New Books (June-July)

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Featuring: John Joseph Adams, Andy Abramowitz, Edgar Cantero, Joshua Cohen, Bennett R. Coles, Ctein, Dennis Dunaway, Matthew Dunn, Vaughn Entwhistle, Michael R. Fletcher, Teresa Frohock, Caseen Gaines, John Gilstrap, Ed Greenwood, Janet Groth, Paul Kane, Marshall Ryan Maresca, John Niven, Tom Pollock, Ronda Rousey, John Sandford, Charles Stross, Neely Tucker, Jon Wallace, Fran Wilde, Daniel H. Wilson Continue reading

Christmas Fiction Review Catch-Up: Jonathan Dee, A.S.A. Harrison & John Niven

I am falling terribly behind on my reviews. So, in order to get caught up a bit more on the backlog, I’ll be combining some reviews into thematic posts (of sorts). This one takes a look at three non-SFF novels I’ve read recently.

***

DeeJ-AThousandPardonsJonathan Dee, A Thousand Pardons (Corsair)

Ben and Helen Armstead have reached breaking point and it takes one afternoon – and a single act of recklessness – for Ben to deal the final blow to their marriage, spectacularly demolishing everything they built together.

Helen and her teenage daughter Sara leave for Manhattan where Helen takes a job in PR – her first in many years – and discovers she has a gift for spinning crises into second chances. But can she apply her professional talent to her personal life?

I rather enjoyed this. It was a quick read, but not perfect. The novel starts out with the sudden, spectacular dissolution of Helen’s marriage to Ben, who is quite the narcissist experiencing quite the midlife crisis and breakdown. The first part of the novel follows Helen as she makes her way to New York, and stumbles into a PR job. She has a knack for coaxing out appropriate, believable apologies out of her clients. For a short time, she is able to enjoy this success. Then the novel brings Ben back into the narrative, and we get a more even-handed impression of the two characters – while I had enjoyed reading about Helen, and it did take a little while before reorienting myself for Ben’s side of the story, the novel benefited from them both being central. Dee’s prose is fluid, and I rattled through this novel at quite the pace. At times, though, things moved perhaps a little too fast – Helen’s advancement in the PR business jumps ahead slightly, and Dee doesn’t give much time over to Helen and Sara’s new lives in the big city. I think the author could have spent some more time exploring what each of the characters was going through.

Nevertheless, A Thousand Pardons is an enjoyable novel about a marriage in ruins and a family in crisis; about the limits and joys of self-invention; and about the peculiar seduction of self-destruction. It is also the tale of redemption and forgiveness, of sorts, and the enduring connection families can feel with each other, despite some of the most difficult of circumstances. It’s not a bad introduction to Dee’s fiction, and I enjoyed it enough to convince me to pick up The Privileges at some point in the not-too-distant future.

*

HarrisonASA-TheSilentWifeUKPBA.S.A. Harrison, The Silent Wife (Headline)

Todd Gilbert and Jodie Brett are in a bad place in their relationship. They’ve been together for twenty-eight years, and with no children to worry about there has been little to disrupt their affluent Chicago lifestyle. But there has also been little to hold it together, and beneath the surface lie ever-widening cracks. HE is a committed cheater. SHE lives and breathes denial. HE exists in dual worlds. SHE likes to settle scores. HE decides to play for keeps. SHE has nothing left to lose. When it becomes clear that their precarious world could disintegrate at any moment, Jodie knows she stands to lose everything. It’s only now she will discover just how much she’s truly capable of…

Oh, how I wanted to love this book. For months, it seems, I’ve seen so much praise and a constant trickle of links for great and gushing reviews on Twitter. The book itself is covered in eye-catching blurbs from prominent authors, reviewers, and so forth. So how was it? Well… Politely? It wasn’t for me. Bluntly honest? I was bored. Throughout. I didn’t like either of the main characters. He is a douche, a lecherous cheater, who seems to only appreciate what his wife does for him and the fact that she’s attractive. She is fastidious to a fault, ordered and lacking any impulsiveness and rather bland:

“Meticulous planning has its merits. Life at its best proceeds in a stately manner, with events scheduled and engagements in place weeks if not months ahead. Scrambling for a last-minute date is something she rarely has to do, and she finds it demeaning.”

