Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Smiler's Fair

Some say you only get one chance to visit Smiler’s Fair. When first death comes, the fair moves on, its buildings drawn around the land by mammoths. As the fair nears a small goat-herding settlement, one of the herders is about to learn the truth of who he is. He has eyes the colour of the moon and a fate bound with that of the kingdom.

Smiler’s Fair is happily lacking in many of the things that put me off epic fiction; it’s a decent length and there isn’t a cast of millions, with complicated relationships or confusing names. There are a fair number of characters but soon their narratives weave together and I can see the point of them all by the end of book one. The book is split into two parts, partings and meetings, which I think works quite well with the forever in motion cast of characters.

It doesn’t get too bogged down with politics of the rulers. Yes, we have a king who wished to murder his son and an arranged marriage to help a family’s position, but these acts move the plot into place. The story revolves around a boy who is part of a prophecy and the return of the moon god who has been missing for a considerable time.

The fair itself is a movable town. Its habits are that of a travelling circus but instead of performance, its wares consist of vice; gambling, drinking, sex. There’s also merchants and worshippers and a menagerie for visitors to gaze at unusual animals. Its movement throughout the land introduces us to different people and cultures, whilst providing a thread which ties everything together.

We’re afraid of the shadows, friends. We run into the light and we move. We always move, not because we want, but because that’s what the sun ordered.

I liked the nomadic culture of the various races. The ship-born are nobility and their castles are forever in motion, dragged around lakes by mammoths. The land-born, move around too, for there are unimaginable things in the darkness. If your home keeps the ground in darkness for too long, the worm men will come. There are some who form permanent settlements, but most think this is madness.

As for the races, the cast is diverse. For once, the ruling race isn’t based on white Europeans, they have dark skin and hair. Attitudes towards women and sexuality differ amongst cultures, but there is the feeling of a complete world with lots of different people in it. The people of the plains see women as those in charge, even to the point where they will castrate clever boys to stop them losing their brains as they grow into men. The whore’s point of view we see in the book is male and gay and there’s women sharing multiple husbands. The Ashane are little more medieval about their women, but this fits in amongst a multicultural world.

Dae Hyo made a horrifying snipping gesture at his privates. "A gelding, you know, so you never grow into a man and lose the brains you were born with."

Eric’s story felt a little out of place to me. The world is one mostly without magic (we see it return alongside the return of the moon god’s presence). Yet where Eric ends up is such a contrast to the rest of the world-building. Perhaps, as the story moves on, and more world-building is added, it will become more real in my mind. I did like the giant bat character though!

On a final note, there are plenty of willies (honestly, I think every time my boyfriend looked over I was on a page with a penis) and not too much sexual violence. I would say the opening chapter is the goriest bit and it mellows a lot after that. The second instalment, The Hunter’s Kind, will definitely be heading onto my bookshelves.

Smiler's Fair is published by Hodder and is available now in paperback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Also reviewed @ A Fantastical Librarian

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Sunday, 22 February 2015


AKA Showcase Sunday

So a couple of weeks ago I got a giant box of Penguin Crime, which was a bit exciting to unpack but in reality I am hardly reading crime fiction these days. If anyone particularly wants any of them (and are in the UK) let me know, and I'll try and pass them on. Otherwise they'll be going in my free books to read on the beach box I put out when the weather's good.

I also replaced my Kindle recently so have made more of an attempt to request on NetGalley rather than paper...at least until I clear that shelf of pesky Penguins!

For review:
Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)
The Ship by Antonia Honeywell (Orion)
The Day We Disappeared by Lucy Robinson (Penguin)
Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (Penguin)

Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

Penguin Crime:
The Hangman's Song by James Oswald
The Boy That Never Was by Karen Perry
Eeny Meeny by M.J. Arlidge
After the Silence by Jake Woodhouse
If I Should Die by Matthew Frank
Runner by Patrick Lee
Fall From Grace by Tim Weaver
Dead Men's Bones by James Oswald
The Devil's Workshop by Alex Grecian

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Books, Biscuits & Tea.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Winner's Crime

The Winner's Crime is the sequel to The Winner's Curse and therefore this review may contain spoilers for the previous book.

