Tag Archives: novel

This Fragile Life – a review

This is an incredibly emotionally intense novel. It’s contemporary, set in the real world and is not fantastical in any way. It’s a book that explores the human heart and psyche with a mix of razor sharp insight and compassion.

Martha, after five rounds of failed IVF treatment is coming to terms with the idea that she is never going to have children. Martha is a successful business woman with a classy flat and a nice husband and from the outside she looks like she has it all. High School friend Alex didn’t get (or want) the snazzy college place or the high powered job – she works in a cafe part time and teaches art to disadvantaged kids. She has no money, no healthcare, and a tiny home. Alex is pregnant, and Alex does not think she has what it takes to be a decent mum. And so how could she refuse Martha’s suggestion that she give her baby to her friend?

Nothing, it turns out, is that simple. This is a tough story, and while avoiding spoilers, I will say that it made me cry, a lot.

There are lots of themes here. Poverty and privilege. What makes a good parent. What giving birth looks like when you’re dealing with private health care and have no insurance. What success means and what good relationships require. No one in this story is how they first seem. Some of them act terribly, or think really awful things. As you find out more about who they are and where they come from, many of those things make more sense. This is a story about how wounding is passed down through families and how hard it is to break out of family patterns of behaviour. It’s a story that makes clear that we do all have the power to choose and that none of us are obliged to keep repeating the things in our histories.

Events in this story bring out the best and worst in people. It’s a tale that demonstrates our capacity to grow and change, that we can all decide to be better than we were and that we may all have qualities we won’t know about until tested. Do we pull apart under stress, or prop each other up?

If you’re feeling fragile, this may not be a book for you – but it may also be cathartic. It’s well written, and it has a great deal to offer.

 

 

Advertisements

Grey Sister – review

Grey Sister is the second book is a fantasy series by Mark Lawrence. If you’ve not already read Red Sister – the first book, I strongly recommend starting there.  (You can get it all the places that do books, here’s one of them https://www.bookdepository.com/Red-Sister-Mark-Lawrence )

This is a narrative that revolves around a group of young women training to be nuns. Some of them will be warrior nuns – Red Sisters, and some of them will be Sisters of Discretion (I leave you to imagine) some will focus on magic, and some will do religion. This story plays out on a freezing world whose sun is dying. A technological moon reflects what sun there is, in order to keep a narrow band at the equator ice-free. The moon is falling, people are fighting over the scraps and dreaming of miracles.

This is a world that has been imagined in great detail, but you will never be bogged down in those details. It is a world in which women are powerful agents for change, and the story itself revolves around the actions and adventures of a handful of young women. I absolutely revelled in this; it’s so rare to read high fantasy in which women get to dominate the pages like this. Mark Lawrence’s women are allowed to be all things. Some are heroic, some political, some nasty and plotty, some mean and spiteful, some kind and generous. Many are complex people with multiple motivating forces acting on them. None of them exist as prizes to be won. They rescue each other.

However, the thing I love most about this setting is how the magic works. Too often, when fantasy magic is described in other books, it becomes dull and mechanical. There’s often no mystery in fantasy magic, no sense of awe, or wonder. The magic in Grey Sister builds on what we encountered in the first book. It is wild and unruly magic. It does have rules, but it reminds me a bit of learning about physics. You start out at school with gravity and pressure and things that make sense and you can relate to. Then you advance into more disorientating territory. This is what magic in Grey Sister is like. We did the basic magic physics in the first book, now we’re doing things that are like the way space time blurs and quantum and string theory makes most of us confused. Whole new levels of reality are revealed to us.

Except the magic also isn’t at all like this because it is felt and breathed and lived and alive and in everything and makes intuitive sense and sings to my animist heart.

Mark Lawrence is an author of rare skill. His characters are complicated, well rounded, engaging people. This is an author who understands people – at their best and worst – and knows how to create scenarios that naturally would bring the best and worst of people to the surface. His world building is vast and well considered and full of glorious detail, while never turning into history or geography lessons. We learn about this world by seeing people trying to live in it. His prose is snappy and sharp and laced through with humour. He knows how to keep you turning the pages. But then at the end when you look back, you’ll see the richness of it. Too many page turners leave me feeling hollow at the end. This is not one of those. He’s one of my favourite authors.

Now I have to wait for the next one, and that’s going to be the difficult bit.

