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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G.W. Dahlquist

Regular readers might have noticed that I’ve dropped the ball recently when it comes to the Literary Exploration Challenge. For the past couple of months I’ve been really busy at work and also seem to have had an array of way-too-tempting titles at hand that just didn’t fit in with the specifications of the challenge. But I’ve given myself a good pep talk and have resolved to carry on in earnest. Even if the chances of completing the list before the end of December are looking slim, at least I can carry on pushing my own boundaries and discovering new avenues.

With that in mind, I turned to one of the genres that I have been most intrigued to tackle: STEAMPUNK. In principle it appeals to me. Daring adventurers, a hint of the fantastical and maybe a bit of science fiction, all on a background of the grubby glamour of the Victorian age. How could I resist? Unfortunately when searching for examples of the genre to try, I found that the Steampunk market seems to be flooded with lots of samey YA trilogies, and while I’m sure some of these are really entertaining, as a newcomer to the genre it’s difficult to differentiate between the gems and the tripe.

Enter G.W. Dahlquist. I cannot for the life of me remember how this series landed on my radar but it had been on my wishlist for a while and I snapped it up in the charity shop next to my dentist's as a treat after a particularly nasty filling. Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is quite an imposing book but I had the impression that putting the effort in would reap rewards. It seemed to be a more ‘grown-up’ Steampunk choice that would satisfy my inner literary snob.

The plot of Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is complex and almost impossible to summarise. We make the acquaintance of three characters from wildly different backgrounds and with completely separate agendas who get thrown together, finding themselves fighting a common evil. The well-heeled Miss Temple is a refined lady who is trying to find out why her ex-fiancĂ© had a sudden change of heart about their forthcoming nuptials. Svenson is a doctor – though you wouldn’t believe it from his incessant chain-smoking – who is acting as chaperone to the wayward young prince of his obscure Germanic state. And the (almost) blind assassin Cardinal Chang is shocked when he turns up at his latest job to find someone has already done the hard work for him, leaving a still-warm corpse in their wake. Somehow this unlikely trio end up working together against a deadly league of soldiers, aristocracy, prostitutes and general wrong ‘uns.

The first thing I need to do is state the obvious and warn you that this is a very long book. And to be honest, it’s longer than it strictly needs to be. Be prepared to read through lengthy descriptive passages and lots of scenes of action and killing that don’t serve to further the plot in any significant way. I wouldn’t class it as a particularly ‘easy’ read, either, being a novel that really demands your attention and needs to be devoured in thick wedges to maximise your enjoyment. There are countless extraneous characters with unpronounceable names to try and remember. But I found it to be worth making this effort.

Dahlquist has created an enchanting environment rooted in 19th century England but with just enough ‘off’ details to make it feel slightly otherworldly. It has all the classic hallmarks I was hoping to find in a Steampunk novel – horse-drawn carriages, a labyrinthine manor house, alchemy, dodging of bullets, airships, and heaps of derring-do. There’s a lot of action and a lot of fun. At the same time there is a subtle eroticism running through the whole thing, and not in a Fifty Shades way. I also adored the sparky dialogue, particularly the ascerbic wit of Miss Temple:

"First you say I am a murderer - an agent in league against you - and now I am a deluded heartsick girl! Pray make up your mind so I can scoff at you with precision!"

It is strange that despite finding this novel a dreary slog at times, I couldn’t put it down. I would find myself thinking ‘oh come on, get on with it’ but at the same time was compelled to read more. It is a flawed book in many ways but gets away with it as there is so much really great stuff in there too. I wonder if it might have benefited from a more ruthless editing process to prune out the filler. In any case, I found it very enjoyable and would definitely consider finding out what happens to the trio in the next volume of this series the next time I have some spare hours on my hands.

Since finishing this book I’ve discovered that the Literary Exploration blog has written a handy post which is a good place to start for anybody considering dabbling in Steampunk. Does anybody else have any recommendations of Steampunk favourites for me to try?

Monday, 29 July 2013

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

I left it far too long between reading the promising first installment in the Rivers Of London series and picking up this second book. But after giving away a copy as part of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop, and then meeting Ben Aaronovitch at the Newbooks magazine Readers' Day last month (he is a great speaker, really, really funny) I thought it was high time I got on with Moon Over Soho. And I am very happy that I did!

Last time we met Peter Grant he was finding his feet in his new role as apprentice magician to the Met. He had played a big part in shelving his first case and had just about got to grips with how to follow clues left by magical 'vestigia'. Now London is a city that never sleeps, so things haven't let up at all for Peter as we begin book two. If anything, his workload has increased. Someone - or something - has been doing the rounds of the city's nightspots, seducing unsuspecting victims and having a good chomp on the most delicate parts of their anatomy. And at the same time, something is amiss within the city's jazz scene. Several jazz musicians have met an untimely demise in suspicious circumstances and it seems like magic might have had a part to play in their deaths. Unfortunately the big boss, Nightingale, is on extended sick leave, so Peter is essentially left to keep things ticking over single-handedly at The Folly.

On reading Rivers Of London I was bowled over by the author's world-building. I loved the characters and found the dry humour irresistible. The main reservation I had was that the plot felt a bit vague and meandering, and didn't grab me as much as I had hoped. I am delighted to say that I found Moon Over Soho much more satisfying in this regard. The mystery/crime-solving element is solid and I was gripped from the start.

