Category Archives: books

My Christmas reading pile

xmas readingI thought I’d take this photo of the books I got for Christmas sitting on my bedside shelf. I’ve read some of them but they looked so nice sitting there, all lovely and inky and wordy…  Am I in danger of fetishising my paper books now I’m a Kindle owner?  Oh yes…

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

Just started dipping into this one.  It’s written in an accessible style whilst still retaining a huge amount of detail and respect for the work that went on at Bletchley.

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

I love reading anything about the Brontes, and this novel plunges you into the mind of Charlotte Bronte as she writes her masterpiece.  It’s beautifully written, almost poetic at times, but I found myself wishing she’d delved further into the complete family background rather than just concentrating on the progress of one novel, even though that was the point of the book.  Fleeting glimpses of Emily, Ann and Branwell were just too tantalising.

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

A triumphant return to space opera from the fantastically depraved mind of Mr Banks.  Pure enjoyment and awe all round.   (And nobody uses the f word better.)

Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James

I love the recent craze for return visits to Jane Austen’s creations and was sure I’d be in safe hands with PD James.  She uses the settings well and I enjoyed the references to characters in the other books, eg Willoughby takes a position working for Mr Eliot from Persuasion.  But I felt the novel lacked emotional substance; the murder victim is a minor character, and does anyone really feel sorry for Willoughby any more?  Darcy and Elizabeth, who should light up every page, seemed shadows of their former selves.

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

Imagine Jodi Piccoult crossed with Linwood Barclay and you have Rosamund Lupton – emotionally searing, dramatic, completely compelling; this was a book I couldn’t put down.  (Thanks to my Secret Santa!)  Have made a note to read her first novel Sister.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

I haven’t started this one yet but I’m looking forward to getting on the back of that turtle!

Hope you are enjoying your Christmas reading too.

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I want to live in a Ffordian world!

Jasper Fforde is a true original, and luckily for his fans a prolific one too.  He has been compared to Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Monty Python.  He is fiendishly clever with a wicked sense of humour and a love of puns, slapstick and absurdities.  His books are laugh-out-loud funny but with characters you can really fall for (who doesn’t adore Thursday’s lovely husband Landen, want to be friends with Spike the relaxed vampire killer, or covert a clockwork butler called Sprockett?).  Inventions and crazy ideas just spill off the pages and every book is an absolute delight.  I won’t beat about the bush any longer – I’m a fan!  Or should I say, Ffan.

In case you are new to Fforde, he writes in four different strands.  The Thursday Next novels – drama and crime in and out of a world of books and an alternative Swindon; the Nursery Crime series – a spin off from Thursday Next concentrating on the nursery rhyme area of the BookWorld; the Last DragonSlayer books (junior Fforde fantasy) and, strangest and most wonderful of all, Shades of Grey, which I can’t even begin to attempt to describe and need to read again at least three times.  To get a flavour of this bizzarre universe, visit the author’s website at www.jasperfforde.com.

I have just finished reading One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the latest adventure of Thursday Next.  In this episode, the real Thursday is missing.  However there are several more.  A series of books based on Thursday’s adventures means that there is also a written Thursday who lives in the BookWorld.   Unlike her namesake, this Thursday is meek and peaceful and only wants to live in her book and entertain the few readers that still bother to drop in.  But events force her into action.  Together with the clockwork Butler and expert cocktail maker Sprockett, the treehugging Thursday must search the Bookworld and the Realworld to find Thursday in time to attend the Council of Genres’ peacetalks with Racy Novel.   A great delight for me in this novel was the remaking of the BookWorld into an island, as you can see in the picture below (click on it to enlarge).  Thursday’s trip up the Metaphoric River on a paddle steamer was a highlight.  I love the Blyton island, Mervyn Peake and Clowns, which is on the border of comedy and horror.  And if you look carefully you can see NaNoWriMo just above the Un-Genred Zone.  Thanks to Jasper for allowing the map to be freely reproduced.  If you want to explore Fiction Island, just jump into the Thursday Next books.  I’ll see you in Speculative Fantasy, North of SF, East of Dickens.

