Sunday, March 28, 2010

heap of reviews coming soon... including robin hobb's dragon haven, horns by joe hill, carrie vaughan's kitty series & reviews of giant robot, yen & surface magazines + more

I've been so busy with actual work lately - the kind that pays the bills - that I haven't had a chance to get to review all the books I've read over the last week or so. I've also got a couple of great magazine reviews to do as well.
On my list are:
Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb - this is the second book in the Rain Wilds Chronicles and it's every bit as good, if not better, than the first book of the series. I actually read it entirely in one sitting, until about 6am in the morning - on a work night!
Kitty's House of Horrors by Carrie Vaughan - the next book in the 'Kitty the werewolf radio host' series of stories. Yep, a werewolf called Kitty, ironic, right? This is typical Vaughan; great urban fantasy easy-read.
The Elusive Bride by Stephanie Laurens - completely gooey historical romance; although you could say there's a touch of fantasy to it as well since the very posh bride gets a bit more raunchy than you'd think during the British Raj! Lots of fun to read, though. It's part of Laurens' Black Cobra Quartet.
Horns by Joe Hill - oh, the magnificent Joe Hill! This is a great urban horror story with a touch of grunge, a bit of sex, the devil, snakes and family relationships... Awesome!
As for the magazines ... have just discovered Giant Robot, a Japanese pop culture, art, music, fashion mag from the US, in ENGLISH! I so wish I could read Japanese. Still... this mag is great. Unfortunately though, like a lot of print publications at the moment, it's being threatened with closure if they can't get some cash through the door. So, they've very cleverly asked their supporters and readers for donations. Go to and leave them something. We've got to support all the magazines we can! You can buy Giant Robot at Borders in Singapore; there are six issues a year and you can subscribe via the website.
Also in my magazines to read pile is the latest issue of Yen. This is another funky mag with a Japan / Asia edge to it. Great photo spreads and interesting, quirky left of field content. It's also available from Borders and is published in Australia.
And... got a copy of Surface; the "new version". I have to say, I preferred this mag back in the day when it had a bit more meat to it. I appreciate that times are difficult now, but what used to be a substantial read has been reduced - both in content pages and paper thickness - to a mere shadow of it's original self. Still, great photography and quirky content.
On top of the magazines, I've got a couple of books on the go as well ...
The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan - this is the second book from Ryan set in a world that's been invaded by zombies and reduced to subsistence living. The best-seller, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, was beautifully evocative of a rural idyll with an unseen menace. These aren't typical zombie stories; it's not about the science and the slobber but more about the emotions of seeing your loved ones dead, but walking around. Have just started it, and am already hooked.
Heresy by SJ Parris - got my hands of an uncorrected proof of this one. It's a historical thriller with a touch of the mystical as a former monk in the 1500s gets involved in a series of murders that may have a link to black magic. Again, just started... but so far it's good. Historical detail is great but not so overwhelming to take away from the characters.
So... there you have it. I owe about nine reviews. Will hopefully get them done in the next week; I promise!

Monday, March 22, 2010

through the, dark, looking-glass: a review of alice i have been by melanie benjamin

A timely release, considering Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin is a fascinating look at the little girl who was the source of the imaginary child, and what became of her as she grew to womanhood.
Alice I Have Been is written from the perspective of the original "Alice"; Alice Liddle. Adding depth to the book are the tantalising rumours and stories about the break in the relationship between Alice's family and the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — Lewis Carroll's real name — is well known. What really happened, however, remains unclear but Benjamin's book offers one possible senario. 
This is an interesting version of the mythology about the genesis of one of the English-speaking world's most popular children's stories. It both adds to, and detracts from, our understanding of Alice in Wonderland.

Read the complete review: Through the dark looking-glass

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

stayed up all night, until 4am, to finish robin hobb's latest book, dragon haven

Finished Robin Hobb's Dragon Haven in one sitting. I tried to hold off, really I did, but I just couldn't. Absolutely LOVED it! There is so much depth to her work; the characters, the history, the emotions, the details of entirely new eco-systems. Now, of course, I'm going to be as frustrated as hell until I get hold of the next book!

Get your hands on Robin Hobb's Dragon Haven, book two of the Rain Wild Chronicles.

Monday, March 15, 2010

a very excited reviewer

Have just received the next book in Robin Hobb's Rainwild Chronicles series! Looks like an all-night reading session tonight! Can't wait! :)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday, March 14, 2010

fun vampire romance with tongue, firmly, in cheek from lynsay sands

If you love a good romance and are partial to a bit of vampire-lore, the whole series of Argeneau Vampire books from Lyndsay Sands will be right up your alley.
There are 12 books in the series so far – Love Bites is the second one and continues to establish the series as a light-as-air confection of tall, dark and handsome strangers, unknowingly-stunning, strong-minded heroines and tongue (firmly) in cheek dialogue.
The book titles themselves give readers a fair idea of what the series is about: Single White Vampire, Tall, Dark & Hungry (yes, really), A Bite to Remember, Bite Me if you Can etc. You just want to grin inanely while reading them and get your hands on them all as soon as possible.
As per their romantic comedy genre, these books are not expected to be taken seriously, but they are expected to enjoyed. Like many romantic genre books, Sands' works are a somewhat guilty pleasure – at least for those who like to pretend they only read serious literature.
In Love Bites, Rachel Garrett, a lovely, but lonely, coroner inadvertently saves the life of one Etienne Argeneau – who turns up at her workplace on a slab. Only, of course, he's not exactly dead – he's just got a stake through the heart that's paralysed him. So, she pulls it out and he pops back to life.
Besides having oddly sensual dreams about the dead guy on the slab, which Rachel realises means she needs to get out more, life goes on. But, of course, their paths are about to cross again and this time it's Etienne's turn to save Rachel. There's a complication, naturally, which is eventually overcome, and, after a lot of sexual fantasies, heavy-breathing and actual sex, everyone lives happily ever after.
Which is great. That's the way these sorts of books are supposed to end up. No, it's not high literature, but it is a great, relaxing, romantic read. There's also a fair bit of pop cultural humour and great sex scenes – what more could you want?

Love Bites by Lyndsay Sands is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

trash on tv equals a trashy read

Read my latest review posted on The Straits Times website. I just HATED this book so much that I couldn't bring myself to add it to this new blog dedicated to decent literature, especially my favourites of fantasy and sci-fi. 

