Scaffwolves of London – Our Lady of the Streets by Tom Pollock

untitledThe Skyscraper Throne trilogy is a fascinating series created by a one of the genre’s finest new talents. Tom Pollock’s inventiveness is astounding. His grimy London is filled with magical creatures, ghost trains and tower cranes; even the streets themselves rise up. When one of the major players in a novel continually and convincingly recreates itself from the rubbish and detritus of the city, you know you’re reading something pretty special.

My opinion was divided on the opening two novels. Whilst impressed by Pollock’s creativity in book 1,  The City’s Son, I felt he’d thrown too many ingredients into the pot, making for an uneven and often baffling read. Book 2,  The Glass Republic, I loved unequivocally. He’d taken one of his excellent ideas and explored it in greater detail. The layers of meaning and depth of characterisation made it a remarkable book.

So, I opened book 3 with some trepidation. We are now back this side of the mirror, but London is well and truly cracked; sickened by fever. Beth, Pen and their rag-tag army of non-humans are all that stand between the megalomania of Mater Viae and the death of the city they love.

Our Lady of the Streets is a mixture of the brilliance of book 2 and the ideas overload of book 1. I loved elements of the book but others didn’t really make sense to me. Or at least why they were happening didn’t. I think part of the problem is the reemergence of Reach, a character whose premise is brilliant but whose full execution doesn’t wholly chime with me. I struggled generally with the problem of motive. Lots of terrible stuff was happening very quickly, but I wasn’t convinced as to why.

As before there are some stunning set pieces. Pollock’s descriptive writing is excellent. The villains ooze menace and reading about the grubby streets leaves you wanting to wash your hands.

Two chapters in particular set this book apart from the standard urban fantasy offerings. Grown-ups often get fairly short shrift in YA novels, and The Skyscraper throne trilogy is unusual in making Beth’s dad a positive influence on the story. Pollock highlights the parent-child bond; its strength and the love behind it. He does this without ever dropping into schmaltz. As a parent I thought he’d captured it beautifully and was greatly moved.

Later in the book Pen finds an elderly resident, holed up, waiting for the end of days.  Again, taking a break from the magic and mayhem, Pollock writes a touching and reflective piece on growing old and making peace with one’s lot.

In all three books Pollock shows he has imagination to burn; that he will be the urban fantasy go-to guy for countless readers. These two chapters show he is more than just about the weird and wonderful. Heartfelt and real, they demonstrate Pollock can handle and reflect on subtle and delicate emotions.

The end of the novel fits well with what has gone before. Pollock walks the thin line between frustratingly bleak and everything tied off with a bow, with barely a misstep. It’s hard to get the balance right across a trilogy, but here the reader gets mostly want they want, with a few tantalising and painful omissions. The Skyscraper Throne trilogy heralds the arrival of a coruscating talent. It hasn’t always convinced me, but it’s never failed to impress. I very much look forward to reading what Tom Pollock writes next.

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book

Word up! – The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

the_word_exchange_1024x1024Here at Robin’s Books, titles that revolve around social media seem to be coming more and more prevalent. In the last few months I’ve read the writer’s view, the scary vision of the future for grown ups and the scary vision of the future for young adults. All of these titles ask what exactly are we surrendering by putting so much stock in social networking; are we in danger of becoming homogenised sheep all shuffling after the next trend? If they had a coverall catchphrase it might be ‘Think before you Tweet’.

The Word Exchange is definitely the most cerebral of these social media critiques and it’s probably the hardest to read. Dense and thoughtful, the book suggests it’s not just our personalities and our freedoms that are at stake. If they weren’t enough, the very future of language might be at risk.

This isn’t some Daily Mail, Gove loving, piece about teenagers using ‘m8′ signifying the death of the written word (does anybody use m8 any more? I’m too old to know). It’s a serious meditation on how instantaneous information is changing the way our brains function. Recall of telephone numbers, facts and appointments is obviated by modern technology. I barely know my own number let alone anybody else’s. But what if language went the same way? What if your device, here called a ‘Meme’ could supply that difficult word for you? Then, if large corporations were involved in supplying those worlds, how long before they tried to control the chain? It’s quite a simple idea, but Graedon gives it a profound treatment.

