The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper – 4/5 Stars

The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper - front cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a fantasy story set on the British Isles, now the Seven Kingdoms. The Drowning has already ended the Isles we know. The setting is in a time we would categorise as the dark ages, with the Church Militant, soldiers on horseback, peasants in homesteads, inns, and hard times for all.

To be honest, the first thirty pages were bizarre – a wondrous boy with pipes and a special forked tongue trained by a deceased dark wizard is the focus of a family’s attention. Tom, the Piper, goes to York, on the advice of his trusted and yet selfish guardian, the experienced Peter the Tale-Spinner. As Tom plays his special pipes stories of their performances follow them on their journey and the coin they receive from peasants makes them rich. Tom is said to be the harbinger of a prophecy regarding the White Bird of Kinship, foretold to come at the beginning of the third millennium.

This is all to the dismay of the Black Bishop at York, who fears his order and its teachings will be undermined by their presence and performance at York. He wants them dealt with, with subtlety. The contrast between light and dark is seen through tormented soldier Gyre, conflicted between his duty to the Black Bishop and the joy he felt at hearing the pipes play. This same conflict is repeated through other important characters later in the story and is mirrored by a theme that is a wish to either escape into fantasy or return to reality.

My attention waned through new characters, places, and situations and I wasn’t always sure where the author was going and how the story would tie up together. That being said, I’d say it was a novelty read, and I liked thinking about the possibilities of reality it brought up, combined with mysticism, along with the dark ages setting. The last sentence really got me thinking about what really happened, and I do think it concluded the story and removed doubt, but it’s up to interpretation. The Road to Corlay isn’t your typical dark ages fantasy. After all, the entire story is set in the future!

Richard Cowper books on Amazon

A Switch in Time by John Paul Bernett – 4/5 Stars

A Switch in Time - front cover

A Switch in Time (ASIT) is a ‘switch’ in lifestyle for two siblings, who swap with another two. We see through the eyes of 19th century coal barge workers John and Alice, how strange our modern world really is to the average Victorian young person: a world of motorised vehicles, mobile phones, global warming; and of noises, people, and futuristic buildings. It’s a time of great opportunity, but gross inequality and I think inequality is the main message in ASIT.

Much of ASIT is about spoilt, wealthy, and hateful Alicia who treats people ‘beneath her’ like dirt in modern times. She is chosen to leave these times with her brother Jamie, perhaps so she can see the value of a proper day’s work, doing as she is told, getting her fingers dirty, and of being in a loving family. She must live on the coal barge vacated by John and Alice.

Some of the values author John Paul Bernett shares include the benefits of being poor, of having more love for people than possessions, valuing hard work above reward, and respecting other people. These themes fit in nicely with the Victorian setting, where it brings forward the toil, suffering, and hardship. It’s not a Victorian novel that conforms to modern times and attitudes, and I think that’s the point.

If I thought anything could be improved in ASIT, I thought the inclusion of some scenes that related to the author’s Reaper series stuck out and didn’t conform to the general feel of the story, in my opinion. These scenes were very few. I feel the same about how some elements of the story concluded in the last chapter.

One of the things I liked best about A Switch in Time was the level of research and care taken into giving it that Victorian feel, with steam engines, barges, coal, museums, and canals. Note that my words do not do the author justice in the last sentence. Many of the locations were set in Leeds, such as Armley Mills, where I’ve been fortunate to have seen the author at steampunk events and I know and trust that he knows his steampunk as much as his horror. This is why he’s the best person to have written A Switch in Time.

Author’s Amazon Author Page

Writing Fantasy Heroes – Edited by Jason M Waltz – 5/5 Stars

Writing Fantasy Heroes - front cover

There was informative and practical advice in Writing Fantasy Heroes, from masters of the craft. Each chapter is written by a different author, and many of the authors use past heroes as examples or relate heroic deeds to how we feel as heroes and how society perceives heroes.

I found the cinematic action scenes chapter by Brandon Sanderson particularly practical and useful, by taking it in stages and making the scenes more meaningful. The examples here were superb.

