Sunday, June 27, 2010

halfway to the grave by jeaniene frost is another vampire urban fantasy romance but it's not too bad

Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost is another step in Gollancz' push to be the home of all urban fantasy romance, and the first in Frost's Night Huntress series.
Yet again, readers, we have a feisty female character with a touch of the supernatural – this time she's half vampire – and a bad boy vampire who's really got a heart of, well, you know the story.
Which is such a shame really, because Frost isn't a bad writer and the plot is a bit more punchy than the usual run of guff that's overflowing the bookshelves at the moment.
Still, urban fantasy romance obviously sells – yes, yes, we all have that nasty Twilight stuff to thank for this, despite the fact that the real genre is so much better; Laurell K Hamilton, Charlaine Harris and Anne Rice for example – so Gollancz keeps publishing it.
And I shouldn't really complain as I love the genre as much as the next person, but there's good stuff, great stuff and very little that will become classic stuff.
Frost is, at least, good. Catherine 'Cat' Crawfield is a girl with a major chip on her shoulder. Her father was a vampire, her mother was raped as a teen and has been damaged beyond repair by a judgemental town, repressed parents and a fear that he'll return.
But at least she loves her daughter, although she's taught Cat to hate half of herself and expects her to go out and murder people, sorry vampires, when she's not studying to get into college.
Cat's been lucky so far, she's managed to kill off a number of vamps without anything too bad happening to her, but all that is about to change. Instead of picking up the usual blood-hungry, horny vampire at the local bar – as a prelude to stabbing him with a stake – Cat gets another hunter.
Oh, he's a vampire alright, but he's also a vampire hunter. So, Cat's caught in a bind; should she learn from him or keep trying to kill him? Needless to say, said vampire is hot and Cat's trying not to be interested, after all, ALL vampires are evil, right?
Frost manages not to make Halfway to the Grave too teenage-angst, but again it's essentially a romance with some fangs, stakings and learning how to fight. But the plot has a twist and additions like people-smuggling and a shadowy government organisation add spice to the storyline.
If you like the genre, and let's face it, who doesn't at the moment, Halfway to the Grave is not a bad example, and like many of these books, it's the first in a series so you know you'll have something to read for a while yet.

Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

unholy ghosts by stacia kane is fresh urban fantasy with a gritty, sideways feel

I loved, loved, loved this book. Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane is one of the few new urban fantasy novels I've read in a while. There's not a single vampire or werewolf to be seen and the characters are as conflicted, unfulfilled and damaged as any normal person.
Well, perhaps not exactly 'normal', but they're certainly not the 'holier-than-thou', angst-ridden teens or hormonally challenged desperately single women to be found in most of this genre's current crop of new authors.
In Kane's world, ghosts are real; and they're not very friendly. In fact, they're downright nasty. A couple of decades previously the dead had risen and only one organisation – the Church of the Real Truth – had managed to keep society together. Now America is a land where everyone knows what happens after you're dead, you turn into a spirit and go to the underworld, which isn't Hell and Jesus can't save you.
Instead you get people like Chess Putnam; she's a witch and she works for the Church. Yep, a complete reversal.
Since ghosts are real and can cause real damage, the Church will pay you a lot of money if a true haunting can be proven to have happened. It's Chess' job to sort the real from the fake and then banish the real ghost back to where they belong.
So far, so urban fantasy. But what makes Unholy Ghosts more interesting is that Chess isn't some boring, sweet, lovelorn sexy girl; she's a tattooed rocker with a taste for gangsters and a massive debt to her dealer hanging over her head.
Bump, the local gang leader, needs Chess to sort out a haunting of sorts. Work out if it's ghosts or the opposition, and Chess will clear her debt and be kept happy, so to speak.
Unfortunately Chess doesn't have a choice but to help out – she hasn't got the cash and the Church doesn't know about her personal vice. Before she knows it, Chess is caught up in nasty blood rituals, gang rivalries and an dangerous attraction to two, opposing gangsters.
Unholy Ghosts is the first in Kane's The Downside Ghosts series, which is great. I can't wait to read more of this gritty, sideways world that she's created. The character of Chess is reminiscent of Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, in that she's more 'real' than the usual fantasy female.
Chess isn't perfect, she carries her own demons, she's attracted to the wrong men and she's not averse to bending the rules – all things that make her a much more interesting character to read about.
Another of my favourite authors – also a pioneer in this genre like Hamilton – Charlaine Harris, has a quote on Kane's book: 'Gripping... Vivid characters and wonderful sense of pace'. And it's true.
Chess spins from one disaster to another, barely managing to keep it together, but somehow not giving up, nor becoming irritating. She's strong without being unapproachable and yet, still human in her reactions to the people around her.
Kane is a genuine find in the over-populated urban fantasy genre – she can only get better on presumes; thankfully there are more books written and more to come.

Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane is published by Harper Voyager and is available from good books stores and online.

nalani singh's slave to sensation and visions of heat from her psy-changeling series offer romantic urban fiction with a little bit of bite

Slave to Sensation and Visions of Heat are the first two books in Nalani Singh's 'Psy-Changling' series of books – of which there were seven at last count.
Singh – who was born in Fiji and brought up in New Zealand – is one of Gollancz' latest stars. Her first two books in the new Guild Hunter series, Angels' Blood and Archangel's Kiss, were the first of her novels I read and reviewed; and I liked them, quite a lot.
The Guild Hunter series rotates around Angels and vampires – yes, yes, more damn vampires – but at least the addition of Angels who act like humans ie. Fight among themselves, fall in love with humans and generally ignore most of the religious connotations of their literary history, are different enough to be interesting.
In the Psy-Changling series Singh has done a similar thing – take one established urban fantasy trope and add something new to the mix. So, we've got werepanthers, rather than werewolves, and the 'Psy' as the new idea.
The Psy are humans, kind of, who basically had 'psy' talents like telepathy, telekinesis, farseeing, foreseeing etc but who decided that all emotions should be done away with.
So, we've got terribly smart, organised, mentally powerful beings without any love, lust, hatred or joy. Basically human-shaped machines who love making money.
The Changelings are the opposite – humans in touch with their animal natures – so lots of love, lust, anger and joy.
Naturally the stories – in both books – focus on a cold-hearted Psy running into a hot-blooded Changeling and opposites attracting.
In Slave to Sensation, Sascha Duncan is a Psy who thinks she's losing her mind; she keeps 'feeling' things that she shouldn't, like emotions. Her Changeling is Lucas Hunter, a local property developer who's a werepanther and amazingly attracted to Sascha's cold demeanour. Of course, she's beautiful and he's hot, so what do you expect is going to happen?
Like many of the current crop of Gollancz urban fantasies, Singh's books are basically romance novels wrapped in a pretty fiction of the supernatural – there are any number of successful authors and publishers out there who are milking this 'Twilight' trend for all it's worth, after all.
Thankfully, Singh can actually write (unlike others, particularly the aforementioned Twilight author) and her plots include a bit more than soulful gazing/boy-meets-girl/'yes, dear, I'm a vampire/werewolf/angel' motif we've come to expect.
While Sascha and Lucas sniff around each other, something nasty is going on in the Changeling world – another young woman has gone missing. She's the latest in a long series of missing Changelings who turn up dead and mutilated. Lucas, as pride leader, has been tracing the murders around America and thinks Sascha's group of Psy might be involved.
So, at least this series has a bit of action to differentiate it from the usual run-of-the-mill stuff out there. Yes, the romance blossoms and Sascha realises that there's nothing wrong with her, she's actually some kind of super Psy throwback, who's talent has been suppressed by her people, and Lucas manages to discover the murder, before they settle down happily ever after.
Visions of Heat continues the storyline, including the characters of the first book, but focusing on a new male Changeling in need of a 'mate'. Oh yeah, the animal clich├ęs are fairly strong.
This time it's Vaughan D'Angelo, who is actually a werejaguar instead of a panther, in need of romance and his Psy is the hyper-sensitive Faith NightStar, a valuable commodity with the ability to see the future.
Like the first book, Visions of Heat carries on the underlying plot of madness in the Psy culture, with Faith being dogged by dark dreams of murder and torture as another Psy mind manages to latch on to hers.
Naturally enough, Vaughan's animal nature is able to protect her from the dreams, and with Sascha and Lucas, he fights to save Faith from being dragged into madness, while at the same time falling in love, of course.
These books aren't high literature but they are fun reads. The twists to the typical urban fantasy fodder make Singh's books much more palatable than much of the pap that's being published these days.
Personally I prefer her Guild Hunter series, it's more urban and grittier, with less traditional romance and more blood, guts and politics. But for readers who enjoy a good love story with feisty women, strong men and true love, then Slave to Sensation and Visions of Heat are great reads. What's more, there are five more books in the series, so your holiday reading is sorted.

