Sunday, 30 October 2011

'Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute' - Jonathan L Howard

It's time for the third book about Johannes Cabal - necromancer, detective supreme - and I'm very excited about The Fear Institute. The first two books were very clever and witty. Not really much of a choice here. I did not need to read the blurb, I already knew The Fear Institute was a must read. Let's see if I still think so at the end of my review. If you have not read the first two, I suggest you do so. Take a look at my review of Johannes Cabal: The Detective. Thank you Headline for providing me with this review copy.

Johannes Cabal is approached by three men, who introduce themselves as members of a secret society called The Fear Institute. They have dedicated their resources to fighting humankind's greatest enemy, fear. Fear holds us back as a species, and stands in the way of progress and innovation. It must be destroyed. They now have identified where the manifestation of fear can be found, but they need a reliable guide to lead them to their goal. Who else would be better than the infamous necromancer Johannes Cabal.

Jonathan L Howard pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft with his world building. The avatar of fear can be found in The Dreamlands, an alternative dimension, which can only be entered via dreams. The Dream Cycle is a series of stories by H.P. Lovecraft in which he wrote about The Dreamlands. The members of The Fear Institute have found an alternative way in, but logical caution (fear really) is behind the decision to bring a guide with experience of the occult.

The Dreamlands is a great setting for a Johannes Cabal story. It's a place where the science and the laws of physics have to take a step back and give way for superstition and myths. The Johannes Cabal we have  come to know so far is far more a scientist than a sorcerer, but in The Dreamlands magic is real and science less so. Will it prove a challenge for our super logical hero, or will he take it all in his stride and start flinging fireballs to the left and right?

Not having read much H.P. Lovecraft I canot say how much modifications Jonathan L Howard has made in his version of The Dreamlands, but it is a well presented setting. It's equal parts quirky and unsettling. I'm guessing that fans of H.P. Lovecraft will recognise a lot more than me.

I've said it before and I'm not afraid of saying it again; Johannes Cabal is a fantastic character. A lot of credit to Jonathan L Howard for striking such a perfect balance with his main character. It's funny how such a cold, selfish and ruthless man as Cabal can be so likeable. He has a lot of charm to him, which comes from his great wit and naivety. Johannes Cabal might know a lot about science and the occult, but when it comes to simple things like people and emotions he is sometimes at a loss. Supporting characters have plenty of life in them, but at the end of the day they are mere puppets dancing at the deft fingers of Johannes Cabal.

The plot of The Fear Institute starts out as a simple quest, find the manifestation of fear and slay it. When Jonathan L Howard is holding the pen, nothing is as simple as it seems though, and more than once it takes a surprising turn. One on occasion a very surprising turn. He never has to result to dirty tricks to keep things moving forward, and as always it's both exciting and funny.

Johannes Cabal is a (slightly) evil version of Sherlock Holmes. They both have the same superior intellect, which lets them be several steps ahead of their opponents. My favorite sleuth however lacks the wit of my favorite necromancer. Cabal's knack for unexpected violence with a humorous outcome is outstanding. The Fear Institute is a fastidiously well written book. It's an absolute blast to read. My only regret is I finished it way too quickly.

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute weighs in at 416 pages and is published by Headline.

Recommendation: must read

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

'The Recollection' - Gareth L Powell

It was the cover that did it for me. I immediately thought of the Millennium Falcon when I saw it, and I really hoped I would like the blurb. Mysterious gateways appear all over London, and Ed's brother disappears into one of them. Together with his brother's wife, they set out to find him. Four hundred years into the future, a lone trader is on a mission to redeem herself to her family. I'd say it sounds interesting, and I can't only read Neal Asher and Alastair Reynolds. Many thanks to Solaris Books for sending me a review copy.

In The Recollection we start off with two different story lines separated by 400 years. The first one kicks off in present day London with Ed, a failed painter. He is just about to get his hand chopped off for not being able to pay off his gambling debts. His older and more responsible brother - Verne, a successful war correspondent - has to bail him out. There is a lot of tension between the two. Things have always gone well for Verne, and less so for Ed. Verne even married Ed's girl.

