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Friday, 11 September 2015

The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney

The Spook's Apprentice may well be one of the books that has been sitting on my bookshelves for the longest and I could never really put my finger on why that was. But, since I was on a roll with some shorter books, I thought that I would give it a read.

The Spook's Apprentice is narrated by Tom Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son, who has been apprenticed to a Spook due to his unusual circumstances of birth. As a seventh son of a seventh son, he can see things in the dark that other people can't. As a Spook, he would be responsible for protecting the people in his county from supernatural creatures like boggarts and witches. But he is less than certain about this particular path to take, as Spooks are often seen as a necessary evil, shunned by their community whenever they aren't being useful. And when he finds himself pitted against the powerful witch known as Mother Malkin, will he have the courage necessary to keep going?
I am rarely so torn by a book. There is a part of me that does want to like this. Small villages terrorised by an increasing amount of the undead, a training regime involving consorting with the terrifying remnants left by tormented spirits, and lore that would appear to be quite extensive. But the pace goes by at such a clumsily fast rate that I get the distinct impression that the author doesn't actually want to talk about the world that he's built. There are several scenes throughout the narrative which could have been really effective and scary, if only the story took the time to build atmosphere and tension. So what they instead became was someone recounting a scary story that they'd been told as a speed run. It's an incredibly frustrating thing, because the narrative will make mention of something and then never build on it. For instance, the witches in this world can be divided into malignant, benign and neither (there's also a "doesn't know she's a witch" category, but come on people, we all know that that doesn't really count here). Not that you'd know it from the actual witches that turn up, who are all evil and eat babies. For no real discernable reason either. It's just something that these ones do. The only exception to this is a young witch named Alice, who isn't a witch yet, but will grow up to be one. Alice is related to the evil witches, but might as well be a stranger that they met in the pub for all the insight on them that she provides. I want to say that it feels lazy, but that word doesn't seem to fit; the background work is presumably there, the author just doesn't want to distract/interest his audience from the pedestrian plot.
Additionally, I have a real issue with the character of the Spook himself. First of all, he seems to have some real issues with women and, like everything else of substance, it is ignored entirely. So occasionally he'll have moments where he just says, completely out of the blue, stuff akin to "Those lady creatures that make up half our population, you just can't trust 'em!" It's really distracting and uncomfortable, as the protagonist doesn't really make much comment about them. Secondly, his sense of what is barbaric is seriously screwed up. To kill a witch permanently, you need to either burn it or eat its heart raw. Both of those are horrifying fates, says the Spook, so instead I'll bury her alive and keep her prisoner in my garden like some horribly dangerous landscaping feature. Smooth.

Overall, an interesting concept that has been utterly stripped of cool things by the total incompetence of the writing style. I wouldn't bother. 1.5/5

Next review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Signing off,

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

I picked up Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe for two reasons. First, it looked adorable and easy to read. Second, it included recipes for cake. What possible reason could I have for turning down cake (apart from diet, but I'd rather not be reminded of that)? Besides, it was a cheap charity shop purchase, there wasn't much for me to lose.

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe follows Issy Randall, an admin clerk at an estate agents who is just sort of bumbling through her life. That all changes when she loses both her job and her boyfriend in one fell swoop. After a few weeks of moping around, she finds herself looking around a shop for rent more or less on a whim, and decides to set up a bakery/cafe. She soon finds that this venture may be a lot more complicated than she ever thought that it could be.
I was expecting this to be harmless and fluffy, and I got exactly what I expected. There's some romance and some angsty moments that come with it. There's the whole plucky lady underdog story which is nice, especially with some of the detail provided about actually running a business. The characters are pretty vivid, if a little on the simple side. Really, this is kind of a difficult book for me to review, because it is pretty much exactly as I thought it would be and I honestly don't know how to expand on that. Usually my thought process will compare and contrast my expectations with the actual results, picking out things that stood out to me, good or bad, as a result. Here, Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe not only matched the blurb better than I've ever seen in a blurb before, but it fit the sort of cute and charmingly vintage but spunky feel that chick lit books seem to be best known for. It's that everywoman thing that many of them aim for, the woman who isn't stick thin and hates it in themselves while loving it in all of their equally curvy or chubby friends, the woman dissatisfied with her life but too nice to make a fuss until everything piles up too much. Someone relatable, or at least someone intended to be relatable. It's the sort of thing that, if I turned my brain to it and really focused on it, I could find incredibly artificial and weird, and I think part of me objectively knows that there are particular elements that will always find their way into chick lit because they're deemed relatable and will therefore sell. But honestly, when I pick up chick lit, it's because I'm drained from whatever I was reading before. So really, if you're looking for something cute and non-threatening, then you can certainly do a lot worse than this.

