Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

Swamplandia!, Karen RusselSwamplandia! by Karen Russell

First Published: 2011

Pages: 316 (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Rating: 4/54/54/54/54/5

In the Florida Everglades, gator-park Swamplandia! is in trouble. Its star performer, the great beauty and champion alligator-wrestler Hilola Bigtree, has succumbed to cancer, and Ava, her resourceful but terrified 13-year-old daughter, is left in charge with her two siblings. But Ava’s sister has embarked on a romantic relationship with a ghost, her brother has defected to a rival theme park, and her father is AWOL. And then a mysterious figure called the Bird Man guides Ava into a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, promising he can save both her sister and the park…

Swamplandia! is an excellent book. It’s not necessarily the book you expect from the blurb but it is beautifully written, darkly humorous, and packs a hell of an emotional punch.

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The Affinity Bridge, George Mann

The Affinity Bridge, George MannThe Affinity Bridge by George Mann

First Published: 2008

Pages: 350 (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: Newbury & Hobbes #1


Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution.

Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, whilst ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen and journalists. But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where ghostly policemen haunt the fog-laden alleyways of Whitechapel, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where Sir Maurice Newbury , Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, works tirelessly to protect the Empire from her foes.

When an airship crashes in mysterious circumstances, Sir Maurice and his recently appointed assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes are called in to investigate. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard is baffled by a spate of grisly murders and a terrifying plague ravaging the slums of the city.

So begins an adventure quite unlike any other, a thrilling steampunk mystery and the first in the series of Newbury & Hobbes investigations.

This book has all the ingredients for a fun steampunk romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously: zombies, automatons, airships, a ghostly murderer, Queen Victoria being kept alive by crazy steampunk science! Unfortunately, somewhere in the putting all those elements it all went horribly, horribly wrong. The plot is there, but my god, these are the blandest flattest characters I’ve read in a long long time. The dialogue is clunky and sometimes painful, oscillating between modern and exaggeratedly faux-victorian. The narrative can’t decide if it’s third person limited or third person omniscient, flicking between character perspectives randomly for a paragraph or two with no warning before flicking back… It’s not good writing. And that’s a shame because the plot, clichéd and predictable though it might be, would have been fun otherwise. There’s even a germ of fun to be found in the basic characters of Newbury and Hobbes but that is quickly extinguished by their poor execution. Continue reading

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The Blood of Olympus, Rick Riordan

Blood of Olympus, Rick RiordanThe Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan

First Published: 2014

Pages: 514 (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: Heroes of Olympus #5

Rating: 4/54/54/54/54/5

Seven Heroic Demigods.
One Final Quest.
The Greatest Sacrifice Yet.

‘The ruins are up there,’ Piper promised. ‘I saw them in Katoptris’s blade. And you heard what Hazel said. “The biggest -“‘
‘”The biggest gathering of evil spirits I’ve ever sensed,”‘ Jason recalled. Yeah, sounds awesome.’

After surviving many deadly quests, Percy, Jason, Annabeth and their friends face one final challenge: defeat an army of giants before the Earth Mother, Gaia, finally awakes and brings about the end of the world…

It finally came out in paperback! Which means I am finally finished with the Percy Jackson/Heroes of Olympus series. Sad days! Heroes of Olympus took a couple of books to really grow on me, I did not love it instantly in the same way I loved Percy Jackson, and I still think the previous series is superior, but I grew to love HoO and its characters far more over these five books than I was ever expecting when I picked up The Lost Hero. And I am genuinely sad to see it end.

The Blood of Olympus, concludes the story of the fight against Gaia (Mother Earth) and her giant offspring’s attempts to weaken the gods by setting their Greek and Roman aspects off against each other, and destroy the world. The time for Gaia’s resurrection is finally drawing close and our cast of Greek and Roman heroes must race against time across Greece to the Acropolis at Athens to prevent it, knowing that at least one of them is prophesied  not survive the encounter. Meanwhile our secondary heroes, Nico and Reyna, must return to America to forge peace between the Greek and Roman camps before they wipe each other out.

