Tag Archive | book review

False Hearts

Laura Lam‘s latest novel, False Hearts, is a departure from her previous YA fantasy series. It’s a fast-paced sci-fi techno-thriller, and awesome hyphenated adjectives are the least of its strengths.

This book is a serious page turner. Once I started reading, I could hardly put it down. It more than met my need for a riveting, all-consuming read. More than that, it has a wealth of elements I adored. It’s science fiction. It’s a mystery thriller. It’s packed with fascinating, well-constructed techno marvels. It’s set in San Francisco. It deals with issues of consciousness. It’s set against the background of a secretive religious cult. It has grey areas aplenty.

And best of all, it features a pair of awesome protagonists with a highly unique perspective on life. Taema and Tila are twins. More than that, they were conjoined twins, separated in their teens, and still dealing with the psychological impact of having grown up with somebody else a literal part of them, having never been alone, having each of them know every single thing about the other. When they’re separated, all of that changes. The story is as much about the impact that has on each of them, and how it feels for Taema to discover that the person from whom it used to be physically impossible to keep secrets now has a massive one that threatens both of their lives.

I loved the interaction between the sisters. I really enjoyed the back-and-forth narrative and the clever use of viewpoint to show the past and the present simultaneously. Taema’s chapters revolve around the present – the terrifying dilemma she finds herself in when her sister is arrested for murder. Tila’s chapters recall the past: the sisters’ upbringing in the cult that refused them treatment for their condition, and the consequences of their determination to seek help when their shared heart begins to fail.

It’s a cleverly constructed novel with superb pacing throughout. The balance between the past and present viewpoints is perfect, allowing necessary insight from the twins’ past at just the right points in the present storyline. Their distinct personalities come through vibrantly, and I was rooting for each of them in turn. The story also portrays an intriguing futuristic society – an almost-utopia on the surface, with lurking dystopic menaces underneath.

For a fast-paced thriller, this novel has a ton of layers. I think that’s what I loved most about it.

If you love a good story with fascinating protagonists, more than one attention-grabbing setup, ample twists and turns, and action in droves, look no further. This is the droid you’re looking for.

My Favourite Authors – Robin Hobb

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post ever since I started this blog series. I’m not sure I can convey what Robin Hobb means to me as an author. She’s my all-time favourite writer. She’s my greatest influence. Her stories pull me in and shake me up like no others. I have a circle of wonderful friends I wouldn’t have without her books. I’ve met her twice, and have five of her books signed. Her stories are magic… beyond compare in scope, depth, and intricacy.

And nothing about that paragraph does justice to how I feel about her work. The only way I know to share that feeling is to get people to read her books. But I started this blog series knowing she was top of the list… so here goes.

I received Assassin’s Apprentice from my best friend for my 18th birthday. I’d never heard of Robin Hobb, and my friend hadn’t read the book either – she was drawn in by John Howe’s stunning cover art, which turned out to be the best example ever of why you should sometimes judge a book by its cover:

Robin Hobb - Assassin's Apprentice Cover.jpg

That little paperback remains one of the best presents I have ever received. Not only because the story it begins is the greatest rollercoaster ride I’ve ever been on, but also because of all the paths that opened up as a result. Amazing, lifelong friends. Fellow writers with whom I began my writing adventure. Places I’ve visited. People I’ve met. Spectacular memories. All of which stemmed from a birthday gift (admittedly, from one of the people who knows me best in all the world).

Robin Hobb’s books are addictive beyond measure. Her prose is supremely elegant – beautifully wrought without being the least pretentious. Her ideas and the massive scope of the worlds she weaves provide an intricate playing board for her characters. And such characters…

FitzChivalry Farseer isn’t just my favourite novel character ever. He’s almost a friend. In any other context, that would sound more than a little weird. But Fitz’s first-person viewpoint is so consuming, so intimate, so unflinching, that you can’t help but know the man, inside and out. Over the course of eight (soon to be nine) long books, his detailed narrative has got into my head like no other. I see the world through Fitz’s eyes in a way no other first-person narrative has ever managed to convey. It’s the depth, it’s the magnificent crafting of character, it’s Hobb’s superlative writing.