After having more or less saved Ed, the brothers have a fight as Verne realises what Ed has done behind his back. In anger he storms off down the escalators of a tube, and does not notice when a portal opens. Verne is sucked into the portal, and Ed is left on his own.

Together with Verne's wife, Alice, Ed goes through another portal to try and find his brother. It gets really exciting here as the two steps into the unknown. They have prepared, but nothing can quite prepare them for appearing on a different planet. Each new portal brings them to a new place, and new dangers.

I really like the world building in The Recollection. It's always interesting to read novels where faster than light (FTL) speeds are not possible. This has some interesting consequences for the those who travel at the speed of light. While years pass for those not traveling, mere moments might pass for the travelers. It raises a lot of questions for anyone investing in, or piloting a space craft. As a pilot it's likely a lot of things have changed. For an investor, you won't see any returns for any trades for years, or even decades.
Many writers introduce the extension of the human life span as a solution for this, but not so Gareth L Powell. His universe is a lot more low tech, and the actual technology for spaceships is reverse engineered from the gateways.

The idea of a lone pilot, acting as a merchant on the fringe of the law is compelling. I think it's safe to blame Han Solo and his Millennium Falcon for that feeling. Gareth L Powell pays homage to the lone pilot concept with his character, Katherine. A feisty and headstrong woman, who practically grew up on a spaceship. She comes from a family of successful traders, but she made a mistake and has fallen out of grace. Katherine is not quite as capable as Han Solo, and more than once she gets into to trouble for overestimating her own abilities.

My biggest problem is however the plot itself. There are several good ideas in the world building, but too many ingredients in all to make a balanced dish. The concept of a Chosen One is the worst sin, it just does not fit naturally into Sci-Fi. It just works a lot better when there is magic involved, giving the Chosen One some kind of special power or ability. I would have preferred it to be a story about ordinary people, instead of a saving the universe one. Gareth L Powell is trying to do too many things at once with his story. This is also a problem with the characters. There is too many of them in such a short book, and the result is somewhat flat and lifeless characters. Ed is the more interesting of the two, and he feels more realistic than Katherine.

The Recollection is still worth a read for a few reasons. It's a interesting world building with some great ideas. It also ticks a lot of boxes: cheeky AIs, mysterious alien benefactors, action and a gorgeous cover. It also reads well. The chapters are short and have pace, often ending with a small cliff hanger, which really pulls you in to the story. It was difficult to put down, and it is really a well written book, which unfortunately does not quite meet my expectations.

The Recollection weighs in at 400 pages and is published by Solaris Books.

Recommendation: read

Friday, 14 October 2011

Interview with Pornokitsch

After my interview with Luca Veste I was keen to find out more about other fellow book reviewers, and how reviewing books have affected their reading habits. Joining me today are two reviewers I have a lot of respect for, please welcome Anne and Jared from the Pornokitsch blog. Not only do they review books, tv shows, movies and comic books, but they also have a number of other exciting projects cooking.

To find out more about their harmless dirtiness, visit their blog and follow them on Twitter (@pornokitsch and @thefingersofgod)

So who are Jared and Anne?

A: Jared prefers his burger medium-rare, please.

J: Anne is a 5th level Mind Flayer Paladin with Vorpal Grammar +3.

Why did you start reviewing books?

J: We used to work together on a different blog - where we wrote (this is a bit weird) about meat. Restaurant reviews, BBQ accessories, etc. We occasionally threw in a few book reviews - the food & drink choices of our favorite private eyes, that sort of thing. We discovered that we enjoyed writing about books more than restaurants and set up a separate site. Pretty soon, that became the blog and the meat blog was put out to pasture.

A: People still occasionally ask about it, though. I think my mom’s secretly a little disappointed we don’t still run the meat blog.

J: Mine too.

Would you say that becoming a book reviewer is something which has changed what you read and how you think about books?

J: No and yes. No - it hasn’t changed what I read. I blog and review entirely for fun. If I ever felt like blogging was making me read things, it would suddenly be work and I’d probably quit. That sounded awfully melodramatic. Also, yes - I think I think about thinking about books a lot more than I used to. I think.

