Review: ‘The Crysalids’ by John Wyndham

April 12, 2018 Review 0

This was a book group read and it was my suggestion, yet when one of the other members asked why I’d chosen it, the only reason I could come up with was that I couldn’t remember anything about it. I’ve read many of Wyndham’s books, like The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Trouble With Lichen and Chocky, and I have vivid memories of them, but The Crysalids? Not so much. Turns out there’s a reason for that – I’ve never read it before. Several others in the group were in the same position, avid Wyndham fans but hadn’t read this one. We’re all of a certain age, so it made me wonder whether it was regarded as subversive in its day, and not sold as widely as some of the others.

The premise is that there’s been a nuclear holocaust at some time in the past. Large swathes of the earth are uninhabitable because of the devastation and radiation, but there are small pockets of humankind who have managed to cling to life. Mutations are a constant challenge, however, and the different groups have developed different ways to deal with them. The society we’re initially shown is striving to maintain (or return to) a ‘pure’ form of humanity and deviations are ruthlessly dealt with. A whole fundamentalist religion has grown up around this principle.

The main character, David, is the young son of the leader of one particularly devout group, living a precarious existence close to the edge of habitable lands. David meets a girl of his own age, and accidentally discovers that she has a deformity – an extra toe on each foot. Such a tiny difference, yet in David’s community, she would be put to death, or exiled to live an even more precarious existence in the badlands where mutations run wild. And when the reader is still pondering this issue, we discover that David is harbouring a bigger deformity than an extra toe – he and a group of far-flung other children have a form of telepathy, which allows them mental communication over a distance.

Eventually, as David and his friends grow up, things get difficult and they have to make terrible choices – to deny their ability and try to pretend they’re normal, to hide it from normal people or, if all else fails, to run away. And when they’re forced to run, they begin to discover all those other groups that have very different ideas about radiation-induced differences, including groups which celebrate and try to develop them.

This is a book that’s stuffed with ideas, some of them almost casually thrown in as an aside. It could have stood to be a little longer, to develop some of these ideas more fully. It’s also stuffed with a lot of proselytising, where one or other character simply sits down to explain, at great length, some scientific or philosophical point. I could have done with less of that, frankly. And the ending is shocking, in a number of different ways. But on the whole, the writing has held up pretty well, the story was absorbing and if the characters sometimes felt like ciphers, the action moved swiftly enough to paper over any cracks. A surprisingly good and thought-provoking read. Four stars.

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News: the Brightmoon world is coming to lots more stores

January 16, 2018 News, Publishing/marketing 0

The Brightmoon books have always been available from Amazon for you to read on your Kindle or other device. Up to now, they’ve been exclusive to Amazon which meant I could offer them to readers in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription program.

Now, at last, they’ll be available in lots more stores, like iBooks, Kobo and many more.  I’ll be gradually making them available over the next few months, so if you’re not a Kindle reader, watch out for the Brightmoon books in your favourite store – coming soon!

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Dragons, dragons everywhere!

December 16, 2017 Brightmoon world, News, Publishing/marketing, The Dragon Caller, The Dragon's Egg 0

I’m awash with dragons just now. First of all, I’m thrilled to tell you that the 9th book set in the Brightmoon world, The Dragon Caller, is out in the world and ready for you to read. You can buy it for just $2.99, but if you have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime, you can borrow it for free. What’s it about? Ruell is a young man obsessed with dragons, Garrett is his seen-it-all-before warrior dad and there’s a whole bunch of pissed-off dragons heading their way. Click the image to buy or borrow.

As if that isn’t enough, book 6 of the series, The Dragon’s Egg, is currently FREE for just a few days. This is also about Garrett, set about 13 years before The Dragon Caller. The two books can be read independently of each other, but if you read them both, it works better to read The Dragon’s Egg first. Click the image to buy or borrow.

And if you want even more bargains, book 1 of the series, The Plains of Kallanash is just 99c, and for a short time you can pick up The Fire Mages Collection (books 2, 5 and 7 – 1200 pages of epic fantasy reading) for just 99c. So this is a great time to fill in any gaps in your Brightmoon library. Enjoy!

