Usually I love Chris (formerly Christopher) Brookmyre: hardboiled tartan noir, formerly laced with dour black humour (Chris mellowed Christopher’s excoriating wit, with age), and strong female heroes which few male authors manage convincingly.
I have to say this was my least favourite of his books so far. The complex plotting is there, as is the usual economic imbalance and burning sense of social injustice, plus he gives us two very different, brilliantly complex female heroes. Detective story set in space! It should have been a winner. And it did get better, towards the end, but it was desperately slow to get going. I was tempted to do the unthinkable, and not finish – pages and pages of tedious exposition, on the structure of this bloody space station, and how artificial intelligence research is still years off giving us androids – what, five or six times? Why? Maybe just in case we forget, because 300 pages later that whole concept comes up again.
I’m not a huge fan of hard SF but I do read it. Robert A. Heinlein? Been there (one of the space platforms or stations or something is named after him). Places In The Darkness reminds me a bit of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, operating on the principle that too much information is never enough.
Sometimes hard SF can be done well (The Martian springs to mind). But this was, if I’m honest, quite boring for quite a lot of pages. It did finally pick up, but I couldn’t recommend it as a favourite.
Sorry Christopher. I should go back and write reviews for all the ones that are brilliant...
Fascinating story – Black Death hits village north of York in 1349, when half Europe has already died, told through present tense pov of a fourteen year old girl.
I read this pretty well at one sitting, so it was thoroughly gripping and has fascinating subject matter.
Picky picky me:
Typos – surprising number of;
Voice slightly too contemporary – though that’s not quite fair, as I really don’t want to be reading Chaucerian English, and where do you draw the line?
The plot development when they went to York with merchant Thomas – this was oddly tacked-on and didn’t really fit with anything that had happened up till then. What the hell was Thomas even doing in their village?
The book describes changes the Black Death left in its aftermath – more land available, labour could command better rates, women were doing jobs previously the preserve of men – but Isabel the hardworking farmer, with a source of wealth in Thomas’s valuables, apparently simply hands them over to her main chance brother Richard and goes to work for him for free. Wot a let down – what happened to her potential, to doing her own thing?
BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY
The story was breathtaking, gripping in a horrible yet relentless and unputdownable way for maybe the first 75%. And Isabel is a great character. And the writing style (despite modernistic whinge) is fluid, concise and highly engaging. Overall, a fascinating, well-written and powerful read.
I really enjoyed this story. It’s well-written: good clear prose, strong story and well structured. The theme is similar to that of Avatar, with off-worlders exploiting a planet’s natural resources for financial gain, destroying its ecology and denying the rights of the indigenous to self-determination or any kind of protection, rights or voice. So of course it is also a fine analogy with the problems of our own world, both in the past, with overt colonialism, and the present where such exploitation carries on mostly unabated but now under the cloak of free enterprise.
There are many interesting idiosyncracies and quirks to give this planet a solid reality. It is a terraformed world: because it was created, in a past so distant its creators are now forgotten, it is filled with collections of extinct or semi-mythical beasts. Gryphons, dinosaurs, dragons and unicorns exist side by side. There is no predation, only scavenging by the gryphon and others, plus the main sustenance source is a kind of nectar-like manna that forms in belts in the sky and drops to earth, but can be harvested at its best by creatures such as the dragons in flight.
There are scientist/watcher, and exploiter/collector humans or humanoids, the two groups possessing profoundly different and irreconcilable approaches to the life on this planet. Two scientists are a mother and son, Amber and Hote, and they have problems of their own to do with the Commander of the collectors, and a missing sister, and a fusion in interspace that has left Holt half-invisible and invaded.
Then another main character we follow is Rumplewing, a young dragon with problems in her clan. After an horrific accident, she breaks her wings and loses her groombug. The groombug is a symbiot/tiny male dragon, who lives in each dragon’s third ear and grooms her scales. Without her groombug, who is bonded with her from birth to death, dragons die.
Cast out from her clan, Rumplewing is desperately lonely without her groombug, terribly damaged and unlikely to last long; but her meeting with another groombug, Balofur, an elder as opposed to a youngling like herself, means her path changes and takes on great purpose. Together, Rumplewing and Balofur discover more about the horrific dragon trade the collectors are secretly carrying on: they must save the dragons, and expose the illegal trade by proving to a High Arbiter judge-like person that dragons are sentient.
