This novel is a snapshot in time recording a turning point in the life of both the author and the publishing industry she feels drawn to.

My Salinger Year

Rakoff recounts how she mystifies her practical and scientific family by taking on a job at a literary agency in New York where the pay doesn’t even really cover her basic costs of living. She also mystifies her friends by leaving her college boyfriend to start a relationship with an older wannabe writer with financial means that match his socialist views of the world.

Rakoff’s boss at the agency barely acknowledges her existence and Rakoff is forced to battle antiquated technology and practices that retain an atmosphere not unlike a museum. The new boyfriend is self absorbed and frugal to the point of being mean.

Despite these obvious issues, Rakoff is determined to continue her life as is, striving to become the interesting person she has always wanted to be — a writer.

Her denial of how unhappy her decisions make her echoes the agency’s denial of the changing world: it thinks the photocopier is a newfangled invention, refuses to buy its employees computers, and won’t sign contracts for its authors that make any mention of digital rights.

The agency’s guiding star is its most famous client, JD Salinger. The agency seems to revolve around pleasing him — he is the mosquito stuck at the centre of its amber time warp. His influence also becomes a defining lens for Joanna to view her life through and ultimately provides the impetus she needs to decide what she really wants.

There’s a certain lyricism to some of the scenes in this book, but mainly the thing I enjoyed about it were the questions it raised about love, life and writing. Yet no answers are forthcoming on any of these issues. The reader has to make up their own mind.

I’m going to give it a 3/5.

In a sea of humdrum books, this one stands out.

Martian

The story starts with Mark Watney, an astronaut who is part of the third ever Mars mission.The mission has just been aborted, with the astronauts forced to leave the red planet. Yet when we meet Watney he is still on Mars.

Clocked by a flying comms dish that punctured his space suit and sent him flying far from the rest of the crew, Watney’s odds of survival were slim to none. Reluctantly, they leave him for dead and rocket away.

In one of fate’s sick jokes, Watney is not dead. Or not yet. He’s been abandoned on an inhospitable ball with a perforated suit, no breathable air, no water source and freezing temperatures. As he so eloquently summarises, he’s fucked.

Luckily for the story, Watney’s not the type to give up. Immediately he begins to weigh his options in his head, coming up with solutions to help him survive for at least the next little while. At first his inner monologue seems a bit dry as he explains the science behind some of his improvisations. But soon the reader is sucked in, caught by curiosity at what Watney’s going to come up with next and awe that anyone could be so ingenious.

Meanwhile, Watney’s screwball sense of humour keeps inserting dry asides that are completely incongruous in the situation and have the reader in stitches. I really pity this guy’s children.

Does he make it? Given the book’s being made into a film to be released later this year, I’ll let you bet on it. But the suspense doesn’t come from whether he survives, rather how he does. What’s not to love about Macgyver on Mars?

The Martian is a story of innovation, of perseverance and of beating the odds. It’s brilliance condensed. I’m going to give it a 5/5.

AuroraCentralis BTFB

As part of the official Aurora Centralis blog tour, I was able to ask author Amanda Bridgeman some questions, which she was nice enough to answer.

Aurora: Centralis is the fourth in a Science fiction / Thriller/ Action series. It will be available for purchase on 26 March 2015. For those who haven’t read it, my review of the book can be found here.

Without further ado, let’s head straight to the interview.

Firstly, let’s say that I loved your first three books. Can we expect more of the same in Aurora: Centralis or do you think your readers will finish the book shocked and surprised?

Amanda bridgeman

I think readers will definitely be shocked and surprised with how I end Centralis. It’s the halfway point of the series, so a lot of questions are answered and secrets revealed, which sees part of the storyline come to an end, but another, much bigger, story arc take off…

If your book was being studied in an English class at school, what themes would you draw out?

I’ve always liked the whole ‘working together’ theme. The Aurora team pulling together to do what needs to be done, despite their sex, their race, their age, etc. They each have different skills that they bring to the table, and each one is important because together they make one whole strong entity.

Carrie Welles is a strong yet flawed character. What do you have in common with her? Which of her attributes would you like to have and which are you glad you don’t?

