Sunday, January 29, 2006

Beginnings by Kelley Armstrong (Otherworld online novella)

Author: Kelley Armstrong
1st published: 2005

Beginnings is the 3rd online novella & prequel to Bitten by Kelley Armstrong. It charts how Elena & Clay first met in Toronto, where Elena was at university & Clay was teaching Anthropology, right up to the point where she is bitten.

Having read all the Women of the Otherworld series, I’ve often wondered about the start of their relationship, knowing how betrayed Elena felt for years afterwards. The story is written in chapters which alternate between Elena’s & Clay’s point of view, so you constantly get both sides of the story – a nice twist, as all the other stories, both books & e-fiction, have been from one character’s point of view only.

Reading it felt like getting to know old friends even better, getting all the secrets out in the open & seeing into their past in a way we have been unable to until now. It was such a good read that I managed to whiz through it all in one day, despite having a jam-packed schedule – I couldn’t wait to get back to it!

Excellent – even better than the previous 2 online novellas & a wonderful lead-in for those who haven’t yet read Bitten, as well as a nice look back for those who have.

Rating: 8

Ascension by Kelley Armstrong (Otherworld online novella)

Author: Kelley Armstrong
1st Published: 2005

Ascension is another prequel to Bitten & picks up where Savage left off, following Clayton’s life as a young man, as well as Jeremy’s rise through the ranks of The Pack. It gives an even more in-depth look at the relationship between Jeremy & his father, Malcolm, as well as the Pack hierarchy & goes some way towards explaining why Clay becomes so feared by Mutts everywhere (the dark past that is only hinted at in Bitten).

Even more action-packed that Savage, this one is a non-stop roller-coaster ride filled with treachery & betrayal, as well as showing just how the Pack was so reduced in size by the time Elena came along. This back history is a thrilling read & very much recommended whether or not you’ve already read Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series. Pick them up & you won’t put them down again in a hurry!

Rating: 8

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Savage by Kelley Armstrong (Otherworld online novella)

Author: Kelley Armstrong
1st Published: 2005

Savage is Armstrong’s first online novella & is a prequel to Bitten in that it follows Clay’s story, of how, as a boy, he became a werewolf & was subsequently found & taken in by Jeremy Danvers.

It was incredibly interesting to see the dark beginnings of Clay, who, as all Armstrong fans know, eventually grows up to be the main muscle of The Pack & Jeremy’s body guard as well as Elena’s lover. It’s entirely written in the first person, from Clay’s point of view. This is something that usually annoys the hell out of me in novels, but the Otherworld series seems to be the exception to the rule & I’ve barely noticed it while reading any of the books. Same goes for this novella.

It’s well-written, full of action & insight, & is completely engrossing – I literally sped through it despite currently reading another book at the same time. I found myself literally gagging to get to the next page & see what happens next, so much so that I’ve already begun reading the next online novella in the series, Ascension.

This is my introduction to online fiction & Armstrong’s approach seems to be a particularly good in that she asks for input from her fans & actually takes their ideas & opinions on board – it’s not every writer who would be so humble. Long may it continue & long may she write; both books & online fiction – there’ll always be an audience for it!

Rating: 7

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Devil in Gray by Graham Masterton

Author: Graham Masterton
ISBN # 0843953616
Publisher: Leisure Fiction
1st Published: 2004
355 pages

An attack on a young couple, expecting their first child, by an invisible assailant, & a retired US Army Officer, disembowelled by some seemingly satanic force. What connects them? Decker is the hardboiled cop in charge of these horrific murder cases where nothing seems to fit. Through it all, he is plagued by terrifying nightmares of a burning wood teeming with screaming soldiers, & continuous warnings from the ghost of his murdered girlfriend. Can he unravel the mystery & find the missing link before he becomes a victim himself? How can he apprehend the Devil when nobody can see him but a talented young girl with a very special gift?

This was the Book Club Forum Reading Circle choice for February, but I managed to nab myself a copy earlier than expected & so began ahead of schedule so I could pass it on to another member.

This was my introduction to Graham Masterton & I can certainly see the appeal. The horror is pretty, well, horrific, actually. The descriptions are incredibly vivid & I was plunged head-first into a mad whirlwind of action from the get-go. I actually exclaimed out loud, after reading the first chapter, “Wow! What an opening!”

It seemed to me that there were two definite halves to the book. The first half set the scene, leaving things seeming to be completely unconnected. It’s not until the 2nd half, when both the American Civil War & Santeria are brought fully to the fore that things really start to pull together, meaning it loses the feeling of disjointedness somewhat.

