Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil

Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil is a contemporary YA novel and the author's début. It was an excellent read. The blurb from Goodreads:
Sam Kinnison is a geek, and he’s totally fine with that. He has his horror movies, his nerdy friends, World of Warcraft – and until Princess Leia turns up in his bedroom, he doesn’t have to worry about girls.

Then Sam meets Camilla. She’s beautiful, friendly and completely irrelevant to his life. Sam is determined to ignore her, except that Camilla has a life of her own – and she’s decided that he’s going to be part of it.

Sam believes that everything he needs to know he can learn from the movies ... but now it looks like he’s been watching the wrong ones.
Life in Outer Space is not speculative fiction, but it's about geeks and nerds and contains a lot of pop culture references (particularly horror movies) so I expect it will appeal to spec fic readers who enjoy YA. I read the US edition (cover pictured top) and I was gratified to see that Australian spelling and slang was mostly preserved. I was particularly glad to see the words "arse" and "Mum", the former of which shows up many times in the first few pages.

At its heart, Life in Outer Space is a story about Sam, a year 11 boy, his friends and, to a lesser extent, his enemies. The book tackles a few common teen issues such as parents getting divorced and difficult parents. There's also Sam's best friend, Matt, who mysteriously quits karate after years of loving it and Sam doesn't know how to confront or deal with the issue. Although there were some moments of teenagers being silly, I thought it was all quite realistic, despite Sam navigating his life with constant reference to movies.

I quite liked that it was set in Melbourne and that Keil wrote various Melbournian landmarks into the story. Sam and friends see movies at the Astor and go to Brighton Beach for a party. Although in terms of realism, I felt that maybe slightly more complaining about how long it takes to get anywhere in Melbourne via public transport (there were a few trips that must have required two trains to reach) would have been more believable. But really, that was my biggest complaint.

Keil deserves an award for how she dealt with the period of the book in which Sam is moping. Often those sections of books are disheartening to read but Keil peppers hers with witty lines that had me laughing out loud, possibly even more than in the more upbeat parts of the book. We understand Sam's pain but, in reading about it, the we needn't feel it ourselves.

My favourite storyline involved Sam assuming his life was following a particular movie trope (one I personally am not a fan of) but then subverting that trope. I know that sounds very vague, but spoilers. Suffice to say it was a very satisfying resolution.

Life in Outer Space was a very fun and enjoyable read. I highly recommend it to fans of YA, particularly fans of nerdy contemporary YA. I am impressed with this début novel and I will be interested to see what Keil writes in the future.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, this edition: Peachtree Publishers (US) (Australian edition: Hardie Grant Egmont, second cover pictured)
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Peachtree Publishers via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Changeling Detective by Phillip Berrie

The Changeling Detective by Phillip Berrie is a short novel about a private investigator who can change his appearance (shocking revelation based on the title, I know). It was first self-published in 2011 and has recently been picked up by Hotspur Publishing. The latter edition is the one I read. Blurb:
For a private detective, being able to change your face is a distinct advantage. The Changeling Detective thought he was unique, a mutant of sorts, like those he had read about in comics when he was younger. However, when he becomes the focus of a vile-smelling crime boss with similar abilities and meets a genuine witch, the Changeling Detective has his whole world turned upside down.

An urban fantasy/detective noir story in an Australian setting with elements of crime, horror, witchcraft and deep-time science fiction.
Above all, I would call this an action-packed read. There is a mystery element to it, of course, but it ends up focussing mostly on the origins of the detective rather than on an unrelated crime as it first looks like it might. For that reason, I'd be inclined to label it more urban fantasy than crime, although I imagine sequels might swing in the other direction. For lack of a better descriptor, I'll refer to the detective as John for the rest of this review (not his real name but one of the aliases he was using).

John is very much the only central character in this story. There are other characters present in the narrative, of course, but they all play second fiddle. Ruth, the love interest/sidekick is a fun character and provided a — I hesitate to say normal — non-shapeshifter perspective. There wasn't that much room with everything else going on for a lot of time spent dwelling on their relationship but the building blocks were certainly there. There is quite a bit of potential for sequels to develop it further.

The bad guy, Newman, was adequately dangerous and somewhat confusing, in a good way. A reasonable part of the story focussed on John trying to work out why Newman was trying to kill him. Let's just say it wasn't the reason he originally thought. And I liked that the answers left some back story to explore in sequels (which are hopefully forthcoming).

All in all, The Changeling Detective was a fun read. It's more or less what it says in the title. I recommend it to urban fantasy fans after a quick read, particularly one with a lot of action. Oh, and I should mention it's set in Canberra, which may be a selling point for those sick of New York and other American cities (or is that just me?).

