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fantasy

Godblind : Anna Stephens

… brilliant grimdark fantasy …

grimdark fantasy

Exciting and well written, Godblind proves that debut novelist Anna Stephens can handle a multiple narrative epic with flare and skill. Roughly in the same field as George RR Martin‘s Game of Thrones series, there’s much intrigue, fighting and moral ambiguity with some charismatic personalities including Dom, the reluctant seer; Rillirin, the escaped slave, and Captain Crys Tailorson. Anna is a fantastic story teller and the novel packs enough twists amongst the battles and assassinations to keep the pages turning fast.

Having 10 characters’ view points was a challenge for me.  I would recommend choosing a moment when you can read a substantial amount in one sitting to establish as many of the characters’ story lines as possible.  In her blog, Anna reveals that her editor asked her to take four more strands out.  Thank you, Natasha the Editor.

As this is grim dark, there are some gruesome scenes including one particularly nasty sacrifice to the Red Gods  … so not for younger readers.

Recommended.

Anna Stephens works in corporate communications for an international law firm.  She has a BA (Hons) in Literature and a Diploma in Creative Writing, both from the Open University.  She has a chatty and entertaining website here where she reveals inflatable guitar playing at her wedding.

This is my thirteenth review in the British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment: As this is an ARC, it’s a riff on the final cover and there are no credits for the designer yet. If I do find more details, I’ll update the review. In short, I like it!  It sets the tone for the book: bold, epic and intriguing. With red and black tones and messy background,  it clearly positions the book as grimdark.  Whilst searching for the creative, I happened on this lovely “Cover Reveal” interview over at Fantasy Faction.

Anna has been in touch.  The cover design is by Dominic Forbes, the Managing Designer at Harper Collins UK. This means he commissions and art directs others as well as finding the time to design.  A small selection of his own work can be found here.   

Godblind by Anna Stephens will be published by Harper Voyager, an imprint of Harper Collins, on 15th June 2017 in the UK. Sequels are due for publication in 2018 and 2019. 

It was lent to me by Emily who runs Emily’s Bookshop in Chipping Campden. Thanks, Em!

 

S.T.A.G.S : M A Bennett

… cracking page turner…

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“I think I might be a murderer.” STAGS starts out at a cracking pace and never lets up until the end.  Told in the first person, MA creates the very likeable Greer MacDonald, a scholarship student at an elite boarding school.  Full of arcane rituals and costumes, Greer is lonely and desperate for approval until the invitation arrives for a long weekend away with Henry de Warlencourt, the most popular and wealthy boy in the school, and his friends. The action then moves to Henry’s country house in the Lake District for a weekend of hunting, shooting and fishing. With no telephones and no parents around, Greer gradually realises Henry’s ulterior motive to her inclusion.

MA builds tension and great empathy in S.T.A.G.S by choosing a close first person narrative. By keeping the locations tight, just the school and the house, she also leaves herself ample space to expand and explore the various relationships in this quite short book. A very readable story in the hands of an experienced writer.

Recommended.

Just a couple of kisses and very little actual violence, make this suitable for lower end YA or upper end MG.  US readers should be aware that the 18 year olds drink, sometimes to excess.

MA Bennett is the pen name of Marina Fiorato,  who has written a series of historical novels including the best selling The Glassblower of Murano. She is half-Venetian, born in Manchester and raised in the Yorkshire Dales. She is a history graduate and since worked as an illustrator, actress and film reviewer. She also designed tour visuals for rock bands including U2 and the Rolling Stones. Further information about these historical novels can be found at her website here. There doesn’t appear to be a separate MA Bennett website yet.

 

This is my twelfth review in the British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment: As this is an ARC, there are no details of the designer. The mottled dark brown background reminds me of worn leather – and therefore suggests a country house feel – whilst the eye catching golden stag’s head illustration possibly has a nod towards Harry Potter’s Patronus.  I would have preferred either a stained glass window of St Aidan or a tapestry hunting scene but that maybe off putting for some YA readers.