The treaty has been signed, sealed with Kestrel’s engagement to the emperor’s son. Herrani is freed and the Valorians who were once their slavers must go home. Kestrel resigns her life to marrying a man she does not know and living in a prison of her own making. Arin must never know what she did to secure his freedom and the life of his people.

Kestrel’s heart was made of treason.

You were probably left with your mouth hanging open at the end of The Winner’s Curse, with the realisation of what Kestrel has sacrificed and what it means for the people of Herrani. Yet freedom doesn’t come easily and now Herran is heavily taxed by the empire.

Kestrel herself is homesick, facing marriage to a stranger and pining for Arin, but knowing that she did the right thing and they can’t be together. That Arin must hate her. She really is stuck between a rock and a hard place. She doesn’t agree with what the empire, including her own father, does, but expressing her opinion would be considered treason. She can only do what she can to minimise the damage, at great risk to herself and those she speaks to.

Her mind was a curtained balcony. It was filled with the memory of warm movement. Of almost coming undone. Coming close, pushing away, letting go…

I felt there was perhaps a little too much of the talking at cross-purposes. To start with, Kestrel hides the truth with good intentions, but only several occasions she is on the verge of confessing only for circumstances to prevent it, or the lies becoming worse in Arin’s mind. I was relieved when I thought he had worked it out for himself but this aspect just ended on a frustrating note.

There is plenty of political intrigue and loyalties at breaking point. It’s a decent middle book, which so often the flounder and never really get anywhere. This one does and has a startling ending that will make you count down the days till you can get your paws on the final instalment.

The Winner's Crime is published by Bloomsbury and will be available in paperback and ebook editions from 12th March 2015. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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Also reviewed @ Lost in Thought

Shelve next to: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Our Endless Numbered Days

“Marky says that Dad thought the world was going to end. He says Dad was crazy and ran away to join a cult in the woods. But the world didn’t end, did it?”

Eight year old Peggy Hillcoat’s mother is an acclaimed pianist and her father is a member of the North London Retreaters. She is used to meetings held in the house where bearded men discuss strategies for survival. Yet that summer, survival is to become her life. She is taken away to live in die Hütte, a cabin hidden away in a remote land. She is told the world has ended and everyone else is dead.

Saplings sprouted unchecked against the walls, so it appeared as if die Hütte, ashamed of its dishevelled appearance, was trying, and failing, to hide behind them.

Beautifully written, this tale does not glamourize living as a survivalist. Young Peggy may enjoy living outside in the garden at home but when she is wrenched away from her life into a remote area of Germany, it’s no longer a game. The winters are harsh, made worse with the lack of food. They spend weeks curing squirrel meat and drying mushrooms, only to still find themselves starving and desperate for spring. Even when food is plentiful, it’s limited in variety.

Set in the late 70s to 1985, it’s a time when people could get lost. Today, modern communications means it would be hard to truly vanish, even harder to trick a child into believing the world was gone. It was also around the peak of the survivalist movement, with groups worried about socio-economic collapse or the threat of nuclear war. These were the people building fallout shelters in their gardens, or moving to remote locations which would be both safer and provide sustenance.

Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off.

The difference in Our Many Numbered Days, is the fact that the end of the world hasn’t happened. Yet Peggy believes her and her dad are the only two people left in the world. From her point of view, the apocalypse has happened. At the start of the story, it’s 1985 and Peggy has returned home. We know she survives (although generally a given with first-person narration) and it is never hidden from the reader that her dad lied. Although never explored, I did get the idea that her dad was suffering from bipolar disorder.

She didn’t understand that because there was so much choice, I chose to do nothing.

Fairly early on, Peggy tells the reader she is suffering from Korsakoff’s syndrome, caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency. This is a huge to clue to her reliability as a narrator, or lack of it, although one I think many would miss (though not if you’ve been watching lots of House lately, like me). I did work out what was going on sooner rather than later because of this, however it’s not the only hint. I think this condition can also explain a lot of her behaviour towards the end, where you might think a rational person would cotton on.