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2011, this edition June 2013, Hotspur Publishing
Series: Yes. Book 1 of ?
Format read: eARC
Source: courtesy of the author
Disclaimer: Although the author is a friend, I have attempted to write an unbiased review.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

New Booksies

I acquired many books since my last post. The bought ones were mostly on sale and all except two were very depressingly on sale and in need of rescuing. (And to hubby's chagrin, below the threshold price we set for books counting towards achievement unlocked purchases while we were in Australia. Gwah ha ha ha ha.)

Review copies from Strange Chemistry, via NetGalley:
  • The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond
  • Student Bodies by Sean Cummings (sequel to Poltergeeks)
  • When the World Was Flat (and we were in love) by Ingrid Jonach (first Australian author to be published by SC)

Purchased paper books from various Aussie shops, mostly on sale. Australian-authored titles in the first batch, international titles in the second.
  • Black Springs by Alison Croggon
  • Between the Loves by Jessica Shirvington
  • The Rook by Daniel O'Malley (winner of SF Aurealis for 2012)

  • The Future of Us by Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler
  • Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan
  • Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Control by Kim Curran

Control by Kim Curran is the sequel to Shift which I reviewed last year. I also recently posted an interview with the author to celebrate the launch of this book. You can read it here (and if you're reading this before the end of August, you can also enter to win copies of Shift and Control). Incidentally, if you haven't read the first book, I suggest you do before reading Control, as it's really the kind of series that requires linearity. The blurb from Goodreads:
Scott Tyler is not like other teenagers. With a single thought he can alter reality around him. And he can stop anyone else from doing the same.

That's why he's so important to ARES, the secret government agency that regulates other kids like him: Shifters.

They've sent him on a mission. To track down the enigmatic Frank Anderson. An ex-Shifter who runs a project for unusual kids - as if the ability to change your every decision wasn't unusual enough. But Anderson and the kids have a dark secret. One that Scott is determined to discover.

As his obsession with discovering the truth takes him further away from anyone he cares about, his grip on reality starts to weaken. Scott realises if he can't control his choices, they'll control him.
Control opens with Scott and Aubrey cleaning up the mess they uncovered at the end of the first book, tracking down the people who had been involved in a dodgy operation they uncovered. In the course of events, they (well mostly Scott, since Aubrey can't remember past timelines) uncover bigger problems with the state of the world. And being super-powered teenagers, of course they try to fix them. And by-golly does this one have an excellent ending. (Consequences: they are things that exist.)

One of my major qualms with Shift was that it was not complex enough in terms of taking advantage of the crazy stuff that could be done with changing timelines. Control does a much better job of this. There is much more weird and slightly confusing (in a good way) stuff going on. In the first book a lot of the focus was on Scott's shifting abilities but in Control, because he can remember past timelines, other people's shifts come into play with much more significance. I appreciated the added complexity. (A possible trade-off is there were two small continuity errors which bugged me a little but which weren't important enough to ruin the story for me.)

The new villain was much better than the first book's villain, partly because being fat wasn't part of their evil ick factor and partly because there were (eventually) shades of grey to their choices. And I do like me some shades of grey. Also the nature of the villain allowed the author to introduce some interesting minor characters with unique shifting abilities or quirks, which helped to flesh out that aspect of the world-building.

One of these minor characters was trans and while their situation was definitely interesting, it was also problematic and might annoy some readers. I don't feel qualified to comment further, but you have been warned.

Overall, Control was a fun, action-packed read. I enjoyed it more than the first book and I would definitely recommend it to readers who enjoyed Shift. I am eagerly awaiting the final book in the series, which should be out next year.

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: Yes. Book 2 of 3 (sequel to Shift, prequel to Delete)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Interview with Kim Curran

Today I am very pleased to bring you an interview with Kim Curran, author of Shift and Control. You can read my review of Shift from last year. Control, out in August, is the second book in the series.

But first some competition news:
To celebrate the release of Kim Curran's Control, Strange Chemistry are offering 5 Signed Copies of Control and Shift! To enter, all you need to do is tell us what embarrassing moments you'd change if you could shift! Simply tweet @strangechem and use the hashtag #Control to tell us what red-faced moment you'd like to erase. Winners will be picked at random; the competition is open to international entrants; and competition ends on 31 August.
Now, without further ado, on to the interview!


Some of my readers are also writers. Could you tell us a bit about your publishing journey and what it's like to work with Strange Chemistry, a relatively new imprint?

My journey was, in some ways, a pretty familiar one. I wrote my first book – a YA urban fantasy – and started submitting it to agents. At first, all I got was form rejection letters. But I kept working on the book. And I guess it got better and better, because pretty soon I was receiving full requests with every submission. But after 20 or so ‘liked it but didn’t love it’ letters, I put that book away and started a new one.

The book I started then was Shift. It seemed to flow out of me and I wrote it in about three or four months. One of the agents who had passed on my first book saw me tweeting about how Shift was inspired by quantum physics and, as a fan of physics himself, asked me to send it to him when I was done.