Unfortunately, Sweet Little Lies by Lauren Conrad is so bad, it's not even of the 'so-bad-it's-good' genre! Check out my review: Trash on TV equals a trashy read

Monday, March 8, 2010

kisses for jacqueline carey’s newest novel

Like the previous review, I was ecstatic to receive a review copy of Jacqueline Carey’s latest book on my desk; so excited I almost faked an illness so I could go home and start reading it straight away.
Naamah’s Kiss is the first in a new series set in Carey’s unique ‘alternate history’ world of Alba, Terre d’Ange and now Ch’in. The previous series have been populated mainly with characters from Terre d’Ange, but this one features a young girl of mixed heritage from the less civilised land of Alba.
Carey’s books are renowned for their potent sexuality, with her Kushiel’s Legacy series conjuring up images of bondage and other alternate forms of physical love.
While this is titillating and surely led to her immediate popularity – particularly the first three books Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen and Kushiel’s Avatar – the emotional depth of her characters and the detailed imagery of her world have stood Carey in good stead; cementing her place in the fantasy world’s pantheon.
In particular, the books featuring the D’Angeline prince, Imriel de la Courcel, are deeply moving on a number of levels as the boy grows into a man haunted by his mother’s treachery and his desire for the one person he should avoid. These books also look at the impact of honour on love and of love on honour.
Again, Carey’s works are among a handful of books that I read over and over again, much like those from Robin Hobb. So, the new series has been much anticipated.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Naamah’s Kiss is exquisite; the new character of Moirin is as feisty as the original, iconic Phede no Delaunay and brings with her the added interest of inherited magic. Moirin is sent on a mission of sorts, she doesn’t know where she’s going or why, but she realises that she needs to follow the ‘divine spark’ that she carries; graced to her by her goddess.
Adventures in love, loyalty, magic and acceptance lead Moirin from the safety of her reclusive mother’s side, to the far side of the world; Ch’in.
It is clear that Carey’s world is an alternate to our own, laid over our historical Renaissance period – Terre d’Ange is France, Alba is England, Ch’in is China. But this newly realised version is finer, more glittering and less prosaic.
In Carey’s world, gods and angels walked the land, dragons perch on mountain tops and religions are accepting, encompassing and tolerant – after all, the state religion of Terre d’Ange has a precinct dedicated to love in all its forms; and a companion of their god, Naamah, was the first prostitute in recorded history... and she’s worshiped for it!
It is this clever layering of fantasy over reality that makes Carey’s books such delightful reads – they are not truly alien and therefore more easily understood but those who aren’t used to the fantasy genre. More than that, though, is the fact that they are beautifully written.
Carey’s works are not difficult to read – it’s not all highly structured prose and strands of intellectual thought – but they do flow wonderfully, as good fiction should, and bring the reader into her world as easily as looking in a mirror.
As always, I recommend readers start at the beginning with Carey’s early works, but with Naamah’s Kiss you can feel comfortable in reading it as a stand-alone novel – with the joy of more to come.

Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

joyful return to the rain wilds world of dragons and more from robin hobb

You cannot imagine my joy when The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb turned up on my desk. Finally my favourite fantasy author had published a new book, but not only was it from my best-ever author, she'd also returned to my favourite of her imagined worlds.
Robin Hobb is one of the pseudonyms of author Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, who is best known for her series of epic classical fantasy novels that are set in the world of the Six Duchies and the Rain Wilds. She has also written the series The Soldier Son set in entirely different world.
The Farseer Trilogy, The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man series are all set in the same world as The Dragon Keeper, the first in a new series, The Rain Wild Chronicles. Hobb's world is peopled with humans and dragons, sailing ships that are sentient, and mediaeval machinations. The technology level is relatively low, but the depth of emotion her characters display is what makes her work so wonderful.
In The Dragon Keeper, Hobb returns readers to the Rain Wilds, an area of impenetrable forest with trees so enormous people have built cities in them, with river water so poisonous it rots your boots and with a miasma in the air that touches its human denizens with odd growths and seemingly genetic mutations. The Rain Wilds are also home to magical products and items created by the long-gone Elderlings and a source of the region's trading wealth.
In previous series the true origin of the marvellous 'wizard wood' that was used to build the Liveships – sailing ships that became sentient and had figureheads that speak – has been discovered. The 'wood' was, in fact, the casings of hibernating dragons, containing their memories and sentience. The Liveships are the bastard offspring of murdered dragons and human ingenuity.
But dragons have returned to the world, at least one of them, and the Rain Wilders (the citizens of the Rain Wilds) have been forced by that dragon to help protect then next generation. It turned out that the massive sea serpents that dogged the Liveships were the dragons in larval form. But an ancient disaster – most likely a volcano eruption – had destroyed the dragons' homeland and stopped the serpents from going into hibernation. Hundreds of generations later only a few of the serpents can be coaxed up the poisonous Rain Wild River and into their cocoons.
This is where The Dragon Keeper opens; the first new dragons have broken out of their cocoons but the transformations have not been entirely successful. The dragons are deformed, they're hungry and they don't care for humans. Something needs to be done with them before they destroy the fragile peace in the Rain Wilds.
Like the dragons, Thymara is also unwelcome. Born deformed with the telltale scales and claws of the Rain Wild 'affliction', she should have been exposed at birth, but her sentimental father chose to keep her alive. Now she's an adult and is becoming more and more isolated in her home; she's ostracised and needs to find a new path. The city council's decision to send the dragons off to search for their vaguely remembered city of Kelsingra is the chance Thymara needs.
Now, along with a motley bunch of other misfits, Thymara is a 'dragon keeper', charged with helping to feed, guide and care for her particular dragon. The dragons remember having 'special humans' to assist them in the past and use all their wiles to ensure their new carers dote on their every whim. But not all of the outcast Rain Wilders are unhappy to have been sent away, some are pleased to finally be away from the restrictions of their society and are hell bent on building their own new world, the dragons are just a means to an end.
Along for the ride is a Bingtown matron, newlywed Alise Finbok, who has convinced her society husband to allow her to visit the dragons. Once she discovers that they're about to set off on their own adventure, Alise tags along, much to the disgust of her chaperone, her husband's personal secretary. Alise's story is in strong contrast to Thymara’s; she comes from a privileged background and although unhappy in her marriage, is strung around with her own set of rules.
Once again Hobb has created a series of characters that capture the reader's emotions from the outset. One feels Alise's frustration at society's rules, feels Thymara's regret at leaving her father and her covert excitement at working with the dragons. One rails against the machinations of Sedric, the secretary's, devious notions and one is dying to find out if the dragons' city of Kalsingra truly exists.
Like all her work, The Dragon Keeper is a substantial work. There are numerous storylines and plots that are offered to tantalise the reader, the author knowing that the best way to keep people buying her books is to keep the reader guessing.
Hobb has a deft skill with description, explaining something in the context of her imagined world, while the reader is able to 'read through the lines' so to speak and make their own conclusions. The catastrophe that destroyed the dragons' world is, most likely, a volcano – but the word, unknown to the Rain Wilders, is never mentioned. Likewise, the changes the Rain Wilders undergo are, most likely, related to environmental poisons polluting their genetic makeup – but that's a 'real world' interpretation. Maybe it's magic?
Who cares? The completely engrossing world that Hobb has created is enough for any reader. The finely wrought detail of social mores, tree-bound living, dragon memories and legendary stories is all one needs to enjoy these books. Hobb is a classic fantasy author of stature – she is certain to go into the annals as a champion of the genre.
While, as always in fantasy, it is best if people have read the earlier books – star with The Farseer Trilogy and work outwards – The Dragon Keeper can be read as a stand-alone book. There is enough explanation to assist first-time readers. Readers who love fantasy will surely have experienced Robin Hobb before, but if you haven't, I can't recommend these books highly enough.
I was so engrossed and excited to have this book in my hands that I sat down and read it in one sitting – all through the night! And so, am equally excited to hear that the next book, Dragon Haven, is about to be released; I can't wait.

The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb is published by Harper Voyager and is available from good bookstores and online.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

science-fiction with the human touch in alastair reynolds' terminal world

Alastair Reynolds is by far one of my favourite science-fiction authors writing today. There's a lot of great sci-fi out there, but unfortunately the bulk of it tends to make my head ache. Ben Bova comes to mind – all that technical science stuff is just too much.

