Wednesday 31 August 2011

Waterstones Ends the 3 For 2 promotion

After more than a decade, Waterstones is bringing an end to its famous 3 for 2 promotion.

Apparently the new managing director James Daunt believes that a 3 for 2 promotion goes against the grain of what bookselling is all about, and that price should never be the dominating factor.

I have mixed emotions about the end to this promotion. On the one hand, it means I'm less likely to pick up random authors. I'm less likely to buy the whole of the Booker/Orange Prize shortlist. I'm less likely to buy a whole bundle of books at once.

On the other hand, I won't be stuck with all those 'No 3' books that you spent almost an hour trying to find in the store, and didn't *really* want but felt like you should get your money's worth. I might see more parity in the publishers that are able to sell books and less of a focus on those who can afford the 3 for 2 table displays.

I will be interested in seeing what new pricing structures/promotional displays will be pursued by Waterstones in the future. I would love to see an end to the £7.99 or £8.99 pricing on novels. I'm not a stupid consumer. I'm not fooled by the 99p into thinking I'm paying less than £8 or £9! Just put a nice round number on the pricing. I would be interested to see novels selling for £5 - I would feel like that was a relatively disposable amount and might take a chance on new authors at that pricing level.

I would really like to see themed promotions all around the stores - such as the display that Den Patrick is doing in Blackwells in London. I think that one type of promotion that Waterstones should push forward is the 'If you like X author, then you'll like Y..." For me, this fits into the new ethos that is being highlighted by James Daunt. It allows new authors to be spotlighted, it allows Waterstones employees to demonstrate knowledge and champion books that they have enjoyed. And it means that people buying books can be guided towards novels that they might enjoy, rather than running the gauntlet of the 3 for 2's and hoping for the best!

What are your thoughts on the end of this promotion? Positive or negative? Were there any authors you discovered thanks to the 3 for 2 promotion?

August Retrospective

A Look Back on August

I'm managed a fair amount of reading in August - mostly thanks to the horribly changeable weather that has kept me in the house the majority of the time. Where has our summer gone this year? Thankfully I have a two week holiday coming soon in Florida, and I cannot wait to feel that sun and heat... I have been trying hard to schedule blog posts for my two week absence, so that there is *plenty* to entertain you, and I have some fantastic articles and reviews lined up. This month I also managed to complete my Angry Robot reading, which has been a long process - started way back in March. I was so pleased to see some very good quality manuscripts submitted and here's hoping they get taken on by Angry Robot. In terms of other stuff - I now have a date for my dance exam. This will take place on Sunday 6th November, and I am both excited and nervous. Lots of practice between now and then. Plus the new football season has started and I was absolutely astonished to watch Manchester United crush Arsenal by 8 goals to 2. Amazing times...


I have not only replicated the mammoth reading effort of July - I have surpassed it! Fifteen books completed! Of course, some of them were only little books but every book counts, right?

Here's the list:

58) A Game of Thrones by G R R Martin
59) Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones
60) Far From Home by Na'ima B Robert
61) Queen of Sorcery by David Eddings
62) Sea Witch by Helen Hollick (self-published)
63) Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
64) The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell
65) Numbers by Rachel Ward
66) Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce
67) What the Nanny Saw by Fiona Neill
68) There is no Dog by Meg Rosoff
69) Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
70) The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
71) Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
72) Bricks by Leon Jenner

- It's been mostly about the women this month! 10 books read by women and 5 by men.
- So...4 YA novels, 2 novels for the kids, 3 fantasy, 1 chick lit, 1 family saga style, 1 historical fantasy, 1 urban fantasy, and 2 that are generally unclassifiable...Another nicely mixed-up month!
- 6 were books from my own shelves and 9 were review copies.

Best Book of August

This one features as my best book because of nostalgia, because it still stands up to reading and because it's a very good coming of age children's book:

Pages Covered

And as well as being up on books read, I'm up on number of pages read this month as well! 5,993 this month compared with 5,516 last month. My ongoing total for the year is 33,078 :-). Longest book this month was A Game of Thrones (yes, epic fantasy is loooong), while the shortest was Earwig and the Witch (short but very sweet!)

Places Visited

From the Australian outback to Zimbabwe, from Chicago to Dublin - I have flitted around the world. But I have also gone to the Seven Kingdoms, Arendia and Tortall. I think of them all I would like most to spend time in Tortall. I mean, lady knights, mythical creatures and people I would love to be friends with - just so glorious...

Plans for September

I have 60-odd emails in my inbox that currently relate to reviews that I owe. That needs reducing bigtime, so I shall be trying to use September to get these down. Having said that, my reading depends so much on mood that I might start resenting these books for being novels I *have* to tackle. We'll see how I go. Oh, and have I mentioned my holiday? *grins*

Over to You

How did your August go? What did you read? What did you get up to? Spill!

Sunday 28 August 2011

Bricks by Leon Jenner

This is the story of a bricklayer, a practitioner of the red art of masonry, a member of an ancient line of apprentices who work with their hands to form monuments to humanity from the elements of nature.

But this is no ordinary bricklayer, and neither is his skill in the shaping and moulding of stone. This bricklayer's proficiency and dexterity in his craft was forged by his past life as a Druid priest.

Like the bricklayer in our time, the ancient Druid was also a builder of worlds. However, his building blocks were much bigger, he is a higher being who can travel through worlds and time. As our bricklayer regresses to his life as a Druid he remembers his part in thwarting the invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar and the lasting effect this chain of events had on the history of Western civilization.

I need to talk about the main positive of Bricks by Leon Jenner. It is presented beautifully. It is a lush hardback, with lovely black and white illustrations within. The paper is thick and feels delicious to turn the pages.

It is just such a shame that the interior words cannot match up to the exterior. In all honesty, I found the prose to be dry and with little flow or passion. At times it was overly pretentious - showcasing what seemed to be 101 philosophy with little relation to the overall story.

And the poetry! In a very slim novel, some of the poetry stretched to four pages worth of text, which is hard to take in what is supposed to be a story - particularly when said poetry isn't of a great quality.

I found myself both bored and confused by the plot, which is not a good mix. I struggled to the end, to be sure that there was nothing that I was missing, but I can say that this was wasted effort.

Dull, dull, dull - and definitely not worth the rather hefty price tag for the hardback.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Before the thorns taught me their sharp lessons and bled weakness from me I had but one brother, and I loved him well. But those days are gone. Now I have many brothers, quick with knife and sword. We ride this broken empire and loot its corpse. They say these are violent times, the end of days when the dead roam and monsters haunt the night. All that's true enough, but there's something worse out there in the dark. Much worse.

There has been much made of the fact that Prince of Thorns features a rapist as the main character, that it is far too dark and bloodthirsty, that it bears great similarity to Joe Abercrombie, that it objectifies women. I would dispute every one of these points. Every single one.