I did – emailing the MS from a hammock in Mexico where I was travelling with my husband. The agent, Sam Copeland of RCW, DMed me to offer representation about a week later.

About six months after that, I signed with Strange Chemistry.

Working with the team at Strange Chemistry has been a joy. And it’s been especially interesting to be working with an imprint who, just like me, are just starting out. There’s an amazing family feeling at SC and I’ve become very close friends with many of the other authors on their list – something I haven’t seen much with big publishing houses.

We all want each other to succeed and the support network has been invaluable. Especially as in this business, the heartache and rejection never really goes away. Even after you’ve been published.

I read that Shift was inspired by quantum physics. Being a physicist myself, I find that intriguing; could you tell us more about that?

I have zero training in physics beyond my GCSE. But it’s a topic that has always fascinated me. Especially on the quantum level where it seems as if all the ‘usual’ laws of physics are thrown away. After all, they say if you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t. The one experiment that messed with my head most is the Double Slit experiment. I won’t take up space explaining it here, as I cover it in Shift or you can watch this video.

There are two things we can learn from it. First, that light acts as a wave and a particle. And two, that whether it acts as a wave or particle changes depending on whether the experiment is being observed.

This idea niggled away at me. That the very nature of matter is altered by human presence. And one day, when I was sitting on a bus, looking down at all the people below, and wondering about the decisions they have all made and whether they would like to change them the idea came to me: what if someone had the power to change their decisions, the way that light changes from particle to wave. And BAM! Shift was born.

I saw on your website that your day job involves writing copy for videogame ads. Do you think this has influenced the kind of books you write?

I have always loved games. I didn’t have a computer growing up, but I spent a large amount of my time and pocket money in arcades, playing games like Golden Axe and Street Fighter. And when the first PlayStation came out when I was at university I wasted days and days killing zombies. Now, as you say, I write adverts for video games. And I’d love to one day write the games themselves, rather than just the ads for them.

So it’s unsurprising that games have been a huge influence on my work. The first chapter in Shift is actually the main character playing a Zombie Survival game (maybe all those hours playing Resident Evil weren’t wasted after all).

For me, games are just another storytelling medium.

There's a third book in the Shifter series, isn't there? Can you tell us about that and any other future writing plans?

There is indeed. The third is called Delete and should be coming out next year. It will be the last of the Shifter series and I hope to go out with a bang.

As for what comes next, I’m not entirely sure. I have another YA novel I’m currently looking for a home for. A Middle Grade series I’ve started working on and a notebook filled with other ideas. I’m also interested in exploring all the other avenues open to writers these days, such as KickStarter and self-publishing.

I’d also love to make the move from novelist to screenwriter, comic writer and, as I’ve already said, I’d love to write for games.

The industry is going through interesting times. And those who will come out the other side still successful are those who are able to embrace change.


Thank-you very much for taking the time to answer some questions, Kim! And thanks to Caroline from Angry Robot for organising this. And if you want to win copies of Kim Curran's books, don't forget to enter the competition!

For more info on the books, see Strange Chemistry's pages for Shift and Control or Kim's website.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie Willis is, as the title suggests, a collection of Connie Willis's best short (and long) stories. I had previously only read Willis's time travelling historian books and one of the stories in this collection (although I have another of her novels on my TBR shelf).

Connie Willis is not an SF Grand Master for nothing and it should come as no surprise that her stories are very well written. The fact that they're all award-winning should also be a hint. I found that I could easily divide them into "stories I enjoyed rather a lot" and "stories that were well-written but didn't quite do it for me, mostly because of subject matter". It's a testament to Willis's skill that even the stories I disliked were still very good stories.

My favourites were most of them, really, except for the first and the last stories which just weren't my cup of tea. I've said a bit more than usual about each story (partly because they tend to be on the longer side) so I might leave the summarising part of the review here. On to individual comments!


Introduction — I very often skip or skim these, but I would say this one, written by the author, is worth a read. Good read about how she came to love and write science fiction.

"A Letter From The Clearys" — A look at a family surviving in a remote corner of a post-apocalyptic world.

"At the Rialto" — A story about a quantum physics conference that is itself a metaphor for quantum physics. Intentional ambiguity. A very enjoyable read. Took me back to my Masters classes (and made me smile a little at things moving on, not in a bad way). I see no reason for it not to appeal to non-physicists. It's not so much hard science fiction as about hard science. And unreliable hotel receptionists, and Hollywood.

"Death on the Nile" — Another great story about a group of friends who have been travelling Europe together and are now off to Egypt. Only something is not quite right and only the main character seems to be concerned. Or maybe it's that she's been reading too much Agatha Christie. An enjoyable read. I particularly liked the annoying friend quoting guidebooks and how the female characters were the more important ones with 2/3 male characters remaining nameless (when it could easily have been the other way around). Oh, and it's a bit of a horror tale.

