Tuesday 31 August 2010

Interview - David Wellington, author of Cursed

Today I am pleased to welcome to Floor to Ceiling Books David Wellington, the author of Cursed!

AMANDA: Welcome to Floor to Ceiling Books. How are you today?

DAVID: Very well, thank you, and quite grateful to have this opportunity to talk to you and my readers.

AMANDA: Can you start by describing Cursed for the readers of FtCB? What makes it different? Why should they be rushing out to buy a copy?

DAVID: Cursed is a story about werewolves, but not simply the ravening beasts of traditional werewolf fiction. It is based on an intense research effort into the behavior and lifestyles of real wolves. It’s also a gripping story of betrayal, loss, and the desperate love that is born from utter loneliness. Hmm, that actually sounds pretty good. Maybe I’ll go back and read it myself again.

AMANDA: Cursed saw an unusual route into finished book form – it started as a serial on your website, correct?

DAVID: Yes—it was actually the fifth book I released in this way, serializing it online first. I published it one chapter at a time, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for five months. Readers were able to comment on the story as it was posted—which led to one problem, when a reader guessed the big twist shortly after I’d begun publishing the story. Which of course required me to edit major portions of the book while it was still in progress. This took a lot of work but made the book better in the long run.

AMANDA: What prompted you to produce a book in this way? Had the finished article been rejected by publishers? Or had you always intended to release it via your website?

DAVID: By the time I wrote Cursed I’d been doing serials for a couple years. My first paperback was due to come out, but there’s such a long lead time for a book to go from manuscript to finished copies that I was losing my mind. I had no idea if Monster Island, my first serial, would even work as a paperback—it had been written specifically for the serial form. That turned out to be an unwarranted fear, but the way I deal with stress (especially about my books) is to write another book. So 13 Bullets and Cursed both came out of the anticipation and anxiety I was feeling.

AMANDA: Let’s deal some more with Cursed: the wolf element is one of the most realistic I’ve encountered in a werewolf book to date. Is this intentional? Did it require a great deal of research?

DAVID: I spent far longer researching the book than I did actually writing it. That research took a number of forms. I had to do extensive research into the setting for the book—the Canadian wilderness—because I knew it would be one of the major characters. I had to learn everything I could about wolves, which meant a lot of reading, visiting zoos, and—no, really—playing with my dog. It was really the dog which influenced the book the most. In the process of training her I kept treating her like a human being, but she clearly didn’t want that, nor did she respond to it. She expected me to be an alpha male wolf and treat her accordingly. The ironclad status hierarchy that wolves—and dogs—live by was fascinating to me, and I knew it had to go into the book.

AMANDA: In future books, will you consider working other animals into the shapeshifting world? Bears? Big cats?

DAVID: The sequel to Cursed, which will be called Ravaged in the UK, goes somewhere similar to that. But I refuse to give any details about that book. There are just too many spoilers involved.

AMANDA: What draws you into writing about the traditional “monsters” of literature?

DAVID: Monsters are fascinating because they live outside of human society. They can never just do what they want—either they have to worry about being hunted down, or they have needs they must fulfil (like the vampire’s need for blood, or the werewolf’s need to stay away from other humans). But that just means they have their own agendas. Their lives can never be like ours, and to me that makes them fascinating.

AMANDA: Which authors have most influenced your work?

DAVID: I like to think every book I read influences me, even the bad ones. Especially the bad ones, because they teach me what not to do. I think of myself as coming out of a long tradition of writers, starting with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, through the pulps of the 20s and 30s and the paperback revolution of the 50s. It was the truly bizarre (and yet effective) genre writing of the 80s that probably influenced me the most however—especially the science fiction writers, like Larry Niven and David Brin.

AMANDA: I can see that Ravaged is also going to be released by Piatkus (the follow-up to Cursed). Can you give us any hints about what will happen? And when will we see it in bookstores?

DAVID: There will be no spoilers! I say this all the time with my tongue firmly in my cheek. But seriously, I don’t want to give anything away. All I can say is that the story picks up exactly where it left off at the end of Cursed. It was one of those stories where I had to know what happened next. The characters were just that real to me. Readers won’t have long to wait. Cursed will come out at the beginning of September, while Ravaged will be out the very next month, on 7th October.

AMANDA: Thank you for your time! Any last words? (and that is in terms of the interview! It wasn’t meant to be as sinister as it sounded!)

DAVID: Thank you so much for having me! Er, virtually, that is. I’ll just finish by saying I hope that fans of my previous books will give Cursed and Ravaged a look. I think they’ll find quite a bit to their liking, here!

It just remains to be said that Cursed is being published by Piatkus on 2nd September and I would urge you all to go out and pick up a copy - this is a damn good werewolf book!

Monday 30 August 2010

Cursed by David Wellington

Cursed is the tale of Cheyenne Clark, a twenty-something we meet while she is struggling through the Northwest Territories of the Canadian Arctic. “Most people’s lives change very slowly, more slowly than the seasons. Some people are born into the life they’re going to lead and nothing much ever comes along to force them to change. For Cheyenne Clark, change came about in the space of thirty very bad seconds.” She is hunting for something, but it seems like something is hunting her too...

It is desperately hard to synopsise this novel without giving too much away about the plot (which is why I have kept it as sparse as possible) – and I feel as though part of the strength of Cursed comes from watching the mystery about Chey unfold. To start with, she is merely a girl in danger of her life, and I enjoyed being given little hints and tips about her back story and what she is really doing in the Canadian Arctic.

In recent times many books involving werewolves have made these creatures into soft, cuddly affairs – taking away the animal quality from them. David Wellington more than makes up for this in Cursed. In fact, his werewolves are another strong element of the novel. We are able to see the world from the perspective of the wolf – almost a separate entity from the person – and it is a fearsomely hard world to live in. In fact, the sequences with the wolf reminded me of nothing so much as books like White Fang by Jack London – it is extremely clear that Wellington has worked hard on representing a realistic picture of what it would be to turn into a wolf night after night.

Wellington presents the bleak world of the far north with great depth and passion – the details about the landscape and the moonrise/moonset are inserted perfectly, so that it never feels as though we are being handed a lesson in the natural world.

The characterisation is Spartan, but effective. Chey is a character you want to sympathise with – you know she has her secrets, but her reactions to learning about the wolf are honest and genuine. Powell is a darkly enigmatic man, who takes a very pragmatic approach to life in the frozen north. By far my favourite character though was Dzo – he is mysterious, and I’m hoping he returns in all his odd glory in the second book by Wellington.
In fact, I only had a couple of minor problems with the novel. The main one was the fact that Wellington left the details of his world fairly blank: it was clear that I was dealing with a version of Earth, but in this version lycanthropes, shapeshifters and werewolves (interchangeable terms?) were known as being real. Apart from that, Wellington gave us nothing. In other novels I’m used to be handed far too many details about a world (which creates a whole other problem of boredom), and I think a balance needs to be struck between that approach and that of Wellington. I could have done with a little more background.