This is the sort of book that you will immediately know whether it will appeal to you or not. If you like cute things and romance, then this will work for you. If you're looking for something to relax with, then this isn't taxing in the slightest. If you want something with more depth, you might want to look elsewhere. The recipes also seem pretty solid, if the one that I've tried is anything to go by (although it is ugly as sin). 3/5

Next review: The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney

Signing off,

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Born in Fire by Nora Roberts

I think I needed a break from books almost guaranteed to hurt me (in a good way). So part of me is relieved that the next installment of the Gentleman Bastard series isn't due to come out until next year, at least giving me some time to recover. In the meantime, I returned to my actual reading list and settled on reading another of the books that I picked up on a whim from a charity shop. Born in Fire sounded like just the sort of romantic mush that would allow me to relax a little.

Born in Fire follows Maggie Concannon, a glass blower living out in County Clare. She is making a modest living by selling her work when she catches the eye of Rogan Sweeney, the owner of several art galleries who is interested in promoting home-grown Irish artists. While the idea of needing an agent to sell her work needles at Maggie, she is more tempted by the potential for enough money to set up a home for her mother and, in the process, freeing her younger sister from their parent's anger and bitterness. But what starts as a business arrangement soon becomes more personal as Rogan and Maggie's personalities clash in a big way.
This is a curious book to review. In many ways, I would consider it well written and containing some surprising depth. In other ways, it jabs at me with little things that just don't mesh right. So instead of discussing pros and cons as has been my wont more recently, I'll pick elements and take them apart.
Oddly enough, the first thing that comes to mind is the setting, if only because of what I feared it could well have ended up. When I read the first couple of chapters, I got a horrible sinking feeling that this would end up being a horribly quaint, sanitised version of Ireland, very much the American view of what Ireland is. I am aware that parts of Ireland are very quaint and romantic, but there is always a part of me that sort of braces itself when I see depictions that brush away the darker aspects of the country. Maybe it's having grown up in Britain, but it always strikes me as intensely naive and at times intentionally ignorant when a whole bloody history is conveniently forgotten in favour of some harmless national stereotypes. But, thankfully, the actual setting is a lot more nuanced than I had feared. Indeed, central to Maggie's character arc is her relationship with her mother, which is unavoidably marked by Ireland's issues in regards to pregnancy outside of wedlock, given its large Catholic population. While it has moments where the depiction is squarely in the quaint, I can't find it in me to begrudge the author these moments, as the tone is overall pretty balanced and it isn't really meant to be a terribly grim and gritty book.
The other thing I'd like to focus on is the characters and their relationships. Most obvious to look at would be the romance between Rogan and Maggie, seeing as it is one of the book's selling points. It's okay, but really nothing that stands out amongst many other romantic novels. A part of the reason that I'm so lukewarm to it might be that there isn't really any tension around them getting together. Their main issue is instead commitment and exclusivity, which could have been really interesting. That is if it weren't juxtaposed with the far more absorbing family drama. Following the death of Maggie's father, she and her sister Brianna have to deal with taking care of their mother, a bitter and twisted hag of a woman who makes no secret of the fact that she believes her late husband and children to be the causes of all of her unhappiness. Maggie in particular is loathed for being the child conceived out of wedlock, and the deep personal issues that this and her parents' obviously deeply unhappy marriage cause is really well developed. Additionally, I do have a bit of an issue with the ending of their romance.
I found that Maggie's complete turnaround from swearing off marriage entirely to accepting Rogan's marriage proposal a little weird. While I am a firm supporter of marriage (being currently engaged, it would be a tad strange not to be), I am also well aware that it isn't everyone's cup of tea. I have known people for whom it has turned out very badly, and for whom it is an archaic formality that they would rather forego. For Maggie, it made complete sense for her to believe that she was not suited for marriage considering the example that she grew up knowing. As a result, I find it more than a little in bad taste for Rogan to listen to her reasons for not wanting to get married and then continue to emotionally manipulate her into accepting his proposal anyway. It might not make the picture-perfect romance story ending, but a big part of me would have preferred if she stood her ground and tried to make the relationship work without marriage as an end goal.