The pace is well-maintained, the main characters well-realized and very relatable. Amber is sweet and approachable and well-loved; Hote is perceived as weird and half-crazy and feels uncertain, anxious and excluded. Giving a dragon a voice as a main character was brilliant, because we get to learn the dragon’s customs and way of life from the inside.
If I were going to be picky, I would say that the ecology by which each dragon only lays one egg at the end of her life, ie replaces her self so there is no population explosion, so no natural selection which relies on vying for scarce resources (which would almost certainly lead to the evolution of predators) is not really sustainable in perpetuity. Even if there is no predation or sickness, accidents will happen: it is mentioned that damaged dragons, or ones who have lost their groombugs due to injury etc, separate from their clan, shut down and die. This would over time inexorably lead to a constantly diminishing population.
It is quite interesting, actually; I suspect that the author has chosen the 1:1 replacement method of reproduction as a mechanism for maintaining a planet in perfect balance, but it wouldn’t really work. Living systems’ balance comes from opposing forces always in a state of flux, and it’s difficult to imagine a system which is completely stable.
Anyway, that’s all very boring and doesn’t affect enjoyment of the story at all, is just interesting as it gets you thinking…
I would have quite liked a clearer idea of Holt in the sense that I was never quite sure exactly how he looked. At first I thought the invisibility might be metaphorical, for his exclusion. Then I realized it was literal, but he clearly wasn’t completely invisible, as people always seemed to know he was there… only he doesn’t always feel fully present. It’s a minor point, but I would have liked a bit more clarity on how exactly he appeared to others.
And the story was a bit too forgiving for me. Quite a lot of bad guys were allowed to reform in some way (not all, trying to avoid spoilers here). I wanted harsher retributions after all the terrible things that had been done. Plus I was a bit puzzled that the Shining Ones Clan were so harsh towards Rumplewing, tasking her with lugging the disgusting Batwing around – and then, when Batwing caused the accident which ruined Rumplewing’s wings, she’s not blamed at all. It seemed the justice and judgments were extremely one-sided.
They’re my quibbles, and they are only quibbles.
Great read, carrying its important message lightly: give it a go.
PS One further thing after all - the cover doesn't do this story justice. Invest in a better cover, Gloria! The story's 100% worth it!
This story starts very well, with the intriguing scene of a mystery man bringing an infant to the doorstep of a Texas couple in a snowstorm, and abandoning the child there. Yes, it’s been done from Tom Jones to Harry Potter – but it always grabs you. Who is the child? Will it be cared for?
The answer in this case is: Emily, from another world where she has been torn by some unknown catastrophe from her family and twin brother (another trope that never grows old: twins); and the Whaynes care for her very well indeed, providing her with every conceivable extracurricular activity as she grows older. Although in that they are helped by the paediatrician Andrew Dalton, who saves Emily’s life when she’s still a baby, and who becomes her devoted Godfather and mentor, and who also happens to be a magician from her home planet.
So Emily races between fencing, martial arts, swimming and horseriding, and is naturally outstanding at every one. Plus she also has developing magical powers, and her godfather’s role is to train her in magic and lore, preparing her for the future and trials to come.
So the story segues between high school type problems with boys and rivals, to times with Yoda-like godfather, to an increasingly engaging federal agency crowd looking out for Emily but maybe governed by sinister presidential motives (the president also has an adopted son with powers, hm), to an evil magician called Samil who is raising a gorgeous female warrior queen from the dead to become his half-dead vampire partner. And of course his henchman are also on earth, after Emily.