That aside, Cursed was a compulsive read – chilling, dark and fatalistic for much of its pages, but containing an element of hope to take onward to the second book in the series. Chey and Powell were characters that I want to journey with, and I found this ultra-realistic take on the werewolf myth a very effective addition to the canon of lycanthropy. Highly recommended.

Cursed is being published 2nd September by Piatkus Books.

Come back tomorrow for an interview with David Wellington, the author of Cursed!

Saturday 28 August 2010

300th Blog Post - My Top Three Books of All Time

I've been asked one of *those* questions. You know the ones... As a book lover I dread this question, but, to celebrate my 300th blog post, I am going to make my best stab at it. I was asked about my most favourite book. When I complained about the restriction, I was told to name my top three. So here they are!

In third place...

Yes, that children's classic Watership Down by Richard Adams. Except I don't think it is your typical children's book. It spoke to me on so many levels - a quest story, a love letter to the British countryside, a treatise on fascism and extreme propaganda. The characters were vivid and well-drawn, from Hazel and Fiver who led the group, to Bigwig, who always seemed to be so contrary. As a child I was amused by the fact that one of the characters said 'Piss off!' The storytelling within storytelling worked for me as well - tales of El-Ahrairah and how he outwits Lord Frith. Just saying these iconic names makes me want to pick the book up again! Certainly it is a book that I have read more than ten times, and would turn to again and again out of comfort and enjoyment.

In second place...

I picked up Archangel by Sharon Shinn on a whim from the library when I was in my teens. And I have never, before or since, been SO entranced by prose. I think Shinn has the most amazing talent to bring magic alive - and her passion for music imbues every word of her novels. Archangel is the first in a trilogy of three, and all of them are well worth reading. Archangel tells the story of Gabriel, who is to wed the Edori slave Rachel - the trials and tribulations as they learn to love each other are beautifully written, and the idea of lovers destined to be together was presented in a unique manner. To me, stunning.

In first place...

So here it is. My most favourite novel of all time. It is not the best written; it is not the most literary; and it is definitely not genre. It is this:

The Sunne in Splendour is a sprawling epic of a novel. It is over 900 pages of exploring characters from our own history. It takes the controversial Richard III and overturns what we might think of the person who Shakespeare vilified and who was said to murder his own nephews. This novel is a sympathetic portrayal of a man who was loyal to his country and who wanted the best for his family. Historical personages spring to life from the pages; bitter betrayals and love stories are detailed by engaging prose. I just love this book and endeavour to read it every couple of years or so. Sharon Penman is a supremely talented author, managing to breathe life into a long-dead era. Her research is superlative and I admire the dedication taken with every single one of her novels. This is by far my favourite and, indeed, my favourite book of my whole life.

Now I open the floor to you. It is tough - but tell me your top three books, and why. Invite me to read those books that you deem, in your opinion, to be the best you have read. They needn't be the best written, just those that resonated beyond all others with you. I'd love to hear!

Thursday 26 August 2010

Living In The Blogger Bubble

I was reading this post and the matter of different perspectives really struck a chord with me.

I am wondering whether us book reviewers/bloggers live in a special little bubble, undisturbed by the real world?

The reason I question this is because of Mockingjay. You might have heard of it. If you haven't, here's the story - Suzanne Collins is a YA who has written a trilogy called The Hunger Games. The third volume was released this week. Before release it was on strict embargo. My Twitter stream and my Google Reader reached feverishly excited proportions - people were declaring war on those who had posted spoilers. See? There were even swear words committed to blog posts.

I - being part of the bubble - found myself caught up in the excitement. Pictures like these:

had me frothing at the mouth!

I waited until today to try and pick up my copy from the local Waterstones. I envisaged massive displays with multiple copies of Mockingjay. I looked forward to seeing the shiny cover and feeling myself nestled comfortably in the blogger bubble, sharing my reading experience with people on Twitter.

There were NO copies of Mockingjay in Waterstones. Or in WHSmith, although I already suspected they wouldn't carry it.

As far as I was concerned this was one of the BIGGEST YA releases of recent months. Clearly my local bookshops didn't share the same view.

So, traipsing home disappointed I started to wonder (and then Larry's post punched it home) about the perspectives of bloggers. Thanks to reading other blogs and being infected by buzz, we become all wrapped up in shiny releases - and sometimes little realise that those releases have absolutely NO impact on booksellers.

Do you agree that there is a blogger bubble?

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Vacation and Themed Months

Two bits of news for you guys on this rainy Wednesday evening!

The first is that I am jetting off on vacation next Tuesday and starting to think seriously about it. I am away for a week. There are a couple of posts scheduled but not masses so if anyone feels like whipping out a guest post before the weekend that I can host on my site (with enormous gratitude) then I would be very appreciative. Drop me a note via my email magemanda AT gmail DOT com or contact me by Twitter @ALRutter!

The second is that I have been reading this post a number of times, and watching the comments, and thinking seriously about the future of my blog. I don't want to be *just* another "new release" blog and I want to explore different genres. So I have come up with a new direction for Floor to Ceiling Books.

I am planning theme months - which I want the readers of my blog to have full input on. A week or so before the end of the month I shall offer up three themes for the following month - whichever option is chosen I shall abide by, and read books under that theme alone.

Some of the themes will be wide-ranging - like YA titles. Some will be very, very specific - like Charles de Lint novels. Some will be extremely personal - like books my boyfriend has recommended. And some will hopefully widen my reading experience (and contribute to the SF/F Masterworks blog) like reading classic SF/F novels.

I hope that sounds of interest! Hopefully it will give a good mix of new and old novels, and will touch on a number of different genres.

I intend to kick this off in September. I am away on vacation from 31st August to 7th September and am starting to think about which books to pack, so I will pack whichever books correspond to the theme voted for in the majority by my blog readers.

The options this time around are:

1) David Gemmell novels

2) Historical fiction novels

3) Books published by Orbit

I'm asking you, my readers, to pick option 1, 2 or 3. Please leave me a comment. Whichever option receives the most votes by midday on 30th August will win and I will take books of that type on holiday.

I'd really welcome general comments on this future direction for my blog, and also suggestions for future themes. I am planning to do this each month going forwards, and I will be very grateful for any contribution from my readers!