Slave to Sensation and Visions of Heat by Nalini Singh are published by Gollancz and are available from good book stores and online.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

avery cates returns in jeff somers' dystopian world of the eternal prison

Avery Cates, the eternal assassin of Somers' dystopian future world, is back and this time he's locked up. Well, he's been locked up again, but it won't stop him getting out and getting revenge.
Lovers of apocalyptic science fiction were introduced to Cates in Somers first two books – The Electric Church and The Digital Plague – alongside a motley crew of cloned world leaders, humans with their brains replaced by a computer consciousness and the dregs of a world slowly back-sliding into the Dark Ages.
Somers' work has been raved about by critics, pundits, reviewers and readers alike, his ability to portray a world we all shy from, but can clearly identify with, gives one the shivers.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper describes his writing as 'An action movie in print', and it's a remarkably astute description. Somers' books are fast-paced, tightly written, believable (in their own way) and peopled with characters that we know – or at least have read about in the news.
The world of these books is one that's been taken over by a variety of never-ending wars and skirmishes, by global corporations controlling the world's food supply, by an underclass of criminals from Russia and Asia and a police force that's more thug than 'Bobby' on the beat.
There is widespread poverty, disease and death. People 'augment' themselves with mechanical and genetic additions or take gene-therapy drugs to stop man-made diseases. Everyone is out for themselves and almost no one cares what the world has come to.
Avery Cates is a street killer, a man who is consistently amazed that he's managed to survive as long as he has in the broken down streets of New York, a crumbling city in an America that's long lost it's ability to care for its people. Sound familiar?
Technology continues to exist for those with the money and the connections, and it's developed into something truly awful – people can now be 'downloaded' into a massive server and then 'uploaded' into a robot form. Only sometimes, not all of them comes back.
As The Eternal Prison opens, Cates is being rounded up with other unsavoury types to be shipped off to the worst prison in what is already a hideously brutal prison system. Only, for some reason, he really doesn't care.
Cates has switched off; he kind of wishes he was dead already, and is really just waiting for someone to kill him. Thankfully – for his fans – his doesn't happen and Cates gets mixed up in a prison break, an attempt to assassinate the globe's nominal ruler and something odd with weird, little old man.
The Eternal Prison has a couple of disjointed sections that are a bit odd in the first third of the novel – it appears as though you're reading a flashback, with Cates doing something completely different from the previous chapter.
However, this is just a teaser to the twist in the plot that comes along towards the end – from there on, it all makes sense and seems so terribly obvious.
Once again, Somers has succeeded in delivering a fantastic sci-fi, action thriller with enough resonance to current times that you'll have no trouble believing in his dark future.
While it's best if you've read the first two books, there's enough back story to allow readers to know what's going on; but really, get the other two first, you'll enjoy the nuances of The Eternal Prison much more.

The Eternal Prison by Jeff Somers is published by Orbit Books and is available from good book stores and online.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

better than the tv show: the latest sookie stackhouse vampire novel, dead in the family by charlaine harris

Yes, lovers of vampires and werewolves, and especially lovers of Sookie Stackhouse, her various vampy and hairy boyfriends, her fairy great grandfather and her brother Jason, the non-shirt wearing hottie, Charlaine Harris is back.
 Dead in the Family is the tenth Sookie Stackhouse 'Southern Vampire Mysteries' series – although just about everyone will know them better as the 'True Blood' books from the extremely popular HBO series of the same name.
For those who haven't read the books, and have only seen the couple of seasons on HBO in Singapore; don't read on, this is full of spoilers as the books are up to number 10, while the TV show has barely even started.
For fans who started with the books, and not the TV show, Dead in the Family is fantastic; the characters continue to develop, the plots twist back over the whole series and Sookie is still stuck in her weird love/hate relationship with Eric.
Yes, Eric. I know, I know; if you've only watched the HBO series, you'll still think she's got a thing for Bill the Vampire; or, if you've seen the beginning of the latest season in the US, then you'll be wondering about the werewolf Alcide.
Sorry; Dead in the Family is way past all those relationships. Not only has Sookie moved on, so has her brother Jason, Bill (kind of) and Sam the shapechanger. There are also impossibly beauty Faeries as distant relatives – which kind of explains why so many women want to sleep with Jason and why the vampires adore the taste of Sookie – as well as all sorts of other supernatural creatures.
Sookie is still recovering from her injuries from the 'Faery War' that occurred in the previous book, Dead and Gone, as well as the deaths of a number of people she loved.
On top of all this; Bill is fading away having been damaged by silver and now Eric's maker (his real maker not the fake one in the TV show) has turned up with a rather insane child vamp who may, or may not be a member of royalty.
As usual, Harris manages to keep all the various plots in place, make her supernatuals seem as understandable as her humans and adds a nice bit of love, romance and sex to spice it up. There is also the prerequisite blood and violence; but not at the expense of a good story.
I started with the books years ago, and while I find the HBO show fun to watch, there's no way it can encompass the nuances of Harris' text; the humour and the psychology of both humans and supernatural creatures.
So, if you've only seen the TV show; make the effort to get hold of all ten books, I promise you won't be dissapointed.

Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

sunshine state by james miller is a scary eco-thriller of global warming, militant religions & dirty wars

James Miller's latest book, Sunshine State, is a very scary thing to read. If you are one of those people who are concerned about global warming, environmental degradation or holes in the ozone layers, then this book will scare you too.
Books like The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley, Down to A Sunless Sea by David Graham and Flood by Stephen Baxter are part of a growing eco-thriller genre that is making inroads into the science fiction world.
Like the books mentioned, Sunshine State is not a non-fiction tome written by a crusty scientist or a crazy environmentalist, it's a novel that combines a couple of issues that are of central concern in this day and age.
One: The terrible impact of the dirty wars occurring repeatedly around the world; and Two: The apparent increase in terrible weather systems that are devastating certain parts of the United States' coast.
Miller's book is a kind of 'mash-up' of these two themes. Mark Burrows is a member of the British secret service. He's trying to get out; his wife is pregnant, his best mate is dead and he feels like he's dying a little every time he goes on another mission.
Mark came to manhood in the heat of various deserts, a part of the UK's dirty wars. He followed orders, and followed them well, but now he is beginning to question whether or not his entire life was wrong.
Out of the screaming blue sky of a London engulfed in a major, long-lasting heatwave, Mark is given his last mission – to head for the "Storm Zone" in the US and track down his best mate; the man who is supposed to be dead.
The reason why Sunshine State is so scary is because it is completely believable. The references to Hurricane Katrina – which has already occurred – are factual spices to the future-present recipe of Miller's book. The Storm Zone is a swathe of destroyed country that's taken out most of Louisiana, southern California and other southern American states. The cities are gone, the people are mad, scared or locked tight behind giant walls and the army uses the whole area as a "training zone".
When reading about the Storm Zone – with its micro-communities of hippies and clubbers; Apocalyptics waiting for the world to end, drug runners and the Queer Liberation Army escaping from zealous born-again Christianity – you can see the ideas have all come from things that are happening now in America and around the world.
Interspersed with Mark's trip into the insanity that is the Storm Zone, are excerpts from interviews he had with a psychologist after his last disastrous mission with his former best friend, Charlie Ashe. These fragments give the reader an insight into what Mark is really all about; how he became the “invisible man” of British intelligence.
There's a defined strand of militant religiosity also running through Sunshine State. First, the Muslim terrorists that Mark and Charlie kill by the thousands in the desert and then the creepy, Pastor as the President of the United States and his white, gun-totting "Witch Hunters".
Miller carefully paints no one religion as being any worse than the other; but they both appear to be mad in his rendering. It is the militancy that stands out; true believers of both faiths are painted more gently.
Sunshine State is a great read; it's intelligently written, it's set not far into the future so non-science fiction lovers will enjoy the action and the themes give you a disconcerting feeling that what it's talking about could really happen. While Sunshine State might not scare everyone, it will certainly make you think a little more seriously about recycling your rubbish.

Sunshine State by James Miller is published by Little, Brown and is available from good book stores and online.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

it's not just me...

The reviews are in, the box office is slipping, and The Guardian is asking if Sex and the City 2 will be the 'turkey of the year'. Read the commentary: Post-credits scene: Sex and the City 2

the carrie diaries from candace bushnell is an obvious sex and the city movie tie-in

