Book Review: The Timekeepers’ War

81C6jQyqOVL._SL1500_The Timekeepers War is the debut novel of Saskatchewan based writer, S.C. Jensen, but you wouldn’t know it. Skillfully written and edited, there is no hint that this book is written by anyone other than an author at the top of their game.

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We are taken to a disconnected and post apocalyptic world, some hundreds of years into the future. There, people like the protagonist, Ghost, scrabble a hand-to-mouth existence amongst the ruins of the City, living in fear of one another, and of the burning rays of the Sun. Some have moved underground entirely, and these scenes did have resonances with Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ for me.

Unknown to many of the City’s inhabitants, others, considering themselves an elite, moved up, into a guarded luxury undreamt of by those below. This is the Elysian Empire: a dictatorship, run by the tyrannical Ursaar.
The Elysian Empire is a skilful and nightmarish blend of the worst of all worlds – think of Nero’s Rome with unbridled genetic engineering, and you’ll have something of the flavour of it. Psychologists would delight in picking apart the various conditions of the Ursaar, who is plagued by paranoia, megalomania, and best of all, a substitute Oedipal complex.

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It is hard to write about this book without including too many spoilers, but I can say that Jensen has created a believable and complex world, peopled by strong characters. Many of them are not beauties, either physically or morally, just as most of us are not in real life. One thing I did love was the way that the book avoided painting anyone as entirely black or white – no-one is an angel, and motivations are mixed and sometimes obscure, again, truly reflecting society. Written as the first part of a series of books, you are often left wondering what people’s real aims are, and I’m sure that will provide ample fodder for the next books.

In the same vein, it was refreshing to have a kick-ass heroine who is strong, and can look after herself, and yet acknowledge that she has doubts and fears just like everyone else. Ghost is no superhero, but perhaps a woman steeled by the hardships of her existence.

There is plenty of action, guerrilla warfare, and even spirituality in The Timekeepers War, which will lead you through a rich world of secret societies, secret passages, steamy townships and impossibly rich gilded imperial gardens. A lengthy but necessary section of explanation and back story in the middle of the book is kept flowing well with intrigues and a deepening of the relationship between the main characters, Ghost and the mysterious Lynch.

Overall, The Timekeepers War is a highly accessible book, which deserved to be widely read. It would make a fine film, and I look forward eagerly to the sequel.

Five stars from me.

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I received a free ebook of The Timekeepers War, in return for an honest review.

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Book Review: Descent

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Click here to reach the Amazon page for ‘Descent’

Descent is the first in the Rephraim series by Cheri Roman, and I have been lucky enough to read it hot off the press!

I should preface this review by noting that my tastes in fantasy tend to run to the flippant, and also that being an atheist, I was not as comfortable as many others would be with the religious references in Descent, although I’m sure that would be no impediment to most readers.

Descent is the story of seven angels, who under their military commander Fomor, decide to desert and plead neutrality in a heavenly war. To avoid the conflict, they come to Earth, and this is the tale of their exiled adventures and entanglements with humans – and the Fallen.

This is the first in a series of books, and as such Roman does a great job of strongly establishing the characters and setting in motion a chain of events which will make you eager to read the next book in the series.

There is drama here in aptly biblical proportions – birth, death, love and loss, and lots of action to keep you turning the pages into the night. It is moderately gory in parts, which does establish an appropriate level of revulsion towards the Fallen and their offspring.

Overall, a gripping read from Cheri Roman, and well worth a look.

Book Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

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‘Embassytown’ is the first of China Mieville’s books that I’ve read, but based on this sample, I’d certainly be interested in trying some more of his work.
That said, at first I was far from convinced. It starts off with a lot of apparently made-up words and concepts without explanation, which is one of my pet peeves of sci-fi. Call me dull, but I don’t find this kind of thing intriguing. I’m torn instead between irritation that I don’t understand what the author is talking about, and a sneaking suspicion that they are doing it to seem clever.