I don’t know a great deal about Santeria, but I think Masterton really did his homework. Even if he’s taken a few liberties here & there, the information behind it has remained, as far as I can see, on the actual beliefs & practices of this religion, so that nothing felt “fake”.

I think I may well be tempted to search out one or two other books by Masterton – I’ve heard a lot about Spirit, so perhaps that might be one to try. If this one is anything to go by, I think I should quite probably enjoy it a great deal. I don’t know how I managed to miss Masterton in the first place!

Rating: 6

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Author: Karen Joy Fowler
ISBN # CN132199
Publisher: QPD
1st Published: 2004
288 pages

When a group of six completely different people come together to read the books of Jane Austen, they find that each one has, as well as their own favourite book, their own Jane. As they read together, they grow together, & as their lives entwine through their love of Austen, they learn more about each other – & themselves. Through it all, loves are lost & found, intriguing secrets from the past revealed, & much discussion about a certain author & her books…

I’ve never read any Jane Austen. There, I’ve said it. I’m an Austen virgin! I saw the movie of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow (& also Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone) & was never inspired to take up the book. Now, however, having seen them through this book, I think I may well be forced to join the ranks of Austen-lovers the world over (I’ve already downloaded 3 of the 6 novels for future reading!). It’s always nice to find yourself hankering after another book because of reading one.

I could see quite clearly that one of the characters, Jocelyn, is the “Emma” of the group & suspect that those who have read Austen’s novels will see other folks from her world in this story (as it is, I took the test on Karen Fowler’s official site & turned out to be Grigg – the only man in the group & a sci-fi reader, so I guess it’s pretty much spot on – apart from me not being a man!).

Each chapter is another month with another book, seen through the eyes of the hosting group member & from this, I suppose, Austen readers would gather far more knowledge of these characters than I did, but still, I could see something of it for myself. Each month we learn a little more about them as they reveal more of themselves to each other (although I was never sure who the “narrator” was at any point – it was almost as if there was an invisible 7th member revealing the inner thoughts of the others).

It’s a delightful read, even if you know absolutely nothing about Jane Austen & her books, probably a whole lot more to recommend it if you have. Either way, once you’ve read this, I think you’ll want to go on & read the novels (I think I’ll be starting with Emma), whether they’re old favourites or something completely new to you. It’s one of those books that you pick up & then, when you finally put it down again, you find that you’ve sped through most of it & want to slow down, to hold off the end a while so you can enjoy it for longer. An incredibly easy read with insights to both books & the people that read them.

Rating: 7

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth

Author: Barry Unsworth
ISBN # 0140175741
Publisher: Penguin
1st Published: 1995
188 pages

A group of travelling players is touring England in 1390 in the years following the Black Death. Tired of presenting the usual Mystery& morality plays they decide to re-enact a murder that has recently taken place in the town they are visiting. This has unforeseen consequences as they are forced to confront the real story of death.

Morality Play was short listed for the 1995 Booker Prize - & rightly so! This is a finely crafted piece that feels very old & very much of the period in which it’s set. This is largely due to the 1st person telling – you can imagine the priest sitting by the fire in a darkened room, recounting his tale for the price of his supper.

Starting with a runaway priest, the reader is initially presented with a classically conceived “good” character caught in an act of wrong-doing. In joining a band of not-so-merry players to replace their newly-deceased friend, he is going against the Church & its teachings, effectively banishing himself from the possibility of Paradise when his end comes. But, in turn, the Players themselves, cast in their “un-Godly” roles by the Church, are the ones who find themselves entangled in a mystery that is seemingly beyond the inhabitants of the town where the murder of a boy, Thomas Wells, has shocked the community, & may find themselves in the position of morality against those who would usually wield it against them.

The twist in the tail was, I thought, a little obvious, but being caught up in the simplicity of the time, I didn’t mind & thought it wonderful that the author allowed the story to reach its natural conclusion unhindered. (I won’t divulge any of it here – it really would spoil it for you!). In a time when the only plays performed are the Mysteries or morality plays; for players to create a play that is, in essence, the very truth, is unheard of. The morale shown here is that if one lie leads to another, so, then, does one truth. For those who are willing to search for it, no matter what their initial motive, the truth will out!

