Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Bout of Books 7.0 Sign Up!



It's Bout of Books time again! This is such a fun read-a-thon and I'm more than a little excited about it, especially as I just beat Camp NaNo (woot!) and now feel like I can TAKE ON THE WORLD. Bring me the books, bring me ALL the books!

Here's the official blurb from Amanda and Kelly:

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 13th and runs through Sunday, May 19th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure, and the only reading competition is between you and your usual number of books read in a week. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 7.0 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team.


This is a great event, involving lots of reading, twitter chats, discovering lovely bloggers, mini-challenges, and general fun! Why not come and join in? - Sign up here!

I'll be doing a separate goals and updates post nearer the time. ;-)


 

Myths and Legends - Book Reviews


Myths and Legends is a new series of books from Osprey, publisher of military history books combining historical information with beautiful illustrations and images. The series will examine “the great stories that have echoed down through time and have helped to shape our cultures” (from the Osprey website).


Jason and the Argonauts


The voyage of Jason and the Argonauts and their hunt for the Golden Fleece is one of the most enduringly popular of all of the Ancient Greek heroic myths. Accepting the quest in order to regain his kingdom, Jason assembled a legendary crew including many of Greece's greatest heroes such as Hercules, Orpheus, Atalanta, Telamon, and the twins Castor and Pollux. With this band of heroes and demi-gods, Jason set sail in the Argo on a journey across the known world. During their quest, the Argonauts faced numerous challenges including the harpies, the clashing rocks, the Sirens, Talos the bronze man, the sleepless dragon that guarded the fleece, and of course the fickle will of the gods of Olympus.

Dr. Neil Smith retells this classic myth, examining its origins, its history, and its continued popularity. The text is supported by numerous illustrations both classical and modern, including numerous artwork plates especially commissioned for this work. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
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First off, this is a beautiful book. Fantastic illustrations, a good use of images of ancient artefacts and statues, colourful and pleasing to flick through; this is the kind of book that you want to pick up the instant you see it.

Jason and the Argonauts tells the myth of the ancient Greek hero Jason and his voyage to claim the Golden Fleece. It begins early in the myth and tells each stage in detail, providing background facts and information. Despite studying Classics at university, I’m actually not that familiar with the Jason myth – it’s about the only one that I didn’t touch on – and there were a lot of new things to learn in this book. The story is told in an engaging style and it’s a very easy read. The illustrations also add a lot to the story, helping the reader to imagine various events. The book is obviously meant as an introduction to the myth, and it does this well.

I did enjoy reading about Jason’s journey, but I couldn’t help wishing there had been a little more extra information alongside it. I loved the little asides that talked about ancient Greek ships and weapons, or plotted a map of the Argo’s route, or that added background to various characters, and I would have really liked more of these. For instance, a diagram of a Greek ship might have complemented this particular myth very well. I would also have loved a little more information about Atalanta, the one woman hero on the voyage. She is briefly mentioned, and it’s obviously rare to find a female ancient Greek hero, so it might have been fun to find out how she came to join Jason’s quest.

This is a fun book, well put together and visually very appealing. I think anyone interested in mythology, or in learning about ancient Greek heroes would enjoy it, and could find a place for the collection on their shelves.


Dragonslayers


From legend and mythology to The Hobbit and A Game of Thrones, the dragon is a perennial favorite in the fantasy genre.