A: Yes and no. I’m an academic by day, and my fields rely heavily on textual analysis - which means I approach pretty much everything I read critically (to Jared’s occasional exasperation). But whereas non-fiction is, for me, a tool, fiction is fundamentally a pleasure. In reading and thinking about fiction for the sake of a review, I have to add in that final, baseline layer of analysis. It’s not just what I thought about the book: it’s also how it made me feel. And I definitely read a lot more genre than I used to.

Pornokitsch is easily the best and funniest name of a blog. Is there a story behind the name or was it just a very good brainstorming session down at the pub?

A: Years ago we were watching the Sean Connery sci fi film Outland, and wound up spending hours (...and hours) dissecting the meaning of the movie’s set-design. We worked up some grand theory about 1980s sci fi, and how Hollywood represented technology in terms of reactionary liberal politics, and feminism as a function of blahblah and, you know, important stuffs. And we decided to start a geek-culture blog, to talk about all the important stuffs. And the important stuffs wound up being, in practice, reviews of long-out-of-print pulps and monster movies.

What does it take to write a great review of a fiction novel?

J: Anne.

A: Poo. A good review is a coherent opinion, convincingly delivered. But a great review - I think that’s a review that fundamentally alters your relationship with the book. A great review should give you some real insight into something about the book - like the author’s motivations, or the book’s historical context, or its critical importance, or its perpetual popularity. Something so that, the next time you read that book, or even just think about it, you respond to it in a new way. A great review isn’t just about whether or not you liked the book; it’s about why that book matters. Why you care.

You are currently editing an anthology. Care to tell us more about it?

A: We’re incredibly proud of this. We’ve commissioned eighteen stories about the end of the world, as inspired by the work of the artist John Martin. Our twist is that these stories are genre-inspired 21st century responses to these massive early 19th century paintings of Biblical rack and ruin, all volcanoes and lightening and crumbling cities and exploding hell-scapes.

Martin’s work really galvanized our authors; they’ve presented us with everything from deeply personal ghost stories to super-hard deep-future sci fi outer-spacey ruminations on the meaning of humanity. And everything in-between, of course. We envisioned the project as an ebook, but the Tate, which is currently curating a major John Martin exhibit, has asked us to produce a limited-edition print run, as well.

Apart from reviewing & editing anthologies, the Kitschies are kicking off their own award. I was really gobsmacked when I heard that. Sponsorship from a cool brand like The Kraken Rum, how did you guys manage all that, and why?

J: I think we’re a little gobsmacked ourselves. We spent all year sneaking around, converting our two year old ‘blog award’ into a new ‘literary prize’. We added great judges like Lauren Beukes and Rebecca Levene, expanded to more categories, and then found the best sponsor possible with The Kraken Rum.

We’re huge fans of the drink, so we approached The Kraken and sort of squeaked out, “Hello! You are smart, progressive, fun and tentacular. We look for smart, progressive, fun books - and then we give them tentacles. We should hang out!”. Their support has really been the icing on the cake (the suckers on the squid?).

The whole publishing community has been really generous. Everyone seems to share our desire to have a prize in this particular space - something that celebrates the books that elevate the tone of science fiction and fantasy and bridge that (phantom) gap between ‘genre’ and ‘literature’.

Could you recommend a kick ass novel one simply must read? Also, what’s the best book you read so far in 2011?

J: Phonogram: The Singles Club is about as kick ass as anything I’ve ever read. The Gillen/McKelvie team is right up there with legendary duos like Ellis/Templesmith, Gaiman/McKean and Moore/Campbell. The Singles Club may be 160 pages of comics perfection.  And best in 2011? This goes back to January, but I finally read David Goodis’s noir masterpiece, Cassidy’s Girl. I’m still recovering.

A: Speaking of noir masterpieces, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is one of my perpetual favorites - utterly horrifying, utterly bleak, utterly controlled, and a master-class in extraordinary writing. As for the best book I’ve read this year? Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South. For serious! Forget all the romantic period-film nonsense the name might conjure. North & South is a novel about industrial technologies and their social effects, class warfare, religious doubt, and, uh, problematic mothers. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

'The Outcast Dead' - Graham McNeill

The blurb of The Outcast Dead immediately caught my eye. Most Warhammer 40k books on my read pile featured space marines as the main characters. This one is different. Kai Zulane is an astropath, a psyker strong enough to transmit and receive messages light years away, and he carries a terrible truth. I know little about the astropaths and the best way to find out more is to read a book about one. Thank you Black Library for sending me a review copy.