I suppose the story builds quite slowly, and virtually nothing is resolved, but I was never bored. The author has a fluid, often incredibly vivid writing style that is overwhelmingly a pleasure to read, despite perhaps a little overwriting – saying the same thing twice, in this case, or over-attributing dialogue. I think authors generally should stop themselves using adverbs as qualifiers eg: he yelled angrily. Let the dialogue speak for itself, use stronger verbs, use beats of action. And avoid teased, joked, quipped as a general rule altogether: they stink. If someone tells a joke, it needs to be funny. We don’t need to be told he joked: that implies we wouldn’t know otherwise, ie he’s failed in the attempt. But that’s a personal pet peeve. This is a good link (random) for those interested in decent dialogue:
Even though it could have done with a tighter edit in that respect, it was still a pleasure to read. I enjoyed Emily’s evolving into a confident young warrior woman. She seems to have jumped from the frying pan into the fire –¬ from earth to her home planet Acacia, full of half-dead enemies, powerful magicians and fierce creatures. I’m rather anxious that she plans to go to Bashan to learn, and Bashan is the home of the evil Samir who uses students he doesn’t like as food for his half-deads. Silly students, that’ll learn you how to behave in class.
Xena the bondmate Doberman is a highlight, and the world of Acacia, plus the magical system, is very well realized and beautifully described.
If I’m going to pick – it seems a bit strange that Emily trots back to the stables after a running gun battle and multiple deaths on her horse-riding run, between opposing teams set to grab her. And she still goes happily about her extra-curricular activities while ever-increasing teams of agents sit in black vans outside on the street – but she can still stroll out the back door with her dog for a walk and no one notices. Numbers don’t seem to translate to vigilance in this case. So those parts strain credulity a little. But not enough to spoil the read, great fun.
If you like fantasy, and not just YA fantasy, this one is a winner.
The Light of Paris follows the parallel stories of Madeleine in 1999 and Margi in 1924. I’m going to be harsh here: if you enjoy reading about upper-class, affluent, well-educated young women bemoaning their fate and their entirely self-imposed inability to follow their dreams, while making no effort to take control of their lives but instead choosing to be whinging doormats, then enjoy. For me, it was irritating beyond belief.
The story reminds me of another I read recently, “A Better Man,” which also follows uninteresting wealthy people with no real problems other than those they create themselves. I commented then how odd it is that wealthy people figure in so much of fiction, while ordinary people do not. It’s as if the 95:5 real life ratio of ordinary to wealthy is reversed in fiction (proportions made up here, but principle is true). This has been the case forever in England, where publishing was historically elitist (a tiny proportion of published works in the 19th and first half of 20th century were written by ordinary people, which leads to the rather odd perception overseas that all English people live like the lords of Downton Abbey. The lower echelons are invisible). But it seems this elitism might be the case in America as well, which is unexpected. See this link:
The question that puzzles me is: at a time when supposedly traditional publishing is struggling, and it is harder than ever before to get a publishing deal, and many great authors are forced to go indie – why is any publisher still choosing to put out this dated drivel? It’s absolutely baffling.
Quirky thought: one of my great grandmothers raised eight children alone in the slums of the East End of London, on a pittance of a widow’s pension. She made children’s shoes for the wealthy by hand, to supplement her family’s diet which was never far off starvation – and she succeeded, they survived, only then she lost two sons in the first world war.
You want to write about why feminism is important? Her wages were around half or less (when she worked from home) of what a man would earn. She had no voice and no vote. Her story was a story of success, because she triumphed over adversity and her children survived, at a time when women had no rights and no opportunity in the workplace, and over 20% of children in that part of London at that time didn't live to see their first birthday. For women like these, feminism did not mean the chance to "find herself" and her airy-fairy readily-abandoned art. It meant the right to survive and live in dignity not desperation.
Her story was not extraordinary, quite the opposite.
But we don’t read about those women (who were probably barely literate so wouldn’t have left handy diaries for their great-granddaughters to find in modern times). We’re offered pap about rich girls agonizing for 300 pages on why they’re not as sylph-like as the other rich girls. Meh.
I’m a long-standing fan of James Lee Burke, originally getting hooked on his Dave Robicheaux stories, but this one (a Hackberry Holland) is I think one of his best. Brilliant.
Certain themes or motifs run through all Burke’s work: often ex-drunk, wounded, deeply flawed main characters; strong wildly badass female characters; appalling ‘morally insane’ villains, bad enough to keep you checking your doors and windows at night; a more or less traditional crime story; reflections on the past, America, social injustice, the cruelty that man inflicts upon man, good versus evil; a sense of deep spirituality that is juxtaposed with self-serving and bigoted religiosity; and a profound sense of landscape and place, infused with an almost hyperbolic richness of language that is pure poetry. I’m not a purple prose kind of person, but I love James Lee Burke’s: it’s powerful, and beautiful, and probably some of the most evocative prose I’ve ever read.