With its fiery breath, scaly armour, and baleful, malevolent stare, the dragon became the ultimate symbol of evil and corruption in European folklore and mythology. Often serving as a stand-in for Satan, or the power of evil gods, dragons spread death and hopelessness throughout the land. Only heroes of uncommon valour, courageousness, and purity could hope to battle these monsters and emerge victorious. Those that did became legends. They became dragonslayers. The list of dragonslayers is small, but it is filled with great and legendary names. Hercules, Beowulf, Cuchulain, Sigfried, Lancelot, and Saint George all battled to the death with dragons. Other heroes such as the Danish King Frotho, the French Saint Mercurialis, the Polish champion Krak, and the Russian warrior Dobrynya Nikitch might be less well known to western readers, but also fought and defeated dragons. This book will retell the greatest legends of this select group of warriors, while examining the myth of the dragonslayer in a historical, mythological, and even theological context. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
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I enjoyed this book more than Jason and the Argonauts. It looks at the myths and legends of dragon-slayers throughout history, telling their stories and looking at various information surrounding each myth, such as historical records and recurring themes. I liked how the author didn’t limit himself to a rigid modern (and European) definition of what a dragon is, but looked at how ideas of dragons have changed through time and in different societies. This allowed him to include snake-monsters, sea-serpents, wurms and other nasties, and it was fascinating to see how dragons and dragon-slaying legends began and how they developed.

I really loved the amount of additional information that the author provided in this book. I found details about sources and historical records fascinating, and I enjoyed little asides about how the various legends had been used in film and literature, as well as potential real-world influences on the legends that involved real historical figures (crocodiles seem to have been a common culprit). There was so much in this book that I didn’t know (for example, spiked armour pops up a lot in the British dragon-slaying legends). I also didn’t expect there to be so many dragon-slayer stories that I’d never heard of before. The book was very well researched and a joy to read.

This was a really fun and informative book, with some wonderful illustrations and images that really brought the stories to life. Both these beautiful and interesting books represent a very strong start to the Myths and Legends series. I’ve already got my eye on the next titles!



Monday, 29 April 2013

The Eternity Cure - Book Review


Allison Sekemoto has vowed to rescue her creator, Kanin, who is being held hostage and tortured by the psychotic vampire Sarren. The call of blood leads her back to the beginning—New Covington and the Fringe, and a vampire prince who wants her dead yet may become her wary ally.

Even as Allie faces shocking revelations and heartbreak like she’s never known, a new strain of the Red Lung virus that decimated humanity is rising to threaten human and vampire alike. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
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(Note - this review contains slight spoilers for things that are revealed in the first chapters of the book. As such, they are not really spoilery spoilers, but if you don't want any information about the plot before reading this, then perhaps stay away. I will sum up for you instead - this is a fantastic book and certainly a must-read if you enjoyed the first!)

I was a little worried about this book, though I’m not entirely sure why. I loved The Immortal Rules, but I suppose I thought this one would surely have trouble living up to it, or that it might start moving into predictable patterns. I really shouldn’t have worried, because Julie Kagawa knows exactly what she’s doing. This is a fantastic, well-paced and exciting story, with wonderful characters and just the right amounts of romance, horror, action, and slightly black humour. It’s even better than The Immortal Rules, and I couldn’t put it down!

The book begins with Allie trying to track down Kanin, and spends quite a lot of time recapping events from the first book. I actually find this kind of recapping a bit frustrating when it’s mixed in with new events, as it means that you can’t skip it if you still remember the first book clearly. Still, I know a lot of people prefer to have this, and it doesn’t take long to push through. Then we are straight in on the action, as Allie creeps into Washington DC and breaks into a vampire base in the Capitol building (I think... if I have my DC layout right in my head!). Then it’s to the subway tunnels which are seething with rabids, and I am absolutely convinced that Julie Kagawa is a Fallout 3 fan. After this, we go back to New Covington, for more sewer-crawling and a new kind of zombie menace.

Julie Kagawa is very good at writing action, and she doesn’t hold back on the scares and gore as far as vampires and zombies and zombie-vampires (and vampire-zombies?) are concerned. The first book had quite a unique genre-mixing feel to it, and this one continues that while adding even more to the mix. The story is fast-paced, only pausing now and again for a quick breath before diving into more chases and fights. It’s an intense book, the stakes (no pun intended) are ramped up from the first book, and I was really caught up in everything that was happening. This is definite edge-of-your-seat stuff.