Fiction Island

Fforde's Fiction Island

Shelfari

I’ve just stumbled across Shelfari, a new social networking community based around a virtual bookshelf where you can record the books you have read and are planning to read.  You can rate them, review them, join groups and discuss them.  I’m not sure if I can keep up with yet another social network – I’ve not even tackled Twitter yet – but I’ve been thinking  for some time that I wish I’d made a written record of every book I’d ever read (I know, anal aren’t I?) and now I can!  Selecting books through a search bar and marking them as Reading Now, Read, or Planning to Read produces a lovely little graphic like this which you can make appear on your blog:

book shelf

Unfortunately, because WordPress prevent users from inserting Java Script into their blogs, we WordPressians can’t display the full graphic, only a text list.  I’m hoping that will be rectified eventually.  Apparently there is a way to force WordPress to use Java but I can’t get my head round the science.

I’m planning now to record every book I read, tagging them by year read.  And if I see a book I’ve read in the past I’ll add that too.  Being  a Kindle user it will be nice to see books on my bookcase, even if they are virtual ones.

Shelfari can be found at www.shelfari.com.

Digging up Dracula

Having free access to the classics on my new Kindle is a great opportunity to catch up on all those famous titles that I’ve heard so much about but never read.

Crime and Punishment was my first choice, a title that is familiar to everyone, and yet I had no idea what the story was about (apart from a crime and a punishment, obviously!).  I found it  fascinating, a detailed portrayal of what can bring an apparently sane, intelligent man to commit murder – although I did struggle a little with the Russian names.  Everybody seemed to have at least three!  The murder scene itself was quite horrific, even though it was described in a very straightforward and ungarnished way.  The skill of Dostoevsky‘s writing is that he takes you right into Raskolnikov’s head so that you are actually with him in the room, facing the old woman and trying to summon up the courage to do the deed.  With that level of involvement you don’t need excessive gore to make it real.

My next title was Dracula.  After enjoying The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova I was keen to read the original text that has inspired so many novels and films.  Although Bram Stoker did not invent the vampire, he was the first (I believe) to connect the original Vlad the Impaler of the Dracula family with the vampire legend.  The book is an absolute belter, a page-turner with a wonderful growing sense of dread and menace.  The format, a collection of letters, diary entries, newspaper cuttings and telegrams, makes it very easy to read, and I loved the settings like the gothic lunatic asylum with its resident spider-eating madman, windswept Whitby and, of course, Dracula’s Transylvanian castle.  There are many seminal scenes such as Dracula’s ship arriving at Whitby with the dead captain lashed to the wheel and the final scene where our heroes gallop after the carriage containing Dracula’s coffin, trying to beat the sunset before the villain can reach the safety of his castle.

Where Crime and Punishment was a fascinating read, it had its own challenges in terms of lengthy backstories, long monologues and confusion between characters, whereas Dracula is just a thumping good read, with some truly beautiful writing.

Visit Parodies Lost to read a bit of Dracula lampoony.

Review of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

I first heard of Incarceron at the 2010 Winchester Writers’ Conference at a seminar about Young Adult Dystopian fiction.  The premise, a futuristic prison suspended from a keychain, sounded intriguing, and it was the first book that I paid to download on my new Kindle.

IncarIncarceronceron is an absolute joy to read.  It is a winning combination of fantasy, science fiction, elements of horror and the hint of a love story.  The world Catherine Fisher has created is dense and rich with myth; a ravaged moon, a fake world of false protocol and suspended development, and, most amazing of all, a new world created to house half the population: a prison that will nurture and reform its inmates and create a paradise.

But, like all good fictional paradises, Incarceron becomes evil.  A theme in the book is whether the corruption of the prison is caused by itself or by the nature of its inmates – mankind itself.  What is freedom?  Are we imprisoned in our own natures?  Or are we always prisoners of society, no matter if we are inside or out?

The book takes two main strands: it follows Finn, a young prisoner suffering from fits and amnesia, as he attempts to find the mythical exit into the Outside; and Claudia, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, betrothed to a posing prince and, together with her tutor Jared, determined to find out the truth about her father’s work and what happened to the previous prince Giles, who died in mysterious circumstances.  No prizes for guessing who she thinks Giles could be, but there are plenty of genuine surprises along the way as Finn and his companions negotiate an increasingly traumatic and dangerous journey while Claudia risks everything to prove that Prince Giles was imprisoned and should be the rightful heir.

I can’t do justice the book by describing the plot.  The action positively fizzes with drama.  But what makes it really special is the unforgettable characters, especially Finn himself and his oathbrother Keiro, a flawed but magnetic character you can’t help but admire.  The gentle tutor Jared, working quietly against the system, is also a wonderful creation.  And of course the prison itself, Incarceron, is probably one of the most original characters in recent fantasy fiction.

