Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Off To World Fantasy Con

Just a quick post to say that I'm going to World Fantasy Con in Brighton tomorrow until Sunday. I'm really excited about it! If you're going to be there too, let me know in the comments or tweet me, or just say hi if you see me around. :-)

Now I need to try to make some more room in my suitcase. There isn't nearly enough space in there for books...

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Top Ten Halloween Reads

I haven't done a Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) in ages, and this week's theme is a really fun one, so here goes!

Top Ten Books to Read During Halloween

Well, for me, Halloween isn't necessarily about horror. Or rather, it's not just about the scares. It's also fun, colourful, a litte cheesy, a little goofy, funny, and a bit wicked. For me, it's about the supernatural more than serial killer horror; it's about wonder and magic, about the lines between worlds becoming thinner for one night. So with that in mind, here are my top ten Halloween reads...

1) The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. This book just sums up Halloween for me. It's the perfect read for this time of year!

2) Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice. The ultimate gothic vampire book. A must-read for vampire fans. The whole series is good, so if you like his one, carry on to later books too!

3) The Bartimaeus Series, beginning with The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud. An alternate London run by warlocks, a charismatic demon, and lots of fun. This is a fantastic series and highly recommended.

4) The Whitby Witches, by Robin Jarvis. This is a must for a Halloween read. Witches, sea-people, weird goings on as the mist rolls into Whitby. Atmospheric and entertaining!

5) Strangewood, by Christopher Golden. A very creepy and definitely adult read. This fits in with Halloween's 'line between worlds' idea in an unexpected way. This is a book that's stayed with me a long long time after reading it.

6) Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett. This is a Discworld book, but you don't need to have read others in the series to enjoy it. Vampires and witches and very funny!

7) Poison, by Chris Wooding. Oh god the spiders... and they're far from being the creepiest part. This is a brilliantly written book that offers a fun, scary tale, with a fantastic ending.

8) The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende. It's funny how many of these books have a similar idea running through them, actually. Perhaps books that make me question the reality of my own existence are oddly the scariest kind for me? Anyway, this has plenty of weird beasties in it too. A classic, and always fun.

9) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. This is another book like The Graveyard Book that just seems perfectly suited to Halloween. A slightly sinister but charming view of fairyland, which involves a trip to a land of always-Autumn.

10) Hollow Pike, by James Dawson. Witches, strange dreams, and a killer in a small Yorkshire town.This is a fun, creepy YA story that captures something of the feeling of old R. L. Stine books.

What are your Halloween reads? This year I'll be at World Fantasy Con, so I'm not entirely sure what I'll be doing on the night. Over the Halloween period I think I might read Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake, which looks fantastic, and of course I'll be sticking on all the Buffy Halloween episodes. :-)

Monday, 28 October 2013

Retribution Falls - Book Review

Retribution Falls
by Chris Wooding

Sky piracy is a bit out of Darian Frey’s league. Fate has not been kind to the captain of the airship Ketty Jay—or his motley crew. They are all running from something. Crake is a daemonist in hiding, traveling with an armored golem and burdened by guilt. Jez is the new navigator, desperate to keep her secret from the rest of the crew. Malvery is a disgraced doctor, drinking himself to death. So when an opportunity arises to steal a chest of gems from a vulnerable airship, Frey can’t pass it up. It’s an easy take—and the payoff will finally make him a rich man.

But when the attack goes horribly wrong, Frey suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in Vardia, trailed by bounty hunters, the elite Century Knights, and the dread queen of the skies, Trinica Dracken. Frey realizes that they’ve been set up to take a fall but doesn’t know the endgame. And the ultimate answer for captain and crew may lie in the legendary hidden pirate town of Retribution Falls. That’s if they can get there without getting blown out of the sky. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Retribution Falls is a really fun story. Really fun. Pirates, airships, a steampunkish feel, magic, demons, adventure, conspiracy... it has all the elements that let you know you’re in for a quick, exciting read. It’s an extremely fast paced book, barely pausing at any point for filler or downtime, and yet there are a surprising amount of back stories thrown in, all of them interesting. Chris Wooding is an expert at worldbuilding, slipping in facts and fascinating details that give such a vivid feeling of the world, without ever slowing down the plot or distracting from the story.