S.T.A.G.S by MA Bennett will be published by Hot Key Books, an imprint of Bonnier Zaffre, on 10th August 2017 in the UK and Delacorte Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, will publish the novel in the US in 2018. Feature film rights have already been bought.

It was lent to me by Emily who runs Emily’s Bookshop in Chipping Campden. Thanks, Em!

Beetle Queen : M G Leonard

… evil fashionista Lucretia Cutter is back …

Beetle Queen

I thoroughly enjoyed Beetle Boy, a sparkling and inventive story with lots of beetles. This sequel, Beetle Queen, moves the adventure and friendships on, as the three children, Darkus, Virginia and Bertolt, try to work out what Lucretia is up to whilst fending off unwanted parents and saving and /or capturing beetles, aided by Uncle Max . The pantomime villains, Pickering and Humphrey, break out of jail and they all end up in LA for the Film Awards.

I loved the way MG has developed the various friendships and the tensions between parents, children and, of course, beetles. I was particularly drawn to Novak, Lucretia’s lonely daughter, and her beetle, Hepburn. They play a vital role in the splendid climax at the LA theatre.

MG Leonard worked as a freelance Digital Media Producer for various theatres. She spent time in the music industry and managing bands, most notably The Divine Comedy. She trained as an actor, directing and producing as well as performing, before deciding to write her stories down. MG lives in Brighton with her husband and two sons.

She is my eleventh review in the British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment: Beetle Boy‘s outstanding design from the Brighton based, Helen Crawford-White, inspired me to add my “Cover Design Moment” to each book review. Having so many books pass through my hands these days, it becomes increasingly apparent how important excellent design is.  This second cover carries on the bold colours and delightful whimsy of the first with quirky interior illustrations by Karl James Mountford and beetle illustrations by Elisabet Portbella. (It is shame that the acid yellow beetle fore edge couldn’t be on the paperback – but I’m guessing it costs a lot to produce.) Further examples of Helen’s work can be found at her Studio Helen website here.

Beetle Queen by MG Leonard was published by Chicken House Books on 6 April 2017. It was lent to me by Emily who runs Emily’s Bookshop in Chipping Campden. Thanks, Em!

 

Gilded Cage : Vic James

… absorbing and compelling ..

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Imagine a Britain ruled by an elite where ordinary folk – you and me – are condemned to choose ten years of slavery to keep the economy going. Teenager Abi has a perfect plan to keep her family together by working for the Jardines, a family Skilled in magic.  Only something goes terribly wrong and her brother, Luke, is sent to a grim Northern slavetown.  This split allows reader to follow both Abi and Luke in their different worlds: the luxurious yet dangerous country house of Kyneston and the brutal factory complex of Millmoor.

The differing stories of Luke and Abi, and the lesser chorus of four other viewpoints, threw me for a while, as I do like to invest in one lead character.  However Vic uses this technique to great effect and her compelling narrative and clean prose style makes for a smooth, fast read.  Add some sparkling secondary characters including Renie-rhymes-with-Genie; the pitiful Dog; and the  menacing Silyen; mix with a little romance and Vic has created a highly enjoyable adventure which rather catches the zeitgeist of an elite rich with a drone underclass  …

My only slight quibble is that the ending was rather ragged.  By that I mean consequences of the story’s climax are only briefly played out in this book with obviously much more to come in the second, Tarnished City.

Vic James is a current affairs TV director and Gilded Cage is her debut novel. She has twice judged the Guardian‘s The Booker Prize, has made films for BBC1, BBC2 and Channel 4 News, and is a huge Wattpad.com success story. Under its previous title, Slavedays, her book was read online over a quarter of a million times in first draft. And it went on to win Wattpad’s ‘Talk of the Town’ award in 2015. Vic James lives and works in London … which means – HURRAH – she can be counted as the seventh review in my British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment:  The cover design is by Joanna Thomson, a senior designer in the Pan Macmillan Art Department – and she is credited on the back.  (Second HURRAH.) I loved the curly magical font and the strong, embossed silhouette of the cage.  I wasn’t entirely sure of the relevance of the black bird (a crow?) and feathers apart the overall sinister implication but hopefully it will become clearer as the trilogy progresses.  Further examples of her work can be found here.

