Wednesday 30 June 2010

Half-Yearly Report - My Top 10 Books

I've seen a few of these cropping up on some of my favourite blogs, so I decided to also sit down and decide on my top 10 books in 2010 so far.

I've read 60 books up until now, so it took me a fair amount of whittling down to get to my favourite 10! What I did realise is that, although this has been a good solid year, it has not been fantastic yet: I've liked an awful lot of books, and some of them have been brilliant, but I've also read a large number of 'meh' books. Enjoyable at the time, but ultimately forgettable. The back end of the year and my TBR pile should soon sort that out, with books like The Passage and The Way of Kings waiting my attention, so I'm very sure that a number of the following books won't feature in my full year report, but, as of now and in reverse order, these are the books I've most enjoyed reading in 2010.

10) Wife, Interrupted by Amy Molloy

This was a book I brought myself, on a whim, and found myself blown away by the stark honesty and the moving anecdotes about coping with a partner who has cancer, and how to continue living when they have died. Molloy's writing was brutal at times, looking unflinchingly at the pain and suffering - mental and physical - caused by terminal illness. A very powerful book.

9) A Matter of Blood - Sarah Pinborough

A Matter of Blood was sent to me for review, and I provided a guest review on Book Chick City. This supernatural horror was tremendously exciting, fast-paced and dark. I found the first 100 pages or so a little tough going, but then was swept into a real page-turner. I also loved the fact that this book blurs genre boundaries, and could sit quite happily in crime, fantasy or horror, and I'm looking forward thoroughly to the next novel in the trilogy.

8) Horus Rising by Dan Abnett

This was a book I borrowed from a friend and it was my first piece of tie-in fiction, my first Horus Heresy novel and my first Dan Abnett novel. Happily, my experimentation in picking up Horus Rising was repaid in great measure by a thrilling slice of pulp science fiction. The opening to the Horus Heresy series was grim, full of tremendously cinematic battle scenes and contained moments of pathos and dark military humour.

7) Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

Sam Sykes' debut was sent to me by Gollancz when I shamelessly begged for a copy. I was tremendously glad I did. I know this book has seen distinctly mixed reviews, but I found it a blast. The writing was surprisingly graceful and poetic at times, and the scenes involving the Abysmyth were genuinely chilling. I happen to like the old fantasy trope of a mixed group of characters struggling to get along, and Sykes employed it to great effect. A strong debut, and a lot of promise for the future.

6) Wolfsangel by M D Lachlan

Just ahead of Tome of the Undergates is another Gollancz debut - this one a gripping read, heavy on the Norse mythology, and, at its heart, a love story that spans the centuries. Lachlan writes with great respect for the source material, and his love for the original mythology of Odin and Loki comes across very strongly. The werewolf twist is by now well-known, but I still wish the early readers of this novel had joined a conspiracy to keep it secret so that the sheer impact could be felt. Disregarding this, we are left with a thumping good book in the tradition of David Gemmell.

5) The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffin

Really, The Midnight Mayor and A Madness of Angels sit together in this entry, since the style of the writing and the essence of the story is a continuation from one novel to the next. Kate Griffin writes true urban fantasy, with extremely lyrical prose and vivid imagination, where the city of London is a character in its own right. Dragons, shadows, blue electric angels - the world of Matthew Swift stayed with me long after closing the final page. I can't wait for the next.

4) Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

In April Mark Chitty from Walker of Worlds held a Sci-Fi Appreciation Month, and I decided to contribute a review, since I have read woefully little in the way of hard science fiction. I chose Richard Morgan's debut, since I read and enjoyed his fantasy work The Steel Remains. I was blown away by the taut noir thriller, amazed by the futuristic picture presented - the idea of sleeving intrigued me and I felt that Morgan explored it in an effective manner. Takeshi Kovacs is an incredibly strong anti-hero character, and I'm dying to read more about him.

3) Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

This might be seen by some as a controversial choice, featuring as it does a love story between two siblings. The novel is poignant, challenging and, ultimately, heart-breaking. Suzuma writes with great assurance on her subject matter, also tackling such weighty matters as abuse, abandonment and depression. Never less than outstanding.

2) The City and The City by China Mieville

I think a number of people who read my blog will be surprised to see this book pushed into the number 2 slot for this year! When I read The City and The City, I genuinely felt as though I was reading a modern classic - something that will be picked up and taught to future English Literature scholars. The breaktaking idea of the two cities co-existing with all the associated issues of 'unseeing' left me marvelling and I still, after a couple of months, find myself wondering about the logistics and the origin of how it came to be. For me, a book that you still think about when you have finished it is the mark of something excellent.

So what novel made it into the number 1 slot for 2010 so far....?

That would be...

1) Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard

I said this about the novel: "Jonathan L. Howard infuses Johannes Cabal the Necromancer with flavours from other authors and from films, but the book as a whole is unique and very, very funny." And this: "The pacing is perfect. We start with an entertaining visit to Hell (a bureaucratic nightmare, with a pen-pushing clerk as a doorman). Then, the plot kicks into a higher gear and sweeps through a year of thrilling adventures as Johannes Cabal attempts to win his wager with Satan by running a twisted carnival." And finally this: "This is the sort of book that, having finished it — even in the wee small hours of the morning — you want to wake up all your friends and insist they begin it immediately." It is a damn near perfect book as far as I am concerned, an absolute blast to read from start to end, with memorable characters and a tremendous amount of humour. I do urge you all to pick yourself up a copy!

So there you have it! Those are my best books of 2010 so far: Which do you agree with? Which do you disagree with? Which have you or haven't you read? Which are you now tempted by? As always, comments appreciated!

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Road to the Dales by Gervase Phinn

Gervase tells of a life full of happiness, conversation, music and books shared with his three siblings, mother and father. This book is a snapshot of growing up in Yorkshire in the 1950s - reminisce with Gervase, and share in his personal journey - of school days and holidays as well as his tentative steps into the adult world. You can devour numerous uproarious stories including the incident involving a broken greenhouse, crashing his brother's newly restored bike as well as secrets about his first dates, adventures at summer camp, family trips to Blackpool and many other captivating tales. With a wicked ear for the comical, and a sharp eye for detail, this beautifully written book visits poignant moments, significant events and precious memories from a boy called Gervase.

I love Gervase Phinn's books. His writing is gentle, family-friendly, with a sharp observational humour that gives his words a wry wit. As a consequence, I was thrilled to see that Phinn had written a new book dealing with his own life while growing up in Yorkshire.

My view of Road to the Dales is extremely positive, in the main. In fact, the main factor of 'Road to the Dales' I didn't enjoy was the structure. Phinn's commentary darts all over the place, which does give the novel a gossipy feel (this might have been the aim, to be fair!) but doesn't help the reader really get too much of a grasp on what Phinn will be chatting about next. It is far from linear, and, in the first part, deals more with Phinn's family than on his own story.