Fitz’s relationships, particularly with the Fool, are what carry the story forward. Yes, there’s war and political strife and evil baddies. There’s magic, subtle but crucial to the world and plot. There’s upheaval at every turn. But the relationships Fitz forms along the way are the real hooks. They enable Fitz to shine even as they highlight his copious flaws. They’re wracked with intrigue and wonder and terrible heartbreak. They’re why I come back to these books again and again.

Of course, the Farseer, Tawny Man, and Fitz and the Fool trilogies are only part of Hobb’s magnificent Realm of the Elderlings. The Liveship Traders books are like a fine tapestry of complex characters and epic worldbuilding. The Rain Wild Chronicles build further on this and add consequences and ever more layers to this rich universe. There are so many threads and so much detail, and all along there’s the feeling that Hobb is working some amazing magic trick as everything slowly comes together to form an immense picture. It’s glorious. Unputdownable. The definition of immersive.

Then there’s the Soldier Son trilogy. And The Inheritance, Hobb’s collection of short stories. And all of her wonderful books written as Megan Lindholm. Her stories are an absolute treasure trove of gems waiting to inspire.

This is how fantasy should be done. These books are what the supercilious detractors of fantasy need to read in order to grasp what the rest of us are raving about. These books are why I read. When I’m not having this experience through reading Robin Hobb, I’m reading something else in the hope that it might come close. It rarely does.

Hobb is where my heart is.

My Favourite Authors – Alan Garner

I’ve been toying for a while now with the idea of starting a new series of posts devoted to my favourite authors. There are a few writers whose work I turn to over and over, and who’ve all been huge influences on my own writing. I’ve recently been reading new work (well, new to me…) by a couple of them, so it seemed like a good time to try this out.

I’ll start with Alan Garner.

But where to start…? This man has had such an impact on my life and my writing. He’s really the perfect writer to begin with, as he’s one of the first authors I ever fell for. His award-winning book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, must have been the first fantasy novel I ever read. It’s certainly the novel I’ve read the most. I was probably about six years old when I first read this book, and at the time, I may have been too young to appreciate it. I remember enjoying the story, but it wasn’t until I re-read it several years later that I really fell in love with it. It’s a love affair that’s lasted my entire life. I’ve read it dozens of times, to the point where my old battered copy is incredibly fragile and has to be handled with great care. I can’t bring myself to upgrade it to a new edition. It’s a book that I had to read at least once a year during my childhood, and it’s one of those rare childhood reads that stands the test of adulthood. I read it again quite recently, and found it as engaging and mesmerising as ever. It’s a fantasy story involving children, but it isn’t the least bit childish. It deals with some dark, heavy stuff, and contains the most visceral, claustrophobic scene I’ve ever come across. You’ll never go potholing after reading this book.

Weirdstone of Brisingamen.jpg

It isn’t just that Weirdstone is a superb story (which it is). It’s Alan Garner’s characteristic writing style that makes it so enduring. He is a genius at creating atmosphere. I can’t think of another author who manages to create such an all-encompassing, beautiful, unsettling, sense of being within a story. You’re not just in Alan Garner’s books while reading them; they’re in you. And around you. All good writers wrap you up in their stories, but Garner is a cut above. He completely immerses your senses. And he does it in the most simple, minimalist way.