The Word Exchange, as one might expect for a novel with at least three lexicographical experts (lexicographers even!), is rich and dense in language. Not only there are oodles of complicated words (that are nothing like ‘oodles’) there is also much discussion as language as a living entity. The metaphysical musings occasionally threaten to overwhelm, but there is lots of interesting stuff in here about how we communicate and how fragile the communication pathways that we take for granted are.

Kim Curran gave us Glaze and destroyed the world. James Smythe gave us ClearVista and did the same (one man’s anyway). Graedon’s Memes are sort of a combination of the two, with prediction and control front and centre. On the face of it they all perfect iterations of social media, but behind each lie sinister forces. For sheer readability The Word Exchange is not in the league of the other two books, but all three can be read and enjoyed for entirely different reasons. It took me a long time to plough my way through Graedon’s book, mostly because of the complex language and themes. I’m not honestly sure her central conceit ‘Word Flu’ properly hangs together but I must confess to not fully understanding everything that I read.

Nevertheless, Graedon makes some very important observations about the subtle ways being permanently hooked up to devices could change our society. It is a peon to the written word and a reminder that sometimes longhand is best. This is not a quick read; not one for the beach, but it is a clever and thought-provoking book that will appeal to anybody who loves language and reading.

Many Thanks to Jess (formely of Orion) for sending me a copy of this book to review. 

A Tale of Two Kitabs by Nikesh Shukla

Meatspace-web-readyAbout halfway through Meatspace I was struggling a little bit. There were some great observations about the absurdities of modern life and the dangers of an addiction to social media, but where was the story? Or more, was I missing the story because this wasn’t the book for me?

I like to flatter myself that I know about technology but the older I get the harder it is to remain convinced ( watching my 15 year neighbour reconfigure my 8 year old’s Minecraft today revealed rather too much of my own ignorance). I like to think I know about social media, but frankly I use Facebook only to keep half an eye on what old friends are doing and, after a brain frazzling three weeks where I tried to read everything that everyone I followed on Twitter was saying, I now just check in occasionally, realise I’ve missed something interesting and then worry about what it was.

Kitab Balasubramanyam, the central character of Meatspace, is not like this. He comes out in a cold sweat if he is more than six inches from his phone; he tweets everything he eats. He lives in cyberspace rather than the meatspace that gives the novel its title. Social media and his online persona has taken him over. It’s why his girlfriend left him on his own. It’s why he never writes any words for his difficult second novel. Yes Kitab is a writer. He’s also, as you may be able to tell from his name, of Indian descent.

The novel is heavily centred around three strands of life I don’t know much about: Social media, the life of an aspiring author and being Indian in modern Britain (I’m as white Anglo Saxon as they come; my cultural references are terrible food, sunburn and forming an orderly line).  The insecure author continually trying to compose witty tweets is rather lost on me. Apart from the fact I never write anything, I’d quite like to be a writer. Meatspace does not sell the experience.  The obsession with staying connected also passed me by. There just wasn’t a thread I could hold onto and say, ‘Yes, I get this.’  Yet at no time did I consider giving up. There was enough quality to keep me reading, even if I wasn’t fully engaged. I’m glad I did. Meatspace is one of those novels that appears to be superficially about one thing before twisting and becoming deeper than I could ever have imagined.

The story essentially has two strands. The main one is the life of Kitab and his status obsession (a phrase that had a different meaning a decade ago). When he gets a friend request from the only person on Facebook with the same name as him, he thinks nothing of ignoring it. When Kitab2 turns up on his doorstep he proves a little harder to avoid. The second strand is in the form of blog posts from Kitab’s larger than life, alpha male older brother. Aziz has travelled to New York, to meet his doppelgänger. So as one brother leaves on a quest for adventure, another arrives with almost the same intentions.

The novel is filled with great observations about the absurdities of social media, and the pitfalls of letting it rule your life. Greater than that though are its questions about identity. More and more novels are coming through  about the duality of cyberspace persona and meatspace reality. As social media becomes more entrenched and people spend more time hooked up, which personality is true? There are lots of subtle touches here, such as comments on Aziz’s blog that poke and probe author reliability and anonymity online. When the relationship between Kitab and Kitab2 goes sour, further questions are posed about the nature of personality and its potential for subversion on the internet.