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Mystery review: ‘Duplicity in Dorset’ by Clara Benson

December 5, 2017 Review 0

A cracking read, definitely the best Freddy yet. In this, the fourth book of the series, he finally leaves London behind and sets off for a pleasant country house party with various members of his family (headed by the Duke and Duchess of Purbeck) and an array of other eccentric characters. What with a body in the library, a stolen necklace, secret passages and lots of guests creeping about in the middle of the night, this is perfect murder mystery escapism.

Here’s the plot: the Duke and Duchess of Purbeck are hosting a party to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of their daughter, Ro, at which she will wear the famous Belsingham pearl necklace. But several of the guests have pasts they wish to conceal, which makes things awkward when the trouble-making Professor Coddingham is found murdered with the pearls in his hands. Freddy has his own difficulties with his present girlfriend and his ex, who may be engaged to someone else but still has a thing for Freddy.

The humour is as delightful as always, and Freddy is his usual insouciant self, even when caught misbehaving in the linen cupboard. I loved some of the side characters – lecherous old Nugs, Kitty the charmer, and Freddy’s society gossip columnist mother, not to mention the poor beleaguered Duke and Duchess. And the situation with the two girlfriends is handled with understanding and sympathy. They only have small parts, and in a light-hearted tale like this they might have become mere comedic fodder, but they both came across as real people. A terrific read, that I inhaled almost in a single sitting. Five stars. Highly recommended.

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Review: ‘White Silence’ by Jodi Taylor

November 26, 2017 Review 0

What on earth to say about this mish-mash of a book? It’s a hot mess of episodic vignettes that supposedly tell a complete story, but feel as if they were written by several different people, and with an ending (using the word in its loosest sense) that almost reaches book-to-wall levels of annoyance.

The premise is wonderful – the heroine, Elizabeth Cage, has a seemingly unique talent to see the colours surrounding people, like an aura. From these colours, she can identify mood and other characteristics in people. She quickly learns to keep a low profile and not attract attention to herself, and she marries a rather dull but loving man who gives her the sort of low-key life she’s looking for. This part of the book is excellent. Sadly, it doesn’t last long.

When her husband dies, Elizabeth discovers that he was not what he seemed to be, and is sucked into a frankly unbelievable world of high security government research, ghosts, time travel (!) and full-on horror that was all so ridiculous that it made me wonder if everything since her husband’s death was merely a psychotic hallucination. The mousy Elizabeth suddenly becomes sparky and feisty, and her new ‘friend’, Michael Jones, is just too good to be true.

All of this would not be so bad if these events were somehow connected to the main plot, but they seem to be so disjointed that I wondered if they were written separately and then stitched together to make a sort-of whole. And then there’s the ending, which still makes me cross to think about.

This is the first part of a series, and I suspect that the remaining books will pull everything together so that this one makes more sense. I shan’t be reading them, however. Recommended for fans of the author only. Two stars.

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Review: ‘Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase’ by Louise Walters

October 29, 2017 Review 2

This is one of those books with a great premise let down by less than perfect execution. It’s ambitious – a dual-timeline story, with the grandmother in the second world war and her granddaughter in the present day. Each woman has her own story, but needless to say they have echoes of each other and eventually overlap.

The grandmother’s story is by far the more interesting to me. Dorothy is married to Albert, a working class man she married as much to escape her mother as for any other reason. Mother then casts her off for marrying beneath her. The marriage seems dogged by tragedy, with a succession of miscarriages followed by a stillbirth. When war breaks out, Albert takes off, leaving Dorothy alone, where she falls under the spell of a young Polish airman.

Modern woman Roberta works in a new and second-hand bookshop, leading a pretty dull life, when all’s said and done. She has a passionless affair with a married man (a customer!), visits her father, slowly dying of cancer, and her grandmother, now in a care home. Her sole pleasure, it seems, is finding letters, cards and messages hidden in the second-hand books she sells.

