Saturday 30 November 2019

Taking a pop at the fizzy drinks industry

The Accidental SpurrtThe Accidental Spurrt by Walt Pilcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vintage Pilcher and a great follow up to Everybody Shrugged (which now looks prescient given the state of world politics). The Accidental Spurrt takes a pop at the fizzy drinks industry. Pilcher is a master of the absurd. The strands of multinational concerns, of personal relationships, of struggling individuals just trying to eke out a living all coalesce with breathtaking speed and you can only watch with gritted teeth as the collision happens in front of your eyes.

Mark Fairley is pushed into taking on a job for Spurr Nutritionals. He has no choice, having just been downsized out of employment. They want him to ghostwrite the history of the family business, no more, no less. They certainly don't want him, or anyone, getting wind of the bizarre accident on the bottling line. Mark himself wants no more than an uncomplicated relationship with the firm so he can do the job and get the dosh.

Alas, we don't always get what we want.

View all my reviews

Saturday 23 November 2019

The Forge: Fire and Ice - SciFan anthology

The Forge: Fire and IceThe Forge: Fire and Ice
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Forge: Fire and Ice is a science fiction and fantasy anthology. It has a fascinating Foreword by Doctor Who and Harry Potter actor, Simon Fisher Becker, who nicely ties in the title with the theme of the collection. The stories themselves are the winners and shortlist from a SciFan competition run by Fantastic Books Publishing plus two professional author contributions.

The five major prize winners are the stand-out stories. Forged by Dan Staniforth, a haunting tale that plays with memory, is the worthy winner. It’s a story that will stay with you. All the Time in the World by JX Plant took second place; the story of a future catastrophe told through the very tight lens of a bed-bound protagonist. Third place went to A Worm in the Toffee Apple by RL Kerrigan, a gripping story of a future society, the lens again focused down to a single protagonist.

Along with the winners, three more stories were singled out as highly commended. These were Tim Gayda’s edge-of-seat space adventure, The Button; Kitty Waldron’s Speak Before You Think, exploring the potential nightmare of AI systems gone wrong; and Boris Glikman’s The Light of Their Lives, a truly original take that explores what happens when the advertising moguls get their hands on light itself.

The professional contributors are Danuta Reah with Out Of Her Mind, a tense psychological tale; and Stuart Aken with Greed is Good, looking at mankind’s worst excesses.

The rest of the collection comprises nineteen stories from the competition shortlist: All the King's Men by Katie Lewis looking at the human story behind future genetic augmentation; Blind Alley by Emily Wootton, a spine-tingling chase through a future urban landscape; By the Grace of the Two Suns by Ed Newbould, cleverly playing with the fire and ice theme in a world of superstition and vigilante justice; The Yellow Bus by Helen Parker is a delightful tale of a mobile library with a portal to the worlds of the books it carries; Damned If You Do by Alan Paine is the futuristic tale of someone with a stark choice: death by fire, death by ice.

Elemental Sacrifice by John Hoggard brings fire, ice and drama into a well-crafted fantasy world of dwarves and wizards; Lagoon, a second story by RL Kerrigan, plays with the ideas of isolation and global threat; Responsibility Discharged (Fired and Iced) by CM Angus is another of the ones that plays ingeniously with the theme, where a fired employee has literally been put on ice. Fire and Ice by Louisa Morillo is a superbly described restaurant scene, one to avoid reading with your dinner. The Mandarin by Robin Bilton explores the machinations of a future society through the concepts of obligation and betrayal.

Frost Fires by Pierre Le Gue, set on a train journey with a difference, is one of those stories where the air of menace grows gradually; Frozen Fire by Rachel Lovat is one of several tales that uses man-made climate change as a theme albeit a far-reaching one, and is also one of those stories where the menace creeps up slowly as you shuffle ever closer to the edge of your seat. The Cold Ones by Joseph D Wheeldon again racks up the tension, taking fire and ice, heat and cold to the heart of a survival tale; Justice in the ’Pool by Jonathan Edwards has an entertaining take on the book’s theme, using it to create a futuristic police drama; one of several stories that made me smile.

