Thursday, 29 September 2011

Review: 'Steam and Sorcery' by Cindy Spencer Pape

Date finished: 18 September

Rating: 4 stars

Format: eBook

Source: NetGalley

Genre: Urban Fantasy; Steampunk; Romance

Published: by Carina Press in March 2011

The Synopsis [taken from GoodReads.com]

Sir Merrick Hadrian hunts monsters, both human and supernatural. A Knight of the Order of the Round Table, his use of magick and the technologies of steam power have made him both respected and feared. But his considerable skills are useless in the face of his greatest challenge, guardianship of five unusual children. At a loss, Merrick enlists the aid of a governess.

Miss Caroline Bristol is reluctant to work for a bachelor but she needs a position, and these former street children touch her heart. While she tends to break any mechanical device she touches, it never occurs to her that she might be something more than human. All she knows is that Merrick is the most dangerously attractive man she's ever met—and out of reach for a mere governess.

When conspiracy threatens to blur the distinction between humans and monsters, Caroline and Merrick must join forces, and the fate of humanity hinges upon their combined skills of steam and sorcery...

The Review

I'm going through a steampunk phase at the moment and am still very much enjoying indulging the phase by snapping up all things Victorian and mechanical. Prior to this, I'd read the first four of the Parasol Proctectorate series by Gail Carriger and since finishing this I've read Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. Both big hitters on the steampunk scene that appears to be all the rage at the moment. I enjoyed this as much as I did those so although it isn't "pure" steampunk, it is certainly no black sheep of the genre!

Sir Merrick Hadrian is a (rather delightful sounding) knight whose job is to use his natural magickal abilities to stalk the shadows, hunt vampires and generally be the kind of tall and dark hero that any Victorian lady (heck, any lady!) would be happy to have protecting her. On one of his investigative jaunts around the slums of London, Merrick is helped out by five feisty little street urchins. When the children are spied by some nasty night-time horrors, Merrick gets all paternal and decides to bring that really he shouldn't just leave them to be picked off and eaten but should bring them home with him. As a character in a steampunk/fantasy/romance, he's perfect! Brooding and dashing, with the type of protective streak that might include sword-fighting for your honour - could you ask for anything more from a Victorian knight? No...

Caroline was a more difficult character for me to like because she can be a little prim at times and a bit too much with the damaged-and-won't-trust-anyone persona. On the whole though I did grow to like her - she's feisty and independent and the kind of Victorian woman that actually might garner the respect of a "modern" woman (i.e. she doesn't faint all the time and allow a man to save her!).

The book is also made by the five children who capture Merrick's heart. Honestly, I'm not always the most maternal woman that ever lived but these kids made me do a very girly "Awww...". In true steampunk/urban fantasy spirit, every one of them is endowed with a special talent, including a girl that can talk to the dead and a boy who dreams the future. They're such a motley little street gang and so charming (you know, for kids...) and a perfect supporting cast that I hope are carried into the remainder of the series (that I only recently learnt existed through GoodReads...)!

So the characters are good, what about the story? A few chapters in, I realised that I wasn't reading because I had been lured in by the characters but because I wanted to read about what was going on in their London - the plot is intriguing enough to keep all of the strong personalities occupied and there's a good dose of fisticuffs every now and then just to keep you on your toes! Plus, the vampires and bad guys are properly bad, which is always more fun!

It has been a very long time since I read a book in one day; as in years, not months. I know that's shocking for a professed book-lover but because I often find that either I don't have the time/concentration (because I tend to read longer books). Because this book balances so many aspects, however, I was completely caught up and, every time I tore myself away to do some boring housework, I found myself right back with my eReader in my lap as soon as physically possible. As good an accolade as any, I'd say!

A minor health warning: The romance is on the more...adult side, shall we say. No simpering heroines or chaste heroes here! I personally don't mind the odd raunchy episode (because I'm scandalous like that) but I know that some people don't like it, so here's my way of politely saying that if you like your romance books to stop at the bedroom door, you might want to give this a miss...