Neither of these women is particularly likable, it has to be said. Roberta is just too timid and insipid and downright passive to be interesting. Dorothy keeps herself aloof from the inhabitants of the small village where she lives, refusing to join the community and making no friends. Her tragic life ought to make her a sympathetic character, but this is one area where the author misses a trick, for somehow Dorothy’s emotional state never quite resonates, and she seems to have a curiously flat personality. She is instantly attracted to the Polish airman, Jan Pietrykowski, and all thoughts of her husband and marriage are abandoned. When her husband returns home on leave, Dorothy shows no interest in him, or sympathy for his experiences. The result is not entirely a surprise.

In fact, this is a feature of the book – pretty much everything that happens is telegraphed in big letters from an early stage, so there were no unusual twists of any merit, and everything is fairly predictable. This in itself is not a problem, for a skilled author can make the journey interesting, even when the destination is never in doubt. Unfortunately, the author here doesn’t quite have that ability. Major scenes lose all emotional resonance, or are so clumsily handled that they are almost laughable. For instance, without giving away any spoilery details, there’s a moment where one character engineers a major confrontation over an action by Dorothy. It’s a very dramatic scene, where everything Dorothy hopes for could all be swept away. How will it be resolved? The reader waits with baited breath… and the confrontational character simply says, “Oh, all right, do what you want then,” and walks away. All tension dissipated at a stroke. There are several moments like that which are just clumsily written, and towards the end several people behave contrary to their previous characters – Mrs Compton, for instance, and Dorothy’s mother, where it all felt a bit too easy. And the love interest resolution in the modern section is very clumsy.

An irritant for me (and this is a nitpick, because I’m sure most people wouldn’t notice) was in the writing of the modern sections. These are written in the first person (I walked… rather than she walked…), and paragraph after paragraph was riddled with sentences beginning with ‘I’. Here’s an example: “I tidy shelves. I make sure they are not too tightly packed. I take stock each year,…” I don’t mind the simplistic, short sentences, but all those ‘I’s just jump out at me and upset me. It’s really hard to write in first person without scattering ‘I’s all over the page like pepper, but it can (and should) be done (even in a review! Now I’m seeing all those ‘I’s of my own). The visual element of writing is important. But otherwise, I liked the difference between the modern sections (short, staccato, self-focused) and the war-time sections (longer, more elegantly written paragraphs). It fitted well, I thought.

I understand that this was the author’s first published book, so it may well be that these little hiccups will disappear in later work. It’s an interesting and confident work, if a little flawed (to my mind). The underlying themes of family and babies are well drawn, even if the characters never quite came to life for me and there are just too many cliches. I would have liked it better if the author could have spun out some of the key moments a little longer, to draw out the emotions underlying them. I generally assign a star rating purely on the basis of my own personal enjoyment (I know, I know, perverse of me, so sue me), and initially, having not enjoying it a great deal and not found much to interest me in either main character, I was prepared to go with three stars. But since finishing it, the characters have stuck in my mind rather, and on balance I’m going to go with four stars.

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Review: ‘Forsaken Kingdom’ by J R Rasmussen

October 27, 2017 Review 0

This book has all the elements of epic fantasy that I’ve poked fun at in the past. You know the sort of thing – the lost heir to the kingdom, the enchanted sword (which has a name, naturally), the school for magic, the trusty sidekicks… I should have hated it, but instead I inhaled it almost at one sitting. Why? Because it’s so much fun. And there are positively no boring bits.

The book starts in the most awesome way imaginable. Wardin Rath is a prince, whose uncle and father have just lost a war. Wardin is the last of his line, and will be the object of the victorious king’s searches until he’s found. And then killed. But Wardin is somewhere very special, the last Magistery in the kingdom, the sole remaining repository for magic in the land. If Wardin is tracked down there, not only his own life will be lost, but the Magistery too, and with it all magical knowledge. So, at the age of just twelve, Wardin does something amazingly heroic: he leaves the Magistery, and allows himself to be caught by his enemy.

Needless to say (because the book would be very short otherwise) he isn’t killed. Instead his memories are magically erased, and he’s held at King Bramwell’s court as a royal tutor. Now, this requires some suspension of disbelief, because Bramwell is a hardnosed warrior and battle campaigner, and his motives for this action are dubious to say the least, but let that pass. Inevitably, the spell is eventually fractured, and so begins the main part of the story, with Wardin, now all grown up, trying to work out just who and what he is as bits of memory drift back to his mind, and eventually returning to the Magistery and his old friends.