The rag-tag crew of the Ketty Jay will draw inevitable comparisons with the TV series Firefly. The book has a similar kind of roguish-twinkle feel to Firefly; they’re pirates, but they’re not the really bad kind of pirates, and there’s something unavoidably lovable about their underdog position and their attempts to stay ahead of everyone who’s out to get them. The characters in Retribution Falls can be a little one-note – they’re a character type and in general they stick to it – but the back stories here do add a little more depth to certain people. In particular I liked Crake, the daemonist who aids the crew with his daemon-based magic, and Jez, the new navigator and the ship’s only woman. I found these two the most human of the characters, and I really felt for Crake. The more minor characters were less explored but did add some tension and humour. I liked the doctor the best of the side-character bunch and would like to learn more about him in later books.

The captain, Darian Frey, was a hard character to like, but felt like a very honest portrayal of the kind of man that might end up in his position. He’s always running away, always trying to find someone else to blame for his problems. There were points where I became very frustrated with him, and other points where I honestly hoped Draken would capture him and the rest of the crew would get away. However, though Darian is often unlikeable, his slightly car-crash approach to life is fascinating to read about.

As the book goes on, most of the crew members begin to reveal a darker side, aspects that make the reader question whether they are really the good guys. This isn’t explored very deeply in this book; we’re still supposed to want them to come out on top, but I’m hoping this may be touched on a bit more later in the series. The book also succeeds in making the reader feel sympathy for Draken, the woman chasing down the Ketty Jay, though it perhaps succeeded a little too well with me. There were points where I honestly wanted her to win, but then, perhaps that was the point. This is a book about pirates, and I like that lines of morality were hard to draw. No-one should feel like they are entirely the good or bad guys here.

With an interesting storyline involving conspiracy, pirates and murder, memorable characters, action, plenty of humour, adventure, airships, daemon-magic, and a malevolent ship’s cat, Retribution Falls is a quick, fun read. There isn’t really anything surprising in the book, with some elements being quite predictable, but it’s done so well there is a great amount of satisfaction in how the events roll out. There is a lot about this world that I love, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of it with the Ketty Jay’s crew in later books.

I listened to this as an audiobook, so wanted to quickly mention the narrator, Rupert Degas, who does an absolutely fantastic job and really brings the book to life. Each character felt pitch-perfect to me, and his reading combined with Chris Wooding's excellent writing kept me engrossed throughout. I'll be looking for more of Rupert Degas' work too!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Preparing for NaNo

So, it’s late October and NaNoWriMo is once more looming on the horizon. If you’re unfamiliar with NaNo, it’s a challenge in which writers aim to pen 50,000 words in one month. You can connect with other writers, offer encouragement to your buddies, and receive tips and inspiration from the NaNo team. The event is meant to encourage people to just write write write, without worrying about editing or other concerns, so that at the end of the month you have a finished or nearly-finished project, Phase One of writing a novel!


I competed for the first time last year with a personal goal of 30k rather than the 50k. I succeeded, just, but there were a lot of things I realised, the main one being that I need to plan A LOT BETTER next time. Part of this was due to me trying to write a mystery book, so clues and groundwork needed to be laid carefully throughout the book, something that I found too difficult to ignore and add in later.

But partly, I think I learned that I am just the kind of writer that needs a plan. Maybe not a detailed ordnance survey map, but something a little more than basic directions to the end. This will help me stay on track, so that the words can keep flowing.

So this year, I’m doing the plotting thing. I bought a big sheet of card, and then wrote out scenes on post-it notes, different colours for different kinds of scenes. These weren’t every single one of my scenes, but the important ones, the ones that other bits will need to fit around. Then I began to arrange them, moving some around a bit, leaving gaps where there was obviously something missing, and so on, to see what the framework of my book looked like.