I did also recognise a few anecdotes from Phinn's novels about being a school inspector in Yorkshire. It strikes me that most people who would read this book would have read his prior novels, and so it seemed a little short-sighted to duplicate material. Happily it was very infrequent.

These minor issues aside, 'Road to the Dales' is a wonderful book. The stories of Phinn's early life and his progress through school, the holidays he takes, the games he plays on the street outside his house - all are related with warmth and a huge affection for the places and people that informed Phinn.

Having a father of a similar age as Phinn lent extra poignancy to my read, since I've heard my dad speak of many of the same sweets, food, games, experiences from when he was growing up.

The part of the novel that I enjoyed the best was the way Phinn spoke about his teachers and the learning that led him to pursuing the role that we see him taking on in his books about being a school inspector. I also had good-humoured, passionate and experienced teachers while going through primary and secondary school - who definitely helped to instill in me a love of books and learning - and appreciate Phinn's eulogising on how important a factor it is in a young person's life. Quotes like the following fill the pages: "Like all great teachers he did not stick slavishly to a script but would deviate and tell stories to arouse our interest. What I learnt from Ken Pike was the importance of young people having high expectations and self-belief."

I also loved the humour - something that I'd already encountered in his books about being a school inspector. Little anecdotes such as the following are delightful:

"One trainee nurse, a permanently cheerful Jamaican woman with a beaming smile and sunny disposition, was assisting the anaesthetist in another operation.

'Arm board,' he said, meaning the device on which the patient's arm rests prior to the administering of the anaesthetic. The nurse nodded and smiled but made no move.

'I said arm board, nurse,' repeated the anaesthetist sharply.

'Ah'm bored too, doctor,' she replied pleasantly, 'but we'll soon be going home.'

As a final point, I do 'Road to the Dales' is an effective study of life in the 50s and 60s in northern England. Health and safety were unheard of, and life would have been unrecognisable to many of us brought up in a time where political correctness and safety for children are constantly spoken about: "Parents didn't worry about where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, and never imagined that predatory paedophiles were lurking around every corner and hiding behind every bush. It wasn't as if they didn't care about us [...] Amazingly, in all those early years, apart from a few scrapes and scratches, I never hurt myself and was never approached by the stereotypical 'dirty old man in a raincoat'."

Gervase Phinn admits candidly that, if you are looking for a memoir of a childhood filled with misery and difficult situations, then you need to go elsewhere. Phinn writes with love about his wonderful childhood, his family and his experiences. He recognises that he was blessed compared to others, and that humble joy is very evident. I greatly enjoyed this diverting novel and would recommend it to those who have enjoyed Phinn's prior work and those who enjoy real life memoirs.

Monday 28 June 2010

Taking Breaks... ?

Don't get scared. I'm not about to announce a break from my blogging activities or anything extreme like that! No, I've been pondering. And I present my pondering to you in a scattershot approach.

Two of my Twitterpals - @nextread and @niallharrison - have been having a discussion. Niall mentioned the fact that he wanted to read more on Chinese dynasties and matters like that in order to immerse himself fully in the reading experience that is Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Gav asked whether this was necessary to enjoy the book, and Niall said: "Ignoring depths is to do a book a disservice". He indicated that he always seeks to look beyond the immediate and really plumb a book for all those themes and weighty matters that might not be apparent initially. Gav wondered whether he ever reads a book just to enjoy it as is - and I am finally reaching the point of my ponderings.

When reading a book that has some depth, I will critically analyse as I proceed through the novel - but I read some styles of book without any type of analysis. I take breaks from my "work" while reading by cracking open something by Jilly Cooper, or a novel in the urban fantasy canon. I rarely, if ever, look at these types of books in a critical fashion and just enjoy them as is. These are my marshmallow reads, if you will - light and fluffy, full of sugar and delicious, but will never ever satisfy me long-term or fill me up. In comparison, a novel by China Mieville would be the food equivalent of sitting down to a three course meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Both have their place, for sure, but I read one type to take a break from the other.

What I'm interested in finding out from you is: do you take breaks from your critical reading? Or do you feel that every single book deserved the same level of respect and analysis? If you do take breaks, what genres do you enjoy dipping into?

Sunday 27 June 2010

Books I Adopted This Week

Wow, have you been loving this weather as much as I have? I've been spending as much time as feasibly possible outside this week - usually with a book! I've received a handful of review titles which thrill and intrigue me in equal measure, so without further ado...

Tempest Rising by Nicole Peeler

Living in small town Rockabill, Maine, Jane True always knew she didn't quite fit in with so-called normal society. During her nightly, clandestine swim in the freezing winter ocean, a grisly find leads Jane to startling revelations about her heritage: she is only half-human. Now, Jane must enter a world filled with supernatural creatures that are terrifying, beautiful and deadly - all of which perfectly describe her new 'friend' Ryu, a gorgeous and powerful vampire. It is a world where nothing can be taken for granted: a dog can heal with a lick; spirits bag your groceries; and whatever you do, never - ever - rub the genie's lamp.

Published by Orbit 5th August 2010

Now this one looks amazing! The cover is simply stunning. I've been lucky enough to receive a very early edition ARC of this and shall be dipping into it just as soon as I can clear my schedule a little. I am a big fan of the Sookie Stackhouse series and this book is being touted as something that fans of Charlaine Harris will also love.

iBoy by Kevin Brooks

Before the attack, sixteen-year-old Tom Harvey was just an ordinary boy. But now fragments of a shattered iPhone are embedded in his brain and it's having an extraordinary effect ...Because now Tom has powers. The ability to know and see more than he could ever imagine. And with incredible power comes knowledge - and a choice. Seek revenge on the violent gangs that rule his estate and assaulted his friend Lucy, or keep quiet? Tom has control when everything else is out of control. But it's a dangerous price to pay. And the consequences are terrifying...

Published by Puffin on 1st July 2010

I've had a quick look at the press release with this one, and noticed that it is being touted as tapping into a rising trend of superheroes and ordinary people doing the right thing (such as Kick Ass). To me, this makes it instantly more attractive as a read and, being slim, means I'm more likely to pick this up sooner rather than later.

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

The second book in Philippa's stunning new trilogy, The Cousins War, brings to life the story of Margaret Beaufort, a shadowy and mysterious character in the first book of the series - The White Queen - but who now takes centre stage in the bitter struggle of The War of the Roses. The Red Queen tells the story of the child-bride of Edmund Tudor, who, although widowed in her early teens, uses her determination of character and wily plotting to infiltrate the house of York under the guise of loyal friend and servant, undermine the support for Richard III and ultimately ensure that her only son, Henry Tudor, triumphs as King of England. Through collaboration with the dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret agrees a betrothal between Henry and Elizabeth's daughter, thereby uniting the families and resolving the Cousins War once and for all by founding of the Tudor dynasty.

