September 3, 2012
Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

Please note Mockingbird is a direct sequel to Blackbirds and due to that fact it’s entirely possible this review may contain minor spoilers. Consider yourself warned, people.

Miriam Black has a terrible talent.

The first time she touches someone, she will see the moment of their death. Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. It is all she can do to keep her talent – her curse – in check.

But when Miriam touches a woman while standing in line at the supermarket, she foresees that the woman will be violently killed - right here, right now.

Earlier this year I read and reviewed Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig and if I’m being honest I have to admit that it did blow my tiny little mind just a bit. Like a David Lynch directed version of The Littlest Hobo (if the Hobo was a young women with supernatural powers rather than a dog) I really enjoyed this dark, nightmarish tale. When I heard there was another novel featuring the same character, I was keen to give it a whirl.

Once again I found myself amazed at how quickly I was hooked. Damn your black heart, Wendig! Miriam continues to be delightfully antagonistic with everyone that she meets. With a mouth on her like a longshoreman and a tough as nails exterior it’s difficult not to immediately full in love with her. Her shocking language and her pragmatic approach to life are just so much fun. The phrase ‘brutally honest’ may well have been invented with Miriam in mind. For all her foul mouthed bluster though, Miriam does actually care. Somewhere, way WAY deep down, there is a good person who does want to try and help people. The help she provides might be a little unconventional at times but she does try.

What of the plot then? Serial killings, a private girl’s school and a ballsy heroine with more attitude than you can shake a wide variety of sticks at. I ask you what’s not to love? Wendig is the sneakiest of authors. On the face of it Mockingbird is a straight forward urban fantasy but delve deeper and it’s actually so much more than that. The narrative deftly explores themes like revenge and the nature of redemption while still managing to be entertaining but never preachy. In this novel Miriam is forced to confront some harsh truths about the power she lives with. During Miriam’s continuing journey she has to try and learn how to live with what she knows. She also has to try and learn how to exist with others in her life rather than trying to shut the entire outside world out. I love the fact that the reader is privy to the thoughts going on in her head. It is so much easier to empathize with a protagonist when motivations are clear. There is a genuine sense that Miriam’s character is evolving as the plot unfolds. The Miriam the reader meets on page one of Blackbirds is most definitely not the same Miriam on the final page of Mockingbird.

Some may find Mockingbird too much. There is no denying that at times things get pretty extreme, but personally I found it pitched just right. I’ve read other authors in the recent past who have attempted to write in a similarly graphic style and I have found their work unpalatable. I never felt that way while reading this novel. Wendig knows exactly when to shock and when to leave your imagination to fill in the blanks.

I don’t often bring up the topic of book covers but once again I feel compelled to mention the truly striking covert art created by Joey Hi-Fi. A complex portrait of Miriam that uses basic black and white with just a splash of red to very effectively capture the spirit and tone of the entire novel. It’s the sort of thing I could see myself getting framed and hanging on a wall. Actually, if anyone at Angry Robot reads this review I’ve said before that you guys know good cover art, how about creating some posters?

In conclusion, I will offer these following words of warning. I think we may have to start collectively fearing this author. I mean, I can only assume that Mr Wendig has made some sort of Faustian deal with the Dark Gods. Perhaps his books, and their addictive crack-like quality, are only the first step in some far more diabolical scheme? It appears that the dark side doesn’t only offer cookies, they also have Chuck Wendig. Mockingbird is a darker-than-dark adult flavored urban fantasy that will mess with your head in the best of ways. Seek it out now (or after reading Blackbirds if you haven’t already done that).

Mockingbird is published by Angry Robot and is available in the US already and in the UK from the 6th September 2012.  Miriam Black will return in Cormorant which is due in 2013.

August 31, 2012
Shift by Kim Curran

When your average loser, Scott Tyler, meets the beautiful and mysterious Aubrey Jones, he learns he’s not sow average after all. He’s a “Shifter” - he has the power to undo any decision he’s ever made. 

At first, he things the power to Shift is pretty cool. But as his world starts to unravel around him, he realises that each time he uses his power, it results in terrible, unforeseen consequences. In a world where anything can change with a single thought, Scott has to decide exactly where he stands.

