Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

Author: Louise Welsh
ISBN # 1841955329
Publisher: Canongate Books
1st Published: 2004
149 Pages

It’s 1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war it’s a desperate place where strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge.

Poet, playwright and spy, Christopher Marlowe has three days to live. Three days in which he confronts dangerous government factions, double agents, necromancy, betrayal and revenge in his search for the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer who has escaped from between the pages of Marlowe’s most violent play . . .

Tamburlaine Must Die is a swashbuckling adventure story of a man who dares to defy both God and state and discovers that there are worse fates than damnation.

Welsh’s style is elegantly lyrical and instantly embroils the reader in the hedonistic and frantic final days of Christopher Marlow, whose death in a Deptford house is shrouded in some mystery to this very day. There’s just enough intrigue to hold the plot for this short novella, so Welsh was wise not to try and expand it to full novel length – it would have felt stretched and forced.

A nice way to pass an idle afternoon.

Rating: 6

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philipa Gregory

Author: Philippa Gregory
ISBN # 0006514006
Publisher: Harper Collins
1st Published: 2001
529 Pages

Mary Boleyn catches the eye of Henry VIII when she comes to court as a girl of fourteen. Dazzled by the golden prince, Mary’s joy is cut short when she discovers that she is a pawn in the dynastic plots of her family. When the capricious king’s interest wanes, Mary is ordered to pass on her knowledge of how to please him to her friend and rival: her sister Anne.

Anne soon becomes irresistible to Henry, and Mary can do nothing but watch her sister’s rise. Anne stops at nothing to achieve her own ambition. From now on, Mary will be no more than the other Boleyn girl. But beyond the court is a man who dares to challenge the power of her family to offer Mary a life of freedom and passion. If only she has the courage to break away – before the Boleyn enemies turn on the Boleyn girls…

With The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory offers a tantalising glimpse at the life of one of history’s forgotten women – Mary Boleyn, younger sister of Anne who would go on to become Queen of England. The history of this story is interesting enough, but the richness of description and depth of character development mean that this is more than merely interesting to read – its compulsive!

I found myself able to sympathise with all three of the Boleyn siblings, in particular George, who has to deny his own sexuality and performs above and beyond the call of duty to further advance his beloved sister (although just how far he is willing to go would seem too far by any normal standard).

Mary’s predicament – of being both very young and very married – when presented to the King by her own family as a potential lover, is horrifying to say the least. That a family could be so coldly calculating in their ambition as to force their own daughters into such a precarious position is difficult to believe, and yet history itself tells us it is so – the Boleyns and the Howards were determined to see their fortunes rise by whatever means possible.

It makes for a tale that is both chilling and heart-warming in turn, set against the lavish background of the Tudor court that is so colourful and bright that the reader is lost in the madness of corruption and power plays. If Gregory’s other works are anything like this one, then I will heartily recommend picking them all up as soon as possible.

Rating: 8

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Troll Fell by Katherine Langrish

Author: Katherine Langrish
ISBN # 0007170718
319 pages
Publisher: Collins
1st Published: 2004

Peer Ulfsson stood miserably at his father's funeral pyre, watching the sparks whirl up like millions of shining spirits streaking away into the dark. But someone else is also at the funeral. Peer's half-uncle, Baldur Grimsson. Peer watches helplessly as Uncle Baldur sells his father's property and pockets the money. Peer is then forced to move away from the world he knows in Hammerhaven, and live with his two half-uncles at their mill near Troll Fell. Peer hopes his other uncle will be more welcoming and less ferocious than Baldur, but Baldur is an identical twin, and Grim Grimsson is just as mean-spirited and greedy as his brother.

Peer lives a life of servitude, with only the company of his faithful dog, Loki, until he meets spirited Hilde, whose family farm on Troll Fell, and Nis, his uncles' house spirit. Between them, they must foil a plot by the Grimsson brothers to sell one boy and one girl to the trolls who live on Troll Fell. But the Grimssons want riches, and they will do anything to get them. And as everyone knows, trolls are rich… but they are also cunning.

Troll Fell is everything that a good children’s book should be; well written, on the level and with a wonderful plot with a basis in traditional folk stories. The characters are well developed and sympathetic (or suitably nasty where they should be) and the atmospherics provide just enough jolt to give a kid a kick whilst still having the reassurance that everything will work out fine in the end.

It’s incredibly easy to read and I suspect this would be true for readers of any age, from 7 to 70 and beyond! I found myself completely immersed in a world where Trolls under the hill are accepted as a part of normal, everyday life; where Granny Greenteeth waits to pull naughty children who wander too near the water under the surface to her lair; where children are expected to pull their weight and help support the family, obey their parent and be respectful towards their elders.