Now, I understand that both of the characters were probably meant to come across as either a complete ass (him) or quietly in denial about everything (her), but damn it doesn’t make for interesting reading. The synopsis above is not the whole synopsis. I cut the following:

“A chilling psychological thriller portraying the disintegration of a relationship down to the deadliest point when murdering your husband suddenly makes perfect sense.”

I found this as chilling as tepid tap water. That being said, in terms of prose and construction, The Silent Wife is very competent. The author’s prose are very well constructed, which is really the only reason I kept reading. That bit about the novel being a “chilling psychological thriller”? I was waiting for that to happen right up until I turned the final page. Maddeningly bland. This was the biggest let down of the year, I was left wondering if what I bought and read was the same book everyone else had been talking about…

*

NivenJ-StraightWhiteMaleJohn Niven, Straight White Male (William Heinemann)

Kennedy Marr is a novelist from the old school. Irish, acerbic, and a borderline alcoholic and sex-addict, his mantra is drink hard, write hard and try to screw every woman you meet.

He’s writing film scripts in LA, fucking, drinking and insulting his way through Californian society, but also suffering from writers block and unpaid taxes. Then a solution presents itself – Marr is to be the unlikely recipient of the W.F. Bingham Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Modern Literature, an award worth half a million pounds. But it does not come without a price: he must spend a year teaching at the English university where his ex-wife and estranged daughter now reside.

As Kennedy acclimatises to the sleepy campus, inspiring revulsion and worship in equal measure, he’s forced to reconsider his precarious lifestyle. Incredible as it may seem, there might actually be a father and a teacher lurking inside this “preening, narcissistic, priapic, sociopath”. Or is there.

This was a very pleasant surprise. There was a bit of a rocky start – the first couple of chapters painted an awful picture of the protagonist, and I worried that I’d always struggle to engage with him. However, Niven very quickly surprised. Straight White Male ended up being one of my favourite reads of the year.

Kennedy, our protagonist, starts off as one ugliest protagonists I’ve read about. He’s kind of awful: spoiled, wasteful, a drunkard, lewd, a sex addict with an unhealthy disrespect for women (sleeping with someone in the cloak room at his wedding, juggling multiple porn platforms at once)… He’s a complete narcissist. He’s not a pleasant guide for a lot of the opening chapters, which did make me wonder if I wanted to continue reading. Everyone else Kennedy interacts with is as well-written as this asshole, which made me stick with it, and eventually we learn why Kennedy is the way he is, and see his character develop. Niven can definitely write, and write very well, which kept me coming back. So, if you aren’t a fan of anti-hero protagonists, I’d recommend still sticking with the book, as it gets very good.

I really liked the way Kennedy gets to say and do all the things I bet many people living and working in or with Hollywood would love to say to all the self-important, pompous “artistes” with inflated senses of their own genius… He doesn’t shy away from opining on their flaws (or shouting  them at prima donna, uneducated actors). His internal and external commentary is often very funny. He’s also honest about why he does certain things. Kennedy is also not sparing on his frustrations with the publishing industry, either.

“Busy jumping from rewrite to polish to dialogue pass because, of course, all this was easier (and much more remunerative) than spreading his intestines across the page for two fucking years writing a novel. Because the only things he wanted to write about he couldn’t. He wasn’t blocked so much as… finished. The novel? That was a man’s business. He was done with it. Not that anyone knew that yet of course.”

What was most interesting, however, is how Niven slowly unveiled the tragic story of Kennedy’s sister, and how that has effected his behaviour. A lot of what he does, in the end, seems like avoidance and alcohol-fuelled coping and distraction. After the story shifts to the UK, things move quite a bit faster, too, which was a little disappointing. I would have liked some more… well, everything, really. Rather than reading that as an indictment of the novel, consider it my way of saying I wish it had been longer, because it was so good. Which it was.