What Reynolds does is make the technology understandable to those of us without a degree in physics, and at the same time create characters that we can still relate to. I want my heros of space to have at least some connection to humanity so that I can identify with them – I can't, no matter how hard I try, identify with a green blog of a sillicon-based alien.
So, that's why I was actually excited to get my hands on Reynold's latest – Terminal World. Set on what is possibly still Earth, or an Earth like planet, populated by generally human humanoids – with a few minor exceptions – this novel follows the story of Doctor Quillon. It is, in many ways, a road movie; complete with odd travelling companions, crazy petrol heads, an urgent reason to keep moving and vignettes of human warmth. There are also man-eating robots, mysterious civilisations, genetic wizards and an 'end of the world apocalypse'.
In Quillon's world, practically everyone is living on a space-scraping needle of a mountain named Spearpoint. It's clearly man-made but everyone has forgotten the reason why, if they ever knew it in the first place. There's a quasi-religion that believes in a sort of God in the centre of the thing, but generally people just ignore the complexity of their world and work hard on surviving.
Which is oddly hard considering people have been on the thing for around 5,000 years or so, one would have thought they could have solved most of their daily living problems by now. The thing is, only certain technologies work in certain 'zones' on Spearpoint.
So, you've got the 'Angels' who live at the very top in Circuit City, have the highest level technology and are genetically modified to have wings that enable them to fly. A bit further down you've got Neon Heights with electronics and electricity but no genetic, nano tech, followed by Steam Town – everything powered by steam, of course – and at the very bottom of Spearpoint, Horse Town – yep, animals only.
The reason for these differences in technological levels is to do with the 'zones' which are generally stable but can flux a bit around the edges. In order to travel from zone to zone you need to take 'anti-zonals' but not many people bother to move anyway.
Into Quillon's well-ordered world – he's a coroner – comes a special package; an Angel's body which had landed on Neon City's edge. However the Angel is not completely dead and imparts some unwelcome knowledge to Quillon, leaving him panicked and desperate to flee.
Which starts the whole road journey as the doctor leaves Spearpoint in fear of his life and in search of something that may help fix the problem of the zones; only he doesn't realise that this is a problem for him to fix until later in the story.
Like all Reynolds' books, Terminal World is a substantial read but unlike books in the fantasy genre that generally come in trilogies, the novel is complete in itself. Sure, there's an opportunity for a sequel build into the end, but readers won't be left wanting too much.
The prose is tight, friendly and not tech-speak dense. Explanations for the zones, the planet and Spearpoint gentle inserted into the dialogue and interactions between the characters. Quillon isn't a particularly loveable hero, nor is he swashbuckling in any real way; but he is warmly human.
The action, as with much of Reynolds' work, is fantastically written. It's well-paced, believable and makes you breathless just reading it. There are additional supporting characters that are well fleshed-out; a really great sidekick in the hard-arsed, foul-mouth, soft-hearted Meroka and a touching portrait of a young girl handed an unwelcome genetic heritage.
All in all, Terminal World is a great book. It's right up there with the work of classic sci-fi legends like Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov and well-worth reading.
As with all quality sci-fi, Reynolds' work asks us to ask questions of ourselves about where our society is heading. Will we find ourselves stuck on an anachronistic pillar to forgotten technology surrounded by a hostile and dying world in 5,000 years time? One would hope not; which is why we should all be reading more sci-fi in general and Terminal World in particular.

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds is published by Gollancz and is available at good book stores and online.

gossip girl with vampires

Niki Bruce reviews a couple of new young adult vampire novels and discovers they're not too bad.

You knew it had to happen eventually; what with the influx of non-violent, glittering vampires of the Twilight genre, it was bound to happen.
Surprisingly though, Melissa de la Cruz' New York-based series featuring socialites as vampires – Blue Bloods (of course) – isn't that bad. The first in the series, eponymously entitled Blue Bloods and the second, Masquerade, are aimed at young adult readers, as are most vampire themed novels at the moment.
The first book introduces readers to Schuyler Van Alen, who is 15 years old, lives in a rundown, rambling old mansion and goes to a posh prep school, where she doesn't fit in as she's not blonde, busty, rich or out doing things girls her ages shouldn't really be doing. Schuyler has one real friend, a boy called Oliver, a mother in a coma, a dead father and frosty grandmother.
Naturally she's also got a crush on the hottest boy in school – who doesn't give her the time of day – and whose queen bee twin sister goes out of her way to may
ke life hard for Schuyler.
The first half of the book sets up the premise of this exclusive lifestyle with lots of references to fashion labels, bad behaviour and teenage angst – actually kind of boring unless you're a fifteen year old girl, I suppose. The second half, however, is were the supernatural steps in and the vampire motiff takes off.
Like most to the vampires being written about (and turned into film) these days, de la Cruz' vamp lack most of the drawbacks of the traditional form – this lot can endure sunlight (they head to the Caribbean for holidays), eat garlic, wear silver, drink, have sex and procreate. Although the do need blood – unlike the emasculated Twilight version – and enjoy having a number of human 'familiars' who donate. The Blue Bloods also run the local Blood Bank charity which is quietly ironic.
Schuyler discovers she's one of these 'blue bloods' but while coming to terms with that also discovers that this doesn't make her part of the cool group either – she's actually a 'half-blood'; her father was human. So, still looked down upon by her arch-enemy, Mimi Force, Schuyler can't really see any benefit to her new state. And on top of that, someone is going around killing the scions of the Blue Bloods.
There is a lot more background and explanation in Blue Bloods, explaining how these vampires came to be and why they are in America; Masquerade expands upon the mythology with details about the group's history and why they are seemingly both 'young' and yet centuries old. It's a bit complicated but de la Cruz makes it relatively believeable.
Blue Bloods and Masquerade are the first two novels of the series – de la Cruz has already got two more planned and advertised on the inside-front covers of the books; Revelations and The Van Alen Legacy. Assuming the tween set enjoys them as much as I did, the series is sure to take off.
The books are certainly not heavy reading; nor would they be defined as literature. They are, however, well-written for their genre and the character of Schuyler is feisty, punky and vulnerable. She's a much better role model for young girls than the insipid, vapid, boy-obsessed Bella (have you worked out yet that I can't stand the Twilight series?).

Blue Bloods and Masquerade are written by Melissa de la Cruz and published by Atom. These two books are available from good book stores in Singapore and the next three in the series are available online from Amazon US.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

a woman's capacity to love

Niki Bruce reviews Tuscan Rose, historical fiction with a touch of magic realism.  

BELINDA Alexandra is an Australian author who has garnered wide acclaim for her novels Silver Wattle and White Gardenia, both of which have strong female protagonists, who battle the vagaries of life before triumphantly overcoming all obstacles.

Like her previous novels, Tuscan Rose, also features a feisty young female heroine – in this case an Italian orphan, deposited at a nunnery – who must overcome not only her lack of family, but later, the vicissitudes of World War II.

Rosa is blessed with a talent for music, nurtured by the nuns of Santo Spirito in Florence, and manages to parlay her skills into a position as a governess at the home of a local aristocrat.

At the same time, Fascism is growing in Italy and war is being whispered about in Europe. A naive young girl, Rosa, manages to get herself caught up in another person's scandal and ends up accused of something quite horrible. Packed off to jail, she is once again accosted by the nastiness of human nature.