Rating: 8

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Eagle & the Wolves by Simon Scarrow (Book 4)

Author: Simon Scarrow
ISBN # 0755301145
Publisher: Headline
1st Published: 2003
432 pages

In the summer of AD 44, tense undercurrents amongst the tribe of nominally friendly Atrebatans are ready to explode into open revolt. It falls to Centurions Macro and Cato to provide aged ruler Verica with an army. With a scratch force of raw recruits, unversed in the techniques of war, they must find and destroy a cunning opponent. But can they do this whilst surviving the deadly cross-currents of plotters threatening to destroy not only Macro and Cato, but all their comrades serving with the Eagles?

Following on from where When the Eagle Hunts left off, The Eagle & the Wolves sees Cato really come into his own. Although he still defers to the experience of Macro, he’s really starting to be noticed by those above him & this makes for interesting reading in itself.

As usual, I was thrown right into the thick of things from the outset. The battles were bloody; the skirmishes scarily real; the treachery of traitors tantalizingly close to the bone. This series just gets better & better! Scarrow never overplays his hand, giving enough detail to enmesh the reader completely in the story, without going overboard with the gore & military detail. You literally find yourself marching with the men in your mind; mourning the loss of those fallen in battle; celebrating the victories & lamenting the blows with the rest of the legionaries & their allies.

The action is tense & fast-paced, yet it never moves so quickly that any of the character-driven plot is lost – it’s all in perfect balance. This series ranks right up there alongside the likes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld & Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld – it’s that good!

Rating: 9

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Trace by Patricia Cornwell

Author: Patricia Cornwell
ISBN # 0751530778
Publisher: Time Warner
1st Published: 2004
489 pages

Against her own judgment and the advice of Benton Wesley and her niece, Lucy, Scarpetta agrees to return to Virginia as a consultant pathologist on a case involving the death of a fourteen-year-old girl. Accompanied by Pete Marino she finds the once familiar territory of her morgue and her department much changed, and the new Chief Medical Examiner treats her with disdain despite the obvious fact that he is in desperate need of her expertise. But professional as ever, she re-examines the evidence and proves the girl was murdered. She also finds trace evidence which matches that found on an accident victim and at the scene where one of Lucy's operatives was attacked. It is not only a forensic puzzle, but opens up the probability that someone is after those closest to Scarpetta.

The only Cornwell book I read prior to this one was Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed so Scarpetta, as a well-established character was new to me. I accepted that I wouldn’t know any of the back history & was looking forward to reading it, but found that there were several other issues I just couldn’t get past:

  1. It’s written entirely in the present tense, which is something I really don’t enjoy in a novel. I hate the feeling that it gives me – that I’m constantly narrating the story in my head. It prevents me from getting completely submersed in the plot.
  1. The first chapter, in its entirety is devoted to the demolition of a building where Dr Scarpetta once worked. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t care - I wanted to get on with the story.
  1. Constant repetition & over-statement of phrases (the words ‘rigor mortis has come & gone’ were written twice in as many pages – close enough together to make me think I’d actually re-read a page) & names (I don’t need to see the name ‘Edgar Allen Pogue’ in full over & over again – I got the reference to the poet the first time, thank you). This was also evident in the fact that, although she’d already stated several times that a certain young man was a young soldier wearing purple, she then had to re-state ‘the Fort Lee soldier in purple’. It gets tired really quickly.

I tried to persevere, but 14 chapters in I still didn’t really care about or identify with any of the characters or the petty office politics. In fact, the only character I even remotely liked was Marino, & he’d disappeared after about 2 chapters to Gods-only-know-where.

Technical jargon in crime thrillers doesn’t bother me, but I felt she was over-simplifying procedures even at this early stage & this is a book aimed at people who have read the previous titles in the series, so surely they have already established some basic knowledge of forensics & should be credited with a little intelligence.

I couldn’t get invested in any of it. I was left blank trying to work out the strained relationships & wading through dialogue that felt forced.

I’m sure that if I’d read the previous books, I might have enjoyed this, but I really don’t see myself bothering about them. Everything I liked about Portrait of a Killer is lacking here. I just don’t like the style. And there’s no way I’d be able to work my way through that many books if they’re all written in the present tense.

I hate to say it, but I’ve been beaten. I can’t finish it. Therefore, no rating – it wouldn’t be fair.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Dark Behind the Curtain by Gillian Cross

Author: Gillian Cross
ISBN # 0590703498
Publisher: Hippo
1st Published: 1982
199 pages

Colin Jackus is an unpopular loner; a trouble-maker who lashes out in a pre-emptive strike against anyone & everyone, so when he’s caught stealing school property, he is sentenced to perform in the school play – where an eye can be kept on him at all times & he will be forced to interact with others – as punishment. But during rehearsals for Sweeney Todd, strange things begin to happen. Something has been woken; something sinister in the wings, that lurks behind the curtain. Something must be done to put things right – after all, the show must go on!