Published by Simon & Schuster on 19th August 2010

I have to confess Philippa Gregory is not my favourite of the historical novelists writing at the moment. Plus, I have tried a couple of her previous novels (The Queen's Fool and The Virgin's Lover) and didn't find them particularly gripping. I am prepared to try another one, especially since this novel deals with the dying days of the War of the Roses - a part of history that I adore. There is massive publicity surrounding this book, so be prepared to hear a lot about it over the next month or so!

Wicked Games by Sasha Wagstaff

Feuding families, star-crossed lovers...let the fireworks begin! Debonair and dynamic, millionaire Judd Harrington is back at Brockett Hall. With his socialite wife and family in tow, he's returned from LA a glittering success. But as he stares across the valley at Lochlin Maguire's beautiful country house, all he can think of is revenge. Meanwhile Judd's arch-rival has troubles of his own. Lochlin's record label is losing major talent to an unknown competitor, his wife Tavvy is distracted and he can't seem to see eye to eye with his son Shay. And, unbeknownst to Lochlin, his talented singer daughter Iris has fallen for irresistible racing driver Ace Harrington out in LA. Ace is under orders from Judd to break Iris's heart. What he hadn't bargained for was losing his own in the process. Can he go against his father's wishes? Or will Judd's wicked games ruin love's young dream?

Published by Headline on 8th July 2010

I am a HUGE fan of Jilly Cooper and Fiona Walker and have read that this book follows in their steamy footprints. It sounds big, bold and very sexy - and ideal for this beautiful summer weather we've been having. Imagine lying on a gorgeous silvery sandy beach, with palm trees waving gently in a soft breeze, a cocktail at your side - this would be the sort of book to be reading then! I requested this from the publisher to review and I'm very excited about getting started on it!

Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready

Like everyone born after The Shift, sixteen year-old Aura can see and talk to ghosts. Persistent, and often angry, some even on the verge of becoming Shades, these violet-hued spirits are constantly talking to her, following her, and demanding her help to make amends for their untimely deaths. Aura has always found this mysterious ability annoying and wished she could find a way to reverse it. She'd much rather the ghosts left her alone so she could spend time with her boyfriend, Logan. But when Logan dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Aura is forced to reconsider her connections with the dead... and the living. Surely a violet-hued spirit Logan is better than no Logan at all, isn't it?

Published by Simon Pulse on 2nd September 2010

The current trend for supernatural teens shows no signs of abating, but this particular story really appeals. I like the idea of Aura having to come to terms with the loss of her boyfriend and trying to decide whether there is any way at all she is able to stay with him. Love from beyond the grave, as it were... Since this one has a fairly long lead-time, I won't be reviewing it for a month or so but definitely look out for a review later this year.

So... are there any books amongst these that you're waiting for, or think will be particularly good? As always, I treasure your participation in my blog with comments!

Friday 25 June 2010

Dante's Journey by J C Marino

A flash of light and Detective Joe Dante steps through. No longer on the cobblestone streets of 1961 Boston, Joe finds himself in a horrifying new world - Hell itself. Joe was in hot pursuit of his family's killer, drug lord Filippo Argenti, when both were killed, and isn't about to let a little thing like death slow him down. So, with a healthy dose of New England stubbornness and the help of a mysterious guide, Virgil DiMini, Joe must evade angry demons and search ever-lower through the rings of the original Dante's Inferno in hopes of finding justice for his wife and children. However, Joe will soon discover that behind every sin lies a secret and each secret revealed could land Joe in an eternity of hot water...

Dante's Journey was a real surprise. The blurb on the back doesn't do the story within the pages justice, in my opinion, because this was an unusual and compelling tale of learning moral aspects of your own character, as well as a trip through the circles of Hell. We spend as much time on Dante's journey to inner peace and rediscovery of faith as we do on his actual journey through Hell.

The strengths of this novel are the writing, which is exuberant good fun, and the characterisation - every single one of those characters deserves to be in hell for their various misdemeanours, and yet Marino manages to make you empathise with them and understand how they could have committed their crimes. I liked the manner in which Marino described the various people Dante meets on his journey, and the fact that they come from all different periods in history, including future periods that he wouldn't be aware of, having died in 1961. This creates some comic interludes.

Just as an aside, I'm also impressed with Marino's level of research: not only are the circles of hell represented very much as in the original Inferno, but he knew that Joe Dante would have been able to see Bugs Bunny before his death in 1961, since Bugs was "born" in 1940! (yes, I like my cartoons!)

As mentioned, the scenes in hell were descriptive - energetic and horrific, by turn. For example: "Without any kind of communication among them, all the iron demons started slashing simultaneously. My eyes still forced open, I watched as the sinners were systematically dismembered and disemboweled by the sword and axe-wielding demons.

'Listen to me,' a Nazi pleaded. 'You never listen to me. I was under orders, you understand. Under orders. Under orders!'

The demon ignored him, plunging his dagger-like fingers into the Nazi's gut.

Despite the horror of some of these scenes, the humour in the novel is ever-present: snappy dialogue between Joe Dante and Argenti being key, as well as some rather slapstick moments:

" 'Faster,' I sang out.

'I am,' Argenti sang back.


'What? Are you pulling?'


'I was pushing.'

We both stared at each other for a moment, not knowing which one of us was the idiot.

I also liked Marino's method of using flashbacks interspersed throughout the main body of the novel to show what really happened to Joe Dante in the time leading up to his death. This represented the idea that, until Dante had his epiphany in the ninth circle of hell, he is, in fact, a deeply unreliable narrator thanks to his hatred for Argenti. It was a neat trick.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book tremendously, although I do think the 'running time' was a little on the long side. There were flabby periods throughout that didn't add a great deal to the overall story - it just needed a little bit of tightening up. Also, the constant encounters with the demons became mighty repetitive at times, and I thought a couple of them could be cut with ease.

And Virgil annoyed me, purely because we weren't given enough hints on the way through about who he might be. I like to work out these little mysteries myself, and I either was not given enough to go on (in the early part of the story) or told outright (in the later part of the novel) - this could have been balanced a little better.

I am very glad a took a chance on this small press book. It was a fun read, with a warm heart and lots of lovely self-realisation. Joe Dante was a vibrant and realistic character and I enjoyed going on his journey. Recommended.

Author website

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Announcing the Winners of the Scott Lynch Giveaway!

Okay, I wish I had a little fanfare to announce these winners, but a large and bold declaration of the lucky names will have to do!