Prince of Thorns features a young boy as the protagonist, someone who offers his band of brothers "a different sort of treasure" to keep them sweet, someone who has raped women but only ever off screen. I've seen far, far worse occurrences of rape in novels - for heavens' sake, Steven Erikson has women raping the bodies of dead soldiers in Memories of Ice. Yes, there is rape - but nothing worse than presented in historical novels that I have read. When you have a marauding band of criminals, there will be raping and pillaging.

It is a dark and bloodthirsty novel, I would agree - but, once again, nothing that hasn't been done far worse before. It is grim at times for sure. However, I would argue that grimy fantasy is still flavour of the month, so Prince of Thorns should prove popular on this point.

Prince of Thorns bears very little similarity to Joe Abercrombie and absolutely none to George R R Martin - I'm surprised it was marketed in the slipstream of A Dance With Dragons. For me, Prince of Thorns shares more with Wolfsangel by M D Lachlan. It is basically the novel that Paul Hoffman of "The Left Hand of God" fame wishes that he had written. There are dreamlike sequences of necromancers (rather than witches, as with Wolfsangel), and there is a relativity with our world (as with The Left Hand of God).

And the woman thing. There ARE female characters in this novel. And they act independently of men. Men do not drive their story. In this respect, it was perfectly satisfactory. You cannot write a novel about a marauding band of brothers and try to include strong women who are the equal of the men; it doesn't fit the tone or the passage of the novel. I can't actually see why people have complained about this fact.

Now that I have refuted these claims, what did I think of the book? Prince of Thorns is readable, but, at the moment, not much more. I would be interested to read a sequel to see whether my personal issue can be addressed.

This issue is that I felt as though I was reading the outline of a novel. There were events in Prince of Thorns, but they felt slight and as though there should have been more involved. I was left dissatisfied by my reading experience because I felt as though Lawrence was fully capable of producing better, but hadn't fleshed out Prince of Thorns enough to achieve this.

With regards to the post-apocalyptic world - well, yay for not being yet another faux Medieval world. But DO MORE WITH IT! The world surrounding Jorg could have been interesting and unique. It could have been like nothing in any other fantasy world so far created. Instead, it felt stale and very, very underdeveloped.

Like I say, Prince of Thorns was readable. I liked certain characters very much, I enjoyed the structure and I would want to see more from Lawrence - but I do want to see a significant improvement on Prince of Thorns. A very tentative yes from me.

Friday 26 August 2011

An A-Z of Urban Fantasy (N-Z!)

Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

The term 'urban fantasy' was somewhat stolen by the 'paranormal romance' subset of fantasy/horror - what used to be merely fantasy tales set in cities, such as Charles de Lint's marvellous Newford sequence, now became fantasy about kick ass heroines in leather with guns hunting vampires.

Whichever way you look at it, urban fantasy encompasses some of the finest novels committed to paper. Here is a handy guide taking you from A-Z.

This is the second part of my A-Z article - the first can be found HERE.

N - Neverwhere

My very favourite Neil Gaiman book, Neverwhere is very definitely an example of urban fantasy in the Charles de Lint mould - fantasy where the city takes on a true character. Check out the blurb:

Under the streets of London there's a world most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, and pale girls in black velvet. Richard Mayhew is a young businessman who is about to find out more than he bargained for about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his safe and predictable life and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and yet utterly bizarre. There's a girl named Door, an Angel called Islington, an Earl who holds Court on the carriage of a Tube train, a Beast in a labyrinth, and dangers and delights beyond imagining ... And Richard, who only wants to go home, is to find a strange destiny waiting for him below the streets of his native city.

The book actually came about as a result of the 1996 TV series that Neil Gaiman devised with Lenny Henry.

Neverwhere was first broadcast on BBC Two from September 12, 1996. There are six half-hour episodes:

Earl's Court to Islington
Down Street
As Above, So Below

O - Otherworld

When I talk about Otherworld, I could be referencing the various myths and legends across the world that encompass a world that is "other" - supernatural and strange. What I am actually talking about is the Women of the Otherworld series created by Kelley Armstrong, an absolute staple of the urban fantasy ouvre.

Kelley has so far written twelve novels, with various other short story collections and graphic novels. These novels stand out because Kelley has utilised various different character perspectives for each book, rather than sticking with the same characters.

P - Paranormal

The element that really defines urban fantasy as it is right now is the paranormal - the werewolves, the vampires, the witches, the magic, the demons, the fae... Paranormal romance is a term intertwined with urban fantasy, usually emphasising the relationship between the main characters more than the latter will.

Q - Quinn

Q is a really hard letter! I would welcome your suggestions, but I decided to go with Quinn - and then talk more about Sookie Stackhouse than Quinn (in a big ole cheat of a letter!) Quinn appears later on in the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris and gives me a handy excuse to showcase one of the very popular urban fantasy series. This series has received a spike in sales recently thanks to the success of the TV series True Blood, based on the Sookie novels.

They are quirky and generally light-hearted, and include some great male characters - including the aforementioned Quinn (although Eric is my favourite!)

R - Rivers of London

Ben Aaronovitch exploded onto the urban fantasy scene earlier this year with 'Rivers of London', described by some as Harry Potter meets Neverwhere (and released as Midnight Riot in the States). It garnered many favourable reviews, including mine, and has so far spawned an additional two novels in the series - Moon Over Soho and the forthcoming Whispers Under Ground.

S - Sex

Bit raunchy, this one, but you can't discuss urban fantasy these days without talking about the sex. Authors like Laurell K Hamilton, Kelley Armstrong, Charlaine Harris etc all include strong sex scenes in their novels. Of them all, Laurell K has gone down the strangest route, with strong S&M themes, furries, snuff and rain making all now crowding the pages of her novels.

Personally I like a good sex scene, but sometimes it goes a little far in urban fantasy!

And, no, you're not getting any images for this entry!

T - Tattoos

Writinghood came up with a list of urban fantasy cliches, and front and centre was the issue with tattoos:

And while we’re talking about the cover model, what is up with the idea that the woman must always be wearing the same type of clothing (belly-baring or bra-as-shirt and low-rise jeans) and always be covered in tattoos? If we have read more than one urban fantasy series, we get that she’s supposed to be tough. Not to mention, if these tattoos have no significance to the novel ( such as, they don’t serve as a connection to the supernatural, or they aren’t a mark or calling card), they really aren’t necessary.

Read more:

Luckily, we are now getting some urban fantasy novels where the tattoos provide a crucial part of the plot, key amongst them the Hunter's Kiss trilogy by Marjorie M Liu:

In addition to this, some of our heroines from urban fantasy are taking back tattoos from the mainstream - making it as ballsy and original a habit as it used to be, such as Stacia Kane's heroine Chess:

I also want to give a shout out to Blood Rights, coming soon from Orbit, where the main character bears the marks on her body of a comarré - a race of humans bred to feed vampire nobility.

U - Urban Settings

Yep, we've already mentioned London. Here are some other awesome urban settings, from the imaginary to the very real.