I’d go as far as to say he’s a minimalist writer. Some of his books demonstrate this more than others, particularly his books for adults. He’s very sparing in description and visual cues. He creates his atmosphere through emotion, and above all, landscape. All of Alan Garner’s books evoke the landscape he sets them in, which is usually his native Cheshire. Landscape is almost a separate character in many of his stories, none more so than Weirdstone. I can’t hear of Alderley Edge without getting a little thrill up my spine. I’ve just finished reading Thursbitch, one of his adult novels, and it’s almost entirely devoted to the landscape. That’s what it’s about. The characters are almost secondary. Yet it’s an amazing, immersive, surreal story that says a huge amount using very few words.

When I was in my teens, I made it my mission to seek out every Alan Garner book the library could supply, and I devoured them all. The Moon of Gomrath (sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) freaked me the hell out and left me frightened of my shadow for days. I re-read it recently, and although it didn’t scare me quite so much, it still contains one of the most spine-tingling scenes I’ve ever read. Elidor immersed me in the possibilities of worlds beyond our own, The Owl Service was dark and magic and consuming, and Red Shift introduced me to Garner’s trademark minimalism and his recurring themes of parallel existence.

When I need to pare my writing back, I turn to Alan Garner. When I need to immerse myself in dark alternate realities in order to spark that brooding sense of other, I turn to Alan Garner. When I need to feel the power and magic that landscape can impart to a story, I turn to Alan Garner. He was my favourite writer when I was ten, and he’s remained one of my all-time favourite writers to this day.

His work evokes such a unique sense. His stories are richly imagined and vary greatly, but they all have a feeling of connection. Nobody else tells a story the way he tells them, and nobody else’s stories feel like his. It his Garnerishness that I love so much. And the only way to impart what that means is to read one of his books.

Read several.

Read them all.

Shadowplay

Shadowplay-Cover

 

I recently finished Shadowplay, by Laura Lam. It’s the sequel to the fabulous Pantomime, and picks up where that book leaves off. Micah Grey is still trying to leave his past and his family behind him, but now the law is after him too. Having left the circus behind, he and the clown, Drystan, take refuge in an old friend of Drystan’s, a disgraced former magician named Jasper Maske. Where the circus was the backdrop for Pantomime, stage magic is the same for Shadowplay. The book is filled with fantastic magic tricks and spilled stage secrets as Micah and Drystan learn the art of magic in order to help Maske regain his former glory.

But Micah’s past is still trying to reclaim him, and he’s facing even greater questions about who he is. An extinct civilisation is reaching across history to seek his unusual talents, and while he can hide in plain sight from his own past, he can’t seem to escape someone else’s…

This book dances along at a great pace, twisting and turning all the way. There’s arch rivalry and dark pasts, secret technology and forgotten history. There’s danger. There’s romance. There’s fabulous magical entertainment. It’s a book filled with colourful intrigue and complex characters. Yet at its heart, Micah Grey’s story is that of a teenager trying to figure out his place in the world. I think that’s what makes him so relatable.

I really enjoyed Pantomime. I loved Shadowplay even more. Laura Lam ramps up the pressure and holds nothing back this time. She answers questions, and asks a whole bunch more in their wake. I’m totally hooked on these characters now, and eagerly anticipating wherever she takes them next.

Find it here: Amazon

Pantomime

Pantomime-cover

I’ve been meaning to write a blog review of this book for ages. Now seems a good time, as the sequel is newly available so you can finally get hold of both parts at once!

Pantomime, by Laura Lam, is a wondrous book. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word, as its pages frequently inspire wonder. Wonder at the rich, complex world of Ellada, wonder at the sights, sounds, and experience of circus life, and wonder at the plight of Micah Grey, the book’s inspiring and unusual protagonist. This is a Young Adult book, but I was as hooked now as I would have been had it been around in my teens. Micah is a highly relatable teenager, adrift in the world and trying desperately to find his place, whilst feeling betrayed at the revelation that his foundations are not as reliable and innocent as his childhood led him to believe. He’s also struggling with his identity at a fundamental level, and leaves the safety and opulence of his family home to explore who he really is, away from control and prejudice and societal norms.