Lucantha by Sue Hoffmann neatly winds the topic of the book around the idea of tales told by the fireside; The Separation of Fire and Ice by Mira Callahan is a crisply told narrative that has an interesting synergy with the winning story, Forged, although they are very different. Indeed, it is a recurring thread through the book, the way that the stories – all unique – bounce off each other as the fire and ice theme is explored.

On the Slope of Survival by Lynn McInroy is one of the stories that explores extreme climate shifts and follows a community on a treadmill of second guessing what the new seasons will bring, cleverly mirroring the real fire and ice with the ebb and flow of the main character’s key relationship; The Despoilers by Dominic Bell gives a different take on climate change where catastrophe comes from off-planet in a story with a strong sense of place that gives a global view; and finally, Adolescent Rebellion by Ann Bupryn, plays out in a single room, exploring the relationships between three generations through the focus of the fire in the grate and the ice in granny’s cup.

The stories from the competition shortlist are all worthy supporters of the excellent winning half dozen and the pair of professional contributions. All of this set of charity anthologies is professionally edited and it shows in what is overall a slick, professional collection that makes for a page-turning read.

View all my reviews

Saturday 16 November 2019

April Taylor's Tudor Enigma Series

Court of Conspiracy (The Tudor Enigma, #1)Court of Conspiracy by April Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

April Taylor’s Tudor Enigma series are historical fantasy. In this world, Henry VIII’s son by Anne Boleyn survived birth and grew to adulthood. There was no 3rd (4th, 5th or 6th) marriage for Henry VIII, and on his death Henry IX became king.

The book follows the fortunes of of a number of characters as political scheming against the new king unfolds. Key amongst them is Luke Ballard, an apothecary and elemancer. Myth and magic are woven into this alternative history, but it is set within an authentic Tudor setting.

Henry IX must marry and produce an heir. His sister and half-sister, Elizabeth and Mary, might yet snatch history away from him. Anne Boleyn, now dowager queen, is very much in evidence working to protect her son from people, politics and religion.

The twists and turns mirror the complex world of Hampton Court Palace where the story unfolds; royal quarters, twisting corridors, hidden rooms, secret entrances. Luke must navigate the contrast of life within the walls and outside as he strives to do his duty, to use his skills for good, and to keep a step ahead of those who only want to use him as a tool to achieve their own ends. If he could only be sure whose intentions were pure and whose were purely evil, his path through life would be a whole lot easier.

A pacy narrative based on an intriguing premise and set against a meticulously researched historical background.

Taste of Treason (The Tudor Enigma, #2)Taste of Treason by April Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

More magic and romance from an alternative Tudor England where Henry IX is on the throne.
This is the second of April Taylor’s Tudor Enigma series.

Enemies of the state target Henry’s wife, Queen Madeleine. In the complex political world of Tudor England it is hard for any royal to know who they can and can’t trust. Dowager Queen Anne turns again to apothecary and elemancer Luke Ballard, who must stretch his powers to their limits when he finds himself up against a conspiracy that encompasses magic stronger than his own.

You might think at times that you know where the story is leading, but it will surprise you as the twists and turns unravel towards their conclusion.

Within the context of magic and alternative history, the harsh realities of life in Tudor times are starkly drawn. A real page turner.

Mantle of Malice (The Tudor Enigma, #3)Mantle of Malice by April Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third of April Taylor’s Tudor Enigma series and a worthy successor to the first two. In this book, Taylor really stretches her wings and takes us into a wider Tudor world, bringing in more of the characters familiar to anyone who has brushed up against this much-studied period of history.

Having thwarted all attempts to dispose of the king's wife, Queen Madeleine, before she could produce a child, Henry IX’s enemies now turn their attention to his son and heir. The child is kidnapped and the ramifications could bring the country to its knees. It becomes vital to know who their real enemies are. Is this a Catholic conspiracy looking to bring England back to Rome or is it something simpler and closer to home? Elemancer, Luke Ballard, who should now be at the height of his powers finds himself struggling and doesn’t know why.