Courtesy of xchd.com

Courtesy of xchd.com

However, in this case, once you plough on through the first few chapters, it is hard to see how Mieville could have written this story without the jargon, and remained true to the voice of his narrator, Avice. It is a slow seduction of a book. After a while, you realise that it is genuinely hard to put down, and that all the strange terms are second nature to you.
To give you some idea of the story, Avice comes from Embassytown – a place on the edge of the navigable universe. It’s a place very much locked within its own boundaries, both physical and political, as the human inhabitants are there only by the generosity of their very alien Hosts. Even the atmosphere is rigged up within the city to be breathable by humans, but it’s a tiny bubble of humanity in a very alien world. One oddity of the Hosts is that they speak with two voices simultaneously, and there must be a mind behind the words. Generations of Ambassadors – perfect human clones – have been bred to be able to speak to the Hosts with minds so close that they are effectively one soul. When a new Ambassador comes from their ruling planet and speaks Language, everything goes horribly wrong.
In fact, over and over again, just when things can’t seem to get any worse, they do. It does keep you on tenterhooks.
This is a highly political story, and also one which at its core has a fairly technical linguistic point. The story is not short of action, but it’s certainly not for dummies either. I think this would actually be a terrific book to study at school, although the act of studying it might kill the story, because there are so many aspects of society, empire, and political systems which could be studied, on top of the impressive world building and finesse of linguistics.

The scope of imagination which Mieville brings to this book is truly awe-inspiring, and I’d highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars

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The Artemis Effect – new review from Small Press Reviews

PrintI’m delighted to able to bring to your attention a new review of ‘The Artemis Effect’ by Small Press Reviews. I’m very flattered that such a great author as Marc Schuster seems to have quite liked it! If you haven’t read his novel ‘The Grievers’, I highly recommend it – it’s not only poignant, but genuinely funny, although I haven’t as yet had a chance to sample his other books.

He says:

The Artemis Effect offers a remarkably hopeful, inventive, and even intimate tale of survival and the indomitable nature of the human spirit. We are, by nature, a species of survivors, James reminds us on every page– just so long as we remember that we need to work together. To put it another way, (it is a) tale of the apocalypse as seen through the eyes of a hopeful romantic, an enjoyable and poignant page-turner.

You can check out the full review here:

The Artemis Effect.

 

Book review – Plan for Chaos

As a big fan of John Wyndham, I was very excited to find ‘Plan for Chaos’ in my local bookshop. It was written at the same time as ‘Day of the Triffids’ (about 1951), but has never previously been published.

To be brutally honest, I can see why. Although the story does immerse the reader after a while, and it is hard to put it down, there are also some major flaws.

Firstly, and most difficult to overcome, is the voice of the narrator, as it rightly points out in the introduction. Prior to publication of ‘Day of the Triffids’, Wyndham had been writing largely for the American audience, and ‘Plan for Chaos’ seems to still be aimed at these readers. However, the voice of Johnny Farthing is about as believable as a plastic daffodil. The later attempt at an Australian accent, is, stone the crows, cobber, blessedly brief.

It was actually a very powerful message for me, that even great writers like Wyndham can also struggle with achieving the right ‘voice’.  It is evident that he comes into his own comfort zone much more in a British voice in later books, and I have always admired him for the simplicity of language in which he manages to convey such complex ideas.

The other issue I had with this book was the unquestioned assumption that all women, given the choice, would have as many babies as possible, and that no matter how devoted to their work and ideals, they are fundamentally unhappy and unsatisfied if they cannot have a nice stable husband and brace of babies. Now, I know that this book was written in the early 50’s, and perhaps in another writer I would just put this down to the attitude of the times, but I had come to expect more forward thinking from Wyndham.

Anyway, with plenty of confusing cloning, stealth technology, and Nazis zooming around in flying saucers, this is still worth a read as a bit of a romp, and also as an interesting historical document. It conveys rather well the paranoia of the post-war world, and the fear developing around the start of the cold war.