Tuscan Rose is a mix of historical fiction, romance and coming-of-age tale. A thin thread of magic realism winds its way through the story, however, offering the story a bit more depth and imagination.

Rosa has another talent – somehow she can tell where things originated. She uses this skill throughout the story to both add mystery to her background and to move the plot along. The search for her heritage is an additional storyline, which unfortunately is rather easy to spot early on in the book. But don't worry, there's a neat twist to even it out in the conclusion.

The plot of Tuscan Rose can be read as quite simplistic, there are the accepted tropes of orphan girl thrust into the world, all unknowing, and overcoming trials and tribulations – even the language used to describe it is cliched – but the book has a saving grace (sorry, couldn't resist).

Alexandra has a lovely turn of phrase and a competent understanding of women and the way they think. There is an acceptance of Rosa's weaknesses – her tendency to be too trusting, her innocence and her fickleness in love – but there is also a celebration of her strengths. Rosa loves passionately and ruthlessly protects those she loves; she endures physical and emotion hardship without complaint and, finally, she takes her revenge coldly but not viscously.

Like women the world over and throughout history, Rosa typifies all that is honourable in a woman's capacity to love. Alexandra manages to endow Rosa with all these attributes without becoming saccharine however, which is to her credit. Rosa's story could easily have fallen into the sappy, love-story genre without the author's deft skill.

True, Tuscan Rose is no great piece of literature, but it is a good read. The historical scholarship is detailed enough to satisfy lovers of historical fiction and the romance and personalities of the characters will entertain readers looking for a gentle read.

Tuscan Rose by Belinda Alexandra is published by HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on March 02, 2010

a guilty pleasure

Niki Bruce reviews the latest novel from PS, I Love You author, Cecelia Ahern.

I HAVE to admit I'm not generally a lover of romance novels, or 'chick lit', or popular reads and, as such, tend to shy away from anything that's been talked about on Oprah or given a Woman's Weekly stamp of approval.

However, there is one author who I will forgive these tendencies – Cecelia Ahern, irish author of classic tear-jerkers like PS, I Love You (yes, the one that's been made into a film) and Where Rainbows End.

Even more annoyingly, Ms Ahern is also a former pop singer, rather pretty, has a sister married to a member of Westlife and is the daughter of a politician. So, in addition to being a writer of chick lit, I should despise her for her celeb status and refuse to read her books.

Problem is, Ahern's work is ridiculously good, particularly for her age. Her first novel, the aforementioned PS, I Love You, was number one in Ireland for 19 weeks, number one in the UK, US, Germany and even Holland. And she was only 21 when she wrote it!

Ahern manages to be romantic without being soppy; she has a modern – and obviously young – perspective of love and relationships, which has just as obviously managed to grab the zeitgeist and people's hard-earned cash.

In The Book of Tomorrow, Ahern's latest work, the central character is a young woman, Tamara Goodwin, who has been taken away from all she knows and dropped into rural Ireland with an odd aunt, a tumble-down castle and an annoyingly cheerful nun while her mother vegetates and appears to need some serious medication.

So far; so tear-jerker, right?

Not so. Tamara is horrible. She's a selfish, self-absorbed, arrogant rich-bitch girl-child who sees nothing wrong in spending the average person's weekly wage on a handbag. So, she's not a particularly sympathetic character, despite the fact that her father's just died and left Tamara and her mother destitute.

After all, it's not like they're out on the streets of Dublin, her aunt and uncle have taken them in and seem to be doing everything they can to help Tamara while her mother has a nervous breakdown in the Irish countryside.
Still, Ahern cleverly allows the reader to follow Tamara's inner monologue as she realises that she's in need of a heart and that she is really concerned about her mother's condition.
As Tamara begins to come to terms with her new life, she discovers a mysterious book – a book that will help her not only work out what's going on with her mother, but will also shed some light on a past that Tamara knows nothing about.

Plot spoiler coming up, so if you are planing to read The Book of Tomorrow, skip to the next paragraph. The book of the title is Ahern's touch of magic realism – much like the love letters of PS, I Love You, the book allows the character to move forward and, somewhat similarly, gives shape to the narrative. Without the book offering Tamara different versions of the future, she could just as easily have ended up as a dead-end character going nowhere. The trope is not particularly new, but it is cleverly handled and adds another dimension to what could have been a lack-luster 'coming of age' tale.

Right; so, the book is central to the overall plot, adding another layer of information to the novel which allows both the reader and Tamara to ask questions that move the plot along.

Again, like PS, I Love You, Ahern has managed to create characters that are both realistic and interesting. The plot twists about a bit and the supporting character's all come into their own. There is the obligitory family secret to unearth, a love interest, an embarrassing episode and some crazy people – just like everyone's life, right?

But what makes Ahern stand out from the crowd of chick lit novels is her thoroughly modern sensibility, a lovely turn of phrase and a cheeky sense of humour. You also get the impression that Ahern herself was either just like Tamara or knows girls exactly the same. There's a hint of 'insider story' in The Book of Tomorrow; particularly in the descriptions of clothes, cars, houses and lifestyles.

Still, even if Ahern comes from the same sort of privileged background, she just as obviously has grown up and away from the superficiality of celebrity; just as Tamara grows up and discovers there's more to life than a flash handbag.

The Book of Tomorrow is a guilty secret, I feel prepared to own up to. It's chick lit with life and humour and a great choice for your holiday read.

The Book of Tomorrow by Cecelia Ahern is published by HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.

First published in The Straits Times blogs on October 13, 2009

fabulous collation of fashion

Niki Bruce reviews Dreaming of Dior and wishes she had a fashion godmother.

SOME people have all the luck. Charlotte Smith, for example, had the luck to be the goddaughter of Doris Darnell, a lovely lady who for many, many years has collected fabulous pieces of fashion.

She was, in fact, Charlotte Smith's "fashion" godmother, since Smith's luck, specifically, was to be the recipient of Ms Darnell's wonderful collection, which has now been turned into a lovely, wee book – Dreaming of Dior.

The book is populated by a collection of delicate illustrations from British artist Grant Cowan and each illustrated dress is teamed up with a description of the garment or its previous owner's experiences while wearing it.

As Smith says in the preface of Dreaming of Dior:
"Then, among the last of Doris' boxes, I found her catalogue notes – the notes of all her stories, of the dresses and the women who wore them. As I pored over Doris' words – her wit, wonder and wisdom – the true value of what I had been bequeathed hit home. This wasn't a mere collection of beautiful things, it was a collection of life. Women's lives."
With her realisation of the sociological importance of her godmother's collection, Smith decided to collate the garments and their matching notes together into this look at women across the years.

While the dresses and the stories of their formers owners are fascinating, the story of Doris Darnell is just as interesting, and quite obviously, just as important to Smith's decision to produce this book.

Mrs Darnell was a life-long Quaker, but she is also described by Smith as the "ultimate fairy godmother". "Tall, elegant, flamboyant and utterly charming, she was exotic and unpredictable in a thrilling way," writes Smith.

The collection covers garments from 1790 to 1995 and includes famous names like Lucile, Dior, Galanos and Jean Muir but also has handmade pieces from the women who wore the clothes. None of the garments were bought specifically for the collection but, rather, were donated by friends, family and acquaintances.

