Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Eagle’s Prophecy by Simon Scarrow (Eagles series book # 6)

Title: The Eagle’s Prophecy
Author: Simon Scarrow

ISBN # 075530117X

Publisher: Headline

First Published: 2005

310 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: 9/10

It is spring 45 AD and Centurions Macro and Cato, dismissed from the Second Legion in
Britain, are trapped in Rome, waiting for their involvement in the death of a fellow officer to be investigated. It is then that the imperial secretary, the devious Narcissus, makes them an offer they can't refuse; to rescue an imperial agent who has been captured by pirates operating from the Illyrian coast. With him were scrolls vital to the safety of the Emperor and the future of Rome. However, Narcissus also sends Vitellius, an old enemy of the two centurions. The three officers set out from Ravenna with the imperial fleet but the pirates are forewarned and the Romans pay a heavy price. Outnumbered by the enemy, surrounded by rumours of treachery and endangered by Vitellius' desire to redeem himself, Centurions Macro and Cato must find the pirate base to avert a disaster that could destroy the Emperor.

Simon Scarrow is one of only a very few authors who have never once disappointed me and The Eagle’s Prophecy, sixth in the Eagles
series, is no exception. From the very start, there’s excitement, adventure and action, there are also excellent characters, heartily written and full of life, and a realism evident throughout the proceedings that sets one firmly in the thick of things with Centurions Macro and Cato as they embark on another important mission, fraught with danger, at the behest of the Emperor’s right-hand man, Narcissus.

There is character growth, complete with unforeseen revelations that have a major impact on all concerned, and sets things up very nicely for the seventh installment, The Eagle in the Sand, in a way that will have most readers running to the nearest bookshop to buy it as soon as possible. If all historical fiction were this good, I don’t think I’d ever read any other genre!

The Case of El Chupacabra by Kelley Armstrong (serialized e-fiction)

Title: The Case of El Chupacabra
Author: Kelley Armstrong

159 pages (PDF)

Format: e-fiction

Rating: 7/10

Sean Nast has a dilemma: he's party to a problem that ethically, he can't ignore, but intervening means "outing" himself to his family. He passes the case on to Lucas, who investigates.

Each year, Kelley Armstrong embarks on a creative project that will only be available on her website for free, so that anyone can read it at zero cost. In each case, the author has consulted with her fans on a wide range of aspects, from lead characters to basic plot outlines, leading to a work of fiction that involves the fans from start to finish. It’s a wonderful idea and one that Armstrong utilizes to maximum effect.

In this case, there is a progression of characters already introduced through the official, published volumes in the Women of the Otherworld series that sees one of the much younger characters, Savannah, growing up a great deal and it’s nice to have a little more focus shifting to her, showing that there’s definitely scope for a future book featuring her as the main character.

Posted in regular installments, the tension is kept at a very good level throughout, leaving cliffhangers at just the right points to keep readers interested and gets them to return for the next chapter – no easy feat when the project is spread over an entire year! The result, in this case, is a nifty little story that highlights one of the “species” from the otherworld that has previously only really had a cursory glance and whets the appetite for a future novel featuring the vampires more prominently.

It’s not quite as engaging as Armstrong’s novels, but it’s an interesting aspect of her writing that fans shouldn’t miss.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Buried Fire by Jonathan Stroud

Author: Jonathan Stroud
ISBN # 0099402475

Publisher: Red Fox

First Published: 1999

300 pages

Rating: 7/10

When Michael staggers home red-eyed and confused from an afternoon alone on the hill, his family suspect sunstroke, or even drugs. But the truth is more terrifying than that. By digging up a Celtic cross in the churchyard, church excavators have released the evil influences of a dragon long buried under the neighbouring hill, and powerful forces are at large Sinister neighbours have already yielded to the enticements of this power and are determined to make Michael one of their own. The fragile bonds that link Michael with his brother and sister are seemingly about to be destroyed in a fight for his soul...

I’m not usually a fan of “dragon fantasy”, but this one is a rare exception, as it draws strongly from British folklore of dragon slayers, such as the tale of St. George and the Dragon or the Lambton Worm, yet sets the action firmly in the present. It explores the themes of power at a price and the changes that occur as you grow up, meaning extra responsibility and the consideration of others in your actions, as well as exploring slightly supernatural themes. Stroud is very expressive and the language, although complex enough to engage older readers, is still simple enough to appeal to those just entering their teens.