Straight White Male is a very good novel on some of the many neuroses and coping mechanisms to which men can turn. Funny, irreverent, touching, and well-written, this is definitely recommended.

Recent Acquisitions (Early October)…

BooksReceived-201310

Another clutch of interesting books.

A nice mix, actually. I’m really trying to broaden what I feature on here – who knows how successful I will be in that endeavour. Partly, this is because my day-job involves reading a fair bit of SFF, which means I’m finding myself drawn more to thrillers (e.g. John Sandford) and (literary-)fiction. I’m still going to be reading plenty of SFF, of course (my interest in that is never going to go away). I just hope I can at least somewhat keep on top of all of these titles. Maybe I need to get some more writers involved.

Anyway, here’s what has turned up in the first few days of October…

Abnett-GG1-First&Only-BLCDan Abnett, First & Only (Black Library)

In the war-torn future of the 41st millenium, the Sabbat Worlds Crusade has begun. With the massed ranks of the Imperial Guard hard-pressed by the evil forces of Chaos, mankind must prevail – whatever the cost in lives. Commissar Ibram Gaunt has vowed to lead the men of the Tanith First-and-Only safely through the scheming of rival regiments just as much as the lethal firepower of the enemy.

It’s been fifteen years since the first Black Library novel, First and Only, was published. It is, therefore 15 years since I read it first (I bought it on the first day of publication). In many ways, it was a defining science-fiction book for me. I became hooked on Abnett’s writing, and have read (almost) everything he’s written for Black Library since. The Gaunt’s Ghosts series remains one of my absolute favourites, and this new edition is rather nice. If you haven’t tried the series, yet, then I would certainly recommend that you do. This is a great collection of the original Inferno short stories and more. I may actually take this opportunity to re-read this again, for what must be the fourth or fifth time.

*

CardOS-EndersGameOrson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (Orbit)

The human race faces annihilation.

An alien threat is on the horizon, ready to strike. And if humanity is to be defended, the government must create the greatest military commander in history.

The brilliant young Ender Wiggin is their last hope. But first he must survive the rigours of a brutal military training programme – to prove that he can be the leader of all leaders.

A saviour for mankind must be produced, through whatever means possible. But are they creating a hero or a monster?

An author who is no stranger to many – almost more infamous now, than famous. Ender’s Game is one of the seminal science fiction texts of the 1980s (it was first published in 1985), lauded by many, and even (so I’ve been told) taught in some military/strategy classes. As I’ve mentioned (oh so) frequently on CR, I’m a relative latecomer to SFF, and always leaned more towards fantasy than sci-fi (Star Wars and WH40k notwithstanding). Rather than go back to the beginning, as many people do, I’ve always tended towards picking up newer titles (also because those are the ARCs I get). On Monday, I was invited to attend a Q&A with the cast of the upcoming, long-in-the-making movie adaptation of Ender’s Game. It was a very good event, and the enthusiasm the cast, director/screenwriter and producers had for the story and movie was infectious. So, despite being utterly opposed to the author’s politics and social ‘beliefs’, I am very interested in reading the novel. I’ll be reading it relatively soon, too, in preparation for the movie.

*

DelToro-CabinetOfCuriositiesGuillermo del Toro, Cabinet of Curiosities (Titan)

Over the last two decades, writer-director Guillermo del Toro has mapped out a territory in the popular imagination that is uniquely his own, astonishing audiences with Cronos, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and a host of other films and creative endeavors. Now, for the first time, del Toro reveals the inspirations behind his signature artistic motifs, sharing the contents of his personal notebooks, collections, and other obsessions. The result is a startling, intimate glimpse into the life and mind of one of the world’s most creative visionaries. Complete with running commentary, interview text, and annotations that contextualize the ample visual material, this deluxe compendium is every bit as inspired as del Toro is himself.