I liked this book, very much. It has all the elements of his other books, but if anything even clearer and richer and stronger. The main baddie – there is the usual pantheon of lesser gang-style thugs – is a deeply complex killer known as the Preacher, who thinks he is the scourge of God, but maybe in another way is seeking redemption for the evil that he has done. He exercises the power of life and death over others with sometimes surprising compassion, usually chilling brutality. Hackberry Holland, the aging sheriff on his tail, is haunted by memories of his dead wife, his alcoholic and abusive past, and horrific wartime experiences. There are three women who are each in their own way incredibly powerful: Pam Tibbs, Hackberry’s tough and mercurial deputy; the singer Vicki Gaddis, collector of broken creatures including terribly scarred young soldier Pete Flores; and Esther Dolan, a Jewish woman whose bone-deep understanding of the oppression her people have suffered on the southern Siberian steppes, informs her courage and understanding of the evil that men do.
I usually read quickly but I took this book as slowly as I could, to absorb the richness of the prose. The story isn’t incidental, it’s key to driving the characters and their actions, but I didn’t feel the need to rush through to find out the end, because the other elements are so powerful.
Some people found this a dark read, but I didn’t. Although it does paint a picture of exploited blue collar workers and immigrants, broken veterans, rampant greed and gangsterism: an ugly underbelly. If America as an empire is truly on the decline, then Burke may be its most vivid chronicler.
But ultimately it's not dark, but uplifting. I love the humanity that prevails over all the darkness. Ordinary people – the singer, the scarred young soldier, the goofy nightclub owner Nick who loves his family and stands up against all odds, even Esther his wife – in the end, their simple courage and determination shine through. No heroics: but the strength of their relationships and decency are the right stuff, what counts.
MUST READ – but maybe not an easy one. I just read one reviewer who said he would go out on a limb here and call this a masterpiece. I think I would second that.
This book is brilliant. I read another by Holly Bourne quite recently – How to Be Interesting – and it was okay, but this one is really, really good.
It’s told through the eyes of Evie, who’s just started college after dropping out of high school and getting average GCSE grades despite her smarts, because she has high anxiety and OCD. Not the everyday of thoughtless speak “Oh I’m so OCD, I always have to have my pencils straight!" – but the real 24/7 obstressing (great made-up word) struggling not to wash your hands raw exhausting sort.
So Evie’s story is told using in part through her recovery journal, which details her various coping mechanisms. Which sounds like it might be hard work and dispiriting, but it is so not. Evie is a great character, funny and warm and relatable and bright, and she’s an unreliable narrator (I think). The device works brilliantly, because we understand Evie’s struggles from the inside and are with her as she self-deceives and lies to the people who care about her and gives in to obsession.
But above and beyond the OCD story, Evie is an ordinary teenager struggling to cope with boys and friendships, and the novel explores huge deep contemporary issues, like how to be a feminist without being a ball buster, and the importance of being yourself when you think you need to change to keep a boy, and sticking together and being there for each other even when boys come along, and even – wait for it – patriarchal society and how it impacts on everything. It’s just so refreshing to read a YA book that’s not afraid to be explicit about the things that count, and is brave enough to stand up and shout it’s not just okay, it’s essential to be feminist, when feminism for a while now seems to have been presented by some mainstream media as the last resort of dungaree’d and shaven-headed lesbians. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a DSHL, but feminism’s not just for them, it’s for all of us.
Plus, as well as carrying all the right ideas in the clearest form imaginable, this story is hugely hugely fun. MUST READ!!
I’m a bit torn for this review. In some ways it deserves at least four stars, because it is undoubtedly very well written in a style I often admire: quite literary, very fluid, finely constructed sentences, and a wide precise vocabulary. But in this case, it didn’t work for me. The main problem is a sense of distance, of looking with cool detachment at two not very interesting protagonists. There is no real sense of being inside their lives or connecting with their problems.
