Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Book Review: Exigency by Michael Siemsen




I have read two previous books by Michael Siemsen, A Warm Place to Call Home and The Many Lives of Samuel Beauchamp, both part of his (a demon's story) trilogy and have recommended them several times, they are both fantastic reads. I've been eagerly awaiting the third book in the series but while I have to carry on looking forward to that one, I was immediately tempted by this new book but also intrigued - the previous books are both urban fantasies, despite the presence of demons they are set in our world, with its familiar surroundings. Exigency however, is a science fiction, set mostly on an alien planet in the future. Would I enjoy this different style as much?
 The book opens with the crew on board a space station orbiting an Earth like planet. They are on a no return mission from Earth -  they embarked on the mission knowing they would never go home and after travelling nineteen years to reach their destination are now in their eighth year of orbit. This immediately creates an interesting dynamic  between the characters, they are colleagues but living under such conditions and away from the rest of the world, for the rest of their lives, means they have also become like a family. Naturally there are conflicts to be resolved and relationships are formed. The principal character, Minnie is in a relatively new relationship with Aether but this is awkward as Aether was previously the wife of mission commander, John. As the story progresses it is the changing relationship between these three characters that forms a large and important part of the story. The rest of the crew however, are still well-rounded and interesting in their own right, I felt this was a novel that could have worked equally well as a different story had it concentrated more on the secondary characters.
Exigency is, as I said, science-fiction and so naturally there is the advanced technology you'd expect on board a spacecraft of the future and it's done very well. The tech is beyond what we have currently yet still completely believable. I particularly liked the references to what people on Earth are doing with the technology, it isn't just available to those in space, mankind as a whole are using and benefiting from it. The story at this point was involving enough that I'd have been happy if it was solely based on the craft. However, a sudden catastrophe means the crew are forced to evacuate to the planet they have been studying. This planet, Epsilon C is divided into two hemispheres, one inhabited by the more advanced Threck, the other by the savage and primitive Hynka.
What follows is an exciting and tense tale of adaptation and survival. Both the humans and aliens are multidimensional characters who make surprising, often seemingly irrational decisions and as the reader I found my emotions were pulled one way, then another. The planet too is a completely believable yet still strange, different and often dangerous world.
I'm happy then, to say that the answer to my question about whether I'd enjoy this sci-fi novel as much as the previous books by this author is a resounding yes. Exigency is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year, it's an easy cliché but I genuinely couldn't put it down. It treads a difficult line between creating a world that is alien both in term of its inhabitants and the technology available and one that is still believable and relatable, and it does so with great skill. I cared about the characters, loved the twists and can easily imagine further stories set in this compelling world. I will certainly be reading more by Michael Siemsen very soon.

Exigency is published by Fantome Publishing.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Book Review: Dodger by James Benmore




Dodger is one of those books I've been meaning for a while. When I still lived with my parents we had a Jack Russell called Dodger so it was almost fate! I have to admit however,  I'm not generally a huge fan of Dickens' books but I do make an exception for Oliver Twist and when somebody strongly recommended me James Benmore's book I immediately added it to my to be read list.
From the first few pages I was hooked. As in Dickens' novel The Artful Dodger is arrested and transported to Australia, unaware of the fates of Fagin, Bill and Nancy. This part of his life is skipped over here and we meet Dodger again on his return to England five years later when he is accompanied by an Aboriginal man called Warrigal, ostensibly his servant, having apparently made his fortune exporting wool. It swiftly becomes clear however, that Jack Dawkins hasn't  gone straight. He is actually in search of the Jakkapoor Stone, a valuable jewel with an dark history. What follows is a thrillingly exuberant adventure story, occasionally poignant and with clever twists and turns, featuring a cast of vibrant characters who would fit into any Dickens novel. We learn more about Dodger's childhood, with Fagin, here a more sympathetic character (drawn as he is from Dodger's memories), meet some of Fagin's other kinchins again, now grown up, and are even treated to a brief mention of Great Expectations' Abel Magwitch. Naturally though it's Dodger himself who is the star of proceedings and his character leaps off the page. He's an anti-hero really, unlike many of Dickens' characters who find retribution, Dodger feels no remorse for his crimes. Quite the opposite in fact, he's proud of his prowess as a pickpocket and as our narrator frequently boasts of his skills. Nevertheless we still cheer him on, willing him to succeed in his quest and to avoid a dreadful fate at the hands of the villain of the piece. He is open (except when it suits him) about who he is, an honest thief then who takes pride in his work but does so without malice. He steals because he wants something but he isn't bitter that the rich have more. The life that Oliver Twist eventually found would never suit The Artful Dodger.
It would be remiss of me to fail to mention here Dodger's beloved London, almost a character it's own right. This is Dickens' dirty and seedy London evocatively brought back to life. It's perhaps not as dark as Dickens' city because it's being described to us by Dodger, a man in love with his London who sees its flaws as part of its charm.
Dodger is one of those genuine couldn't put down books, the sort I walked around reading with the book in front of my face. It's actually been a few weeks since I read it but I've thought of it often. Luckily for me there is already a sequel, Dodger of the Dials and there is to be a third book, Dodger of the Revolution so I can look forward to more. If you are a fan of Charles Dickens read this book, if your main reference point for Dodger is Jack Wild singing Consider Yourself in Oliver! read this book, if you're not a fan of Dickens or musicals but enjoy well written and well plotted stories then read this book.