More Grey Sister here – https://www.bookdepository.com/Grey-Sister-Mark-Lawrence/


Kingdom of Clockwork – review

Kingdom of Clockwork is, you realise after just a few pages, not set in the past as it first appears, but set in the future, after the fossil fuels run out. It’s a steampunk novel in a speculative era when coal powered steam is not an option. The story is driven by political machinations, as clockmaker Nielsen finds himself lured into the plots and schemes of his king. The king in question may in fact be mad.

The story itself rattles along to good effect, taking the reader in directions I think most people won’t anticipate. The surprises are delights rather than feeling like rabbits out of hats. Each new twist and turn builds a greater sense of how this future world works. The main character and first person narrator, Nielsen, is an innocent out of his depth, and thus able to take the reader with him easily. He’s also a clockwork geek. Now, I’m not a technically minded person and if asked, would have said that the fine details of clockwork would not intrigue me. However, the clockwork in the story I found totally engaging and it really drew me in. It’s very well written.

Charming though the plot and characters are, what made this book a standout for me is the way the author uses the future to speak to the present.

In this imagined future, much information has been lost about the Age of Electricity. The way in which the history is talked about, re-imagined, feared, mythologized and misinterpreted is wonderful. There’s lots to think about here in terms of how we imagine the past – a very Steampunk concern as well.

Billy O’Shea is able to look at our present from a perspective that is truly alien to it – a real feat of the imagination. It enables him to write about how things are now in a way that casts it all in a very different light. His future people do not share our ideas, values and beliefs, but they are influenced by them, and living in a civilization that follows ours. I can’t say too much or there will be spoilers, but I thought this aspect of the book was total genius.

This is a story you can read for the plots, devices and epic adventures – it has much to offer on that score. If you’re the kind of reader who loves layers and extra things to ponder, this is a good book to get your teeth into. I shall be reading the rest of the series if I can – this one stands alone, but it opens up plenty of possibilities for future tales.

Here’s the book on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00LXGSP8Y/ref=series_dp_rw_ca_1  

 


The Dillen Doll – a review

I’ve been aware of Jez Lowe for many years – he’s a singer-songwriter working very much in the folk tradition. The Dillen Doll is his first novel. I was not even slightly surprised to find that the word crafting and capacity for empathy that drives his songwriting translates very well indeed into longer pieces.

The novel’s title – The Dillen Doll, comes from a song. It’s a well known song and I’d just assumed it was one of those nonsense folk choruses. Dolly the dillen dah – is what I thought it was. Dillen, it turns out, is a Newcastle on Tyne word meaning runt. It turns out there’s a whole set of songs I’ve known most of my life that also come from Newcastle. What Jez Lowe has done in this book is draw on those folk songs, and brought them into a narrative. The songs are evoked in the text and if you aren’t familiar with them, there’s a CD that you can get alongside the book.

This is a story about people living in poverty in Newcastle. Sandgate, Byker Hill, Walker Shore, the waters of Tyne, the keelmen. There’s a long, hard look about what the press gangs meant, and the implications of war for those who may be stolen away against their will to fight for king and country.

This is a setting that gives us precarious employment for minimal wages, homes that do not need to be fit for human habitation, lack of care for the sick and injured, and those with power and money rigging the system to line their own pockets. It all sounds eerily familiar.

The story follows the adventures of young Dolly Coxen – the dillen doll of the title, whose song is written by a blind fiddle player. She works in a pub, and scavenges barely edible veg from the local market. Her man is a person of mystery with a story she does not, initially, know. Her story is about doing whatever it takes to save him as his past catches up with him. She’s a woman with agency in an era where women had very little power. She’s physically disabled, and a singer of traditional songs.

This is a celebration of a time, a place and a people. At the same time it isn’t sentimental and there’s no sense of a rosy glow being added to the past. Times were hard, hunger and privation were constant, conditions squalid – if you were poor. There’s an incredible sense of place and attention to detail that left me with the strange feeling that the author had simply time travelled to do his research.

I really enjoyed this book. You can find out more about it here – http://www.jezlowe.com/products-page/ 


Of novels and graphic novels

One of my longstanding projects – Hopeless Maine – is a graphic novel serious, devised and illustrated by my other half, Tom Brown. He lured me in to write it for him long before we thought about living together. It is a big part of how we’ve ended up married.