Monday 23 August 2010

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first book of the Gentleman Bastard sequence, and tells the tale of the titular Locke Lamora (or the Thorn of Camorr) as he tries to pull off a massive con against one of the Dons of Camorr with the help of the gang of Gentleman Bastards. While this is being played out, Locke learns that he is in the middle of a war between the Grey King and Capa Barsavi that has dreadful repercussions for both him personally and the city of Camorr.

I enjoyed this book. Thoroughly. It was entertaining, good fun and left me with a smile on my face. When I wasn't reading it, I found my thoughts dwelling on it and wondering what events would come next, which I think is the mark of an excellent book.

Before I start with specific thoughts, likes and dislikes, I just want to make a couple of observations. The first is that, in a mystery novel, I like to try and work out the secret identity of the secret personage who is committing the crime, and try to discover why they might be doing terrible things. In this novel, unless I'm being completely dense, there was no way we could piece together clues to find out who the Grey King was and why he declared war on Capa Barsavi. I think the novel would have been even stronger had the reader been able to play this game.

The second is that The Lies of Locke Lamora seems to fit more into the canon of literature led by Alexandre Dumas - swash-buckling high adventure - rather than anything from the field of genre fiction. Barring the use of Bondsmages, this novel could easily be set in Renaissance Italy. The term 'unique' is thrown around with abandonment, but, in this case, I would say it is justified - even though I am four years late to the party, The Lies of Locke Lamora feels fresh and new and exciting.

This is not to say the whole book is perfect. Lynch does a fabulous turn in dialogue - his characters mock each other; cry bloody vengeance without sounding cliched; and have conversations that sound natural. Every part of The Lies of Locke Lamora that involves characters in face to face encounters is pure gold. It is just a shame that, for me, some of the remaining prose sounds a little dry and wooden at times. When Lynch needs to introduce a new part of Camorr, or describe the games commoners play, it is not done smoothly - rather we are handed a section of rather dry exposition that sits uneasily next to the glittering dialogue. This might be a matter of taste, but I found these points clumsy for an author who shows such skills elsewhere.

I have to mention the language as well. That is, the realistic swearing (i.e. words like f**k etc.). I believe it has probably been pointed out by other reviewers. The fact is, I would probably have complained if Lynch had come up with his own swear words - at that point, I would have been muttering about silly made-up words that sound false. I'm not absolutely sure that Lynch could win on this point either way, but the realistic swear-words jarred me out of my read, which I found a little frustrating. Certainly the swearing 'fit' the characters, since they were from the lower end of the social spectrum, but the choice of words did not 'fit'.

One of my friends who read The Lies of Locke Lamora and loved it mentioned to me the point of alchemy and how it is employed in the novel - and I find myself agreeing. That is, it seems a 'dialed-in' plot device. At points it was used to nice effect, such as the method of lighting the streets and buildings, and I enjoyed the 'genetics' part of it, where trees were given additional attributes thanks to alchemy. However, at other points, it seemed as though Lynch used it in a slightly deus ex machina fashion - such as during the calamity that Capa Raza tries to inflict on the nobility of Camorr.

The use of flashbacks in The Lies of Locke Lamora was inspired, and I found myself enjoying the exploits of the younger Locke far more than his older counterpart. I also loved the way that the flashbacks would lend weight to future events - a form of foreshadowing, if you will. It was a clever way of helping to build facts necessary into the plot, without using the tired exposition that Lynch sometimes fell back on. A couple of times I would say that the flashbacks were either unnecessary, or ill-placed - my example here would be where the background to the Bondsmages is introduced. We've already been advised that people *really* don't want to get on the bad side of Bondsmages through some clever dialogue - this section slowed down the overall read and added no depth to the novel.

In my opinion this is a fabulous novel, with some flaws. It isn't the instant classic some would have had me believe, but it is a cracking piece of storytelling and I envy those who are about to embark on it for the first time.

How Do You Deal With Criticism?

I am genuinely curious about this one, and would enjoy any comments that could be offered.

I posted a review of this book on Amazon, and today received the following response to it:

What a very poor review. More than OK not to like or rate a book but to so willfully misunderstand huge sections and use such misunderstanding as justification is indolent. So to be specific:

1. Memphis and York - it's an alternative reality - the Memphis the author is referring to may well be a reference to ancient Egypt; the familiar juxtaposed with the unfamiliar may just be an absurdist trick but the aim is to create recognition and confusion not to impose geographic reality. So reckon you did miss this one.

2. Screenplay - just wondering how you write a book without this lazy criticism being applied - and if the author does want a film deal then is this a crime. Is a screenplay any less worthy than a novel. Kind of needs to be judged on it's merits not it's purpose.

3. Women - the whole point of this passage is that it is grotesque - even in the semi-feudal society which the narrative takes place in this is not taken to be right - equally the question about tenderness is an obvious one and the book then goes on to describe dealing with bad tempered men - which is again a exaggeration to show how warped the entire situation is.

4. Smoking - another huge miss - there is a passage earlier on extolling the pleasures of smoking; by this characters brother. Like I said this is just lazy reviewing.

There are many things you could have criticised quite legitimately in this book; but the examples you chose are poor.

He's given reasons as to why he thinks my review is poor, which is appreciated, rather than just saying he hates it. I'm willing to accept my stance on the book in question is suspect because I disliked it a great deal. However, I am also of the belief that the points raised were factors that I found abhorrent, and that other people might read them entirely differently.

So, my question to reviewers (and, I guess, authors) is how do you respond to criticism? Do you shrug it off and just think that the person didn't understand what you were saying? Do you take it on board and think that they might have a point?

All opinions welcome!

Friday 20 August 2010

Series? Or Standalones?

Here is your Friday question! Which do you prefer to read - series or standalones?

I read both - and I enjoy both. But if pressed I'd have to say series. When you find a brilliant book and realise it is the first in a long series, it gives me a feeling of pleasure and anticipation. When you live with characters for a long time, their motivations and attitudes can be revealed as a slow burn rather than quick-sharp to suit the plot of a standalone book.

I am the same when it comes to films vs long-running TV series. I just like to immerse myself completely in a world and not have to come up for air for a while.

How about you? And which would you list as your favourite examples of both?

Tuesday 17 August 2010

The Electric Church by Jeff Somers

Avery Cates is a Gunner, a survivor living in Old New York. At age twenty seven he is one of the oldest living on the streets, hiding from the System Pigs and trying to make a living by killing people. This is a world where the System Security Force are all-powerful, and the fastest growing religion is that of the Electric Church. Cates has his suspicions that converts to the Church are forcibly recruited, and those who join become immortal cyborgs. Just when life for Cates seems to be taking a nose dive, he is offered a big job. The biggest. If he can survive through it, he'll be a rich man. But it's a big if...

