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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!

Traitor to the Throne : Alwyn Hamilton

… brilliant, pacey sequel to Rebel of the Sands …

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Amani is back, fighting against the odds amongst the deadly politics of the Sultan’s Harem.  Now a respected leader in the Rebel Forces, she is betrayed and ends up a prisoner in the Palace with her powers disabled.  This is where Alwyn really hits her stride and the story picks up pace with an intriguing thread about the three brothers: the Sultan, the Rebel Prince and Amani’s lover, Jin; and the overarching question: who exactly is the traitor?

Recommended.

ps. I would like to request a cast list at the front of the next book to navigate my way around all the characters and do recommend new readers start with the first in the series, Rebel of the Sands.

Cover design moment: Unfortunately there isn’t any trace of the designer on the review copy but the strong, vibrant design is as good as Rebel of the Sands.  The lettering and patterning are very distinctive and its unusual colour will help the book to stand out on a crowded bookshop table … which is the point, right?  (The US cover design on the other hand … hmm …)

As Alwyn lives in London, this book is the first in my British Books Challenge 2017. Huzzah.

Traitor to the Throne will be published 2 February 2017 by Faber and Faber.  Emily at Emily’s Bookshop lent me her review copy.  Thanks, Em!

 

 

A Curious Beginning : Deanna Raybourn

… enthusiastic and charming storytelling …

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Deanna is the creator of the best selling Lady Julia Grey Mysteries series and my local bookseller suggested I give this tongue in cheek Victoria romp a go.

I really enjoyed the set up: Veronica Speedwell, intrepid lady Lepidopterist (cue scientific passages) defying Victorian mores (kiss-ass heroine) with attractive male companion whilst solving murder.  It’s a fun proposition.    However, after the first third, I felt that  Deanna had fallen too far over to the cartoon side of her creation.  There was little complexity to Veronica and much repetition of her convention-breaking,  no-nonsense approach to the opposite sex.   This, and the very broad brush strokes of plot building,  broke the illusion that I was reading more than a collection of fictitious characters being moved around a Victorian toy theatre.   And yet, I did read to the end because Deanna is an enthusiastic and charming story teller.  I hope the sequel, A Perilous Undertaking, due January next year, brings more depth to an enjoyable construct.

Cover design moment: A bold and attractive pastiche of silhouettes and Victoriana by Julia Lloyd makes for a bright and very attractive cover.  She also designs the UK covers for VE Schwab‘s A Darker Shade of Magic series, though I can’t find a website for her studio.

A Curious Beginning was published in October 2015 by Titan Books.  Emily at Emily’s Bookshop lent me her copy.  Thanks, Em!

Blade and Bone : Catherine Johnson

… a thrilling adventure set in Revolutionary Paris …

9781406341874In this sequel to Sawbones (published in 2013), Catherine moves her characters from c18th England to c18th France and we follow the young surgeon, Ezra McAdam, to Revolutionary Paris.  Here, the English are the enemy and Citizen Renaud is anxious to involve Ezra in his reanimation experiments for which the “National Razor” is creating a steady supply.

In this dangerous city of harsh poverty and unpredictable violence, can Ezra find and rescue his friends: the impetuous Loveday and high handed Prince Mahmoud?

Blade and Bone is a thrilling adventure involving complex, believable characters with an intriguing background of c18th fact.  Catherine has a lightness of touch and she deploys her considerable knowledge to colour the story without weighing down the narrative.  I particularly enjoyed the dashing Lieutenant Colonel Dumas  of the American Regiment – a  real person and, as Catherine explains in her epilogue, still today the highest ranking soldier of African descent in any European army.  She has written more detail about the man here, in The History Girls blog.

Highly recommended.

Cover design moment: I loved this cover with its old engraving style and the clever use of colour to create a Tricolour impression.  The wonderful illustrator  is Royston Knipe.  His website is here.

Blade and Bone was published on 6 October 2016 by Walker Books.  

Jonathan Dark : AK Benedict

… captivating supernatural crime thriller …

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Emily, my excellent bookseller, thought I might like this … and I was dubious as I’m more of an urban fantasy girl myself.  But, what a read!  This book is written in the present tense balancing the supernatural world of ghosts with the growing tension of a stalker about to pounce.  Its charm builds slowly as the book starts with a boiler plate policeman, DI Dark, who is nursing a broken marriage and a serious drink problem – so what’s new?  Well, quite a lot as it turns out.

AK Benedict deftly plays her stock characters and various strands: a blind mudlark, a vengeful spirit, a psychic funeral director, a criminal ring, and a taxi driving ghost around the main plot of a stalker planning to take his next victim.  DI Dark has already failed to catch this stalker and a miasma of desperation and grief hangs around this story of murder victims, brutal coercion and fading ghosts.  This is lightened by believable characters that linger long after you’ve stopped reading and a truly wonderful and intriguing Maria, the object of the stalker’s desire: “I’m a stalkee.  He’s not MY stalker.”; and her guide dog, Billy who huffs.

