Wednesday, July 28, 2010

the poison dairies is a sweetly, twisted story about obsession and love

The Poison Dairies is an odd little book on first look – it's published by HarperCollins' Children's Books imprint oddly enough considering both the sexual content, the poisoning and the betrayal at the centre of the story.
Set in England somewhere between the Reformation and the Restoration, The Poison Dairies tracks the life of Jessamine, the only child of a country doctor whose speciality seems to be healing through the use of plants.
The book opens with Jessamine carefully preparing the berries of the Belladonna plant, one of the most virulent poisons of their times.
The descriptions of the glossy, black berries and the fascination Jessamine has with them, her proprietorial air perfectly conveys the Gothic nature of this book.
Even the authoring – "by Maryrose Wood, based on a concept by The Duchess of Northumberland" – harks back to times past, of 18th century lady authors and overblown Gothic romances.
But The Poison Diaries is much more substantial that those tomes; there is a sharp clarity of phrase in Wood's prose and the dark, mythical characters of Weed – a foundling – and Oleander – the dark prince – seems informed by the stories of the Duke of Northumberland's historical family seat, Alnwick Castle, which broods over Jessamine's life.
It's not entirely clear who, or what, Weed is. Nor does one learn why Oleander chooses to speak to Jessamine. The magical nature of both men is never clearly defined, nor, in fact, fully proved.
But the sense of mystery and unease add an edge to what could have been an ordinary story.
This is a romance, yes, with Jessamine falling for Weed, but it is also, almost, a murder mystery. The Poison Dairies is a sweetly, twisted story about obsession and love – both romantic and familial.
Like a number of books I've recently read and reviewed – White Cat by Holly Black in particular – betrayal in the heart of one's home; the bosom of the family, also resonates in The Poison Dairies denouement.

The Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood, based on a concept by The Duchess of Northumberland, is published by HarperCollins and is available from good books stores and online.

new australian writer honey brown looks into the dark of the human psyche

Australian author Honey Brown burst onto that country's literary scene with the tightly written and terrifyingly plotted Red Queen in 2009.
The book won an Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel, was short-listed for the Australian Shadows Award and won a Highly Commended from the FAW Awards.
Now Brown has released The Good Daughter, a novel that doesn't fit into her first genre, but is as well-written and beautifully constructed as the first.
Interestingly it was a freak accident on a farm – she broke her back – that set Brown on her literary path, and despite being confined mostly to a wheelchair and caring for two young children and a farm, she has already finished a third book, with a fourth on the way.
Prolific, yes, but Brown's writing is also very good.
In Red Queen two ordinary men, brothers, find themselves isolated on a hidden property – loosely based on Brown’s own land in rural Victoria – after a deadly virus has broken out across the globe.
The tensions of a sibling relationship are heightened when an unknown woman enters their lives; the elder brother, Rohan, is cut from the typical cloth of a working class Australian man. He is taciturn, separated from his feelings and overly protective of Shannon, the younger brother.
Shannon is a dreamer, he still yearns for his dead parents and the carefree university life he had before the "Red Queen" virus arrived. Rohan, on the other hand, quite likes the hardship of proving himself a man in their daily struggle to survive.
The interloper upsets the brothers' uneasy balance; naturally adding sex to the mix – the boys have been in the bush for a long time, after all.
Brown cleverly mixes these three characters, giving away only small pieces of information so the reader is left waiting to know more, totally unconcerned that there are only three characters in the story.
The plot twist in the denouement is surprising, although a little too altruistic. But Red Queen is the sort of book one can happily describe as literary fiction, while at the same time recommend to your friends who only read thrillers.
The Good Daughter, Brown's second book, is similar in its tight plot, limited character pool and outback Australian setting, but entirely different in its perspective.
Rebecca is the daughter of the title, a teenager from the wrong end of town with a slightly unhealthy interest in the richest boy in the district, Zach.
She also has her mother's reputation to live up to – should she choose her dead mum's rather loose ways or the same woman's heroic acceptance of death from cancer?
Zach has his own problems; his family may be rich but his mother is crazy according to his gruff, aggressive farmer father. And Zach's beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, insanity runs in the family.
Added to the mix is a bastard – Zack's father's by-blow. Suave for the small country town, Aden is a charming rogue who's out to get what he can.
Then Zack's mother disappears, and the last person to see her is Rebecca.
The Good Daughter is a portrait of modern, country Australia: The isolation, the small-town nosiness and censure, the lack of work, the drugs and the depression.
But it also shows some of what can be good about the same place and people – acceptance, warmth and family.
Still, for first time readers of Australian fiction, The Good Daughter doesn't paint a particularly rosy picture.
Brown is obviously a writer to watch. She is part of the Australian tradition of strong female authors who centre their work in their daily lives, but manage to turn the ordinary into the sublime with just the placement of a few words and an ability to look into the dark of the human psyche.