I really enjoyed this first novel about Avery Cates by Jeff Somers - The Electric Church is a quick read, with a great page-turning quality. The Monks of the Electric Church are genuinely chilling, and the set pieces come thick and fast.

The strongest part of this novel is the characterisation. Avery Cates jumps from the page fully-fleshed - a clever young man who is jaded with life on the streets, a seen-it-all, done-even-more sort of guy. Someone whose bitterness with his lot in life is disguised by an extremely dry sense of humour. Cates is ably supported by a cast of secondary character that you genuinely come to care about.

Somers' prose is crisp and efficient, and the book fairly rattles along - but I did find the plot both slight and something I felt I'd seen before. The idea of someone pulling together a crack team to perform one last big job is extremely familiar, and there were few subplots to distract us from the resolution of this job. It made for a driving and very direct novel, but I liked Cates and the world he inhabited enough that I wanted to see more of it. The world itself (apart from The Electric Church itself and the Monks) was thinly-drawn in this first novel. I do think there is more to explore in future novels.

The Electric Church read like a cross between Richard Morgan and Ocean's Eleven - pared-down, noir and with a body count that defies belief. The humour is black and biting and the action is non-stop. A very worthy first novel in the Avery Cates series - I will be reading the rest.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Books I Adopted This Week

It is one of those weeks where I feel at my most grateful that publishers see fit to send through books. A few of those I received are novels I'd have been queuing up to buy with my own money and I can't quite believe my luck that I'm receiving them for review instead.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

According to mythology mankind used to live in The Tranquiline Halls. Heaven. But then the Voidbringers assaulted and captured heaven, casting out God and men. Men took root on Roshar, the world of storms. And the Voidbringers followed ...They came against man ten thousand times. To help them cope, the Almighty gave men powerful suits of armor and mystical weapons, known as Shardblades. Led by ten angelic Heralds and ten orders of knights known as Radiants, mankind finally won. Or so the legends say. Today, the only remnants of those supposed battles are the Shardblades, the possession of which makes a man nearly invincible on the battlefield. The entire world is at war with itself - and has been for centuries since the Radiants turned against mankind. Kings strive to win more Shardblades, each secretly wishing to be the one who will finally unite all of mankind under a single throne. On a world scoured down to the rock by terrifying hurricanes that blow through every few day a young spearman forced into the army of a Shardbearer, led to war against an enemy he doesn't understand and doesn't really want to fight. What happened deep in mankind's past? Why did the Radiants turn against mankind, and what happened to the magic they used to wield?

This is the big daddy of the books that came through this week - one of the most hotly-anticipated fantasy novels of the year; possibly a novel that kick-starts a new fantasy epic to take the place of The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. The buzz surrounding this book is just huge right now, and initial reviews are starting to flow in, most of which incredibly positive. I am beyond excited about this, and so eager to start it and be there right at the beginning.

Published by Tor in the US on 31st August and by Gollancz in the UK on 30th December.

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

Gavin Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world. He is high priest and emperor, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. But Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live: Five years to achieve five impossible goals. But when Guile discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he's willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart.

So, here we have another fantasy epic starting. Many people have had good things to see about Brent Weeks' previous trilogy, although it was one I haven't yet read, and so this first book in his new trilogy is generating real excitement as well. Have to say, it's a lovely chunky hard-back I've been sent, and I really want to give this one some love too!

Published by Orbit on 26th August 2010

Mini Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Becky Brandon (nee Bloomwood) thought motherhood would be a breeze and that having a daughter was a dream come true - a shopping friend for life! But it's trickier than she thought - two-year-old Minnie has a quite different approach to shopping. She can create havoc everywhere from Harrods to Harvey Nicks to her own christening. She hires taxis at random, her favourite word is 'Mine', and she's even started bidding for designer bags on ebay. On top of everything else, there's a big financial crisis. People are having to Cut Back - including all of Becky's personal shopping clients - and she and Luke are still living with Becky's Mum and Dad. To cheer everyone up, Becky decides to throw a surprise birthday party - on a budget - but then things become really complicated. Who will end up on the naughty step, who will get a gold star and will Becky's secret wishes come true?

And now for something completely different... *grin* The Becky Bloomwood novels are one of my very favourite ongoing chick lit series. I think that Kinsella does a wonderful job, with the quirky characters, humorous situations and the slightly cringe-making problems Becky always seems to get herself into. Becky is a wonderful heroine - someone you'd definitely want to go shopping with! I am planning to re-read the preceding novels before getting to this one, so that I can provide reviews of all - and really enjoy the experience of immersing myself in Becky's world.

Published by Transworld on 2nd September 2010.

I did receive a few more books this week, which I shall provide details of in the future, but this mighty triumvirate just had me so excited that the rest paled slightly in comparison (and so I think it would be best to tell you about the others when I can give them due attention!)

Was your mailbox as exciting as mine this week? Which new books did you adopt?

Monday 9 August 2010

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap is a novel looking at a cross section of Australian life by taking the viewpoints of eight characters, all whom were present at the BBQ where the eponymous slap took place. Hector is first up, a Greek bureaucrat, married to Indian Aisha but considering an affair; then Anouk, a hard Jewish writer who cannot see the problem with hitting a child - and, in general, has no understanding of, or liking for, children; Harry is next - Hector's hot-headed cousin who delivered the slap. Connie is a teenager who regularly looks after Hugo, the child who was slapped, and dreams of becoming a vet; Rosie is the mother of Hugo, pathologically attached to him and still breast feeding her child even though he is three years old; Manolis is the father of Hector, a doting grandfather and fiercely Greek. Finally we hear from Aisha herself, as she and Hector take a holiday where truths come out, and Richie, Connie's best friend, a young lad waiting to hear his exam results and struggling with the fact he is gay.

I struggled with this book. It is annoyingly readable, but has so many flaws that, despite a storming and compelling start, it really tails off towards the end of the novel and you find yourself wondering why you are still reading.

The premise is fantastic - taking a child being slapped as a starting point, and exploring how this affects friends and family is just brilliant. I heard about this book at a blogger event and was determined to seek it out and read it purely based on the premise. It must be such a great sell - in fact, I have mentioned it to other people and they have shown the same intrigue.

Tsiolkas does a brilliant job at showing us a cross section of Australian life, a seething mass of religions and cultures, sexualities and races. With this morass of humanity, conflict is inevitable and Tsiolkas handles the macro issues of life in Australia as well as the micro.