Neil Colquhoun has won the lovely hardback copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora
Carmen has won the equally lovely rare proof version of The Lies of Locke Lamora

I will contact the winners by email.

Thanks to all for your entries and comments - some very interesting book fails revealed!

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

She is pretty and talented - sweet sixteen and never been kissed. He is seventeen; gorgeous and on the brink of a bright future. And now they have fallen in love. But ...They are brother and sister. Forbidden will take you on an extraordinary emotional journey. Passionate and shocking, this is a book you will remember long after you have put it down.

Usually when the blurb of a book guarantees you will remember it long after you have put it down, I tend to take it with a pinch of salt since it is designed to pique the interest and draw in new readers. In the case of Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma, this comment is 100% true: I finished this book last night, at two in the morning, having been unable to put it down over the preceding four hours, tears wet on my face, and I don't think I will ever forget it.

The story of Maya and Lochan and their forbidden love is told in alternate viewpoints, which I think adds to the depth of the book. You hear their own impressions about the situation; their own battle against their feelings; you learn it is completely consensual. They truly believe they are falling in love with each other.

The subject of the book makes for incredibly tough reading, but Suzuma handles it with sensitivity and grace. Not once did I feel that this novel had been written with sensationalism in mind, or a desire to shock. It does shock - how can it not when dealing with incest? - but you find yourself drawn into the decisions that Maya and Lochan make. At times I even found myself questioning why it would be so bad for them to start a relationship, which then made me feel very ill (I think anyone with a sibling can particularly relate to me there). This most certainly is one of the last taboos, and Suzuma brought it into the light and examined it carefully and with logical reasons for every motivation her characters had.

Suzuma does an excellent job drawing these characters: they are three dimensional, fragile and very human. My one minor complaint was that sometimes it became a little difficult to hear the difference in voice between the two characters in the alternate viewpoints, but this was surmountable. Not only are Maya and Lochan powerfully-written, but Suzuma works hard to make the more peripheral characters people you believe in and want to read about. Kit, especially, is someone you hate at times, but empathise with.

Not only did Suzuma deal with the central tangle of incest, she also covered abandonment, depression and social anxiety: issues that a large number of teenagers will be handling silently. This is an incredibly powerful book that I think should be read by a large audience, so that they realise they are not alone when they suffer panic attacks and feel as though it is an effort to make it through each day. Suzuma pulls on her own experiences to provide poignancy and authenticity to the suffering of Lochan, in particular.

The ending made me cry - seriously, I bawled my eyes out. I find it rare that a book is so affecting it brings me to tears, but in this case I felt I had travelled a journey with these characters. I believe it is the highest compliment to pay an author when I say: I lived through these characters as I read Forbidden.

I would strongly suggest that younger readers do not tackle this thanks to the difficult scenes within Forbidden's pages, but I find myself recommending this to all other readers. It is tough, sensitive and very vulnerable. Essential reading.

Monday 21 June 2010

The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Nightfall by L J Smith

Elena Gilbert has returned from the Other Side, and has to relearn how to live amongst humans. She is helped by the love of her life — Stefan Salvatore, a vampire — and her three closest friends. However, evil forces are gathering around Fell’s Church, drawn by the beacon of a returned soul, and Stefan is snatched away from Elena when she needs him most. She has to turn to his dark brother, Damon, for help — never knowing for certain what motivates Damon or whether he has been possessed by the dark forces that want to steal Elena for themselves.

Unfortunately, The Return: Nightfall is a horrific mess of a story. It is a long rambling book — almost 500 pages, which is a great deal longer than any of L.J. Smith’s previous novels — and seems to leap from event to event without any obvious connection. Some of the writing is terrible, and disappointed me greatly because usually Smith’s prose is so very good. I just didn’t understand some of the descriptions Smith used, such as in the following passage:

"Tears pooled in Bonnie’s brown eyes. “I didn’t mean-”
But she didn’t get to finish. Meredith and Elena drew in protectively around her in the solid phalanx of what they called ‘velociraptor sisterhood.’ It meant that anybody messing with one of them was messing with them all."

I honestly didn’t get this reference, and it was mentioned a couple of times through the book — why would anybody refer to themselves as a velociraptor sisterhood? What does that even mean?

There is also a quote from the book which seemed to indicate the way in which L J Smith wrote this novel:

"The knowledge seemed to come moment by moment as she needed it."

It felt as though Smith was never in control of this story — that she was throwing ideas at the pages and hoping they would stick to create a coherent whole. None of her characters are consistent with how they are written in the four previous novels. Sure, on the surface Bonnie is still impetuous and fiery, Meredith cool and collected; but at times they would do something so wildly out of character that it jarred me from the story horrendously.

What made this so disappointing is the fact that during brief periods, the prose still soared in the way I have come to expect from L.J. Smith. When she is on form, I genuinely believe that there is no other YA author who can touch her, but sadly there is very little of that in Nightfall, the below excerpt being a rare exception:

"She had seen him when she was a human girl, and she had defied him and desired him in equal measure, and he had seemed to love her best when she was defying him.

She had seen him when she was a vampire and had been drawn to him with all her being, and he had cared for her as if she were a child.

He was a womaniser, he could be callous, he drifted through his victims’ lives like a chimera, like a catalyst, changing other people while he himself remained unchanging and unchanged..."

In all honesty, I was never sure why Smith revisited The Vampire Diaries after the first three books, which presented an excellent tale with a very natural and moving ending. I could sort of accept book 4, since there was clearly a decent story in place. Book 5 is a step too far, and ensures that I shall not be picking up any further novels in the world of Elena and Stefan. Some authors need to learn to quit while they’re ahead. I recommend pretending that this book doesn’t exist.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Books I Adopted This Week

Well, it is that time of the week again - I get to spill the secrets about which books have slipped into my house while I wasn't looking! Just an update on the Book Buying Embargo: these books listed below are all review copies, which means I've managed my second week without buying anything. Hallelujah! I wish I could say I thought it was getting easier...

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

Bob Howard is an IT specialist and field agent for the Laundry, the branch of Her Majesty's secret service that deals with occult threats. Overworked and underpaid, Bob is used to his two jobs overflowing from a strict nine to five and, since his wife Mo has a very similar job description, he understands that work will sometimes follow her home, too. But when 'work' involves zombie assassins and minions of a mad god's cult, he realises things are spinning out of control. When a top-secret dossier goes missing and his boss Angleton is implicated, Bob must contend with suspiciously helpful Russian intelligence operatives and an unscrupulous apocalyptic cult before confronting the decades-old secret that lies at the heart of the Laundry: what is so important about the missing Fuller Memorandum? And why are all the people who know dying...?