Everyone has done it haven’t they? You’ve made a decision and then immediately regretted it. You’ve said or done the wrong thing, and been forced to live with an outcome that you didn’t need or want. Just imagine if you could undo your mistake. Make everything better without anyone realising your error. Wouldn’t that be the best thing in the world? I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Scott is just a typical teen, not terribly good at anything and unsure what to do with his life. A moment of madness, a reckless dare involving an old electricity pylon, leads to a decision that changes his entire future. Suddenly Scott is exposed to a section of society that he never knew existed, and he has to begin an entirely new way of life. I liked the idea that Scott is on the back foot for almost the entire novel. Most of the time he has no idea what is going on. The reader gets to share each of his discoveries as he makes them.

Once the world of Shifting is revealed to Scott, he is given the chance to join the Agency for the Regulation and Evaluation of Shifters (ARES). He gets to learn how to harness his burgeoning powers and understand their limitations. Most Shifters learn to control their powers much earlier in life so Scott finds himself in the beginner’s class with children half his age. This leads to a few funny moments, and there are some great characters introduced at this point. The gruff class instructor Sargent Cain, and Scott’s diminutive classmate C.P. Finn are personal favourites.

Scott’s initial training contains some of the best scenes in the novel. Curran has a good eye for action and does a great job describing how two Shifters fight one another. By using their powers to warp potential realities, the final outcome is decided before the first punch has even been thrown. This is the sort of thing that would be breathtaking to watch, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a movie version.

Every good story deserves a thoroughly unpleasant villain, and Shift has the thoroughly unpleasant Benjo. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything but even his description is just plain nasty. I do love a novel that has a bad guy who is out and out nasty. Benjo’s methods for dealing with his enemies are extreme and unpredictable, for a young adult novel I was surprised just how dark he was. He has what can best be described as ‘unusual tastes’, and indulges these regularly. Always a good sign when an author can write something that makes you ‘Eeewwww’ out loud.

I do hope that there will be more books set in the Shifter-verse; it feels like we’ve just been offered the glimpse of something that has the potential to be much larger. The author teases with a few tantalising references to Shifters elsewhere in the world and I would love to see this idea explored in more depth. I would be great to learn more about ARES foreign counterparts, not to mention the members of the mysterious organisation, the Shifter Liberation Front.

I think we can all agree that a young person discovering that they have special abilities and then getting drawn into a secret world/society is hardly a new idea. That said, Shift is right up there with best examples of this type of story. It is an intelligent, well paced, science fiction story that is well executed with a compelling edge. It’s so well executed in fact, that I had to keep reminding myself that this is debut novel. I honestly can’t think of a better introduction to the new imprint Strange Chemistry. Curran has written a cracking story that plays around with the laws of reality like some sort of teen-friendly version of Inception. I would say it is well worth checking this novel out.

Shift is published by Strange Chemistry and is available from 6th September 2012.

August 28, 2012
The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters

The world is about to end – would you investigate a murder? 

An asteroid is about to collide with the Earth in six months time, and wipe us all out. Would you give up your life and go of to fulfill your ambition, take solace in drunken pleasure, live in fear, or solidly carry on doing what you do? Detective Hank Palace faces this stark question, and as others walk away from their jobs he carries on. A murder has been committed, and it is his job to solve it – problem is, none of his colleges believe it is a murder, and neither does the coroner – just Hank’s instinct, and in a city that has a dozen or more suicides a week even that might be wrong. What’s the point in solving murders if we are all going to die anyway? As Hank investigates further, undercurrents begin to surface –who was the victim obsessed with the asteroid? Did he know something about it that the rest of us don’t? Is there a conspiracy afoot? In a world where politicians have run of to the Bahamas for one last sun-drenched beach holiday, where the US Army runs internment camps for protestors, where churches and synagogues are packed with worshippers, and religious fanatics are on the rise, the reader is confronted with hard questions – What is the basis for civilization? In an imminent apocalypse, would the world we know grind to a halt with a long, slow whimper? What is life worth, and, most importantly, what would any of us do, really do, if we only had six months left to live. 

