Thursday, 17 June 2010

Book Reviews

Honour & The Sword
A.L. Berridge
Michael Joseph
Available Now - £12.99 (Hardback)
Review by Rob Wade

It is 1636 - the height of the Thirty Years War, one of the bloodiest and most destructive conflicts Europe has ever seen. As the campaigning season begins, the Spanish armies swell out of the Artois region of the Netherlands - flooding into King Louis XIII's France. The sleepy border village of Dax-en-roi stands in their way. Facing the overwhelming might of the Spanish forces, the Chevalier de Roland rallies a valiant defence, but in vain, his household guard no match for the invaders. There is only one survivor, one soul who escapes the Spanish brutality: the lone heir to the Roland name, the son, Andre de Roland, the new Sieur of Dax ...Upon this young nobleman's shoulders all hope lies. He alone must bear the honour of the Roland name and, with it, the fate of his people...

Many people may not have heard of the author of this novel, as until recently she was involved in writing for popular soap opera Eastenders in the UK. The novel is a significant read at 640 pages in Hardback form, and one of the few main criticisms I have of this novel is the sheer length and depth of storyline involved. I understand that this is a historical novel, and that a certain amount of explanation has to come along, but the length is a major factor.

The novel is presented in the form of eyewitness accounts from people close to Andre de Roland as well as Jacques Gilbert, the young peasant who ends up his protector. The book is quite nicely spaced out in this sense, perhaps something done to combat the length, and the sections are broken up quite nicely and develop the characters in a more interesting way than purely telling you about them in straightforward prose format.

Overall I rather liked this novel; the story is well told, although I’d have preferred a bit less depth in places in terms of the length of the story. The characters are rich and interesting, with complex personalities and diverse temperaments, from the fiery Andre to the more passive Jacques. The setting is an interesting one as well, as although there are a few novels of this style, the Thirty Years War is one of those areas that I’ve not heard much from in terms of novelisations.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating
Violence: Considering it’s set during the Thirty Years war as opposed to the Thirty Years Hug, are you surprised that the answer is “quite a bit”?
Sex/Nudity: Some references to rape, but nothing to write home about. Though quite why you’d write home on that subject is anyone’s guess.
Swearing: A fair bit, mostly “bastard” and “son of a bitch”.
Summary: An enjoyable book, and certainly a sign that the author was wasted on soap operas. 8/10

Doctor Who: Apollo 23
Justin Richards
BBC Books

Available Now - £6.99 (Hardback)
Review by Kelly Prior

Apollo 23 is an exciting new adventure featuring the Doctor and his fiery young companion, Amy Pond, of BBC’s Doctor Who. The two friends attempt to spend a normal day on Earth, but their empty schedule is very quickly filled by a series of bizarre events, most surprisingly, an American astronaut turning up, as if by magic, in the middle of a shopping centre. When Amy and the Doctor find themselves stranded on a secret military base on the moon, it seems that things cannot get any worse...But, let’s face it, things are going to get a lot worse...

This short novel is certainly one for all the ages. Children will love the imaginative plot and comical dialogue, while adults will enjoy the exciting action scenes. The constant references to science and scientific theory, while sometimes complex, are not intended to hinder the plot, and you do not need to be a genius to invest in the story. The plot twists are basic at best, with very little shock value, but they are enjoyable nonetheless.

The plot itself is pretty satisfying. The narration, however, could be a lot better. It almost feels as though Richards is being lazy when it comes to writing his characters. Of course, most of us already know Amy and the Doctor from the television series but this does not excuse Richard’s failure to give these characters any real depth or description.

As the story evolves, it becomes increasingly obvious that you need to be a Doctor Who fan to fully appreciate this book. There are many references to the Doctor’s past, but no offering of any detailed explanation. Fans of the show have spent years building up a relationship with the Doctor, and it is impossible to expect one short novel to do the same. The reader really needs to have at least a basic understanding of the television series.