This is where I realised that I actually have a pretty solid first half, and then only about 3 major scenes in the second half with no flesh to go between them, and a very solid end. Huh. I wonder if this is normal for writers? Is it even a negative thing? Perhaps it’s good to leave myself with a looser second half, so that I have more room to manoeuvre later? I’ll be interested to see how it goes this time around. If anyone has any tips, or any recommendations of books on plotting a novel, please do leave them in the comments.

Another interesting thing that’s come out of this approach is that I can see certain themes running through the book, and I can more quickly solve certain problems by understanding where I’m going and which stages I need to hit to get there. The best solutions to problems are always the ones that tie in with events earlier, or key character motivations, or themes, and plotting like this helps me to keep track of these elements more easily.

Ok, so I do need at least one ordnance survey map
Another vital bit of preparation is research. This time around I’m going to be writing in a historical setting, and there are a lot of basic things I need to know before I begin. Small details can be changed and added later, but certain historical facts do affect plot and characterisation, so I need to have quite a good idea of what my city and society look like at this time. Researching is so much fun, I just have to be careful that it doesn’t become full time procrastination, which is another reason why I want to get the bulk of it done before NaNo. I don’t want anything to stop me while the words are flowing! (And let’s hope they do flow!)

And final preparations? Coffee, tea, chocolate, snack foods, fingerless gloves for typing in, comfy cushions, and beating that video game before November hits...!

So, are any of you taking part in NaNo this year? What are you doing, if anything, to prepare? Do you have any tips for success?

Oh, and if you're taking part and would like to add me as a buddy, please do! I'm on there as Jictoria.
Essential NaNo buddy

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Age of Miracles - Book Review

The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker

On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, 11-year-old Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life--the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.

With spare, graceful prose and the emotional wisdom of a born storyteller, Karen Thompson Walker has created a singular narrator in Julia, a resilient and insightful young girl, and a moving portrait of family life set against the backdrop of an utterly altered world. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

I read this as part of the Richard and Judy Book Club Challenge. This is one that I was really looking forward to. It’s a character focussed end-of-the-world story with a very unique and slow-moving disaster, and I was excited to see how the author would approach it.

Okay, so what’s the disaster? Well, at first glance, it doesn’t seem like the most earth-shattering of apocalypses: the world’s rotation is slowing down, and will eventually come to a complete stop. The days and nights are getting longer. What’s so brilliant about this is that the disaster creeps up on both the characters and the reader. It’s hard at first to contemplate how extreme the consequences of this might be, and so it is for the characters, who, after the initial panic, either try to ignore the disaster or simply tell themselves that someone else will fix it.

And yet, if the world were to slowly stop turning... what would happen? Days and nights would get longer, and we would find ourselves living days, then whole weeks, then longer, in constant darkness followed by constant light. Gravity would be affected – in this book birds begin to have trouble flying, and then fall from the sky. Planes begin to experience similar problems. As nights lengthen into weeks and months of total darkness, crops would die and the world would experience extreme food shortages. The long nights would be dangerously cold. The long days would be dangerously hot. Eventually, conditions would become too extreme for life over most of the Earth. This disaster starts out almost gently, unnoticed by all but a few, and yet develops relentlessly. And unlike some other, seemingly more dramatic, disaster stories, this one really does seem to be leading to the end of human life on Earth.