Initially, I was intimidated by comics writing. You have to mostly focus on dialogue and there’s not much text on any given page. I felt naked and exposed without a narrator. It’s a totally different way of telling stories, much more stripped down and focused than novels. To get a story in a hundred or so pages of sequential art, is a very different process from novel writing. Inevitably we can lavish much more attention on what things look like.

What I can’t really do as a graphic novel author is spend a lot of time inside the heads of characters, exploring their feelings, history, motivations, and so forth. Whole relationships may have to be defined in just a few facial expressions and physical gestures. One of the things I’ve always liked doing as a novelist is taking journeys into people’s heads. I’m as interested by inner process as I am by action.

At the moment, I’m working on a Hopeless Maine novel – which is going to be illustrated. With an illustrated novel, there’s more room to write, and the art supports and enhances that, but doesn’t have to do the bulk of the work. This has the added benefit of requiring far fewer hours of art to make it viable. There are two Hopeless Maine novellas already – set in the lead up to, and the same time frame as The Gathering. Those will emerge into the world eventually.

Novel writing gives me a chance to dig into the details. Hopeless Maine has a lot of details in it that I’ve not been able to explore. We’ve only seen a tiny portion of island life so far. What goes on outside of the main town? What do young people do for fun? I’ve worked out a story that will give me more Hopeless grandmothers, and some scope for narrative mapping. I started working on this book with an aim to make it a bit like Around the World in 80 Days, only around the island. As the story has found its own shape, I’ve moved away from the Verne, and the feature of the original scheme I am most likely to keep is a hot air balloon, which Verne didn’t have. The principle of exploration remains, and for exploring the way islanders, and by extension, the rest of us, talk about landscape.

I re-read Around The World in 80 Days last summer as part of my warm up to doing this book. It turned out not to be an adventure story, but a tale about a man obsessed with timetables. Verne’s hero doesn’t really want to see the world, and thus the author is largely spared from having to describe anywhere he’s not visited. It’s rather clever, and I found it funny. As a child reader, I’d missed that entirely. There’s a definitely charm in having a main character who is looking the wrong way or interested in the wrong things. Will I carry that idea into this novel?  Don’t know. I don’t plan books in too much detail because for me, the pleasure of writing is the act of exploration, not the business of sticking to the timetable.


Something novel and full of magic

Those of you who have been with me for a long time may recall the Nerdbong podcast and a 22 episode serialisation of my novel Fast Food at the Centre of the World. Many of you have started following this blog far more recently, so this may be news. Twenty two episodes of a strange and speculative novel, read and recorded by me. The British amongst you will discover that I sound like a West Country yokel. For you Americans… I have one of those sexy British accents! (I never cease to be amazed by how much Americans seem to like my voice, because to me I sound like girly Hagrid).

Fast Food at the Centre of the World is based on a handful of ideas and characters Tom Brown came up with but does not have the time to do as a graphic novel. The premise is that a sorcerer called Dunsany discovers the magical centre of the world, buys it, and sets up a restaurant. That of course had me asking questions about why a restaurant, and why fast food. I rapidly discovered that Dunsany’s idea of fast food is an apple and that he lives in a place and time with a worse food crisis than our own. That’s Gary in the image. Gary is a demon. He likes making pastry.

When I started writing fast food, food banks were not a big thing, first world hunger was much less of a thing, and I was angry about licensing laws for music. I wrote about poets, but there were very few actual poets in my life at that point and far more of them now, which makes me feel a lot more exposed sharing this. Although I gather that during the Nerdbong period, the book caused someone to start writing poetry, which is an awesome outcome.

I shall be putting Fast Food onto bandcamp every Wednesday until all 22 are there. Part of the reason for using this platform is that you can listen to each episode for free if you do so on the site. You can also choose to buy and download. I’ve kept it cheap – episodes are fifteen to twenty minutes, and I’m charging about the normal price for a song. I want to make things as accessible and affordable as possible, which is very much in keeping with the ethos of the book. If a few people buy copies then I can justify doing another book next year.

I’ve seen other authors putting up free blogs and then making whiny noises about how much effort it takes in the hopes of eliciting money, and this is not what I’m about. I believe in gift economy, I want to offer access to my work for free. I don’t want money to be a barrier for anyone. If those who can afford to and want to buy something or drop something in the hat now and then do so, I stay viable and it’s all good. I’ve got a patreon for that. In the meantime, please enjoy the free things. It’s a massive validation to me to have people engaging with and enjoying my work, and as ‘professional author’ is increasingly something professional authors (as with Philip Pullman recently) are saying it is now almost impossible to make work, I figure I might as well focus on how to make this work creatively and not get trapped by the money issues.