The characters are slightly stereotypical, almost cartoonish, in places, but there remains a sense of grounded reality underneath, which keeps the plot anchored within the realms of the almost-possible. This is exactly the kind of fare that might entice boys to read a little more.

Hearts of Stone by Kathleen Ernst

Author: Kathleen Ernst
ISBN # 0525476865

Publisher: Dutton Children’s Books

First Published: 2006

248 pages

Rating: 7/10

With her father gone to join the Yankee troops and her best friend, Ben, sympathizing with the Confederates, fifteen-year-old Hannah finds her world torn apart by the Civil War. Then her mother suddenly dies. Now responsible for keeping the young family together, Hannah makes the difficult decision to leave
Cumberland Mountain with her brother and sisters, and set out on the long and dangerous journey to Nashville, in search of their only living relative. The quest to reclaim their family leads them into the very heart of the Civil War – and could cost them their lives.

Pitching books about the hardships of war at teenagers and young adults who might prefer the theme to be the excitement and danger of being in the thick of the action, so it’s unusual to find such a touching account of a young girl being forced to grow up very quickly in order to shoulder the burden of bringing up her three siblings as the American Civil War rages around them. Themes of abandonment, betrayal and trust are all central to the plot and the struggle just to survive under the most difficult of circumstances are brought to the fore – war is not glamorous, but dangerous, terrifying and confusing, much like growing up.

The language is almost poetic in places, with what feels like entire passages of evocative description condensed into a few sentences or, in some cases, a few words, to great effect – the reader really feels that they are in the thick of things, surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells experienced by the characters as they undertake an arduous journey.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
ISBN # 057122413X

Publisher: Faber and Faber

First Published: 2005

282 pages

Rating: 8/10

(Olympic Challenge –
Short listed for The Man Booker Prize 2005

In one of the most acclaimed and original novels of recent years, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewed version of contemporary
England. Narrated by Kathy, now thirty-one, Never Let Me Go hauntingly dramatizes her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always waited for her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.

This is one of those daring books that really pushes the boundaries in terms of the social issues it tackles. It’s uncomfortable to read, but still manages to draw one into the story in quite a personal way. I found myself identifying with the students of Hailsham, who were all completely resigned to their fate and never once even considered the possibility of just walking away and refusing to have their destinies foisted upon them.

In terms of action, there’s absolutely no heady excitement – the pace is quite gentle with milestones marked only by basic rites of passage as the students grow up, yet there’s always a sense of something bubbling under the surface and the future, although never really overtly mentioned, nor discussed in any detail, is something yet to come (almost like a reverse case of “jam tomorrow”, where everyone knows that the future is certain and just blindly accepts it. It’s this feeling of total acceptance that makes it such a tragedy.

It’s impossible to discuss this novel in even the very vaguest of senses without giving something away, and even if you already know a little of what to expect, it’s still rather hard-hitting and incredibly touching. This is one of those books that will stick in the memory for a long time after the last page has been turned.

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris

Author: Joanne Harris
ISBN # 0552770027

Publisher: Black Swan

First Published: 2005

506 pages

Rating: 8/10

A new year has just begun, and for the staff and boys of the school, a wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork and Information Technology rule the world and Roy Straitley, Latin master, eccentric, and veteran of St Oswald's, is finally - reluctantly - contemplating retirement. But beneath the little rivalries, petty disputes and everyday crises of the school, a darker undercurrent stirs. And a bitter grudge, hidden and carefully nurtured for thirteen years, is about to erupt. Who is Mole, the mysterious insider, whose cruel practical jokes are gradually escalating towards violence - and perhaps, murder? And how can an old and half-forgotten scandal become the stone that brings down a giant?

This is the complete opposite of Chocolat – no quiet French town and wandering single mothers here, but a town in England, where a young, working class girl works hard to become everything she is not, in short, a wealthy young boy attending a prestigious all-boys public school, setting into motion a sequence of events that could conceivably tear apart the school and the lives of everyone in it.

It’s terse, it’s dark, it’s mysterious and it’s enthralling. The pace never slackens and the characters are all well-drawn, even those who only appear briefly, so that none of them feel at all two-dimensional. A very well-rounded novel that is engaging and very entertaining.