I love these kinds of stories, in which what seem like small changes can have devastating or incredible consequences. I also tend to prefer this kind of slow moving disaster/apocalypse story to the flashier, action-packed ones. However, there was something lacking here that meant that I never quite got the ‘wow’ feeling from this book. I thought the author wrote her characters and the human reactions to the crisis very convincingly, but there were points where the protagonist’s point of view was a little frustrating. She is a young girl (a fact that sometimes jars with the writing style), and so sometimes the typical teenage worries of her daily life concern her more than the world around her. I did like this touch, but felt that it became too much the focus of the book. The disaster itself became so background at points that it felt like an interesting setting for a coming of age story, rather than an element that should have been woven more carefully throughout all aspects of the book (for example, how something like Life As We Knew It handles a similar kind of disaster story). Because of this, there were parts where the plot felt quite lacklustre to me, and where the main character was not really interesting enough to hold up the book. Still, that’s very much down to my personal taste, and I think others may prefer that the story’s focus is always on the normal rather than the strange.

I enjoyed the way that details were introduced a little at a time. This worked very well, because it means that the reader experiences the disaster from the same position as the main character, not knowing enough, but knowing a little too much for comfort. I would have preferred the story to cover a slightly longer period of time, simply because I wanted to see what further slowing would look like in terms of human civilisation, and for similar reasons I wish we could have seen a little more of what was happening elsewhere in the world. This is a ‘what if?’ book, and so I want to actually see that question answered as much as possible. I don’t necessarily want science or explanations, but I want to see the consequences.

However, I can understand why the author did not do this, and I appreciated the unique approach to a disaster story: this is the age of miracles, not the age of disaster. It is the age when the world is moving from ‘normal’ into something new, when society is still trying to cling to absolutely everything it can from its old life, before having to face the truth. What makes this so different from almost every other story of its type is that it’s not a story about survival, not at all. It’s a story about living with ideas and routines of the past, as the world changes slowly around you; about denial and acceptance. So, although the story was not perhaps exactly what I was hoping for, it was a very interesting and unique one, and I enjoyed reading it.


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Showcase Birthday!

I've been really busy recently and haven't managed to get a Showcase Sunday up for a while. It was my birthday on Monday, so I thought I'd throw up a post today to share new goodies and latest posts.

What I've Been Up To:

Well, as I said, it was my birthday on Monday. I had a lovely day - my parents came to visit and we went shopping, then later I went out for dinner with my husband, played a board game, and watched a movie. :-) I also had a trip to Arnold library, which I've heard is very good. It's a fantastic library! Wish it was my local library, and I'll definitely have to visit again.

I've also been helping to put together my husband's visa application to stay in the UK, which has been a long and complicated process. That's been sent off now, so finally I can relax a little bit and get back to some reading and reviewing!

It's been very rainy here, though as I look outside right now it's very sunny with an almost black sky! Thunderstorm on its way? I've been enjoying all the autumn colours and bought a pumpkin, and I'm planning my Halloween costume. I'm thinking pirate. ;-)

New Posts:

Book Review - Shadows Over Innsmouth, edited by Stephen Jones

Science Fiction and Fantasy Podcasts (Fantasy Faction)

New Goodies:

Some birthday presents, some library books, some ebooks, some review books, and other bits and bobs! There are a lot here, but this is a few weeks' worth :-)

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett (birthday present)
Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed
Redshirts, by John Scalzi
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
The Apprentice Journals, by J. Michael Shell

Birthday presents! An owl cushion, fox ear muffs,
and Nightmare Before Christmas mugs for John and me. :-)

Warm Bodies (DVD)
Star Trek Cross-stitch, by John Lohman

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (I've heard so much about this one,
and it's the Fantasy Faction November read)

Assembly Code, by Colin F. Barnes (review copy)

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton (review audiobook)

The Deaths of Tao, by Wesley Chu (review book)

Pandemonium: Ash, edited by Jared Shurin

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Shadows Over Innsmouth - Book Review

Shadows Over Innsmouth
edited by Stephen Jones

Innsmouth, that isolated New England fishing village where “the vast huddle of sagging gambrel roofs and peaked gables conveyed with offensive clearness the idea of wormy decay.” A desolate place where the bulging, watery eyes of the residents stared from misshapen skulls, and a musty stench blended hideously with the town’s fishy odour. This is the setting of one of H. P. Lovecraft’s most famous tales, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, where hideous chants echo from Devil Reef and the Hall of Dagon.