Stacia Kane - The Downside, part of Triumph City (fictional, but based on an American City)
Kelley Armstrong - Toronto (real!)
Laurell K Hamilton - St Louis (real!)
Jim Butcher - Chicago (real!)
Tanya Huff Blood series - Toronto (popular place)
Kim Harrison - Cincinnati

Pretty much every major urban fantasy series will have a very strong sense of place, and describe the city in depth, which adds to the feel of the novels.

V - Vampires

From the feral and mindless, to the sleek and courtly, vampires have found their way into urban fantasy by the bucketload. One of my favourite characters is Jean-Claude (although he has become toothless in recent novels compared to his restrained hunger from the early Anita Blake novels).

I like vampires still, but I have found they've become ubiquitous to urban fantasy novels. The list of those who still include them would run to many, and it can get a little dull which, I suspect, is why there has been a move away from vampires to tackle other supernatural beings.

Vampires have been around since the writing of Dracula and even prior to that, and I don't see them going away entirely any time soon!

W - Werewolves

From one creature to another. We've seen a rise in popularity of werewolves as well, in recent times, and it is odd how many times how heroine has to pick between a werewolf and a vampire in a love triangle! Probably because of how very different their natures are...

Here is a selection of the novels available featuring werewolves:

- Wolf Moon by Charles de Lint
- Blood Trail by Tanya Huff (second in the Blood series)
- The Anita Blake series (from the second novel onwards)
- Fool Moon by Jim Butcher (second in the Dresden files)
- Bitten by Kelley Armstrong (first in the Women of the Otherworld series)
- Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn
- Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
- Club Dead by Charlaine Harris
- The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer
- Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar

X - X-Files

Alright, so X is hard as well - and this only loosely fits under urban fantasy. But there were a number of X-Files episodes that dealt with urban fantasy i.e. folklore and fairytales that occurred in cities. I would include the character of Tooms under this definition (still one of the ONLY things to freak me out and give me nightmares!)

For me, the X Files helped to establish the idea of supernatural and investigative work going hand in hand.

Y - YA Urban Fantasy

For me, since Twilight (yes, it can be argued this is paranormal romance rather than urban fantasy, as one of the commentators to the previous A-Z post pointed out, but I class them rather under the same banner since they're so hard to segregate), there has been an explosion of novels that could be deemed YA Urban Fantasy.

I'm talking about series like the House of Night, like Blue Bloods, like Vampire Academy. They take urban fantasy back a stage, so that there is much less sex and more wondering about whether a boy likes you (and, of course, whether he is a vampire!)

This books can be identified in book stores by the black covers, the beautiful cover models in flowing dresses, the dark fantasy aspect of them. Some bookstores now have separate sections altogether for this explosion of category.

Z - Zombies

Again, this is a tenuous link at best, thanks to the difficulty of the letter. If anyone with good knowledge of urban fantasy would like to pitch in and suggest something else, then please do!

For this, I would say that the Anita Blake novels do feature zombies on occasion, and novels like I Am Legend take place in a city, so technically urban fantasy... Yep, I'm scraping the barrel!

So, there you have it! My A-Z of Urban Fantasy! Please do chip in with your own suggestions, and don't forget to check out the rest of my A-Z series!

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Cool Cakes for the Geek in your Life

In honour of the Great British Bake Off - which I adore - I have decided to trawl the Intarwebs for the very best in cake art that speaks to the geek in me. Check it!

1. Millenium Falcon

2. Steampunk

3. Dungeons and Dragons

4. Retro Game Cupcakes

5. Nightmare Before Christmas

6. Dragon

7. Discworld

8. Books!

9. Fairy Carousel

10. Release the KRAKEN!

Aren't they awesome? Which is your favourite?

An A-Z of Urban Fantasy (A-M!)

A - Z of Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

The term 'urban fantasy' was somewhat stolen by the 'paranormal romance' subset of fantasy/horror - what used to be merely fantasy tales set in cities, such as Charles de Lint's marvellous Newford sequence, now became fantasy about kick ass heroines in leather with guns hunting vampires.

Whichever way you look at it, urban fantasy encompasses some of the finest novels committed to paper. Here is a handy guide taking you from A-Z.

The first part of this A-Z article will take you from A to M - second part coming soon!

A - Anita Blake

It would be impossible to write an A-Z of urban fantasy without mentioning Anita Blake. This is the central character featured in Laurell K Hamilton's long-running series, starting with Guilty Pleasures and heading through 20 novels to reach the latest Hit List.

Anita Blake is an animator, a vampire hunter and sometime girlfriend of a werewolf. In later novels she becomes infected by the ardeur, which creates a need for her to have sex with many different partners, and, at this point, many fans deserted the series. However, there is no gainsaying the influence that Anita Blake had on a genre that now features a glut of heroines in her mould. She was one of the first, and deserves to be read for that alone.

B - Bas-Lag Cycle

This is a series of novels by China Miéville - in chronological order:

- Perdido Street Station
- The Scar
- Iron Council

In the Bas-Lag Cycle, there is a fine example of urban fantasy, since the city of New Crobuzon plays a prominent part in all three novels. China Miéville has often spoke of the importance of cities in his work. About New Crobuzon he says:

I still find myself riffing off books from my past constantly, sometimes without remembering what I’m basing my writing on. New Crobuzon is highly influenced by Brian Aldiss's The Malacia Tapestry [1976] and Tim Powers's Anubis Gates [1983], but they’d permeated me so deeply I was initially less conscious of them than of other influences.

Urban fantasy is also described as fantasy involving the environs of a city - where the city almost takes on a character of its own. New Crobuzon definitely fits this mould.

C - Charles de Lint

There is not a chance of writing an A-Z of urban fantasy and excluding Charles de Lint. He is the grand-daddy of urban fantasy. In a writing career spanning almost 30 years, Charles de Lint has produced over 60 works of fiction, being nominated several times for awards.

He is a master storyteller, with rich prose and vivid imagination. Several of his novels feature the mythical North American city of Newford, with recurring characters stepping in and out of the tale. His influence on modern day urban fantasy cannot be denied - felt in such diverse authors as Neil Gaiman and Kate Griffin.

The Newford series can be dipped in and out of with ease, and one of the best starting points is with 'Memory and Dream':

Isabelle Copley's visionary art frees ancient spirits. As the young student of the cruel, brilliant artist Vincent Rushkin, she discovered she could paint images so vividly real they brought her wildest fantasies to life. But when the forces she unleashed brought tragedy to those she loved, she turned her back on her talent -- and on her dreams.

Now, twenty years later, Isabelle must come to terms with the shattering memories she has long denied, and unlock the slumbering power of her brush. And, in a dark reckoning with her old master, she must find the courage to live out her dreams and bring the magic back to life.

D - Dresden Files

One of the beloved long-running series set in an urban fantasy setting, the Dresden files tell the tale of Harry Dresden. In a first person narrative, Jim Butcher recounts Harry's investigations into supernatural disturbances in modern-day Chicago, in a lively mix of magic and noir detective novels.