The book has a fun story and great action, but it’s really the characters that make it so fantastic. Allie is as awesome as ever (though it’s a shame she appears to be in ‘lone girl position’ this book), Zeke continues to surprise me, Kanin was actually better than I remembered him, and the addition of Jackal back into the mix is unexpectedly perfect. Jackal adds a lovely note of black humour into the story, and it’s almost enough to make me forget that he killed some people Allie cared about in the first book. Almost. The dynamic between Jackal, Allie and Zeke is great, and I really liked how the various relationships between them developed. I’m curious to see what will happen with Jackal in the next book, as the ties between them all have become very complicated now. Sarren is also a wonderful villain; a little cheesy and larger than life, perhaps, but ideal for this kind of story. Plus, another video game reference? Or do I just see these everywhere now?

One thing that continued to delight me about the book was the way in which the author didn’t stick to clich├ęd or expected patterns in the romance. For instance, there is a moment where I was convinced that Allie was going to tell Zeke she doesn’t love him, in order to protect him. That’s something I find particularly annoying in stories, as it feels like a cheap and unrealistic way to create drama, another example being ‘inexplicable secret-keeping’. Refreshingly, this book never does either of those things, and the romance is both believable and touching. Characters always act honestly, and their relationships with each other, romantic and otherwise, feel completely real. The romance itself also doesn’t dominate the story but progresses naturally within it, which works very well.

The Eternity Cure is an exciting story with fantastic characters, elements of horror, fantasy and black humour, and a touching romance. It also has a particularly good end and one heck of a cliffhanger. I can’t wait for the third book!


Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


 

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Showcase Sunday #16



Inspired by Celine from Nyx Book Reviews, I've decided to combine several weekly wrap-up memes into one post. Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea. Stacking the Shelves is hosted at Tynga's Reviews, and Sunday Post is hosted at Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer. Letterbox Love is a special British book-haul meme hosted by Lindsey at Narratively Speaking.


Last Week:

So, last week on the blog has been a special Blogoversary Week, with posts about me and the things I love, including a guest post and an interview with two favourite authors. Here's what's been happening:

Blogoversary Posts:

Find Out More About Me

From Rome to the Wild West - An Interview with Caroline Lawrence

My Favourite Book - Howl's Moving Castle (review)

Spotlighting Book Drum

Location, Location, Location - A Guest Post from Emma Newman

My Fifteen Favourite Video Games

Other Posts:

Book Review - The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

Top Ten  Books That Pleasantly Surprised Me

Phew! I think that's the fullest week I've ever had on the blog! :-)


New Goodies:

  
Any Other Name, by Emma Newman
(I'm SO excited about this one)
Thank you to Angry Robot and NetGalley for the review copy


 
The Red Knight, by K.T. Davies
I've already reviewed this one on the blog and it was one of
my favourites. The author has kindly sent me some copies for
a giveaway, so watch out for that soon!
And, she included a signed copy for me. Thank you so much! :-D


So, how was your week and what have you been reading? Were any of you taking part in Dewey's 24hr Read-a-thon? How did it go? :-)



Saturday, 27 April 2013

My Fifteen Favourite Video Games


 
The blogoversary ‘things I love’ theme has been all about books and writing so far, so I just wanted to end with a post about my other favourite thing: games! I love games of all kinds – board games, roleplay, tabletop, etc – but video games are undeniably the best of the game bunch.

And here are my fifteen favourites:

(Note: there is a significant lack of Nintendo games here, particularly the Zelda and Mario games that tend to make it on to other people’s favourites lists. This is simply because I never had anything that ran Nintendo games when I was growing up. We're considering getting a Wii at some point because I believe you can play old Zelda games on it, but not much else on the Wii really appeals to us. So, for now, I’m still a Zelda virgin I’m afraid!)

(Note 2: Yes, there are a lot of Bioware games on here. Yes, I am a big cheat and counting all three Mass Effect games as one.)