The detailed view of Tudor society at all levels from royalty to pauper gives the feel of looking back into real people’s lives.

View all my reviews

Tuesday 12 November 2019

A Convenient Marriage – romance with a difference

A Convenient Marriage by Jeevani Charika is a book about a young woman, Chaya, torn between love and duty who finds a compromise in a marriage of convenience and friendship to Gimhana. But it was never going to be that simple and as the years go by friendship isn’t always enough. Chaya and Gimhana have built a lot together, but in the end will they decide to risk it all to follow their hearts?

It had been a perfect marriage… until they fell in love. 

A Convenient Marriage is available here: 

Thursday 31 October 2019

Enervation: book 3 in the Shadeward series (and yes, there is going to be a book 4)

Enervation (Shadeward Book 3)Enervation by Drew Wagar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Enervation is the 3rd in Drew Wagar's Shadeward series. A must-read for anyone who has been following the stories since book 1. If you haven't read the earlier books, I recommend that you get them and read them in order. You won't lose the adventure and excitement if you read out of order, but the drama will have much more depth for knowing how the characters developed and what shaped them.

Kiri and Zoella remain key players, as do the crew of the Mobilis. In this book strands come together in ways that are surprising and dramatic, but satisfyingly inevitable once all the pieces settle together. No spoilers - it's hard to know quite what to write about a 3rd book without giving away anything to spoil the reading of the earlier two - but this book, like the rest, is very cleverly constructed. And it is hard science-fiction throughout. You can find yourself forgetting that as the story unfolds through the eyes of the different characters.

The main thing though is that the story will pick you up and sweep you along from start to finish. I was very pleased to learn that there will be a book 4.

View all my reviews

Thursday 24 October 2019

The Star Protocol - science fiction at breakneck speed

The Star ProtocolThe Star Protocol by Ramon Marett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's not often that passions for space adventure, science fiction and archaeology join forces in the same book, but that's clearly what lies behind The Star Protocol.

Protagonists Dash and Will are professional soldiers, special forces with special skills and training, and the adventure they are thrown into tests their professionalism to its limits (and sometimes beyond). They have some staunch allies along the way, but frankly, without their rock-hard attitude of 'deal with the problem first and then worry about what the hell's going on' no one else would make it through - not even the MI6 agent who turns out to be nursing quite a secret of his own (but no spoilers), and certainly not the father-and-daughter archaeologists looking for ancient artefacts in the Iraqi desert, unaware they'd wandered into a war zone.

This is science fiction at breakneck speed.

View all my reviews

Saturday 19 October 2019

Gravity's Arrow - be careful what you wish for

Gravity's ArrowGravity's Arrow by Jack Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a young adult space adventure. The protagonist is 12-year-old Fhiro who thinks of his life as pretty mundane - hemmed in by parental rules, envious of an older brother who has so much more freedom, and pestered by a younger sister who is as irritating as only a younger sister can be. He yearns for adventure.

Fhiro has no clue that his whole family has been living on a knife-edge, a hair's breadth from calamity. When the axe falls, it falls suddenly and hard, and they are all running for their lives. When Fhiro wished for adventure, this was emphatically not what he had in mind.

Gravity's Arrow is fast moving and wide ranging with plenty of drama.

View all my reviews

Monday 27 May 2019

August extravaganza in the making

This is where I'll be mid August, by the sea, looking out over one of the East Coast's biggest expanses of sandy beach. Both a popular destination (for those in the know) and also something of a hidden gem.

And in a quiet corner amidst the drone racers, the virtual reality gamers, the retro board gamers, the escapers, the nerf warriors and large contingents from the casts of Star Wars, Dr Who, Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen, will be a crop of newly hatched fiction - five brand new titles, I'm not allowed to say which (but must remember to edit this blog as soon as authorised) plus several titles launched before the event. Mostly Sci-Fi and Fantasy for the FantastiCon launch of course, but a gripping mix all in all.