Dodger is published in the UK by Heron Books.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Book Review: The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman




I was lucky enough to win The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix when Doubleday were hosts of #bookadayuk on Twitter. As soon as it arrived, with its gorgeous cover illustration by Lynn Hatzius I decided the people at Doubleday are either genius or psychic because it's exactly the sort of book I'm drawn to!
On the face of it Raphael isn't a sympathetic character, he is after all a serial killer and an unrepentant one at that. Yet this darkly humorous novel had me cheering for our unlikely anti-hero. It's wholly unbelievable of course, this man who spent years living on the streets who also spent time as a Hollywood star and was at various times a prisoner of war,  a butler and and member of a successful rock band, The Executioners when in his sixties, with the whole sex, drugs and rock n roll lifestyle that came with it. However, rather like The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared it's the sort of book that delights in its sheer incredulous nonsense. The story is told by the elderly Raphael who has a suicide pill ready to end his life on his hundredth birthday (Raphael Ignatius Phoenix - RIP) but has decided to document his extraordinary life before the time arrives for him to end it. He decides to write his memoir on the walls of the castle he now lives in, describing his murders and the events leading to them in reverse chronological order. This in itself creates moments of drama and humour, will his ageing body be up to the task? Will he be able to write his words on the damp and musty castle walls? And has he bought enough pens?
It's not the done thing of course to sympathise with a murderer and yet as each story unfolds it's Raphael who the reader is cheering for. He is often a man driven to the brink of exasperation by others and finally flips. His methods of dispatching his victims are as unique as the man himself and shouldn't be given away here. You'll need to read the book to see why cream cakes, pumpkins, teddy bears and alligators are involved.
It's probably not a book to everybody's tastes but it's one of the most memorable books I've read this year with a surprisingly touching ending and I loved it. I was saddened to read that the author, Paul Sussman died suddenly in 2012 without ever seeing its publication, having consigned it to a drawer while he wrote other books. His wife thankfully managed to have it published posthumously and it's a fitting legacy, an absolute treat to read.

The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman is published in the UK by Transworld.

Book Review: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín



There are some books that rack up the tension and have you on the edge of your seat as you are compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens.
Nora Webster is not that sort of book. However, as much as I love the former there is also a place in the book world for the quieter, more observational stories. This latest book by Colm Tóibín falls into the category. It follows the eponymous Nora, a young widow in Enniscorthy, County Wexford in Ireland as she adjusts to her life without her husband and with two young sons and two elder daughters. As I said previously this isn't a book of high tension, Nora deciding whether to buy a record player or join a union is about as exciting as it gets. Yet it's still a compelling read, a beautifully observed character study of a woman dealing with the obvious loneliness, fear and grief while having to cope with more practical matters too, financial insecurity, her children's problems, the watchful eyes of her family and the local town. Nora is a flawed character, strong yet stubborn, ready to stand up for her children yet frequently, lost as she is in her own grief, blind to their needs. She is often stifled by the town she lives in, where everybody knows everybody else's histories but nevertheless still often reliant on this close community albeit at times begrudgingly. The story covers a few years as gradually Nora comes to terms with her loss and makes peace with her past, finding solace in music and singing. Set against a backdrop of an Ireland going through political upheaval, the scandal of Charles Haughey being implicated in the Arms Crisis while in Northern Ireland, Bloody Sunday politicises people both sides of the border, Nora Webster is a deeply evocative, insightful and honest novel which proves you don't always need high drama to create a memorable and touching read.
My thanks to the author and publishers for my copy received through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Nora Webster is published in the UK by Penguin.

Book Review - Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon by Linda Newbery



This is a difficult review to write, not because I didn't enjoy it, quite the opposite in fact, but it's a story that's teeming with secrets and I'm mindful to give nothing away.
The basic premise is that Anna's then teenage sister, Rose disappeared twenty years ago. No body was every found and the family have no idea whether she chose to leave or was taken and whether she is still alive. Twenty years of not knowing takes its toll on the family, Anna struggles to commit to her relationship with Martin, even forming a friendship with his ex-wife Ruth. Meanwhile her parents, Sandy and Don finally decide to sell their family home with all its memories but with so much unsaid between them can they go through with it?
The story cleverly switches between the present, the past before Rose's disappearance and even further back to when Sandy was a teenager. Gradually secrets are laid bare as the readers and the family learn of the decisions made by them and by others that eventually affected them all.
Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon is a compelling, often achingly sad novel. It's a well structured family drama with unexpected twists and believable, sympathetic characters. This is Linda Newbery's first adult novel, I very much hope to read further books from her in the future, in the mean time I recommend you read this one.
My thanks to the author and publishers for my copy received through NetGalley in return for my honest review.

Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon is published in the UK by Doubleday.