Here’s episode 1 – https://nimuebrown.bandcamp.com/track/fast-food-at-the-centre-of-the-world-part-one


Amster Damned – A review

Amster Damned, by Nils Nisse Visser is a steampunk novel and clearly the start of a series. The author and I were recommended to each other by a fellow reviewer. I love how this stuff works.

The main action in this tale takes place over a very short time frame, as private detective’s assistant Miss Kittyhawk is in Amsterdam on a missing person’s case. We’re offered an initial setup that looks mysterious enough – the case of the missing botanist – but as a few days of plotting and dramatic escape unfold, it turns out there’s a lot more to it.

Now to try and review without spoilering!

As the main drama plays out, we get details of Miss Kittyhawk’s back story, and she is certainly not as she first appears. There’s smuggling in her family background, and social unrest in her social background and rebellion against the state in her heart, but the state seems to be trying to recruit her, so that’s clearly all going to go well in future books!

The world building around the action-orientated part of the plot is superb, as a large and complex reality emerges. This is a world in which time travel is a criminal offence that will get you executed if you don’t have the right paperwork. This is a world where the skies hum with many different kinds of craft, and the scope for adventure, and misadventure, is vast.

I have one fairly small niggle over the level of description and technical information – this however is mostly a matter of personal taste. I know for some steampunk readers, the details of dress and technology are really what makes the genre, so for some people this is going to be a distinct asset, not an irritation. Less description would have been more, for me.

What really made this book for me, was the startlement of getting a little way in and going “Hang on, I KNOW THIS PERSON!” I’ve since discovered that the author is in the habit of recruiting real life Steampunks into his fiction, which adds a really interesting extra dimension, to my mind.

I also really appreciated that this is a story whose main characters all come from the back alleys and slums, and who are not enchanted by the great colonial, industrial machine, nor are they profiting much from it – well – smuggling aside! There’s an explicit critique of the ways those in power see and treat the masses, and plenty of real life relevance in that mix.

On the whole, a charming and entertaining read with the potential to develop into a really good series. I’ll be looking out for the next one.


The Adventures of Alan Shaw: A Review

Craig Hallam’s The Adventures of Alan Shaw is in many ways everything a person might expect from a steampunk novel. Set in something much like Victorian London, there’s lots of anachronistic technology – the monorail, dirigibles, automatons, some with ‘Babbage inside’ (I giggled about that, and about many other things). There’s also magic, crime, an inevitable event at The Great Exhibition, and a freak show. However, it is the ways in which Craig pushes out from those steampunk standards into unusual territory that makes this book such a good read.

Alan Shaw is a series of short stories, in chronological order. In many ways it functions like a novel, there are story threads that weave the tales together but each adventure is also a standalone. The main character is unusual because he’s a pauper. Steampunk can be a bit too fond of titles for my liking, so I really enjoyed seeing a proper filthy urchin taking the lead. At 11, young Mr Shaw is as dirty as he is disreputable. He’s also trying not to starve or freeze to death in a London that does not treat orphans kindly.

Although rescued from his sordid beginnings, Alan Shaw does not transform, Cinderella style into a handsome prince. He remains a misfit, no longer really working class, certainly not a proper fit for high society. He’s a young man with something to prove, and precious little sense when it comes to proving it.

There are all kinds of social issues laced through the adventures, and this is done with a light touch so it never feels like a lecture. Issues of what moral choices look like when you’re starving. Issues of class, and how society still works even now, advantaging some and crushing others. This is a London in which menial jobs are going to automatons. What are the poor to do? No answers are offered, but it parallels our own loss of employment to cheaper labour from machines. There’s some good subversion of gender norms, as well.

Colonialism is a big issue for anyone interested in reclaiming bits of Victorian spirit. I greatly appreciated the way in which Craig tackled this head on, with the final story of the book set in India. He manages the delicate balance of exploring some of the Victorian colonial mindset without ever letting the reader feel comfortable with it.

The book is laced through with humour, and written with considerable style. Craig has a real knack for working out which sense to draw on to convey a scene quickly. As a person whose thinking isn’t mostly visual, I appreciated having smells, sound and sensation as part of the descriptive mix. Plots bound along at a cheerful pace, characters are always rounded enough to engage, disaster is narrowly avoided. If you want to balance wild escapism with the option of dwelling on the implications, this is a very good read.