Something small that I particularly liked is Ute’s dialogue. Although she has lived in London for many years and speaks excellent English, it’s not her mother tongue. Her dialogue reflects that in little slip ups and off wordings, but not so much to caricaturise her. Actually there's lots of excellent elements to this story, including the Rapunzel connection which took me a while to realise, depite Peggy taking on her name.

Our Endless Numbered Days is published by Penguin and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 26th February 2015. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Also reviewed @ Random Things Through My Letterbox

Shelve next to: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller + Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Chocolate Wars

Chocolate started out as a humble drink, sold by Quaker businesses as an alternative to the alcohol destroying so many lives. The 19th century saw their quest to improve their products and fend off bankruptcy. Little did they know quite how successful this weird bean would become, and the mark they’d leave on the world.

Honestly, I learned so much about British business history from this book, not just about chocolate. The Quakers shaped so much in their short time running some of the most successful firms of the 19th century; Barclays and Lever have humble Quaker roots as well as all the chocolate companies. They were run ethically, with profits being reinvested into their employees or ploughed into charitable causes. Hoarding all your money was seen as sinful.

The book isn’t just about Cadbury, despite being written by a family member. There is probably more of a personal slant and family anecdotes to the sections about them but it covers the rise and fall (or swallowing up by other companies) of Rowntrees, Fry’s of Bristol, Mars, Hershey, Nestle and Lindt. I loved the photos included of all the founders and the early days of chocolate production are just as fascinating as the social history.

The Cadburys also played a part in the social reform of the UK. George bought liberal papers he feared would fall into Tory hands. He was even pragmatic when it came to keeping the gambling news and adverts; removing them would create a high-minded paper that few would read. It was better to educate the masses than be pious.

The creation and evolution of the model village at Bournville is also covered. It seemed like a huge success and it is amazing that it hasn’t really been repeated outside of the chocolate trade (with its anti-capitalism roots). The Cadbury’s were slightly ashamed of their great wealth, it wasn’t very Quaker after all, so they planned to give it away; make the profits benefit the workers. The poor had the chance to rise out of the city slums rather than line the coffers of their employers,

I did think some points were often repeated. I wonder if this is the assumption that people won’t read these sort of books in one go, or even in the right order. It is non-fiction after all, and most of us will know the current states of these chocolate makers.

As I read the final chapters, I began to fume. All my British readers will know of the uproar when Cadbury was sold to Kraft. What I didn’t realise at the time was that no one at Cadbury’s wanted to sell, not even the man at the top. It was a hostile takeover that left a very bad feeling behind. It’s horrifying how little control a successful company has once it’s gone public. The shareholders get their way, and the majority vote comes from short term investors who care only for profit and not the long term success of the company. Poor Cadbury.

And now of course Kraft (or their subsidiary Mondelez, perhaps they are trying to distance themselves) have gone and ruined the Cadbury’s Crème Egg. All because some people wanted to make a quick buck. I have been left with a greater respect for Hershey. I may not like their chocolate, but they held the same values as the British companies and they have managed to fend off the giant conglomerates. If Cadbury and Hershey had merged (Hershey couldn’t afford it at the time of the takeover), I imagine both companies would have kept on as usual.

Overall, a fascinating slice of history we hear little about.

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Book Source: Gift from Hanna @ Booking in Heels

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Do No Harm

Every operation on the brain comes with great risks. The delicate organ inside our skulls holds our very selves, but one wrong cut can end in devastating results. We put a lot of faith in the doctors who wield the scalpels. But what is it really like for them? This open and very human account is an eye-opening glimpse into the world of brain surgery.

A book about brain surgery sounds like it might be hard-going or dry. Henry does have the advantage of a background in the humanities before he chose a career in medicine (they were different times) and I think this helps a great deal in the way the book is written. It is immensely accessible and full of honesty. He makes the point that all doctors are just people, and they get anxious or angry at times.

It does go into the details of several operations, so if you’re especially squeamish, you might want to avoid. After seeing many a fake brain exposed in medical dramas, it’s fascinating to read a about the real ins and outs of such things. The brain can’t feel pain for instance, it’s the pressure inside the skull that usually signals a problem in there. Not nearly as many surgeries are done whilst the patient is awake as television would have us believe.