I also liked how Tsiolkas was able to explore perceptions of people through the slap - at first we think Harry possibly had a case for slapping a child who was both misbehaving and threatening his own child (as much as anyone has a case for slapping a child, anyway), but then we discover that Harry is a foul-tempered man who keeps a mistress and has hit his wife in the past. I enjoyed having my perceptions overthrown like this - a literal exploration of not judging someone by first impressions.

So that is the good... On to the bad...

I've mentioned my dislike of profanity in books before. I can handle it when it feels natural and when it serves the plot - here we had (excuse me) cocks and cunts on virtually every page. It was an endless stream of bad language - and mostly used in universally poor sex scenes. It got to the point where I was sickened by the profanity and the relentless, grotesque mentions of masturbation and rough sex.

In fact, this book hit a number of my literary black spots: women being mistreated in terms of hitting them and forcing them into sex; young girls feeling as though they have to have sex to make them women; adultery; flagrant and accepted use of hard drugs. This book was simply filled with horrible misogynist men and women with victim complexes.

The pacing of the novel was entirely off. The premise was to do with the slap and this drove the narrative admirably for the first two thirds. The resolution to this part of the tale came way too early, and left me wondering why I was still reading the novel as it petered off into a limp ending.

Also, for a literary novel, this felt very much like a trashy summer read. I could imagine seeing similar characters and events in a novel that is as far from Booker Prize winning as I can imagine!

Altogether, I hated this book. Yet I read it greedily and compulsively. Something must have driven me to keep turning these pages, and I guess it was Tsiolkas' writing. Ultimately I wanted to finish the novel - whether that was simply wanting to find out the result of the court case, or seeing whether Tsiolkas could descent into worse depths of depravity in his writing.

Man Booker thoughts: Please don't let this book win! It might have something to say on racism, homosexuality, the life of ordinary people, but it is wrapped up in a novel that is filled with one dimensional cliched characters. There must be better novels on the long list than this one...

Sunday 8 August 2010

Books I Adopted This Week

Wow, it was a serious haul this week (for which I am, as always, eternally grateful) - and this time round I received a true mix of genres. This pleases me, since it recognises that the recent direction of my blog is as I intended - that of celebrating all books, in all genres, with not a hint of bias towards or against any particular style.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to my new books - already well-loved, one and all!

Haywired by Alex Keller

Introducing Haywired, a steam punk fairytale. In the quiet village of Little Wainesford, Ludwig Von Guggenstein is about to have his unusual existence turned inside out. When he and his father are blamed for a fatal accident during the harvest, a monstrous family secret is revealed. Soon Ludwig will begin to uncover diabolical plans that span countries and generations while ghoulish machines hunt him down. He must fight for survival, in a world gone haywire.

I speak to Alex regularly on Twitter (he Tweets as @locksley_uk) and I have been hearing a little bit about his novel Haywired. I was thrilled when he asked me to be one of the reviewers for his steampunk fairytale - it is a wonderfully slight novel as well, which I am often gleeful about these days since it means I can fit a number of them in. I know Alex is waiting on tenterhooks to receive some feedback about this novel, so I intend to read it as soon as possible.

Published by Mogzilla on 1st September 2010

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

John Smith is not your average teenager. He regularly moves from small town to small town. He changes his name and identity. He does not put down roots. He cannot tell anyone who or what he really is. If he stops moving those who hunt him will find and kill him. But you can't run forever. So when he stops in Paradise, Ohio, John decides to try and settle down. To fit in. And for the first time he makes some real friends. People he cares about - and who care about him. Never in John's short life has there been space for friendship, or even love. But it's just a matter of time before John's secret is revealed. He was once one of nine. Three of them have been killed. John is Number Four. He knows that he is next...

Well, straight on the heels of the last big thing is the next big thing - they come around quickly these days, the literary big things! First up, hate the author name - I seem to recall hearing it is a nom de plume, and I really dislike it. Sure, it's probably going to be recognisable and all, but I think about having to ask for it at a bookstore! As to the story itself, well, it seems exciting and fun and I am keen to rattle through it.

Published by Penguin Books (Razorbill) on 26th August 2010.

Twenty-One Locks by Laura Barton

In a small North-Western town where it always rains, the factories have closed and everyone lives for beer, bare flesh and brawling on Saturday nights, Jeannie works in the perfume hall of Pemberton's department store. A little dowdy, a little dog-eared, she is not the most impressive of perfume girls, and largely passes her days counting down to her marriage to Jimmy, her teenage sweetheart, now a mechanic. The course of Jeannie's life has always seemed plotted out - she will remain in the town where she was raised, settle down, have children. But since Jimmy's proposal she has begun to question whether this is what she really wants. Her confusion is not aided by Daniel, a drifter she meets at the railway station. Well-read, comparatively well-travelled, and with a cultivated air of mystery, he suggests excitement, possibility, and a life beyond the town. As her wedding day nears she must decide whether to stay and get married, or take a chance on a man who may not be all he seems.

Here is the first of my more literary picks this week. I love the way the cover captures the essence of the story, a contemplative young girl making a decision that will chart the course of her life. I enjoy tales like this - thoughtful and quiet, rather than all guns blazing. I'm already intrigued to know what decision she will make.

Published by Quercus Books on 1st July 2010.

Heart of Tango by Elia Barcelo

Natalia is to be married to a German sailor much older than herself, but two days before the wedding she meets Diego, a mysterious young dancer, and they fall immediately in love. When he serenades her on the eve of the ceremony, Natalia's father unwittingly invites him to the festivities. There they dance a tango charged with passion, before Diego vanishes, knowing she is lost to him. Soon after the marriage Natalia father dies, and her husband is lost at sea, presumed dead. Penniless and alone, she endures a desperate existence until she becomes a dancer in a tango hall. Diego discovers her there and vows to bring her away from this existence, but their reunion has devastating consequences. Many years later, the spirit of the dance and the lovers' longing for each other draws together two strangers in a haunting meeting, a fusion of time and identities, despair and hope.

One of my "strenuous" hobbies (along with field hockey) is Ballroom and Latin American, so when I saw this ghostly love story concerning the romantic dance of Tango I was immediately intrigued. It looks bewitching and beguiling and I really want to read it!

Published by Maclehose Press on 29th July 2010.

Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

THE PAST. Caught behind the lines of Hitler's Final Solution, Saul Laski is one of the multitudes destined to die in the notorious Chelmno extermination camp. But he will soon fall into the clutches of an evil far older and greater than the Nazis themselves. THE PRESENT. A rare few individuals have the Ability - the psychic power to influence the minds of others. Each year they meet to discuss their ongoing campaign of debauchery and slaughter. But this year things are not going according to plan...The story that follows spans decades and continents and penetrates the darkest recesses of the 20th century, as one man seeks to justify his belief that a secret society of powerful beings is behind many of the world's most horrific catastrophes. As well as ranking among the greatest reinventions of the vampire legend, Carrion Comfort explores humanity's attraction to violence and what it means for our future. Revised and with a brand new introduction by the author for the 20th anniversary of its publication.