Overall: A great example of both steampunk and urban fantasy with a healthy dose of romance for good measure. The vampires and other nasties are those from nightmares, the engineering and machinery are well-integrated into the Victorian aspects and the romance also manages to fit into the dark story without ruining the tone - definitely worth a couple of hours!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Guardian and Observer Book Swap!

This is one of my favourite bookish initiatives of recent years but I have sadly only come to the party late...on the last two days to be specific. It's being run by The Guardian and Observer as part of their books season and is all kinds of wonderful! Unfortunately, I think that this time around it's UK only. Not that that stops you leaving bookish gifts around wherever you live!

The idea is that you choose a book you love, print off one the BookSwap stickers like this, write a little note to the new owner about why you love it and leave it somewhere to make someone's weekend! It's that simple :)

To find out more, check out the Guardian's 'How To Take Part' summary here.

My copy of 'Captain Correlli's Mandolin' was supposed to be hanging out in Leeds train station yesterday evening but when I went through, there were a lot of people a few too many fizzy pops into the night and so I took it home with me again! It will instead be left somewhere in Leeds City Centre today while I'm out and about!

I'll be posting pictures of the drop on Twitter this evening (which, incidentally, I am irretrievably addicted to!) using the inventive username @litaddictedbrit!

[Oh, and all the pictures are taken straight from the Guardian's website - thanks Guardian :)]

Friday, 23 September 2011

Review: 'Strawberry Shortcake Murder' by Joanne Fluke

Shortly after I finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I got that twitchy feeling that I get when I'm in book limbo, i.e. in the terrible in-between phase where I've finished a book but am yet to choose my next one.

I still felt a little in awe of the whole thing though so decided that a little cozy fluff would make my brain all better! Enter...

..Strawberry Shortcake Murder by Joanne Fluke!

I read the first in the series, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, way back in my fledgling blogger days and reviewed it here. If I remember rightly, it was also the first eBook I read! If I were that kind of person, I'd be all kinds of sentimental! Instead of getting all misty-eyed, however, I shall dish you up a review in the style of my early blogging days...because it makes sense to me!

What the blurb said

The stakes start rising faster than dough when a judge from the Hartland Flour company's Dessert Bake-Off is found dead in Hannah Swensen's strawberry shortcake. Can she catch the killer before he or she cooks up another recipe -- for murder?

What I would say

As with the first, Strawberry Shortcake Murder features the nosy and interfering (but somehow loveable) cookie shop owner, Hannah as she bumbles her way through a murder investigation. Despite being the second in the series, you could jump right in here if you wanted because all of the characters' back stories are pretty well recapped.

Speaking of, the other characters in this book are as wacky as ever - as well as Hannah's family, this book features an 'out of town' film crew and cast of TV presenters. My favourite is Norman the dentist (yes, really!) who is just so lovely and actually seems to be one of the only people who you could talk to in real life without wanting to smack him.

One character I went right off in this series was Mike, Hannah's potential love interest. He's a policeman/actual detective yet he doesn't really seem to mind Hannah running about town investigating a murder and bodging up evidence because he's too distracted by being macho and telling her off for being involved because it's too dangerous. Not because it's blatantly illegal and conducting your investigation unofficially through your maybe-one-day-girlfriend is just very silly. Ok, so maybe that's the lawyer in me...let's move along...

The mystery is cute (if a murder can be described as "cute"...) with classic clues, such as a blurry photo and a scandalous letter, a la 'Murder She Wrote'. There are of course some red herrings to keep you guessing and that guy who you know is dodgy but you can't work out why. If you poked at it too much, you'll possibly find some plot holes or things not to like but if you just suspend your brain a touch and get stuck in, you'll get swept along and be done before you know it! Yes, it's cheesy, but in an endearing way!