Contains a foreword by James Cameron, an afterword by Tom Cruise, and contributions from other luminaries, including Neil Gaiman and John Landis, among others.

A gorgeous art and photo book by del Toro on his various movie and comic projects? Yeah, I was definitely going to be interested. I’ve already read through it – it’s a book you can dip in and out of, too – it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the man’s movies and aesthetic. It’s also another example of how gorgeous Titan Books’ products can be. Very highly recommended. I’ll try to get a review up ASAP.

*

Dembski-Bowden-Betrayer(HH)Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Betrayer (Black Library)

The Shadow Crusade has begun. While the Ultramarines reel from Kor Phaeron’s surprise attack on Calth, Lorgar and the rest of the Word Bearers strike deep into the realm of Ultramar. Their unlikely allies, Angron and the World Eaters, continue to ravage each new system they come across – upon the garrison planet of Armatura, this relentless savagery may finally prove to be their undoing. Worlds will burn, Legions will clash and a primarch will fall.

I’ve already read and reviewed this novel, so all I’ll say is that it’s excellent. You can find my complete review, here. Aaron DB’s one of my favourite authors of any type of fiction, and Betrayer is another example of his prodigious talent for characterisation.

*

KymeN-SalamandersOmnibusNick Kyme, Salamanders Omnibus (Black Library)

After the death of their captain at the hands of a traitorous brother, Da’kir and Tsu’gan, battle-brothers and rivals, face enemies from within and without. As their paths diverge and they face trials that will test them to their very limits, their destinies draw them back together for one final confrontation that will decide the fate of the Salamanders Chapter.

Ah, the Salamanders series. Why haven’t I read this yet? Seriously. It should be right up my street, and given how good everything I’ve read by Kyme has been, I really don’t know why I haven’t already read this series. I have the novels already (in eBook), but this omnibus puts everything into chronological order, so what I’m probably going to do is read the short stories and extras in here, switch to the eBooks for the novels, and review it in chunks. Or something. We’ll see. I will read at least some of this series this year. Hopefully. Most recently, I read Kyme’s first full-length contribution to the Horus Heresy series – Vulkan Lives – and it was absolutely superb. If the Salamander novels are even half as good as that, they’re going to be great reads. Watch this space for more (hopefully) soon.

*

McNabA-SilencerAndy McNab, Silencer (Bantam)

1993: Under deep cover, Nick Stone and a specialist surveillance team have spent weeks in the jungles and city streets of Colombia. Their mission: to locate the boss of the world’s most murderous drugs cartel – and terminate him with extreme prejudice.

Now they can strike. But to get close enough to fire the fatal shot, Nick must reveal his face. It’s a risk he’s willing to take – since only the man who is about to die will see him. Or so he thinks…

2012: Nick is in Moscow; semi-retired; semi-married to Anna; very much the devoted father of their newborn son. But when the boy falls dangerously ill and the doctor who saves him comes under threat, Nick finds himself back in the firing line. To stop his cover being terminally blown, he must follow a trail that begins in Triad-controlled Hong Kong and propels him back into the even more brutal world he thought he’d left behind.

The forces ranged against him have guns, helicopters, private armies and a terrified population in their vice-like grip. Nick Stone has two decades of operational skills that may no longer be deniable – and a fierce desire to protect a woman and a child who now mean more to him than life itself.

Another author I’ve not read much of. I now have two of his novels on my shelves to read. I have no idea why I haven’t read anything by him before. Probably because I do tend to be drawn to US-based contemporary thrillers. (Interestingly, I am fine with reading historical thrillers set anywhere, but when they’re modern, I gravitate towards American thrillers… Weird.) I need to break that habit, I think.

*

NivenJ-StraightWhiteMaleJohn Niven, Straight White Male (William Heinemann)

Kennedy Marr is a novelist from the old school. Irish, acerbic, and a borderline alcoholic and sex-addict, his mantra is drink hard, write hard and try to screw every woman you meet.