I’m a little fiery like Carrie, I have to admit. And we both swear too much… Although I can be stubborn at times, it’s not quite as bad as Carrie’s stubbornness. So that would be what I choose ‘not’ to have of hers… I would like to be as perfect as she is with her shooting. To be at the top of my game at something, would be awesome. I’ve always pretty much been an average at everything…

I read you based Saul Harris in part on Will Smith’s character in I am Legend. Is Smith who you would cast if your film was made into a movie? What about Carrie, Doc and McKinley?

I did picture Will Smith as Harris when I wrote it, and it was definitely inspired by how Will was in I Am Legend – and to be honest I still picture him as Harris when I’m writing it, so he would be good in the film. But I do also love Idris Elba and think he would make an awesome Harris! If Denzel was a little bit younger, he’d be great too. I’m still not sure about Carrie. I think an ‘unknown’ or relatively unknown actress might be the way to go for her – and she would definitely need to know how to do an Aussie accent!

I always pictured Doc as Colin Farrell (in his younger days), so someone like that with dark hair and dark eyes… With McKinley I’ve never pictured him as a particular actor, but I would very much welcome Chris Hemsworth playing the part. A lot of my friends would like to see Charlie Hunnam in the role, though!

On another blog you’ve detailed your love for sci fi and outlined some of your favourite films (I agree with most of them, but Pacific Rim? Really?). You also noted that a medieval fantasy is also on your list of future works. What fantasy novels have inspired you? Why?

Ha! I was trying to mix up the films a little in that blog by adding Pacific Rim – so they weren’t all straight alien films. I didn’t like it as much as the others on that list, but I didn’t mind it (hello it stars Idris Elba!). It was fun. 😉 With regards to the second part of the question, I haven’t read a great deal of medieval fantasy, so most of my inspiration comes from film. The kind of book I’m planning actually has less of a fantasy element in it now, and is probably more of a historical action/drama (?). It would be like a cross between Willow, Braveheart and The Last of The Mohicans… with a touch of real life Boudica inspiration thrown in. I love a good warrior tale with plenty of drama – particularly one with a romance threaded throughout…

How do you find your studies have helped your writing?

I studied film/tv and creative writing at university, so it certainly was a good foundation for which to build stories upon. It also made me appreciate just how hard it is to make a film and bring a story together! When editing novels you need to be analytical, so that background certainly came in handy!

You had five books written before the first was published. Now that you’re coming to the end of that stash, are you feeling stressed about keeping up your gruelling publishing schedule?

You know what, I’m actually looking forward to it! I feel like I’ve been on an editing cycle for ages now (although that was my choice and I thoroughly enjoy it). It’s been great to get the novels out quickly and allow readers to get hooked on the series, but I do feel as though I haven’t had time to sink my teeth into some real writing for a while, so I’m looking forward to the freedom of having that again – no deadlines! I’ve got a bunch of novels itching to be written, so I can’t wait to get them out onto the page and get them to readers!

What are the things you’ve had to give up to make time for your writing?

A social life? No, thankfully all my friends are married with kids so they don’t have social lives either. 😉 I suppose being single, the hardest thing is not having the time (or the patience) for dating! I literally don’t have time, nor care, for the game-playing. Seriously, he’s gotta be pretty worth it to entice me away from writing. I guess this is why I’m single… But hey, if the right one comes along, I’m sure I can find the time to put the books down for a while… 😉

AuroraCentralis BTFB

As part of the official Aurora: Centralis blog tour, I was lucky enough to be one of the first to read and review Amanda Bridgeman’s newest book.

Aurora: Centralis is the continuation of Bridgeman’s Aurora series. The series follows a crew of space marines as they track down a group of superhuman “Jumbos” who were created as part of a top-secret military project. (See my prior review of the second book in the series Aurora: Pegasus.)

At the end of the last book, we were left with Carrie agreeing to carry her unwanted, test-tube Jumbo twins long enough for the United National Forces (UNF) to study the foetuses. In return, the UNF would overlook the past indiscretions of Doc and the rest of the crew.