1) Mass Effect series. Wonderful, fun universe to explore. Well thought out characters. A very interesting story that keeps unravelling. An extremely enjoyable game to play, and a satisfying player-character that I can really connect to. The interesting thing about the Mass Effect games is that they actually give you a lot less choice than many other roleplay games, and yet you feel like you have plenty of control over your decisions. This is due to two things – great writing, and fantastic voice acting.

 
2) Fallout 3. This is an amazing game. It’s so atmospheric, and at the time I played it I had never seen anything like it. It creates such an absorbing world, with its post-nuclear setting, recognisable landmarks, 50’s theme, and weird elements (spot the Lovecraft references – there are quite a few!). I spent many tense hours sneaking through subway tunnels, hearing ghouls shrieking in the distance. For my bookish friends, think The Eternity Cure. Julie Kagawa has definitely played Fallout 3!


3) Monkey Island. A classic. So funny, so addictive, so frustrating! How many of us have sat for hours trying to use every item in our inventory with every other item, and then with the tree, and the rock, and the anchor, and the monkey, with Guybrush, and so on, in the desperate hope that something would work, only to discover that if we’d just walked a little further left there was something we could pick up in the corner of the area? Oh, and the sword fighting? Genius.

 
4) Fable. What a magical, quirky, and just plain fun game! Hero fantasy with a very British feel. Slightly stylised art, which I really loved, and one of the very few games that doesn’t have a save-the-entire-kingdom storyline. My favourite bit was boasting and putting bets on myself before missions. “Oh, I can totally rescue those traders without getting hit, in eight minutes, and using only my fists as weapons. What’s more, I will do this naked!”

 
5) Dragon Age. It was the characters that made this game so fantastic. I got completely attached to all of them. There was some genuinely funny writing, and a few nice little twists that I didn’t see coming. The actual world and story themselves were not blazingly original, but I think the depth of interaction with the companions really was, and actually, I haven’t seen it done quite as well in any game since. No, not even in the Mass Effect games.


6) Knights of the Old Republic. A Star Wars game set a long time before the films. I think this was the first game that ever surprised me. What a twist! It was also an incredibly fun game all round.

 
7) Starcraft. Words can’t express that joy of setting your hatchery’s rally point on the enemy base and spamming the ‘produce zerglings’ button. Though, having said that, constructing artistic arrangements of bunkers and siege engines at bottlenecks was pretty fun too. All three races were really fun to play, and it could be very challenging at points. There was also a great story behind the game, which is quite unusual for an RTS.

 
8) Portal. Utterly addictive. I beat it in one night. Very well thought out and written, it’s a puzzle game with a surprising amount of depth. And then, when you’re feeling a little sad because you reached the end, it keeps going and you realise you were only about two thirds of the way through after all!

 
9) The Elder Scrolls games, and particularly Oblivion. I preferred Oblivion to Skyrim. The world felt a little more magical and less ‘fantasy generic’ to me. Or perhaps just as fantasy generic, but in a different way. Oblivion is stranger and more colourful, with a feeling that anything could happen. Skyrim is a little more realistic, with a medievalish feel and dragons. I enjoyed both, but Oblivion was more enchanting and memorable to me. I also felt that it was more fun to be thief in Oblivion, to join guilds and to go off on random tangents. Skyrim definitely wins on art, however, and the mage guild storyline was fantastic. And unfortunately I never played Morrowind, though I love the music.


10) Mad Professor Moriarty. I think this may have been my first ever game. So entertaining! This was a side-scrolling platform game, in which you played a mad professor who threw spanners at monsters. It was wacky and fun.


11) Neverwinter Nights. My first RPG, and my first introduction to the world and classes of Dungeons and Dragons (which I played for real later). I’d never played a game that felt this open before (though nowadays I suppose it would feel quite linear in comparison to, say, the Elder Scrolls games). I have a lot of great memories of this.


