Archives for category: 4/5

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.

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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.

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.

“If you could meet anyone, who would it be?”

That was Scott Baker’s elevator pitch for The Rule of Knowledge, which he gave to the audience at an event on blockbusters at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

I’m not sure the pitch, as catchy as it is, really described the essence of the novel.

The book follows the adventures of a school teacher, Shaun, who likes to write physics papers about the space time continuum in his free time. Theoretically, he believes time travel is possible. But there’s one big practical issue that makes him think it can’t be done in the real world.

He is invited to go to England to present on his ideas, but on the way he and his wife run into a hobo. The hobo has a diary on him which catapults Shaun into a race for his life from mysterious gunmen. The diary reveals that someone has managed to solve Shaun’s problem – time travel is possible. In fact an agent has already gone back in time to Ancient Rome to interview one of the most important people in history.

The gunmen want that interview. And now Shaun has seen the diary, they want him dead.

The question Baker raised at the festival – if you could meet anyone in history, who would it be – never really rises in the book, which sets out clearly who Baker believes that person would be. Instead I feel the story was more about: “If someone changed history, what would that mean?” or even “If you don’t see something happen, did it?”

Because the book is a time travelling thriller, it inevitably becomes a bit of an Inception-type brain teaser where you try and figure out what it means for the present if someone goes into the past and sets off a new chain of events. Indeed, Shaun’s time travelling experience becomes a convoluted Möbius strip.

I personally don’t like it when time travel novels do this, because I feel that surely the chain of events has to start somewhere. We can’t just have an infinite loop sustaining some desired status quo. Even so, it’s a very entertaining novel that surprised me more than I had expected. I also enjoyed the second narrative that plays out in Ancient Rome.

I’ve seen people criticise Baker for the historical accuracy of the novel, or lack thereof, but I have to say that I wasn’t in an historical fiction mindset when I read this. I was in a thriller mindset. Any inaccuracies passed me by in the spirit of entertainment.

Baker likes to describe the novel as a cross between Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. My advice would be: if you like American-style blockbuster thrillers, read this book. If you like historical fiction, don’t. I’m giving it a 4/5.

Baker has worked in the film industry, so it’s not surprising that he has two awesome book trailers. Check them out:

 

 

Within the Hollow Crown feels like a Terry Pratchett – Michael J. Sullivan cross.

I like Terry Pratchett for his humour but not necessarily for his plotlines. It’s difficult to have a serious quest if all your characters act in such a ludicrous manner. Antoniazzi manages to strike a balance such that although the narrative tone is Pratchett-like, the story is more generic epic fantasy.

The Rone nobility do not know it yet, but they are about to be overrun by the Turin, indigenous tribesmen of the land the Rone stole hundreds of years ago. The tribesmen’s plan basically involves disrupting the Rone succession, which they know will cause bickering and infighting.

But is the succession really the true succession? Two scholars are about to make a discovery that could change everything.

There are some predictable elements of this story, but the characterisation is fantastic and the humour makes up for all flaws.

I’m going to give it a 4/5. Looking forward to reading the next instalment. Before I wrap up, here’s a taste of Antoniazzi’s style:

Corthos was a pirate.

At least, that’s what he told people. Usually pirates tried to pretend they weren’t pirates, to avoid trouble with the local constables. But for Corthos, his case was exactly the opposite. He hoped, dearly, that people would think he was a pirate. He wore an eye patch over his perfectly healthy left eye. He spoke with that particular brand of poor grammar that delineated his profession. For a short time, he even had a stuffed parrot strapped to his shoulder.

Corthos’ only regret was that he had never lost any limbs, and didn’t have any peg-legs or hook-hands to show off to the ladies at the pub.

And for most of his life, he was also lacking in one other respect. He didn’t have a boat.

Before I began Ready Player One, I heard it was nothing more than an obscene data dump of 80s information. But I’d been recommended the novel and my husband (who normally reads at a glacial pace) had just finished the book in two days, so I decided to read it anyway.

readyplayeroneIt is actually an obscene data dump of eighties information, but contained in an extremely attractive package.

The story starts on Earth after almost all the fossil fuels have run out. People are doing it tough. Luckily, some smart tech entrepreneurs have created an online reality for everyone to escape to so they can forget about their awful lives.

Our protagonist is not inspiring. He’s an out and out geek school boy carrying way too many kilos. His name is Wade. He lives with his aunt who only lets him stay so she can collect the money for looking after him, which she doesn’t bother doing. He gets by fixing computers and selling them.

The only joy in his life is a special quest that began when one of the creators of the virtual world died. The creator’s will revealed that ownership of his share of the virtual world would pass onto whoever could find an Easter egg coded into the world. There were three hidden gates to find and pass through before a seeker could find the egg itself.