The sequel, Sapphique, brings the story to a nailbiting finale.  Filming of Incarceron will be starting shortly with Taylor Lautner from the Twilight films playing Finn.  My advice is to read the books quickly and experience the real Incarceron for yourself.

Writers’ Notes

In each book I read from now on I will be making notes of how I can learn from the author and improve my own writing.  Catherine Fisher’s work is a brilliant example of how to get everything pitch perfect.

  • Characters – each is an individual with their own flaws.  They act in a way that is true to themselves while still managing to surprise us.  Fisher often places them in situations that challenge them and it is satisfying to watch them react in character as they try to adapt.
  • USP – Incarceron is a wonderfully inventive creation – a living prison gone awry.
  • Worldbuilding – Fisher has created two worlds: the world Inside and the world Outside.  As the books progress we see that the two are not so different after all.  She has created a history and a set of myths but does not fully explain either; instead hints and quotes gradually reveal more about the two worlds.
  • Suspense – the books are full of action and surprise.  Survival is never certain and loyalties are put to the test.  There are no ‘dead spaces’; every incident serves the plot.

Kindle experience

As this was my first e-book experience, I thought I should add a bit about what it was like.  I feel the method suited the book perfectly, being a mixture of new technology attempting to recreate the experience of the old.  My only criticisms are that the formatting was sometimes slightly out, with the odd line finishing half way across the page, and also in the sequel, Sapphique, most of the text appeared in italics until after I had read it, which was a shame as length italics can be irritating, and there were genuine small areas of italics at the beginning of chapters which no longer stood out.  Whether that is a problem with the book or my own settings I am not sure.

I got a Kindle for Christmas!

Why did no one ever tell me how lovely the Kindle is?  It’s sleek, beautiful, a doddle to use, and when you ‘put it to sleep’ (bless!) it shows you a nice little drawing of an author, at random.  Or a selection of fish (the current screensaver, for some odd reason).

This cute little gadget couldn’t really be the murder weapon responsible for the death of paper literature, could it?  It’s so lovely to touch, so pleasingly smooth, and it holds so much in its TARDIS-like case.  Or it will do.  On Christmas Day I scanned the Kindle charts, looking for bargains – until I noticed that these were the PAYING for charts.  There is a FREE chart!  Yes, you can download out of date classics for nothing!  I cursed my recklessness for downloading the complete Jane Austen when I could have grabbed each book individually for free.  A whole 74p wasted!  At these prices, or non-prices, could we see the likes of Dickens galloping back up the charts again, knocking Katie Price off for good?  Music downloads are allowing old favourites to return to the charts, so why shouldn’t that happen in book sales?

In terms of ease of use, the Kindle really doesn’t need much explanation.  From the Home menu, just visit the Kindle store through the built-in WIFI connection, and choose your book.  Your Amazon Instant Click button will tempt you to grab everything you see.  In a few minutes, your book of choice will be sitting there on your menu, ready to read.  Just select it and use the arrow buttons on the sides of your Kindle to move back and forth through the pages.  Your clever new friend will remember where you are when you switch off.

Do I miss the feel of a book?  Strangely, I only miss not having the physical book when I’ve finished.  I can’t show off Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron on my shelves for all to see, even though it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years.  I can’t lend it to anyone either.  And anyone who saw me reading it over the last few days would never have known what I was so engrossed in.  From an author’s point of view these are points for concern.  Valuable advertising opportunities are just not there when a book is on an e-reader.

On the other hand I think readers will be devouring more books than ever.  One only has to think of a book one wants, grab the Kindle and download it.  Instant gratification.  No more squeezing thick books on to thinning shelf space.  No more heavy holiday luggage or last minute trawls round airport bookshops.  Just a whole library in your pocket.

Review of ‘Monsters of Men’ (Chaos Walking Book 3) by Patrick Ness

Anyone like me who has just finished the last book of Patrick Ness’s amazing Chaos Walking trilogy will no doubt be experiencing the same symptoms: shock, sadness and a sigh of satisfaction at the perfect ending to what has been a long and exhilarating journey.

Monsters of Men by Patrick NessChaos Walking began with the prizewinning The Knife of Never Letting Go, which introduced us to New World, a freshly colonised planet where a ‘virus’ causes the thoughts of men and animals to be audible to all.  Only women are immune.  The tension caused by this phenomenon results in horrific events.