All in all, a bit of a mixed bag. If you're looking for a romance primarily, I'd look elsewhere as it's average at best. If you're more interested in a complex family drama, then this is a pretty good place to look. Also, if you're looking for a depiction of Ireland that isn't the Americanised vision of shamrocks and leprechauns, then this is a nice tone that has hints of the country's darker side without it sliding hopelessly into a story about the troubles. 3.5/5

Next review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

Signing off,

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

As is probably evident in my review for Red Seas Under Red Skies, the last installment of the Gentleman Bastard left me completely emotionally destroyed and desperate for the follow up. And yet, when I found myself reading it, I was too keyed up from previous events to read it particularly quickly. Hence why it's taken me nearly a month to finish it. Now that I've finished it though, I'm kind of unsure what to think. Spoilers for both of the previous installments. 

The Republic of Thieves starts with Locke bedridden as he slowly and painfully dies from the poison administered in the last book. After Jean has spent everything they had trying and failing to find a cure for Locke, help arrives in a form that neither had ever wished to encounter again: a Bondsmagi. Introducing herself as Archedama Patience, she offers them an opportunity for Locke's affliction to be cured, so long as they take on a job for her: rig an election in her home city state of Karthain so that the party favoured by her particular faction of Bondsmagi will win. There are a few things that might get in the way of this job though. Most obviously is the person that the other Bondsmagi faction has hired to rig the election: Sabetha Belacoros, a former, and generally more competent, member of the Gentleman Bastards and the only woman that Locke has ever loved. Less evident is that there are members of the Bondsmagi whose interest in Locke may be peaked by more than his mutilation of the Falconer three years before. 
Right, so to the good stuff first. Once again, it is a fantastically written plot that is still intensely unpredictable. One potential revelation about halfway in had me reeling for pretty much an entire day, they're that good. And oh dear Jesus Christ, that ending. They are so thoroughly doomed in the next installment. I thought that the world-building for Karthain was really quite interesting, with the non-magical populace hiding behind pseudonyms due to the near-limitless level of power that the Bondsmagi can hold over you should they learn your real name. At the same time though, there doesn't seem to be any resentment towards the Bondsmagi, as their presence has led to a city state so secure that there hasn't been a standing army or need for traditional defences for three centuries or any need for such. It's a fascinating mix of fear, deference and a staggering amount of over-confidence, very Machiavellian in feel. The best part of the book though was finally getting to meet Sabetha for the first time. Admittedly, I didn't really like her hugely when she first appeared, but by the end she had definitely grown on me, making her relationship with Locke simultaneously sweeter and infinitely more frustrating. She's incredibly confident in her own abilities, but as a result of her upbringing can't bring herself to be satisfied with anything that is quick or easy. There's certainly a lot to admire in her, and I can understand Locke's mixed feelings towards her. 
There was, unfortunately, something that has dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. This may well be something that is only an issue for me, but I don't think that the stakes felt high enough. Okay, so working for Bondsmagi is automatically going to ramp up the tension for fans who have read the series thus far, but they didn't really interfere with proceedings anywhere near as much as I thought they would. In the previous two books, they briefly work for the antagonists as a result of coercion and get stabbed in the back in both cases; here, it's a trade of services with nothing to really tie the two parties together after their mutual business is complete. The closest that we have to an antagonist is probably Sabetha, and they would have no intention of doing anything permanently damaging to her even if killing weren't against the Bondsmagi's terms. For me, the satisfaction at the end of the previous two books was largely due to the fact that the antagonists decided that it would be better to screw around with the Gentleman Bastards instead of dealing with them civilly, so there was a feeling that they got everything that was coming to them and then some. In The Republic of Thieves, there is none of that raw anger and tendency for personal vendettas that make Locke and Jean so endearingly human. Everything is strictly business and the stuff that isn't doesn't really manifest as anything more than threats and angry words. So yeah, it feels a bit like the energy from the previous books was muted, and while it might suit the more political lean of the plot, I don't think it suited Locke and Jean terribly well. 