Jim Butcher is up to the 13th novel published. According to Wikipedia (so this may or may not be accurate), Butcher is currently planning for approximately twenty books in the "case files" of the series, to be capped by a further "big apocalyptic trilogy".

My review of Storm Front, the first novel in the series, can be found HERE.

E - Edward

When I say Edward, I talk about Edward Cullen, and the reason he finds his way onto this list is more to do with sexy male protagonists. For Edward you could substitute Jean-Claude from the Anita Blake series. Or Ren, from Nightshade by Andrea Cremer. Or Trent from the Hollows series. Or Terrible, from the series by Stacia Kane. There are many, many examples of heroines swooning over guys in urban fantasy - from the good guys, who show heroic tendencies, to the bad guys, who our heroine shouldn't even be spending time with.

F - Folklore

Many of the authors writing within the genre of urban fantasy have turned to folklore to inspire them in terms of the creatures that inhabit the pages of their novels. We've seen fae and sidhe of all flavours, but some of the authors will step outside the norm and pick a creature that's a little more unusual.

Laurell K Hamilton is particularly fond of plundering the folklore and history of various countries, and coming up with new nasties. She's used from American folklore in one of her novels, and the lamia from Greek mythology.

G - Guns

Or weaponry in general, I guess. Considering the amount of magic inherent in urban fantasy it's amazing how many people still use guns. Part of this, I'm guessing, it because a lot of urban fantasy is linked to either police work or private investigations, both areas where guns will generally be found (especially in the States).

Most of our heroes and heroines will generally have some form of magic that they use, but it is often backed up by a gun!

H - Hollows

The Hollows is a series a novels by Kim Harrison, featuring Rachel Morgan. Rachel is a private investigator (after a little incident with the Inderland Security department). Accompanied by Ivy (vampire) and Jenks (pixy), Rachel becomes embroiled in a number of adventures that often involve businessman Trent.

The very strongest part of this series about Rachel is the world-building. It is based in Cincinnati, and takes place after the Turn, where a virus carried by a GM-created tomato spread around the world and killed off a quarter of the human population. After this the Inderlanders came out of hiding and took their place in society - non-humans, such as witches, demons, elves, pixys and gargoyles.

Begin with Dead Witch Walking - and enjoy! This is one of the finest examples of urban fantasy around.

I - Investigations

From Harry Dresden, to Rachel Morgan, to Anita Blake, to Chess, to Vicki Nelson - all of these characters perform some sort of investigative work, whether it is alongside the police, or private investigation. I'm not sure exactly why it is that urban fantasy has connected so strongly with investigations - possibly because it allows the characters to become involved with supernatural crime and, by necessity, police work is fairly episodic, which suits a long-running series.

J - Jim Butcher

The rather famous and talented author of the Dresden files, Jim Butcher is one of the very very few men who has successfully broken into the arena of urban fantasy (as it is today).

K - Kate Griffin

Kate is the sickeningly young, beautiful and incredibly brilliant author of A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor and The Neon Court.

She writes urban fantasy very much in the vein of Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman, with rich prose and quirky magic. In fact, she uses the city of London as a form of magic and energy that can be tapped into - our main character simply can't function and use his magic when he strays too far from the city boundaries.

These three novels are a triumph of imagination and whimsical storytelling from a master of the art, and I highly recommend them as a modern form of urban fantasy that doesn't rely on kick ass heroines to carry the tale. Also, there is nary a sniff of romance!

L - London

Of all the cities featured in urban fantasy, London seems to be the most beloved. From the aforementioned Kate Griffin to Neil Gaiman, from Suzanne McLeod to Ben Aaronovitch, from Mike Carey to Mike Shevdon - all of these fine authors have used London as their setting for all or part of a novel.

London is a city where old and new collide, where the Underground system provides a magic all of its own, where gargoyles still sit atop buildings. It really is no leap to imagine a London that contains creatures out of the ordinary - magic and mystery are present on the streets.

I love London - and I adore my urban fantasy with a dose of London.

M - Music

I've added music here on two counts. One is that novels written by Charles de Lint, in particular, feature music as a big part of the plot. The Little Country is one of my very favourite novels by Mr de Lint, and has a high focus on folk music.

But I also mention music because of the amount of urban fantasy authors writing today who cite it as a massive inspiration to them. Some of them include their playlists at the front of the novel as part of their acknowledgements; others mention the music they write to; and Lauren Beukes created a whole CD of music that influenced Zoo City (which is undeniably urban fantasy, no matter how many science fiction awards it receives!)

It seems as though music and urban fantasy goes hand in hand.

So, here, I leave you at the end of Part 1 in this article concerning An A-Z of Urban Fantasy with a song that is now inextricably linked with Twilight:

Enjoy! And come back soon for Part 2 (N-Z!)

The Office of Lost and Found by Vincent Holland-Keen

Thomas Locke can find anything. You know the hurricane that hit a while back? Word is he found the butterfly that started it. So, when a desperate Veronica Drysdale hires Locke to find her missing husband, it makes perfect sense.

Except the world of Thomas Locke doesn't make sense. It puts monsters under the bed, makes stars fall from the sky and leads little children to worship the marvels of road-works.

This world also hides from Veronica a past far darker and stranger than she could ever have imagined. To learn the truth, Veronica is going to have to lose everything.

And that's where Locke’s shadowy business partner Lafarge comes in…

I think I can count on one hand the times I've been unable to finish reading a book. It happens incredibly rarely, since I'm generally stubborn enough to push through and find out what happens at the end. Unfortunately, The Office of Lost and Found by Vincent Holland-Keen is one of those rare books.

I couldn't complete this not because of the premise (which was kooky and interesting) and not because of the writing (which tended towards being pretty good). The reason I couldn't finish The Office of Lost and Found is because I read up to 30% completed on my Kindle - a fair proportion of the book - and did not have a single clue what was happening. Not one clue. I notice other reviewers have said that it is a confusing read and you need to stick with it, but I simply couldn't keep details straight in my head.

I think part of the problem with this is the structure of the novel - it jumps back and forth, it seems to contain little short stories within the overall arc of the novel, it plays around with time. Fine, if you can keep up. But I was bemused and, ultimately, frustrated by my efforts.

Try The Eloquent Page for a different take on The Office of Lost and Found - they loved it. It just wasn't for me.

Sunday 21 August 2011

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale

Bruno Littlemore: linguist, artist, philosopher. A life defined by a soaring mind, yet bound by a restrictive body. Born in downtown Chicago, Bruno's precocity pulls him from an unremarkable childhood, and under the tuition of Lydia, his intellect dazzles a watching world. But when he and his mentor fall in love, the world turns on them with outrage: Bruno is striving to be something he is not, and denying everything that he is. For despite his all too human complexities, dreams and frailties, Bruno's hairy body, flattened nose and jutting brow are, undeniably, the features of a chimpanzee.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore was published back in April, and caused nary a splash as it hit an unsuspecting public. I've seen very few reviews and not many discussion points concerning this novel. It's not been put onto any longlists or shortlists that I'm aware of, and Benjamin Hale has not been feted as one of the bravest debut novelists of recent times.