Alan Shaw on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Alan-Shaw-Craig-Hallam/dp/1908600322/ref=tmm_pap_title_0


Did you whisper back? A Review

I picked up this psychological novel by Kate Rigby through my involvement with Neverland blog tours. What a wonderful find! I read it over an afternoon and evening – it’s not a huge book, but it was also something I found I just couldn’t step away from. I had to know.

This is in essence a book about how ancestral choices can play out in the lives of later generations without them having any idea what’s underpinning things. The central character, Amanda, is both withdrawn and clearly a bit irrational, and we see this early on as she makes some troubled leaps of logic as part of a quest to find her missing twin sister. The book blurb reveals that the missing twin isn’t real and that Amanda is heading for mental breakdown, so, no spoilers from me in saying that much.

The questions of how and why the young woman at the centre of this story has become so unhinged from reality takes us on a journey into her past. As someone who has done a lot of work on ancestry and how it impacts on descendants, I can heartily recommend this novel as a representation of how things get passed down.

The writing is incredibly paired down and intense, full of depth and precise observations of both wider life, and the world inside Amanda’s head. This is an exquisite exercise in telling rather than showing. I’m not a big fan of the modern fad for ‘show not tell’ because it limits where you can go. When it comes to psychological issues, ‘show’ often won’t do it, and ‘tell’ can take us in deeper and far more effectively. There’s no page space wasted on playing everything out. We’re allowed instead to grapple directly with the meat of the story, and with the ghosts haunting it.

I loved this book, I think it’s a fantastic, gem of a novel. It isn’t comfortable or easy reading, but it is profound, intense and provocative.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Did-You-Whisper-Back-disturbing-ebook/dp/B0077E2M26

 

 


Review: The Shadow Crucible

I was approached to review this book because the author – T.M. Lakomy –  found me online and thought I would like it! I love it when people do that, especially when they’re right – as in this case.

When I started reading The Shadow Crucible, I thought I knew what I’d got. The set-up looked like a straightforward Christian fantasy with angels, demons, Templars, and the such. I was reminded of Constantine, and Tom Sniegoski’s Fallen, only with a mediaeval setting. The male lead is cold, remote, firm. The female lead is wild, beautiful, dangerous and seems a bit petty – A Scarlet O’Hara with a retinue of orphans. And for a little while there I was afraid that this would be one of those romances where the cool controlling guy breaks and tames the wild woman. But, the fascinating world building and the writing style kept me reading, and I’m very glad I stayed with it.

Then, around page 57, the plot shape started to change, and I realised I was not reading some kind of historical romance. Page 73 pulled the rug out from underneath everything I thought I knew about this book. No one, it turned out, was as they seemed in those opening pages. What I thought was going on was not happening. I had been fooled, misled, overconfident… and I was very excited by this!

Thereafter, what the story keeps doing, is taking a step back every now and then to let you see a bigger picture than you could before. In the context of the bigger picture, what you thought you knew looks rather different, each time. With each step back, the world expands, the implications of the story get bigger, the stakes rise, the magic becomes even more wild and wonderful, the philosophy becomes even more persuasive…

Whilst trying to avoid spoilers, this is a book that is very much in opposition to dogma and blind faith. It’s a story to challenge organised religion and question the motives of anyone who uses religion as a power base. All of the characters go through radical changes. One way or another, they are peeled of their surface pretences and small selves to reveal the larger presence beneath. I came to love characters who, in the opening pages, I felt no attraction to. I came to feel sympathy for other characters I’d not really liked at the start. And some, when peeled back, where entirely horrifying. There’s not a vast amount of horror in the book but when it comes… it really is very dark indeed.

I think for most people, the writing style will make or break this book. This is an author relishing their deliberately archaic language. It is wordy, with turns of phrase that sound profoundly un-contemporary. If you’re the sort of person who only likes stark, pared down language, considers ‘said’ the only acceptable speech tag, and skims paragraphs of description, this is not for you. If you enjoy wilfully wordy books, I fully expect you’ll enjoy this. I found it difficult to put down, and was enchanted by the unconventional story-shape.

Buy the book here (or pre-order it, it’s not out at time of posting the blog) https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Crucible-Blind-God/dp/1590794141