My only disappointment was that, in the first, Hannah was a cookie shop owner first and an accidental investigator second. That dynamic is flipped in this book; thanks to the ever-helpful (but slightly wet and annoying) Lisa, Hannah barely has to spend any time in her own shop...so she doesn't, really! Of course, the book mentions her general baking prowess and cookie generosity all the time so that you don't forget that Hannah is the greatest baker in the town!

To add some sugary realism, the chapters are interspersed with the recipes that feature in the story. I know that to some this might be distracting but it was actually the reason I started reading the series in the first place! They're "annotated" by Hannah so that they do fit into the story and sound just scrumptious! Except for Hawaiian Flan, which doesn't grab me at all...

This isn't the kind of series that I want to run out and buy all at once just so that I can keep going. In fact, I think if I read more than one in a row, I would find myself with murderous tendencies! They are fun though, and if I spot Blueberry Muffin Murder going cheap, I'll almost definitely pick it up for a day when only baked goods will do!

Overall: The literary equivalent of curling up in a squishy chair, grabbing something sticky and sweet to eat and sipping endless cups of coffee. A delicious spot of 'whodunnit' fun that's perfect to while away a rainy afternoon or two!

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I didn't realise but this series is still being expanded pretty rapidly by Ms Fluke and now boasts an impressive 16 instalments! For more information than I could possibly give you, Joanne Fluke's website is pretty comprehensive!

Also, back when I started my blog, I didn't use a rating system. If I had, this one would have got
3 stars...

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Booking Through Thursday: Carrying a book? Hiding it behind a newspaper?

Booking Through Thursday is a weekly meme that buoys bloggers through the end of the week by letting them chat happily about general bookish goodness!

I spotted this week's question and, because it reminded me of something that I surprised myself by doing earlier today, figured it was as good a time as any to join in. So this week's questions:

Do you carry books with you when you're out and about in the world? And, do you ever try and hide the covers?

The first part is easy: YES! I always, always have a book with me, no matter where I'm going or what I'm doing. That was true when I had to lug around paperbacks and it's absolutely still true now I have an eReader (though true, the handbags can be smaller!)

So do I hide book covers? When I was younger and worried about what people thought, I used to not take out the books I thought were at the geekier end of the spectrum, i.e. anything that might get me pegged as a "sci-fi nerd". I'd read Robert Jordan and Terry Pratchett at home but then switch to Louise Rennison and Jacqueline Wilson in public. Tragic, I know! :)

These days, I don't even need to think about it! If it's something particularly nerdy that might embarrass me, I'll make sure I've got an eBook version. Like...well, I can't think of anything I'd be embarrassed about now I'm more mature and less inclined to give two hoots about what someone else thought about my literary choices but still...it wouldn't be a problem if there was something!

So against that background of usually being very much a 'do-what-you-want-regardless-of-others'-opinions' kind of girl, this morning, on a jam packed commuter train, I turned a page in Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld to find a full page illustration. As soon as I saw it, I hunched down over my book and brought it closer to me to restrict the chances of the other suit-wearing passengers noticing the fact that I was reading a book that has pictures! Why? I still couldn't tell you...all I know is that before today I would have said, "I absolutely do not hide what I read!". Now I guess I'd have to say that there are times when I care!

Not, of course that I care enough to take Leviathan out of my handbag and replace it with my eReader. So I guess that's something! :) I shall be much hardier in future!

Are you an book brandisher or a book hider? Do you get twitchy without the comforting weight of a book in your bag too?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Review: 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clark

Date finished: 12 September

Rating: 5 stars

Format: Paperback and eBook

Source: Bought - Waterstones.com (both formats)

Genre: Fantasy; Historical fiction

Published: by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc in Sept 2005

The Synopsis

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me.

The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation's past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange.

Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very opposite of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.