Some of the stories that accompany the images are touching – like that of Mrs Edmund Williams, another staunch Quaker, who in 1900 had made for herself a beautiful lime-green silk gown with striking black velvet trim; due to her strict religion she never wore the gown but said that the enjoyment it gave her was worth every penny spent.

Other stories are family ones where Smith talks about wearing dresses lovingly – and bravely, I would think – loaned to her by Mrs Darnell. On one such occasion Smith wore a 1950s pink ball gown for a wedding in Monte Carlo on the terrace of the Hotel de Paris and ended up meeting Prince Albert.

Smith also inlcudes the story of Mrs Darnell's favourite dress – a peach slipper satin ball gown that she wore the night she met her husband.

While each dress has a lovely anecdote attached, there could have been a bit more attention paid to the editing of the passages.

Yes, they are poignant, and presumably they have been published pretty much exactly as they were written, but there surely was at least Spellcheck run over them; which means that the author could also have taken time to double check style and tone.
For instance ball gown is written as two words, but also as one – "ballgown", there are some passages in first person, and others in third person voice.

It would also have been easier for the reader if each passage had a few details to tie the whole book together; for example the age of the dress, the designer, the former owner's name etc, all laid out for ease of use.

The contents could also have been grouped in chapters, perhaps by age of garments, or occasions or even alphabetically based on designers or even by colours.

The reasoning behind this desire for some sort of catalogue, is a concern that as a useful resource for historians and fashionistas, or even sociologists, there is no index to assist in picking out the right dress.

While Smith seems not to have been interested in presenting Dreaming of Dior as anything other than an homage to her godmother and her collection, it seems a crying shame that such an opportunity to turn this fabulous, and priceless, collection's information into a more user-friendly tome, has been lost.

Still, Dreaming of Dior is a must buy for anyone even vaguely interested in fashion. It is a detailed, if haphazard, look at more than 200 years of women's clothes; and it shows that fashion is as much about the lives of the women who wear it as it is about the styles themselves.

Dreaming of Dior by Charlotte Smith is published by HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.

First published in The Straits Times blogs on October 19, 2009

looking sideways at shakespeare

Niki Bruce reviews Banquo's Son, a new take on the popular tale of Macbeth.

JUST about everyone who reads English has read Shakespeare's Macbeth. Whether in high school or college or university, or simply because you enjoy the Bard's works, Macbeth is one of his most read plays.

Taking just one line from the story – when Banquo and Fleance are ambushed, Banquo holds the assailants off and cries out: "Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly! / Thou mayst revenge" – TK (Tania) Roxborogh has created the plot of her novel, Banquo's Son.

In most interpretations of Shakespeare's story, Fleance is an adult and, like his father, a captain in Macbeth's guard. It is Macbeth's fear that Banquo will somehow sire a line of kings for Scotland that leads to his death and the attempt to kill his son. However, Fleance escapes.

Roxborogh's story has Fleance as a child, escaping from the ambush on the back of his father's horse and carrying his father's sword. Fleance eventually comes upon a childless couple – Magness and Miri – who take him in and raise him as their own in England.

Fleance is 21-years-old at the beginning of Banquo's Son, and ready to fall in love, get married and settle down. He knows who he is, yet having no knowledge of current politics is scared to head back to Scotland, either to claim his heritage as a cousin to the King or renew old acquaintances.

However, Fleance is haunted by a ghostly figure and the words of his father – to seek revenge for his death. And when his beloved's father tries to push him into marriage, Fleance realises he must head back to the land of his birth.

What follows is a solid historical adventure story with princesses, a prince, witches, political machinations and Fleance's realisation that there's is more to being an adult than the ability to procreate and swing a sword.

Roxborogh's characters are genuine – both her historical personages and her created fictions – there is an honesty to her descriptions that both endear and delight the reader.

Fleance is not all 'golden hero', he's as bumbling as any young man of his age. The 'good guys' are not entirely good, nor the 'baddie' entirely bad. There is a sense of humanity about the people of Roxborogh's novel.

Banquo's Son has solid historical footings, but the meat of the story is in the relationships and emotions of her characters. There is also a surprising twist towards the end of the novel, but those who know their Scottish history won't be too surprised at the outcome.

For lovers of historical fiction, Banquo's Son is an interesting take on a period of history that has become much confused with Shakespeare's popular play. While, this novel isn't an academic portrayal, it is less histrionic and more realistic than the play.

Roxborogh is in the process of writing a linked story of sorts, Bloodlines, which will be published in 2010, so there's more to look forward to from a writer who offers an interesting take on such a popular story.

Banquo's Son by TK Roxborogh is published by Penguin Books and is available from good book stores and online.

First published in The Straits Times blogs on October 22, 2009

driving sense of humour

Niki Bruce reviews comedic columns from Clarkson and has a good laugh.

I LIKE cars. I like to drive, I like the look of them, I like the convenience; but I have no real idea of the difference between a V8 and a V12, or why I should prefer one over the other.

So, I'm not obsessed by cars, I don't LOVE them but strangely enough, one of my absolutely favourite TV shows has got to be BBC Two's Top Gear.

This is a show by boys, for boys and run somewhat like an adolescent male's perfect fantasy – before he's quite reached puberty though, as there's no skimpily-dressed pneumatic blondes on this show.

What makes Top Gear one of the most watched info-tainment shows around is the group of slightly dorky, middle-aged, funny blokes who host it – James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson.

Richard Hammond is probably most famous for being short, having blindingly white teeth and surviving an horrific crash while he was driving a jet-powered car for a segment in the show in 2006. The car was reportedly travelling at 300 miles per hour when the crash occurred.

James May, on the other hand, is more a traditionalist. He's been nicknamed 'Captain Slow' on the show, despite being a qualified pilot and having taken a Bugatti Veyron to its top speed of 253.45 mph; but he's basically the straight man for the other two presenters.

Jeremy Clarkson, however, is nominally the 'head boy' of Top Gear, known for his scathing hatred of the British Labour government, the environmental movement, speed limits and just about anything that stops him from driving very expensive cars, very fast, where ever he wants to.

Which is why his latest book, Driven to Distraction is so very, very funny. Clarkson has a very dry sense of humour with that particularly British ability to be self-depreciating and pompous at the same time. This book, if you enjoy clever word usage and rubbishing stupid people and/or government policies, has "laugh out loud" moments on almost every page.

Driven to Distraction is a collection of Clarkson's columns for the Sunday Times

There's a semi-topical intro and lead-in to a description of a car, before a pronouncement of judgement. Generally the columns blend quite well, but some are obvious attempts to link one of his pet issues to a particular car review; still, they are all immensely entertaining.

Clarkson has a particular turn of phrase that offers a mix of public schoolboy enthusiasm with deliberate word-play. His dedication is a prime example: "To everyone who made my Range Rover. Well done, chaps. It's brilliant."

While I enjoy the humour, Clarkson's contempt for political correctness and his tendency to 'stir the pot', I'm not that interested in his detailed descriptions of particular car engines, gear boxes or top speeds.

Still, those sections are easily skipped over if you're not interested and the humour returns. The fact that the book is a collection of columns means that you can read it in convenient snatches of time – it's great for the bus or taxi.

Driven to Distraction will, in fact, make the perfect Christmas present for any male person in your life. I'll probably have to buy a number of them; this year it will be my gift-de-jour for male family members and friends.