I liked Wardin very much, and he’s believable both as the memory-wiped tutor and as the prince who is obviously destined to be a great leader of men (by book 3 of the trilogy, I predict). I liked the two sidekicks, too – Erietta and Arun, twins, and between the three of them they cover all three kinds of magic in this world. Battlemagic is physical, moving things about. Sage magic affects minds. Contrivance is about the imagination. And – here’s the really nice touch – each form has to be ‘balanced’ by its opposite. So battlemages have to do mental work after the expenditure of magic to balance themselves, sages do physical work and contrivers have to do mundane work, like scrubbing floors. This is very elegant.

The world-building isn’t excessive. The map at the front of the book is fairly minimalist, but I suspect that more places may be added as the trilogy progresses. For anyone (like me) who got a bit muddled about the family relationships, there’s a family tree along with a hires map at the Cairdarin website (Cairdarin is the world/continent name). But even if the world itself isn’t quite as detailed as an Ordnance Survey map, everywhere felt totally real and I could picture the settings perfectly in my mind, specially the awesome Magistery, nestled in the mountains, with its secret entrance.

The story rattles along, and there’s absolutely no filler. When Wardin sets off on a journey, there’s no meandering through the scenery, describing every tree and rock in loving detail. No, we jump straight to the next point of action, or sometimes the destination, with barely a moment to catch our breath. Sometimes these transitions felt a bit abrupt, but mostly I was glad to be spared the saggy bits.

As you’d expect, there’s a grand confrontation at the end, resolved very elegantly, which neatly sets the scene for the next book in the trilogy. I can’t wait. Highly recommended for fans of traditional epic fantasy. Five stars.

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Review: ‘Beguilement: The Sharing Knife #1’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

October 5, 2017 Review 6

This is an awesome book. As a fantasy, the setting is brilliantly evoked, so that it feels utterly real, and the magic is suitably intriguing. But don’t be fooled: this is a romance through and through. Apart from a few high-action moments, which are mostly designed to throw our hero and heroine together, the plot is pure romance – the accidental meeting, the turning away because they’re on different sides of the cultural divide, the crisis that unites them, the nursing back to health, the long-drawn-out courtship and so on and so on.

The premise of this world is that there are two kinds of people. One kind has no magic. They’re farmers, living on settled plots of land, patriarchal and with a largely pre-industrial way of life. The other kind, the ones with magic, are called Lakewalkers (because they are constantly moving around the perimeter of the massive lake that defines their world). Their task is to rid the world of malices, immortal entities that suck the life out of humans, animals and plant life, growing stronger and stronger as they do so. The relationship between the two groups is edgy tolerance. The Lakewalkers think the farmers are simple-minded primitives, and the farmers, for their part, are very afraid of the magically-empowered Lakewalkers (as they should be) but they need them for healing and a few other benign purposes, as well as to clear out the malices.

Our representatives from these two groups are Fawn, the farmer, a girl kept ignorant by her upbringing and despised by her family, but driven by a burning curiosity about – well, everything, really. A trait which has got her into some difficulties as the book opens. Dag is the world-weary, seen-it-all Lakewalker, a man with a tragic past who’s something of a renegade even amongst his own people (yes, that old chestnut). Happenstance throws the two together, and when Fawn is drawn into Dag’s battle with a malice, their lives are irrevocably intertwined.

After that battle, the action fades into everyday survival and then travelling together. Inevitably, the two end up getting it on, and the sex is fairly graphic and frequent, so if that’s not your thing, avoid. I don’t mind a certain amount, but once it stops advancing the plot or enlightening the reader about the characters, it ceases to serve any useful purpose, and I felt that was the case here.