I liked Peter Grant already, but even more so after reading Moon Over Soho. He's a really strong and engaging protagonist and I can't see myself tiring of him any time soon - I can imagine this series will run and run. Sure, he has his moments of idiocy and a fondness for a pretty face that often clouds his professional judgment, but at the same time he shows real skill and intelligence. I love reading about his thought processes and the experiments he conducts to attempt to understand how magic works. A quibble I've often had when reading other fantasy books with a contemporary setting is that I find it irritating when a character is confronted by something extraordinary or supernatural and swiftly accepts it without question. Peter uses magic on a daily basis but retains an acute awareness that his situation is incredibly bizarre, and is always trying to find a scientific basis for the paranormal phenomena he observes.

It's a delight to read, chock-full of genuine laughs and great one-liners. I have been tentatively increasing my Kindle reading lately, and while I'm not a fan of the 'popular highlights' function it was very interesting to note the significant number of highlighted passages in Moon Over Soho compared to any other book I've encountered. It's very quotable:

"For a terrifying moment I thought he was going to hug me, but fortunately we both remembered we were English just in time. Still, it was a close call."

"It’s a truism in policing that witnesses and statements are fine, but nothing beats empirical physical evidence. Actually it isn’t a truism because most policemen think the word ‘empirical’ is something to do with Darth Vader, but it damn well should be."

I have Whispers Underground lined up to be read very soon, and this time I don't think I will be leaving it quite so long to catch up with events at The Folly. And if you're one step ahead of me, the fourth book in the series, Broken Homes, is available to buy in the UK since last week!

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a great book that had me utterly charmed. I had read many positive reviews of this one, and noted that it made it onto this summer's Richard and Judy Book Club list, but had no idea just how much I would enjoy it.

Alex Woods is an average, unassuming schoolboy who lives an ordinary life with his Mum in the South West of England. At least, that is the case until he is unlucky enough to be struck on the head by a meteorite that comes hurtling through his bedroom ceiling when he is ten years old. After that, nothing can be the same again. His face is plastered all over the national press, his infamy leads to plenty of unwanted attention from the local school bullies, and in addition, he has to learn to deal with the regular seizures that come as sequelae of his traumatic brain injury. It's a lot for one kid to deal with, but luckily he has support from his oddball Mum and his reclusive friend and neighbour Mr Peterson.

The book starts in a dramatic fashion as Alex is stopped by border police while trying to enter the UK at a ferryport with 113 grams of home-grown marijuana and an urn full of human remains in the passenger seat. Having well and truly hooked the reader from the off, Alex tells the story of how he ended up in such a pickle, starting with the day of his freak encounter with that whopping chunk of celestial rubble. Extence makes absolutely sure that from the first page you are not going to want to put this book down.

Alex is a thoroughly charismatic protagonist. At times he seems naive, elsewhere he gives the impression of being wise beyond his years. It is touching to see him keep the unlikeliest of company in Mr Peterson and the eclectic mix of people in his Kurt Vonnegut book club. It really made me think about how the closest friendships can sometimes be found in the most unexpected places. Alex also has a definite sense of right and wrong and approaches some very heavy ethical issues in a logical, black-and-white way. His moral dilemmas are dealt with very sensitively and I had a real lump in my throat at the end of the book.

I will finish by saying that Kurt Vonnegut is one of my all-time favourite authors and the prospect of the Vonnegut references was definitely a major reason why I picked this book up in the first place. So perhaps the greatest praise I can give to The Universe Vs Alex Woods is that it has made me look at passages from some of my favourite books in a new context, and honestly I feel it has enhanced my enjoyment of them.

I think The Universe Vs Alex Woods is a book with widespread appeal. I hope this review has piqued your interest!

Many thanks to the folks at Hachette for giving me the opportunity to read this one via NetGalley.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Killing Cupid by Louise Voss & Mark Edwards

Things have been a little quiet on the blog front lately as I've been super busy at work doing lots of on-call shifts and trying to get my end-of-year appraisal sorted. But now most of that's out of the way, the sun is shining and I have a week off to enjoy with some good books. And while I haven't been blogging, I've certainly been reading plenty, so I have a few reviews for you coming up this week. It's good to be back!

Let's start with a nice easy read that would be perfect to zip through in a few days sitting in the sunshine. It's a rare beast - a psychological thriller that actually manages to be quite fun to read, with a really good sense of humour.

Siobhan is having a bit of a difficult time of things. Her relationship has just come to an unhappy end and she has been struggling to write her 'difficult second novel' for what seems like ages. She hopes that taking a position as tutor of a creative writing class at the local college will give her something new to get enthused about, but even that turns out to be a bit of a damp squib when only six students turn up for the first session. Things go from bad to worse when one of the students, Alex, develops an unhealthy obsession with Siobhan and begins pursuing her and showering her with ill-chosen gifts. He's convinced that this stalking is the best way to display the true depth of his love for his teacher.

Then, about halfway through the book Alex meets someone new, a kind and pretty blonde who loves him back. He throws himself into a fresh, healthy relationship, and Siobhan gets rid of the stalker who has been tormenting her for weeks. Seems like a win-win situation, right? But Voss & Edwards cleverly turn the whole story on its head with a really great twist. It's difficult to say exactly how without spoilers and I am loath to ruin anybody's potential enjoyment by giving too much away. Suffice it to say, the plot takes an unexpected direction and both the main characters are shown in a completely different light.

Apart from the twisted plot, I found that this book's great strength was its humour. I think I've written on here before that as thrillers go, I find stalkers particularly chilling to read about. Something about them just leaves me with a cold heaviness in the bottom of my stomach. But Killing Cupid is done with a really light touch and there were several sinister moments that made me chuckle, despite the dark subject matter.

I believe this was the first book that Voss & Edwards wrote in partnership, and they have published a few more since. The plot of Killing Cupid lends itself particularly well to a writing duo (the chapters alternate between Alex and Siobhan's points of view). I can't imagine how they make this work elsewhere, but their other books seem to have been well-received so I'm definitely interested in reading more.