Apollo 23 is fun, silly and immature, in true Doctor Who fashion, but it also knows how to be serious when it needs to be. Despite the front cover looking like a first time attempt at Photoshop, and Matt Smith’s head looking remarkably like a potato, this book pretty much provides everything we would expect from Doctor Who and the BBC. You’ll finish reading it with a smile on your face, and you might even find yourself eagerly reading the “coming soon” section at the back of the book.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
References to weapons and some fight scenes.
Sex/Nudity: None. I’m not sure the world is ready to see Matt Smith naked.
Swearing: None.
Summary: If you are a Doctor Who fan, then don’t miss out on this exciting new story. If you know nothing about this strange “Doctor” I have been referring to, then this book is probably not for you. With an RRP of £6.99, though, it’s worth a curious glance if you enjoy child friendly Sci Fi. 6/10

Star Wars - The Clone Wars: No Prisoners
Karen Traviss
Arrow Books

Available Now - £7.99 (Paperback)
Review by Brad Harmer

Torrent Company's Captain Rex agrees to relieve Anakin Skywalker of his ubiquitous - and insatiably curious - Padawan, Ahsoka, for a while by bringing her along on a routine three-day shakedown cruise aboard Captain Gilad Pellaeon's newly refitted assault ship. But the training run becomes an active - and dangerous - rescue mission when Republic undercover agent Hallena Devis goes missing in the middle of a Separatist invasion. Dispatched to a distant world to aid a local dictator facing a revolution, Hallena finds herself surrounded by angry freedom fighters, and questioning the Republic's methods - and motives.

Summoned to rescue the missing operative who is also his secret love, Pellaeon - sworn to protect the Republic over all - is torn between duty and desire. And Ahsoka, sent in with Rex and six untested clone troopers to extract Hallena, encounters a very different Jedi philosophy, which shakes the foundation of her upbringing to the core. As danger and intrigue intensify, the loyalties and convictions of all involved will be tested.

Fan favourite author Karen Traviss has quit writing for Star Wars as of this novel. I’m very sad to see her go, but I can also understand her reasons (which need not be documented again here). No Prisoners, then, is her final Star Wars novel. Is it a suitable high note?

No Prisoners contains several good action sequences, and the characterisations of Anakin, Ahsoka, Padme and Pellaeon are all spot on. One is left wondering why on Earth Traviss felt a need to write Callista Ming in, though. Some parts of the EU really are best left forgotten about.

All the good aspects of this story are let down by one thing: Traviss’ obvious lack on enthusiasm. Throughout her sense of detachment is obvious, and when you’re dealing with a high action, high excitement universe like Star Wars, that’s a big, bad mistake. Everything feels half-arsed, and it’s a real shame. I wanted to come out of this thinking “Sorry to see you go, Karen”, but instead I left thinking “Fine. If you can’t be bothered...”.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Some explosions, laser gun pyooing, spacecraft battles and lightsaber combat.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: None.
Summary: A sadly flat and rather uninspiring EU offering. Traviss’ lack of enthusiasm is a wet blanket from the off. 4/10

Or Is That Just Me?
Richard Hammond
Orion Publishing

Available Now - £7.99 (Paperback)
Review by Brad Harmer

You have to wonder how some people get away with it. Christopher Lee is eight-eight years old, and he has published one autobiography, plus an extra chapter a few years later to cover The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Richard Hammond is thirty nine when he starts writing Or Is That Just Me?, and this is his third autobiography. That’s going to require some serious filler material, right?

You know what Top Gear is. You know who Richard Hammond is. This is light, easy reading fluff. There’s no real bite or substance to any of it. It’s toilet reading, at best.

Whilst Hammond’s anecdotes are often entertaining, the book in general suffers from a terrible lack of cohesion. It doesn’t feel like part of a life story. It feels like a bunch of dinner party anecdotes stapled together, with only the slightest forethought given to chronology.

Hammond’s writing style (or possibly his ghost writer’s writing style...none was credited, but I’m honestly not too sure) is not great. He makes himself understood clearly enough, but it fails to get any of his personality across. This is a real shame, as his chirpy self-deprecation is incredibly endearing in his television work, but here it’s just presented without flair and without personality. He can talk at length about an operation that involved a small drill being inserted into his bladder via his urethra...and it doesn’t even make you cross your legs.

The stories outstay their welcome by the end, and don’t even feel worthy of mentioning. Then...the book just stops. There’s no real conclusion. No summing up. No big bang. It’s just another anecdote, and then it’s the end of the book.