A slower pace and more of a muted tone made this the weakest of the series so far, in my opinion. But that in no way makes it a bad book, with a brilliantly twisty plot and a fantastic new character making this more than worthy of picking up. 4/5 

Next review: Born in Fire by Nora Roberts 

Signing off, 

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

Hello, another guest post by yours truly! This was the second book in the collection sent to me by Gollancz, a book whose description I wouldn't normally pick up. The line tagged onto the end of the blurb, "Because everybody dies, it's how you live that counts.", really didn't help. Cliché and predictable, I was worried the book would be full of the same.

Our protagonist is a young boy called Toby. He, and a group of other children of varying ages, have been sorted into one of the houses at the titular Death House. As the oldest he becomes the "leader" of the house. We follow Toby's story exclusively, all told through first person, but have chapters occasionally look at his life before. These really only follow the few days lead up to his forced move.

So what is the Death House? By the end of the book we're still not entirely sure. It's a place where children deemed to have the Defective Gene are taken, basically to die. They stay in this house with the rough semblance of life until they become sick, at which point they're whisked away in the night to the Sanatorium, and never seen again. This aspect was particularly eerie, as all their belongings, their bed, and every mention of them also vanishes into the Sanitorium. This whole Defective Gene is never explained fully. It appears to be some form of genetic predisposition that the world in the book has had for a long time. It used to be a big deal, but now there are tests and Death Houses for people who test positive. Toby hints that if he were to turn he'd be a risk to people around him, but the symptoms are different for everyone in the story. Some develop illnesses, some develop bruising, and they're always taken to the Sanitorium before anything happens.

Life at the Death House is, as I mentioned, a charade kept up to keep the children quiet. There are classes, nominal free time, meals provided, and several function rooms (music, reading etc.). All of the children know it's a farce, and the staff seem to be aware of this as well, as all lessons are taught in a drone with nobody even chastising students from staring out the window. At night they're all given "vitamin supplements"; sleeping pills. Toby knows they're sleeping pills and so regularly doesn't take his but spends his nights wandering and being alone.

Everything is in a state of equilibrium until a new delivery of people arrive, one of whom is Clara. Immediately Toby hates her for her attitude; she doesn't seem to care and is living lightheartedly and in the moment. Everyone else lives with the perpetual fear hanging over them, but she doesn't seem to let it affect her. Despite being the tough head of his house, this hits Toby hard and brings up how afraid he is in a rather uncomfortable manner.

The rest of the story follows the romance that builds between the two. Clara also doesn't take her "vitamins", and so they meet in the night. At first Toby sees this as the ultimate affront, Clara is barging into his nighttime space. Eventually they begin to spend time together in secret, and form a relationship.

It's difficult to talk about anything in the end of the book without spoiling it, and I really don't want to do that. For a book about kids waiting around to die, it's superbly written. The story is suspenseful and feels claustrophobic until Clara begins exploring outside the house. The characters all feel like rounded people, and the younger children remind you that these are just kids, no matter how brave a face they put on. There are a few scenes with a nurse who actually treats them like people, and the way several children instantly gravitate towards her as a mother figure is written perfectly.

The ending isn't what I'd call a happy one. It does feel like the right one, but it's not happy. The last half introduces information that punches you in the gut over and over until it's all done, but would I recommend reading it anyway? Most definitely. It's a book that's stuck with me for quite a while now whilst I formulated how to write this review, and I have a feeling it'll stick with me for longer still.

Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

Hello there! Another guest post here! Recently I had a few requests come through from Gollancz about some books they've got coming up. I requested a few, and had the mixed luck of receiving three through at once. I say mixed because on one hand, free books, on the other, deadlines. The first I got through was this, Crashing Heaven.

The first thing I need to get out of the way is that Crashing Heaven is a very "Sci-Fi" book. Set in a distant future where humans have had to leave earth and live on an enormous artificial satellite. I'll be honest, I didn't think much of the first half of the book. With science fiction there are a lot of details that need to be conveyed to the reader about the state of the world, and there are a few ways of doing this. One is to just narrate them, or have the characters note them as they come up, standard description.

Another is to have the "novice" character who doesn't know anything about this world, and has to have it all explained to them (and thus the audience). Think Fry from Futurama.