Of interest to my writing was a chapter written by Jennifer Brozek on how to involve NPCs, your supporting characters, in helping to construct a story and add ‘character’ to them that can also impact how we view the main character or what it says about the main character’s personality. I found this really helpful in looking at the bigger picture of writing stories as opposed to focusing on a single main character.

Glen Cook wrote a chapter on ‘Sh*t Happens in the Creation of Story, Including Unexpected Deaths, with Ample Digressions and Curious Aside’. I found this chapter one of the most interesting reads because it was about that aspect of writing, and life, that isn’t often acknowledged: sh*t happens. And sometimes you can’t do anything about the fact that sh*t happens, only that you need to respond to it. There were enough ironic examples here to keep me fascinated in the chapter and point of view.

Writing Fantasy Heroes on Amazon

Publisher’s Website

Augmented Reality by James Jackson – 5/5 Stars

Augmented Reality by James Jackson - front cover

What was remarkable about Augmented Reality was the ideas and how they evolved throughout the book, changing society in new ways and giving the characters new problems to tackle. As a science fiction reader, I felt I got more out of it than just any dystopian society with characters fighting the status quo. Events run at a fast pace in first person, present tense. The story reads a bit like a film, based on fast-moving description with events brought to Joe’s eyes in real time or moving so fast that each chapter is relevant.

Joe is being manipulated, for the reason that the Central Authority is trying to rid itself of enemy subverts. He’s given a job position predicting stocks and a suite in a prestigious block, and is acquainted with beautiful women. Joe is shocked at his newfound success, but he keeps having dreams about coming to the rescue of a young woman and her daughter. Learning the truth about human society and the past will bring Joe revelations he could only have imagined. Acting on what he finds, with the help of many talented people, is the real challenge if they are to escape the augmented reality they were brought up believing in.

Unlike most dystopian society science fiction, author James Jackson lets us know from the first chapter that hiding the truth is normal, almost hinting that there will be no conspiracy or betrayal to come, as in Philip K Dick novels. Why is the truth being hidden? Most science fiction blames a government or corporation, but we don’t often hear the reasoning, with a mind to accept it for its virtues. At first Augmented Reality seems to be about how happiness and perfection in society is just an illusion, but there is so much more to the book than illusion. The hidden truth may be the literal opposite to happiness and perfection.

I took a lot of pleasure from reading this book, and I couldn’t stop reading the last third to see how the characters would end up because their situations kept changing in response to new problems. That being said, I especially liked the scenes with Joe, Miranda, and Gordon earlier on because they brought out Joe’s innocence and I got a good sense of what was at stake. I suppose I was curious where the story would take me. I got more out of Augmented Reality than I expected. Author James Jackson is full of surprises in his fiction.

Author James Jackson’s Website

Augmented Reality on Amazon 

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks – 4/5 Stars

Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks - front cover

‘This was because the culture saw itself as being a self-consciously rational society; and machines, even sentient ones, were more capable of achieving this desired state as well as more efficient at using it once they had. That was good enough for the Culture.

‘Besides, it left the humans in the Culture free to take care of the things that really mattered in life, such as sports, games, romance, studying dead languages, barbarian societies and impossible problems, and climbing high mountains without the aid of a safety harness.’

Sick, grotesque, twisted, perverted, mind boggling, expansive; and with high stakes: these words have come to characterise my experience of Iain M. Banks’ science fiction novels, and far from leaving me with revulsion, I’m drawn to them. In these high-concept adventures literally anything could greet you round the next corner, from mean mercenaries to ugly freakish beings.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks - back cover

A galactic war is ongoing, between the religious aliens called the Idirans, their strength coming from their evolutionary survival roots, and the atheistic Culture. It’s the Culture that really interests the author, from the main character’s (Horza) train of thoughts. Horza doesn’t agree with the Culture and their use of machines to interfere with life, and works as a mercenary for the Idirans, but during an attack he is separated from them and finds himself among a group of other mercenaries. Later, he’ll find himself in other predicaments too where he’ll have to adapt, survive, or escape. Luckily for Horza he’s a Changer, which gives him a few advantages … he can alter his appearance to infiltrate enemy organisations and he can produce acid.