"The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson's Poems: A Wellsian Perspective" — A humorous fictional dissertation arguing that two newly-found Emily Dickinson poems were written posthumously, after Wells's Martian invasion woke her from her grave. At first I expected I'd need to be more familiar with Dickinson to get all the jokes, but it turned out to be hilarious regardless. Also, this is the first time I've come across footnotes in an (ePub) ebook, and I have to say I was impressed with how well they worked, in terms of layout.

"Fire Watch" — I've read this story before, shortly after having read one of her time travel novels in the same universe. I remember back then thinking it was OK but not as good as the novels. This time around I enjoyed it more. The main character, Bartholomew is an Oxford historian who is sent to St Paul's Cathedral during the London Blitz for his final exam. I didn't realise before, but this story was actually written before any of the time travel novels, which makes the inclusion of Kivrin — the main character of The Doomsday Book — all the more impressive for it's consistency. It was interesting to read in the afterword that Willis was inspired to write the story after visiting St Paul's and seeing the crypt. It was originally going to be a poem. Good thing it became a story which then spawned a few books that I loved. Communist sentiments a little outdated, but you can't win them all.

"Inside Job" — A really great story (novella?) about a sceptic who runs a debunking magazine in Hollywood. When his assistant takes him to see a channeller whose act is just a little bit too strange, they're both instantly suspicious and the story gets interesting. I must admit, when I was reading I was worried that, since Willis writes speculative fiction, that the sceptic would be the one looking silly. But she pulled the story of masterfully. It was entirely satisfying and I won't say more because spoilers. Suffice to say it's one of my favourite stories so far.

"Even The Queen" — An amusing story set in an idyllic future in which women are no longer forced to menstruate. And a hippy movement that thinks they should.

"The Winds of Marble Arch" — a story, more or less, about strange smells in the London Underground. Stylistically it reminded me a bit of the earlier story "At the Rialto", but less comedic. It stayed with me more than I expected it to while I was reading.

"All Seated on the Ground" — This is another weird things happen and the main characters must work it out type story. This time, aliens arrive on Earth and then don't do anything much, to everyone's bewilderment. I was amused by the resolution to this one and the mystery-solving along the way.

"The Last of the Winnebagos" — This wasn't a bad story but it didn't quite do it for me. At first I think because Winnebagos (the recreational vehicles that are sort of a cross between a bus and a caravan) and travelling in them are very much more an American past-time than an Australian one. It's hard to feel nostalgic about something you've only ever seen on foreign TV. The story was mainly about dogs being extinct and a photojournalist who misses his childhood friend. And retro-future photography tech which distractingly went to a place real-world photography never did in the same way. Like all the stories, it was well written but for me didn't evoke the emotion I think was intended.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2013, Del Rey
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, 19 July 2013

Playing Tyler by TL Costa

Playing Tyler by TL Costa is the author's début novel. It's a contemporary science fiction novel about two clever teens, one who writes advanced software and the other who is suffering from ADHD. Part of the blurb (abridged because of spoilers):
Tyler MacCandless can’t focus, even when he takes his medication. He can’t focus on school, on his future, on a book, on much of anything other than taking care of his older brother, Brandon, who’s in rehab for heroin abuse… again.

Tyler’s dad is dead and his mom has mentally checked out. The only person he can really count on is his Civilian Air Patrol Mentor, Rick. The one thing in life it seems he doesn’t suck at is playing video games and, well, thats probably not going to get him into college.

Just when it seems like his future is on a collision course with a life sentence at McDonald’s, Rick asks him to test a video game. If his score’s high enough, it could earn him a place in flight school and win him the future he was certain that he could never have.

Playing Tyler has been described as "Ender's Game meets X" and I would say that's a very apt description. Not because there are space battles or aliens but because of the idea of children remotely fighting a war (which is a spoiler for Ender's Game but not Playing Tyler since it's pretty much written on the cover — and as for Ender's Game, the movie's coming out soon, so whatever). So Tyler is the one playing the "flight simulator" game and Ani, a sixteen-year-old Yale freshman is the one who wrote the program (and is paying her way through Yale by working for the government contractor who commissioned it).

I quite liked Ani (super-smart coder and gaming champion, what's not to like?) and her interactions with Tyler. It was amusing to read the alternating point of view sections and see how Tyler's view of Ani is at times wildly different from her view of herself and vice versa. Moreover, seeing Ani's opinion of Tyler helped the reader interpret how people other than his family and teachers might see him.

The bits from Tyler's point of view are written in a markedly different voice to Ani's (both are in first person) so it's not at all difficult to distinguish which point of view character we're reading (and the names at the start of each swap over also help). I found Tyler's thoughts quite frenetic, especially at the start, which made it much easier to relate to and understand his thought-processes. It effectively highlighted the way in which he differed from non-ADHD sufferers.