Presumably he’ll continue where he left off in his fourth autobiography.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
None.
Sex/Nudity: Some buttocks.
Swearing: Very mild uses.
Summary: A collection of mildly interesting anecdotes, held together by no real links. Mildly interesting if you’re a fan, but probably best avoided. 3/10

Bloodline
Mark Billingham
Little, Brown Book Group

Available Now - £6.99 (Paperback)
Review by Brad Harmer

Tom Thorne and his partner Louise have been trying to become parents, but then Louise suffers a miscarriage, which she finds devastating. Thorne tries his hardest to console her, but neither his words nor his actions seem to do the trick. At work, Thorne and his fellow detective Hendricks spend their time trading barbed one-liners, but they have a grim problem on their hands.

There appears to be a disturbing parallel between several murders in the present and the gruesome career of serial killer, Raymond Garvey – but Garvey is dead, killed by a brain tumour. Thorne and Hendricks realise that a lethal individual is murdering the children of Garvey’s victims. It’s up to them to find out why – and quickly, before more innocent victims die.

Is it just me, or is all crime fiction essentially the same story again and again? Yeah, I like fantasy and I still feel I can honestly and openly ask that question. I mean...do any police detectives have happy home lives? Do all serial killers intentionally leave cryptic clues and riddles for the police, because they want to be caught? I have difficulty with those things. Why can’t we have a crime novel where a happy and contented detective hunts down a genuinely smart and evil villain?

It sounds like I hated this book. Believe me: I didn’t. It’s the same old story we’ve seen a hundred times before, with the same characters and the same old same old everything – but it does a very good job of it. The characters are all rounded and realistic, and the writing is absolutely top notch. It may be formulaic, but if crime fiction is your bag, then you have to check this one out.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Several gory murders and their aftermaths.
Sex/Nudity: Some references.
Swearing: A realistic amount.
Summary: A well written and well characterised crime novel that is let down by some familiar territory. You’ll love this if you’re a crime fiction fan, but those with a casual interest will likely be underwhelmed. 7/10


Second Opinion: Bloodline is a really good read, I found it very difficult to put down. Tom Thorne is a completely compelling protagonist, mainly because he's written very realistically. The story is well-written and paced, and reads very much like an episode of a great crime drama on TV or at the cinema. The twists are significant, unpredictable and so well written that it won't dawn on you what's happening until just the right moment. 9/10 - Rob Wade

Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tachyon Publications

Available Now - £12.50 (Trade Paperback)
Review by Kelly Prior

Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror is an anthology of short stories that presents quite a decent collection of nail biting horror, dating from 1984 to 2005. The stories themselves range from remarkably horrific and astounding, to forgettable attempts at the genre, but it is the personal journey through the decades that makes this book truly worth reading.

The editor, Ellen Datlow, insists in her introduction that this book is “by no means a definitive collection of the best stories.” A brave attempt to make the book seem more elite, but probably not the best decision she could have made to boost sales. Did it ever occur to Datlow that perhaps her readership actually want “the best”?

The foreword by Stefan Dziemianowicz is an excellent essay chronicling the progression of horror through the years, highlighting the genre’s key influences, with particular emphasis on defending Short Horror Fiction. Each short story is prefaced by a blurb about the author. For the more intellectually driven horror fan, this volume is not simply an opportunity to read and enjoy, but also to study.

Some stories are genuinely nail-biting and terrifying pieces of fiction. Others are disappointing, often tedious and boring. From the selection of stories on offer, here are a couple that really deserve their place in Darkness:

Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament by Clive Barker takes a very basic concept; the ability to control things with the mind, and creates a terrifically compelling plot from it. If, to you, horror means blood and gore, then this is the story for you.

The Pear-Shaped Man by George R. R. Martin is intense reading at its best. Martin writes with a sinister narration which builds up to a genuinely shocking twist, something missing in a lot of modern horror fiction. You won’t see this one coming, I promise.

Darkness is basically Goosebumps for the adult generation; for people who are looking for the same thrills they experienced as children, but without the PG tag. The stories are achingly descriptive and a bit uncomfortable at times, but for the most part, they deliver what we would expect from some of horror’s best loved authors.

Want my advice? Give this one a go. But keep the lights on.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence:
Plenty.
Sex/Nudity: Sexual scenes, nudity, uncomfortable descriptions of paedophilia on two occasions.
Swearing: Not as much as you would think, but used when needed.
Summary: It’s worth investing in; something you don’t have to read all in one go, and something every horror fan should have on the shelf. Just don’t expect to enjoy every single story. 7/10

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