None of this quite coalesces until the novel’s final chapters. Before that it’s merely diverting.  Only with the final reveal do we see Shukla’s full intentions, and realise just how good Meatspace is. In addition to the social media stuff, there’s lots interesting comment on the importance of family in a fast-moving world. The fragility of self-esteem when nobody really knows you, and just how fucking difficult it is to write a half decent novel. Meatspace will not suit all tastes but if your interested in the effect of social media on the societies it’s supposed to connect, then you would do well to pick up a copy. Funny, intelligent and more than a little bit sad, Meatspace is well worth a look.

Many Thanks to Madeline Toy for sending me a copy of this book 

A Kind of Magic – Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

the-queen-of-the-tearlingAs this book is soon to be made into a film starring Emma Watson, it’s bound to attract some hype. Much of it, I imagine, will be undeserved. This is perhaps an unfair thing to say; the book is very readable and is contains some strong female characters, something of a rarity in the genre. Unfortunately I found the setting to be half-baked, and the story itself derivative.

I must confess to not being a fan of fantasy novels set after an apocalypse, where remnants of old technology remain. QotT isn’t quite like that. The escape from our world is acknowledged and discussed and there is a lot more old-age stuff lying around than just lethal weapons. ‘The Crossing’ occurred some unspecified length of time (but at least several generations) ago. Some skills have survived, as have a few artefacts, and some books (Rowling is inevitably name-checked). Crucially (and specifically) medical supplies are not.  So. This is some sort of cracked Earth, where most of the of the denizens escaped to from…? Where else? The USA.

The book is let down by its world building. I can’t think of single part of the novel that is enhanced by this reforged Earth approach over just making it a standard fantasy secondary world. Setting the novel on a future Earth adds nothing but detracts much. I immediately began to question the structure of the world. In a standard fantasy novel how the world became how it is, is left largely to arm waving. It doesn’t tend to matter if it stands up to scrutiny because nobody looks that hard. Here though we all have a common point of reference, Earth, and now all the minutiae of governance and provenance of artefacts and language becomes an issue. I found myself questioning whether the state of Tear was economically viable (I suspect not), something I rarely worry about when reading a fantasy novel. Even the existence of magic in the novel suddenly becomes questionable. ‘Magic? but it’s Earth…’ This strand may, of course, be resolved in subsequent novels. Curiously, though the novel’s characters came from the USA there are almost no ethnic minorities. There is even a line about how the main character has only ever seen one black person. This is a problematic and frankly baffling omission.

The story itself, whilst not a new one, is strong. Kelsea Glynn is a princess in exile; hidden as a baby by her mother, the queen. On Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, the queen’s guard arrive at her house to return her to her rightful place as the new Queen of the Tearling. Her uncle has ruled in her stead for 19 debauched, corrupt years. The kingdom slid into ruin, even sending a monthly tribute of slaves to neighbouring Mortmense. The kingdom of Mortmense is ruled by the Red Queen; a baby eating monarch cut straight from Grimm fairytale cloth. Kelsea must gain the trust of her guards, her nobles and above all the people of Tear. With the Red Queen on the warpath and any number of factions likely to benefit from her death, this is a tall order.

So the story is a classic, young and inexperienced monarch must win hearts and minds of the people, tale. Kelsea is a strong character; an idealist, yet pragmatic. She is not just a woman who behaves like a man, written by an author under the misapprehension that this makes for robust characterisation. She’s a tough independent female of the type so rarely found in fantasy novels. She operates in a world dominated by men, though there are other strong female characters around her who back her up. I was impressed and refreshed by Kelsea Glynn.  There several occasions where her strong social conscience must give way to the practical aspects of being a ruler. I liked this facet of the book. In a world where we clamour for our leaders to ‘do the right thing’ all the time, Johansen shows that this isn’t always possible, no matter how obvious an answer might seem from the outside.