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Unseemly Science, Rod Duncan

Unseemly Science, Rod DuncanUnseemly Science by Rod Duncan First Published: 2015 Pages: 346 (Paperback) Form: Novel Series: The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #2 Rating: 4/54/54/54/54/5

In the divided land of England, Elizabeth Barnabus has been living a double life – as both herself and as her brother, the private detective. Witnessing the hanging of Alice Carter, the false duchess, Elizabeth resolves to throw the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook into the fire, and forget her past. If only it were that easy! There is a new charitable organisation in town, run by some highly respectable women. But something doesn’t feel right to Elizabeth. Perhaps it is time for her fictional brother to come out of retirement for one last case…? Her unstoppable curiosity leads her to a dark world of body-snatching, unseemly experimentation, politics and scandal. Never was it harder for a woman in a man’s world…

The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, the first book in Rod Duncan’s steampunk series, The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire, was one of my surprise favourite reads of last year. It had so much to love; a competent (crossdressing!) and pragmatic heroine, a genuine female friendship, gripping plot, fun victorian/steampunk trappings, limited hints at future romance, and wonderful alternate-history world-building. And all set in a part of the UK that I was pretty familiar with too (Leicester pride!). It had literally all the things I never even realised I wanted when I picked it up as a light holiday read. The sequel is not as strong. It is slower to jump into the ‘main’ plot and there is a lot more going on. For the first half of the book it relies more on the character of its protagonist, Elizabeth Barnabas, than it does on fast paced action (though there’s still plenty), and isn’t as instantly gripping ‘what’s going to happen next!?’ as the first book. But actually, I’m pretty fine with that. I love Elizabeth and I don’t object at all to spending more time in her head with her thoughts. Continue reading

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Night Watch, Terry Pratchett

Night Watch, Terry PratchettNight Watch by Terry Pratchett

First Published: 2002

Pages: 364 (Hardback)
Form: Novel
Series: Discworld #29
Subseries: The City Watch #6

Rating: 5/55/55/55/55/5

Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch had it all. But now he’s back in his own rough, tough past without even the clothes he was standing up in when the lightning struck.

Living in the past is hard. Dying in the past is incredibly easy. But he must survive, because he has a job to do. He must track down a murderer, teach his younger self how to be a good copper and change the outcome of a bloody rebellion. There’s a problem: if he wins, he’s got no wife, no child, no future.

A Discworld Tale of One City, with a chorus of street urchins, ladies of negotiable affection, rebels, secret policemen and other children of the revolution.

Truth! Justice! Freedom!
And a Hard-boiled Egg!

A reread in memory of Terry Pratchett. RIP.

I was first introduced to Terry Pratchett when I was twelve. My big sister was playing Ysabell in a year 10 house play production of Mort. Neither of us were familiar with Discworld at the time, but she borrowed the book from the student director and I borrowed the book from her. And that was it. It was wonderful and clever and different from anything I had read before.

Over the next few years I attempted to complete the whole series of (then) around 25 book. With no budget for buying books, and so many to read, I borrowed them from the town library, the school library, the earlier mentioned student director (who was then dating my sister and thought he was only lending them to her), and once I had older male admirers of my own, from them as well.I can’t remember what order I ended up reading them all in, but it was whatever was available at the time, and most certainly not the ‘correct’ order. I read Carpe Jugulam before Wyrd Sisters and got confused by the change of cast, and Feet of Clay before Guards! Guards! and was distressed to find Angua not in the earlier book. The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic (the first two books in the series) were the final books I read in my catch up – which was probably good as they are by far the weakest. But throughout this disorganised mishmash or chronology and characters there was one subseries, and one character, who always remained my favourites. The City Watch, and Commander Samuel Vimes.

I watched the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork shrink and grow and shrink and grow as I erratically read whatever I was able to get hold of at that moment. Only when I had caught up – and my parents had caught up enough on mine and my sister’s shared love of the series to start buying them for us at Christmas – did I start to read them in order. And the first of these Christmas presents gifted to me rather than my sister, was Night Watch. I had finished it by boxing day morning.

Still, when I heard the news of Terry Pratchett’s death this Thursday, it was Guards! Guards! I sought out, and the excuse to finally read The City Watch series in the correct order. As I could not locate the book, however, I picked up Night Watch instead. And I think, even had I found the book I was initially looking for, Night Watch was the right choice. It’s one of the most poignant and most human stories in the whole series. A policeman and a murderer, sent back in time through a freak magical accident (more details on that in Thief of Time) to a time when the city watch was incompetent, the ruler of Ankh-Morpok relied on torture and secret police, and rebellion was brewing in the slums. And a young Sam Vimes needs to learn to become the man (and the policeman) he will be. Only one problem – the murderer’s first act is to kill the man who would teach him that, and potentially change the course of history forever. Its up to Commander Vimes to step into his mentor’s role, teach his younger self the morals of policing, and become the leader of a revolution he already knows is doomed.