Rating: Three and a half stars.

The Fear of the New

Recently, I was fortunate enough to receive a book voucher for a big bookshop in the city. I love spending these things – book purchasing without guilt! Of course, I do tend to go over my allotted amount, but spread over a few books, that still makes them great value. When I got my haul home, I stacked them up on the table to gloat for a bit, and realised that none of them are by authors that I haven’t read before. They are all books by authors I already adore.  As someone who has just released a book (‘The Artemis Effect’), that lead me to some serious soul-searching.

Why would someone try my book, or take a chance on me as a new author?

When I do try a new author, what leads me to do so?

Is the cost of the book important?

Are people with different personalities more likely to take the chance on something new?

Does it make a difference whether the author is Indie or Traditionally published?

When I try a new author, there are certainly a few things which influence my choice.

Often I’ll take a chance on something new because it’s discounted. Most of the books I bought with my voucher were in the $20 plus category, and for me that’s a lot to fork out for something I might not enjoy. However, at the library, second-hand bookshop, or in the $5 pile, and I’m much more likely to give it a go. Once I’ve discovered something I do enjoy, I’m likely to stick with that author, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Curiously, a book being free (as in  Kindle Select Program release) does not make me more likely to try it – I suppose there is something in my head still which still whispers “You get what you pay for…”

I admit that I am shallow enough that a good cover can suck me in. Well, at least to picking it up in the first place, but if the blurb or section I scan don’t entice me, then the cover alone is not enough to make me branch out. A good example is David Michael Lukas’ ‘The Oracle of Stamboul’, which first attracted me because of its gorgeous cover art. Gave it a try, and what a find!

Being in the literary field, I do read a lot of reviews, and some of them have at least prompted me to add those books to be ‘To Read’ list, although to date I don’t think I’ve ever actually read any of them. Maybe that’s just laziness on my part. I sincerely hope that other people are more influenced by reviews than I am, or I feel it will be very hard to get the word out there about the new book. If there is an e-book I’m interested in anyway, then I’ll read the reviews before I buy it. Curiously, those reviews don’t have to be universally positive: one I read recently which stated that it was ‘gritty’ fantasy actually inclined me ion the book’s favour, as I’d probably prefer that to fluffy fantasy.

I have certainly picked up and read books by people I’ve met through blogging – most recently ‘Lupa’ by Marie Marshall, and also the novella ‘Prince of Graves’ by W.E. Linde. I’m only a couple of pages into Lupa, but I can highly recommend ‘Prince of Graves’, even though it is not normally the type of fantasy I read. Give it a go!

As to the question of different personalities – surely this must come into play. There are some people who adore routine, and feel lost without it. Others thrill at being avant-garde and cutting edge. I suppose that it may come down to your risk-taking profile. I’m perhaps best described as a calculated risk-taker. I’m done lots of physically risky things, (like parachuting, white and black water rafting, hang-gliding), and every time I tell my mother that I’m going on holiday, she asks, “Which dangerous place are you going this time?”. On the other hand, large scale public speaking scares the pants off me. However, trying a new author is a much smaller scale risk. It’s really a risk that you’ll be wasting your time, that most precious resource. Picking up (and persisting) with a bad book may take up time which you could have spent doing something much more fulfilling or enjoyable.

This point leads me to one close to my heart. I’ve often read comments from people (and indeed book reviewers) who say that they won’t read an Indie published book, as they’ve been burnt too many times in the past. Bad editing, poor spelling and formatting all detract from a story, and in some cases make it next to unreadable. They say that this dross will sink to the bottom of the ‘Amazon’ flood, but is this true? I’m sure that there must be great Indie books out there, wallowing in the silt at the bottom, who never had a chance because they were new and the authors never managed to break the ice of their anonymity. The trouble is finding them.