Since the founder was an 80s tragic, the competition spawned massive interest in the decade — films, games, songs. Anything the founder might have liked. The egg hunters who have immersed themselves in the founder’s world have been nicknamed gunters. And Wade, whose online name is Parzival, is a pretty top notch gunter. He’s obsessed with the 80s. But years have passed and no one has found a single gate.

I had three older siblings who taught me a love of Star Wars and eighties bands like Midnight Oil, but I myself was born in the eighties and therefore didn’t absorb all of the culture first hand. There were references to songs, games and movies in the book I had never heard of. Despite that, I was pulled along by the story, which moves at a fast pace, with important plot lines happening in both the real and virtual worlds. Cline also makes the reader care so much about poor Wade that we really want him to win. Part of his charm is his extreme geekdom, which he is absurdly proud of. His enthusiasm about his 80s trivia is so infectious that it’s hard not get pulled along in his interest.

In many ways, having the virtual world with anonymous avatars makes the story of Parzival and Wade a bit of a Superman/Clark Kent tale. What’s not to love about Superman? And Clark gets the girl in the end, doesn’t he?  I’ll let you see whether Wade does.

I finished the novel in two days. I recommended it to a colleague at work who loved it and passed it onto his son. It is now his son’s favourite book. Given his son is not much older than ten and would think of the 80s as “so last century” I’m taking this as proof the book is not just a nostalgia kick, but a well written story. I’m giving it a 4/5.

My husband and I were too stupid to notice that there was apparently also an easter egg hidden in the book. If you read it, maybe you can find it.

I’m not very happy with the Wheel of Time. Not only did it turn from a good series into one that moved at a glacial pace and put its characters through too much repetitious self agonising, but it has also led to Sanderson delaying the release of the second book in his Stormlight Archive series, of which The Way of Kings is the first book. I really do try and avoid the current situation I’m in: starting a book, falling in love with the characters and then realising that I still have months to wait for the next instalment to arrive. It may even be years if the author is as slow as R R Martin. The very things that I love about fantasy — the in-depth worlds, the three-dimensional characters and epic storylines — come back to haunt me. It seems it takes time to write these masterpieces.

Sanderson has certainly taken his time to set up his world in The Way of Kings. We are thrown into the novel at the end of an epic battle, when a group of supernatural knights decide that they can no longer bear the burden of saving mankind, over and over. They give up their duties.

We are then, we assume, introduced to the world that they abandoned, if centuries after the event, to a cast of characters which, if mainly male, are at least well painted. Their world is one that is shaped by periodic storms, called highstorms. This, fittingly, leads to all swear words being a variation of storm, eg Storm you! The plantlife has adopted to the storms and the animals are all variations on crustaceans.

One of Sanderson’s characters has reached rock bottom. Forced into slavery, he soon discovers there is still a worse place to be as he is demoted to what could be called hell on earth. The story centres around his fight to do the impossible and escape his fate.

On the other end of the spectrum, we meet a prince who is struggling to implement the dying wish of his brother the former king, while others deride him for his efforts, thinking him weak. He is also suffering visions during the high storms, which his enemies take as a sign of madness.

A young girl desperately follows a princess, hoping that the princess will consent to take her on as her ward. The girl’s motives for this are not at all pure.

An assassin tries to hide himself from people who might know what he is capable of.

When I reached the end of this novel I was truly hooked. The story was rich and the characters were faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges.

However, there were some things that stopped me giving this book a 5/5, instead settling on 4/5.

After reading Sanderson’s Mistborn Series, I was a little disappointed at how similar the magic powers are in The Way of Kings. In Mistborn, characters ate metal which they then burned in their bodies to achieve supernatural powers, such as strength, pulling or pushing objects to them, or keen senses. In The Way of Kings, the characters breathe in stormlight, which they then unleash in “lashings”. They use the lashings and stormlight to push objects around, give themselves strength, speed, etc. The first scene of the book, where lashings are used, is very reminiscent of Vin’s rooftop wanderings in Mistborn.

Another issue I have is that Sanderson has again gone for the doomsday approach. If the characters fail, the world will be doomed. Does every story always have to be about the whole world? What’s wrong with fighting for one farm? Sure, saving the world is weighty, but it makes it hard to keep the story brief. This series will take ten books to complete, if what I’ve read about it is correct. Given that this one was released in 2010 and it’s almost the end of 2012, I could extrapolate to say that I’ll be waiting thirty years for the end. If I see it at all. It’s entirely possible that Sanderson will have to engage someone else to finish off his series after he’s gone. As hinted at above, he is currently filling in for the deceased Robert Jordan.

So great book Sanderson, but timing wise, NOT HAPPY.