He’s writing film scripts in LA, fucking, drinking and insulting his way through Californian society, but also suffering from writers block and unpaid taxes. Then a solution presents itself – Marr is to be the unlikely recipient of the W. F. Bingham Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Modern Literature, an award worth half a million pounds. But it does not come without a price: he must spend a year teaching at the English university where his ex-wife and estranged daughter now reside.

As Kennedy acclimatises to the sleepy campus, inspiring revulsion and worship in equal measure, he’s forced to reconsider his precarious lifestyle. Incredible as it may seem, there might actually be a father and a teacher lurking inside this “preening, narcissistic, priapic, sociopath”. Or is there?

You know, I only heard of this book a few days ago, and I can’t for the life of me remember where I heard or read about it… Thankfully, I received a copy from the publisher, and I intend to read it ASAP, on one of my soon-to-be-frequent breaks from SFF. The blurbs for this and Niven’s previous novels are gushing and plentiful, so I have high hopes for this. And I have a soft-spot for novels with academics as protagonists (as a wannabe academic myself, I find them easy to relate to…).

*

Pratchett-ABlinkOfTheScreenTerry Pratchett, A Blink of the Screen (Corgi)

A collection of short fiction from Terry Pratchett, spanning the whole of his writing career from schooldays to Discworld and the present day.

In the four decades since his first book appeared in print, Terry Pratchett has become one of the world’s best-selling and best-loved authors. Here for the first time are his short stories and other short-form fiction collected into one volume. A Blink of the Screen charts the course of Pratchett’s long writing career: from his schooldays through to his first writing job on the Bucks Free Press, and the origins of his debut novel, The Carpet People; and on again to the dizzy mastery of the phenomenally successful Discworld series.

Here are characters both familiar and yet to be discovered; abandoned worlds and others still expanding; adventure, chickens, death, disco and, actually, some quite disturbing ideas about Christmas, all of it shot through with Terry’s inimitable brand of humour. With an introduction by Booker Prize-winning author A.S. Byatt, illustrations by the late Josh Kirby and drawings by the author himself, this is a book to treasure.

I have never read any of Pratchett’s shorter fiction. So when this unexpectedly arrived in my mailbox, I was giddy with excitement and expectation. The only question remains, as it is a given that I will read this, is in what order? Will I be able to resist the temptation to go straight to the Discworld short stories, before reading the others? Or will I be good and read it from front-to-back? A pickle, to be sure, and something that will require some thought.

*

Resnick-TheDoctor&TheDinosaurMike Resnick, The Doctor and the Dinosaur (Pry)

Welcome to a Steampunk wild west starring Doc Holliday, with zombies, dinosaurs, robots, and cowboys.

The time is April, 1885. Doc Holliday lies in bed in a sanitarium in Leadville, Colorado, expecting never to leave his room again. But the medicine man and great chief Geronimo needs him for one last adventure. Renegade Comanche medicine men object to the newly-signed treaty with Theodore Roosevelt. They are venting their displeasure on two white men who are desecrating tribal territory in Wyoming. Geronimo must protect the men or renege on his agreement with Roosevelt. He offers Doc one year of restored health in exchange for taking on this mission.

Welcome to the birth of American paleontology, spearheaded by two brilliant men, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, two men whose genius is only exceeded by their hatred for each other’s guts.

Now, with the aid of Theodore Roosevelt, Cole Younger, and Buffalo Bill Cody, Doc Holliday must save Cope and Marsh not only from the Comanches, not only from living, breathing dinosaurs, but from each other. And that won’t be easy.

This is the fourth book in Resnick’s Steampunk Western series. Sad to say, I’ve only read the first – the middle two are in the US, along with so many of my books, which means they’ve been put on the back-burner. It’s a fun premise, and Resnick can pull it off rather nicely. I’m looking forward to being able to catch up.

*

StewartM-M1-CrystalCaveMary Stewart, The Crystal Cave (Hodder)

The dramatic first novel in the classic Merlin Trilogy, set in fifth century Britain at the beginning of the time of King Arthur.

