Debut Review: Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey

Blood KinTitle: Blood Kin
Author: Ceridwen Dovey
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Published: 12 July 2007
Price: £10.99
Review Copy 

Blood Kin is a depressing novel. The story starts from the view points of a President’s barber, chef and portrait artist who are being held captive in the President’s Summer Residence after a coup in an unnamed country where the President has been has been replaced by the Commander. 

None of the characters are likeable from those mentioned above to his barber’s brother’s fiancé, his chef’s daughter and his portraitist’s wife, each of whom tells a part of the story from their own point of view. 

The technique of interweaving chapters from varying points of view makes for an interesting exploration of the situation, which is not as simple as it first appears. They are more than a barber, chef and portrait artist. Their lives are intertwined with the President though not in ways that you’d immediately imagine.

Because it is such a dark novel it’s hard to find any enjoyment from it. It is a not a novel read for entertainment. This is a novel of exploration. It is a novel of power and corruption and those who are attracted to it, their motivations and the lies they delude themselves with. 

For all it’s bleakness it’s still worth reading as Dovey manages to build a story where each of these characters is revealed as creatures to pity as well as despise. They are in some ways victims of circumstances who seem to have no choice but to follow the path laid out for them.

Though if I do have one reservation it does seem a little too fantastical in parts especially some of the ways their lives come together. But then people of power aren’t that grounded in reality.

Overall, Dovey is an intelligent storyteller who delves a little too deep into darkness to make this entertaining though it is a thoughtful and haunting novel which makes me think of Evita without all the singing and dancing.

Review: The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton

The Dreaming VoidTitle: The Dreaming Void
Author: Peter F. Hamilton
Publisher: Macmillan
Published: 3 August 2007
Price: £17.99
Review Copy

I don’t know where to start. Really. Peter F. Hamilton has a packed a universe into a 600 pages and I’m surprised that the books aren’t spontaneously exploding on the shelves.

There is a Void in space that is more deadly than a black hole. There are humans who think that the Void is a Nirvana due to the dreams of Inigo who has shown billions the life inside the Void.

The Dreaming Void centres on those supporting a Pilgrimage to the Void and those who don’t. Hamilton grounds the story through a pair of characters, one each side of the Void, whilst agents of the factions search for the missing Inigo and the mysterious Second Dreamer.

What amazes me is how Hamilton keeps all the characters in play, just when you’re getting used to one and falling into their rhythm he swaps to someone else. This makes for a challenging read but as you progress you can see all the pieces being moved into place. And the story ends with the board set for whatever comes next and a revelation that asks more questions than it answers.

Throughout the story it also makes references to and brings back characters from an earlier two-part story which happened a thousand years ago and is retold in Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained. As I’ve not yet read them I didn’t feel there was any obvious gaps though I have the feeling that I’ll have a few revelations once I have.

The Dreaming Void is set in an amazing imaging of the future of the human race. It’s complex and challenging but has huge moments of satisfaction throughout. If you like your science fiction to explore what it is to be human with all our potential and our weaknesses and enjoys seeing new worlds and technology you’ll love Part One of The Void Trilogy. If you like your narratives to follow a more linear path this maybe a little too in-depth to be satisfactory.

I personally am now integrated into the worlds of the Commonwealth and can’t wait to see what happens next.

Review: The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

Atrocity ArchivesTitle: The Atrocity Archives
Author: Charles Stross
Publisher: Orbit
Published: 2007
Price: £6.99
Shelf Copy

Charles Stross is a very prolific writer but this is my first chance to sample his very active imagination. And what an imagination: we have terrorists, Nazis, horrors from other dimensions, secret government departments, and a techie called Bob who’s just started Active Service.

Stross has created a fully believable world where technology is basis of magic and advanced maths can open holes in the universe. Shh it’s a secret.

Bob Howard is not James Bond thank god but he does have a few gadgets up his sleeve and a beautiful and intelligent girl to save, bad guys to chase and the tentacles of the Lovecraftian horrors to fight off whilst dealing with office politics and an computer audit.

The strengths in The Atrocity Archives are not only the use of ideas, which is both creative and grounded in scientific theory, but also the characterisation of the people in The Laundry (the secret government department).

It’s not really a complete novel. It is two stories bundled together. We have the fuller length ‘The Atrocity Archives’ and the episodic ‘The Concrete Jungle’. ‘The Atrocity Archives’ does all the hard work by setting everything up and ‘The Concrete Jungle’ shows Bob at work. Both enjoyable and I like the additional story as it feels like a bonus tale. And shows the potential of both the format and the character.

There are a few words of warning.

It does get very techie at times. This is partly due to the nature of the character of Bob who is also the narrator but also, I think, that Stross can’t help himself sharing what he knows. And he knows a lot!