Red Queen and The Good Daughter by Honey Brown are published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books Australia, and are available from good book stores and online.

oracle by jackie french leads young readers to historical fiction via adventure

Jackie French is an award-winning children's author from Australia, who has made a name for herself with a number of illustrated books for younger readers. Oracle, for children aged 10 to 14 years, is her first step into the slightly older age group and she's handled it nicely.
Set in Mycenae in 1200BC, Oracle follows the story of a sister and brother, born into a primitive farming village, but destined for greater things.
When Thetis is born, her brother Nikko rescues her from being abandoned on the mountain by their father; a girl-child is an unwanted extra mouth to feed. From that day forward, Nikko is her protector, likewise tarnished with the brush of having cheated the gods of a death.
Brow-beaten by the village, Thetis remains mute until the age of five when suddenly she becomes able to speak – unfortunately she can only speak the truth, much to the concern of her parents.
So when their parents and the village elders see a way to get rid of the pair in exchange for escaping the wrath of the Mycenae King, the siblings are bundled off to the city to be court entertainers.
Becoming favourites, Thetis continues to remain mute until she utters a dreadful prophecy and dooms them all.
French's version of the founding of the Oracle at Delphi – which the book is based on – is touched by clever involvement of science and skirts the mystical and mythical, while at the same time creating a sense of wonder.
Interestingly, the children – especially Thetis – come across as being so much wiser than the adults that rule their lives. The smart inclusion of Euridice, a "horse dancer" who can ride like a man and use a bow just as well, reinforces French's feminist version of ancient Greece.
In fact, Nikko seems almost a secondary character, certainly he seems weak when compared to his younger sister.
Nikko becomes enamoured of their luxurious life, he is the support for Thetis in her performances and not the star of the show, he's also relatively ineffectual in protecting her after she grows up and becomes, very much, her own woman.
The obvious sub-plot – little girls can grow up to be powerful women and can do anything a boy/man can – is easily read by adults.
However, the targeted age group will most likely just read Oracle for what it is; a rollicking adventure tale set in ancient times.
French has cleverly included a "scientific" explanation for the visions seen by the first Oracle of Delphi and her descendants; she also describes how being a priestess was a way women escaped from the oppression of their male relatives.
Oracle has also been turned into teaching materiel for Australian schools, with the publishers providing extensive notes on how to use the book in the classroom. Obviously the best way to get book sales is to ensure it's required reading by every Australian school kid.
Still, Oracle is well-written, with strong central characters and enough historical detail to ensure authenticity; the aftermath of a natural disaster is particularly well done – influenced, perhaps, by the recent occurrence of similar things in the real world.