Gilded Cage by Vic James was published by Pan Books on 26 January 2017.   It is the first in the Dark Gifts Trilogy which will also include Tarnished City and Bright Ruin.

 

A Griffin, a Fire Demon and a Monster.

… C17th extravaganza …

ommegriffinThere’s a side to C17th Europe which fascinates me: the Courtly emphasis on masquing and processions.  These theatrical displays employed the finest painters, writers and architects, cost fabulous amounts and, being largely ephemeral, can only be caught via hasty sketches, terse descriptions and the occasional commissioned painting or engraving.

In London’s V&A we are lucky enough to have The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615: The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella. It was commissioned by the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella to celebrate an Ommegang. This was an important civic procession honouring Isabella as Queen of the procession and the scene shows the ten pageant cars that formed the most spectacular element of the parade.

These must have been the equivalent of the big budget movie extravaganzas of their time with fantastical beasts, special effects and royalty on display.

There’s huge unicorns and griffins made from wickerwork and painted canvas; special effects like this demon who holds a fire club, a fizzing hollow reed packed with charcoal and gunpowder;

ommefire

and a scary backwards monster waving a bladder (?) to amuse the crowds.

ommeback

The V&A has a marvellous interactive programme of the work where you can zoom in, roam around and read details about various elements of this large painting.  The work and the computer display can be found in the Europe 1600-1715 Galleries but can be overlooked as it’s in a low lit corner.

There’s another scene of this festival in the Prado.  It appears they got the boring religious procession whereas we’ve got the lighter side of the affair. Huzzah.

The Queen of the Tearling : Erika Johansen

… brilliant page turner …

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I have come rather late to the Tearling party!  I loved this book.  It’s a brilliant page turner with an incredibly strong narrative and well drawn, likeable (or dastardly) characters.  On her 19th birthday the soldiers come for Kelsea to take her to be crowned as Queen of the Tearling … if she survives that long.   There’s a wicked Uncle, an evil witch, bandits, slavery and a loyal pack of personal guards.  As the book blurb quote from HEAT magazine says helpfully : “Did you like The Hunger Games?  Partial to an episode of Game of Thrones?  Then you’re going to want to dive straight into this.”  I particularly enjoyed that fact that Kelsea is not the perfect heroine.  She is not superfit, has trouble handling a sword and has a puppy crush on someone.   Yet, her heart is in the right place and she’s trying to make up for her appalling mother’s legacy.  I also was greatly entertained by the growing relationship between Kelsea and her bodyguard, Lazarus.  Highly recommended.

btw The book does have some sex and hints at rather horrid and gruesome slavery so it’s for older teens.

Erika Johansen grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and became an attorney. Now she lives in England … which means – HURRAH – she can be counted as the sixth review in my British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Cover design moment:  The UK cover for this book of a bear trap on a red cushion is cute and to the point, if slightly cloying for such a strong protagonist and very little romance .  The design continues through the series and are by Sarah Whittaker, a Senior Designer, at Transworld Publishers.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen was published by Bantam Books on 16 July 2015.   It is the first in the Tearling Trilogy which includes The Invasion of Tearling and The Fate of the Tearling (Dec 16).

Jackself : Jacob Polley

… like citrus in winter …

jackself-9781447290445

I had to keep putting the book down. Is that a weird thing to say? Does anyone else do that? Again and again, I would come across a phrase or an image, that was so arresting and intense that, like sharp grapefruit, I was compelled to stop and savour before reading on.  Jacob himself talks of “a glimpse of something” in The Guardian‘s series My Writing Day; and it is these glimpses that the judges of the TS Eliot Prize hint at when they describe the collection as “a firework of a book”.  

The images are embedded in a playful, shadowy autobiography of Jack, and his many selves, set in a mythic Cumbrian border country called Lamanby.  Jack and his mate, Jeremy Wren, banter and fool about through 34 poems.  Their casual brutality and grimy surroundings, mixed with nursery rhymes and folklore, put me in mind of the wonderful Rooster in Jez Butterworth‘s play, Jerusalem.