Driven to Distraction by Jeremy Clarkson is published by Penguin imprint Michael Joseph and is available from good books stores and online. 

First published in The Straits Times blogs on October 28, 2009 

rock star writer, neil gaiman

Niki Bruce experiences the rock 'n roll style of fantasy writer Neil Gaiman.

ALONG with about 800+ other people, I turned up to hear writer Neil Gaiman speak in Singapore at the annual writers festival.

But I wasn't nearly so excited as his hardcore fans, some of whom had turned up at his every appearance during the recent Singapore Writers Festival held over the last week.

After a few dramas, including the apparent scalping of tickets to this Meet the Author event – despite the fact that they were actually free – and a move to a larger venue, Singapore finally got to sit down and listen to the rock star of modern writing chat with adjudicator Lim Cheng Tju, who reviews graphic novels and comics for The Straits Times' Life! section.

Although the show started about 10 minutes late, the rousing applause when Gaiman arrived shook the rafters. A few whistles and catcalls later, and the lanky, curly-haired, black-clad Gaiman settled in for a friendly chat.

Gaiman is currently one of the English language's most popular writers. He's done everything from fantasy novels and children's books to the celebrated The Sandman series of graphic novels.

Known by the mainstream  for his work like American Gods and his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, Gaiman is just as popular in the more underground world of graphic novels and cartoons.

The adjudicator, Mr Lim, mentioned in his introduction that his first Gaiman book, Good Omens, he bought had been stolen by a girl, and so he'd had to buy another one.

Gaiman laughed in response, telling the crowd that his theory for why Good Omens has sold so many copies is because they keep getting borrowed, so people keep having to buy new ones.

"The originals are always brownish; they've been dropped in the bath at least once and had soup spilled on them," Gaiman joked. "Girls always borrow copies of Good Omens and you never get them back."

A number of Gaiman's books, most notably Stardust and more recently Coraline, have been adapted for film and these topics – Good Omens and film adaptations of his work – topped the hot list of questions asked by the crowd on Sunday.

However Mr Lim launched the session with a question about Gaiman's up-coming 50th birthday; how did he feel about the big 5-Oh?

"Odd, really odd," Gaiman responded. "I've got a really cool life, I've done all I set out to do... if tomorrow my plane goes down, it will be alright."

He then launched into a story about how the only time he'd been worried about flying was on a trip to America in 1988 when he had just begun the Sandman series and was carrying a number of precious drawings by Dave Mckean from Black Orchid with him.

This was just the first in a series of humorous anecdotes that Gaiman indulged in through-out the almost hour-long event. He is, as his fans and readers of his work know, a very funny writer.

What is less well-known is that Gaiman is just as funny in real life – he'd make a great standup comic, or he'd be great on one of those humorous treks around the world like Michael Palin does.

Whatever the organisers of this year's Singapore Writers Festival had to spend to get Gaiman here, was well worth it.

This guy really gave value for money with his friendly, approachable style and 'laugh-out-loud' humour. He also went out of his way to ensure that everyone who brought something to sign, got his signature. Apparently he sat for more than 2 hours on Saturday alone signing books, drawings and graphic novels for Singapore fans.

On Sunday, Gaiman won over the crowd immediately – not that there seemed to be anyone there who wasn't a fan to begin with – with his fabulous description of Singaporeans.

"Singaporeans are very enthusiastic, but in a quiet, polite and very organised way," said Gaiman, going on to make an unflattering comment or two about the Filipinos, which he hastily withdrew, covering with a reference to their "noisiness".

"When I landed in Manilla, I couldn't believe it; they're louder than the Brazilians... and I didn't think anyone could be louder than Brazilians!"

More endearing was Gaiman's theory of a 'secret Singaporean delicacy'. He came up with the theory that 'stuffed author' was a secret Singaporean delicacy, where you take "one graying, older author. Feed him wonderful food until he's completely stuffed, and then slice him up into little pick packages".

Naturally enough, Gaiman gained a another round of applause for this pronouncement. Confirming, yet again, that he is a consummate performer.

Don't get me wrong, Gaiman is not at all calculated; he's just very polished in his delivery. He has obviously learned how to make these sorts of events as fun as possible for every one involved.

The adjudicator also asked the writer if he had a preferred medium to work in, or whether he felt that some stories belonged in particular mediums. Gaiman answered that translation was acceptable, but transliteration was not.

Gaiman said that while he enjoyed the movie versions of Stardust and Coraline, they were the directors' versions, not his. His favourite movie was an 8 minute short he'd shot himself staring Bill Nighy and his girlfriend Amanda Palmer – who accompanied Gaiman on the trip and who received her own round of applause at his mention.

He was also given the opportunity to talk about his latest project, a non-fiction look at the story of The Journey to the West – Gaiman had just returned from his third trip to China doing research and interviews for his book. He seemed quite fascinated by the myth.

After a few more questions from the adjudicator, the session was thrown open to the crowd and interestingly enough, the first question was one about new media – specifically this medium, blogging.

As a former journalist, Gaiman was asked whether he thought blogging would take over from traditional media reporting.

"Blogging is something else; it's commentary," he said in answer. "It isn't somebody going out and seeing something and then telling you what really happened. It's not like journalism where... two reporters brought down a presidency (in reference to Watergate).

"Bloggers don't have the same resources, but blogging is a new communication tool, so maybe it could be used for breaking news?" Gaiman asked back, but left the audience in no doubt as to his stand on the issue.

Other questions followed in rapid order with Gaiman explaining the origin of his nickname of 'Scary Trousers', from graphic novelist Alan Moore; and why there are Hayao Miyazaki references in his work, describing a lovely day he spent with Mr Miyazaki.

Gaiman's voluble answers were finally corralled by the adjudicator and he thanked the crowd and the organisers, before receiving a bit of a standing ovation.

Whereupon practically the entire theatre stood up and raced for the exits, so they could get in line for the book signing. Although Gaiman said he'd ensure that everyone got one thing signed, it still meant that people were lined up from The Arts House, all the way down to the riverside.
Author Neil Gaiman in Singapore
Author Neil Gaiman happily signed fans' books after his Meet the Author session on Sunday. ST PHOTO

All in all, Gaiman's Meet the Author session was an enjoyable hour spent listening to an intelligent, humorous man with a unique take on the world. For his fans, it was obviously the best time of their lives; with many of them attending not only Gaiman's events but also the performances of his girlfriend, Amanda Palmer.

If there was anything at all off-putting about the double act that is Gaiman and Palmer, it was their constant references to each other at all their events. Yes, they are obviously madly in love with each other, and think their lovers' work is the best thing since sliced bread, but possibly they should be slightly less 'joined at the hip'.

But, that could just be the cynical journalist in me; nobody else seemed to have a problem with the pair's gushing descriptions of how fabulous their other half is. Besides, they are both damn good at what they do, so maybe they're justified in their gushing?
Still, kudos goes to the organisers of the event and to whoever chose to give Singapore the darkly, glimmering show that is the rock star writer, Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman's works are available at good book stores and online. Amanda Palmer is the lead singer of Dresden Dolls, as well as an independent performer in her own right. Her work is available from good CD stores and online. The Singapore Writer's Festival is a bi-annual event.

First published in The Straits Times blogs on November 02, 2009 

vampires, fairies, finding the dead

Niki Bruce reviews two books from supernatural thriller author Charlaine Harris.

THE edgy, punchy, sexy series that is True Blood on HBO may have finished its second season in Singapore, but if you're still after tales of vampires, werewolves and fairies you can get stuck into Charlaine Harris' collected short stories about Sookie Stackhouse with A Touch of Dead.

A Touch of Dead has five stories based on the world of Sookie Stackhouse, the human who can read minds, dates vampires and whose brother is a were-panther. The original Sookie stories are now being translated in to an award-winning series on HBO and stars Anna Paquin as Sookie.

As Harris says in her introduction to the collection, Sookie's world is a complex and complicated one and the author was concerned about attempting to condense it into the short story format. She even admits that some of her efforts were more successful than others but, also says that she enjoyed the exercise:
"It's been hard to fit the stories into Sookie's larger history without leaving seams. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not. In this edition, I've tried to smooth out the edges of the story that was the most fun to write but wouldn't fit in its chronological hole no matter how I pounded (Dracula Night)."
Dracula Night sees the local vampire bar, Fangtasia, celebrating Prince Dracula's birthday – kind of like the vampire version of Christmas. The twist is that their hero may actually attend the event. Eric Northman, Sookie's sometime lover in the later books of the series but still an unknown enemy in the TV version, is particularly enamoured of the idea of a visit from Prince Dracula. Needless to say, Sookie manages to get an invite and happens to be in the right place at the right time once again.

What is interesting reading these stories is that the characters now take on the visual images of the actors who portray them on TV. Sometimes this works, Paquin is a good choice for Sookie; sometimes it doesn't. Still, it can be a little off-putting.

But the generally light-hearted stories in A Touch of Dead are a great antidote to the heavily detailed and often emotionally tortured stories of Harris' Sookie Stackhouse books. There's a bit of death in Fairy Dust – when fairy siblings who work at a strip joint (don't ask) go after a murderer – there's some magic in Lucky – when a local witch tries to do the right thing and ends up doing the opposite and some raunchy sex in Gift Wrap – which is just that, a gift wrapped in some sexy packaging.

If you love the Sookie Stackhouse series then it's worth getting your hands on A Touch of Dead to have the whole set and to while away the time until Harris produces the next novel in the series.

A busy author, Harris has also just released the latest book in her other supernatural series about Harper Connelly, Grave Secret.

Harper, like Sookie, is human but she's been touched by the supernatural; Harper can feel the dead. It doesn't matter how old they are, Harper can find sense their graves and, in doing so, find out how they died.

Needless to say, she's useful if you're a police officer but not if you're a murderer, so she's generally getting into trouble, one way or another.

Harper travels with her 'brother' Tolliver, who is also her lover. But before it gets too icky; they're not actually related to each other, being step-siblings from an unholy union of two drug addicts, they have looked after each other all their lives.

Grave Secrets sees the pair return to their hometown for the first time in years in an attempt to trace their missing older sister, Cameron. Picking up some work at the same time, Harper discovers that a very rich man may have had an illegitimate child – that may also have been murdered.

Tolliver's former drug addict, ex-prisoner father is also back on the scene and as family complications ensue, the pair get shot at, chased and learn the terrible truth about what may have happened to their sister.

Harris' skill at making her characters and their stories approachable and 'real' is what makes her supernatural-themed stories more substantial than the usual 'sexy vampire' pap that seems everywhere these days.

Sookie is a real person; she's insecure, funny, caring and looking for love. Harper is just as real; she's in love, damaged by her past and coming to terms with her future.

The fact that both women have special 'talents' doesn't make them any less real for the reader who likes to dream that there's a wider world of wonder out there.

Grave Secret by Charlaine Harris is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online. A Touch of Dead by Charlaine Harris is also published by Gollancz and available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on November 12, 2009

not flash enough for television?

Niki Bruce reviews the original source of a TV show and finds it very different.

CURRENTLY showing on Channel 5, the Flashforward TV series is based on the book by the same name, but with major plot differences, by Robert J Sawyer.

Although the basic premise – that something causes people around the world to pass out and dream about jumping forward in time – is the same in the book and the series, substantial details are not.

Most notably, the central characters in the book version are physicists based at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, in Switzerland. In the TV version, the central characters are much more exciting – FBI agents based in Los Angeles.

All of this, to my mind, actually takes away from Sawyer's very interesting storyline and also, quite horribly, destroys the whole premise that is the 'flash forward' phenomenon.

Basically in the book, the flash forward occurs because of an experiment with the Hadron Collider, it is the cause of the action that is the basis of the story. In the TV show the reason behind why the flash forward occurs is something to do with an experiment at Stanford University.

This is where the show's producers have given a token nod to Sawyer's book – the character at Stanford is called Dr. Lloyd Simcoe, much reduced from his central role in the original version. Obviously the TV guys didn't think a series with a balding, 40-something physicist working in Switzerland would be a ratings winner.

And this is also why the TV is nonsensical. Don't get me wrong; I'm all for fantasy and science fiction with crazy plots and unbelievable storylines, but they should make some sort of basic sense.

In Sawyer's book, there are great swathes of physics, paragraphs on mathematics and philosophy and also musings about guilt and personal choice – all of which give the reader something more meaty to think on.

Would you really want to know the future if you knew you were going to be dead? Or working in a dead-end job, married to the wrong person or not married to the person you now love?

Or, on the other hand, would you want to know the future if it could tell you what you should be studying now? Or could tell you how your children are going to turn out; or could let you know that you'll be happily married to the person you love?

Sawyer's version of Flashforward is more philosophical, it's more complex and detailed, and naturally enough, that's not good TV.

Admittedly the producers of the show say that it is 'loosely based' on Sawyer's book, but from what I've seen the two entities are on opposite sides of the entertainment universe.

I suppose what is most annoying is that the name is the same. And the publishers of the book, Gollancz, are pitching it as being linked to the TV series, which is doing quite well around the world.

This is rather disingenuous, as the TV show is really nothing like the book and it looks more like the publisher is simply trying to travel on the coattails of the show, which is in some way demeaning for the novel which deserves better.

If you enjoy juicy technical science fiction rather than TV-land pap, go for Sawyer's version. You won't be disappointed and you'll learn things about physics that you would never have imagined.

Flashforward by Robert J Sawyer is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on November 17, 2009

allegory or fantasy, you choose

Niki Bruce reviews another take on modern life in Memoirs of a Master Forger.

MEMOIRS of a Master Forger by William Heaney is a fiction novel with an interesting non-fiction angle – the central character of this magic realism story bears the same name as the author, William Heaney.

The book is, however, actually written by British author Graham Joyce and the use of Heaney's name as the that of the author is a clever trope that drags the reader straight into his world.

Heaney is a troubled man. He works at an oddly named organisation that apparently assists 'youth', his wife left him for a celebrity chef and his children hate him. His closest friends are a bi-sexual male model who dabbles in poetry and a tortured artist who looks like a Hell's Angel.

Still, Heaney tries to do the right thing, supporting a shelter for the homeless, propping up his friends when their love lives implode and generally trying not to cause too much trouble. The thing is; Heaney sees demons.

His demons don't generally breathe fire, have horns on their heads or ask for peoples' souls; Heaney's demons simply bob around, haunting people until they can find a crack in their psyche and slip into their bodies.