This book may win the prize for the most intriguing premise of the year. If you knew that the world was going to end would you keep on doing the job that you do now?

Detective Henry ‘Hank’ Palace is a man with on a mission. As the world is falling apart round about him, he tries to focus one hundred percent on the job in hand. As time passe, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to do this as more of the local population become apathetic towards anything other than their own wants and needs. This is where I think The Last Policeman really excels. Winters gripping prose drip feeds the reader details of the inevitable collapse of society. Events begin with just a few subtle hints of how bad things have become, but as time creeps ever forward you get a real sense that the situation is only going to get worse. Some give into their own melancholy, while others try to put a brave face on it. Through all this Detective Palace remains resolute.

Where I was surprised is that as the plot continues to unfold, there are some nice unexpected moments that force events off on completely different tangents. Winters plays with the readers expectations and I’ll admit there were a couple of moments that managed to catch me completely off guard. The thing to remember is that normal rules no longer apply, and character motivations are entirely different from what you would expect in a standard murder mystery.

It’ll hardly come as a surprise when I tell you that this sort of story prompts a certain amount of introspection? I think there would have to be something seriously wrong with you if you didn’t start pondering what you would do in this situation. Could you maintain some semblance of normality or would you throw it all in to follow your dreams while there was still some time left? It’s not often that a crime novel leads to that sort of internal debate.

The good news is that there are another two novels set to follow on from The Last Policeman. One set three months before the asteroid is due to hit and one set in Earth’s final month. I have to admit that I am already insanely curious about what is going to happen. There is a sub plot concerning Hank and the relationship he has with his sister, Nico. Both their parents are already dead and Nico is the only family that Hank has left. She is involved with some potentially shady people and there is a suggestion that there is a huge conspiracy going on. I do hope this is something that is explored in the other two novels.

Winters has left just enough loose ends in the plot to keep this reader interested. He has crafted a story that manages to avoid being entirely downbeat or pessimistic and instead offers just the smallest glimmer of hope. I have to admit that I kind of liked that. I’ll be checking these out as soon as I can get my hands on them.

The Last Policeman is published by Quirk Books and is available now. Highly Recommended.

August 24, 2012
Silenced by Kristina Ohlsson

Fifteen years ago a young girl was brutally attacked as she picked flowers in a meadow near her parents’ Swedish country home. The crime went unreported; the victim silenced.

Cut to the present. It is a bleak February morning in Stockholm, when Alex Recht’s federal investigation unit is assigned to two new cases.

A man has been killed in a hit and run. He has no identification on him, he is not reported missing nor wanted by the police. Investigative Analyst Fredrika Bergman has the task of finding out who he is.

At the same time, a priest and his wife are found dead in their apartment. All evidence suggests that the priest shot his wife and the committed suicide. But is that all there is to it?

Two different cases, seemingly unrelated. But it is not long before the investigations begin to converge and the police are following a trail that leads all the way back to the ’90s, to a crime that was hushed-up, but whose consequences will reach further and deeper than anyone ever expected.

The cover of Silenced has a sticker on it that boldly proclaims “For fans of The Killing”. I’ve seen the television series and now that I’ve read the book, and had a good think about it, I’m inclined to agree. Both stories feature strong heroines who are outwardly tough but also exhibit an emotionally fragility. There are other similarities as well - both cover events in real time and focus quite heavily on the procedural components.

Ohlsson spends the time fleshing out the character of the various investigators. I particularly liked Peder Rydh specifically because he almost like a petulant child trapped in a grown-up’s body, good at police work but a spectacular failure at almost everything else. Nice to find a character in a novel that has such obvious failings. He is not prefect by any stretch of the imagination, is jealous of colleagues, throws the occasional strop and his attitude towards female co-workers is terrible. That said, all these faults make him all the more interesting to read. As the plot unfolds you get to learn exactly what makes all the team tick and there is valuable insight into their home lives. These aren’t just police men and women, they are people too. It’s probably fair comment that some may find this depth of detail too much or potentially distracting, but personally I felt it gave the story much needed human element. It helps to better understand various character motivations and makes them all seem that much more real.