The Nanny Diaries by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin

Author: Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin
ISBN # 014100892X

Publisher: Penguin

First Published: 2002

306 pages

Rating: 7/10

Nan, in her early twenties, goes to work for the wealthy X family to help put herself through college, and is shocked by their antics. Between raising the X's son Grayer, keeping on top of her studies, moving house and ensuring Mrs X's day runs smoothly, it's a wonder Nanny ever finds time to hang out with the gorgeous HH on the sixth floor. With divorce on the cards, Nanny finds herself caught up in the X's embittered world of power plays, lies and deciet. As communication rapidly breaks down, will Nanny be able to maintain the mental health of Grayer, despite the onslaught of Personal Problem Consultants, macrobiotic nutritionist and bilingual meals?

This book isn’t going to tax anyone’s brain, but sometimes a light bit of fluff is exactly what’s needed, and this is a fun look at a certain kind of family who hire a regular girl to look after a kid in a home that’s as child-unfriendly as can be. There’s a wry sense of humour here and one gets the feeling that the authors really are drawing from personal experience here, looking back on their own careers an nannies and having a good laugh about the ridiculous situations that are presented to the modern working girl.

It’s written in such a way that you can flick through it a few pages at a time during coffee breaks or on a commute, without ever feeling lost and has enough giggles included to consistently entertain. It’s not high comedy, but it has a gentleness to it, almost an innocence, that is quite appealing in an age where it’s more fashionable to read hard-hitting, gory, murder-mysteries.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
ISBN # 055299670X

Publisher: Black Swan

First Published: 1998

317 pages

Rating: 7/10

The Blurb:
Tilo owns a shop in Oakland, California, where she sells herbs and spices. But Tilo isn't just a shop keeper, she is also the Mistress of Spices. With her knowledge of their secret powers this high priestess of wisdom and magic helps customers find answers to the questions of love, loss and loneliness. But when Tilo herself falls in love with a visitor to her shop, she has to choose between personal happiness and keeping her mystical gift.

The Review:
There are books that, although nothing much happens, they still give the impression of many things bubbling under the surface – this is one of them. Not dissimilar to Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, this is a story of the magic in the mundane, only in this case, rather than trying to fit in and be “normal”, the narrator tries desperately to hang onto her mystery and magic, all the while battling her own desires in order to remain a Mistress of Spices. It’s a voyage of self-discovery, of living in a foreign land and trying to maintain the elements of home in a new country. It’s also, ultimately, a story of hope – that perhaps a woman really can have it all if she dares.

The style is at once flowing and jarring; a mix of flowing thought and halting speech that feels both familiar and foreign – a novel of extreme contrasts. The characters are fragile and all too human, afraid of losing their roots, but hoping for a better life in America than they had in India. There’s something absolutely charming about this story that I can’t quite put my finger on, almost as if one was under a spell while reading it that lingers after you’ve finished the last page. Absorbing, exotic and mysterious.

About the Author by John Colapinto

Author: John Colapinto
ISBN # 184115640X

Publisher: Fourth Estate

First Published: 2001

254 pages

Rating: 9/10

The Blurb:
Cal Cunningham dreams of writing an autobiographical novel that will help him escape from his life as a penniless bookstore stockboy in upper
Manhattan. Yet, after two years of living together, it is Stewart, Cal's studious flatmate who has finished writing a page-turning novel -- based on Cal's life. When a timely, fatal bicycle accident removes Stewart from the scene, Cal appropriates the manuscript as his own and places it in the hands of the legendarily ferocious literary agent Blackie Yeager. Soon Cal realises his most outlandish fantasies of literary success. That is, until he discovers that someone knows his secret. For Cal, this means plotting not just his second novel, but also his first murder.

The Review:
I may have found a new author to add to my list of favourites! This is the first book I’ve read by Colapinto and I have to say, I’m incredibly impressed – this is one of the best books I’ve read this year!

The writing is incredibly strong, the plot is inventive, thrilling and rather Hitchcockian in its approach, complete with a dark, satirical thread running throughout. From the outset, it feels very personal, like you’re chatting with an old friend who is regaling you with a tale of past misdemenors – it’s very engaging. I was compelled t take my time with it, savouring each chapter, every page, and found I was trying to jump ahead in my mind to work out what would happen next, but this kept me guessing all the way through.

To think that this was Colapinto’s debut novel is incredible – it shows the polish of a seasoned professional and a great deal of promise for his future projects - I’m now very excited at the prospect of reading more of Colapinto’s work!