The story is told in two voices: Todd, a boy settler who is running away, and Viola, the only survivor of a crashed scout ship.  Both are distinctive and real, especially Todd’s raw, uneducated voice which adds to the edgy, urban feel of the books despite their fantasy/SF setting.

Another distinctive feature of the books is the use of different typefaces for the ‘noise’ or audible thoughts of the men and animals, and also occasionally for sounds.  It is rather refreshing to see BOOM! written in giant letters on the page!  The effect aids the reader’s immersion into this strange place and is a graphical reminder of the confusion and, sometimes, madness, that is caused by hearing people’s innermost thoughts.

The villain of the books is Mayor Prentiss, a corrupt leader who at first pursues Todd but then tries to take him under his wing.  Like Todd, we are never quite sure whether the Mayor is telling the truth, and whether he is being cruel to be kind or has been completely corrupted.  The Mayor becomes more and more violent and the action in the book becomes more extreme until by book three we are in the middle of full scale war between two strands of settlers, and then between the settlers and the indigenous people of New World, the Spackle.

Book three also introduces Spackle 1017, or ‘The Return’, as he is known to his people, as a third voice in the narrative.  This is well handled and it was fascinating to see how Ness has built up the community of this telepathic alien race, but I couldn’t help racing through it just to get back to what Todd and Viola were doing.  I also found the battle scenes rather long initially; there is a lot of pressing forwards and retreating, winning and losing, rather than progressing with the plot.

However, half way through I was well and truly gripped.  All I could do was read and read, gobbling up the pages.  Would the Mayor change?  Had he poisoned the women?  Would Viola survive?  Could 1017 ever recover from his terrible experiences?  And could Todd and Viola finally save the current and future inhabitants of New World from total self annihilation?

The ending was perfect, the tone full of wonder, hope and sadness.  Readers, from young adult upwards, should approach the series with a sense of adventure, a brave heart and a strong stomach.  Explosions, attempted genocide, torture, suicide, mind control, murder, love, death, war, peace… Chaos Walking shows humanity at its most extreme.  A fascinating achievement.

Review of Skulduggery Pleasant – Dark Days by Derek Landy

I promised recently to review Skulduggery Pleasant – The Faceless Ones.  Well, time has moved in and I was lucky enough to receive MORE book tokens (thank you, thank you, thank you!) and so I returned to Waterstones to see the best bookshop assistant in the world and get the next book in the series – Dark Days.

Skulduggery Pleasant - Dark DaysFor anyone not familiar with the Skulduggery Pleasant series, each book is a separate adventure but also a continuation of the relationship between the deadpan skeleton detective and Stephanie aka Valkyrie Cain, the teenager who just loves kicking the hell out of zombies, vampires and even more undesirable beings.  In this, the fourth book, Valkyrie spends just a few short pages at home, despite the news that her parents are expecting another child.  She is determined to save the world from present and prophesied evil, and is more than adequate for the task with the help of Skulduggery, Tanith the buxom swordswoman, Ghastly Bespoke the disfigured tailor, China Sorrows the irresistible magical librarian, and various other brilliantly imagined and deftly named characters.  Valkyrie discovers the pains of first love, but also a hint of her possible future destiny – it’s not nice, of course.  Landy doesn’t do nice.   He does action, horror and dark humour – but never nice.  Even when Skulduggery is rescued from eternal torment as the plaything of the Faceless Ones, it takes until almost the end of the book for him to hug Stephanie and say thank you.

Landy takes a risk with this book, as the first ninety pages do not feature Skulduggery at all, and it does feel a little flat until Skulduggery and Stephanie are reunited.  However, after this the magic seems to return and the tension builds as the baddies unite to form a Revenger’s Club and… well, get revenge.  On Stephanie, on the Sanctuary (the seat of power in the magic underworld) and on 80,00 spectators at Ireland’s Croke Park stadium, just to make a point.  As usual there’s some great fight scenes including a chase through a basement of vampires.  There is also a deeper threat running through the story; a being called Darquesse is coming and if you thought things were bad for Stephanie now they are going to get worse – much worse.