Everything is done on a grand scale. There is an epic fight scene between Horza and this ‘Jabba the Hutt’ creature. The tribes and groups that pop up in this book are ludicrous, but Iain M. Banks does an excellent job of describing who they are, their history, and where they might fit in to the grand scheme of events. The entire text, if not filled with personal action and major conflict, was entertaining. There was always something happening, be it dialogue that impacted on current challenges for the characters or a new event that brought us a new perspective of the ongoing galactic war.

Consider Phlebas on Amazon

Iain M. Banks’ Website

Vows and Honor: Oathblood by Mercedes Lackey – 4/5 Stars

The Oathbound by Mercedes Lackey - back cover

The third part in the Vows and Honor omnibus is not a novel, but rather a collection of short stories. Though there are a lot of repeated stories from earlier in the omnibus, there are a lot of new stories too, one reaching back in time to when Tarma met Kethry in Swordsworn after the slaughter of her tribe. There are stories about Leslac the bard, a cup being poisoned, a large bear on the loose, a giant monster that has a town cowed, and a chambermaid being forced into abuse and then on the run for a new life.

The Oathbound by Mercedes Lackey - back cover

If you’re familiar with Tarma and Kethry’s stories you’ll love the short stories, which combine brutality, morality, adventure, and humour. If you aren’t familiar with the main novels and you’re not sure whether to try them, these short stories give a good indication of what you can expect and I don’t think you’ll leave disappointed.

 

 

Mercedes Lackey’s Website

Mercedes Lackey’s Amazon Author Page

 

Bag of Bones by Stephen King – 5/5 Stars

Bag of Bones is a complex unravelling of the present and past of the ‘TR’ village. There is much more than there appears to be behind the fabric of everyday village life – ghosts of the past that connect with present unspeakable actions. It can be difficult to know who is friend and foe, which invisible forces are at work and what they want. Between the main characters there is a psychic connection, but sometimes what moves us is deeper than the human mind can comprehend, even the mind of a writer …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was much to interest me throughout, which is mainly about Mike Noonan going back and forth between his home and Mattie Devore’s to help her with her child custody case. As you can imagine, the other villagers have noticed his interest in her and assume he just wants to take advantage of her young body, like every middle-aged man with his tongue lolling out, which was described something to that effect in the book. Mike asserts that his real purpose is to help her against her tyrant father-in-law, rich billionaire Max Devore, and the villagers’ cynicism towards him convinces Mike they are being bribed by Max Devore.

Bag of Bones by Stephen King- book cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When he’s not trying to seduce Mattie Devore, he’s in his home Sara Laughs writing his new story. His writer’s block has vanished since his wife died. The child custody case, strange noises in his house, and rearranging fridge magnets, inspire him to write a murder story. Unfortunately the ghosts that live with him do not rest, and he becomes convinced the villagers are hiding something about the past that has some relevance to Mattie Devore and her daughter Kyra. It also has relevance to Mike’s deceased wife and the child they were denied.

 

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert – 2/5 Stars

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert - front cover

Paul decided to disappear into the desert with his visions of past, present, and future. His empire disappears with him, leaving corruption, vice, and greed in his wake. The ecology of Dune is adapting, and water is plentiful. The old Fremen ways are dying out, and moisture-fat Fremen live in the towns, grown soft with privilege, and fearful of their incompetence to the tyranny.

The third Dune novel focuses on the abnormal children of Paul Muad’ Dib and Chani, who the Bene Gesserit faction fear are both at risk of becoming abominations. As if to give truth to the theory, Paul’s sister Alia is overwhelmed by the tumult of voices from the living consciousness of memory that exists inside her and she becomes tyrant, in thrall to a familiar evil voice from the first Dune book.

There were many scenes and parts I enjoyed in Children of Dune: the children attempting to escape death from the beasts of assassination, the Lady Jessica’s attempted escape from her mad daughter Alia, and Leto II’s rise to prominence.

However, more than half of the story was mired in irrelevant conspiracy, corruption, nostalgia, and uninteresting characters. Children of Dune was a disappointment, for three main reasons:

Firstly, the character focus is off, and what binds the subplots together is the planned assassination of the children of Paul Muad’Dib and Chani. Both of the parents are now dead as characters, and there wasn’t much about either boy Leto or girl Ghanima that made them unique characters. They were lenses into the past characters and events in Dune, the first story. Through the story I had my fill of all-knowing children with many memories of lives stretching back to ancient times. Though the contrast between abomination Alia and the children was meant to be illustrative, the delivery of differences was tiresome, complex, and littered through the text.