Fifth century Britain is a country of chaos and division after the Roman withdrawal. This is the world of young Merlin, the illegitimate child of a South Wales princess who will not reveal to her son his father’s true identity.

Yet Merlin is an extraordinary child, aware at the earliest age that he possesses a great natural gift – the Sight. Against a background of invasion and imprisonment, wars and conquest, Merlin emerges into manhood, and accepts his dramatic role in the New Beginning – the coming of King Arthur.

Somehow, I had never knowingly heard of this novel before it arrived (it is the third title for the Hodderscape Review Project). I was talking to Alyssa when it arrived, and she said it was fantastic, so I have no doubt I will like this (she has impeccable taste). A re-telling of the Merlin story? Intriguing.

*

Tidhar-TheViolentCenturyLavie Tidhar, The Violent Century (Hodder)

They’d never meant to be heroes.

For seventy years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart.

But there must always be an account… and the past has a habit of catching up to the present.

Now, recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism – a life of dusty corridors and secret rooms, of furtive meetings and blood-stained fields – to answer one last, impossible question:

What makes a hero?

Another novel I have already read (and very much liked), this is a must-read take on super-hero mythos, blended with a noir-ish reimagining of the 20th Century. It was the first novel of Tidhar’s that I read, and I was very impressed indeed. I think a lot of people are going to like this. Check out my review, here.

*

Wraight-MasterOfDragonsChris Wraight, Master of Dragons (Black Library)

For millennia, the elves of Ulthuan and the dwarfs of the mountain realm have been friends and allies. Now that time is over and the War of Vengeance has begun. Prince Imladrik, master of dragons and Ulthuan’s finest warrior, is ordered to leave his beloved homeland and lead his host in a war he does not believe in. Facing the fury of the dwarfs, the jealousy of his brother and the ever-present threat of Malekith’s dark elves, Imladrik must balance his love for his wife and home with the thrill of battle.

Another author in the Black Library stable that has been improving in leaps and bounds. I’ve been reading his serialised Horus Heresy novel (Scars) and been very impressed. I haven’t read much of his Warhammer fantasy fiction, though. I enjoyed his novella, Dragonmage, which was also focused on the High Elves and their dragons. This is the second book in the War of Vengeance series, part of the Time of Legends line of novels, but I’ve not read the first – Nick Kyme’s The Great Betrayal. Anyone know if it’s necessary to do so? I know the ‘history’ behind it, but I don’t want to jump right into this if it is a direct sequel-proper to The Great Betrayal

*

ZiskinJW-Styx&StoneJames W. Zisken, Styx and Stone (Seventh Street)

Ellie Stone is a professed modern girl in 1960s New York City, playing by her own rules and breaking boundaries while searching for a killer among the renowned scholars in Columbia University’s Italian Department.

“If you were a man, you’d make a good detective.”

Ellie Stone is sure that Sgt. McKeever meant that as a compliment, but that identity – a girl wanting to do a man’s job-has throttled her for too long. It’s 1960, and Ellie doesn’t want to blaze any trails for women; she just wants to be a reporter, one who doesn’t need to swat hands off her behind at every turn.

Adrift in her career, Ellie is back in New York City after receiving news that her estranged father, a renowned Dante scholar and distinguished professor, is near death after a savage bludgeoning in his home. The police suspect a routine burglary, but Ellie has her doubts. When a second attempt is made on her father’s life, in the form of an “accident” in the hospital’s ICU, Ellie’s suspicions are confirmed.

Then another professor turns up dead, and Ellie’s investigation turns to her father’s university colleagues, their ambitions, jealousies, and secret lives. Ellie embarks on a thorny journey of discovery and reconciliation, as she pursues an investigation that offers her both a chance at redemption in her father’s eyes, and the risk of losing him forever.

Another interesting-sounding novel from Seventh Street. I haven’t read nearly enough of their novels. I shall endeavour to rectify this oversight.