In my opinion, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore should have exploded into people's consciousness. It should have been reviewed by people who admire both contemporary/literary works and those who appreciate a more speculative bent to their fiction.

I can't even point to a particular reason why it didn't perform as well as it should have. Possibly because this is a large brick of a debut novel, and people these days don't like to put out cash on an unrecognised name. Possibly because the subject matter is so bizarre and, at times, outright taboo.

For me, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore was virtually as challenging a read as comes along. It challenged my perceptions of what it means to be human. It challenged my ideas of science versus art. It shocked me into laughter at times. At other points I was curling my lip in disgust and reading the novel through eyes blinkered by societal norms. This is a bolshy, brazen novel that does not shy away from that final step into offensiveness and darkness.

Bruno is the very definition of an unreliable narrator. He is telling his story to "Gwen", who remains off-screen for the duration of the tale. Everything we find out about Bruno himself and the life he leads is coloured by his own neurosis, arrogance and self-loathing. He is frustrating, witty, compassionate, rambling and often incredibly difficult to read about. Apart from the fact that you spend much of the novel suspending disbelief about the very nature of Bruno and his relationship with Lydia, sometimes Bruno can also be pretty bloody unlikeable. But he is a magnetic narrator, and I remained mesmerised by his story almost all the way through.

I say "almost", because sometimes The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore descends into a rambling mess. Sometimes it feels pretentious. Sometimes the language was wilfully difficult to process - beyond purple prose. When it touches the heights of its prose, though, it is difficult to imagine a better novel. It defies belief that this is a debut novel.

I admired particularly the level of intellect and discussion present in The Evolution of... such as the following passage:

"I hope that the future's scholars of dramaturgy (if indeed such people will exist in the future) will recognise that I, Bruno Littlemore, was the first actor to realise that the role of Caliban should be played through an evolutionary perspective. While I understand The Tempest was first performed in 1612, a good two and a half centuries before the publications of Charles Darwin, on closely studying the text, I find it hard to believe that Shakespeare was not in some way anachronistically informed and even influenced by The Origin of the Species. Time perhaps is not as uninterestingly linear as we imagine, Gwen. Shakespeare was at the very least a clear premonition of his future fellow Englishman. I even go so far as to imagine that the ship in The Tempest is the Beagle, and Prospero's island, Galapagos."

When it was applied in the following passage, it made me snort with laughter:

"We watched the cartoons that take eternal pursuit as their theme: both the amorous pursuit of lover and beloved [...] as well as the violent pursuit of predator and prey: Coyote and Road Runner, Sylvester and Tweety, Tom and Jerry...all that mythic pursuit! - the endless flux of the chase, the magnetic push-and-pull of aggression and defense, of repulsion and desire!...perhaps the true spirit of myth - of Echo and Narcissus, of Achilles and Hector - survives for us, in its pure form, only in cartoons."

So, how to conclude my thoughts on this novel? Probably to say that The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is more than good enough for you to spend money on. Probably also to say that if you were to buy only one more novel this year, you should make it this. It is dark, brave, satirical and surprisingly tender and moving. The story of Bruno Littlemore demands patience and attention, but it is worth every minute.

Friday 19 August 2011

Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy

Big generous-hearted Benny and the elfin Eve Malone have been best friends throughout their childhoods in sleepy Knockglen. When they both go to study in Dublin, they meet a circle of friends that includes handsome Jack Foley and the selfish but beautiful Nan Mahon - whose ambitions will drag them all into trouble.

As Knockglen is surprised into new life the two girls, Benny and Eve, discover that among the many distractions of growing up true friendship is the greatest gift of all.

The joy of a Maeve Binchy novel - and Circle of Friends is no exception (in fact, is probably the best example of this) - is that you are utterly drawn into the lives of the characters. Binchy doesn't concern herself with a clever plot (here, the essence of the plot is that Benny and Eve head off to university in Dublin, and deals with the repercussions of what happens after this); rather, she wants to describe how her characters deal with life. There are never lengthy descriptions of place - dialogue is the manner in which Binchy drives her story.

So, if Binchy had been unable to write dialogue, her novels would fail in a big way. Luckily, Binchy has an absolutely unerring ear for dialogue. Her characters talk so naturally, to the point that reading Circle of Friends feels like evesdropping on a conversation between real people.

I particularly love Circle of Friends because it is a true coming of age story - two girls leaving a sleepy village and dealing with the bright lights of Dublin. Finding themselves; discovering new friends, but learning that their true and strong friendship is the best thing by far to help them survive the trials and tribulations of their new life.

In addition to this, Benny has to try and extract herself from a constricting home life to find the freedom necessary to enjoy her new life. I really appreciated this aspect of the story, since I think many young people are familiar with the idea of parents not wanting to let go and still trying to exert control over their children. Benny's frustrations were written with a ring of truth.

Maeve Binchy's novel are like a literary hug - warm and gentle, with a surprising wit and wisdom, and I think that Circle of Friends is the best of them.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Angry Robot Books Open Door Month Done

Well, 'tis done.

I was asked to read the submissions for Angry Robot Books Open Door Month in March.

944 came in and I read maybe half of these partial submissions (maybe a little less than half).

I called forward 60 full manuscripts.

Out of those I have put forward 9 manuscripts and I dearly hope that they ALL get picked up - all these authors should be exceptionally proud of what they've achieved. The manuscript titles of those novels I adored are:

1) Channel Zilch
2) The Lives of Tao
3) The Mad Scientist's Daughter
4) Grayspace
5) The Further Adventures of Cyrano de Bergerac
6) The Dead of Winter
7) Pantomime
8) Brew
9) The Corpse-Rat King

Intriguing titles, non? Based simply on the titles, are there any that you would pick up to glance at the blurb?

Amazingly, I asked for three full manuscripts that were never sent through to me. I asked for them more than once to ensure that my email hadn't been lost, but, at this point, I have to say that they now count as rejected, otherwise they would have had many more months than everyone else who submitted, which is not at all fair.

Irritatingly, five of the manuscripts I asked to see have been picked up by various agents and publishers (one of which is the newly created Jo Fletcher Books imprint - congratulations Alison Littlewood!) That's the way the cookie crumbles, I guess, but I regret not being faster *grins*

Anyway, that's my job all done! If any of you have questions about the process and how it went for me, then drop them in the comments and I'll try and respond.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

An Egotistic Extract - Sea of a Thousand Stars

It's mine. I'm shy about it. But here's the start of a little story that I'm contemplating continuing. Would you want to read anymore?