But that may be partly because the problems are not ones I could readily connect with.
I don't think I would class this as a chick lit. It's not meant to be fluffy or fun and is definitely not funny; it's about the disintegration of a marriage. The plot: essentially, affluent and disengaged husband Nick has fallen out of love with stay-at-home mum Maya. But wow, who knew divorce was so expensive? So to reduce his losses, he hatches a plan to be a better husband and coax Maya back to work: as a highly-paid lawyer herself, she will no longer be a dependent. But, during the process, he unexpectedly falls back in love with her.
It’s quite a cute plotline and did attract me to read the book. But even apart from the sense of distance mentioned above, the story annoyed me in so many ways. Maya’s parenting style is ridiculous (no boundaries – lets her brattish boy hurt and smash things with no reprimand or consequence; obsesses about food) – and how on earth, with a nanny working fifty hours a week (yes, fifty – five ten hour days – like employees need no life of their own) could she find parenting so hard? I had twins (breast fed) and an older boy not yet four. No Nanny. Yes, it’s hard work – but... what can I say? You just have to be organized, and firm, and patient, and hardworking. It’s really not that hard. Maya’s twins aren’t even around half the time, with all the thousands of activities she (or the nanny) constantly takes them to. I felt sorry for Velma the nanny, who does most of the actual work anyway while Maya swans off to her personal trainer and various other fitness/therapeutic activities.
It’s first world problems writ large. Too-affluent people with nothing to do but screw up their own lives through being self-obsessed and selfish.
And it also annoys me anyway, (rant follows) the way so many books are about super-affluent people. It’s like, 95% of people aren’t super-affluent, but in books the proportion is reversed: we have to read about people who never really have to worry about money. Their worries are at the level of who gets the lion’s share of a really big pot of money, not how to pay the rent so my kids aren’t on the street.
It’s not even escapism, in a book like this. It’s meant to be a reflection of real society, from which we are meant to derive insights about love and marriage and childrearing. Meh.
And then, when Maya goes back to work, it’s in the full knowledge she’s going to be working a sixty-hour week plus. Now, putting aside poor Velma’s overtime (I’d like to think she gets double time for anything over forty hours, ha ha fat chance), that really annoys me. If you are working twelve-hour days plus, you are not going to be there for your children at all. You are abdicating responsibility. Now, I know that this is supposed to be the dilemma women face, that they are frowned upon for leaving their children to pursue a professional career blah blah – but why does anyone need to work sixty hour weeks, period? So Maya can earn $17,000 dollars for a single court appearance (which bankrupts her deserving client and fails anyway), apparently. Maybe so she can buy more sessions with her personal trainer, or a bigger fatter BMW.
This is all a bit of a rant – but the bottom line is, I really dislike that all-or-nothing working mother approach. If there are no law firms that will let you work thirty hour weeks and pay you pro rata – then there really ought to be. Maybe Maya should have started one herself: child-friendly law firm for working mothers who don’t want to abandon their children totally to the hired help.
And then Nick, when left alone after Maya walks out and takes Velma with her, immediately sinks into squalor. He feels too embarrassed to hire another cleaner/housekeeper - and of course can't possibly soil his own lily-white hands by actually doing something practical like vacuuming. I know people like this exist, people who can't even keep themselves and their basic living environment clean: so refined and snobbish, they're actually useless. Gaaah.
So yes, it made me cross. And it was quite slow anyway. So even though it was well-written style-wise, I’m only going to give it three stars (head says more, heart says less, three cuts a deal).
This is an entry into increasingly common genre of historical crime fiction, whereby the author takes a certain period in history and then works on a mystery plot, usually involving solving a murder in the traditional way.
I’ve always thought this was rather a daft way to set about reading/finding out more about a particular period in history: if you want to know, why not simply read about Japan in the 16th century? Silly me: for the obvious reason, that it’s much more fun to read a story, and if that story has interesting historical stuff thrown in along the way, then all the better, because it’s fresh and fascinating. And this is a very entertaining story. Not least because Hiro is a great character, sort of an undercover super-assassin working security: that is, he’s a Shinobi, or Ninja warrior, member of the Hattori clan, who has been tasked with protecting Portuguese catholic priest Father Mateo with his honour and his life. Father Mateo, for his part, is a rather more complex character than he at first appears, and definitely not the fish out of water in Japanese culture that he pretends.