Like the other experiences I’ve had with Scandinavian literature, Silenced starts off very small but quickly builds into something that manages to be thoroughly engrossing. I can understand why literature from this part of the world is gaining popularity here in the United Kingdom, I’ve not read a bad example yet. The likes of The Killing and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have become a bona fide cultural phenomena and I don’t see why Silenced can’t follow suit. I’d certainly be interested in reading more novels featuring the same characters.

Ohlsson also manages to blend in elements from the political thriller genre into the mix. There are key scenes that take place abroad and some subtle social commentary regarding Swedish immigration policy. There are hints dotted throughout the narrative that there is something much larger going on and that the crimes are the tip of the iceberg but it is only toward the end of the story that all is revealed. These unexpected but welcome inclusions help to strengthen an already intriguing story. The skillful way that the seemingly disparate story threads eventually begin to weave together is very effective, and works well. The final revelations lead to a satisfying twisted conclusion.

If you like the sound of Silenced you may be interested to know that I’ve just had a little rummage around on Amazon and it appears Kristina Olhsson already has another title released, Unwanted.  This is a prequel to the events in Silenced and features some of the same characters. I think I may have to add it to my to read list.

Silenced is published by Simon and Schuster and is available from 30th August 2012.

August 22, 2012
The Eloquent Page Interviewed by A Fantastical Librarian

Another day and another little snippet of bookish related news (well sort of).

The most fantastical of librarians, Mieneke Van Der Salm, regularly runs a feature where she interviews other book reviewers. Guess what? This week it was my turn.

A Fantastical Librarian

 

9:03pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/ZpwT2yRx59Cd
Filed under: tumblrize 
August 21, 2012
Fox Spirit Looks to the Shadows

Hot on the heels of the Angry Robot cover release this afternoon, we now have a little something from the good people at Fox Spirit. (I know, I know. I don’t do any news for ages and then two articles come along at once. I’m like a bus). 

Fox Spirit books are pleased to announce that Joan De La Haye’s psychological horror ‘Shadows’ is now available from amazon (to follow at other outlets soon). ‘Shadows’ was Joan’s first published novel and we are delighted to re release it.

Sarah is forced to the edge of sanity by the ghosts of her family’s past. Suffering from violent and bloody hallucinations, she seeks the help of psychologist and friend, Michael Brink.

After being sent to an institution in a catatonic state covered in blood from stabbing her unfaithful boyfriend, Sarah is forced to confront the truth about her father’s death and the demon, Jack, who caused her fathers suicide and is now the reason for her horrific hallucinations. Unlike her father, Sarah refuses to kill herself. She bargains for her life and succeeds.

In Sarah’s struggle to regain her life and her sanity, she discovers more things to the world than she could ever have imagined and leaves her seeking the answer to the nagging question, Who is really mad?

Fox Spirit has already released Joan’s thriller ‘Requiem in E Sharp’ and her unusual zombie novella ‘Oasis’ through Amazon and Wizards Tower Press.

Following soon is our first anthology ‘Tales of the Nun & Dragon’ in which Joan is one of over twenty writers offering tales of nuns and dragons in a mix of genres.

For more information on any of our books please contact adele@foxspirit.co.uk

August 21, 2012
Angry Robot To Take On A Mad Scientist

A tiny little morsel of news popped into my inbox and I felt the urge to share. The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke is being released in Febuary 2013 from Angry Robot Books.

Hmm, what more can I tell you? Well, here’s the blurb…

There’s never been anyone - or anything - quite like Finn.

He looks, and acts human, though he has no desire to be. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection. A billion-dollar construct, his primary task is to tutor Cat.

When the government grants rights to the ever-increasing robot population, however, Finn struggles to find his place in the world.

and behold the cover

Looks interesting doesn’t it. Time will tell :)

August 20, 2012
The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

A seven-year-old girl puts a nail-gun to her grandmother’s neck and fires. An isolated incident, say the experts. The experts are wrong. Across the world, children are killing their families. Is violence contagious? 