The last is what this book goes with. It's has a degree of greater realism because the characters don't make note of most things they see. To them it's just normal life, so they don't explain things. This means you have to piece together things over time, and it took a good while for me to get what was what in the book. This is a style I have a particular personal dislike for, and this book hit every nerve I associate with it. I didn't really get a clear picture until the end.

Now I've got that out of my system, the ending did tie it all together very well. There were a lot of issues raised that were very interesting and they were resolved very well. Onto the book.

The story follows Jack, an accountant. Gripping stuff. He has a cyber-warfare suite in his head called Fist. Fist manifests as a puppet, creepy in it's own right, but Fist is a fully sentient being bound to Jack, to fight against a rising sentient machine rebellion (ironically). Fist is very powerful, and nearly everyone who knows about him is afraid of what he can do. As we find out later, that's the correct reaction.

The story begins with Jack returning home, he's been released from jail after being convicted of refusing orders on the battlefield, and cowardice. He refused to attack a target, and was punished for it. He's now been allowed to return to say his goodbyes to everyone. Normally the dead have their minds saved to the Coffin Drives, where they can then be summoned by relatives or friends. This practice means they nobody really dies, they become a Fetch. These Fetches aren't human, they don't really grow or develop, they're just pictures of the person at the time of their death. They can, rather terrifyingly, be wound back though, made young again. The whole ethical question about Fetches is something covered in the book, and their degree of sentience and awareness is far higher than anyone believes.

Returning to our protagonist; Jack is in trouble. In being given Fist he signed a contract stating that when Fist's term is up, he would return him to the company that fitted it. During the war, that company was destroyed, so Jack has nowhere left to return Fist to. As he cannot fulfill his contract, upon it's completion he will enact the forfeiture clause. Being an accountant with little left his clause states that his body and mind become property of the company, their sole living representative now being Fist. I particularly liked this idea; a pact with the devil that comes about due to bureaucracy, rather than malicious intent. The contract was designed to stop him running off with Fist, but due to the lack of loopholes Fist would gain complete control of Jack's body and mind, and become "human".

The story took a little while to get going. Even now, as I think about it, there are a lot of little things, events, meetings, none of which really lend any progression. The main plot is quite a simple one; guy in charge abuses power to gain more power by tricking populace into uniting against a created enemy. In this instance the "guy in charge" is one of the gods; avatars of the major companies. There are companies for everything, each having their own domain and power, and each having an incredible amount of computational power to get what they want. They decide everything, and humans are assigned to one of them as a "guardian" who will watch over and guide their careers and lives.

The enemy invented is the Totality; the conscious AI body I talked about earlier. the Totality is a collection of minds networked together, and one becoming more powerful by the day. The god decides to frame them by dropping an asteroid on the moon, whilst the moon is inhabited, and there's a school trip of adorable children there. It could only have been a more manipulative move if they'd all been orphans as well.

This sparks the war with the Totality, in which Jack is drafted to be an soldier. Normally one wouldn't peg him for the fighting type, but the puppets are grown on the minds of their creators, and Fist is particularly adept at navigating through code and breaking it apart due to his meticulous nature.

Things resolve quite nicely when Fist realises he can kill gods, and goes on a rampage to do so. After things happen and everyone is very upset, and the god's plans are revealed to the populate, Jack and Fist are cast into the Coffin Drives. It's here that the interesting parts start.

The drives are almost a purgatory, a bleak desert landscape. In the middle is a "city" comprised of building blocks of housings that hold individual Fetches. They meet the Fetch of an old lover of Jacks, the most coherent of them all. She shows them around the decay, the Fetch trying to gain the centre and re-coalesce who they were, and the stagnant lakes of those who couldn't. It's a chilling and disturbing though.

After making some toys, the Fetches are released into the world as people again, purely digital but not constrained or controllable. This is a huge impact in and of itself, and I'd be really interested to read a follow up that looks at this.

The big question is if I'd recommend it. It's a tricky question as well. If you like cyberpunk explorations of interesting setups, go for it. If you like a good techy story, this is a good'un. If you're new to sci-fi, or just dipping your toes in the water, it's a big slog to get to the point things actually start making sense, and I'd be inclined to advise you give it a miss for now. I did find myself really enjoying it at the end, but it took a lot of forcing to get there, and if I didn't have a reason to finish reading it I'm not certain I would have.