This traditional tale of friendship, adventure and triumph against adversity is a carefully crafted piece of work that will set any child’s heart and mind racing with possibilities.

The sequel, Troll Mill, is also now available in both hardback and paperback.

Rating: 7

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Author: Meg Rosoff
ISBN # 0141318015
211 pages
Publisher: Penguin
1st Published: 2004

Daisy is sent from New York to England to spend a summer with cousins she has never met. They are Isaac, Edmond, Osbert and Piper. And two dogs and a goat. She's never met anyone quite like them before - and, as a dreamy English summer progresses, Daisy finds herself caught in a timeless bubble. It seems like the perfect summer. But their lives are about to explode.

Falling in love is just the start of it. War breaks out - a war none of them understands, or really cares about, until it lands on their doorstep. The family is separated. The perfect summer is blown apart. Daisy's life is changed forever - and the world is too.

How I Live Now was short listed for the Orange Award for New Writers, but I’m not altogether sure why. It’s an unusual book with an unusual style, but I have to admit that it was this very style that jarred most with me. It’s written as a constant stream of thought from a 15-year-old girl’s mind with no quotation marks to distinguish dialogue from the rest of the text, which had me itching to take a red pen to the pages. The only indication that anyone’s speaking is when a Capital Letter suddenly appears mid-sentence, immediately preceded by “*insert character name here* said,” which can get annoying when you’re as anal about grammar as I am at times.

The story itself didn’t quite convince me either: A mother allowing her 14-year-old son to openly smoke and drive the family car from somewhere in the middle of the countryside to London and back to pick up her 15-year-old niece from the airport just didn’t feel right. Nor did this woman disappearing on a business trip abroad, leaving her four children and niece alone in the house seem like normal behaviour. But the aspect that disappointed me most wasn’t any of this; it was the inclusion of a stereotypical Wicked Stepmother, which I thought was rather a lazy plot device.

Then there was the outbreak of war, perpetrated by terrorists simultaneously on all continents – it just seemed a little too far-fetched that all airports would simply be shut down immediately with no effort to get people back to their own countries.

So, yes, I had a bit of a problem getting to grips with a lot of what happens in this book.

Its main redeeming feature is Rosoff’s refusal to romanticise or soften, in any way, the burgeoning relationship between Daisy and Edmond. The illicit, underage sex between cousins and then the formation of the bond between Daisy and Piper could have turned into so much sentimental sop, but it didn’t. It’s a bold, brave attempt at some realism within an unrealistic setting and that’s something rather admirable.

All in all, I did rather enjoy How I Live Now, although I’m not sure I quite got the point of it. Still, it’s worth a read just to see how much the portrayal of teen relationships has changed since the likes of Enid Blyton.

Rating: 6

Friday, February 17, 2006

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Piccoult

Author: Jodi Piccoult
ISBN # 034083546X
Publisher: Hodder
1st Published: 2004
407 pages

Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, & injection to help her sister, Kate, fight leukaemia. Anna was born for this purpose, her parents tell her, which is why they lover her even more. But now she can’t help but wonder what her life would be like if it weren’t tied to her sister’s… and so she makes a decision that for most, at any age, would be too difficult to bear, & sues her parents for the rights to her own body.

My Sister’s Keeper is very cleverly written – in the first person from multiple points of view. In this way, the reader is never allowed to get bogged down in any one character’s thoughts or emotions, but is forced to open themselves to the vulnerabilities of each of them.

It’s a story that really makes you think, long & hard, about all sorts of moral & ethical dilemmas & consider what your own actions might be under similar circumstances, which, of course, is impossible to do unless you are smack-bang in the middle of it yourself.

Piccoult doesn’t allow the seriousness of the subject to darken the tone at all & her style remains light enough to keep this from being an incredibly depressing tome & instead it comes across as something light & emotionally inspiring, & it features some of the most evocative passages I have read in a very long time – Anna’s own creation myth is something completely surprising & is both beautiful & sad; giving a very telling glimpse into her state of mind.

I won’t lie & say I didn’t see the twist in the tale coming, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried real tears anyway, because although I didn’t want it to be so, it was the most fitting way for things to happen.

My Sister’s Keeper is something rather special & will linger in the memory long after the final page has been turned. The characters are all flawed, all sympathetic, & all human – their portrayal is incredibly real & you can’t help imagining their lives continuing outside of the story we get to see. I can only hope they’re happy.