As chilling murders by children grip the country, anthropologist Hesketh Lock has his own mystery to solve: a bizarre scandal in the Taiwan timber industry. Hesketh has never been good at relationships: Asperger’s Syndrome has seen to that. But he does have a talent for spotting behavioural patterns, and an outsider’s fascination with group dynamics. Nothing obvious connects Hesketh’s Southeast Asian case with the atrocities back home. Or with the increasingly odd behaviour of his beloved step-son, Freddy. But when Hesketh’s Taiwan contact dies shockingly and more acts of sabotage and child violence sweep the globe, he is forced to acknowledge possibilities that defy the rational principles on which he has staked his life, his career and, most devastatingly of all, his role as a father. 

Part psychological thriller, part dystopian nightmare, The Uninvited is a powerful and viscerally unsettling portrait of apocalypse in embryo.

I have to begin with a confession. I started reading this book last month, but had to take a break from it. The last thing I wanted to do was to read about unspeakable, random acts of violence when at the time that is exactly what was plastered all over the news. That said, what I had read of The Uninvited had stayed with me and I decided after some time that I did I want to go back and complete reading it.

Hesketh’s condition makes his outlook and actions appear almost alien to other people. Ironically, though he has difficulty with social interaction this does make him a near perfect observer of human behaviour. He is the ideal person to investigate and interpret the signs and signals that are appearing throughout society. I think this may be where I had a little trouble with the novel. Hesketh is so different to the protagonists that I am used to, that initially I had difficulty appreciating his motivations and reactions to some of the situations he finds himself in. It took me a while to connect with him and this in turn made it difficult for me to empathise. It was only at the point where Hesketh’s stepson Freddy appears where things all started to fall into place. Freddy’s introduction adds a much-needed human face to the global catastrophe that is unfolding. The relationship that Hesketh and Freddy share helps to drive home the personal nature of the tragedy.

This is where Jensen’s writing really succeeds for me. She creates a global tragedy, but gives it a very intimate feel.  Not only does the novel explore this through the relationship between Hesketh and Freddy, but Hesketh’s colleagues also have to face up to the same levels of trauma. Hesketh’s boss, Ashok, in particular is changed in a profound way by his experiences.

A final word of warning though - The Uninvited is undoubtedly a fascinating read but the subject matter can be, at times, harrowing. I’m sure, based on the book blurb above, you may have already guessed that this novel takes the reader to some pretty dark places. Those of a nervous disposition may wish to consider something a little more upbeat. If, like me however, you’re a fan of bleak, psychological horror then this may be a novel you wish to consider. I don’t think I could describe this novel as enjoyable read but it is most assuredly a thought provoking one. Jensen is a skilled writer and knows exactly which emotion buttons to press in order to illicit the response she wants from any reader.

The Uninvited is published by Bloomsbury and is available now.

August 17, 2012
Clovenhoof by Heide Goody & Iain Grant

Charged with gross incompetence, Satan is fired from his job as Prince of Hell and exiled to that most terrible of places: English suburbia. Forced to live as a human under the name of Jeremy Clovenhoof, the dark lord not only has to contend with the fact that no one recognises him or gives him the credit he deserves but also has to put up with the bookish wargamer next door and the voracious man-eater upstairs.

Heaven, Hell and the city of Birmingham collide in a story that features murder, heavy metal, cannibalism, armed robbers, devious old ladies, Satanists who live with their mums, gentlemen of limited stature, dead vicars, petty archangels, flamethrowers, sex dolls, a blood-soaked school assembly and way too much alcohol.

Jeremy Clovenhoof is new in town. He has a fondness for copious amounts of Lambrini and, excuse the pun, a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to other people’s money and possessions. Ok, so technically he’s the Angel of the Abyss but that doesn’t make him a bad guy does it? His various attempts to blend in and lead a quiet life in suburbia all tend to end in a spectacular fashion. He throws himself into every situation with such demented enthusiasm, it’s impossible not to warm to his particular brand of lunacy. Personally, I found his attempts to teach at a local school, and holding a dinner party, were particular highlights.

Clovenhoof’s bemused neighours often get dragged along for the ride when it comes to his wacky schemes. Ben, a shy bookseller, find himself in the unenviable situation of swiftly becoming Satan’s BFF. Meanwhile, Nerys is on the look out for the ideal man. Is her suave, slightly bonkers new acquaintance the man of her dreams?