Aurora: Centralis opens with the heated tensions this decision causes.

Carrie has every intention of aborting the twins as soon as the time period the UNF has specified is over, yet the UNF doctors are working hard to change her mind. The twins’ fathers are split on the topic. McKinley wants nothing to do with his Jumbo baby and wants Carrie to abort immediately; damn the consequences. Doc on the other hand is forced to be there at every consultation Carrie has with the doctors and his attachment to his unborn child grows stronger with each visit.

Captain Harris finds it hard to keep the Aurora team operating given the emotional fallout, especially with the UNF breathing down his neck. To make things worse, his dead relatives won’t stop appearing in his dreams.

Meanwhile, the UNF aren’t the only ones interested in the twins, and if there’s anything Carrie’s enemies have shown in the prior books, it’s that any high security UNF installation can be broken into if you have the right connections….

Although the threat of violence is never far away, a lot of the action in Aurora: Centralis is interpersonal interaction and relationship building. This might put some readers off, but for those who have fallen in love with the colourful crew of the Aurora, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. There were also some serious curve-balls in the plot that are bound to please those who like to be surprised.

To this point in the series, I’d felt like the Aurora books had adhered to a well-known trope, enabling the reader to at least have a general idea of where the storyline was headed. Centralis ends this. Before starting the book, there were certain things I was sure were going to happen. I wasn’t looking forward some of them, but I saw it as inevitable that things would play out as I had foreseen.

Boy was I wrong. Totally totally wrong.

If you wanted a corny catchphrase for Aurora: Centralis, it could well be “there’s no such thing as a coincidence”. During the story, loose threads that had been left dangling in prior installments are neatly knotted into the fabric of the story, bringing new understanding that changes absolutely everything.

Because of these revelations, the book has a distinctly different flavour to the first three. There’s no more raising the stakes until the reader is almost falling off the edge of their chair. It’s more like all the bets are called and we see everyone’s cards and understand who has won, who has lost and how much the damage tallies up to be. To continue the gambling metaphor, everyone knows the game is over but that another hand is going to be played and no one’s exactly sure who will be playing and how much of their prior winnings they’re going to invest in the new round.

What I’m trying to convey is that by the end of Aurora: Centralis the storyline reaches a kind of conclusion, but we also see the seeds of a new beginning. I expect readers to be split on whether they like or hate the ending. I personally thought it was great.

In summary, although Aurora: Centralis was different from the books that preceded it, I devoured it just as voraciously. I enjoyed it so I’m going to give it a 4/5.

This book inspired equal parts envy, admiration and disdain.

wild

Envy because taking months out of my everyday life to go and hike a long distance trail like Strayed did is the sort of thing I dream of but am not ready to do. The implications in terms of lost revenue and career damage are too significant.

Admiration because walking over 1,000 miles carrying your food and accommodation on your back is a massive feat.

I’ll explain the disdain part in a moment.

Strayed was not Cheryl’s original last name. It was one she chose after divorcing a man she still loved. Her marriage had disintegrated in the years following her mother’s death from cancer — a shock that sent Strayed’s life into a tail-spin involving sex and drugs.

After aborting an unintended pregnancy, Strayed hits a turning point. A chance sighting of a guidebook in a store decides her to walk a large section of the Pacific Crest Trail — a hard-core hike across California, Oregon and Washington.

We travel with Strayed on this journey as she gradually overcomes the hardships of the walk and re-centres herself mentally.

Strayed’s writing is entertaining and engaging. The fact that no hindsight leaks into the story is admirable. We see what she saw at that stage of her life. We feel what she felt. We experience the wilderness through eyes that look on its stark openness for the first time. She doesn’t labour the changes that are happening to her mental state throughout her journey. The alterations are gradual and believable — unencumbered by armchair-psychiatry-style dissections of how the journey brought her back from the brink of ruin.

I could understand how easy it was for her life to go off the rails at the start of the book. Looking back at my life, I can see that mine could have gone the same way had I not made certain pivotal choices before it was too late. Other things she did, however, I found very difficult to read.