Queen of the Tearling is a solid readable fantasy, but there is little to set it apart from the field. Compared with Richard Ford’s Steelhaven books, it’s extremely ordinary. I’ve read the book and I have terrible feeling that the most interesting thing I can say about it, is that Hermione Granger is going to be in the film adaptation. That doesn’t do much as recommendation to read it. I might read the sequels but such is the height of my to-be-read pile, it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever make it to them.

Many Thanks to Leanne at Transworld for sending me a copy of the book. 

Scared New World – The First Stone by Elliott Hall

review-projectthe-first-stone-elliott-hallThis book is this month’s Hodderscape Review Project title. I read and reviewed the book a few years ago. Here’s what I thought. For the project I read the sequel, The Rapture 

The First Stone is a solid noir thriller, featuring a gritty private eye, pithy dialogue and a gorgeous femme-fatale. So far, so ordinary. What sets this book apart from the multitude of other gumshoe novels is its setting: A near-future where the USA stagnates under a Christian Fundamentalist dictatorship.

When a prominent religious evangelist is found dead, Felix Strange is called in to investigate. Strange, an atheist of Jewish descent, knows he’s an odd choice for the job, and when told to keep his investigation under-wraps, he is surely being pulled into something more dubious than a simple murder. After debunking the obvious set-up crime scene, Strange becomes embroiled in a web of deceit and skulduggery.

Elliott Hall’s portrayal of America’s slide into an oligarchy, ruled by the mysterious ‘Council of Elders’, is all to plausible. He describes a nation gripped by fear and paranoia; a nation manipulated by the Council to maintain their absolute power. America is crippled by sanctimony and fear of persecution. Just as in Stalin’s Russia, neighbours are encouraged to inform on one another. Against this, what chance the individual? In a world that parallels that of 1984, in order to solve his case, Strange must challenge the status quo. Hall’s prose is terse and tight, reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. The First Stone is an invigorating read.

The climax of the novel, though exciting was a little too convoluted for my taste. A few too many twists – there are a number of fictional factions each with a vested interest in the case, and I found it difficult to follow (or indeed care that much) who stood to gain the most from the victim’s murder. That said, ‘The First Stone’ is top drawer speculative fiction and a fine Private Investigator novel. I look forward to volume two.

This review first appeared on Amazon.co.uk in Feb 2010

Something Rotten – The Rapture by Elliott Hall

This review forms part of this months Hodderscape Review Project.review-project

raptureThis month’s Hodderscape title was The First Stone by Elliott Hall, a book I read a few years ago and reviewed on Amazon. I’ve republished that review on the blog.

I’m shocked and appalled to discover it’s nearly four and half years since I read The First Stone. Whilst I found it a little convoluted, its original and scarily plausible premise stuck with me. I certainly wanted to read its sequel. It took me a couple of years to buy The Rapture and a couple more to get around actually reading it. Like all book addicts I have far more books than I can actually read.

So, despite my being keen to read the follow up to an excellent book, who knows when it would have managed to claw its way to the top of my to-be-read pile? Fortunately Hoddescape intervened by giving it a passport to the summit. Rather reread book one I thought I’d try out the sequel and report back.

So here goes…

Wow!

Ok, you probably want a little more than that.

I absolutely loved The Rapture. I’ve been on a dodgy reading streak recently but this is a quality novel. It’s inventive, exciting and thought provoking in equal measure, and a gorgeously rendered evolution of the P.I. novel; a dystoPIan novel, if I may.

The book is almost a prequel to 1984. Hall has deconstructed Big Brother’s regime and tried to examine how such a beast might be built. Following on from events in The First Stone, Felix Strange is investigating the disappearance of an old Army colleague; a man who saved his life. Isaac Taylor isn’t just missing, he’s ceased to exist. There is no record of him. Strange’s investigations reveal a shocking and deadly conspiracy.

It’s quite hard to explain just how good this book is. Strange has maintained his distinctive voice from the first book – a wise-cracking PI in the Marlowe mould. The central mystery is compelling, bolstered by flashbacks to a fictional near-future American occupation of Tehran.

Beyond that there is the fascinating analysis of a totalitarian regime in prototype. I don’t want to give too much away but Hall examines the various strands that a government might use to exert total control; fear, a common enemy, a riven population. He also explores what agencies might be used to bring these things about. The closer Strange comes to the truth the more sinister America’s Christian Fundamentalist leaders become.