I think the setting here is a little before Shogun, if you know that whopping tome, and it’s more amongst the ordinary folk rather than the Emperor and Shogun types. In this story, the murder victim is from an actor’s guild, and as such is beneath the notice of the official legal system, which in any case has its corrupt members. Plus there is the backdrop of political unrest in Kyoto at the time, as the old Shogun is dead, a new has risen up but is likely to be challenged, and the new guy doesn’t especially like Hiro or Mateo. Which translates to, is likely to have them assassinated.
So a good story, interesting characters, and very importantly in a novel such as this, the author clearly has an in-depth understanding of Japanese culture and history at this period, which gives the setting great interest and authenticity.
This was definitely a page-turner. I found the premise – that the apocalypse comes about because everyone suddenly develops telepathy and can read each other’s minds – at once fascinating and problematic. Despite these contradictory feelings, I whizzed through, so this is an author who is doing something right.
First, it’s set in Sydney in a near-ish future, with a lot of hip hyper-connected teen jargon, which sets the scene for the apocalypse to come while also being really quite clever. Then the “Snap” happens – on Christmas Day, perfect, always a time of goodwill and low stress-levels – and mayhem and mega-death ensues. Our tough and down to earth heroine Danby, who has been mis-diagnosed as kooky because she already tuned into these telepathic waves, is invisible to the crazed majority who feel like ten thousand people are screaming in their heads. Her mission becomes, to get herself and her little brother to hippy mum’s hideaway in the Blue Mountains. She also meets a young med student, Nathan, who is similarly “immune”: ie he can hear others’ thoughts but they can’t hear his.
Their attempts to save themselves, plus assisting and reviving other people, seem to only just be starting, and a good start it is, when the narrative changes and the story becomes a novel of two halves. I won’t say too much because it would be spoiler-y, but the second half introduces a new set of characters. One in particular has unusual talents and the thrust of the story shifts to Danby’s uncertain, ambivalent relationship with this guy.
The premise is interesting: that our brains are being re-wired for connectivity through social media, and that this is the natural evolutionary next step. It kind of introduces that idea without fully exploring its implications: 7 billion minds on the planet – and like the internet, 99% plus of each mind is probably stuffed with rubbish no one needs to know. I know mine is.
Connectivity is a buzzword (very big in education: we teachers are meant to be embracing the connectivity of our students as 21st Century learners) but no one seems to ask the basic question: why? Connectivity is good for Connectivity’s sake, goes the C21st educators’ mantra. But I do wonder. Deeply unfashionable view: what good does it do? If you look at it with a cold and cynical eye, the vast vast majority of this sharing and connecting is on the one hand self-promoting, and on the other desperately trivial.
So… my reasons for contradictory reaction: it is a fascinating premise for an apocalypse, but this happening overnight as an evolutionary response is not possible. Natural selection, selfish genes and all that – no great genetic changes can happen to everyone on the planet outside of several generations (or at the very least one, if there’s a plague say that wipes out everyone but people who… can roll their tongues. Then, in one generation, the vast majority of the people in the world would be people who can roll their tongues… boring old evolutionary theory, so widely misunderstood).
So the mechanism by which this occurs is at present not plausible, although it might come clear in later books. But that didn’t affect my reading pleasure anyway.
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, people all of a sudden murdering each other and crashing their cars and fires all over the city – basically, Christmas Armageddon – why? So, your hubby thinks your bum really does look fat in those pants – do you charge outside and drive like a maniac ramming your car into every other vehicle you see? Even if you do drive off in a huff, you wouldn’t want to kill yourself through reckless driving. But they all do.
I think the madness could conceivably have been explained as a stress reaction – people literally going mad with the noise in their minds… I don’t know, maybe it was there but if it was, it’s not very focused or explicit, and the rationale for the madness seemed a little lacking.
In any case, nitpicks aside, I still roared through the story – interesting, gripping read, and lots of potential to explore answers in the follow-ups.
Because it is the first in a trilogy. The story resolves enough for satisfaction, but is clearly primed for instalment #2.