12) The Sims 2. The Sims was fun, but it really improved considerably with The Sims 2. I’m not sure if The Sims 2 really had a point to it; you could do what you liked, and sometimes I’d spend whole game sessions just building funny houses or trying to create characters from books and movies. Once, I made John and myself and gave them a house and jobs, and then just left them to it to see what would happen. John played video games instead of going to work, got a phone call to say he was fired, and then went straight to the kitchen to make a whole plate of hamburgers, which he proceeded to eat, one after the other, while crying. How could you not love this game?


13) Jade Empire. This was a fun game with an interesting world and one of the best twists that I've seen in a game.


14) Star Wars Battlefront. Just a fun game. Not complex, not hard, no real story, not groundbreaking, but – and I can’t really explain why – it’s still the most fun of all the first person shooters I’ve played!

 
15) World of Warcraft. Okay, this game has a lot of problems, and I don’t play anymore because I just don’t have time. But I still have so many good memories. Kharazan, raids, battlegrounds, silly roleplaying in the guild, meeting people from around the world... but especially Kharazan. That feeling of teamwork with nine other people, trying again and again and supporting each other until we beat it. So good, and what MMOs should be all about. Unfortunately, our guild broke down not long after, and we never found another group of people so friendly and so willing to help and support each other. Still, when it works, it’s fantastic.



So those are my fifteen favourite games (and narrowing it to fifteen was very hard). What about you? What do you love to play, or have fond memories of? :-)



Friday, 26 April 2013

Location, Location, Location - A Guest Post from Emma Newman



For the past week I've been doing some posts about things I love, and now it's the turn of one of my new favourite authors (read my review of the first Split Worlds novel here). Emma Newman is here to do a guest post about the setting for her Split Worlds fantasy series. So Emma, why Bath? :-)

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Bath (picture: Michael Maggs)
The first novel of the Split Worlds series Between Two Thorns is set in modern-day Bath and its secret magical reflection Aquae Sulis. The reflected city is in the 'Nether' – a place between the mundane world (like ours) and Exilium, where the Fae are imprisoned.


Why Bath?

I've always been fascinated by the city's history. I've been there more times than I remember; my family have lived nearby for many years and for the last five I've been close enough for day trips. The city is dominated architecturally by the Georgian era and as a result, I couldn't help but wonder what it was like in the eighteenth century at the peak of its popularity.

The more I learned about the city, the harder I found it to walk around without imagining the people who used to live there. I'd look at the terraced Georgian houses and imagine them lit with candlelight and full of beautifully dressed men and women in the social crush of the season. Instead of cars queuing to get into a car park, I'd imagine carriages with horses snorting and puffing plumes of steam into the air as they waited. I walked into lampposts a lot.



I visited the beautifully restored Assembly Rooms and walked around in a daze. I was caught between a longing for a time of such splendour and gratitude that I'm living in the 21st century and have freedom and rights denied the women of that time. Now I think about it, I think a lot of Cathy's struggle emerged from this.

I learned about 'Beau' Nash, who became the city's Master of Ceremonies in 1706 and was fascinated by how he transformed the social fabric of the city in only a decade. He laid down a famous 'code of behaviour' which encouraged socialising between the gentry and the aristocratic elite – something that had never been seen before. It was one of the critical factors in the success of the city.


The secret reflection of Bath

In Between Two Thorns the reflected city - Aquae Sulis - is very similar to eighteenth century Bath. There are a number of reasons for this, but the principle one is that Nether Society is stagnant in comparison to the mundane world, principally because people don't age there. It's been a long, long time since those in power last visited and understood the mundane world.

 
The Aquae Sulis of the Split Worlds series is still run by a Master of Ceremonies, a Richard Angustifolia-Lavandula, who runs the city and its social events just like Beau Nash. However, there is an additional role in the power structure; Censor of Aquae Sulis, which brings me to the Roman-inspired aspects of the reflected city.


The Roman element

Of course, Aquae Sulis was the Roman name for the city and they bathed in the same springs that were popular in Beau Nash's time and are still enjoyed today. I wanted to call the reflected city something different as people often use names and language to differentiate themselves. None of the Great Families would ever want to have the city they live in associated with mundane Bath, filled with the people they look down upon!