Rating: 9

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Eagle's Prey by Simon Scarrow (Book 5)

Author: Simon Scarrow
ISBN # 0755301161
Publisher: Headline
1st Published: 2004
468 pages

It is over a year since the Roman army landed on the shores of Britain. The savage warriors of the barbarian leader Caratacus continue to torment the legions. Emperor Claudius needs a victory to make his position safe. As the Romans gather on the eve of the battle they are confident that a final, decisive, blow will surely annihilate the British leader. But the battle does not follow the expected course and the most ruthless army in the known world prepares to inflict dreadful punishment on the very men who could bring the long campaign in Britain to a triumphant conclusion.

I don’t know what to say. I honestly don’t! The entire series so far has been wonderful but this, the fifth in the series, surpasses all expectations. Scarrow’s style is, at one & the same time, raw & visceral, yet ordered & clean – perfect for the subject matter, reflecting both the barbarism & the precision of war.

This episode had me in fear for the lives of our leads, more-so than ever before. I finally realised that Scarrow could conceivably kill off the heroes; leaving the other characters he has developed alongside them to carry the story, & the burden of their roles within it, alone. I empathised both with the defending Britons, fighting for their freedom in their own land, & the Romans, following their orders to make Britain a province of Rome & win a victory for their Emperor, as well as honour for themselves.

I was shocked by the portrayal of the Romans as barbaric in contrast to the empathy of the Britons. The decimation* of an entire cohort because of one man’s incompetence was such a terrifying ordeal that I could barely believe this was an actual practice. The description had me almost in tears to think of it.

The Eagle’s Prey has everything you could want & more from an historical fiction – action, adventure, glory & defeat; it ticks every box with aplomb & deserves the very highest of accolades.

Rating: 10

* One man in ten would be chosen, by lottery, to be beaten to death by his comrades as punishment for a major incompetence & to set an example that would not be forgotten. The entire cohort (or even the entire legion) would then bear the shame of decimation until they could be redeemed by an act of sheer courage beyond that usually expected. Basically, nothing short of a miracle would wipe this blight from their records.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Author: Diana Gabaldon
ISBN# 0099911701
Publisher: Arrow Books
1st Published: 1991
863 pages

In 1945, Claire Randall is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon in Scotland. Innocently she walks through a stone circle in the Highlands, and finds herself in a violent skirmish taking place in 1743. Suddenly she is a Sassenach, an outlander, in a country torn by war and by clan feuds. A wartime nurse, Claire can deal with the bloody wounds that face her. But it is harder to deal with the knowledge that she is in Jacobite Scotland and the carnage of Culloden is looming. Marooned amid the passion and violence, the superstition, the shifting allegiances and the fervent loyalties, Claire is in danger from Jacobites and Redcoats - and from the shock of her own desire for James Fraser, a gallant and courageous young Scots warrior. Jamie shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire, and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

Cross Stitch (published in the US as Outlander, which is, in my opinion, the far better title) is the first in the Outlander series & what a beginning it is! This is quite the freshest & most exhilarating read I’ve had in a very long time, & that’s really saying something! Living in Scotland & having visited some of the places mentioned brought it all that much closer to home & I was able to fully immerse myself in this unusual tale that transcends time. The fact that the “modern” portion of the plot takes place in the past (post-war) only made it seem all the more plausible & I was quite happy to accept that someone might be able to step through a stone circle & find themselves out of their own time by 200 years or so (I always knew there was a definite purpose to stone circles!).

Throughout the story, I could feel Claire’s struggle to reconcile the aspects of her unique position. Should she use her knowledge of the future to shape events & prevent the deaths of many innocent people, or should she let time take its own course & leave history intact? Is her very presence in the past affecting the outcome of future events & is she endangering the existence of people in her own time? It’s a dilemma that devils her constantly.

There is such passion in Gabaldon’s writing that it was easy to lose myself in her vision of the Highlands & I found myself falling in love with Jamie just a little bit, as he is described in such a way that, even with all his faults & foibles, he’s pretty much irresistible. I wanted to put off finishing this book forever, just so I would have more of it to look forward to the next day, at the same time, I found it nigh-on impossible to actually out it down, torn as I was!

I will most certainly be picking up the rest of this series as soon as I have the funds to do so & will happily let myself be carried along by Gabaldon as she weaves her rich tapestry of words.

An absolute must-read.

Rating: 9

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Case of the Four & Twenty Blackbirds / I Cthulu by Neil Gaiman

Author: Neil Gaiman

The Case of Four & Twenty Blackbirds is a work of pure, unadulterated genius! It takes a background of Nurseryland & sets in it a gripping gumshoe story – Humpty Dumpty is dead & it may not have been an accident. It’s up to Jack Horner (small of stature) to investigate in true film-noir style. It’s quite the most inventive thing I’ve read in ages & hilarious to boot – really you must go & read it for yourself!