Published by Orbit on 1st July 2010 (please note the cover artwork above is to the US edition).

This is the third book in the Laundry series, and I was fairly apathetic about reading it until I read the blurb on the back and found myself thoroughly intrigued! Once this book buying embargo of mine is over, I shall definitely be picking up the first two in this series and giving them all a go. It would also be my first effort at reading Stross, an author who burst onto the scene in the UK not long ago and seems to be publishing virtually a book a month right now! I feel as though I could do all my reading within Stross' work for the next few months and not have a lack of books to read *grin*

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod

There is no such place as Krassnia. Lucy Stone should know - she was born there. In that tiny, troubled region of the former Soviet Union, revolution is brewing. Its organisers need a safe place to meet, and where better than the virtual spaces of an online game? Lucy, who works for a start-up games company in Edinburgh, has a project that almost seems made for the job: a game inspired by The Krassniad, an epic folk tale concocted by Lucy's mother Amanda, who studied there in the 1980s. Lucy knows Amanda is a spook. She knows her great-grandmother Eugenie also visited the country in the '30s, and met the man who originally collected Krassnian folklore, and who perished in Stalin's terror. As Lucy digs up details about her birthplace to slot into the game, she finds the open secrets of her family's past, the darker secrets of Krassnia's past - and hints about the crucial role she is destined to play in The Restoration Game...

Published by Orbit on 1st July 2010

Okay, is it daft to want to read this because it has an 'Amanda' in it? You know, we're singularly lacking in the world of fiction - I can't think of too many characters from books called Amanda. Other than that, I am open to reading this one but not jumping up and down with excitement. It fits the bill in terms of a slim stand alone science fiction novel, which are always easier to slot into my reading schedule, but the blurb doesn't jump out at me.

The Reluctant Mage by Karen Miller

It's been months since Rafel ventured over Barl's Mountains into the unknown, in a desperate bid to seek help. With his father's Weather Magic exhausted and Lur ravaged by polluting magics, there seemed no other hope. Now this too has died. Only Deenie believes Rafel still lives, sensing her brother in tortured dreams. She also knows she must try to find him, as only Rafel's talents could heal their land. The prospect terrifies Deenie, yet she sees no other choice. But she finds the lands beyond Lur blighted with lawlessness and chaos - and here Deenie and her companion Charis find the dark sorcerer Morg's deadly legacy. As they travel they learn of a dangerous new power in the land. Deenie comes to suspect that not only is her brother involved, but that the evil their father destroyed is somehow reborn. And if she can't save Rafel then, through him, Morg's vast power could once again command their world.

Published by Orbit on 1st July 2010

Orbit are publishing some great books, which is very exciting. What is frustrating is that they are often part of long-running series. This isn't as bad as some situations, but not only is this the second book in the Fisherman's Children series, but *that* series is preceded by The Innocent Mage. So there are again a few books to catch up on before I can even think about reading this one (I know that with some series you can jump right on board at any point, but I'm sensing that this isn't one of those!)

The Secret Hour by Scott Westerfeld

As the new girl at Bixby High School, Jessica Day expected some unwelcome attention. What she didn't expect was to feel an instant connection to a stranger in the corridor... Who is this boy dressed in black? And why can she feel his eyes following her wherever she goes? The answers will have to wait until the sun goes down, for here in Bixby, midnight is the time for secrets; secrets that Jessica is going to find out, whether she wants to or not.

Published by Atom on 1st July 2010

Thanks to Gavin Smith this blurb makes me laugh, rather than get all interested by the contents. However, Scott Westerfeld is doing some great things in the world of YA fiction, so I am tempted to try this. And lo and behold! It's the first book in a trilogy, so I can jump on board immediately!

The Dream Thief by Catherine Webb

London, 1865, and young Theresa Hatch (Tess, to her friends) receives a nast surprise late at night. When Horatio finds a young girl on his doorstep, passed out, dying - apparently poisoned - he's appalled. Investigations lead to Tess's old workhouse, but a surprise visit to that sorry establishment yields more questions than answers. Only one thing is clear: something very, very bad is happening to the children in the East End. There's a mystery to be solved, sending Lyle, Thomas, Tate and - naturally - Tess out into the wilds of east London and a certain former thief's old stamping grounds. What they find is terrifying: Tess's old crowd of artful dodgers and ace pickpockets are now wandering the streets like zombies, drooling in the workhouses or plain mad in the asylum. And it isn't just affecting Tess' old crowd; children all over the area are turning up with their memories in tatters and their minds all but gone. The only clue is a name, half-whispered in fear: Old Greybags.

Published by Atom on 1st July 2010

And we're back to jumping on board a series part way through... This is the fourth book in the Horatio Lyle series. But it is by Catherine Webb. Which is Kate Griffin by any other name. I love Webb's adult fiction, and I spoke briefly to her about her fiction for younger readers - she was so enthused about it that I do want to pick up the start of this series. Being for younger readers, I'm pretty sure I could read this book on its own without reading the first few.

Friday 18 June 2010

Dark Knights of the Soul by Jeremy Simpson

Dark Knights of the Soul tells of a neo-Templar Order located on the Swiss/German border at the end of the 20th century. The public image they project is of the original Templar: one of protection of Jerusalem and its holy shrines. However their ambition is to control the Temple Mount under the auspices of the United Nations. To achieve this they plan the destruction of the Muslim Dome of the Rock using men dressed as Israeli soldiers. They ally themselves with a neo-Teutonic order of Knights, whilst the charismatic Grand Master of the neo-Templar Order prophesises the 9/11 attacks on America. He claims access to the Holy Grail in a hidden Templar abbey in Armenia which will provide the 'elixir of youth' to its inner circle of Templar leaders. Meanwhile, the Order invites three historians to study their archives - two historians from Cambridge and one from Harvard. The academics not only stumble on the Jerusalem plot, but also the dark secrets of the Order's spiritual activities, revolving around ancient Mithraic sacrificial practices. The very essence of evil becomes a stark reality as the three historians realise they have mistakenly become embroiled in a plot which threatens the balance of world power.

I'm going to find this review hard to write. You see, I like books that involve the mysterious Templars. I also enjoy books that take a concept such as the Templars or the Holy Grail, and wrap a thriller around it (yes, I found the Da Vinci Code quite diverting). Dark Knights of the Soul ticked all those boxes and should have been a novel I enjoyed! There were some scenes that I found entertaining, but overall this was just a poorly-written book that became difficult to enjoy.

I want to first mention the good point of the novel. On a couple of occasions, Simpson developed some scenes that had a feeling of oppressive menace, especially while the four students were in the Templar Castle and trying to discover the true intentions of the Grand Master. There was distasteful imagery in the Chapel, and the concept of burying people alive, that sent a chill down the spine.