AK Benedict also has great fun scattering potential candidates for the stalker liberally around the story : is it Denver, the computer whizz, or Martin, the would-be boyfriend or some one else in the Force?  My mind started to jump with the possibilities.

This is a captivating supernatural crime thriller.  I was rooting for DI Dark and Maria all the way and do I hope they return sometime soon.

AK Benedict lives in Hastings and writes in a room filled with teapots and the severed head of a ventriloquist’s dummy.  Her debut novelThe Beauty of Murder, was shortlisted for an eDunnit award and is in development for an 8-part TV series. Her audio drama, The Victorian Age, was released as part of the Torchwood range at Big Finish while Outbreak, a full-cast Torchwood audio co-written with Guy Adams and Emma Reeves, will be released in November 2016.

Cover design moment: The designer of the smart UK cover is credited in AK’s blog.  He is the lovely Patrick Knowles who is responsible for the hand lettering and cover design for Ben Aaronovitch‘s Rivers of London series.

Jonathan Dark was published in February 2016 by Orion Books.  I was given a proof copy by A Festival of Books.  Thanks, Em!

Fated : Benedict Jacka

… a diviner with a troubling past and a dangerous future … 

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Alex Verus is the owner of Arcana Emporium, a shop in Camden Town, North London. He’s also a diviner with a troubling past and a dangerous future with a sort of cursed girlfriend and a habit of not taking sides.   Alex gets dragged into the middle of a treasure hunt with Dark and Light mages competing for an ancient prize hidden in the British Museum: a fateweaver, a wand that can control the future.    Ghosts from Alex’s teenage years come back to haunt him – and kill him – as he tries to protect the ones he loves and hold himself apart from the deadly competitors’ claims on his loyalty.

Benedict weaves a thoroughly enjoyable story with a likeable and damaged hero through to a thrilling and very well constructed end.  I would say there’s slightly too much explanation which began to slow the pace down, but I’m guessing Benedict’s writing can only get better.

A great addition to any urban fantasy shelf and, as Fated is the first in a series of seven, I look forward to reading more …

Cover design moment: The UK covers for at least the first couple in the series are by Sian Wilson. She is currently a Senior Designer at Simon and Schuster .  They really are good which is just as well as they have to compete with the urban fantasy bestseller, Ben Aaronovitch‘s, gorgeous covers based on a work by Stephen Walter. 

Fated was published by Orbit in March 2012.  I came across the book as the first chapter was printed in the back of  Chasing Embers by James Bennett.

 

 

The Call : Q & A with Peadar O’Guilin

I was asked for a review and Q & A with Peadar for a brilliant new feminist website called EtymNews.  Here’s the thought provoking result:

The Call by Peadar O’Guilin: the next Hunger Games?

Looking for another The Hunger Games or Divergent?  Here’s a brilliant Young Adult novel set in a dystopian Ireland.  Imagine living in a country where every single teenager gets “The Call”.  Without warning, you are transported to the baroque horrors of the Grey Lands where the vengeful Sidhe hunt you for sport, killing you or worse.  Much worse.  The odds of surviving this ordeal are improving through intense training in special colleges and now perhaps one in ten teenagers make it back alive.  Nessa is the girl least likely to succeed with her legs twisted by polio yet she is absolutely determined to be the very best she can be.  Tension builds as we learn the horrific fate of other students as they are “Called”.  But who will be next and can Nessa and her friends make it through?

The Call was inspired by the beautiful northwest of Ireland where he grew up but now Peadar O’Guilin lives just outside Dublin.  He has written plays, published short stories, and performed as a stand-up comedian whilst holding down a day job. I tracked him down to ask him a couple of pertinent questions about the book …

Q: Why did you choose to make your main character a girl not a boy? 

A: When I first started reading, female protagonists spent their lives peeping out from between the covers in the romance section of the bookshop. Now and again, a few would make the journey over to the SF shelves, especially if the writer were somebody like C.J. Cherryh or the late, great Tanith Lee. I loved those books, but took no particular note of the character’s gender, except to think, well, the authors are female, so naturally that’s the type of character they’re going to use.

My own short-stories had a few female protagonists, but only when the story really needed one. My default, even for the bit-players, was “standard” straight, white male.  And then, one day, the internet exploded with talk of “diversity”. Back in the beginning, the definition was so limited, it was almost enough for a book to pass the Bechdel test. But even then, the debate looked to me like a lot of angry people shouting at each other and I didn’t want to be involved.

However, beneath all the passion were a few arguments that made me question what I was doing. The main ones were: 1) The world is diverse, if your stories are not diverse, you are not reflecting reality. 2) Everybody likes to see themselves in a story, so, why shouldn’t they? 3) Every book that adds to the overwhelming mass of “standard” characters lends credibility to the idea that only one type of story is valid.