It’s not completely polished. There are some niggling rough bits that I’ll forgive as I feel that Stross will get better and better as I work through his more recent works (This novel was written in 1999/2000.) He shows bags of potential and energy which is occasional misdirected. And I hope that he’ll revisit the actual Atrocity Archives in much more detail in a future book as there was a lot left to explore/explain.

Overall, if you’re a fan of occult tales with a techno-thriller twist this is a book for you. And if you’ve enjoyed of the Indiana Jones Nazis’ or Hellboy you’ll enjoy this too. And if anything in this review sparked your interest go get it. You’ll like it.

Debut Review: The Good Thief’s Guide to Amerstdam by Chris Ewan

Good Thief’s GuideTitle: The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam
Author: Chris Ewan
Publisher: Long Barn Books
Published: 2007
Price: 12.99
Bookshelf

I’ve been meaning to get my hands on this book for quite some time. Any book that can survive the fire of Susan Hill has got to be good, right? Yes, definitely. Is it a big blockbusting bestseller? Not really and I don’t think it’s meant to be.

Charlie Howard writes crime novels about a career thief; a career he also dabbles in from time to time. So when someone asks him to steal two monkey figurines he can’t turn it down can he?

Chirs Ewan has created a wonderfully entertaining character in Charlie Howard. He has an English whit and good manners for someone who breaks into houses for a living. And in any detective novel a good main character is a must. The other essential is a mystery and Ewan’s storytelling is compelling and compulsive.

It’s not a blockbuster thank god as there are no big car chases, fire-fighting shootouts, or explosions. Instead he’s built a complex tale from a few simple building blocks with enough false bait to keep you hooked even when you find out you’ve been pulling on the wrong line for quie some time. It harks back to tales where it’s brains that count like the tales of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Colon Doyle and the detective stories of Agatha Christie.

I’d usually be wary of a writer writing about a character who writes but in this case it allows some interesting conversations and some insight into both the main character and the unfolding events. Ewan also manages to capture the spirit of Amsterdam making the city a vital character of the story.

I’d whole heartedly recommend this book for anyone who loves detective stories with a definite English twist and for anyone who loves a great read I’d say you should buy this too. There is loads of potential for a sequel and I personally hope it’s not going to take too long to come. I guess the only to make sure there is is for enough people to go out and buy this book first. What you waiting for?

Review: From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

From A Buick 8Title: From A Buick 8
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: New English Library
Published: 2003
Price: 7.99
Shelf Copy

Stephen King has written a lot of books and I’ve only delved shallowly into his deep well. For me the strength of Kings comes from the voice he uses. It has a sense of place and a confidence that makes for a pleasant reading.

This voice is put to good use in From A Buick 8 as various members of Troop D lets a young Ned Wilcox into the family secret about  what the Buick Roadmaster in Shed B could possibly be and like his dead father he has more questions than there are answers.

Several of King’s stories start on a ‘what if …’ and this one is no exception. What if something that looks like a ’54 blue Buick Roadmaster is actually something alien and something to be scared of? King’s starts off with this ‘what if…’ and then explores that idea throughout the novel. The downside of this technique is that there is a fine line between exploration and rambling and King mostly stays on the right side of the line.  

This isn’t the best King I’ve ever read. It’s more subtle than I’d like and more reflective though that is the story from the outset so you have to accept it for what it is.  The horrific moments, such as they are, lack a sense of danger even though you can understand the characters reactions it’s hard to feel them.

Each part of the story snaps into place like a badly formed jigsaw puzzle. Each of the characters is solidly recreated and feels as real as the Buick itself. There is a sense of the extraordinary happening to ordinary people. I’d say if you’re in a reflective mood and thinking about the meaning of life then this is a great read. If you need something with a bit more action you might find it a bit too slow going.

Debut Review: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

godsbehavingbadlyTitle: Gods Behaving Badly
Author: Marie Philips
Publisher: Jonathon Cape
Published in Hardback: 02 August 2007
Price: 12.99
Review Copy

I hardly know where to start with this stunning debut so let’s start with the illustration. The dust jacket, endpapers and the first few pages all contain wonderful illustrations by Suzanne Dean. They really set the tone for this book. She’s reimaged the art of Ancient Greece for a modern age, which is exactly what Marie Philips does in Gods Behaving Badly.

The Gods of Olympus have been living in North London for the last few hundred years. It’s not easy being a God. Their house is overcrowded and in need of a lot of TLC. They have modern-day jobs (Artemis, Goddess of Hunting/Professional Dog-Walker; Apollo, God of the Sun/TV Psychic; Dionysus, God of Wine/Night Club Manager) and even then they are struggling to make end meet. This is all until they employ a cleaner and that’s when things so wrong.