When it comes to world building The Outcast Dead excels. Everything is done on a grand scale, with just the right sense of gothic doom and gloom you expect. The lore of the Warhammer 40k universe is absolutely stunning. I can't even imagine how intimidating it must be to write a novel, when you know what you have to live up to. Graham McNeill takes the bull by the horns, but then he is not exactly a spring chicken. He has around twenty books under his belt for Warhammer 40k and Warhammer.

The Outcast Dead is part of the Horus Herasy series, which aims to shed light on the events which was the pivot point for the empire. Horus, one of the Primarchs, has betrayed the Emperor, and started a civil-war. News of the betrayal has just spread, and we are back on Terra awaiting news from the fleet dispatched to crush Horus and his fellow conspirers.

Kai Zulane was an astropath on a ship, which suffered a terrible accident while navigating through the warp. The shields were breached and the creatures from the warp entered the ship and turned lose on the crew. Tens of thousands died in torment, while Kai Zulane was safe in a secure compartment. Safe from the creatures, but forced to listen to the mental screams of his friends as they died. Since then he is unable to send messages and is sent back to the City of Sight for therapy.

I really like the chapters where Kai Zulane is treated. We get a lot of insight into how psykers work, and their role within the empire, but also a lot of facts about The City of Sight itself. As with anything in the empire there is a surprising amount of politics involved. Due to their constant contact with the warp psykers need to be guarded in case they become possessed or let something out. This role falls to the Black Sentinels, elite soldiers with helmets protecting them from psychic attacks.

During such an incident Kai Zulane is the unfortunate recipient of a terrible gift. The gift of truth. The truth of the outcome of the betrayal, which is implanted deep within Kai Zulane's mind. Not even Kai Zulane himself knows what it is, or he would have told his superiors. He is instead sent to the highest security risk prison on Terra to have the information forcefully extracted. He is not expected to survive.

It's a complex plot with a lot of characters involved, and Graham McNeill allows all of them at least 15 minutes of fame each. Even the characters who don't get much time in the limelight feel convincing. It's far from certain to whom the characters will give their allegiance to. This makes The Outcast Dead different from other books, as Space Mariones are normally fanatics. This was a very different time, and full of uncertainty. Graham McNeill juggles both plot and characters with great skill, and it all comes together in the end.

The stakes are very high, and it is very much a story about choosing sides, loyalty and dedication. This not only applies to Kai Zulane, but also his fellows prisoners. The other prisoners have not themselves done anything wrong. Their Primarchs betrayed the Emperor, while they were on the other side of the galaxy. The Outcast Dead, and other Horus Herasy books, paints every event in shades of grey instead of black and white.

It's a very intense read, packed with action, but also with difficult choices. One minute people are being torn limb from limb, and the next scene is a wise and insightful conversation. Every battle is a fluid chain of moves, almost like a dance, and always gripping. The awe you expect from such a momentous event is delivered by Graham McNeill. If you only ever read one Warhammer 40k novel, it might as well be The Outcast Dead.

The Outcast Dead weighs in at 416 pages and is published by The Black Library. It is scheduled for release on the 10th of November 2011.

Recommendation: must read

Monday, 10 October 2011

Interview with Luca Veste

Today I'm joined by Luca Veste, fellow blogger and now also writer, who has kindly agreed to answer some of my questions. Luca Veste runs the Guilty Conscience web site, where he reviews crime novels, but also publishes short stories. I know reviewing books changed quite a lot for me as a reader so I'm curious to find out if it had an effect on other reviewers as well.

To find out more about Luca Vest look up his blog and/or follow him on Twitter (@LucaVeste).

So who is Luca? 
Who am I? I'm 24601. (Shiny penny for anyone who gets that reference!) I'm a Half Italian, Half Scouser, Husband, Father and Mature Student, who reads a lot, talks about books incessantly, and now writes in his spare (HA!) time.

Why did you start reviewing books?
I always wanted to be a part of that 'world' of books. Reviewing them was, in one way, a path into the writing world. Also, I wanted to show appreciation to some authors, that perhaps they weren't getting elsewhere as much as I thought they should.

Would you say that becoming a book reviewer is something which has changed what you read and how you read?
Definitely. Once you have a review thing going, you get all sorts of offers. One book I would never have heard of if I wasn't reviewing was 'The Office of Lost and Found'. It's now in my Top Five favourite books. It hasn't really changed how I read really, although I do read more PDF and Kindle books on my laptop than I used to!

What’s your proudest moment as a book reviewer so far?
I have a few favourites. Interviewing Steve Mosby was something I always wanted to do. I've been a huge fan of his for a few years, so to get the chance to ask him questions, was a real thrill. I had Lawrence Block write a guest post which was very cool, and interviewing someone of the calibre of Linwood Barclay was fantastic. Also Sean Cregan week was great fun. Far too many really!

You are currently editing a anthology. Care to tell us more about it?
OFF THE RECORD is a collection of 37 short stories, featuring some of the best writers around. It's all based on classic song titles, so we have Ray Banks with God Only Knows, Thomas Pluck with Freebird, Les Edgerton with Small Change, and Helen Fitzgerald went for the Rolf Harris classic Two Little Boys, and so on...It's all for charity, and it should be available in time for Christmas. Short stories are a format that is often overlooked, but there is some exciting stuff going on out there in the online world, which is a great thing.

I also heard that you have your own little book deal. I’d love to know more about it. Is writing something you have always wanted to do, or did it come from chatting with all the writers? What do you write?
Yes, Trestle Press are going to be publishing a collection of Five Short Stories by me, entitled 'LIVERPOOL 5'. My Dad was the writer in the family really, more film than novel though, so it wasn't something I ever thought about. But, one day I was chatting to a writer Charlie Williams, who in an inadvertent way, kind of dared me to write a joke story entitled 'Jeff, The Uninspired Vampire'. So I did. Sent it to Charlie who thought it was good, so that kind of put me in the mind of giving it a go. I then wrote a story for the excellent 'Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers website, which surprisingly got accepted and received great feedback. And it's snowballed from there. I write about characters mainly, not genre so much. I like dialogue and atmosphere and try and show that in my stories. LIVERPOOL 5 contains 5 stories set in Liverpool, trying to show the city has much more than just The Beatles and the Football team (there's only one team in Liverpool, and they play in red) going for it. It's incredible to think, only four months ago, I hadn't even started the review website and now I'm releasing an Ebook!

Could you recommend a kick ass crime novel one simply must read? Also, what’s the best book you read so far in 2011?
The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby. An absolute must read. If anyone wants to know how to create tension, write plot and character superbly, mix horror with crime, and how a screwdriver still gives me nightmares, you must read this book. Best read of 2011 is a tie between Black Flowers by Steve Mosby (I'm such a damn FanBoy when it comes to him) and The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald. The Donor contains the best opening 100 pages of a novel, I've ever read.

Thank you Luca for taking the time to answer my questions.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

To Read-Pile: My Next 5

Saturday morning and I just finished reading the last book of my previous five. Can't quite start writing the review. I need some time to mull over the book before it all becomes clear. Instead I will compile my choice of the next five books to read. This time I even managed to buy a book and make some room for it. Two books from Solaris this time as I very patiently waited for them to arrive as the delivery failed the first time and they had to be sent again.

The Recollection - Gareth L Powell

When his brother disappears into a bizarre gateway on a London Underground escalator, failed artist Ed Rico and his brother’s wife Alice have to put aside their feelings for each other to go and find him. Their quest through the “arches” will send them hurtling through time,  to new and terrifying alien worlds. 

Four hundred years in the future, Katherine Abdulov must travel to a remote planet in order to regain the trust of her influential family. The only person standing in her way is her former lover, Victor Luciano, the ruthless employee of a rival trading firm.

Hard choices lie ahead as lives and centuries clash and, in the unforgiving depths of space, an ancient evil stirs…

I love Sci-Fi, and I've been looking forward to this book so it gets the honor of being my first. The Recollection has been received well by reviewers so I should be all set for a nice ride. Hopefully in a rich new universe with plenty of things to astonish me.