The Review

This book has been on my shelves since I lived with my parents; it came with me when I went to university, moved back home again, moved into a flat with the boyfriend and then moved to our house. Each time I boxed/bagged/packaged it up, I eyed it guiltily. When I pulled it off the shelf in mid-August, I promised myself that it wasn't going back up until I'd read it (I only ever have one book off the shelves at any one time as I'm compelled to re-arrange those remaining so that there isn't an obvious space...don't judge me!).

Fortunately for my handbags, I spied an eBook copy for £1.99 about the same time I was rousing myself to start this. I read the paperback when I was at home and feeling strong and the eBook while I was out and about. Because I'm just that cool.

ANYway, what I'm trying to say (in a waffly manner) is that whatever excuse you have for not reading this is immaterial: you must read it if you are in any way interested in historical fiction and fantasy. This book is one of the best I have read in a long time and I heartily recommend it!

Mr Norrell is a practical magician in a world of theoretical magicians whose hope is to restore magic to England. Provided of course that is the right sort of magic that is restored. An unlikely candidate for task, Gilbert Norrell is charmless, dour and selfish man takes himself and his calling extraordinarily seriously. Before long, his relentless pursuit of purity in magic makes him the only magician in England. Which is, of course, why it is with some reluctance that he welcomes to the profession the dynamic Jonathan Strange and why their "pairing" pans out the way it does.

Both characters are perfectly drawn and, as you would expect in a novel of this length, well embellished. By the end of the book, I felt as though I knew them down to their mannerisms and preferences. It isn't only Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange that receive this level of attention either. Every single character is as complex and brilliant as real people and I was utterly lost to Clarke's world for many a happy hour. A personal favourite of mine is the mysterious and creepy Man with the Thistledown Hair - he was as fascinating as he was cruel and I loved his unpredictability.

As far as my very basic history of the period covered goes (i.e. that of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington), the story follows events with reasonable accuracy. Excepting, of course, the influence of magic. The blend of reality and magic is so natural that, if you didn't know better, you could convince yourself that you were reading history (which would be nice...).

Most importantly (for a novel of this length), Clarke's writing is impeccable. Her descriptions are almost poetic, her dialogue wry and entertaining and her characters flawless - rather than describe it, I thought I'd give you a sample...
[One of the many descriptions in this book and just a tiny example that I happened upon while writing this] "A lady was standing close by. She wore a gown the colour of storms, shadows and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets"

[In reference to the Raven King] "No one knows why in 1138 he caused the moon to disappear from the sky and made it travel through all the lakes and rivers of England. We do not know why in 1202 he quarrelled with Winter and banished it from his kingdom. Nor do we know why for thirty consecutive nights in May and June of 1345 every man, woman and child in the kingdom dreamt that they had been gathered together upon a dark red plain beneath a pale golden sky to build a tall black tower"
Without a doubt, a new favourite of mine!

Overall: If you like historical fiction with a dash of magic, read this. If you like fantasy fiction, read this. If you've never read either but are curious, (read something shorter to warm up and then) read this. If you can't bear the thought of reading 1,000 pages straight through, the story is handily divided into three volumes that you could read individually and almost as a trilogy, if you were so inclined!

Monday, 12 September 2011

(Finally!) Review: 'Odalisque' by Fiona McIntosh

How has it been so long since I last posted?! I have no clue where my weeks are going! One thing I love about my job is that I'm constantly busy and actually get to do the stuff for a living that I imagined when I was in high school and first uttered (in a naive and squeaky kind of way) my career goal. Would I still have done it if someone had said, "You know, some days you'll get home and be so tired that you won't even want to think or even read..."? Probably! But that doesn't always make for a well-populated blog. So sorry about that! I always promise myself that I'm going to do better and I do try. But then pesky life gets in the way and, well, you know how it is...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Date finished: 13 August 2011

Rating: 3 stars

Format: eBook

Source: Bought - Waterstones.com

Genre: Fantasy

Published: by Hachette Digital in February 2011

The Synopsis

Fifteen-year-old Boaz is the new Zar, freshly ascended to his throne. In the turmoil following the old Zar's death, courtiers jostle and conspire to secure their positions - not least his scheming mother, the new Valide. It seems his only genuine friends are his late father's mad jester; Spur Lazar, head of Percheron's security; and a golden beauty - a new odalisque purchased in the foothills as a slave for the harem.