 

There is much to admire about GBB. It’s funny for a start. I mean laugh out loud funny though the first time was out of shock so it might have been more of a giggle. It’s clever. Marie has really thought out the storyline. There are so many links and parallels that it leaves wonderful ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ moments. It’s sweet. The characters of Alice and Neil are just the right mortals to show up how ‘bad’ some of the Gods are. There is more but I don’t want to spoil it.

I really can’t think of anything I didn’t like about it. It was a wonderful easy read that managed to be both entertaining and thought provoking. The characters are wonderfully imagined, though I would have liked to have seen a bit more of a few of the Gods as there was so much more I wanted to know about them.

I’d love to see if Marie can manage a sequel – she’s created a wonderful cast and there are so many Greek myths she could draw on. If not I’m looking forward to what she writes next.

This is going to take some beating for Gav’s ‘Entertaining Read of the Year’.

 

Debut Review: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Sharp TeethTitle: Sharp Teeth
Author: Toby Barlow
Publisher: William Heinemann
Published in Hardback: 02 August 2007
Price: 12.99
Review Copy

Before I get into the book itself I have to say that I would buy more hardbacks if they were made like this.  It doesn’t have a dust jack only a striking illustrated cover with a slight bit of texture to it. And it’s that new compact size that’s becoming more and more popular. Much more reader friendly as I don’t have to worry about ripping the paper cover and it fits nice in my hands.

That’s not the only thing unique about this book. It’s a novel-in-verse. No don’t stop reading it’s not what you think. We’ll I’m not sure what you think but if you are imagining some Shakespearean-esque poetic purple prose you’d be wrong.

 To quote Toby Barlow:

‘…I tried to write to the way my eye, a somewhat lazy and easily sleepy eye, tends to work through a page’

And it works; the words just flow as if it’s written in a kind of novelist short hand. Another reviewer suggested that Sharp Teeth ‘is closer to Raymond Chandler, another chronicler of the underside of L.A., than to any poet’ and I’d tend to agree.

The poetic leanings come from the structure and the way story slips into your mind and as with any engine you don’t need to see how it works, you just need to hear it roar.

On top of this engine is a hardboiled crime novel with an animalistic twist:  packs of werewolves’ flight and scheme as a dog-catcher falls for a woman who can’t escape her blood. It has everything you need guns, girls, and a mystery to solve. Oh and blood though blood doesn’t bond these animals. Loyalties change when the wind is no longer blowing in the right direction.

Barlow, has thought this tale through. He sets up the game but the players and their hands remain hidden until the end. There aren’t that many flaws either at least any that wouldn’t count as nitpicking.  

These are no clichéd moon-howling-hounds – they are myths made real.  As with the best urban fantasy, this highly original novel-in-verse grounds itself in reality. So much so you might not look at a stray dog the same way again. You are going to be hard pressed to find something as complete and compelling as this for a while. My only doubt is how Toby Barlow is going to top this. If Sharp Teeth doesn’t win a few awards I’d be highly surprised.

Debut Review: Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley – Updated 07/08

WinterbirthTitle: Winterbrith – The Godless World Book One
Author: Brian Ruckley
Publisher: Orbit
Price 7.99
Review Copy

I shouldn’t like this book. It’s a war story and I try to avoid war stories as best I can but when delving into the realms of fantasy it is very hard to avoid them. The good ones make manage to go beyond the fighting and I’m glad to say that Winterbirth does just that. Don’t get me wrong there is a lot of fighting here and blood, a lot of blood but there are also characters that you can’t help routing for.

The back story in Winterbirth is complex and it shows that we can’t really escape our history as It always comes back to haunt us if we want it to or not. It’s also not an easy book to explain as there are a lot of things going on both above and below the surface.

Brian Ruckley shows us two sides to this world: those of the South who are ‘True Bloods’ and those of the exiled ‘Black Roads’. The uneasy truce of the ‘True Bloods’ is weakening as the High Thane goes to war against one of his own. And it is this time that the Black Road march South.

I could spend many paragraphs going into who is fighting who, who is betraying who, who is helping who, and who doesn’t know that they need to be acting much faster. Luckily this is all explained as you read. This is no slight tale. There is a weighty and mighty book and knowledge of all the pieces is needed if you are to understand the rules of the game and what the game actually is.

As you follow the central band of characters you are left sometimes questioning if events unfold they way they do because of the choices that they make. If you are on the side of the ‘True Bloods’, as our band are, then you may believe that it is all your fault. Though, if you are with the Black Road it is all pre-written and what will happen is already decided.

I found Winterbirth a hard but satisfying read. Ruckley, it seems, has the story all thought out in so much so that he can’t help it pouring out into sections of over-detailed explanation. Not that I can think of a better way of doing it. Everything is there for a reason – there are no meaningless wanderings through forests – though there is a lot of walking that takes place.

The quest element is quite simple – first they need to escape and then they need to find their way back as safely as possible. Not that it’s simple with danger at every turn and there is no where to get back to.

