of Riverton falls into one of them categories where I spend the majority of the review saying why I wasn’t keen on the book and then still give it a reasonable mark. That is because despite its flaws, by the time I closed the book I was engrossed in the world. It is well written and has stayed with me well after I have finished it. For £0.99 it is certainly worth your time.

My rating: 7.8