#fantasticon #onwards

Thursday 11 April 2019

The Dark Side of the Modern Student

Chasing an Amazon link for someone who wanted a copy of Preparing for Higher Education Study, I couldn’t help noticing the “Customers who bought this item also bought” section. I know that the book has sold a good few copies, yet only one book sits in this section. Why might that be?

1. Students don’t buy books from Amazon – unlikely.

2. Students buy textbooks one at a time, thus their other purchases don’t show up in this section – maybe, but who knows? I certainly don’t know how Amazon’s background processes work, but I rather hope this is the answer.

3. Reason no 3 requires exploration of the link between those wanting a higher education and their choice of reading matter.
Preparing for Higher Education StudyThe Dummies’ Guide toSerial Killing. OK, let’s just not go there and assume the solitary book-buying habits behind reason no 2.

Sunday 10 February 2019

The Rocking Horse Diary

The Rocking Horse DiaryThe Rocking Horse Diary by Alan Combes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alan Combes tackles a key 21st century topic in this one. Told through the diary of an 11-year-old boy, it charts the gradual decline into dementia of his beloved granddad. Sounds bleak but it's actually full of laughs. It has had a lot of reviews from schoolchildren. The general view averages around "Sad but funny, and I loved the bit where..."
The author says people, especially children, need to know about dementia. It is becoming a large part of our 21st century world, and he's right. This is something that a lot of young people will be forced to confront, and knowledge will counter fear.
The illustrations are superb.

View all my reviews

Thursday 31 January 2019

Makeover by Barbara Lorna Hudson

MakeoverMakeover by Barbara Lorna Hudson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Makeover is women's fiction dealing with some difficult topics including abuse and addiction. The characters are cleverly drawn. They match and they clash. Tables get turned in very subtle ways. The book left me with vivid mental images of Lucille and Walter and also of parts of Oxford beyond the traditional old college context. It was an intriguing read. Light without being lightweight. I recommend it.

View all my reviews

Thursday 17 January 2019

The dangers of becoming disorientated in deep water

Our health services are chronically under-staffed after years of austerity (for which no one ever made a credible case, but that’s a different debate) and we desperately need to train up all the capable people we can. And there are plenty of very capable people, many of whom are already in demanding responsible health-related jobs. They want to take a step up, to take on more senior roles, to gain the skills and knowledge that a healthcare professional needs in the modern world.

They queue in droves to make the leap on to the healthcare professional career ladder by going back into higher education to gain the relevant qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience.

But for many it can seem a leap too far. These are the people who, for a variety of reasons, haven’t been in higher education (or maybe in any kind of formal education) for many years. Some struggled through school battling undiagnosed conditions such as dyslexia, and ended up feeling inadequate, as though their inability to learn the same way their peers did was all their fault.

There is a gap to bridge. Operating at higher education level is not simply a matter of stepping through the door and taking education on board. Basically, it involves reading, writing and thinking. We can all do all three – so how hard can it be?

Consider this: you’ve never done any scuba diving but you’d like to. You know how to swim because you go to your local pool occasionally and do a few lengths; you know how to breathe; you’ve been doing it all your life. So if you wanted to scuba dive in the ocean, all you would need to do is take a boat out to deep water, strap on a tank and jump in. Right?

Wrong (of course). You’d be lucky to survive the experience.

Stepping up to higher education is the same, but the negative effects of getting it wrong are not quite so immediate as the scuba diving example.

You won’t drown or die from the bends or get disorientated in deep water and never see the sun again, but you will feel a sense of drowning in words if you don’t learn ways to read, absorb and critically evaluate huge amounts of information; you will despair at ever putting together a coherent argument if you don’t hone your thinking skills and learn to distinguish fact, from opinion, bias from evidence, and to recognise the tricks that are used to derail logical thought.

Your ability to read, write and think had better take a huge leap forward if you are to keep your head above the higher education waterline.

Preparing for Higher Education Study isn’t just a book title, it’s something you need to do if you want to emerge from the deep waters of higher education unscathed, stronger and ready to take on the world.