Under the unblinking eye of World Fantasy Award-winning editor Stephen Jones, sixteen of the finest modern authors contribute stories to the canon of Cthulu. (Synopsis from back of book)

I’ve read so many Lovecraftian stories now, enjoyed Cthulu mythos based books, movies and games, and am very familiar with the ideas and iconic elements of Lovecraft’s creation, but oddly, until this collection, I’d never actually read one of the original Lovecraft stories. This collection begins with The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which was pretty much exactly what I expected. The story is a slow starter, perhaps a little rambling in places, but with a great sense of atmosphere and, of course, a fantastically realised setting.

The other stories in the collection are all the works of other authors, all within the Cthulu mythos and with a connection to Innsmouth and to the events of the original Lovecraft story. The modern writers here are all men and all British, the former fact a bit disappointing and the latter just odd. Innsmouth itself is in America, and these stories are mostly set in America too, many in the Innsmouth area, and a few in Britain and Ireland (with one very notable exception set in Romania). The stories that break away from Innsmouth add a bit of variety, but it’s a shame that we don’t see the effect of these sinister events on more different places and cultures, and the arms of the cult of Dagon creeping over the world. There are only so many identical sleepy American towns and seaside British villages that a reader can take...

These stories, on the whole, offer exactly what you might expect from a collection of Lovecraftian stories. This is one of the strengths of the collection, but, unfortunately, I think for me it was also the main problem. I wanted to see a bit more of the unexpected. After a while, the horror and the creepy aspect of the stories begins to wear very thin as you realise that the plots and the tone of the stories mirror each other very strongly. The book continues at the same semi-religiously-paranoid pitch for large chunks, which is perfectly spot-on-Lovecraftian, but to the extent that I began to feel a little sorry for the fish-creatures and found myself taking their side a bit. Probably not the intended reaction, and not the fault of any one story, but the effect of the anthology as a whole. I understand that this collection is supposed to celebrate the original story, but I do think it’s possible to do that without having so many stories that are so similar to it. I wanted to be surprised and amazed. I wanted to see the authors really make the Lovecraftian elements their own.

This is why certain stories really stood out for me, the ones that take the familiar ideas and play with them, twist them a little, or use the atmosphere of the original story in a very different setting. These stories were Only the End of the World Again, by Neil Gaiman, and A Quarter to Three, by Kim Newman, which use a more playful attitude to give us a fresh look at Innsmouth and the kinds of people involved in the weirdness there, Down to the Boots, by D. F. Lewis, which offers a different perspective from the other stories, and The Homecoming, by Nicholas Royle, which I thought was a fantastic story and very clever in its use of the same paranoid atmosphere of the original, but applied to very different circumstances. Part of the horror for the narrator in A Shadow Over Innsmouth seems to come from a Victorian-like fear of the foreign ‘infiltrating’ society, having something of a similar feel to certain chapters in Dracula. The Homecoming uses this idea in very interesting ways, as we see citizens of a post-dictatorship Romania in constant fear of each other, and of what kinds of people may have infiltrated their world, and of a form of evil that appears to be immortal – one wave of fish-things may be defeated, but paranoia and cruelty never die. This story was so unexpected and yet made so much sense, and it was definitely my favourite of the anthology.

None of the stories in the collection were bad. To See the Sea, by Michael Marshall Smith, and Daoine Domhain, by Peter Tremayne, were, for me, particularly good examples of that heavy sense of foreboding and lurking evil that are so iconic to the Cthulu mythos. It’s just that I did get a little tired of reading one after another. I’d recommend reading a story every now and then, when you’re in the mood for something Cthulicious, rather than reading it all in one go like I did. There is plenty to enjoy here for the hardcore Lovecraft fans, but, ultimately, a little disappointing for me.

Thank you to Titan Books for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.