I would genuinely love to hear what factors make you more likely to try a new author, and also what makes you cautious! 🙂

Related posts:

Trying Something New – Psychology Today

Every New Author’s Greatest Enemy (and How to Beat It) – Jeff Goins

Book review: The Illustrated Man

I have a confession to make.

Up until a few weeks ago, I’d never read any Ray Bradbury. I saw a lot of the blog posts when he died in June this year, and was impressed by the depth of affection and respect readers of sci-fi held for him, but was immune to the tide of weeping and wailing. However, I saw that it was high time that I remedied this deficiency in my education.

For anyone out there as ignorant as I, the premise of ‘The Illustrated Man’ is that an unfortunate carnival performer is tattooed by a witch from the future. The tattoos, although of great beauty, all move at night, each telling its own tale. And on his back is a place left free of adornment, in which you will see your own future…

The book is a collection of 16 short stories, all quite different, loosely threaded together by the idea that they all are represented on the body of the tattooed performer. They vary from dark and hopeless (Kaleidoscope, which describes what goes through men’s minds as they fall through space to their deaths), to social commentary (The Other Foot, in which racism has been allowed to prevail to the extent that black and white people live on different planets), to the faintly ridiculous, although still menacing (The Veld, where lions created by a cyber-nursery eat parents).

One of the stories which has particularly stuck with me personally is The Long Rain. It so painfully and accurately describes the mental anguish that men on Venus undergo as it never, ever stops raining. Their hair and skin become bleached with the relentless water, and as they trudge along, lost, they are unable to sleep with the rain drumming on their skulls. When they finally find refuge, a Sun Dome, it is smashed, and the rain beats in where it should be dry and warm.

The lieutenant felt the cold rain on his cheeks and on his neck and on his moving arms. The cold was beginning to seep into his lungs. He felt the rain on his ears, on his eyes, on his legs.

‘I didn’t sleep last night,’ he said.

‘Who could? Who has? When? How many nights have we slept? Thirty nights, thirty days! Who can sleep with rain slamming their head, banging away…I’d give anything for a hat. Anything at all, just so it wouldn’t hit my head any more.”

‘The Illustrated Man’ was first published in 1952, and the stories do read as being ‘of their time’. That is, they are beautifully written and crafted, and don’t rely a great deal on hard science facts, as we understand them today. There are a few spots where the representation of women is a little dated, as you might expect, but no so badly that it is offensive to a modern reader.

After a couple of  stories, Bradbury drops the pretence of stringing the stories together with tattoos, and we don’t hear of the Illustrated Man again until the (somewhat predictable) Epilogue.

I suppose what I’m really interested in, as someone working on an anthology of stories, is whether this device works? Do we need an overarching theme to bring a group of stories together? I seem to recall once reading a collection of stories which linked them all with a map.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Book review : Flow my tears, the Policeman said

‘Flow my tears, the Policeman said’ was published in 1974, and was the only one of Philip K. Dick’s novels to be nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1975. Which all goes to prove that other people enjoyed this novel more than I did!

The title, by the way, references a John Dowland poem, as one of the more ‘evil’ characters has a soft spot for fine art and fine music.

There are certainly many admirable things about the book. It investigates the nature of perceived reality, which is one of Dick’s favorite themes, and does it so well that the reader is completely entrenched in whichever reality the main character, Jason Taverner, is experiencing.

The other characters are well painted, and very believable as people, with all the failings, enthusiasms, and ambiguities that real people possess. The ending is surprising, and thankfully, provides one of those “Oh!” moments, when it all comes together and makes sense, just as happens at the conclusion of a great Agatha Christie novel.

However, it is a very dark world Dick portrays. Jason Taverner is a genetically modified celebrity (a ‘six’), with a global audience of 30 million people. He has wealth, women, fancy clothes, and is loving it. The next thing he knows, he wakes up in a dodgy hotel room, with no identity cards. The world he lives in is a military dictatorship, ruled by the ‘nats’ and the ‘pols’, and anyone discovering his loss of identity could have him shipped off to the forced labour camps.