But can a madman, a soldier and a concubine be trusted to keep him safe from the Byzantine manoeuvres of his father's ambitious entourage?

The Review

As I often find myself writing, this wasn't at all what I expected it to be. In fact, I say that with such regularity that I do wonder what is going on when I am buying books. The confusion/ignorance here, perhaps, came from a few things:

1. I was lured in by a pretty cover;
2. I had had a rubbish day and decided that downloading a whole host of fantasy books would make me feel better AND that meant that I was not too fussed about the whole finding-out-what-the-trilogy-was-about thing;
3. I didn't know that 'odalisque' was a real word...as opposed to a fantasy word...

What is an 'odalisque' you ask? (At least, I hope you do because that will make me feel less silly!) According to Wikipedia, and therefore of course The Trust, an odalisque is:
"Odalisques were ranked at the bottom of the social stratification of a harem, serving not the man of the household, but rather, his concubines and wives as personal chambermaids. Odalisques were usually slaves given as gifts to the sultan, bought or given by wealthy Turkish men"
You live, you learn! So an odalisque got to hang out with the Sultan's fancy-women and one day might even get to be an actual love-object herself if she's lucky! Oh, to have something to aspire to...

Perhaps that little tidbit (and this review) will help you make a more informed decision than I did! ANYway, this book is about a harem and by golly do you know it! All aspects of the physical *ahem* rituals receive unflinching . If you've ever wondered how a eunuch was "made", you're in luck! If you're squeamish, you are most definitely not...Personally, though I by no means enjoy reading about brutality, I thought that it worked in the context and does lend something other than shock value to the story. The atmosphere is brutal and the culture barbaric but that's the world that McIntosh wants us immersed in, from the safety of our armchairs or duvets; a magical slant on ancient civilisation.

This isn't the kind of fantasy where you'll have warring mage factions on every corner and faeries lending a hand. It's the kind of fantasy where something huge is definitely coming but you can't put your finger on what. There are malevolent powers abound and simmering, slightly odd ladies in churches on hills that seem to know more than everyone else and enjoy prophesising, fierce warriors and damsels in distress. Oh, and odalisques, naturally.

So, can a madman, a soldier and a concubine keep a king safe from a whole host of seriously twisted and dark foes? That, my friends, remains to be seen!

Overall: I'm going to reserve my usual gushing recommendations or damning indictments for the time being; at least until I have read the second. That should indicate my feelings enough, I hope. This was an interesting and certainly unique story and has enough going for it that I shan't be abandoning the series but had some flaws that make me reluctant to urge you all to rush off and buy it straight away....soooo...rain check?!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Changes afoot in British book retail

When the UK arm of Borders went into administration, there was a lot of speculation about whether that was representative of people's changing attitudes to books and reading in general, whether the problems were entirely apart from reading and literature and solely down to Borders as a company. Regardless of what the cause was, attention soon shifted to Waterstones and whether its fate would be the same.

Earlier in the year, it looked tragically as though people were right and that Waterstones was in trouble but, instead, it was bought out and lived to read another day.

Today, the BBC reported that Waterstones was dropping its 3-for-2 deal that has arguably been its most notable feature for many years. This might seem incidental (and probably is if you aren't living in the UK...sorry about that...) but I think its an interesting indication of how those who run such a huge bookseller perceive readers' buying patterns and, maybe, how they think they're changing.

Why the change? The question seems to be this: would you rather have a book shop where books individually were more expensive but where you could get a 'free' book as a reward for buying two OR would you rather have a book shop where everything was cheaper and you could decide how much to buy based on that instead? Perhaps '3-for-2' favours only those that want three books at the time they happen to be in the shop or those that just can't resist the lure of a free book...