I enjoyed the bands journey and reading the history of the places they passed through. There is also magic in this world. It is however kept frustratingly enigmatic and hidden that I couldn’t really handle what those who wield it can and can’t do.

This could be considered an overly long introduction to a trilogy, but at this level of the fantasy genre this may be expected, as by the end this story is only just beginning.

If there was something that kept me reading even when I was getting swamped in the detail was Ruckley’s excellent characterisation – all the characters are solidly portrayed even those whose blood flows a few pages after they are mentioned. He does have a way of making you care about them and you may find yourself gasping about how merciless he is.

Winterbirth ends on a high level of expectation and I really can’t wait for the next one in the series and to find out the true potential of magic in this tale.

Updated (07/08):

I’ve been mulling over this review for the last couple of days and I need to a add a few points I think.

This is a complex book. It reminds me of a chess board with all it’s pieces in play. I’m not used to reading stories with such a big playing area and that’s really when I mean when it’s a ‘hard’ read – you need to keep the board very much in your mind whilst you’re reading. If, like me, you are not used to reading complex stories with a complex history be prepared that you need to be reading when you are fully conscious throughout.

I think that saying this is an ‘over-long introduction’ and has ‘over-detailed explanation’ is a being a little too harsh on the book. Both stem from wanting to get back to the main characters and their story rather than wanting to know more about what is happening everywhere else.

The greatest strength in Winterbirth is the characterisation of all the characters – they feel real – rather being wooden pawns- they could actually live in this world. Something is learnt from each shift in focus and for me it’s probably more than I need to know – hence the the ‘over-detailed’ – but it works in the structure of the novel.

As for the ‘over-long introduction’ – just I was getting used to the world, it’s characters and the chess game – the ending suggests that it’s actually another game we’ve been playing – and for me this was a little frustrating but thinking about it there are more than enough hints about what might be going on.

So overall, Winterbirth is a confidently written, well plotted, excellently characterised tale, that needs a good level of concentration and a strong stomach – but leaves you wanting more with a lot of questions that just have to be answered in the next book.

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J K Rowling

Harry Potter DHThere isn’t much point in reviewing this final book in the series – at this point you either love it or you hate it and you’ve either bought it or you haven’t. But just in case you are yet to enter the hallowed halls of Hogwarts then I’ll offer a few of my own thoughts on this once in a life time literary phenomenon.

As I’ve pointed out recently the Harry Potter series is never going to see Ms. Rowling honoured for Nobel Prize for Literature but that was never its intention. HP is a children’s story that happens to appeal to an adult audience – though this attraction to an older audience has been played on with the Adult Editions and perhaps some of the adult related content as suggested by Catherine Bennett in the guardian. And as a children’s story HP has a lot to stimulate the imagination from the use of magic, to the magical creatures, to the whole conflict between good and evil.

If there is a negative to HP in general and DH in particular is that it might be a bit too immersive with a large casts of characters, locations, spells, and artefacts. Though strangely scenes are often rushed and key moments dealt with over a few lines that should have been lingered over longer.

Now this does show either a lack of good editing or lack of skill in the finer details by Rowling and this is the most disappointing thing – that in order to keep the story under wraps it missed having that vital feedback that could have polished it a bit more.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows brings the series to a satisfying if bloody conclusion. It is an amazing achievement to keep so many threads not only tight but tied off cleanly in the end over 7 books and goodness know how many words.

This is a series that will be read again and again and is going to take some beating in the future.

Review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan)

casehistories

Title: Case Histories
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Black Swan 2005

Case Histories is one of those novels that you want to start again as soon as you’ve finished it so you can go back and find out all the bits you’ve missed. Kate Atkinson has interlaced all the lives of the characters so tightly that you don’t see all the connections until she turns over the tapestry and shows you the knots.

From the first three opening chapters, which present the details of three open cases that land at Mr Brodie’s door, Atkinson’s relaxed, warm and straight talking style drags you into the lives of the characters and keeps you needing to know what happened so that you can say ‘case closed’ at the end.

For an ex-army, ex-police and current private detective Jackson Brodie is quite a lovable character, maybe a little soft, but definitely in the British Bumbling Detective mould.

The story flips from one character’s view point to the next all being held together with a connection to Jackson though that is rarely the only connection. As it flips, it sometimes rewinds events so you can see that part of the story from the other side. Atkinson is an excellent storyteller and keeps all the elements moving along even when she seems to be going back to tell the reader something they think they already know.

For all its emotion there is lots of humour that comes from Atkinson’s narration and Brodie’s whit. Though there is one thread that border on the ridiculous and I’d like to have seen it treated more seriously. But that might be because Atkinson is such a good writer that I’d love to read her going darker.

Both moving and tightly packed this is a wonderful novel to read when all the gritty crime novels get too much. I’m itching to get on with the next one to see what web Jackson ends up entangled in next.