Soon Jason is thrust unwillingly into the grimy underworld that his celebrity previously insulated him from. Everyone is willing to betray everyone else, drug use and mental illness are rife, as are all forms of sexual depravity, from simple meaningless sex, to cyber sex which burns out your brain, to incest.

Worst of all, Jason’s identity loss extends not just to his cards, but he seems to have been erased from existence. No-one remembers who he is, and he doesn’t even have a birth certificate record. For a man in love with his fame, this is quite a blow.

It was this dark and dystopian world which I found a little hard to continue to wade through. It is quite unremittingly grim, and at times makes no sense at all. Take this section:

“Would you like to see my bondage cartoons?”

“What,” he said, “that’s?”

“Drawings, very stylised, of chicks tied up, and men -”

“Can I lie down?” he said, “My legs won’t work. I think my right legs extends to the moon. In other worlds’ – he considered – “I broke it standing up.”

OK, I admit it – most of the book does make more sense than this. However, Dick’s more paranoid side definitely comes out in this book. As many of you will know, the author had some sort of breakdown or revelation in 1974, which had religious overtones, and which lead to him having something of a split personality. His experiences are partially documented in his later novel ‘Radio Free Albemuth’ – an even darker book than this one. I’m not sure if this novel was written before or afterwards, but is does start to develop those fears about the absolute power of the police state, and paranoia about the people who surround us.

There are also a few curiously old fashioned things about the future world depicted. People still use phonograph records, played with a needle. Also, the flying cars (quibbles) have chokes. However, these are minor blips in the otherwise believable world created.

So, in summary, this books is well written, and it is engrossing. But it’s certainly not all sunshine and butterflies. My rating: three and a half stars.

The Booker Award

I’m delighted to say that I’ve been nominated by the Other Watson at Wanton Creation for the Booker Award, which is specific to literary and otherwise bookish blogs. If you don’t already follow Wanton Creation, I’d highly recommend that you start doing so – his posts are varied, lively, and always entertaining.

The rules for this one go as follows:

1.  Nominate other blogs, as many as you want but 5-10 is always a good suggestion

2.  Post the Booker Award picture.

3.  Best of all, share your top 5 books of all time.

I can’t tell you how difficult it is to choose just five favourite books, but I’m going to suggest a few which I thought were quite brilliant or original the first time I read them, and which I have to returned to time and time again.

Sarah Waters – The Night Watch

This is a book with one of the most original structures I’ve ever read – and Sarah Waters excels at those anyway. In this case, we are told a story by many different characters in London during and after the Blitz, all of whom it turns out, have complex interactions with one another. Fascinatingly, it tells the story in reverse chronological order: so that people’s motivations become clearer as you read on, and find out what happened in their pasts. The book manages to evoke the zeitgeist of the time, without labouring over it. There are both lesbian scenes and one of self harm, so not for everyone I guess, but they are portrayed with great sensitivity and respect.

James Thurber – The Thirteen Clocks and the Wonderful ‘O’

I’ve been reading these two books (combined into one novel sized book in the edition I have) since I was a child, and I keep returning to them. They are fairytales of a sort, but Thurber has such fun playing with language that at times it reads more like poetry than prose. ‘The Thirteen Clocks’ is a quest story, with Prince Zorn of Zorna seeking to find jewels to win the Princess Saralindas hand; while ‘the Wonderful ‘O” is about what happens when military law goes mad, and takes against a particular vowel. So that ‘What’s mist is not always moist’, becomes ‘What’s mist is nt always mist’, hero becomes her, and Ophelia Oliver disappears from the haunts of men.

The Gollux, the only gollux in the world, in his indescribable hat, is surely one of the most charming and memorable fairytale figures.

John Wyndham – Day of the Triffids

I had trouble picking which of John Wyndham’s novels to include here. He is, to me, a wonderful example of how it is possible to tell a complex science fiction story simply, in plain English. Deceptively simple, and yet wonderfully imaginative sci-fi of the 50s.