The society constructed is a curious blend of Stalinist and Nazi oligarchy. Hall’s painstaking world construction is what make this novel so good. He has clearly done his research and sets out his vision with great clarity. This is a completely plausible work of speculative fiction and is all the more powerful for it. From looking at the paucity of reviews an Amazon these books are criminally under-read. They would appeal to fans of dystopian fiction as well as those who like a hard-bitten detective. It’s an ambitious melding but Hall pulls it off with aplomb.

One final recommendation, if you are enjoying the Fexlix Strange novels, do check out Jonathan Trigell’s Genus, another excellent dystoPIan novel.

Hieronymous Tosh – The Bosch Deception by Alex Connor

boschI’ve talked before about my uneasiness at tearing into a book, especially if I haven’t paid for it. Occasionally though I read something so terrible that discretion is thrown out of the window. It’s been a tough few months, I’ve read a string of mediocre books and now I read this, a book that might represent then nadir of popular fiction. I’m afraid The Bosch Deception is going to get it. Both barrels.

Compared to The Bosch Deception, the Da Vinci code is a literary masterpiece. It gave me an appreciation that a terrible book still needs some qualities to make it readable.

This book might be a sequel. If it isn’t then it’s doubly bad, because the backstory is so hamfistedly written, I felt like I’d missed great chunks of information.  The Bosch Deception has being written with short chapters, presumably because the author heard that this injects pace and excitement into a story.

If you break your
writing in ran
dom
Places thou
gh, the effec
t is rather
ruined.

The story is about as exciting as old public information films. The main conjecture is that Bosch might not have painted all of his pictures. Through the use of a series of secret note fragments we learn Bosch may have died much earlier and the church passed off pictures painted in his style as genuine articles. This shattering revelation would, apparently, shock the Catholic Church. Considering the scandal the church deals with on a roughly daily basis, I’m not sure this would have give even the most idealist of cardinals much pause.

The art world? Yeah now they might be a bit more interested in this information, and the mysterious notes written by Bosch that are found in the story. They would cause a stir. And so indentikit villainous art dealers step up to beat each other to a bloody pulp.

So there is a mystery, are the notes genuine, are they not? Is the killer motivated by money or fanatical devotion to the pope? Throw in some dodgy priests, references to abuse and you have all the making of a clichéd conspiracy thriller. Yawn!

I read to the end, though I’m not sure why. I used to read a lot more of this sort of stuff, but found after the Da Vinci Code publishers were prepared to publish any old Brown stuff. Previous books by this author have garnered positive reviews online, so this stuff clearly has an audience. Perhaps my expectations are too high…but then plots that make sense, characters who aren’t clichés and a modicum of excitement, don’t really seem too much to ask.

Thanks to Lauren at Quercus for sending me a copy of this book. Sorry I didn’t like it very much….

When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth – Empress of the Sun

empress

This book is the third book in the Everness series, if you haven’t read the first two, stop reading now! 

Empress of the Sun is the third novel in Ian McDonald’s impressive Everness series. It dawned on me as I neared the end of book 2, that my assumption that this was a trilogy was incorrect. Since the author had gone to the trouble to create a billion universes, he can write as many stories as he wants in them. And so it is. By the end of this book, there is nothing resolved, no closure. Just more great storytelling and first class speculation.

I must confess this is probably my least favourite of the three, but it’s hard to put my finger on why. As I thought the first two almost peerless in their brilliance, this is not necessarily much of a criticism. Empress of the Sun is just very very good, rather than exceptional (please don’t ask me how this scale works).  The central premise of the new world discovered by Everett is tremendous. What if the dinosaurs never died out?

This is hardly a new premise. It’s the idea behind countless B-Movies and pulp fiction paperbacks, but I’ve never seen anybody do what McDonald has done with it. If T-Rex never died out, his descendants have had 65 million years to evolve. What we have here is solar system occupied by uber-advanced dinosaurs. Extremely hostile uber advanced dinosaurs.

This new system is fascinating, and the story that plays out in it strong. The overall story arc continues, but not that strongly and I think that might be why I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as the others.