Although Playing Tyler started out fairly light (well, sort of), it got much more serious as the story progressed. It wasn't just the "fighting a real war" aspect, which I was expecting, but other subplots involving drugs and various issues with the main characters' family members. Both Tyler and Ani come from what might be termed "broken homes" and, although that wasn't the main focus of the story, it was nice to see realistic families with issues that weren't eleven on the scale of severity. When I started reading I was expecting as thoughtful a read as it turned out to be, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Playing Tyler was a quick and enjoyable read that I knocked over in a few hours on a plane. I highly recommend it to fans of YA, particularly of contemporary YA with some science fictional leanings. (I say some since the software etc isn't that futuristic, but the focus on technology definitely make is SF rather than plain contemporary fiction.) I would suggest that teen boys struggling with the percieved lack of YA books "for boys" would probably enjoy this book with it's fairly "masculine" focus. Obviously, there's absolutely no reason for girls not to enjoy it either.

4 / 5 stars

First published: July 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Chasing the Valley by Skye Melki-Wegner

Chasing the Valley by Skye Melki-Wegner surprised me. The cover and the blurb led me to assume it would be a fairly stock-standard and and unoriginal read and I put off starting it a little bit.

But I was wrong, and it was evident from the first few pages. Danika became a street kid after losing her parents at the age of eleven. For reasons that we only begin to understand in this first book, the King enjoys bombing some of his subjects to keep them in their place. They're not ordinary bombs, however, they're alchemy bombs which can cause all sorts of weird and unpleasant things to happen on impact (y'know, as well as killing people). After hearing about a group of teenagers planning to escape the city for the fabled and safe Magnetic Valley, Danika falls in with them and the bulk of the story is about their dangerous journey south to the Valley.

The level of technology (albeit mostly alchemy-powered) brought to mind a cross between steampunk and fantasy. There are trains and biplanes (see cover) but also a lot of riding beasts of burden to get around. The beasts, called foxaries and basically giant foxes, were possibly one of my favourite bits of world-building — I want one! But they win by a small margin since Melki-Wegne's world is detailed and consistent. The explanation of the magic system is well woven into the text without info dumps as are many of the customs of the people. The only thing that struck me as odd and a smidge implausible is the taboo against teenagers revealing their magical proclivities before they turn eighteen. Their magic declares itself with tattoos on their necks and the custom is to keep their necks covered up until their eighteenth birthdays. Danika describes revealing her neck prematurely as akin to walking around naked. Which is well and good, but I can't help but feel that a lot of nefarious people wouldn't care much about the taboo and I didn't think that aspect was explored sufficiently.

Chasing the Valley is an excellent tale of growing friendship and camaraderie. In some ways it's a traditional journey type story but Melki-Wegner brings enough originality to the table (in worldbuilding and so forth) to make it stand out. Her writing is polished and, as I said, I could tell as soon as I started that I was in for a good read. I'm glad I read this and I am very much looking forward to the rest of the series. This book is a cut above a lot of the YA renditions of high/epic fantasy I've come across.

I highly recommend Chasing the Valley to fantasy fans of both the adult and YA parts of the genre. If you're in any doubt about reading this, I suggest having a look at a sample to help make up your mind. As this début is so strong, I expect we'll see many more good things from the author in the future.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2013, Random House AU
Series: Yes. Book one of three
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Colours of Space by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Colours of Space by Marion Zimmer Bradley is not the first book I've read by Bradley, but it is the first I've read in several years. I listened to the LibriVox public domain recording, which is free to download from their website and from Project Gutenberg. On the other hand, compared with audiobooks read by professional voice actors, the quality of the books I've sampled from LibriVox (this one included) leaves somewhat to be desired. I suggest readers decide for themselves how problematic they find the quality (different chapters read by different people with a variety of accents). My review — henceforth — is about the story,  not the quality of the recording.

The Colours of Space was written in 1963. I think if it was written now, it would certainly be counted as YA and would probably have been written with a different tone. I'm not sure it stands up to today's market. As it is, it provides an interesting view of science (fictional) ideas from the 60s including a misconception that the title is based on.

The main character, Bart, is seventeen and has just graduated as an astro(navi)gator. When waiting to meet his father at the spaceport, a different man shows up, claiming to be his father. Bart goes along with it because he doesn't want to put the man's life in danger from the alien Lhari who have a monopoly on interstellar travel. Supposedly, this is because humans can't survive the warp drive without being in suspended animation sleep but as Bart soon learns as he becomes embroiled in interstellar events, this isn't the entire story.

The main thing, I found, which distinguished this book from more modern YA is how stupid the main character was. Of course many YA characters make stupid decisions to drive the plot along and it wasn't really that. It's more that in recent books the characters appear to be cleverer and less... emotionally ignorant. I'm not sure that's the right phrase to use, but ignorant in different ways. By contrast, I was frequently (and incredulously) frustrated by how stupidly Bart was acting. Especially when he embarked on a dangerous saving the world mission without being in possession of very many facts or reasons (to motivate him, I mean). Mind you, his fumblings in the dark were amusing at times, just not intentionally. And he did get a bit smarter and more with it as the book progressed.