The Day of the Triffids has been converted into several films, with varying degrees of success, but none can copare in my eyes to the book itself, and it’s nightmarish vision of genetically modified killer plants.

Barbara Trapido – Brother of the More Famous Jack

This was my favourite book for a long time, although perhaps rather less so since I read it’s sequel (which was pretty disgusting in parts), and Frankie and Stankie by the same author, which tells almost the same story, but set in South Africa. However, this novel is really charmingly gossipy, with moments which will make you cry, and a great dose of wit.

Philip K. Dick – Second Variety

I’m reading a Philip K Dick at the moment, but it’s one of his novels when he reached that stage of his life of being rather crazily paranoid. I thoroughly enjoyed this anthology of his short stories, which show off the tremendous range and depth of the author’s imagination, which is pretty hard to match.

So, to suggest a few people for this award, partly because I thoroughly enjoy reading their blogs, and also because I’m very interested to see what their 5 favourite books are. May I recommend:

Indie Writing Blog – bravely tackling the world of Indie publishing

Chompasaurus Reviews – Annie both reviews books, and has interviews with authors

The Writing Blues – A personal journey through the world of writing and books

Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations – a very knowledgable view on retro sci-fi. Always love the cover art!

Sabrina Garie – a writer and reader who comes up with some very thought provoking ideas.

Stardust, Neil Gaiman – Book Review

Stardust‘ is a classic fairytale, told by one of the great fantasy writers of our time.

I confess that I probably wouldn’t have picked this up had it not been written by Neil Gaiman, since I’ve enjoyed the book he wrote with Terry Pratchett, ‘Good Omens‘ time and time again.

However, I did thoroughly enjoy this book. It fits perfectly within the fairytale genre without resorting to any of the clichés, or to sloppy sentimentality. None of the characters fit within the traditional moulds (except for a few witches), and I found that truly refreshing.

It tells the story of Tristran Thorn, who does not know that his mother was from Faerie – the land beyond the stone wall which his town guards, and which bears its name. Every nine years, a fair is held, where ordinary people from Wall can meet the traders of Faerie. At these fairs, you can buy:

‘Eyes, eyes! New eyes for old!’ shouted a tiny woman in front of a table covered with bottles and jars filled with eyes of every kind and colour.

‘Instruments from a hundred lands! Penny whistles! Tuppenny hums! Threepenny choral anthems!’

‘Everlasting lavender! Bluebell cloth!’

‘Coats of night! Coats of twilight! Coats of dusk!’

‘Swords of fortune! Wands of power! Rings of eternity! Cards of grace! Roll-up, roll-up, step this way!’

There were wonders for sale, and marvels, and miracles; there were things undreamed-of and objects unimagined (what need, Dunstan wondered, could someone have of the storm filled eggshells?).

A young and foolish Tristran, besotted with a beautiful village girl, promises to bring back a star they see fall, in return for his hearts desire. What Tristran doesn’t realise is that when he reaches the star, it will be a real girl, not just a diamond or cold lump of rock. And she proves to be surprisingly sensible…

“Adventures are all very well in their place, he thought, but there’s a lot to be said for regular meals and freedom from pain.”

There is a lot of ‘throw-away’ imagination in this story, such as the short sojourn Tristran spends with the airship ‘The Free Ship Perdita’, which fishes for and catches lightning bolts.  Another writer would have laboured over these flights of fancy more, but in ‘Stardust’, it is only a short interlude in the larger story.

There are also brief moments of quite horrifying violence, such as when the Queen of the Witches deals finally with the unicorn. However, any cursory study of fairytales will tell you that some horrible parts are par for the course. Without them, we might start to sympathise too much with the baddies.

So, if you’re looking for some refreshing escapism, I couldn’t recommend ‘Stardust’ highly enough.

Five stars from me.