And that is where I turned myself from my initial reaction ("What?! But why would they do something so heinous?!") to something much more sensible. I love getting three books for the price of two but it would be nice to be able to pop into Waterstones and buy just one book for £3 instead of £7.99 and without feeling as though I was missing out in some way by not spending another £7.99 to get an extra!

I also think that this change might help get more people into reading - the 3-for-2 appeals to the more prolific reader but may be at the expense of the occasional reader. More people might be more likely to pick up a book if they could find just one thing that they fancied at a reasonable price. If that turns out to be true, that can only be a good thing!

What about the authors? An interesting point is raised in the article I read on the BBC website and how this decision might impact upon new and/or up-and-coming authors. Many people (me among them) when browsing away some time among the 3-for-2 stands, pick two that either they knew they wanted or have heard of and use the third as an opportunity to go a little left of the field and pick something that they've never heard of but just like the look of. After all, it's free, right? It's likely that those very same authors are those whose publishers aren't going to be helping their books stay at the cheaper end of the proposed new pricing structure and will lose out. That's definitely a shame, if it turns out to be the case.

Can this change help Waterstones in its continuous battle against the internet and eBooks? Let's hope so!

To those of you in the UK: what do you think? Glad to see the back of the tempting '3-for-2' stickers in favour of the chance to snap up some bargains or mourning the loss of the wild card freebie already? Do you think it will get more people reading?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Farewell to Weekly Geeks


I had intended to post a review this evening of Odalisque by Fiona McIntosh but it seems that I'm having one of those evenings where I just don't like anything that I'm writing! Perhaps that's because I'm tired (and being tired makes me critical of everything) or perhaps it was because it really was drivel (and you're better off without it)...either way, I popped over to Weekly Geeks to check out their most recent 'assignment' and was met with this announcement:
Over the last nearly three years, the team keeping this blog running has ebbed and flowed. Mostly we've tried to be consistent in posting each Saturday and doing a wrap up each Friday. But, over the last several months not only has our focus as a team struggled, but participation in the weekly assignments has slowed to a trickle...

So after some discussion, the Weekly Geeks team has decided that it is time to end this event.
I always have a lot of respect for bloggers that put so much of their energy and time into memes and Weekly Geeks was a great one! I only participated in a few of the tasks, really, and only came to blogging a long time after its creation so can't post anything about its inspiration and the blogger in whose memory it was so devotedly maintained BUT the final post also recommends having a nosy through their archives and posting something from there so here is my choice, from way back in September 2009. It was a largely random choice but it fits with the gloom that is early September here in Yorkshire so...
It's hard to believe we're approaching the last quarter of 2009. Soon those of us in the northern hemisphere will be curled up in front of the fire (or solar heater) with our favorite wintry reads, and those in the southern will be off to the beaches with their summer books.

Do you have a plan of what you're going to read the rest of the year? Have you had a master plan all along? If so, have you stuck to it? What helps you to decide what you're going to read next? Challenges? Book groups? Or do you have the luxury of closing your eyes and picking any book off your shelf?
I'm quite disorganised when it comes to what I want to read in general and very rarely plan my reading beyond a vague consideration of what I might read next. Most of the time, I then ignore that and grab wildly at my shelves.

However, when it comes to winter, I love books that are a bit moodier, a lot more gothic and tortured and generally strike a chord with the turbulent weather outside. Think mysteries, thrillers and haunting classics! Examples from last year include The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly and Sister by Rosamund Lupton.

As I said, the chance of me sticking to this are slim-to-none but these are some of the books that I plan on hiding from the snow with this winter...

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Tess of the D'Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy

Do you plan your reading? Any particular books lined up for the winter months?

And if you want to check out Weekly Geeks and the posts that were, click here. Thanks again Weekly Geekers! You were great! :-)