An other major source of amusement for me was the outdated science. The title of the novel — The Colours of Space — refers to the stars being much more brightly coloured when seen in space, as compared with when seen from inside the Earth's atmosphere. (There's another reference there to plot elements as well, which I won't spoil, but I read the main reference as being to the multi-coloured stars.) The thing is, the phenomenon, as described in the story, is not entirely real. Yes, stars come in different colours, but those colours range from red to yellow, white and blue. There are no green stars. More on this over at my science in fiction blog.

And then there's the hilarious retro-futuristic technology. The humans of the future frequently travel between planets and, with alien help, between stars, but they can't easily transmit an image. Law enforcement is forced to rely on merely a description to catch a fugitive — not even with a name attached! And they all have papers (as in travel documents) made out of actual paper. Apparently also without photos attached, which is slightly baffling since passports have had photos since before the book was written.

But anyway, I enjoyed The Colours of Space despite its dating flaws. It was a fun story and I always enjoy seeing how science understanding has changed in science fiction. I'm not sure who to recommend it to other than other fans of retro science fiction (I certainly don't regret reading it over another audiobook). As I mentioned earlier, I'm not sure it would be entirely appreciated by a teen used to modern YA.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 1963. Edition read: LibriVox, 2007
Series: No.
Format read: Audiobook
Source: LibriVox

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Jamie Reign: The Last Spirit Warrior by PJ Tierney

Jamie Reign: The Last Spirit Warrior by PJ Tierney is the author's début novel. It's a fast-paced YA/younger readers read that I felt was over really quickly. I think readers who usually enjoy adventure-based YA will probably find much to like about Jamie Reign, but the age of the protagonists — twelve or so for all the main kids — suggests to me that it might be intended for younger readers (or what the US industry calls "middle grade"). The blurb:
Jamie Reign can’t read a word, but he can handle a tugboat better than most. All his life he has dreamed of becoming a kung fu expert, like the legendary Master Wu. But that sort of kung fu, the sort that draws on the ancient and mystical force called the Way, is only for the Chinese boys and Jamie isn't Chinese enough for that.

While diving on an uncharted reef, Jamie discovers a terrible force that exposes his connection to these ancient warriors and to the warlord intent on destroying them all. He must quickly learn kung fu and the secret skills of the Warriors of the Way, guided by Jade, who seems intent on making him fail, and Wing, who is even worse than Jamie is at kung fu.

Jamie’s past and the future of these ancient warriors are inexplicably linked. And as the two collide, Jamie and his new friends set off on a desperate mission to save them all.
So basically, Jamie Reign is a martial arts caper. As the subtitle suggests, the Last Spirit Warrior is an important figure — the chosen one — and the fate of the world rests on his or her shoulders. Very little of the plot was surprising other than, to some degree, the opening. We first meet Jamie when his alcoholic and abusive father is using him to help run a dodgy salvage operation somewhere off the coast of China. Jamie feels like an outsider in their community, partly because no one likes his father's borderline-nefarious activities and partly because his white father means he's only half-Chinese and hasn't been taught all the customs of his mother's culture. The opening struck me as particularly sad and quickly made me care about Jamie's plight.

After that, however, Jamie Reign struck a lot of martial arts and fantasy tropes and was generally fairly predictable. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, of course. I found the book sufficiently well written and entertaining that the fact that I could predict much of the plot did not affect my enjoyment. Of course if you're particularly sick of standard martial arts/fantasy tropes, your mileage in this respect may vary. There also wasn't all that much fighting in it per se, which I suspect reduced the rate of martial arts mistakes (the way flying kicks were described was... interesting). If you're after a book heavy on fighting, this doesn't entirely fit the bill. But as a martial artist myself (who is prone to getting annoyed at inaccuracies in all the fields she knows things about), I didn't find any particularly terrible inaccuracies. And well, there's magic, so that can explain a lot.

I did think that Jamie and his friends were possibly a little too competent and with it for twelve year olds, but on the other hand, that has become par for the course in fiction (in all mediums) these days. I did like how Tierney gave the main characters different skills and flaws that complemented each other. For example, Lucy and Jade are particularly good at kung fu, while Wing is brave and Jamie, of course, has special skills. As a side note, I'm quite pleased to see the characters represented by models of the correct race on the cover. Yay for not white-washing.

I quite enjoyed Jamie Reign, despite it's predictability. It was a fun, quick read and I recommend it to fans of adventure stories, magic and martial arts. As I mentioned at the start, it's definitely the kind of book that will appeal to younger readers. I look forward to reading more books in this series when they come out.