The Everness series is a fascinating panoply of what-might-bes. It’s imaginative fiction at its finest. Nominally a YA series, really it’s a set books for anybody who likes science fiction of the highest calibre. There are no more Everness books obvious on the horizon, but I certainly hope it’s a series that runs and runs.

Many thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book 

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido

corpse-readerAntonio Garrido’s The Corpse Reader is a solid, if unremarkable, historical whodunit. The premise is nothing new – an expert pathologist makes incredible leaps of intuition to solve unsolvable crimes – but its setting is a little different. I’ve not read too many (any) novels set in thirteenth century China, and whilst the honour and form of Confucianism got a bit tedious every now and then, it makes an evocative setting for a murder mystery.

We follow Ci from the moment he finds a headless corpse in a field. His loathed younger brother takes the fall for the crime, with Ci being instrumental in providing evidence.  After that, things only get worse. There really are very few people unluckier than Ci, and this continual struggle and misfortune did drag occasionally. The book is probably a hundred pages too long, and there is so much bad luck in here some of it could have been left on the author’s hard drive.

The workings and machinations of imperial China are well realised, and Ci often finds his hands tied by convention as he attempts to solve a number of crimes. Forever trying to escape his past (detailed in the book), Ci has to keep one eye behind him at all times. This creates a nice tension in the book. Ci is the good guy who might just end up finishing last.

The book is easy to read, though the translation is felt a little clunky.  There were a few times where certain phrases jarred or didn’t quite make sense. There is very little that is remarkable about this book, but it’s central story is interesting, there are a number of diverting side plots and the characters are well rendered. Many of them are stereotypes, but Garrido adds enough colour to each to make them interesting. A diverting crime novel, ideal for those who want a change of scene.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Programme.

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Draw All Over The Walls – The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman

the-final-testimony-of-raphael-ignatius-phoenix-196x300It’s a little awkward reviewing this type of book. Paul Sussman was a highly acclaimed archaeological thriller writter, before he died suddenly, at a young age. This book was his first attempt at a novel, and was written many years before he garnered any fame. Dusted off and revised by his wife and a team of editors, this is first time the novel has been published. The process of bringing the book to publication is described in a moving foreword by Sussman’s wife, as being a cathartic and rehabilitating process. This makes offering an objective opinion difficult.

The book is uneven. There are some parts that work really well, and other bits where it drags and seems silly. It’s hard to know whether this would have made it to publication if submitted by a new author. I suspect not in its existing state. It might have done though; it resembles smash and surprise bestseller The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window by Jonas Jonasson. In its original form Sussman’s novel predates Jonasson by a significant amount of time, but it is only now being released for public consumption. Again, without TOHYOM, its hard to imagine this book would have been published. It isn’t of the same quality. But publishing likes to find copycats, and in the wake of Jonasson’s bestseller, RIP would have made it into a bookshop no matter who had written it.

The story follows the 99 year old Raphael Ignatius Phoenix as he approaches his 100th birthday. He was born on the first day of 1900 and he intends to die on the first day of 2000. He will commit suicide using a pill he has carried around for nearly his entire life.  Phoenix is writing the account of his life, peculiarly, on the walls of his castle home. Starting with the present day he peels back time, decade after decade presenting significant details from his life. Phoenix has had many professions – bank clerk, TV star and butler to name but three. Further frisson is added with the knowledge that in each decade of his life Phoenix committed a murder.

The tale is picaresque; a shaggy dog’s story full of humour. It’s laugh out loud funny in places, but is wearing in other. RIP is not a likeable character, but the scrapes he gets into, whilst often tend towards the ridiculous never fail to entertain. Whilst the stories are historical, they aren’t woven into history like The One Hundred Year Old Man, and this is probably why Jonasson’s is the better book. The ending of the book is downright strange, but peculiarly fitting considering the circumstances the novel is published under. This isn’t an undiscovered masterpiece, but it’s an entertaining novel filled with wit and humour. It probably won’t convert many people to Sussman’s writing, but his fans will probably be glad of the opportunity to read a final offering from an accomplished author whose light was extinguished too soon.

Many thanks to the team at Transworld for sending me a copy of this book to review.