It would be more dramatic to say they came for me at midnight, or during the witching hour – those times of the night when you feel most vulnerable – but, in fact, the afternoon sun was just losing a little of its searing heat as a strong fist battered on the door to my personal chambers. I hadn’t been expecting them. Even with what I had been doing – well, we all think we’re so clever, right? We can’t imagine that anyone will see through our petty little schemes and our lies. With only two people involved you believe that a secret will stay...well, secret! If I told no one and he told no one, then the secret would remain just between us.

I digress... I was able to retain some dignity as I opened the door to my elder brother and two of his vile friends. I welcomed them in with the smile of a pampered noblewoman – the smile that has empty eyes above it, and doesn’t reveal anything of your actual feelings. In this case, my actual feelings were hate. Hate, hate, hate pounding in time with my speeded-up heartbeat. I was worried. My brother never ordinarily felt the need to visit the sister who has proved such a disappointment to him in the marriage market.

The sneer that crossed his saturnine face was familiar to me.

“Liliana,” he said, his voice dark and cold. I was able to remain silent, hiding my shaking fists in the full skirt of my dress. There has never been a time that I remember where I haven’t hated Arrigo. The darling of our Father’s eye. Eldest son and heir. Talented swordsman and capable with numbers. The list of his virtues can be recited by me as a litany, heard many times over the years from both Mother and Father. They never did learn the facets of his character that Gwido and I knew. My littler brother and I knew his jealousy, his bullying, his temper, his arrogance. Oh yes, Arrigo was well-named.

He was still waiting for my response, but I took this small victory and forced him to reveal why he came calling on me. One of his two bully-boys – rabble-rousers and heavies for his less salubrious dealings – muttered in Arrigo’s ear, words I was unable to catch.

“Sister, it is time for us to speak honestly,” said Arrigo. He walked towards me, cupped my cheek in his hand so that my skin crawled with his close presence. I ached to shrug away from him, but kept my spine straight and chin up. His voice took on a smoky drawl as he continued – the same drawl that had the numerous daughters of the Merchant Kings sighing over him. “We don’t like each other. We have never liked each other. But, at least until now, I have been forced to ensure your safety and comfort. No longer, Liliana. Your life is now forfeit to me after the shame you brought on our family.”

“Shame?” I stammer. I curse the fact that my voice started to shake, and my cheeks stained red with my fear. I knew of what Arrigo spoke about. I knew that there would be repercussions if I was ever found out. But I had always thought that it would be Father who administered the punishment. He was a frequently absent Father, but one who had a distant fondness for me, and I had relied on the fact that I could steer him towards a more lenient solution. Arrigo clearly planned to relish this opportunity.

“Indeed,” he said. We both stood for a moment in silence, still playing this game where we tried not to reveal our hands too quickly. I was always the better player, and Arrigo was clearly too pleased by the situation to stay quiet for long. “Liliana, I know the name Macario is familiar to you.”

Of course the name was familiar to me – Macario was the second son of one of the minor Grand Families; one of those that have yet to earn a family name. We carried the family name Ermeto proudly, as befitted the pre-eminent family of Merchant Kings. In truth, Macario was beneath our notice and, if my conscience had been clean, I would have been puzzled at the fact that Arrigo even knew his name.

But it was not clean. I was not puzzled. I knew Macario. I had committed the greatest crime and fallen in love.

If my blog readers have any examples of their writing online, then load up my comments with links so that we can all go have a look!

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Colin Harvey RIP

I am absolutely devastated by the news that Colin Harvey has died.

I met Colin a couple of times, not least at Fantasycon last year where he showed good humour, grace and patience while signing books for a motley crowd.

I got my books signed (Winter Song and Damage Time) and promised him faithfully I would read and review them. I am in tears at the fact I never kept this promise.

My thoughts go to his wife, and to the Angry Robot team who worked so closely with him.

The UK scene has lost an absolute star.

There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff

In the beginning there was Bob. And Bob created the heavens and the earth and the beasts of the field and the creatures of the sea, and twenty-five million other species including lots and lots of gorgeous girls. And all of this, he created in just six days. Six days! Congratulations Bob! No wonder Earth is such a mess. Imagine that God is a typical teenage boy. He is lazy, careless, self-obsessed, sex-mad - and about to meet Lucy, the most beautiful girl on earth. Unfortunately, whenever Bob falls in love, disaster follows. Let us pray that Bob does not fall in love with Lucy.

You know when you experience major disconnect with a novel? When everyone else is crying out about how much they love said novel, and glorifying it with fantastic reviews, and you just can't seem to see what they have seen in it? Yes, that. That is the way I feel about There is No Dog by Meg Rosoff.

I should have loved it. The premise is just glorious - the idea that God is a feckless, ignorant, self-centred teenage boy. The biting humour did appeal to me. The idea that God just created everything on the fly in six days, and then needed a lie-in to recover. The fact that God has to be monitored by Mr B, a man who seems, more than anything, like an accountant - ready to dot the eyes and cross the tees. I even liked the philosophical discussion disguised as God/Bob's meanderings.

And yet, for me it failed as a reading experience. I think this was mainly because the plot itself was so slight - and, boy, did it get repetitive. God/Bob loves and adores Lucy, but how can he be with her? He gets in a strop and the weather changes. Mr B agonises over how to get God/Bob to pay attention to the events happening as a result of his incompetence. And repeat, ad boredom. I hate to say it, but I became bored of There is No Dog and ended up skimming the last twenty pages or so just to say that I had completed it. For me, it felt as though Rosoff had come up with this wonderful idea (which truly should be celebrated as something absolutely unique - and had the bonkers flavour of something written by Douglas Adams, in the humour and surreal aspects) but then failed to truly deliver.

As much as I *loved* the Eck (and I really did!), I failed to see how the plot involving his imminent demise as the dinner of Emoto Hed, another member of the godly pantheon, really fit into this story. And God/Bob's mother Mona drove me mad - she was so incredibly annoying, in the way she blithely careered through life (although maybe this did say something about the manner in which she behaved as God/Bob's parent).

I am left wondering if this was a failing by me as a reader, rather than Rosoff as a writer. It is clear that There is No Dog will be very appealing to many, many people. So I leave you with the recommendation to first read this review and then make your own mind up on whether to go forth and read. Usually I like to offer a recommendation on a novel as to why to buy or not, but with There is No Dog, I simply can't say either way whether you'll like it. Some people will like it and some people will hate it and, unfortunately, I fall into the latter group. Although the premise is so super cool!

SOPPY blokes fall in love faster and more often than women, new research suggests.

Heh, you might think this is not at all book related but bear with me! I received this press release into my inbox this morning and was intrigued enough to share it with you *grins* Your thoughts on the subject?

SOPPY blokes fall in love faster and more often than women, new research suggests.

Most men say they know whether they are in love after just one date and the rest are likely to know within three.

Nearly a quarter said they had believed in love at first sight and knew whether a girl was ‘the one’ within seconds.

Women on the other hand are more indecisive on the issue, consulting with friends and family and waiting at least a month before making their mind up.