At that point I decided to reverse my previous default. I would always start with a female protagonist unless the plot demanded otherwise.   And that, dear friends, is the story of how Nessa came out of the aether with two X chromosomes…

Q: Many reviewers appreciate that there’s no predictable “love triangle” in the story – though there is plenty of romance. Did you deliberately set out to break the formula?

A: I didn’t set out to break the formula. I generally don’t read the type of book that has love triangles in it. I am always more interested in the life and death tension of a story, rather than the will they/won’t they tension. It’s not that I dislike romance. I am a human being who has tender feelings now and again. When I write romance into a story, it’s usually a fantasy I’m creating for myself, that I want to believe in. Love triangles only confuse my simple soul.

Q: Did you find yourself drawing on your own experiences as a teenager as you were writing the book?

A: Very much so! I went to a boarding school when I was Nessa’s age. I took a smelly bus from the same station as hers, following much of the same route. Obviously, the idea of a refectory, of classes and a dorm, are extremely familiar ones to me as a result. I also read some dodgy love poetry and wrote lines that were far, far worse than anything she quoted!

 Peadar O’Guilin

Q: The world building includes an Ireland being shut off behind an impenetrable barrier; a terrifying yet wronged enemy; and hard choices children have to make when they are far too young.  Were you ever conscious when writing of exploring your country’s recent past, or are the roots all in Irish mythology?

A: I am very conscious of history.   We Irish have seen both sides of colonialism. We were colonised, but in Scotland, and in North America, we were also colonisers. The famous US general, Sheridan, often misquoted as saying “The only good injun’s a dead injun”, was of Irish stock. Almost every human being alive today lives where they do because their ancestors drove out somebody else. The fact that the concept is right there in the Book of Conquests is just a reflection of how long we have been doing this to each other.  Ethnic cleansing is a horrible practice that I hope we are starting to grow out of. But the consequences live on a long time after the crimes, and in a way, that’s what my book is about.

Peadar O’Guilin has written an intense and thrilling story which is definitely my favourite Young Adult novel of the year so far.  With a deft touch, Peadar builds very genuine, complex characters with a great deal of humour and humanity. I loved Nessa: her unfailing determination, her unflinching honesty about her condition, her fierce friendships and, ultimately, her strength of purpose which shines through at the tremendous climax.

So, with the nights drawing in … why not treat yourself to a fresh, thought provoking, and really scary story?

David Fickling Books; 01 Sep 2016; Hardback; £10.99

Cogheart : Peter Bunzl

… a riveting good read …

I love it when I can relax into a story, enjoying the easy ride of a born story teller.  Cogheart is just that type of book.   With a host of clockwork mechanicals, including Mrs Rust and Mr Wingnut and a stubborn fox mechanimal, Lily and Robert race through a thrilling plot, fighting  deliciously sinister mirror eyed villains towards a tremendous finale full of airship chases and clockwork skullduggery.

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Peter Bunzel spins a well constructed story with immaculate pacing and lovely plot twists which create various anticipations to savour for a sharp eyed reader.  Nothing  is wasted or extraneous, though Peter takes time to add decorative Steampunky flourishes.   It’s a great fun and I highly recommend it – probably in the 9 to 12 age range.

Cogheart is Peter Bunzl’s debut novel. He is a successful animator working on commercials, promos and 2 BAFTA winning kids’ TV shows. He has also written and directed several short films.  This is why there’s a delightful mini website for this book: cogheart.com and some FREE gifs on offer.

Cover design moment: With Peter’s visual background, it’s not surprising that Cogheart has a great cover, map and occasional illustrations by a wonderful American artist,  Becca Stadtlander.  Her work really enhances the story.

Cogheart was published on 1st September 2016 by Usborne and recommended to me by Emily at A Festival of Books.  Thanks, Em!

Mistborn, The Final Empire : Brandon Sanderson

… pacy and intriguing …

On holiday I finally got round to reading Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.  As I hoped from such a well received book, it has a solid plot, satisfying world building, and some interesting story weaving with a passages from an unintroduced “memoire” at the head of each chapter.  00a_mb_ukI enjoyed the protagonist, Vin’s, development from lowly skaa to Mistborn and thought the various secondary, but very important characters, well drawn. My eyes did glaze over all the Allomancy explanations and metal technique in the fight scenes.  I just don’t think it’s necessary to go into the mechanics.  Character and plot are more important than the world in any fantasy and I am now interested to read a later work to see how his writing style has developed.  However, a great pacy and intriguing start to this trilogy.  Recommended.

Brandon Sanderson is the award-winning American author, best known for his Mistborn and his Stormlight series.  He is very prolific and seems to be working on loads of projects at the same time.  The Mistborn series has been followed by the Wax and Wayne series which sets the Mistborn world in a future, Western type arena.

Cover design moment: The UK covers for the series are an outstanding set by Sam Green, a London illustrator.  They really enhance the Mistborn concept.  Well done whoever commissioned them.

Mistborn was published by Tor back in 2006.

 

 

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