Even though it still delivers a punch, the formula has become a little familiar and I imagine that as the fourth book it will only attract readers who have enjoyed the other three.  I admire Landy’s reluctance to include backstory from the previous books but it can sometimes be confusing to remember which villain is which and what their powers are.  And I would have liked Stephanie’s homelife to feature more so I could see how she still manages to juggle life in her two worlds.  Despite these reservations I still thoroughly enjoyed the read, and the stunning discovery Stephanie makes at the end took me completely by surprise, so I’ll definitely be continuing on Valkyrie’s journey.  My 12 year old son has started the first book so it will be interesting to see if he keeps up with the series too.

Review of The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt

The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt attracted me at once with its creepy cover showing a sinister wooden doll pointing at a card marked ‘Lies’ while another one marked ‘Truth’ lies beside it.  Essentially it is a breath-snatching chase through a fantasy land where life is hard, people are cruel and dangerous and a toymaker can cut up animals and put their hearts in his creations.

The ToymakerThe two main characters, magician’s helper Mathias and maid Katta, spend most of the book on the run from a vicious, murderous dwarf and his master Leiter, who is searching for a piece of paper that belonged to Mathias’s supposed grandfather.  Their escapes are narrow and both suffer terribly through the book.  There are few sympathetic characters apart from the children; adults are selfish, manipulative and frequently violent.  Without giving too much away, the book ends with the death of one of the main characters.  Taking these points into consideration, I won’t be passing it on to my twelve year old son to read as I think he would find it too distressing, although horror fans of that age will probably lap it up the gory details.

My other concern with this book is the way it ends.  Research online does not reveal it is the start of a series and yet that is exactly how it reads.  There is a late plot development which reveals the real reason behind the chase, but to me it feels too late and so it is unconvincing if this book is to stand alone.  I also feel the title is misleading; again, unless it is the start of a series, the Toymaker does not play much part in the actual story.  I would like to have found out more about Marguerite, the doll who can tell truth from lies, and again she is given prominence on the cover but takes a small part in the actual tale.  I was left feeling frustrated that the plot had really just begun and I was being pushed back out of the story.

The author writes beautifully and he has a real sense for the macabre; the atmosphere is chilling and the escape scenes nail-bitingly thrilling.  A longer book with a resolution, or packaging of the book as the first in a series, would make the experience more complete – although I would still only recommend it for children with a strong stomach and the emotional maturity to cope with a traumatic ending.

Review of Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

LeviathanAs a big fan of Scott Westerfeld‘s Uglies series (think post-apocalyptic world controlled by plastic surgery of both body and mind) I was eager to begin this new venture into the wonderfully bizarre imagination of an exciting and relevant YA author.

Typically the reader is thrown straight into the scenario and left to piece together information as quickly as they can – quickly, because the story progresses at a romp.  It’s best not to ask too many questions to begin with but accept you are in safe hands and let the adventure whisk you along.

Our two daring heroes are Alek and Deryn.   Alek is the runaway orphaned heir to Austro-Hungary while Deryn is a newly qualified midshipman for the British Empire – only she happens to be a boy in disguise.  This being Westerfeld world, we are not in the First World War as you might suppose but a war between Darwinists (those countries which use fabricated animals instead of machines or vehicles) and Clankers (countries relying on increasingly elaborate machines).  Alek travels in a Walker, a huge two legged machine he struggles to master, while Deryn thrills to the experience of working on the Leviathan, a massive whale-like creature with its own colonies of bats, dogs and bees and jelly-fish like creatures, all designed to work together to keep the British Empire in the skies.

Although the vision of the world is fascinating, the first half of the book consists of the two characters moving slowly towards each other, and it isn’t until Alek and Deryn finally meet that the book lights up with Westerfeld’s characteristic electricity.  Their burgeoning friendships and the secrets they hide are the real heart of the book.  However, there are enough thrills and spills to excite any reader whether they are willing romance to happen or not.  The fabricated creatures are a delight, while Alek’s attempts to come to terms with his new role in the war and Deryn’s struggles to hide her true nature are gripping.  The book finishes at a gallop with the plot all ready to bound straight into the sequel, Behemoth, which has just come out in hardback.

Notes for writers

I have decided to follow Debby Holt’s tip of taking note of writing tips from each book I read, so these are the pointers I’ve picked up from Leviathan.

  • Never a dull moment – if there is one, delete it!
  • Each character has an internal conflict as well as an external one.
  • Use unique ways of talking.  Deryn has her own swear words: “Barking spiders!”
  • Stay with your main characters.
  • Create a constant state of suspense.
  • Devise a world with rules, but make it something you can have fun with.