The research shows that the average British man falls in love just over three times compared to the average women who says she has only been in love once.

But while they may fall in love more easily men also get their heart broken more often with more men claiming to having loved someone who didn’t love them back.

The research was commissioned to launch bestselling author Elizabeth Noble’s new novel, The Way We Were

Elizabeth Noble says: ‘I was surprised at all this evidence that men fall further and faster in love, more often, than women do. I’d have guessed women were more in love with love than men were, but it seems I’m wrong.

“I’ve been in love more than once, and had my heart seriously broken (shattered, even) before I met my husband. If you’re lucky, you have fond memories of first loves, but even if you’ve been damaged, I’d argue you learn, and take things forward into future relationships that can make those work better and stay stronger”

Men were more likely to say ‘I love you’ first and were also more likely than women to pine after their first love.

Both sexes agreed that their first love was the one they took the longest to get over and one in four said they didn’t think they would ever fully recover from the heartbreak their first love caused them.
Men are also more likely to regret splitting up with their first girlfriend and to think that they were happier with their first love than they are now.

A quarter of Brits think about their first love at least once a week and those that are still searching for the right partner are more likely to reminisce than anyone else.

Meanwhile women were more likely to be happy with the decisions they have made and more realistic about how happy they were in the first place.

Although women were more likely to try and track their ex-partner down over the internet and keep track on him and who he is dating.

Author Elizabeth Noble said: ‘It’s much easier than it used to be to track down people from your past, using Facebook, Friends Re-United and other forms of social media. That doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea! I was in a good place in my present life and relationship when I met up with an old boyfriend, who had recognized my author picture in a novel, and tracked me down that was and so was he, so it felt really safe. And incredibly interesting, and fun, to meet up , see him in the flesh, and find out where his life had taken him. Not all those stories have such happy, simple endings…’

Despite this a quarter of Brits still think they haven’t been in love.

Men in the north fell in love quicker than men down south with Londoner cynically taking the longest.


Daniel Cundick, 26, from Essex, thinks that men have a bad reputation for being players with women which is completely untrue.

He said: “Women seem to think we are all out to just mess them around and hurt them but that’s really not the case. In my experience women are a lot more ruthless than men when it comes to relationships. Once I know I like a girl, that’s it, I’m hooked and I end up getting attached quite easily. My mates are all the same. We end up rushing in to things and we have all got some battle scars on our hearts from girls.”

Daniel, a plasterer, thinks that men are just as soppy as women when it comes to relationships if not more so.

He said: “I think after women get hurt by a man they are more careful and treat relationships more of a game, with winners and losers. Men on the other hand are much more easy going and don’t dwell on whose fault it was so much. I definitely believe in love at first sight but if you say that to a girl she will probably just laugh at you.”

Although single at the moment Daniel is always looking out for ‘the one’ and says he is one of just a few single men left among his friends.

“Most have started to settle down now and are moving in together and getting married. And it’s the men who have been the ones pushing for the commitment, moving in together and buying flats, getting engaged, wanting children etc. Their girlfriends are a lot more careful and wary about jumping in to things.”

When it comes to first love Daniel definitely agrees that his first love took him the longest to get over and says that he still thinks about the relationship sometimes but agrees that they probably are better off apart.

The Way we Were by Elizabeth Noble is published by Michael Joseph at 7.99.

Any soppy blokes out there? Do women dispute the above? Tell me romantic stories!

Sunday 14 August 2011

What the Nanny Saw by Fiona Neill

When Ali Sparrow answers Bryony Skinner's advertisement for a nanny, her life changes in a heartbeat. At first everything is overwhelming, from twins who speak their own language, to a teenager with weight issues and a son almost her own age. And of course Bryony - oozing privilege thanks to a millionaire father, high-flying husband and her own dazzling career - has a beady eye that focuses on Ali's failings.

But as Ali becomes increasingly indispensible, she realises she's the wallpaper no one notices anymore, which means she's witness to things she probably shouldn't see. So when a scandal erupts that suggests something corrupt has been hatched behind the Skinners' flawless front door, who is better placed than Ali to tell all?

But where do her loyalties lie? To the family she ran away from - or the family of strangers who took her in?

There has been a lot of commentary recently about chick lit and its place in the literary spectrum - with What the Nanny Saw, Fiona Neill makes a beautiful riposte. It has all the components of a chick lit novel - over-the-top characters, a slightly contrived situation, a romance that you can see coming - but places them within a fiercely intelligent story examining the minutiae of scandal, finance and the media.

On the face of it, we are reading about Ali Sparrow and her attempts to play the part of a Mary Poppins character in an obscenely rich family. Her job is cut out for her, considering she barely sees the two parents and they communicate with her via their Blackberries. However, Fiona Neill sets this against the backdrop of the fall of Lehman Brothers - the father of the Skinner family, Nick, holds a prominent position in the bank, and revels shamelessly in the multi-million bonuses he receives each year.

This acknowledgement of how current affairs affected those in the maelstrom of the collapsing financial situation is something I have never seen articulated quite so well before. There is a sense of utter doom as Nick tries harder and harder to shore up the failing position of Lehmans, and his manner of dealing with the crisis is incredibly believable.

As well as this, Neill examines the way that very rich families invite nannies and the like into their houses at the risk of a loss of privacy - we've seen people like Posh and Becks, and Jude Law suffer from nannies telling all. Ali's struggle with her conscience as to whether she should mention anything about what she has seen behind closed doors feels, again, very realistic.

The risk that Fiona Neill took with following a rich family is that it becomes very hard to sympathise with either Bryony or Nick. I do feel for the children, both before and after the financial crash occurs, since they could not choose the life they end up leading. But hearing about fridges and larders filled with food that spoils because they don't eat it before they buy fresh, and the Skinners having a man who comes round just to check the *lightbulbs* makes them seem incredibly out of touch. I guess that is partly the point.

And I'm afraid I found it difficult to appreciate Ali as well. I think that this might have been easier had Neill spent more time at the start of the novel showcasing Ali's life and exactly why she *needed* to take the job with the Skinners. It would also have helped when Ali kept deferring her return to university - as it was, I couldn't see precisely why she would choose a very peculiar job pandering to the needs of a very spoilt family over going back to university and forging her own life and career.

With that said, I do want a lot of people to read What the Nanny Saw. It really is a glittering example of what the very best chick lit can accomplish. In fact, I have placed a tag of contemporary on this novel as well in my review, because at times it doesn't *feel* like how most people regard chick lit at all. It is weighty, dark, satirical and very clever. Well done, Fiona Neill!

What the Nanny Saw will be published by Penguin on 18th August

Friday 12 August 2011

Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce

Daine's knack with horses gets her a job helping the royal horsemistress drive a herd of ponies to Tortall. Soon it becomes clear that Daine's talent, as much as she struggles to hide it, is downright magical. Horses and other animals not only obey, but listen to her words. Daine, though, will have to learn to trust humans before she can come to terms with her powers, her past, and herself.