Ben and Nerys watched him circulate around the room. “I swear he’s concussed,” said Nerys.

“I think he’s Swedish,” said Ben.

“His English is flawless.”

“That’s the Swedes for you. Natural linguists.”

I think that it’s fair to say that Clovenhoof has an undeniably silly premise, but the good news is that the plot absolutely revels in this silliness. The reader gets to meet a rather amiable version of Satan who is at odds with almost everything around him. The various culture clashes he experiences form the basis of most of the novel’s many humorous moments. I was impressed that the plot manages to get more and more outlandish with every passing chapter but still seems to maintain a weird sort of sense. For example, it’s only logical that if you were the personification of evil and you found yourself stranded in the Midlands, one of the first things you would do is start your own heavy metal band, I know I would.

The initial chapters have almost an episodic feel as they cover Jeremy’s attempts to blend into his new life. I liked this format, it works quite well and you’re never exactly sure where things are going to go next. Later chapters pull everything together as Clovenhoof and his friends take on the combined might of Heaven and Hell.

I have to admit a certain amount of curiosity regarding how this collaboration between the two authors worked. Part of me is keen to actually read something from each of them just to see if I can spot their individual contributions to Clovenhoof.

If you’re looking for a fun read with just a dash of evil in a similar vein to Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, or the works of Robert Rankin, then I would give Clovenhoof a try. This novel features stereotypically quirky British humour that swings from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again with flair. This is a fun farce that doesn’t get bogged down with taking itself too seriously. I always enjoy any writers who can genuinely make me laugh out loud.

Clovenhoof is published by Pigeon Park Press and is available as an ebook now.

August 15, 2012
Earth Girl by Janet Edwards

Meet me, Jarra. Earth Girl.

It’s the year 2788, and the universe is divided into two different kinds of people: the Norms, who can portal between different planets, and people like me, the one in a thousand who are born with an immune system which doesn’t allow us to leave planet Earth.

Norms come back to Earth for one reason: to study human history. But only if the don’t have to interact with us ‘Neanderthals’ along the way. Well, I’ve got a plan to change all that.

Call me whatever you like, I’m every bit as good as they are. And I’m going to prove it to them.

Just imagine you live in an age where humanity has finally reached the stars and we are able to travel to distant planets in the blink of an eye. The whole universe is out there waiting to be explored, but by a simple twist of fate you have to stay behind. Not only that, but all those that are able to travel between worlds look down at you. To them, your kind are to be pitied like some sort of sub-human.

Jarra is an excellent student and is given the opportunity to join a prestigious university course that focuses on Earth’s pre-history (essentially all time before the invention of the portal technology). Young adults from all over the galaxy come back to Earth to study their ancestral home. So keen is she to escape her perceived handicap, Jarra invents a new history for herself. To her new classmates Jarra’s unconventional ways and her extensive knowledge of Earth is just the product of a military upbringing.

Through the course of her studies, Jarra connects with a fellow student called Fian. With her deception firmly in place Jarra gets to experience what life for Norms is like. Everything seems to be going perfectly until a traumatic event leaves Jarra starting to believe her own version of the truth.

Earth Girl is set nearly eight hundred years in the future and I’d like to tell you that things have improved, but the trials and tribulations of being a young adult remain the same as they are now. Jarra is a likeable protagonist and I found her journey both thought provoking and believable. She still faces the constant battle to fit in with the group and relentless peer pressure is with her every day. I can imagine it’ll be very easy for any young person to relate to her plight, anyone who has ever been made to feel different will understand.

Where I think Earth Girl really excels is Edwards’s unique vision of the future. The mass exodus from Earth has created multiple divergent cultures. Each new society still view Earth as their familial home but have splintered off into their own individual groups. It gives the author the opportunity to explore how differing morals and societal attitudes can effect the development of a civilization. These ideas form a strong backbone to the main story and elevate a simple plot into something more complex.

At the most basic level Jarra is just trying to find her place in the cosmos. As she struggles to discover her own identity the reader is treated to a superior young adult novel that is as insightful as it is entertaining. This is a great debut and I’m looking forward to Edwards next novel already.

Earth Girl is published by Harper Voyager and is available from the 16th August 2012.

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