Honestly, the story wasn't awful - it was mainly the execution that I struggled with, for the following reasons (which I shall try to keep as constructive as possible).

My first point is the rather clumsy foreshadowing that Simpson employed. This includes the fact that Chapter One involved showing a scene that came halfway through the actual novel. I would encourage Simpson to employ a Prologue if he chooses to foreshadow in his next novel - the book will read more smoothly. I would also encourage him to avoid sentences such as: "As later events unfolded, the significance of his expression 'our God' took on a darker meaning." I believe Simpson was using this style to try and generate tension, and I have seen the method employed successfully in other novels, but in this case it didn't work for me.

Simpson is very knowledgeable about his subject (a plus) but I think he should have more faith in his readers to pick up and follow the various threads of his tale: an example of him not doing this is where he over-emphasised the Templar insignia (two horsemen on one steed) as though he didn't believe his readers would remember it.

I understand that Simpson has a great deal of information to impart, but on occasion he falls into long periods of exposition - paragraph after paragraph of rather dense historical facts that are not even presented in the form of dialogue. I think that he needs to look at his methods of providing background information, and improve these in the future.

I accept that Simpson probably feels as though The Da Vinci Code rather glamorised the Holy Grail without using true facts, but I did find it distasteful that he expressed his dissatisfaction at this by using his characters to make pointed digs at the book: " 'Hi Theo -' a long pause - 'you're in Glastonbury! How is your book on the Grail progressing? The subject is hot now, isn't it? That absurd Da Vinci Code book engaging excessive publicity.' "

I was disappointed at the depiction of the characters. None of them stood out as being particularly memorable, and Simpson was unable to use their dialogue as a way of identifying them. In fact, the dialogue was both stilted: " 'Let's face it, we're here because of the lush attractions of the location. Can we agree on the real facts as we know them?' " and lacking emotion: " 'What is the trouble, darling?' He replied, 'You! I love you, you see.' "

All of the information about the Templars and the locations within Switzerland are well-researched, but at points Simpson's lack of research and knowledge is very evident. My particular example here is concerning the Official Secrets Act - the characters signed the Official Secrets Act, and then were deemed to be covered from the moment of the signature being completed, whereas in actual fact the information on the form would need to be investigated and then clearance provided. The background of your family has to be checked as well as your own activities (I have signed the Official Secrets Act, y'see?) Not only this, but, having signed the Official Secrets Act, Nicholas and Charlotte seem to blab about the situation to all and sundry.

The final point I wish to make (although I do have other minor complaints about the novel) is the pacing. Simpson builds up nicely through the middle of the novel with scenes of genuine tension to what you imagine will be an explosive finale, but then the main characters end up on a slow city tour of Jerusalem where Simpson indulges himself in showing his knowledge about the culture, religion and locations of this holy place. This sort of interruption does not help the flow of the novel.

As you can see, although I felt that there was a decent novel hidden within the pages of Dark Knights of the Soul, I didn't enjoy Jeremy Simpson's writing, and certainly do not feel that it is any better than the Da Vinci Code. It was poorly-written and ineffective.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Courage and Honour by Graham McNeill

The noble Ultramarines epitomise the Space Marines, the genetically enhanced warriors who protect the Imperium from its foes. Newly returned from the Eye of Terror, Captain Uriel Ventris must redeem himself in the eyes of his battle-brothers, who fear he may have been tainted by Chaos. When the planet Pavonis is invaded by tau, what better opportunity could Uriel have to join his Chapter in combat and prove that his honour is beyond reproach?

Courage and Honour is my second McNeill Warhammer 40K - the first being False Gods, in the Horus Heresy series - and I found the reading experience to be very similar. McNeill is quietly churning out good quality science fiction battle stories (albeit with some faults) and is quite clearly having a blast while doing it. The key essence to both of the books I have read by McNeill is the deep affection for the subject and an abiding desire to flesh out the 40K background with extra detail.

First of all, this is the fifth book in the Ultramarine series, and I did have my concerns that I wouldn't be able to pick everything up. Graham McNeill, however, does a good job in providing a gradual recap over the first few chapters which helps to being new readers on board. I presume he manages this without boring current readers, but obviously I don't know this for sure! He also makes it intriguing enough that I now want to read about the previous adventures of Uriel, especially his stint in the Eye of Terror.

There is plenty to like about this book. One factor I enjoyed was the enduring theme of courage and honour played out through the novel - what these concepts mean to different people and how hard they can be to stand by. Quotes such as the following litter the pages, and help to enforce the ideas of courage and honour:

" 'No, I don't,' agreed Lortuen, 'but I could not live with myself if fighting men died because I did nothing. How will you look yourself in the mirror every day with those deaths on your conscience? Think of your honour!'

'We are prisoners of war,' said Koudelkar. 'What honour do we have?'

'Only what we bring with us,' said Lortuen wearily, lapsing into silence.'

McNeill has a heroic turn of phrase in the main which suitably conveys the baddassery of the Space Marines: "Emerging from the flaming wreckage of the tank assembly yards, the Space Marines came with fire and thunder... Behind them came the Space Marines, warriors in ultramarine whose weapons were hymnals to war and whose gold and blue flag was a beacon of righteousness among the slaughter." Every now and then, however, he lapses into rather cheesy lines which just fall a little flat or inadvertently cause amusement: "They were closer than friends, closer than brothers. They were Astartes." That particular line I can imagine being said in a booming voice over a film trailer.

Speaking of films, the whole novel is extremely cinematic, from quiet moments between two characters, to bitter declarations of betrayal, to the sweeping battle scenes that fill the second half of the book. Courage and Honour could honestly be a written representative of a film - a stonking summer blockbuster.

Once again with McNeill's work, I found myself struggling a little with the pacing. The start was quite slow burn, with a number of scenes between characters who had clearly been established in previous books (these were scenes that I might well have appreciated more had I read those books) but once battle was joined with the Tau, the book became less about the story and read more like a battle report. The relentless telling of various battles sat uneasily with the political machinations and quiet initial scenes between Uriel and various of his battle brothers.

Also, I believe there were a few flashbacks, but, if there were (I'm still unsure) then they weren't made particularly clear.

My last main issue was with some of the slightly clumsy exposition work. For instance, we have two pre-eminent Adeptus Astartes talking in a detailed fashion about the Codex Astartes, which both would know inside out and upside down, and would have no need to remind the other about. I do realise that the particular scene I have in mind was posed as a moment of epiphany for Uriel, but it still felt quite clunky and artificial.

Oh, and one minor point, which could well be a matter of taste: some of the bullets 'whickered' during the battle. Now, to me, whickering is a soft sound that a horse makes, so you can understand that I would find it an unusual choice of word to describe the sound of bullets!