She plans ahead and purchases the necessary items for the trail — pack, boots, camping stove etc — and sets up packages to be mailed to herself at the trail checkpoints. But in other ways she is woefully unprepared.

For someone who is about to walk 1,000 miles in the middle of nowhere, not putting on new boots for a trial-run before setting out seems foolhardy. Not packing your bag or trying it on until just before you leave is stupid too. Especially if it turns out you can barely lift the bag, let alone walk with it.

Despite these problems, Strayed departs and is soon facing the wilderness in all its dangerous glory. Walking the trail alone, she is terrified of the potentially life-threatening and also definitely not life-threatening wildlife. Yet the critters do not cause her largest problems. The conditions — desert heat and mountain snow — do that admirably. Strayed’s inadequate preparation shines through each of her crises.

My intense pragmatism was shocked by her decision to walk down a trail with only just enough water to reach a water source that had been known to be unreliable. Ditto for her belief that she could cross mountains that may be covered in snow without beforehand learning how to use a snow-axe. Or her decision to hike along an at times poorly marked path by herself without understanding the principles of using a compass to navigate.

Strayed was lucky. She didn’t end up a dehydrated corpse to be discovered by another hiker on the trail. Nor did she wander off the path to either die or be found by long-suffering emergency services staff.
In Australia, we are constantly hearing stories of tourists (and locals) who underestimate how inhospitable our beautiful country can be. Even experienced hikers sometimes have to call in the cavalry. Our search and rescue teams are the ones who brave dangerous conditions to find and save the under-prepared. They put their lives on the line and waste wads of public cash to save those who couldn’t be bothered to put the effort into keeping themselves safe.

I know Strayed’s book will inspire people looking for meaning in their lives to try her extreme wilderness cure. Many of them will have indescribable experiences that change the way they think and make them into better people. I just hope, for their sake and the tax payers’, that they are better prepared than she was.

These bitter thoughts tainted Strayed’s words for me. That’s why I’m going to give her book a three out of five.

The shortlist for the Aurealis Awards, which recognises Australian fiction in science fiction, fantasy and horror genres, has been released.

Aurealis_Award_Logo

It’s days like these that I regret being a cross-genre reader. With all the books I want to tackle, how can I possibly work my way through a shortlist where I have read precious few of the books?

I have read Amanda Bridgeman’s Meridian, the third in her sci-fi series about a crew of space troopers as they fight against a scientific experiment gone rogue.

I’ve also read The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke, a story of a gifted cleric whose world is turned upside down when a foreign artifact attaches itself to him, complicating his quest to safeguard his religion against gathering forces.

I enjoyed both immensely and intend to read the next books in the series.

Otherwise, Juliet Marillier also made it into the list. I have never read a book of hers I didn’t like, but I have not read Dreamer’s Pool. Scott Westerfield too — I enjoyed his Uglies series. Again, I have not read the title he has been shortlisted for.

Horror/thriller writer Greig Beck also featured. I have been considering reading his novels for a while, but somehow they haven’t made it to the top of my pile. Maybe now is the time.

Fans of Garth Nix will be happy to see his name. I’m almost ashamed to say I’ve never picked up one of his titles.

Sorry to all those authors I am not mentioning here. I congratulate everyone who made the shortlist. The judges received over 750 entries across the 12 categories, with entries reaching an extremely high standard. I don’t envy them having to make the choice.

Sharon Penman has always been one of my favourite authors, but this is not my favourite book of hers.

When Christ and his Saints Slept

The novel chronicles the dark time for England following the death of King Henry the first. His son and heir had drowned in a shipwreck, so he named his daughter as his heir. This was not a popular move — few believed a woman capable of wielding a monarch’s power and even fewer wanted her Norman husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, to be pulling her strings. Enter Stephen, King Henry’s nephew, who upon Henry’s death claims the throne for himself. The resulting civil war is long and full of atrocities on both sides.

Penman’s true talent is her characterisation. The plot and the history is excruciatingly well researched from what the experts say, but the thing that always pulls me in is how she enables the reader to identify with each character, explaining their motivations for actions now only contained in the dusty and dry tomes of history. We feel sorrow at their defeats and humiliations, joy in their successes and loves.