Wild Magic begins the second quartet featuring the land of Tortall. Although there are some familiar names in this novel - cameos from the Alanna quartet, such as Alanna herself, Jonathan and Thayet, George - a newcomer to the Tortall world could start here with absolutely no problems.

The level of reading is eight plus, I'd say. There are occasional moments of violence, as you'd expect from events in a feudal country that is beginning to descend into war, but nothing that I'd be worried about a younger reader encountering.

Wild Magic is a very good novel in terms of feminism. The central character, Daine, is living her life without any direction from a man. She is independent, stubborn, loyal and simply fantastic to read about. Within the novel you also have the Riders, a military force that accepts women. The Queen of Tortall, Thayet, is easily the equal of Jonathan (the King) and shares all the duties of the monarchy. Thayet and Buri helped to create the Riders, and still assist with the instruction of the new trainees. And, of course, Alanna is the Lady Knight. In every walk of life, in every instance, Tamora Pierce introduces a world where sex is not important when considering what is achievable. The men and the women are equals in every respect. This, for me, is an exceptionally healthy attitude to bring to a novel that younger readers will enjoy. I only wish there was more enduring and potent feminist fantasy fiction like this.

Alongside this feminist angle, Wild Magic's principle 'lesson' is that people can be accepted, no matter their background or beliefs. I would be very happy if my daughter or niece (or son or nephew) were reading this take on life. It is a strong message, and one that can't be taught too soon.

The plot within Wild Magic is very much an introductory piece - we come to know Daine and the people around her, principally, but there are hints towards what is to come in the other three books of the quartet. (Interestingly, Tamora Pierce has celebrated J K Rowling's impact on the world of children's and YA fiction, in terms of making publishers realise that books don't need to always be 200 pages or less. She says that, if the Daine quartet were published nowadays, it would be a duology instead). Wild Magic can be read as a complete story, but you would miss much of the overall plot if you didn't then move onto Wolf Speaker.

Pierce's greatest strength when writing is a real ear for dialogue. A book can falter, no matter how strong the story is, if the dialogue feels stilted and unrealistic. Here, it is easy to speak the dialogue aloud, and have it sound as though real people would be saying it, including the little idiosyncrasies of speech and differences in dialect.

Wild Magic would find great favour with girls who love horses as well. Daine owns (or, rather, is the human of) a pony called Cloud, and she gains a job looking after the horses of the Riders.

Personally, I love this story because it's pure old-fashioned magic and adventure, with a dash of mythology. The characters are collectively incredibly strong, and make you want to read on to find out more about them. The animal aspect - and Daine's wild magic - is just the icing on the cake, as far as I'm concerned.

I marvel a little at the fact that Tamora Pierce's novels about Tortall aren't more popular, in all honesty. They are, above all, fun, and I would encourage you to immediately seek them out, if you haven't already tried them. Wild Magic is a great place to start your journey.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Which Fantasy Books Will Still Be Popular in 50 Years?

So, NPR have released their tallied list of the best fantasy and science fiction books EVAH, as voted for by the public, and, whaddaya know? The Lord of the Rings takes the top spot. Again. *yawn*

I've had a bit of a storm about this on Twitter and Facebook, but I won't bore you with how dull I find the book, how unimaginative I think it is that we're still putting this at number one.

A lot of people are telling me that it's only number one because it's the most well-known, been read by more people and has been around the longest. Personally, that doesn't seem a great reason for voting a book to a "BEST" placing, but.... *shrug*

Consequently, I am opening the floor to you knowledgeable lot.

If this poll is conducted again in 50 years' time, which fantasy book would you put at the top of the list from now? Which book do you think has enduring value? I'm not playing the silly NPR game and putting series as one entry - you're only allowed ONE book title. And please give reasons!

Numbers by Rachel Ward

Since the day her mother died, Jem has known about the numbers. When she looks in someone's eyes, she can see the date they will die. Life is hard, until she meets a boy called Spider. Suddenly her world seems brighter. But on a trip to London, Jem foresees a chain of events that will shatter their lives forever..

Sometimes a novel comes along just at the *right* time, and Numbers by Rachel Ward was one of those books for me. We are experiencing riots here in the UK at the moment (hopefully settled down now, fingers crossed) and there has been a lot of discussion about what drove the kids to riot and loot. There was one particular part of Ward's novel that stood out for me and made me sit up: "Why do you think? It's all so simple, isn't it? Tell the truth and it will all be all right. Maybe it's like that here, but it's not where I come from. They see a black kid with some money, they see a dealer. They see a couple of kids, just chilling somewhere, hanging out, they see a couple of muggers. They need to collar someone for a crime, they collar someone - one of the usual suspects, anyone who fits the picture, doesn't matter. Truth and lies, it all gets mixed up."

Rather than the high concept science fiction novel that Numbers appears to be on first contact, it is actually more of an examination of society. It was written in 2009, two years after the bombs hit London. It shows an uneasy attitude towards certain parts of society; it highlights particular prejudices that have been around since the idea of 'haves' and 'have nots' was introduced.

Jem, the main character, is fiercely independent and knows her 'place' in the world. She is outside looking in at all those who have proper jobs, relationships and money. When she meets Spider, it is an encounter between two kindred spirits. Spider is a tall black guy, already dabbling in drugs and "deliveries" for a local gang boss. He is looked down on by some, and is intimidating to others. For me, Ward did superbly presenting these two misfit characters, and the reasons behind why people in real life might end up in poverty, excluded from school, on the outskirts of society etc. In this time of riots, it was immensely powerful.

The other part of the novel that I really enjoyed is the burgeoning love affair between Jem and Spider - it is inexpressibly tender and, above all, very real. I completely invested in these two characters.

Unfortunately, Numbers is prevented from being a top quality read by two factors. The first is that Ward seems not to know how to deal with the high concept of seeing people's death date number - at times it is used as a clumsy plot device, rather than as something that can introduce deep discussions about free will versus destiny. I would have liked to see much more of the numbers idea, including how and why this gift/curse might have been given to Jem. Some airy-fairy waved-away idea that she can just see auras is not a strong backdrop to the concept.

The second problem, for me, is that the ending of the book was a) very hurried and b) signposted from practically the start of Numbers. It was just a question of how Ward was going to get to the destination. I'm usually a gullible fool when it comes to what might happen in a novel, so, for me to grasp the ending so soon, meant that it was flagged in a very heavy-handed manner.

There was a lot to enjoy in this debut novel by Rachel Ward, albeit countered by some fundamental weaknesses. Nothing that wouldn't prevent me from picking up the second novel in the Numbers trilogy, however! I do wonder, though, how much of this review is flavoured by the fact that I could associate Numbers very much with current affairs - or is it just that bad attitudes and prejudices will always exist towards those at the bottom of society and, in fact, Ward has written about a timeless issue? Regardless, Numbers is worth your time - it is dark and poignant by turn, and kept me interested throughout.