And then we came to the culmination of the book – a wedding. The lead-up and actual event went on for chapter after chapter and frankly, if I’d liked the characters less I’d have thrown the book at the wall at this point. Fortunately, I loved both Dag and Fawn. Dag is the kind of world-weary warrior type that I adore – very gentlemanly, and tender with his lover, but a total man’s man in battle. A little too perfect, perhaps, but it worked OK for me. Fawn is a delight, too, neither too shy nor too assertive. They make a good match.

With the clear setup that they will have to secure the approval of both her family and his fellow Lakewalkers to the marriage, the stage is set for two confrontations. But no. We get the visit to the farmers in full measure, and that over-lengthy wedding, but the book ends as the two set off to travel to the Lakewalkers’ camp. With the prospect of another lengthy series of confrontations and perhaps not much forward motion on the fantasy elements, I’m not mad keen to get book 2 in the series. Nevertheless, I loved almost everything about this book. Five stars.

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Review: ‘Terms of Enlistment’ by Marko Kloos

August 26, 2017 Review 1

Oh boy. Military Sci-fi. Not something I would ever choose for myself, but I’ll try anything once. This is a mega-seller, so it must be hitting the spot for a lot of people. I have no point of comparison, but it seems to me like a well-written book of its type.The world-building is superb, and I never once doubted any aspect of it. The military stuff – well, if you like blow-by-blow battles, lots of explosions and guns and general mayhem of the blowing-stuff-up category, and a succession of we’re-all-doomed moments – this book is for you.

The characters? Not much depth, and to be honest I didn’t much care if any of them lived or died, even the hero. There was a love interest of sorts, but not a romance by any stretch of the imagination. But really, that’s not what it’s all about. It’s the set-piece battles that are the stars of the show, that and the technology, and both are very well described without ever being boring or two over-the-top melodramatic. This is a book about a vividly-created future world, every element of it utterly believable, and the dramatic shenanigans that one fairly ordinary recruit finds himself in. If you like military sci-fi, I’m guessing that you’ll love this book. It’s really not my cup of tea, but despite that, I finished it without effort. Three stars.

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Author answers 23: What is your favourite point of view and tense to write in and why?

August 13, 2017 AuthorsAnswer, Writing musings 0

This is a fun question, because until not so long ago, my answer would have been: you what? Point of view? Tense? Errrr… It was only when I’d finished my first novel and introduced it to the harsh and unforgiving glare of an online critique group that I discovered just how little I knew about writing. That book, I discovered, was written in third person limited, past tense. With my second book, I moved on to first person past tense, and there I stayed for several more books.

What’s the difference? With third person (’she climbed the stairs’), there’s an immediate distance between the reader and the character. The reader is on the outside, observing the character’s actions. With first person (’I climbed the stairs’), the reader is right inside the character’s head. Now, it’s perfectly possible to convey a character’s inner thoughts and feelings in a vivid and visceral way, even in third person, but I found that much easier to do in first person. I tend to write with some distance anyway, and a first person narrative enabled me to get under the skin of my character much better.

There’s also a simplicity to a first person story. It (usually) restricts the narrative to just one point of view character, so for some genres (urban fantasy, for instance, or books requiring a memoir-like approach) it works much better. It’s not so good for the sort of sprawling, multi-point-of-view tale such as epic fantasy. It can work in romance, with two alternating points of view, heroine and hero.

But then along came book 6, which called for multiple points of view, but with one which was more important than the others, the only one which would last for the whole book. I chose to make him a first person POV, to give him greater importance, while the lesser characters were all third person. That was a difficult book to write, for me, because it didn’t come naturally to me to switch from character to character in that way. But still, it worked, sort of. Or at least I thought so (my readers may disagree!).

Book 7 was a sequel to book 5, so back I went to first person, but book 8 was more problematic. My main character was male, and I always find it trickier to get under the skin of a bloke, somehow. Plus, he was a bit of an enigma, and I didn’t want to reveal too much of his inner thought processes by being in his head. Third person gives some possibilities to retain a character’s secrets, so that was where I chose to go. Book 9 has two main characters, so that will alternate third person POVs, and book 10 will be a multi-character POV, so will be all third person too.

So ultimately, it all depends on the needs of the particular story, as always, but I do have a soft spot for a first person POV.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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