Both Maude and Stephen are given equal time, giving us insight into their side of the story. It also provides insight into their failings. For both were terribly flawed. Stephen too receptive, generous and forgiving, Maude unable to take advice or compromise her principles to woo her people or her allies.

The thread that links both in the novel is Ranulf — a by-blow of the old King Henry who served as a page in Stephen’s household but also later as a squire in the household of Maude’s most loyal supporter, her half brother Robert. Ranulf was unfortunately created by Penman, which I didn’t know until reading the author’s note. When I read her confession I felt terribly cheated. One of the things I love the most in about Penman’s novel is the thought that everything actually happened (with some changes for dramatic effect.) The idea that I’d invested so much attention and emotional capital into someone who didn’t even exist made me cranky. I don’t expect anyone else to feel the same way, especially if they are picking up Penman for the first time.

The other disappointment was Penman’s portrayal of Maude’s son Henry and his wife Eleanor of Acquitaine, who are the focus of the end of the book. After the superb portrayal of Maude and Stephen’s failings, Penman’s description of Henry’s prowess and perfection felt one dimensional. Eleanor was better portrayed, but not a patch on the author’s portrayal of her in the later books when she was older, wiser and more touched by sorrow. Penman herself admits she found it difficult to write about the tempestuous lovers’ younger years and it shows.

In summary, this is not my favourite Penman, but it’s still street ahead of the works of any other historical fiction writer I’ve ever read. (The closest for me are bestseller Bernard Cornwell and German author Rebecca Gable.) I’m going to give it a 4 out of 5.

This set of romance novels that started with a World War Two nurse going back in time to Jacobean Scotland has reached the point where it feels like a television series. Somewhat hilariously it has now also become one.

MOBY-cover-final-US1-220x327In Written In My Own Heart’s Blood we once again follow the adventures of Jamie and Claire who became reunited at the very end of the last book. They now live in America during the war of independence.

Unfortunately, despite the exciting times, the adventures were few and far between and over far too soon. Most of the book is taken up with scrimping to make ends meet or digging in the garden or having sex. There is a battle and a few suspenseful scenes, but mainly the book is full of domesticity where Claire muses about any number of things, from the meaning of life to whether a character might be pregnant or not.

One must say that many of these musings are very entertaining and often insightful. Yet there is a feeling that unlike its characters, who never seem to get enough to eat to have middle-aged spread, the series has become a bit bloated with indulgence. We the reader are so in love with the world Gabaldon has created that we’re willing to continue to read her soap-opera-like story with no end or point in sight.

I used to think that reading Gabaldon was like chicken soup – hearty, homey and good for the soul. Now I wonder whether I’ve simply overdosed on the stuff. Despite being a big fan, I’m not even sure whether I’ll buy the next book if one eventually appears.

I lost interest in The Wheel of Time too, I think around book five or six, while others happily chewed through all of them to the bitter end. This led me to wonder what are the signs that a series is becoming staid. Is it possible to continue a meaningful story for eight books or more?

I’m going to give the novel a 3/5.

(It has to be said though I have absolutely loved most of the books up to this one, and would recommend anyone who likes historical romance to pick up the first in the series or watch the new television production.)

The Fortune Hunter is an odd mix of Georgette Heyer, Jilly Cooper and Dick Smith that enchanted me from its first pages.Fortune-hunter

Charlotte is an heiress who has some rather tactless and grasping relatives. She puts up with them because she is in general a very forbearing person, but she very much looks forward to gaining her majority when her fortune will be her own.

The more impoverished Bay Middleton is shaken by the end of an affair with a society wife, who, though pregnant with his child, discards him callously to return to her husband in the country.

Perhaps longing for someone who he can call his own, as soon as he meets Charlotte he is struck by her. Even though she is plain he finds her conversation as well as her photography hobby refreshing.

For herself, Charlotte falls head over heels for the charming Bay almost as soon as she sees him. Who would not? After all, Bay’s charm has won over countless ladies before her.