The marketing team at HarperCollins must have been jumping up and down with joy when Candace Bushnell announced her latest book, The Carrie Diaries, was ready; just in time for the release of the second Sex And The City movie.
What with the obscene amount of publicity being dished out on the film, the book is sure to sell well. After all, if the fans of the HBO series are tired of watching the same old scenes over and over again, and have bought the DVD of the first film, they're sure to snap up this book.
The Carrie Diaries purports to be the 'prequel' to the more famous books that were the basis for the 90s phenomenon that was the Sex and the City series. However, as someone who spent far more time watching the TV show than reading the books, I was thrown for a six by many of this novel's plot lines.
Most glaringly is the fact that in The Carrie Diaries, Carrie has a dad; it's her mother that's died and left her, and her two sisters, alone with a bumbling, but loveable, father figure.
In the TV series, the fact that Carrie's father left her as a child is the centrepoint around which all her terrible relationships with men – and her eventual marriage to a much older, more sensible, man – revolve. So discovering in The Carrie Diaries a completely opposite storyline was odd, to say the least.
Likewise, I can't for the life of me remember if there was ever any mention of Carrie having any siblings. I remember Charlotte's brother – Samantha slept with him – and Miranda had a sibling of some sort that we saw at the funeral of her mother.
Still, books are rarely translated completely faithfully onto the small, or large, screen, so on to the rest of the novel.
We meet Carrie as she's entering the last year of high school. She has friends, family and a sort of boyfriend. She's one of the 'smart' kids at school, not exactly a part of the cool set. But she does want to be a writer.
Honestly, there's not really a lot more to say. The story meanders along, following Carrie through the ups and down of an average American teenager's life. There's a bit of smoking – she obviously started young – some drinking and drug taking, a waffling drone about should she or shouldn't she have sex as 'everyone else is doing it' and discussions about getting in Brown University.
Any drama to be had comes from a younger sister acting out, getting in trouble with the police, and a very shallowly drawn boyfriend who turns out to be a dropkick.
If this book wasn't based on the famous TV character, there would be no point to reading it. Carrie as a teen doesn't undergo any dramatic 'coming of age' experiences, she isn't an original thinker, she's not even that exciting from a fashion perspective.
There are random references to what she chooses to wear every so often, and one incident with her mother's old handbag, but that's about it. And these passages feel forced, as though the author went back through the book and thought, 'oh, should really add a fashion reference for all the TV fans'.
Admittedly there are probably people out there who will love this book, who'll be able to move on from the inconsistencies and enjoy the portrayal of a somewhat iconic pop culture character.
Unfortunately, I found little to recommend The Carrie Diaries. It's not badly written, exactly, but it comes across more as a Young Adult novel than something a 30-something Sex and the City fan would enjoy. There's no raunchy sex for example.
I am also, perhaps, a bit biased by my feelings about the recent film. Like many fans of the series who watched it while making my own way in the professional world, the latest film seems to have negated all that hard work.
Sex and the City 2 (SATC2) has been lambasted by reviewers for returning it's stars to a kind of retro 50s 'little woman' mentality, where their marriages and children have taken over not only their lives, but also their personalities. But even this, a valid issue in these days of working mothers, is treated so superficially that you just want to punch someone. What working mother do you know wears haute couture gowns to feed their toddlers?
To add insult to injury, the setting of SATC2 in Abu Dhabi has women with brains up in arms across the world. The one city in the world that does not allow women to drive cars, wear revealing clothes or be alone with a male not her husband, father or son; and the producers set one of the sexyist, ground-breaking, grrl power stories there.
Not only that, the four friends don't even seem to be aware of these issues. There's a bit of lame referencing to 'the poor local women', and are the maxi dresses an attempt to cover up? Not if they're completely sheer and leave arms, neck and boobs on show. Singing 'I A Woman' surrounded by belly-dancers does not a feminist statement make; it doesn't even manage to soothe general feelings of political correctness.
In fact, the producers should have had second thoughts when they had to actually film the Abu Dhabi scenes in Morocco. Apparently it's less 'restrictive' when it comes to women showing skin. Honestly!
The actual film, despite be set in Abu Dhabi, has now been banned in the United Arab Emirates, which just goes to prove how wrong that set decision was.
As a tie in to this actual book review (sorry, got a bit 'carried' away), ie. How it's all just about the money; the wardrobe of designer clothes the stars wore reportedly cost up to US$10 million! Despite the producers insisting that many of the garments were lent for 'free', the fact that the clothes alone were worth even half that much is just staggering.
On top of this, the obviousness of the product placement – changing Carrie's iconic Mac for a HP laptop; featuring the Halston Heritage label, Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Carrie, is the chief creative officer of the brand, and the rumours of funding coming from the Abu Dhabi tourism association – just cheapens what was a important cultural icon for many women.
The best explanation of what's so wrong with the two SATC movies comes from The Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman in her piece The death of Sex and the City.
So, combined with all this and the lack of any real story, The Carrie Diaries, seems just another attempt by the author – who has made an absolute fortune from the other books – to cash in on the publicity and the promotion of the film.
If you can get past all of this, and are an adamant fan of Carrie, then get yourself a copy of The Carrie Diaries. However if you're more of a Samantha fan, or a Charlotte fan, or a Miranda fan, then you'll probably be wasting your money.
Hmm... maybe Bushnell is planning to write The Samantha Diaries etc, ad nauseam? I hope not.

The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell is published by HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.