The Roman Baths
In Roman times, one of the powers a Censor held was the ability to judge an individual's assets, consider their behaviour (i.e. whether they'd acted with bravery or cowardice in a battle) and assign them to a particular social class as a result. Clearly this made them incredibly powerful and that's the same of the Censor in my novel. Claudia is Richard's sister and arguably the most powerful person in the city. She is the one who decides whether a resident of another Nether city may enter Aquae Sulis and participate in the Season, and also decides who may or may not become a permanent resident.

It's my hope that when people read Between Two Thorns they'll feel some of that magic of the eighteenth century social whirl. It's also my hope that they'll also see how far we've come in the mundane world…

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Thanks so much for stopping by, Emma!


Between Two Thorns is the first book in the Split Worlds series, from Angry Robot Books. The second book, Any Other Name, is out in May!

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Shining Girls - Book Review


It’s the UK publication day for The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (out June 4th in the USA). My longer review of the book can be found on Fantasy Faction, but just wanted to give a short review here and post the trailer.

The Time Traveler's Wife meets The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in this story of a time-travelling serial killer who is impossible to trace--until one of his victims survives.

In Depression-era Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens on to other times. But it comes at a cost. He has to kill the shining girls: bright young women, burning with potential. He stalks them through their lives across different eras until, in 1989, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and starts hunting him back. Working with an ex-homicide reporter who is falling for her, Kirby has to unravel an impossible mystery.

THE SHINING GIRLS is a masterful twist on the classic serial killer tale: a violent quantum leap featuring a memorable and appealing girl in pursuit of a deadly criminal. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
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The Shining Girls is one of those books that mixes genres and does so very successfully. It’s a crime/thriller/urban-fantasy focussing on a serial killer and the girl who wants to catch him, with the element of time travel thrown in. Mixing time travel with a serial killer is a genius idea – the murderer, Harper Curtis, leaves bodies in different times, hopping back and forth through Chicago from the 20s to the 90s leaving no trail that the police can follow. There’s only one clue – the objects that Harper takes from each victim and leaves on the body of another, objects that are out of time.

Harper doesn’t choose his victims; his time-travelling house does it for him. Yes, you heard that right – a time-travelling house. There’s an element of fatalism in this, as Harper targets his victims because he has already killed them. There is a display of mementos in a bedroom of the house; when he stumbles across it he feels the objects’ owners calling out to him, to murder them and resolve the time loop. This is why they shine. Time travel mixes well with the idea of the serial killer as someone who feels compelled to kill their targets. Time travel also allows the author to show Chicago through the years, providing a fascinating look at the city and how it changed through time, as well as some of the ways that history seems to repeat itself.

And the magical time-travelling house? Never fully explained, but linked to Harper’s psychotic, cruel character – the house is just as malevolent as he, and a really creepy presence throughout the story. I also loved the combination of magic with time travel. This kind of genre blending is something that I really enjoy.

The story is pretty violent in places, and there are many disturbing elements. The serial killer targets women exclusively, and sometimes the murders are described graphically. For me, this was countered by Lauren Beukes’ extraordinary ability to make the reader care about each victim in so few words, giving each a strong voice, as well as the fact that the murders are never glamorised and Harper is not at all sympathetic, even in his point of view chapters. And then there is Kirby, the girl who got away, who refuses to be a victim, and who is determined to catch Harper. Her interactions with Dan, a reporter who she hopes will help her with the case, bring the book to life, ensuring that it is not simply a stream of killings. However, if you think graphic descriptions of violence might make you too uncomfortable, or if you don’t enjoy serial killer thrillers, perhaps give this one a miss.

I really enjoyed this book. I was completely gripped the whole way through, staying up late to see how it would end (a very good ending, I thought). It’s exciting, well-paced, sometimes disturbing, sometimes uplifting, with some good characters and a fantastic setting.

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

And here is the book trailer: