Wednesday, March 3, 2010

good, bad and terrible

Niki Bruce reviews a number of recent book releases.

THIS time of the year a huge number of new releases land on the desks of book reviewers around the world as publishing companies gear up for the Christmas frenzy of book buying. And so, instead of inflicting numerous reviews on our readers, here is a run-down of some of the books I've been reading for the last month or so. Enjoy.

Iain Banks (Little, Brown)

Known for splitting his persona between literary thrillers under this name, Iain Banks, and hard-core science fiction under the name Iain M Banks, this British author has combined both sides in his latest book, Transition. The premise is sci-fi – a group of people have discovered a way to travel between alternate realities – but the novel's structure, tone and concepts are literary. Which makes Transition a somewhat difficult read for those looking for either genre. If you prefer your sci-fi to have aliens and battles, this is not for you. If you like your literature to have a foot in reality, Transition may not suit you either. If, however, you are a discerning reader looking for something that pulls sci-fi up the literary ladder, then Transition is just what the doctor ordered.

Kristin Cashore (Gollancz)

This is the second book from Cashore about her world peopled by 'Gracelings' – individuals born with a particular ability to do something better than anyone else. These talented people could be the best cooks in the world, the best soldiers, painters, whatever. They are identified by their two-coloured eyes and are 'owned' by the King. In Fire, Cashore moves away from her first world to one that's also full of 'monsters' – brightly coloured and vicious creatures that draw in ordinary people, only to kill them. There is, however, one human monster, who has her own set of skills – much like the Gracelings – and who must decided whether to be true to nature or not. Fire is classic fantasy – there's also a strong thread of romance twisting through the book – and will be a welcome read for lovers of this genre.

The Dead Path
Stephen M Irwin (Hachette)

I have to admit that it took me quite a long time to get into this book. On paper it appears to be an interesting story; Nicholas returns to Australia after the death of his wife in England, and discovering that he can now see ghosts, only to find that they've followed him home. However, there's something irritating about Nicholas; his inability to get over his wife's death, his self-pity, his self-imposed guilt and his avoidance of his past. Still, once that mysterious past comes back to haunt him – as a child his best friend was murdered quite gruesomely – the story really gets going. Set in suburban Australia, The Dead Path may be a little alien for non-Australian readers in some ways, but the authenticity of the terror makes up for it. And as the action gets going the book moves along smartly. There's a question as to whether Nicholas is really seeing the creatures, ghosts and horrors that assault him, after all he could simply be mad, but that ambiguity makes up for the slow start. An interesting novel in the horror genre.

Prophecy's Ruin
Sam Bowring (Orbit Books)

This is the first in a new fantasy series from Australian author Sam Bowring, The Broken Well trilogy, and looks set to be a ripper of a yarn in classic fantasy style. For thousands of years the world has been separated into Dark and Light (of course) but there is a prophecy about a 'blue haired child' who will grow into an immense power and bring an end to the split. Naturally enough when rumour of a blue-haired child surfaces, the minions of both sides race to claim the power. Unfortunately – for the child as much as anyone else – something goes wrong and instead of one power there are suddenly two. Bowring's story is complex and detailed – the bad guys aren't all bad and the good guys aren't all good for instance. There are a number of intricate plots and the characters are relatively well-developed. It will be interesting to see what happens in the second book. This is one for true fantasy lovers.

Pliny's Warning
Anne Maria Nicholson (HarperCollins)

I'd like to be able to say that this vaguely eco-thriller is an absolute page-turner; but I just can't. Pliny's Warning came too late; after I'd plowed through this jumbled of history, romance, science and semi-Mafia themes. Frances is a vulcanologist (yep, someone who studies volcanos) who's moved to Italy, near Vesuvius of course, to work after some sort of personal and professional disaster in her homeland of New Zealand. She's studying the possibility that the world's most famous volcano will erupt again. Naturally enough she discovers that yes, it probably will, and pretty soon too. Unfortunately, the local university has been corrupted by Italian businessmen (who may be Mafia) and won't listen to Frances' warnings. There's also a side plot of the poor musician living in her building and a rugged Italian vulcanologist who's possibly in love with Frances. I can't quite put my finger on why this book just doesn't work. It could be the heavy-handed descriptive passages of rustic Italian life, or the illogical intuitive jumps made by the characters or even just the subject matter. Whatever it is, Pliny's Warning has lost something along the way.

The Cold Kiss of Death
Suzanne McLeod (Gollancz)

McLeod returns with the second in her alternate reality series. The books are full of ghosts, witches, fairies (of the magical kind), vampires, werewolves and a mishmash of other supernatural beings. The central character is Genny – the only Sidhe living in London. She's not exactly a witch but she works for, a company that basically cleans up magical problems, so she's a kind of cleaner. But her Sidhe – or high faery – blood means she's susceptible to a number of dangers, including among others, vampires. McLeod's books are punchy and modern, which reminds the reader of Laurell K Hamilton's popular Anita Blake, Vampires Hunter novels. However, there's a very 'English' feel to these stories. The Cold Kiss of Death is a great example of the still growing genre of 'supernatural in the real world' that continues to take up the shelves at book stores around the world.

Mirror Space
Marianne de Pierres (Orbit Books)

Mirror Space is the third book in de Pierres' The Sentients of Orion series, which has been described by numerous reviewers as 'Space Opera supreme'. The universe of this book is set far into the future where humans are now described as 'humanesques', where many aliens exist and where some humans and aliens have become 'post-species', ie. Existing without physical bodies. The story follows a feisty heroine, Mira Fedor who is the only woman to be accepted as a pilot by the living spaceships known as biozoon. She's been caught up in intergalactic politics, kidnapped by Extros (beings without bodies) and her planet has been invaded. The story just goes from unbelievable to ridiculous but it's such fun to read that you simply suspend all disbelief and read on. This is quality Space Opera with battles, aliens, romance, technology and humour. However, it's probably a good idea to read the first two books so you're not too confused.

First published at The Straits Times blogs on December 05, 2009 



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