If the operation succeeds the surgeon is a hero, but if it fails he is a villain.

What’s particularly terrifying is training new surgeons. You can’t really learn without practicing, and that means practicing on real people. Most trainees will stand in on operations done by their more experienced colleagues and get to lend a hand opening or closing the head (yes, as scary as that sounds) or doing simple bits of the operation. This can be risky and as Henry tells us, can end in disastrous results. On the other hand, some of the best surgeons are those who have learned from many mistakes in their careers operating on risky tumours.

Hypochondriacs beware. The bulk of the cases dealt with in the book are brain tumours and many of which start off with headaches. I guess it’s enough to get a little paranoid when your head hurts, but it helps to remember, these cases are from a lifetime’s career in a specialist subject. Brain tumours really aren’t all that common.

Henry’s dislike of the bureaucracy of the NHS leaks through in places. He’s seen a lot of change and a lot of frustrations. He shows the contrasts of his workplace with a private surgery, which he attends when he requires medical attention, but also the other side of the coin. He travelled to the Ukraine shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and visited several hospitals, seeing how out of date and cramped conditions were. When he befriended Igor*, he helped bring in some improvements as well as operating on some more difficult cases.

*Honestly, I can't think of a doctor called Igor without thinking of Discworld Igors or Count Duckula.

"I hope I never see you again," she said.
"I quite understand," I replied.

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Book Source: Purchased

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Fire Sermon

When Zach and I were born our parents must have counted and recounted: limbs, fingers, toes. We were perfect. They would have been disbelieving: nobody dodged the split between Alpha and Omega.

After the blast it, something changed. Now each birth brings a pair of twins, one perfect, one deformed. Alpha and Omega. Children are split at birth, the Omegas are considered poison by their perfect other halves, cast out to live with Omega relatives. But the Alphas are forever connected with their twins, for when one dies, so does the other.

People have always been fascinated with the connections between twins; that somehow they have a supernatural sense when their other half is in danger. Here the idea is taken further. What would happen if the ruling classes were inexplicably linked to the lower classes they were trying to oppress? If tyrants wanted to wipe out an entire race but doing so would kill themselves, they need to think up new ideas.

Some of those ideas are plain scary when you think about them. But The Fire Sermon is also a tale of siblings, of a love that doesn’t break because one of them has made mistakes. As Cass and Zach grow up together, there is suspicion but there is also a friendship, maybe forced by their unique situation, but neither has anyone else to play with.

The naming of the town of Wyndham is not coincidental. The mutations and the segregation of those possessing them, the concealment of mental powers by those who can’t be identified otherwise, the blast and the deadlands. Even the idea of a place where those with mutations can go and be safe, they all remind me of The Chrysalids. Francesca wanted to give a nod to Wyndham and Miller, a reminder that this post-apocalyptic world is not a new fad but one that started decades ago. I have not read A Canticle for Leibowitz however she cites that as the more influential work on her writing. I will definitely be reading that some time in the future.

It did take me a while to get into the story but when I did, I was hooked and now I can’t wait to see what happens next. It’s a good debut novel, from a writer whose background is in poetry, but I did think in some areas the writing could be a bit more polished. But once I was sucked into the world and characters, I loved it.

The Fire Sermon is published by Harper Voyager and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 26th February 2015. Waterstones will also be selly a snazzy limited edition with firey coloured edging. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Shadow Cabinet

The Shadow Cabinet in the third book in the Shades of London series and therefore this review may contain spoilers for the previous books. Instead you can read my review of the first book, The Name of the Star.

Rory barely has time to stop and grieve. Her classmate, Charlotte, is still missing and the rest of the secret government agency she has got caught up in need her help. She is their last remaining terminus, their only weapon against the many ghosts that lurk the streets of London. But Rory is driven to search for the one ghost that means the most to her. Is he still in the city or is he lost to her forever?

I always find it hard to write reviews for books in series that I love. First books and final books are easier, but sometimes what it is that I love about an instalment, is really something that’s developed over several books. I devoured The Shadow Cabinet and can’t wait for more.

Rory’s grief didn’t come across as that strong but their special circumstances allows for this. They know that there is existence after death, and the hunt to find Stephen is a distraction. She has the hope she will see him again, even if she can’t touch him. It’s when that hope is gone that grief would really set in. There are times when Rory comes close to accepting he’s gone, but she has little time to sit around thinking.

It came from nowhere. But I was as sure of it as I was sure that this was London - old and weird and perpetually rainy, full of people who didn't die.

I was fascinated to learn of the Great Smog of 1952, a real event in which a smothering fog enclosed parts of London and killed thousands. I kind of wished more was made of the supernatural fog in the book, especially considering the reference to the historical event.

I did feel something in this was a bit of a cop out, but I can’t be annoyed for long. There’s some great dreamscape style sequences and a lot of additional world-building.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Death House

They say it makes your eyes bleed.
I think there’s been a mistake.

Toby wasn’t worried about the blood test, it's just routine. Then one day a van turns up at his home, a van that takes him away to the Death House. Isolated from his past life, he lives with other Defective children, living out their last days until the symptoms start. There is no going back once they’ve taken you to the sanatorium.

Sarah does an amazing job of capturing the male teenage voice. The fact that Toby isn’t a particularly likable character to me, proves this point. I can sympathise with his situation though, and slowly his better qualities comes through. He’s a good big brother to the younger boys in his dorm, even if somewhat grudgingly.

Little of their classes in included in the story, for the main they are inconsequential for them; they’re not going to use their lessons learned after all. However one key thing they are reading in class, which can hardly be coincidental, is Lord of the Flies. In the house, the kids are mostly left to themselves and they form their own social hierarchy. Those who show weakness (first signs of illness) are shunned by the group.

There was one thing which distracted me a little. The way the defectiveness is introduced made me think it wasn’t logical. A genetic defect that’s only becomes detectable after time, not at birth and the need to isolate them from society just didn’t make sense to me. What would make their families just give them up like that? However, enough is suggested near the end that explains it enough for me. I just wish my brain hadn’t got attached to that particular niggle.

It’s not really about the outside world at all. There are little hints, like the change in climate, and the flashbacks to how Toby came to be in the Death House. We know there are other houses like it around the country. But the children have been separated from the greater world, and this story is about them. It’s insular and intimate, but with a sense of dread pervading. Is there hope? Or are they right to just accept their fate?

I liked that is wasn’t about the children fighting the system or being unlikely saviours for mankind, as we so often see. I do think it’s one you’re going to want to discuss afterwards, there is so much not told, but enough to make assumptions. Have we all made the same ones?

The Death House is published by Gollancz and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 26th February 2015. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review. Sarah will be launching the book at Blackwell's on the 13th February.

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Also reviewed @ For Winter Nights | Reader Dad

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Sunday, 1 February 2015


AKA Showcase Sunday

We went for a little book shopping session in Ringwood yesterday as Josh had decided he wanted to read High-Rise by JG Ballard after seeing a documentary. Of course, it had to be out of print, lots of re-sellers taking the biscuit with price and the one that wasn't expensive cancelled our order because they "couldn't find the book". However, it turned out the last remaining copy was residing in Ringwood Waterstones of all places. So we went for a walk round the town, which I'd never been to before, and also popped in their indie bookshop, Paperview, which is sadly closing down. That did mean they have 50% off everything, and Josh technically bought twice as many books as me. I am training him well.

I'm pretty impressed by my restraint these past few weeks, as I've been in several bookshops and to a blogger event. The postie does still insist on bringing me book-shaped post though...

For review:
The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson (Hot Key Books)
The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett + Stephen Baxter (Transworld)
The Dish by Stella Newman (Headline)
The Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne (HarperCollins)
The Book of You by Claire Kendal (HarperCollins)
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen (Harvill Secker)

The Earth is Singing by Vanessa Curtis
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig
The Boy in the Smoke by Maureen Johnson

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Books, Biscuits & Tea.