I Cthulu wasn’t really to my taste, but that could be because I’ve never actually read any Lovecraft. I’m certain that anyone who’s read The Call of Cthulu will be able to tell you exactly how funny this piece it. As it is, it gave me a giggle, but little more.

Both are available at Neil Gaiman’s official website.

Rating: 9 & 6

Bampot Central / Mellow Doubt / Playground Football / Out of the Flesh by Christopher Brookmyre

Author: Christopher Brookmyre

These short stories are all typical of Brookmyre’s style, with a certain acerbic wit evident throughout that keeps you giggling no matter how serious the situation, whether it’s a Post Office robbery (Bampot Central), a wanted assassin going after child kidnappers (Mellow Doubt), a tale of how to catch a thief (Out of the Flesh) or the out-&-out seriousness of playing footie when you’re a kid (Playground Football).

One thing they all share is a unique Scottishness about them that, surprisingly, doesn’t grate on the nerves at all – not even when the dialogue is actually written with a Scottish accent. They also show a progression of talent – Brookmyre really does keep getting better & better, as anyone who has read all his books can testify. He’s honing his craft as he works, tweaking here & there so that he produces something entirely worthy of everyone’s attention every time.

It’s no secret that Brookmyre is a favourite of mine. In fact, he’s the only overtly Scottish writer I can read & wholeheartedly enjoy - without fail, he never disappoints.

All four of these short stories are available at Christopher Brookmyre’s official site & some have appeared in publications at various points.

Rating: 7

Truth & Consequences / The Halloween House by Kelley Armstrong

Author: Kelley Armstrong
1st Published 2005

Truth & Consequences is another Otherworld online short story, which chronicles an incident briefly mentioned in Bitten (the one where Elena went after a con-man with proof of the existence of werewolves). Personally, I would have liked to see this included in the Otherworld Tales 2005 collection, as it would fit snugly with the rest of the stories there. It’s another well-written piece with the distinction of being in the 3rd person (unusual where The Pack is concerned – they’re usually written in the 1st person).

The Halloween House is completely unconnected, but a nice little teen mystery with a slight horror slant to it. It’s more a short study of changing relationships as children grow up, set against a normal, suburban backdrop with the obligatory “spooky house” down the street. It’s well-rounded tale, which has an easy appeal to it.

Both stories are only available on Kelley Armstrong’s official website.

Rating: 6

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Otherworld Tales 2005 by Kelley Armstrong (e-fiction)

Author: Kelley Armstrong
1st Published: 2005

Otherworld Tales is a little different from Armstrong’s other e-fiction, as rather than a novella, this time she chose to write a collection of short stories with some input from her fans. She polled her readers & they chose four Otherworld characters as well as four events mentioned or briefly alluded to in the books, while she chose the final four. This has led to a loving look into the lives of characters who fans have come to know very well & serves as fillers to the back story of the published books.

As such, if you haven’t already read the books, these won’t make any sense to you at all, as they are completely unconnected, so this would be of interest to existing fans only, but the final story, Bargain, leads on to her forthcoming novel, Broken, so if you intend to read this, read the books first, then read Otherworld Tales before its release in May this year.

Not as “complete” as her other online fiction, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Score: 6

American Gods (Author’s Preferred Text) by Neil Gaiman

Author: Neil Gaiman
ISBN # 0755322819
Publisher: Review
1st Published: 2001
635 pages

Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming -- a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path.

American Gods is the winner of several prestigious awards: Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, SFX & Locus. This goes some way to alerting the reader just how many different genres it spans. It doesn’t quite seem to know which genre it is part of – neither does anyone else – but that doesn’t matter. It’s well-written, pithy & witty, with well-drawn characters, & it draws on mythology from all around the globe before setting it in that most mysterious of all countries – America!

Gaiman’s style, though often dark, is surprisingly light-hearted throughout this lengthy novel & I found myself playing a fun game of “Spot the God” as I progressed. Large chunks of his thinking are similar to that of Terry Pratchett (his Small Gods & places of power theories in particular), &, indeed, Gaiman gives Mr Pratchett a nod of recognition early on in his lengthy acknowledgements.

With this being the extended “Author’s Preferred Text” version, there are some additional goodies in the shape of an interview with the author & a set of suggested questions for reading groups (a nice touch), as well as some 12,000 or so extra words in there, which the original publication back in 2001 did not have – a major bonus, I think, as you get a little more bang for your buck.

It’s a long book, even when not reading the extended version, but it’s a good, hearty read & there are a few twists & turns I wasn’t expecting, smattered throughout, rather than just the revelations at the end, which keep things interesting, as well as a few red herrings & a few more obvious plot points to keep you feeling smart.

Rating: 7