And from teeny tiny slight volumes to a massive tome of a novel. I haven't read any Simmons but I have heard that he tells a decent story. When I saw that this was a revised and updated edition of one of his classic novels, I thought it was a great time to try him. Also, I like the idea of trying this one alongside The Passage, since they both reinvent the vampire myth.

Published by Quercus Books on 1st July 2010.

The Vintage Caper by Peter Mayle

Hollywood lawyer Danny Roth is the proud - and sometimes boastful - owner of a fantastic collection of wines, the best vintages from the finest chateaux of Bordeaux. He invites a journalist to write a piece about his treasure trove of a cellar, which is soon followed by the deft execution of a world-class wine heist. Roth is devastated. Enter Sam Levitt, former corporate lawyer, wine connoisseur, and expert on cultivated crime. Called in by Roth's insurance company, now saddled with a multi-million-dollar claim, Sam investigates. His leads take him first to Bordeaux's magnificent vineyards and then to beautiful Provence. Along the way, bien sur, he's joined by elegant and erudite French colleague, Sophie. In their quest to discover the truth, Sam and Sophie must explore many a chateau and its contents, and sample numerous culinary delights offered by the bountiful French countryside.

Back to the nice slight novels *grin*. I love France. I love wine. I love humorous novels. Add those three together and I assume nothing can go wrong! I hope that is the case!

Published by Quercus Books on 27th May 2010.

Genesis by Bernard Beckett

The island Republic has emerged from a ruined world. Its citizens are safe but not free. Until a man named Adam Forde rescues a girl from the sea. Fourteen-year-old Anax thinks she knows her history. She'd better. She's sat facing three Examiners and her five-hour examination has just begun. The subject is close to her heart: Adam Forde, her long-dead hero. In a series of startling twists, Anax discovers new things about Adam and her people that question everything she holds sacred. But why is the Academy allowing her to open up the enigma at its heart? Bernard Beckett has written a strikingly original novel that weaves dazzling ideas into a truly moving story about a young girl on the brink of her future.

This was one of those surprises through the post - a book I've never heard of before, by an author I don't know. I like these surprises because they open me up to new experiences, but, on the other hand, the book is slightly less likely to be read because I know nothing about what to expect. Who else has read this book? Why do you think I would like it?

Published by Quercus Kids on 27th May 2010.

Strange Angels by Lili St. Crow

Dru Anderson: Night Hunter. Knife Wielder. Heart Breaker. Dru can sense evil, which helps when she and her Dad are tracking down ghosts, suckers, wulfen, and the occasional reanimated corpse. It's a dangerous life, but it's the only one she knows. Then Dru's dad turns up dead and she suddenly finds herself in the middle of a deadly game where every move she makes could be her last. Dru is more special than she realizes - and whatever killed her dad could be coming for her next. Can Dru stay alive long enough to fall for one - or both - of the guys hungry for her affections?

Haven't we been here before? Supernatural young woman, dangerous men trying to win her heart? I feel a little jaded with these concepts at the moment after reading a succession of poor novels (Infinity, By Midnight etc.) but I am willing to take another chance. This is an author with a string of successful adult novels to her name, which does bode well.

Published by Quercus Kids on 3rd September 2009.

Betrayals by Lili St. Crow

The second novel in the Strange Angels series picks up with Dru neatly tucked away in a Schola that's more like a prison than a secret training facility. Except for one tiny detail ...she's the only girl in the place and is totally surrounded by tons of cute boys. But a traitor in the Order wants Dru dead and she can't trust anyone except for Graves. Too bad he's being kept busy with a new crew of wulfen teens and doesn't have time for her. As she learns the truth about who she can and can't trust, Dru's only hope may be to save herself - although the one gift that makes her special is draining away, and she doesn't know how to get it back. Will Dru survive long enough to find out who is really after her? Or is she destined for the same fate as her murdered parents?

And here we have the second book in the series by Lili St. Crow - if I like the first, then I'm sure I'll be chomping at the bit to get going on the second! If I don't like the first - well, this one will be heading to the charity shop...

Published by Quercus Kids on 4th November 2009.

Zero History by William Gibson

Former rock singer Hollis Henry has lost a lot of money in the crash, which means she can't turn down the offer of a job from Hubertus Bigend, sinister Belgian proprietor of mysterious ad agency Blue Ant. Milgrim is working for Bigend too. Bigend admires the ex-addict's linguistic skills and street knowledge so much that he's even paid for his costly rehab. So together Hollis and Milgrim are at the front line of Bigend's attempts to get a slice of the military budget, and they gradually realize he has some very dangerous competitors. Which is not a great thought when you don't much trust your boss either. Gibson's new novel, set largely in London, spookily captures the paranoia and fear of our post-Crash times.

Intriguing premise - bang up to date, considering the situation in the world right now. A new Gibson novel is something to be celebrated, and I believe this to be no exception. If written to the same level as previous novels, this could be winning awards next year.

Published by Penguin Books on 2nd September 2010.

Hero of Rome by Douglas Jackson

The Roman grip on Britain is weakening. Emperor Nero has turned his face away from this far-flung outpost. The Druids are on the rise, spreading seeds of rebellion among the British tribes. Roman cruelty and exploitation has angered their British subjects. The warrior queen Boudicca will lead the tribes to war. Standing against the rising tide of Boudicca's rebellion is Roman Tribune, Gaius Valerius Verrens, Commander of the veteran legions at Colonia. Valerius leads the veterans in a last stand against the unstoppable horde of Boudicca's rebel army. Step by step, the bloodied survivors are forced back into the Temple of Claudius. It is here that Valerius wins lifelong fame and the accolade Hero of Rome.

Ooh, my other main literary love: I adore a good slice of historical fiction, and this looks to be ideal, dealing with the dying days of Roman rule in Britain. Simon Scarrow and Manda Scott have both written fabulous books that deal with a similar period in history and if Jackson does even half as good a job as them, this book will be excellent fun!

Published by Transworld on 8th July 2010.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is a stunning novel in the great tradition of American coming-of-age novels from "Catcher in the Rye" to "The Secret History". Lee Fiora is a shy fourteen-year-old when she leaves small-town Indiana for a scholarship at Ault, an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts. Her head is filled with images from the school brochure of handsome boys in sweaters leaning against old brick buildings, girls running with lacrosse sticks across pristine athletics fields, everyone singing hymns in chapel. But as she soon learns, Ault is a minefield of unstated rules and incomprehensible social rituals, and Lee must work hard to find - and maintain - her place in the pecking order.