4 / 5 stars

First published: July 2013, Harper Collins
Series: Yes. Book 1 of ?
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Monday, 8 July 2013

Black Sun Light My Way by Jo Spurrier

Black Sun Light My Way by Jo Spurrier is the sequel to Winter Be My Shield, which I absolutely loved when I read it last year. This review contains minor spoilers for book one.

Before I started writing this review, I went and read over my review of the first book and I was struck by something I hadn't realised when I was reading. Although the two books follow the same characters and are linked by a logical sequence of events, they actually explore very different themes. While the first book dealt a lot with ostracism, particularly of mages, the second book deals much more strongly with difficult choices and personal sacrifices.

The torture (of various characters at the hands of the evil Blood-Mage Kell) is also dealt with differently. It seemed to me that in the first book all the torture was near the start and used to establish that Kell was in fact pretty evil. Black Sun Light My Way does something similar with recently enslaved people being raped (well, threatened by rape, I don't think any of it took place on the actual page) and beaten by the invaders. But the most horrific (to me) bits were later on in the book when Kell's torture dungeon was revisited. I didn't think any of the violence was gratuitous but if affected me more than in the first book, partly because of elements of choice Spurrier incorporated into the story (I can't be more specific without spoilers). This is not a book for the faint of heart.

The next paragraph contains minor spoilers about a specific scene.

I also found Rasten's character much more interesting in Black Sun Light My Way than in the previous book. In Winter Be My Shield we saw him as the torture-conditioned and brain-washed apprentice to the Blood-Mage. In this book, we see a lot more of him and his point of view. The way he thinks in contrast with how Sierra (and, y'know, most saner people) thinks is often quite stark. There was a powerful moment when Sierra resists a particularly horrible punishment (easily the most sickening start to a scene) and Rasten can't understand why she wouldn't just submit and bide her time. It's impossible for the reader not to be on Sierra's side (I hope) and the whole scene was a stark and frustrating demonstration of just how much psychological damage Kell has inflicted on Rasten in four years.

On a cheerier note, Delphine, a mage from the invading country, becomes an interesting prominent character. Her role evolves significantly over the book and I found it most interesting when she was used to give an outsider's perspective on the characters we know and love. Spurrier uses her to great effect to highlight some of the differences between her culture and the other main characters', at the same time helping the reader understand how aspects of both cultures work. She was a character that at different times I cheered for and against, and that I could feel that way is a mark of Spurrier's excellent writing skills.

The last thing I want to mention is that I loved the ending. No details because spoilers, but it's not your usual book two ending. More got resolved than I expected, but there's no shortage of problems left for the characters to deal with in book three.

Black Sun Light My Way was an excellent read. I don't recommend skipping Winter Be My Shield, so if you haven't read the first book, do that first. In general, though, I highly recommend this series to all lovers of epic/high/big fat/whatever you want to call it fantasy. As I said earlier, it's not for the faint of heart, but on the other hand it's not significantly worse (in terms of ick and violence) than a lot of the genre.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2013, Harper Voyager AU
Series: Children of the Black Sun, book 2 of 3
Format read: Paper, gasp!
Source: Real life book shop
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Interview with Fiona Paul

As part of the Australian blog tour for her new book, Belladonna, I have an interview with Fiona Paul to share with you. Fiona Paul is a writer and registered nurse from St. Louis, MO. Her first book, Venom, came out last year and Belladonna is the sequel. You can also go and read my review from last week, but in the meantime, the blurb (from goodreads):

Cassandra Caravello is trying to forget Falco, the wild artist who ran off with her heart, as she grows closer to her strong, steady fiancé, Luca. But Luca seems to have his own secrets. When he′s arrested by soldiers in the middle of the night, Cass′s life is once again thrown into chaos. She must save Luca, and that means finding the Book of the Eternal Rose — the only evidence that will prove he is innocent.

So begins her journey to Florence, a city haunted by whispers of corruption, secret soirées, and clandestine meetings of the Order of the Eternal Rose. And home to Falco, who′s working for the Order′s eerily stunning leader, the Belladonna herself.

Can Cass trust her heart to lead her to the truth this time?

Nothing is as it seems in this seductive thriller, where the truth may be the deadliest poison of all.

What made you want to write about Renaissance Italy?

I had actually visited Venice (I started answering this question at an event once and got nervous and said I had visited Renaissance Venice, heh) about a year before I began writing Venom so the beauty of it was still pretty fresh in my head. As far as the Renaissance goes, certain elements of the plot regarding Falco’s ‘second job’ necessitated that the book be set in the Renaissance. I’m kind of an art and architecture geek so I enjoyed exploring the world of 1600s Italy.

It must take a lot of research to write convincingly about not only another place but another time. How much research did you have to do? (And was it a good excuse to visit Italy?)

This is excerpted from a post I did for Rainy Day Ramblings where I discussed the research in depth.