Apparently there are precisely 1,567 demons and they've all been categorised by a certain Mr R W Goodridge in his 1973 book, Categorical Evidence for the Prevalence of the 1,567 Forms, states Heaney on the first page of Memoirs of a Master Forger. I can't find any actual evidence that this book actually exists obviously, which gives the reader yet another quirky trope to add to the list for this rather clever novel.

Memoirs of a Master Forger has been described as an 'allegorical depiction of modern life' with the 'demons' generally being considered Heaney's – or Joyce's to be more precise – interpretation of the psychological and sociological ills of the day.

And the story can be read from this perspective quite easily. There is the demon of Lust, that Heaney experiences, as well as his historical demon which is possibly Guilt, or maybe Irresponsibility or Self Obsession; that's not entirely clear. Heaney also identifies various other demons possessing his friends and family, everything from Vanity to Laziness and Misplaced Affection.

Clearly, the allegorical perspective is an easy one to assume. However readers with a more fantastical bent can just as easily enjoy this novel as a fantasy or magic realism read.

Whichever angle you choose, Memoirs of a Master Forger is worth picking up. The story touches on a number of emotions and issues; family relationships, love, loyalty, poverty, humanitarianism and even, peripherally on Britain's involvement in Iraq and its moral legacy.

But the core of the novel is Heaney with his oddly lackluster attempts to atone for something he may, or may not, have done as a college student and his convoluted attempts to protect himself from his own demons.

A series of events – the threatened closure of his favourite charity, the arrival of his daughter, the breakdown of a friend's relationship and the romantic interest of a stunning woman – lead Heaney to finally attempt to clear up his past.

The forgery itself is yet another trope for the author, since it's often discussed and is central to the action but never really materialises. Still, it's a catchy title.

Memoirs of a Master Forger is an elegant and adult read – there's no swashbuckling swords or wizards with wands – rather, it's an attempt to add a touch of mystery to what is, essentially, an ordinary life.

What makes this novel interesting, aside from Joyce's various tropes, is the way he's given a sense of satisfying heroism to someone who could be just like you. Heaney's life is brushed with the gloss of magic making it far more interesting and offering the reader hope that their ordinary life could be touched by magic too.

Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on November 22, 2009

a romantic echo in time

Niki Bruce talks to author Diana Gabaldon about her latest Outlander book.

THE Outlander series of books have had a remarkably long, and successful, life and they are still going strong. The seventh in the series, An Echo in the Bone, has just been released, continuing the amazing story of Claire and Jamie Fraser.

According to its author, Diana Gabaldon, the story continues with no obvious end in sight. "The story exists outside of myself," she tells me on the phone from Sydney where she is finishing up her publicity tour.

For those who have never read one of the Outlander books, the story starts in Scotland in the 18th century with a 'handsome young man in a kilt' and an English woman who is somewhere she shouldn't be.

The premise comes, oddly enough, from an old Dr Who episode featuring that particular guy in the kilt, as well as the concept of time travel says Gabaldon. For that is what Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser is, a 20th century woman somehow sent back in time.

Still, Gabaldon says that the whole time travel concept came more from her character Claire than it did from the Dr Who episode. "I tried to beat her into submission," she says jokingly, but apparently the character had a mind of her own.

All seven books have focused on Claire and Jamie (the handsome Scott) and their abiding love through the ages; their children, relatives and friends and the odd historical personage.

Gabaldon started out as a university professor who decided one day that she was going to try writing a novel. With what seems to be characteristic determination, Gabaldon took to it like a duck to water and once on the path couldn't seem to stop.

"I didn't intend to publish the book, but I ended up with an agent by accident. We decided that I should stop writing while I could still lift the book, that's why there have been so many of them," says Gabaldon.

Her throwaway comment isn't as flippant as it seems; Gabaldon's books are literally doorstoppers, they're huge in size, scope, imagination, historical details and romance.

While the Outlander series has been described as historical fiction, it is really a romance – don't get me wrong, the historical detail and information is entirely there – but it's the love the two central characters have for each other that makes this such a lovely read.

In An Echo in the Bone, Jamie and Claire are in America at the time of the revolution. Jamie, as a Highland Scott and former supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, is not exactly in favour of the English retaining a hold on the colony.

And so, the adventure continues as Jamie and Claire – and Jamie's nephew Ian – attempt to live their lives without become too caught up in the growing conflict. Of course, this isn't going to happen as Jamie has always been a fighter and Claire has always held 'strong opinions about freedom'.

Characters from the entire series re-appear adding complications to the storyline, naturally enough, including Lord John Grey and Jamie's illegitimate son, William – who thinks he is John's son. Jamie's adopted son Fergus is mixed up with the American rebels as well, and as Jamie and Claire attempt to return to Scotland calamity befalls them.

At the same time, Claire and Jamie's daughter Brianna, her husband Roger and their two children, have returned to modern times and are living in Scotland in Jamie's old home. The couple returned in the previous book because of their daughter's illness that could only be fixed with modern medicine. However, their idyllic life is about to come crashing down around the family as the both the past and the future catch up with them.

Medicine is a major theme throughout the Outlander series as Claire starts out as a nurse and becomes a doctor; a 'witch' or 'white lady' for the primitive past, since she knows about germs, creates basic penicillin and even comes up with a rough anesthetic during her forays into the past.

The 'science' of how this family manages to travel through time is relatively believable – based as it is on the use of 'ley lines' or the Earth's magnetic fields and some complicated, but verifiable, physics – 'unified field theory' anyone? Gabaldon understands it, at any rate, and her explanation is confident and reassuring.

In Echo in the Bone, Gabaldon leaves the reader with a major cliff-hanger, although she says she did try to tie up some loose ends. In the previous book – A Breath of Snow and Ashes – her fans panicked and assumed that because she'd tied up all the storylines, that it was the last book. So, Gabaldon says she had to leave something hanging this time around.

Unfortunately it takes about three years for Gabaldon to write an Outlander book – which mean fans will be waiting a while to have the latest cliff-hanger sorted out. Gabaldon says that the books take so long, not just because of the immense amount of research she does, but also because she's a very slow writer.

"I'm a slow, fiddly writer. I don't write anything except the actual text; I don't write an outline so I don't know what's going to happen or where the story is going. I start with a kernel of a sentence, build it into a scene over a couple of days. And I assemble a mental timeline about the sequence of events. Then pieces just coalesce," says Gabaldon.

She also does the research at the same time as she writes the story, which means sometimes visiting historical places a number of times, as she did for a major battle in An Echo in the Bone.

So, those who are waiting with bated breath for the next installment of Jamie and Claire's story will be waiting for a while. However, there's a graphic novel on the way in September 2010, following the story from the perspective of one of the other characters, which should keep the faithful happy.
For fans of the series, An Echo in the Bone, is a tour de force. There is enough action, intrigue, love, sex, romance, history, blood, gore and betrayal to keep anyone happy. Gabaldon has again delivered her signature interweaving plots and strong characters, both old favourites and new friends. All in all, if you have even a vague interest in historical fiction and/or romance, you can't pass up An Echo in the Bone and the Outlander series as a whole.

If, however, you've never read an Outlander novel, you really should start at the beginning, otherwise you'll not only miss all the adventure, but you'll have no idea of who anyone is. Luckily the next one won't be out for a couple of years, so you'll be able to finish the first seven in time for number eight.

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon is published by Orion Books and is available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on December 03, 2009