Doesn't this sound amazing? I have seen some excellent reviews of this on blogs I frequent, and couldn't help but ask for a copy. I need to read this soon. Really soon. I want it to be my next book!

So... Books I Adopted This Week was a little more eclectic than usual - what are your thoughts on this? Do you come here just for one specific genre and begrudge the time I spend reading other sorts of books? Or does my wide taste just increase your own wishlist?

Happy reading! x

Friday 6 August 2010

Blog Hop '10! Make New Blog Friends!

I saw an invitation to Blog Hop '10 on My Friend Amy's blog and I thought it looked liked great fun. I've participated now and then in the Friday blog hop and this is just a bigger version.

I'm always on the look out for new blogs to add to my Google Reader - I might not comment on everything I read, but I do read every post on the blogs that hit my feed!

But this big Blog Hop '10 is a chance for me to get out of the shadows and start commenting on all those blogs of interest.

Floor to Ceiling Books is a blog that celebrates all things book! I love reading in all genres, and try to get reviews up as regularly as possible. When I am not reviewing, I am pondering bookish issues or writing articles on matters such as formidable female protagonists.

I love receiving comments to my blog (which makes me ashamed that I don't reciprocate quite as much as I should! Time to change that habit!) and I love meeting new people in this ultra-friendly community of ours.

I really hope all those who pop by see something they like - and maybe you can stick around a while :-)

Happy Blog Hopping everyone!

Thursday 5 August 2010

Formidable Female Protagonists #2 - Alanna the Lioness

Here is the second in my series of Formidable Female Protagonists in fantasy fiction, and is as a result of a suggestion by Simcha after I tackled Polgara the Sorceress in my first feature. I am going to talk about Alanna the Lioness.

Alanna first featured in a quartet of books by Tamora Pierce called The Song of the Lioness, detailing how Alanna disguised herself as a boy called Alan in order to become a knight (at a time when girls were not allowed to become knights). She is a secondary character in the second Tortall quartet The Immortals; she supports new lady Knight Keladry in the Protector of the Small quartet; and finally pops up in the Trickster duology about her daughter Aly.

Here is the list of books in full:

The Song of the Lioness

1. Alanna: The First Adventure
2. In the Hand of the Goddess
3. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
4. Lioness Rampant

The Immortals

1. Wild Magic
2. Wolf-Speaker
3. Emperor Mage
4. The Realms of the Gods

Protector of the Small

1. First Test
2. Page
3. Squire
4. Lady Knight


1. Trickster's Choice
2. Trickster's Queen

Tamora Pierce is known for writing strong, capable heroines - girls who stand up for themselves and don't need (often don't want!) men. They represent excellent role models for young girls - and Alanna the Lioness is no exception, for the following reasons:

1. Alanna doesn't tattle tales

This might seem an odd reason for thinking her formidable, but I include it because in the first tale about Alanna, when she is trying to pass as a lad, she is bullied for a long period. She refuses to tattle tales on the bully, even though it is widely known that the bullying is occurring. She refuses to let anyone else fight her own battles. Instead, she trains and trains and eventually takes on the bully and defeats him, showing her strength and independence.

I wouldn't advocate staying silent if you are being bullied - it is always better to let others know about it, and solve the issue with help - but, in this case, it really showcases Alanna's strong, tenacious character.

"I fell down, you Grace," she said, her face straight.
"Mithros, boy- can't you think of a better excuse?"
She scuffed a foot. "This one works so well, sir. It- it has tradition behind it."
Alanna was opening the door when he added, "I wish you would thrash him. He deserves it."
She looked back at him. "I will one day, sir. I'm getting tired of falling down."

2. Alanna has an amusing turn of phrase

She is sarcastic, biting, compassionate - but, however she is talking, Alanna has enormous spirit and sass.

Myles: “You didn't kill him. He would have killed you, but you didn't kill him.”
Alanna: “So? He was stupid. If I killed everyone who was stupid I wouldn't have time to sleep.”

3. Alanna is proud

Alanna is extremely proud, sometimes to the point of being too proud. She hates showing weakness, and finds it hard to let anyone become truly intimate with her. She always works to the very best of her abilities and is constantly striving to achieve more. She is proud of her achievements and tries not to show a soft, girly side.

Alanna: "You must think I'm an awful sissy."
Jon: I threw up after my first skirmish."
Alanna: "You never."
Jon: "I did. And I didn't have anyone to hold my head for me. Don't tell the men, will you?"
Alanna: "I won't tell if you won't."
Jon: "Done. It wouldn't do for them to think we're sissies, would it?"

4. Alanna is compassionate and loyal to her friends

When this lady makes friends, she will defend them to the death. She is compassionate towards them and shows real fear when they are in trouble or danger. Alanna is definitely one you'd want on your team!

Alanna: "Don't die on me. It's only a little shoulder wound. Goddess, George- don't die on me."
George: "I didn't know you cared. And why insult me? I won't die for a wee nick like this; I've had worse in my day."
Alanna: "Of course I care, you unprincipled pickpocket! Of course I care."

5. Alanna is ahead of her time

In a time when maidens were pampered and treated like ladies, Alanna is determined to achieve equal opportunities. When she comes out as a woman who has managed to survive knighthood training, it is realised that women can be the equal of men. After her campaigning, the chance to become a knight is opened to anyone who wishes to try for it - leading to Lady Keladry taking her own opportunity.

Ali Mukhtab:
"You frighten them. You are too new; you are too different. Will they have to behave differently, now that you are of the tribe? Better that you die and become a legend. Legends force no one to change."

If you haven't already picked up a Tamora Pierce book, I would urge you to do so. They are filled with humour and excitement, dealing with real life issues such as love, contraception, bullying, and setting out to achieve your dreams. Alanna is a vibrant and lovable character - stubborn, funny and courageous. I first read these books as a teenager and loved them, but I still find much to enjoy even now that I am in my thirties.

Alanna is most definitely a Formidable Female Protagonist!

(That beautiful artwork at the top was found at and is under the copyright of Bunni of Fu)

Wednesday 4 August 2010

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song chronicles, from a first person perspective, the life of July, a female slave born and brought up on the plantation Amity. She speaks about her life at the behest of her son, starting with the rape of her mother by a cruel overseer, through her time as a house maid for a white lady called Caroline Mortimer, the two children she bears, and touches on the dying days of slavery, including the Baptist Wars.