Oracle by Jackie French is published by Angus&Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, and is available from good book stores and online.

white cat by holly black has the twisted tale of an inherited secret at its centre

There's something to be said for the recent fascination with all things supernatural -- at least it's got young people reading again. The upsurge in what is defined as Young Adult fiction has included, unfortunately, any number of vampires and werewolves (Meyers has got a lot to answer for), but there's also been a corresponding increase in new forms of YA fantasy.
Holly Black's White Cat falls in to this category. The first in the Curse Workers series, Black introduces readers to a world where some people – generally not considered to be the "best type" of people – can make "curses" work.
It runs in families, usually, and although numbers are relatively small, there's a disproportionate number of them in jail or working for organised crime.
Which is what has happened to Cassel – his mother’s in jail, his brothers work for the local crime boss, and he's pretty sure he killed a girl when he was just a kid – well, even younger than he is now.
On top of those problems, Cassel doesn't have any magic. He's completely unable to curse anyone or anything, or at least that’s what he thinks.
White Cat is a coming of age tale, but despite its wrapping of fantasy and magic, it's actually quite gritty. Any modern day kid whose family works for the mob or the drug lord down the street would identify with Cassel's issues.
And the twisted tale of an inherited secret at the centre of Cassel's family is even nastier. In fact, White Cat is as much about losing trust in one's family, betrayal and the greed of human beings, as it about growing up.
Still, it's not all doom and gloom. Black writes with a light touch – there's no staring off into the distance and brooding, nor is there endless moaning about teen angst. Cassel isn't perfect, but he has a sense of humour and friends who like him, and eventually it – sort of – turns out alright in the end.
Black is clearly a young author to watch – it will be interesting to see what she comes up with in the next book of the series.

White Cat by Holly Black is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

wolfsangel by md lachlan is a celtic knot of cause and effect, loyalty and betrayal, nobility & dishonour

Every so often a book comes along that manages to grab the reader by the throat. Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan is one of these. Set in the time and places of the Vikings, Wolfsangel combines history, myth and a coming of age story with great aplomb.
Although peopled with a wide variety of characters who's lives and culture are far removed from the modern day, Lachlan manages to make both his hero and anti-hero approachable.
A Viking king, concerned about the lack of an heir, visits the witches to discover his fate. He's sent off to steal a child, told by the witches that this will be his heir and prince. Instead, he discovers two boy in his raid. By taking both children, the king Authun, begins a series of events that will lead to disaster and death.
Wolfsangel ranges from the time of the children’s birth, jumps to their adolescence and then rapidly moves towards the denouement.
One of the boys, Prince Vali, is being fostered away from his father Authun and is unaware that he has been adopted. The other boy, who is never really named, has been fostered with a "wolf clan" – wild humans who live as animals far from all civilisation.
Vali is shallow and sensitive; he's not at all cut out to be the blood-thirsty Viking his father and the other men would like him to be.
First Vali is sent on a raid, packed in an open boat with a bunch of drugged-up Berserkers; in which he doesn't really acquit himself all that well. Still, he survives, which is something, but manages to make a deadly enemy, one who will come back to haunt him.
And Vali is in love; but with a local farm girl rather than the Princess he's betrothed to, the daughter of his host, a situation his hosting king is not happy with. So, Vali is packed off on a journey to prove his manhood; only to ensure his strength, he involves himself in a ritual.
Unbeknownst to Vali, the ritual opens him up to the machinations of the Witch Queen – the hideous child to whom his "father" had gone.
The Witch Queen is a chilling creation. Lachlan has gone to great lengths to ensure the reader understands how she managed to become the wizened, yet compelling, creature she is. For although her actions seem monstrous, the Witch Queen is in fact merely a child; sold by her family to the witches and molded into a vehicle for magic.
The gods of the Norsemen – Odin in particular – play a great part in Wolfsangel; and although the characters firmly believe in them, readers need not suspend disbelief completely. By setting the book in this period, Lachlan allows for historical veracity. Wolfsangel can be read as a historical novel, or as part of the fantasy or horror genres.
Each "magical" act is somehow explained, even if only by inference, as a natural occurrence. The visions the characters experience can be explained away by deprivation or drug use. In fact, once the "magic" is removed one realises just how desperate were the lives of early humans.
Of course they believed in gods and magic, they didn't really have a choice, they had to believe in something that would explain the deaths, pain and horror of their daily lives.
On his trek to prove himself Vali comes across a "wolf man", one of the wild humans, and manages to capture it. Dragging it back to the settlement, he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a raid and attempts to save his love and his friends.
But Vali's farm girl is taken and he finds himself forced to take action, setting out to find her.
In the final third of Wolfsangel, Lachlan brings together all the various storylines, twisting them together to make a somewhat Celtic knot of cause and effect, loyalty and betrayal, nobility and dishonour. The denouement is both sad and inevitable.
Life, as it really is, whether or not you have magic or believe in the gods, really is "nasty, brutish and short". Despite the vain attempts of kings and witches, fate can rarely be changed.

Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

more raunchy regency romance in anna campbell's my reckless surrender

Anna Campbell is described as the 'Queen of Regency noir' on the blurb of her latest book, My Reckless Surrender, and that's exactly what she is. 
The Australian writer has built a reputation for herself for a certain kind of racy, historical romance, centred on the Regency period in England. Her books are peopled by Dukes and Duchesses, Lords and Ladies, well-bred but poverty stricken heroines, and dark, brooding heroes.
In My Reckless Surrender, they're all there. You have Mrs Diana Carrick, a well-bred widow who needs to sell her soul to ensure the comfort of her aging father, thanks to the machinations of a nasty, dying Marquess.
Her anti-hero is the jaded Earl of Ashcroft, an excruciatingly handsome rake who happens to have something the threatening Marquess of Burnley wants.
Right from the start, My Reckless Surrender leaps into the raunchy sex, as Diana throws herself at the Earl attempting to get him to sleep with her. As the story continues, you discover why she's doing something that's completely against her upbringing, but the whole ridiculous scenario never seems entirely justified.
On her website Campbell points out her views that there's nothing wrong with a good romance book, she feels they are empowering for women and doesn't hold with modern feminist views that this sort of thing is 'supporting the patriarchal state'.
I'm not entirely sure I can agree with her on that point. All her heroines are supposedly strong women, trying to make their way in the world, using whatever wiles they have, but the moment a lord of some sort kisses them, they're all weak-kneed and tumbling into bed.
Romance novels like Campbells are fantasy – not a vampire or werewolf in sight, yet they are as unlikely as any supernatural story. There should be a genre of romantic fantasy or fantasy romance to describe books like My Reckless Surrender.
Not that there's anything wrong with a well-written, raunchy love story. It is, after all, just as escapist as any fantasy or science fiction work. But one would hope that some of the independence of urban fantasy heroines would rub off on these historical gals.
Still, Campbell is the queen of this genre. The historicity of her books can't be denied, nor can the sensuality. My Reckless Surrender is, like all her books, a quality escapist read for anyone who wishes some handsome Earl would come along and sweep them off their feet – even if it's just for a little while.

My Reckless Surrender by Anna Campbell is published by Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins, and is available from good book stores and online. 

great gritty scottish noir from stuart mcbride's latest, dark blood

Dark Blood is classic Stuart McBride; it's gritty Scottish crime thriller at it's best. McBride has been compared favourably with Ian Rankin, and it's easy to see why. 
There's DS Logan McRae, the burnt-out bitter Aberdeen cop with major issues; a very nasty piece of work in sex predator Richard Knox; sundry evil shites – crime bosses, thugs, snitches – and an irritating hard-nosed boss in DI Steel – a lesbian with a filthy mouth, pregnant wife and a thing for pissing Logan off.
All the elements of a good crime thriller are set up in the first pages of Dark Blood. Knox is being released into 'protective custody' in Aberdeen, having been released from jail in Newcastle.
The cops hate the idea of importing a dirty sex maniac, but they can't do anything about it. He comes with a cop of his own, DSI Danby from Northumbria Police, a man with his own agenda.
To top it all off, Logan is having nightmares left over from the last major case he worked on, may be an alcoholic and is probably about to loose his live-in girlfriend. Oh, and the local crime boss is calling him up and giving him money, only he can't think what he might have done to help him out.
McBride's writing is like those fabulous crime series you get on the BBC, it's all accents and local references, slang and grunts, so it can be a little hard-going for some readers. But if you skip past that, Dark Blood is a bit of a page-turner.
The disparate storylines eventually come together is a tightly-woven plot of betrayals, murders and random connections, before arriving at a fairly satisfying end.
If you enjoy a good thriller, and have a hankering for cold, grey, blustery Scotland, then Dark Blood is perfect. There's just enough characterisation to keep you interested in what happens to Logan and DI Steel, but not too much to take away from the action.