If you buy only one book of poetry this year, it really should be this one.  Highly recommended.

Jacob Polley was born in Carlisle, Cumbria. He is the author of four books of poems and a novel, Talk of the Town. He teaches at the University of Newcastle where lives.

Cover design moment:  The very arresting puppet cut-out design was inspired by a Franz-Josef Holler design called “Jockey” and presumably comes out of the PanMacmillan Art Department.  I am still trying to find out.  Update : I have traced the designer.  If you are interested, click for later post.

This book is the fifth review in my British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Jackself by Jacob Polley was published by Picador Poetry on 3 November 2016.  It won the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry 2016 announced on 16 January 2017.   I bought it from Emily’s Bookshop.  Hiya Em!

 

The Burning Page : Genevieve Cogman

… spirited helter skelter adventure …

Irene Winters is back!  Attacked by venomous spiders and snakes and chased by archenemy Alberich, the Librarian is in a desperate chase to save her beloved Library51yi8uyo78l from attack whilst protecting her Victorian detective friend, Vale, and dragon assistant, Kai, from further chaos.  Another spirited helter skelter adventure through the many alternative worlds linked by the great Library.  I particularly liked Irene’s entanglements with Alberich, a truly dastardly villain, and her continuing balancing act between the chaotic Fae and rigid dragon characters.  Both of these add depth to the frenetic pace of events which point to Genevieve’s past work as a roleplaying game writer.

This is the third in Genevieve’s Invisible Library series.  My review of the first, The Invisible Library, is here and it is panning out to be an enjoyable sequence.

Cover design moment:  Neil Lang from the Pan Macmillan art department continues to produce the excellent covers for this series.  With their distinctive foil spines and Victorian silhouettes, they are both instantly recognisable and compliment Genevieve’s style.   A link to further work by him is here.

This book is the fourth review in my British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman was published by Pan on 15 December 2016.  I bought it from Emily’s Bookshop.  Hiya Em!

 

 

 

 

A Symphony of Echoes : Jodi Taylor

… great fun alt. history …

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I’ve been wanting to read this series for a while and the second book in the Chronicles of St Mary‘s arrived before the first.   Undeterred, I went right ahead and read A Symphony of Echoes.  It didn’t matter; the writing doesn’t take itself seriously and I just went along for the ride.  And what a ride!  Jodi sets her protagonist, Max, off at a tremendous lick, ricocheting from Victorian slums to c12th Canterbury to Ancient Nineveh taking in dodos and arch villainy at the same time.

The background to the series is the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research: an academic establishment full of historians who travel in pods to investigate major past events.  This allows Jodi to take her pick of any historical episode and drop her characters straight into the heart of it; her vivid imagining of the past adds to the fun and the story can lift itself up and put whenever it wants.     All this frenetic activity teeters on the brink of excess, but I can forgive Jodi as she has created a splendid character, Madeleine Maxwell.  It’s told in the first person and the speed of the narrative is heightened by this smart, sassy, possibly damaged young woman’s stream of observations and one-liners.

Recommended.

Cover design moment: The old UK covers of this series all feature a rather cool clock spiral, looking rather like a trilobite, and a book-specific mock historical painting.  It’s fine but … the fuzziness wouldn’t grab me if I was browsing in a bookshop.  I prefer the new design even though there are quite a few cod Victorian covers around at the moment.  They are altogether brighter and echo the breeziness of the storytelling – which, I think, is a great selling point.

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Jodi Taylor ‘s biog states (amongst other things) … born in Bristol and educated in Gloucester (facts both cities vigorously deny), she spent many years with her head somewhere else, much to the dismay of family, teachers and employers, before finally deciding to put all that daydreaming to good use and pick up a pen …

She started out self publishing her novels, very successfully, before being approached by independent publishers, Accent Press.  A quick and interesting account of her journey can be found here at the Writers’ Workshop website.  Jodi, herself, writes some very entertaining blog posts on her own website, here.

This book is the third review in my British Books Challenge 2017.

A Symphony of Echoes by Jodi Peters is published by Accent Press.  Emily at Emily’s Bookshop recommended it to me.  Thanks, Em!

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