The book is written with simplicity and grace, using the Caribbean patois to great effect. July's voice is warm and cheeky, insisting that she will tell her story without "...words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mile..." The words bounce from the page, idiosyncratic and humorous: 'fatty batty', 'bug-a-bug', 'licky-licky'.

With the prose reading so smoothly, it is easy to disregard this novel as being merely light and readable. It deals, rather, with the true realities of slavery and plantation life: the gulf between the house slaves and those who worked the fields; the hateful mistreatment and casual cruelty by the white people of those who slaved for them; and, indeed, the undercurrents of tension between the blacks regarding the colour of their skin: "Only with a white man, can there be guarantee that the colour of your pickney will be raised. For a mulatto who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroon; the the quadroon that enjoys white relations will give to this world a mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino; and the mustiphino... oh, the mustiphino's child with a white man for a papa, will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they at last stride within this world as a cherished white person."

Despite the weighty subject matter, Levy manages to avoid it becoming a depressing read. In fact, we delight in the japes played by the slaves on their white owners, such as when they switch the good table linen for soiled bedsheets during an important Christmas meal. However, there are a couple of occasions when the sheer horrors of the slaves' lives is brought home to us, such as here when Kitty carries dung in a container upon her head: "...the solid odour did choke her at the throat, after mighty coughing and a few strong inhalations, all the air about Kitty, be it sweet or bitter, came to smell like shit, so the offence was lost. But for her tongue there was no such accommodation. When, unwittingly, a piece would fall into her open mouth... it would burn so fierce upon her tongue that she feared a hole was being bored right through it."

The white people in this tale are, universally, to be derided or hated or pitied - none of them emerge well, but all are three dimensional with realistic motives ascribed to them, such as Robert Goodwin who seeks to do well by the blacks he owns right up until the point where they refuse to work for him.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Long Song - in fact, my only complaint was minor and thus: the story was written from first person perspective which meant that a) sometimes July wouldn't have known things that she was presented as knowing e.g. how her mistress feels when smelling the bodies of her slaves and b) we missed hearing an awful lot of external events, since July herself did not see them or know of them.

Other than this, The Long Song was a fine book - telling an authentic tale about a very shameful point in British history. It represents a feat in research and imagination, combining to present a novel that, though slight, presents an honest account of what it must have been to live as a slave in the 1800s. I found it entertaining, funny and horrific by turns and the story of July will stay with me for a while.

Man Booker Prize thoughts: I feel like a fraud talking about this novel's chances at the Booker Prize. I genuinely don't think I've read any of the previous winners, unless by accident and all unaware! This being the first novel of the long list I've read, as well, doesn't make it any easier setting out my thoughts. All I can say about its chances is that I think it effectively combines literary skill with a damn good story, that also conveys a weighty message. If this is what the Booker judges are looking for, then I can see The Long Song making it to the short list.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard

Johannes Cabal the Detective is the second book about the eponymous necromancer. I read the first book, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, at the beginning of this year, and was enormously enamoured with the bitingly sarcastic gentleman in question. In fact, it has remained my number one read of 2010 despite fierce competition from other titles, and so I was almost nervous about picking up this second novel about Johannes Cabal in case it did not live up to the first.

I am pleased to report that Johannes Cabal the Detective is just as darkly funny, original and snarky as the first novel in the series. In this book Cabal begins the tale in a prison, following the aborted theft of a rather nasty little book. Through foul means and not a little luck, he finds himself aboard an airship — the Princess Hortense — as she flies her maiden voyage between Mirkarvia and Katamenia. As is usual with Cabal, what should have been a peaceful flight turns into a murder mystery, and he is caught in the middle of it, trying to piece together all the clues to discover whodunit. Accompanied by Leonie Barrow (a character from the first novel), Cabal is caught in a race against time. If he doesn’t discover the culprit, then he might very well become the next victim.

By far the strongest element of the novel is Johannes Cabal himself — a complicated, scientifically-minded, dark-hearted man. I equate him somewhat to Basil Fawlty from the Fawlty Towers series (those of you who don’t know of this, pick up the TV series on DVD and delight in the bizarre English humour of it all) — Basil is enormously dislikable, bitingly sarcastic and always doing something that will benefit himself; and yet you find yourself sympathising with him when his schemes go awry and generally cheering him on. Exactly the same could be said about Johannes Cabal. His dialogue carries the story along, and his various encounters with the other members of the crew are hilarious and uncomfortable by turn. Without Cabal this book would be merely an amusing mystery novel; with him included, it is elevated to a comedic fantasy classic.

Because of the nature of the novel — a murder mystery — we encounter a number of other secondary characters who do remain fairly two-dimensional. Howard does attempt to lift them above being merely props to the plot, but all bar Leonie Barrow (who sparkles thanks to her common sense and an ability to make Cabal feel uncomfortable) feel rather hollow.

I mentioned the noir humour of the novel — as well as the main bulk of the story, we are handed other gems, such as diagrams of the airships and entomoptors complete with excitable comments (as though from the pages of a boy’s magazine) and exam questions such as the following:

If the above extract of rather absurd humour appeals to you, then you will delight in the continual flashes of comedy that anchor this novel.

My slight complaint from the first novel in the series was that the world-building was slim to non-existent. This is addressed admirably in Johannes Cabal the Detective. We are introduced to the states of Mirkarvia and Senza, and a petty political back story is laid out for us. I do wonder how these states connect to the location we encountered in Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, however! Jonathan L. Howard does succeed in developing a strong steampunk feel to the series, which builds on the presence of the carnival locomotive from the first novel.

Happily, this novel is relatively standalone. Enough details are passed out about the first novel to give the reader a good indication of events that occurred, and it is not necessary to have read that book to read Johannes Cabal the Detective.

Howard is quietly going about the business of presenting a character who feels iconic right from the very first moment he steps onto the page. Johannes Cabal the Detective is a triumph of dark murder mystery combined with steampunk flair. Add more than a dash of laugh-out-loud funny moments and you have a novel that builds on the success of the first. I was kept awake long into the night feverishly turning the pages of this book, and would recommend it highly.
"Read the following brief description of the Second Gallician Conflict, its results and ramifications, and then answer the questions that follow it.

(A) In what year did Mirkarvia invade Senza?
(B) i) With hindsight, what was Dulcis III’s most serious error?
ii) And without hindsight?
(C) Discuss any two of the following statements:
i) Mirkarvia behaved like a right bunch of bastards.
ii) Polorus behaved like a right bunch of bastards.
iii) All countries behave like a right bunch of bastards.
(D) Write a political treatise — not to exceed 250,000 words or 500 sides, whichever is less — detailing your solution to stabilising relations in the region, military force above brigade level is not permitted, nor is divine intervention.”