Dark Blood by Stuart McBride is published by HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online. 

classic high fantasy from kevin j anderson's the map of all things, book 2 in the terra incognita series

Kevin J Anderson returns to the world of Terra Incognita with the second book in the series, The Map of All Things. Like his book, The Edge of the World, this is classic fantasy – a created world with warring kingdoms, opposed religions, heroes and heroines, more characters than you can poke a stick at, ancient foundation myths and even sea monsters.
The empires of Tierra and Uraba are polar opposites – the were originally descended from two brothers, sons of a god-like character, but now they are at war as each nation attempts to prove that their brother is the better of the two.
In the first book you have the set-up, you are introduced to both sides equally with neither being painted good or evil, each empire has redeeming features and each has it's atrocities. Things come to a head, however, as the one central place of worship – a small strip of land that separates the two continents – is destroyed, mostly by accident, but with each side blaming the other.
So, it is war. As the violence escalates readers see, again, that neither side is all good, nor all bad, and the sheer futility of their behaviour becomes more and more apparent in The Map of All Things.
The parallelles with our own world – Israel anyone? – are so obvious that one feels as though Anderson is hitting you in the face with his massive tome. 
Even the culture and weather match up – Tierrans are white northerners (Christian Europeans), while the Urabans are swarthy southerners (Muslim Middle Easterners). 
Yes, yes, we get it. Religious wars are stupid.
Unfortunately, as in the real world, so in fantasy. Neither side appears at all interested in ending the bloodshed. Sometimes for political reason – they fear the toppling of their power – sometimes for personal reasons – the death of a beloved – and so, the war slogs on.
There is one race, however, that is removed from total involvement in the religious war. The Saedran people believe themselves to be descendants of the original god, Ondun, and so are not caught up in the war between the Tierran Aidenists – followers of Aiden – and the Uraban Urecari – followers of Urec.
The Saedrans are the map-makers, chartists, scientists and doctors of Anderson's world, and it is they who are behind the attempt to create the 'map of all things' of the book's title.
As the war drags on, the leaders of each empire decide, independently, to send out voyages of discovery in search of their original homeland, Tierravitae.
Each group has a supposed 'map' to this mythical place and the belief that if they get there first, they'll prove that their religion was the 'right' one and all others are false.
This is just a very simple outline of the plot. The Map of All Things is a finely crafted, high-detailed read; Anderson's world is beautifully imagined and his plots are intricate.
One cannot read The Map of All Things without first having read The Edge of the World, but it's well worth doing so. This is high fantasy for lovers of adventure and character-driven plots; well worth getting your teeth into.

The Map of All Things by Kevin J Anderson is published by Orbit Books and is available from good book stores and online.

ann aguirre's blue diablo brings new dimension to overcrowded urban fantasy genre