But Vimes (wonderful Vimes!) never half-arses a job. And, as the timeline changes in subtle ways, he realises that perhaps things aren’t so doomed after all. If he does things right this time and learns from his past, maybe this time the revolution will be successful, the friends who died might live – but doing so would change his future forever; he would lose both his wife and his unborn child. And this is why Vimes is my favourite character in the whole of the Disc. It’s all exemplified in this one book. Although Vimes is grumpy and pragmatic and cynical and never fails to fight dirty, he will always always do what is right and he will follow a job through right to the end. He adores his wife, but that’s who he is, and he cannot let the people around him down by not trying his best. Its one of the more angsty, more depressing, and most beautiful Discworld books from what I regard the best period of Pratchett’s writing.

And as it deals with Commander Vimes travelling back into his own past, well prior to the events of Guards! Guards!, it serves my rereading from the beginning purpose even better than the first book of the series itself! It sets up what the characters and the city were like before Vimes’ meteoritic rise through the ranks better than any of the early books do, and I’m sure will make me appreciate just how much Vimes achieves in the rest of the series.

So 5 stars. Forever 5 stars. Funny, sad, and thoughtful. A good book for grieving a wonderful wonderful author and a brilliant person. RIP Terry Pratchett. You will be missed.

Sidenote: My copy of Guards! Guards! has now been found, the next two books are reserved from the library. This City Watch reread is totally happening! Watch this space! And I promise future reviews will try to be more about the book than this one.

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Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon, Nnedi OkoraforLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

First Published: 2014
Pages: 301
Form: Novel

Rating: 1.5/51.5/51.5/51.5/51.5/5

 A star fall from the sky. A woman rises from the sea. The world will never be the same.

Three strangers, each isolated by his or her own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the world-famous rapper. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering the beach outside Lagos, Nigeria’s capital city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before. But when a meteorite hits the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they’ve never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world…and themselves.

‘There was no time to flee. No time to turn. No time to shriek. And no pain. It was like being thrown into the stars.’

Normally, when I dislike a book as much as I disliked this one I get a sort of perverse pleasure out of going over all its flaws but not this time. This time I just feel bad. I desperately wanted to enjoy this book, there was so much in there that I liked and admired. The author is a woman of colour in a genre (sci-fi) that is still disproportionately weighted towards white men, and an author I’ve read widespread praise for too. It’s sci-fi set not in Britain or the US, but Nigeria (how often does that happen?). Almost the entire cast is black, the primary leads are both women (a scientist and an alien), and it touches on a hell of a lot of social issues; some that are topical specifically in Nigeria but many that are applicable everywhere (evangelical christianity, LGBT rights, prostitution, domestic violence, military rape culture, internet fraud…). But, in the end, and despite my attempts to like this book, I thought the best thing about it was its gorgeous cover.

I tried, I really fucking tried. And I still don’t want to completely dismiss the book because it’s at least interesting and experimental and different. But I still could not make myself like it. The characters fell flat, the narration felt dull, it was a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, the sic-fi elements were completely unbelievable, and nobody seemed to react to aliens in any way I would expect an actual human to. Continue reading

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Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing, Emma HealeyElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

First Published: 2014

Pages: 282
Form: Novel


Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen is a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One that everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone, except Maud . . .

Elizabeth is Missing is part mystery, part historical fiction and part family drama. But really what it’s about is Maud; an elderly woman slowly losing her memory to dementia. And the real strength of the book is not in the mysteries (which aren’t that hard to solve) but in the way Maud narrates the story. First person present tense – which I normally loathe –  works absolutely beautifully here for a woman not giving an account of something that has happened, but permanently stuck living in the moment (either in the present or in her 1940s childhood). The repetition, the contradictions,confusion, and denials of something she has already said all make her very sadly realistic as she progresses from ‘forgetful’ to in need of permanent care.

But, throughout the dementia; the blanks in her memory, the confusion over words, the occasional inability to recognise her own daughter, Maud maintains a strong and distinct personality of her own and is never ‘just’ a forgetful old lady. She’s not the sharpest tool in the box (even before the dementia) but she is likeable, funny, strong-willed, and tenacious. So once she’s decided that her friend, Elizabeth, is missing she does not let go of it as her carers and her daughter all tell her to, but determines to find her for herself. And, as she slowly loses grip on the present, trying to find Elizabeth brings back memories of her older sister, Sukey, who disappeared in 1946.

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