It is that charm that leads to his being appointed as a guide to the Empress of Austria, Sisi, for the season’s hunting. Glamorous, rich and accustomed to getting her own way, Sisi takes a liking to Bay and decides to make him her creature.

The demands of the empress threaten to destroy the fragile understanding Charlotte and Bay have formed, especially since Bay is dazzled by the Empress’s beauty and superior riding skills while feeling compassion for the unhappiness hidden beneath her militantly maintained exterior. As the book progresses, it seems ever more likely that the empress’s growing attraction to her English guide will doom the future Bay dreamed of with Charlotte.

In typical Heyer fashion, the strength of this book lies in the wry portrayal of a large set of characters. True, they are not particularly original – their like can be found in any period romance – but this does not extinguish their charm. We feel for Charlotte as she navigates their idiosyncrasies.

Meanwhile, in Dick Francis style we are caught up in Bay’s overriding passion for the hunting world – an obsession for horses combined with a fierce joy in the freedom and dangers of the sport – and Charlotte’s photography hobby – an interesting glimpse into a technology that has evolved much over the last 150 years.

Finally, it is the irreverent depiction of Queen Victoria and Empress Sisi verbally fencing at Windsor that makes me think of Jilly Cooper, who does love to highlight the ridiculous in her novels. I chuckled to myself on a number of occasions, which made people on the bus think I was a little mad.

Whoever Goodwin took her inspiration from; since I started the book on Sunday and finished it on Tuesday I think I can safely say it was a hit. The only thing I didn’t like was that I felt the blurb had falsely advertised the book. It describes a novel that is about the empress, when really the focus is Charlotte. Although Sisi is a fascinating historical figure, she is definitely the antagonist – to be pitied but not loved.

I’m going to give this book a 4/5.

Video games are becoming ever more realistic and rely more and more on our input, not only from controllers, but also our own bodies. This book explores what might happen when the virtual world designers create becomes as real as the world we live in. How do you tell the difference, and if you’re conducting violent game play, how do you differentiate between real people and virtual players?

The Sapporo Outbreak

In the Sapporo Outbreak, a Japanese company has come up with a game that is very realistic. But they’re behind schedule with release, so investors send a team of specialists to have a look at whether the game is really going to be as good as it should be and as safe as it should be.

It turns out the game has been delayed because of some teething problems where players become violent, bludgeoning friends and family because they can’t distinguish between the virtual and the real. When a team of hackers breaches the company’s security and releases the game to the world, anyone online becomes a killing machine. The specialists find themselves in a fight for their lives.

This novel for me was an important lesson about two things:

  1. Covers
  2. Moods

I’ll start with the first point. I’d like to think that I’m not so one-dimensional as to choose a book based on its cover, but if I’m being quite honest, the cover does actually influence my choice. There was something about the creepiness of this cover that drew me in. Because of the red eyes of the close up and the world “outbreak” I thought it was going to be a zombie book. The opening scene, making reference to some sort of myth only strengthened this view.

Of course the book wasn’t a zombie story at all. I was completely wrong-footed, which I would have avoided if I’d read the blurb. But because I started out with the zombie impression, I was surprised throughout the first third of the novel at what actually did happen. And I really enjoyed it.

So from that experience I took two things: a. Humans like to be surprised. b. Covers are important.

The second point – mood – was another factor in why I enjoyed the novel. At the time I picked up the Sapporo Outbreak, I was simultaneously reading a sci-fi and a fantasy but neither of them was really doing anything for me. I think I’d had a overdose of that genre. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the Sapporo Outbreak nearly as much if I hadn’t been hanging out for a thriller.

Quickly, what I liked about the novel was:

  1. The believable main character. In fact every character the author painted, even if they were only going to have a minimal role, had a background to explain their actions.
  2. The idea – unique enough to interest with an additional “too close to home factor”.
  3. The author managed to surprise me a number of times. I wasn’t very accurate when I tried to predict what was going to happen.

What I didn’t like:

Towards the end the main character and his love interest risk their lives to try and save that of someone else. The whole enterprise seems to have been a waste of time, because what they went to fetch is never actually used (from my memory).

I’m going to give this novel a 3.5/5.