Apart from those matters detailed above, one of the biggest strengths of this novel is the depiction of the Tau. They are a xenos race, anathema to the Space Marines and the forces of the Empire, and McNeill gives them an eerie and very alien personality. With descriptions such as: "They offer you slavery and call it freedom, a prison you do not know you are in until it is too late. They offer a choice, that is no choice at all" McNeill develops an image of a race that is clinical, dispassionate and fiercely intelligent - not the sort of enemy you wish to have. This is compounded when McNeill writes: "The tau made war with such precision that it left precious little room for notions of honour or courage. To the tau, war was a science like any other: precise, empirical and a matter of cause and effect."

The basic conclusion to this review is that you should know what you're getting with a Black Library book - it will never be the most well-written novel in the world (although McNeill is one of the best writing for Black Library in the 40K universe), but you should get a novel that is entertaining with pulse-pounding battle scenes. McNeill delivers this in spades. I guess the biggest compliment that can be paid to him is that I wanted to rush out and buy an Ultramarine army on completion of Courage and Honour.

The Vampire Diaries: The Fury & The Reunion by L J Smith

This is the second bind-up for THE VAMPIRE DIARIES. The Fury and The Reunion were originally published as two separate books; in fact, The Reunion was published some time after The Fury, which effectively closes the trilogy begun with The Awakening and The Struggle). In The Fury Elena, alongside her friends Bonnie and Meredith, struggles to control her nature and discover the source of the evil Power that is haunting Fell’s Church. She knows that the only way it can be defeated is if the two vampire brothers Stefan and Damon can put alongside their lifelong enmity and work together. In The Reunion Fell’s Church is once again being terrorised by an ancient evil. Damon and Stefan are summoned by Bonnie, Meredith and Matt to face down a powerful villain, who is determined to have Elena for his own.

I enjoyed Volume 1 of THE VAMPIRE DIARIES well enough, my biggest complaint being that the heroine Elena was very hard to take to. I had little sympathy for her plight, feeling that she brought a great deal of her troubles on herself. In The Fury and The Reunion, Elena is a far more well-rounded character — someone I delighted in spending time with. Her remorse for her previous actions is genuine and made me warm to her greatly, especially a very sweet and necessary scene with Matt:

“OK, so you’re here. You’re alive,” he said roughly. “So what do you want?”
Elena was dumbfounded.
“Come on, there must be something. What is it?”
New tears welled up, but Elena gulped them back. “I guess I deserve that. I know I do. But for once, Matt, I want absolutely nothing. I came to apologise, to say that I’m sorry for using you — not just that one night, but always...”

In fact, all of the characters are stronger and more developed in these two novels, particularly Damon, who changed from more of a pantomime villain who did evil because he is evil to a man who is conflicted over his relationship with Stefan and seems to want to do the right thing.

L.J. Smith evokes chilling situations with her flowing and very readable prose. We learn along with the characters the nature of the threat, and fear of the unknown creates plenty of spine-tingling moments.

In these two novels, my only complaint was that at times Smith employed deus ex machina to solve her characters’ problems or ensure that they understood what was going on. It smacked as slightly lazy, but could be forgiven when the actual story was so gripping.

Elena and Stefan remain an extremely likable couple in the world of YA vampire fiction. I think anyone who has tried and enjoyed Twilight will gain a great measure of satisfaction from the writing of L.J. Smith and her version of the vampire with the tortured soul. Readable.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week, September 13 - 17, 2010

We are thrilled to announce Book Blogger Appreciation Week 2010!

What: Book Blogger Appreciation Week is a week long festival celebrating the community of book bloggers and their contribution to preserving a culture of literacy through book reviews and recommendations, reading reflections, and general bookish chat. BBAW also includes an awards component. For more information on the BBAW 2010 Awards and how to participate, please visit the BBAW 2010 Awards Blog. BBAW events include daily blogging topics, blogger interview swaps, special guest posts, and so much more!

Who: If you self-identify as a book blogger, this festival is for you! We have been excited to welcome participants from all over the world for past BBAWs.

When: September 13-17, 2010.

Where: Right here at the Book Blogger Appreciation Week blog. You can participate in the comfort of your own home and the convenience of your own time zone.

Why: Because book blogging is a fun and time intensive hobby that has created communities around books and played a crucial role in the continuing evolution of what books mean in our society.

How Can I Participate?
You can participate by filling out the registration form for BBAW 2010. Subscribe to the blog’s feed and follow us on Twitter to keep up with all of the developments!

I feel a little uncomfortable having to nominate myself: seems a little too much like blowing my own trumpet!

But I am putting myself forward for the niche category of Best Speculative Fiction Book Blog.

Here are my five posts:

1) Review of King Maker by Maurice Broaddus
2) Review of Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes
3) Review of The City and The City by China Mieville
4) Arthur C Clarke Final Thoughts (analysis of six shortlisted books)
5) What Qualifies a Book Blogger?

I am also putting myself forward for Best New Book Blog:

1) Review of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard
2) Review of A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin
3) Report on Eastercon
4) UK vs. US books covers: which do you prefer?
5) Female Characters in Fantasy Literature

Finally, I would like to be considered for Best Author Interviews:

1) Sam Sykes
2) Sarah Pinborough
3) Blake Charlton
4) M D Lachlan
5) Deborah Beale

Alt: Fiction Report

There have already been some nice little write ups of this particular event, but I thought I would throw my two cents into the hat. Alt:Fiction was held on Saturday 12th June in Derby's Quad - a one day literary convention positively swarming with industry professionals (authors, publicists, agents and the like).

I only went to one panel - Genre Books You Must Read - and enjoyed that one. There were only a couple of other panels that I half-fancied, but then I ended up chatting to people at the bar instead (which I can see becoming a theme at future cons, to be honest).

Here are some of my idle thoughts about the whole affair:

- Great little location. Easy to find, good facilities, bit cramped with the amount of people, so I can't see Alt:Fiction expanding too much while sticking with the Quad.

- How on earth do you write Alt:Fiction? I'm going with the colon, but I've seen other variations - Alt.Fiction, Alt Fiction, Altfiction. Seriously, which is right? It isn't a major point, but it frustrates me not knowing every time I type it *grin*

- For a small convention, it was simply awesome to see so many authors there, and on the whole they were incredibly approachable and friendly (there was one disappointing exception, but I don't want to bitch about that publically).

- Kate Griffin was lovely. I asked her to sign A Madness of Angels and The Midnight Mayor, and she was both humble and cheerful. We had a little natter, and I'm planning to pick up some of her Catherine Webb books. This is another of those female authors (a la Alex Bell) that you would hate if they weren't so damn nice: pretty, talented and stinkingly young for what they have achieved! *grin*

- Gavin Smith spilled all his secrets to me. All of them. I am now dangerously loaded up with Things He Doesn't Want The General Public To Know! The crazy fool has also agreed to an interview with me once I've read Veteran - mwah ha ha ha!