This is a standard school-based ghost story aimed at kids of about 10-12 years old in the 1980’s. This means kids of about 6 or 7 now. It’s severely dated with references to tape decks & records (yes, those things that look like big black CDs & break when you drop them). That doesn’t mean to say it’s not well written; just that kids today probably wouldn’t really appreciate it when they’ve got real spine-tinglers that are bang-up-to-date & far more challenging.

It’s a nice bit of nostalgia for those of us who were kids in the 70’s & 80’s though – harking back to a slightly more innocent age (but only very slightly!) with a tale of a misunderstood kid who makes good & makes friends in the end.

It passes a couple of hours at least & is engaging enough to keep you occupied, but not really one to seek out unless you’re a fan of the author & want to complete your collection.

Rating 5/10

The Bad Mother's Handbook by Kate Long

Author: Kate Long
ISBN # 0330419331
Publisher: Picador
1st Published: 2004
365 pages

What do you get when you put three generations of women from the same family in the same house, with no men to act as buffers? You get flying hormones, raging arguments & a whole lot of love. Charlotte is 17 & stroppy; Nan is 79 & pretty much embarking on her 2nd childhood; & in the middle, there’s Karen, who at 33-years-old, thinks it’s about time she got to live her own life, rather than looking out for everyone else.

This funny, witty look at the ever-changing relationships between these 3 women is wonderfully handled & I found myself giggling every other paragraph. I found I could sympathise with each of the characters in turn, even when they were at logger-heads with each other, & I was constantly looking forward to how the next disastrous moment would play out. Having each chapter broken into sections told by each of them in turn also gives a unique perspective on the situation at hand & means the reader is often one small step ahead of the characters in terms of what they’re thinking, but never in terms of where the story is leading. Very cleverly done.

It’s not the kind of book I would usually choose to read, but, after hearing good things from others, when it came up in a swap, I grabbed it & I’m very glad I did. It’s an entertaining read that whiles away the hours nicely. I’d recommend it as either a beach-read or something to get into on one of those days when you’re just not feeling your best – it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face, no matter how low you’re feeling when you start.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

Author: Kate Mosse
ISBN# 0752860534
Publlisher: Orion
1st Published: 2005
525 pages

Three secrets. Two women. One Grail.

The premise is simple – a woman stumbles upon a secret that could change the world, but she has no idea what it, or what her connection to it, actually is. She must unravel a mystery that transcends time & prevent the knowledge falling into the wrong hands. But who can she trust? It is a journey that will take Dr Alice Tanner not only back & forth across France, but time itself. Destiny can only take you so far before you have to make the decision to take the final step for yourself…

Have you ever been on a really big roller coaster? You sit there, strapped into your seat, & you slowly make your way to the top, but you don’t notice, because you’re too busy taking in the scenery. Then suddenly, it’s all whooshing past at a whizzy-fast pace & you’re clinging on for dear life.

That’s exactly what it’s like to read Labyrinth: At 525 pages in hardback, this is a long book that slowly winds its way through the story at a steady pace, getting you hooked on the perfectly executed intricacies of the story & then suddenly, you’re at the pinnacle & everything is happening at once.

Yet it never once lost me.

Mosse has created a wonderful cast of characters set in two very distinct times: The 13th century, & the modern day, with a unique blurring of the two which is quite exquisite. The focus of the modern-day tale is Dr. Alice Tanner, who is a volunteer on an archaeological dig in France & unwittingly discovers a link with the past via a cave in the Sabarthe mountains. Our 13th century heroine is Alais Pelletier du Mas, living in Carcassona in the Pay d’Oc. The two share a fate which has been labyrinthine in the making.

I got completely involved in the lives of both the historical- and modern-day characters; so much so, that they began to feel like old friends & I wanted my visit with them to continue. Before I realised it, I’d managed to spread my reading over little more than a week – I didn’t want it to end! I know I’ll want to revisit this book again & again.

The mystery is compelling; the writing, sublime.

The front cover carries a quote from Val McDermid, which says, “Eat your heart out, Dan Brown, this is the real thing.” I’d like to take that further. If The Da Vinci Code is like whipped cream – tasty, but light, Labyrinth is like the finest Jersey clotted cream – rich, delicious & a treat of substance. This is truly a book for book-lovers.

Rating: 8/10