As if running away to join the circus wasn’t a cool enough premise for a story, Laura Lam takes it a step further, using magic and ancient, little-understood technology to make Micah’s new world truly fantastic. He makes friends and gains acrobatic skills while struggling to contain his demons and hide his devastating secret. All the while, his family are searching for him, determined to put him back into the box he’s freed himself from.

Pantomime is a rollercoaster of a read, with highs, lows, horror, suspense, and awe. Highly recommended.

Pick it up here: Amazon

(The sequel, Shadowplay, is high on my to-read list. I’m really looking forward to delving back into that rich, colourful world and following Micah’s story into new places.)

Winter

I recently read Winter, the latest book from the talented Sarah Remy. It’s a YA tale of urban street kids, intricate subway systems, a murderer on the run, and exiled people of the Fae. Oh, and it has an awesome talking mouse.

There is a host of varied characters and the setting is wholly tangible. As with The House on the Creek, it was easy to become immersed in this world, and for a while there I was a virtual Washington, D.C. resident as I raced about its streets with the book’s characters. There’s plenty of action and adventure along with a gradually unfurling backstory of betrayal and banishment. There’s magic and nasty monsters alongside the more human baddies.

I should probably admit that fairy lore isn’t one of my favourite themes. I enjoy it well enough, but it’s not a trope that’s ever completely captured me. It’s possibly part of the reason I didn’t engage as entirely with this book as with other works by Sarah Remy – but then, it’s also aimed at a younger market which may have had some impact too.

Don’t get me wrong – this was an enjoyable read, with unusual themes and characters and some speedy page-turning moments. My only criticism would be that I found it hard to really engage with any one character, possibly because there are several points of view used repeatedly throughout the book. I couldn’t quite latch onto one. My favourite was definitely the POV of Winter, the protagonist of the title, but he is sadly given a mere two chapters to himself. He’s superbly written and I found myself wishing for more time in his head. That said, I do understand the need for multiple viewpoints, especially when several crucial events are taking place for different characters in different places. And, judging by the cliffhangy ending, I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more through Winter’s eyes in the follow-up, Summer.

All in all, this was a fun read that I’d definitely recommend to younger readers and anyone who enjoys tales of the Fae.

You can read more about the series here: The Manhattan Exiles.

Or buy the book here: Winter (Book One of The Manhattan Exiles).

The House on the Creek

I’ve just finished reading this book by the highly talented Sarah Remy. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as I’m not really one for traditional romance novels. I can count the number I’ve read on one hand, which is actually kind of odd as I’m a total sucker for a good love story. I guess I just prefer my fiction a little more speculative than the romance genre usually supplies. That said, I’ll run a mile from the ‘paranormal romance’ label… clearly I’m full of contradictions today. I’m also getting totally off topic. (Perhaps I’ll devote a post to this properly at some point.)

Back to the book in question. Abby and Everett are childhood sweethearts who find themselves back in each other’s lives again. Past hurts and present complications stand between them while they try to figure out if they still share something worth having.

I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I didn’t expect the book to drag me in like it did. The descriptions of Virginia, the house, the creek, and – well, pretty much everything – completely pulled me in and wrapped me in the setting. I felt like I was there. The characters are all compelling and believable, and although the plot itself is uncomplicated, I couldn’t wait to get back to it each time I put the book down.

There’s something special about authors who can create that sense of place to the point where you just want to stay there and keep experiencing it. And although to begin with I wasn’t sure what the two main characters saw in each other, by the end I was totally rooting for them. Sarah Remy set out to make me believe something, and by the end, she had. It’s pretty steamy in places, but even the steaminess is just right. There’s nothing like a clumsy, over-the-top sex scene to shatter the illusion and pull you right out of the story, but there was no hint of that. These were perfectly balanced and very well written.

This is a great summer read – not too taxing and perfect for reading outdoors on a hot day with a glass of something cool and fruity on hand.

Pick it up here: The House on the Creek