I started out with a fat pdf file put together for me by an amazing intern. It was chock full of pictures of chopines and stays (corsets) and velvet-covered divans. But unfortunately, it just scratched the surface. During the writing process, I did more research than writing. I watched movies, read books, and googled frantically. But still, there were tons of questions I couldn’t answer: I need to know the name of a church in this district. What things were sold at the market? Where was the market? How long did it take to have a dress made? Red dye was made from beetles? Seriously? There was no end to my obsessive questioning. Eventually, the decision was made to consult a Renaissance expert.

The expert sent back a TWENTY-FIVE page edit letter full of suggestions for VENOM and an eight-page letter for BELLADONNA. And though fixing all of the inaccuracies and weaving in additional historical detail was every bit as gruelling as you might imagine, the resulting product was a manuscript that awed the entire editorial team. I didn’t write VENOM to be educational, but I’m proud of the fact that I did my best to ground all of the details—the food, the perfumes, the books, the clothes, the art, the landmarks, etc—in fact. [Exception: San Domenico is a fictional island, due to the difficulty of accurately determining the history of Venice’s many tiny outlying islands, but its location is roughly equivalent to the location of Isola la Grazia, just south of San Giorgio Maggiore.]

Sadly, I did not use this project as an excuse to go back to Italy, though I could have deducted it from my taxes as a research expense. I enjoyed Venice, but there’s a lot of world left for me to see and a place has to blow my mind for me to want to spend time and money going back to it. (I totally want to go back to Australia and NZ, btw :-) )

Will we be seeing another Italian city in book three?

No, most of the major players will be returning to Venice.

What came first, the setting, the characters or the plot?

The setting, believe it or not. The Secrets of the Eternal Rose books were developed collaboratively with Paper Lantern Lit, but it was a recent trip to Venice that really made me want to set a book there, and then some of the major plot points required a Renaissance time period.

And finally a cheeky question, do you like the US or Australian (or other?) covers of your series more? ;-p

This is going to sound like a Miss America pageant answer, but here goes: When I first saw the Australian cover for Venom, my immediate thought was “OOOOOOH. Want that dress. Want that hair. Want that mask. Want that book.” One of my US colleagues was like “But...but...they didn’t have strapless dresses in Renaissance Venice.” To which I responded: “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you because I was thinking about how eye-catching this cover is.” So, like everything else, covers are subjective and one person’s cover gold leaves another person scratching her head. I love all of my covers—the original US, the redone US, the Australian, the (Russian?) one where my named is very coolly translated to Fiona Paulova—A LOT, but for different reasons. I feel grateful that multiple talented designers have spent their time designing for the Secrets of the Eternal Rose series.

Thank-you very much for taking the time to answer some questions, Fiona! And thanks to the lovely Amanda at HC for organising this blog tour.

For more info, you can find Fiona at the following online haunts:
Fiona's Blog: http://fionapaulbooks.blogspot.com
Fiona's Twitter: @fionawritesYA
Fiona's FB: www.facebook.com/fionapaulbooks
Belladonna on GR: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18042405-belladonna

And the other stops on this blog tour are:
July 1st: Badass Bookie
July 2nd: Turner’s Antics
July 3rd: Treasured Tales for Young Adults
July 4th: Speculating on SpecFic
July 5th: Fiction in Fiction in Fiction
July 6th: Here!
July 7th: Book-O-Matic

Thursday, 4 July 2013

New Booksies and things

All quiet on the southern front.

I've had fewer reviews up than I'd like over the past week for a few reasons. I've been sick (a sinus infection like a normal person, which is kind of novel for me) and I've been doing more work than usual on the Australian Women Writers Challenge, mostly behind the scenes. You know, the kind of stuff you shouldn't notice if it's working properly. Although I did recently write a roundup of spec fic reviews. All of which is to say, I haven't finished any books recently. I'm part way through three, but none of them are very short and, despite appearances, I don't actually read very quickly.

I expect to get back to more frequent reviews soon. Although maybe not so much next week because it will be a busy work conference week for me and I'm not sure how much time I'll have in the evenings. We'll see. Hopefully I'll be able to fit an audiobook in with the extra driving.

And I do have some interesting other things coming up, like an interview with Fiona Paul on Saturday. And I'm in the process of organising some other author interviews for the nearish future.

Anyway, despite the sniffles and other commitments, I did manage to acquire a couple of books recently. Doo bee doo.

From NetGalley, courtesy of Peachtree Publishers, I received Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil (which was published in Australia by Hardie Grant Egmont and with a nicer cover which I also include since many of my readers will have easier access to the Australian version). US cover on left, Aussie cover on right.

And then because it was on sale at Dymocks and I want to read it, I picked up The Shadow's Heir by KJ Taylor, the first book in the sequel series to the griffin books I read earlier this year. Or the Fallen Moon series, to give them their proper name (my review of The Dark Griffin).

Yay, books! *eyes teetering pile*