Secondly, the book was all about nostalgia: what Paul had said to Chani or his mother Lady Jessica; dead characters returning in new forms; or inflexible Stilgar being Stilgar. It was okay with Duncan Idaho in the second book Dune Messiah because the author added a more developed, if not entirely plausible, idea about his flesh being resurrected and him being given new abilities. As a character Duncan Idaho had changed. There is change in Children of Dune but the emphasis of that change wasn’t interesting enough: about a bureaucracy having grown large and corrupt, no longer recognising the days of die-hard Fremen. I thought we had covered this in Dune Messiah so returning to it and exploring it further made it read like a history of Dune than a great science fiction novel.

Third, these visions have gone too far! As with the many-lives of the children, the intricacies of how the omnipresent visions work go beyond comprehension and into a realm of justified contradiction, and of the nonsensical.

I actually really enjoyed the last third of the book, which did tie some loose ends together and it moved the story forward through immediate action – Leto II’s struggle to escape captors and learn the truth of his purpose on Dune. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ll read this book a third time.

Children of Dune on Amazon

The Official Dune Website

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham – 5/5 Stars

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham - front cover

I only had a vague idea who Chris Packham was until I saw the documentary on television, about his having Asperger’s. I thought it was a bold positive statement that instilled confidence in others with the condition, like me. I was lucky enough to receive his memoir as a gift, and I read it with interest.

The first impressions are that we get an insight into Chris Packham’s childhood and early adolescence: sights, smells, sensations, and behaviour towards people. His inventiveness and knowledge of the natural world, and at such a young age, is incredible. This unbelievable intelligence and drive continues throughout in the form of themed related memories when he was at different ages. I was more interested in his personality than the natural world, understandably, and many of his definitions went above my head but his behaviour and how he compared with others did not. Many of his difficulties resonated with me and provided me with an enhanced perspective on my own condition, where other people are concerned.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham - back cover

The message I got was that his life was a huge miserable struggle, yet it was also filled with wondrous highs – many that he created. His path to understanding himself took a long time, and most of his memories of note occurred at specific times in his life: when he was at school and when he went to see a psychiatrist.

The descriptions were complex, and weren’t always easy to absorb because of the number of terms, but this is a memoir of somebody interested in the natural world and I respected his style and understood enough to keep wanting to read an extra chapter. I had to look at the paragraphs rather than hear them, which was different.

Chris Packham’s Books

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar on Amazon

Appreciating Asperger Syndrome by Brenda Boyd – 5/5 Stars

Appreciating Asperger Syndrome by Brenda Boyd - front cover

I last read this book nearly 10 years ago, around the time of diagnosis, and back then I thought this was an extremely positive book. I recommend it even more now. Why? There is a difference, when you have Asperger Syndrome, between knowing the path and walking the path, and having walked part of the path I understood the author’s message so much more this time.

One of the problems with AS is not only having a lack of awareness about other minds, but also your own, and Appreciating Asperger Syndrome gave me some insights into situations and people with AS that helped me see differences between those with AS and non-autistic people in how we can collect information, understand it, and make use of it. For example, as mentioned in the book, sometimes people with AS give an ‘off’ feeling or only want single-sentence answers, but this just how it looks on the outside. On the inside, it’s the best way we can understand new things, and understanding is crucial.

The book also provided some insights into how we come across to the general public as people who are going out of their way to be rude or problematic when actually we have a developmental disability that is not recognised as one on the surface. It made me think of a few relevant past misunderstandings when I have been confused with people’s responses. The author, Brenda Boyd, called it a ‘relationship disability’ more than a mental one, which I also agree to be more appropriate.

Reading this book now, when Asperger Syndrome has been lumped in with autism as a single condition, has made me see differences that are now being ignored in diagnosis such as severity and public perception of the condition, which I also agree with the author, is important. There are advantages and disadvantages both sides.

Author’s Website