- I had a great time most of the day with Mark Chitty. We've been chatting for months via Twitter and it was lovely to meet in person. I want to thank him particularly for keeping me company so well!

- It was great having a drink with James from Speculative Horizons and Jon Weir from Gollancz, and then lunch with Gavin Smith, Mark Chitty and Mark Lachlan. This is the part of conventions I love the most - gatecrashing private meals between friends... (I think they invited me, but I might just have headed on over to their table!)

- I had a moment with Graham McNeill and Gav Thorpe (two chaps who I wanted to meet both thanks to their novels and thanks to my geekgirl wargaming side!) I ended up apologising for being so geeky about Osprey books, and Graham just sort of looked at me and then said very dryly that I was in good company. Embarrassed! He wrote THE best comment in my copy of Courage and Honour (review to follow shortly): "My favourite reviewer!"

- I concur with Cheryl Morgan's post to a certain extent. The event felt very much an industry one - to the point where authors would be sat in groups chatting and I would feel a little awkward at going over to ask for a book to be signed. I felt almost as though I was gatecrashing a little, which I'm not sure is the image trying to be conveyed. I'm just a lowly book blogger (and not even one of the really well-known ones like Speculative Horizons) and therefore felt a tiny bit out of place.

- Just a practical consideration: With five streams of panels etc. next year can we see a nice handy tabular form of this, much like that provided at Eastercon? Will be much easier to see which panels clash and arrange properly what you want to attend.

- Mark Chadbourn said I was the epitome of cool. I thought I was a giggly girl when I asked him to sign a copy of his book. Let's go with his image on this occasion!

Altogether Alt:Fiction was a fun day and it was awesome catching up with the likes of Adam Christopher, Adrian Faulkner, Lee Harris, Saxon Bullock, Steve Aryan and others. I'll be in attendance next year!

Monday 14 June 2010

Genre Books You Must Read (Alt:Fiction Panel)

I attended Alt Fiction on Saturday - a cosy, but very professionally run, one day event. I'm going to produce a post detailing what I got up to on the day itself, but I wanted particularly to highlight the details of the one panel I attended. It was Genre Books You Must Read, something I felt would be interesting given the panellists. I was dreading the seemingly unavoidable mention of The Lord of the Rings, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. The book mentions were imaginative, very varied and had me scribbling on my book wishlist. Here is a little summary...

Graham Joyce kicked us off with a couple of canonical works - usually listed as some of the literary classics, but definitely the province of genre fiction (one more so than the author). One of these was Robinson Crusoe, but more crucially Joyce recommended Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. As Joyce pointed out, this is definitely not a children's book! It details an investigation of the human psyche by using fantastical elements. It is also political satire and a treatise on the nature of humanity; examining our perception of ourselves as rational beings.

Joyce also talked passionately about Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, a book that gained much approval from his fellow panellists and members of the audience. This delicious rural fantasy is highly original and definitely follows a different root to most high fantasy, showing a dreamlike environment in which English folklore is brought to life. Both Joyce and John Jarrold think that Lavondyss, the sequel to Mythago Wood, is just as powerful. Sadly, these works will be read with some poignancy, knowing that Holdstock is one of those fantasy authors who has departed before his time.

Juliet McKenna took us even further back than the work of Jonathan Swift, pointing out that some of the first fantasy can be found in the plays of Euripides, one of the three great Greek playwrights. These plays show the relationship between God and men, a theme that can be found in books by writers as diverse as Steven Erikson and N K Jemisin in more recent times. They also show the fluidity in the treatment of myths - the fact that the same story can be told many different times, and from different points of views.

She also spoke with passion about The Wizard of Earthsea by LeGuin - one of the first books to use that trope about a young boy discovering he has powers - and Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn - a book that shows the effects of the abuse of absolute power. Out of those authors writing today that McKenna admires, she particularly mentioned Kate Elliott.

Steven Erikson (author of the rather amazing Malazan sequence) had some rather unusual choices. He stated that he does enjoy reading realist fiction that contains surreal components or intellectual absurdist elements. One of his choices was The Man Who Was Thursday by G K Chesterton, seen as a metaphysical thriller. His other key choice (which inspired a rather lively discussion from the panel on how to sell books to publishers) was The Short Timers, by Gustav Hasford: a semi-autobiographical novel about Hasford's experiences in the Vietnam War that was then developed into the film Full Metal Jacket. Erikson particularly wanted to highlight the psychedelic dream sequence where it seems that a vampire invades the book. This managed to thoroughly intrigue the rest of the panellists, and there might be a spike in the reading of this (sadly out of print now) book.

Erikson wanted to highlight these books because he believes that Vietnam war fiction, in particular, led on to books such as Glen Cook's Black Company (a series of books he is so fond of that he lent his words to the cover):

John Jarrold gave us an interesting mix of books. One of these was Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks, a science fiction novel that Jarrold believes encapsulates the very best of the genre. Mixing light and dark elements, with comic moments and points in the prose that made Jarrold cry (he was not too proud to say so either!)

In response to McKenna's offering of Euripides, Jarrold suggested Morte D'Arthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory. This sequence of tales encapsulates many of those oh-so-familiar fantasy tropes these days: quests, beasts, a group of heroes doing good deeds. He also mentioned The Once and Future King - which is *nothing* like Disney's Sword in the Stone!

Finally Pete Crowther spoke with great warmth about three books. The first of these was Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury - examining the familial relationship between children and parents. Seriously, the guy made me want to leave the panel, go to a bookstore and immediately pick this book up! (More than a little frustrating considering my book buying embargo *grin*)

He also talked at length about Pet Sematary by Stephen King. Crowther believes that King's strong characterisation in every scene helps the reader to suspend disbelief when it comes to the introduction of the supernatural parts of the book. He said that any aspiring writer can learn so much from King's writing.

Lastly Crowther mentioned Jack Finney's Time and Again:

It is supposed to be a defining work on time travel (Jarrold thinks that Finney's work is deeply under-rated) and sounded excellent. The book is enormously pretty as well, with illustrations that show elements of the novel perfectly.

In conclusion, I was enormously pleased to hear a number of recommendations for books that I hadn't even heard of, let alone read! All the panellists spoke with great affection and knowledge for the genre, and introduced their particular choices with enthusiasm. I enjoyed this panel very much and, like I said, added a number of the above to my reading list - chief amongst them, Time and Again.

So, what do you think? Any of these catch your eye? Do you have any recommendations for genre books that everyone should read?