For lovers of urban fantasy, Ann Aguirre's Blue Diablo is the first in a new series – the Corine Solomon series – that looks set to bring a new dimension to the already overcrowded genre.
Unlike the usual type of urban fantasy there aren't any vampires or werewolves – thank goodness – but there is magic and mayhem a plenty, and a bit of love interest as well. But so far no raunchy sex, which is actually a good thing, considering it's everywhere else.
Corine Solomon is what's called a 'handler', when she touches objects a certain way she can read information about who had held it previously, what they were feeling or doing and the history of the thing they held.
Unfortunately, it's not an easy skill to have, and although she had previously used her talent to help people, she'd eventually burned out after a number of harrowing experiences with murders, rapists etc.
So, she's run away to Mexico to hide from her previous life and try to regain her sanity. Unfortunately, her peace is disrupted by her ex, a guy called Chance who has a talent for being unbelievably lucky. His mother has gone missing, and he needs Corine to help him find her.
Naturally there's plenty of sexual tension, but Corine doesn't jump into bed with him, she's more concerned about getting trapped in her old life, and with finding Chance's mother, whom she loves.
From the opening set-up, Aguirre just pushes the pace along, adding characters and back story in a jumble of new faces and histories, as well as setting up her world.
There are lots of references to traditional South American practices, voodoo, Native American magic and myth, as well as the usual round up of remote viewing, mediums, witches and possible devil or demon worshippers.
Wrapped up in the fantastic is a solid whodunit, with human trafficking, the Mafia, drug and gun running and a side attraction to a very helpful policeman.
All in all, Aguirre manages to mix her magic, mayhem and material into a nice read; the plot is twisted enough to be interesting without being confusing, the characters slowly develop and the action is well-written.
Touches of Mexicana in the food, drinks, language and culture, all add a nice difference to Blue Diablo, making it a solid first book in a series that looks set to do well; it's already won the PEARL Award , which bodes well.

Blue Diablo by Ann Aguirre is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

another urban fantasy with vampires and werewolves, this time set in australia; moon sworn by keri arthur

One of Australia's most prolific writers of urban fantasy, Keri Arthur has released another in her Riley Jenson Guardian series, Moon Sworn. 
Like the majority of books in this genre, the Guardian series has a feisty, supernatural, female protagonist; baddies who are also supernatural; a shadowy government organisation of some sort which allows said protagonist to literally get away with murder; and a bit of raunchy sex.
Ho hum, yet another urban fantasy that seems as though it's been cut from the same cloth as all the others out there. Which is such a shame as Arthur isn't a bad writer.
What the Riley Jensen series does have going for it is that unlike the majority of the other books and series in this genre, it's actually set in a country other than America. Arthur has based the books in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia, making the setting, at least, more interesting.
Riley, the said heroine, is a half vampire, half werewolf – yep, two for the price of one – who works for the Guardians, ie. The shadowy government organisation that keeps all the other supernaturals in check.
She's in love with a handsome, and powerful, vampire (of course) and he loves her and they're always interested in having a bit of raunchy sex … yawn.
Added interest – Riley has a brother who's gay, yay, something slightly different. But no, he's also in a loving relationship with another sexy vampire. Again, yawn.
So, the basic premise is fairly ordinary. Still, Moon Sworn isn't a bad read. This time around some of Riley's previous escapades come back to haunt her and she ends up stuck in the middle of outback Australia with bits missing from her memory and a sneaking suspicion that some thing's wrong. Of course.
Ideally you really need to have read the other eight books in the series to really know what's going on, and to understand why the guy who took her memory and dumped her in the outback did it.
Riley manages to find herself in the middle of a murder investigation, which helps her remember bits and pieces about who she is and how she got in the mess she's in. Eventually, she works it all out, is reunited with the love of her life and sorts out some family business fairly thoroughly.
And that's about it. If Arthur put her mind to it, she could easily be a very good author. Her books aren't bad, it's just that there are so many of the same genre over-stocking the bookshelves at the moment. It's as though every author in the world decided to jump on the Twilight bandwagon at exactly the same time.
Unfortunately for authors like Arthur, there's much better stuff out there already, and has been for some time. Classic Anne Rice and the long-running series from Laurell K Hamilton, Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, as well as Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels.
But, if you love the genre – and like many, I still do – you'll enjoy the differences in Arthur's books that make them worth picking up. After all, it could be worse, you could be reading the Twilight series.

Moon Sworn by Keri Arthur is published by Piatkus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group and is available from good book stores and online.