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institue - Jonathan L Howard

Beyond the wall of sleep lie the Dreamlands, a whole world formed by dreams, but not a dream itself. For countless millennia, it has been explored only by those with a certain detachment from the mundane realities of our own world, its strange seas navigated, and its vast mountains climbed by philosophers, and mystics, and poets.
Well, those halcyon days are over, beatniks.

Johannes Cabal is coming.

Cabal, a necromancer of some little infamy, is employed by the mysterious Fear Institute to lead an expedition into the Dreamlands, an expedition whose goal is nothing less than to hunt and destroy the dread Phobic Animus, the font of terrors, the very source of all the world’s fear. They will enter exotic lands where magic is common and monsters abound, see wonders, and suffer dreadful hardships. Cabal will encounter witches, vile abominations, and far too many zebras.

And, when they finally come close to their goal, Cabal will have to face his own nightmares, but for a man who communes easily with devils and the dead, there is surely nothing left to fear.

Is there?

I'm a big fan of Jonathan L Howard and his creation, Johannes Cabal. It's pretty much already a must read, and hopefully it will remain one in my review.

Kultus - Richard Ford

A steam-powered burlesque of brutal demonic action!

Thaddeus Blaklok – mercenary, demonist, bastard and thug-for-hire – is pressed into retrieving a mysterious key for his clandestine benefactors. Little does he know that other parties seek to secure this artefact for their own nefarious ends and soon he is pursued by brutal cultists, bloodthirsty gangsters, deadly mercenaries and hell spawned monsters, all bent on stopping him by any means necessary.
In a lightning paced quest that takes him across the length and breadth of the steam-fuelled city of Manufactory, Blaklok must use his wits and his own demonic powers to keep the key from those who would use it for ill, and open the gates to Hell itself.

Another new writer. I think this books sounds like a lot of fun. Made me think of Hellboy when I read the blurb. Should be a fun read, with a lot of action and snappy one liners.

Salvation's Reach - Dan Abnett
The Tanith First-And-Only embark a desperate mission that could decide the fate of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade in the thirteenth book of this popular Imperial Guard series. The Ghosts of the Tanith First-and-Only have been away from front line for too long. Listless, and hungry for some action, they are offered a mission that perfectly suits their talents. The objective: the mysterious Salvation's Reach, a remote and impenetrable fortress concealing secrets that could change the course of the Sabbat Worlds campaign. But the proposed raid is so hazardous, it's regarded as a suicide mission, and the Ghosts may have been in reserve for so long they've lost their edge. Haunted by spectres from the past and stalked by the Archenemy, Colonel-Commissar Gaunt and his Ghosts embark upon what could be their finest hour - or their final mission.

Ashamed to admit this, but I have not read anything by Dan Abnett before. Obviously, this is something which needs to be rectified and where better to start than with a Gaunt's Ghosts novel? Possibly an earlier Gaunt's Ghost novel, but one should not be picky. My expectations are very high for this book. I've seen nothing but glowing reviews, so I expect to have my socks blown straight off my feet by the compressed awesomeness of this book.

The Edinburgh Dead - Brian Ruckley
Edinburgh 1827. In the starkly-lit operating theatres of the city, grisly experiments are being carried out on corpses in the name of medical science. But elsewhere, there are those experimenting with more sinister forces. Amongst the crowded, sprawling tenements of the labyrinthine Old Town, a body is found, its neck torn to pieces. Charged with investigating the murder is Adam Quire, Officer of the Edinburgh Police. The trail will lead him into the deepest reaches of the city's criminal underclass, and to the highest echelons of the filthy rich. Soon Quire will discover that a darkness is crawling through this city of enlightenment ? and no one is safe from its corruption.

Brian Ruckley is the author of the Godless World trilogy, which I enjoyed reading. The Edinburgh Dead is a another book I was excited about when I first heard of it's release. I do like crime and I recently made a promise to try and read some books, which does not take place in London or New York.

Friday, 7 October 2011

'Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure' - Daniel Polansky

Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure is the debut novel by Daniel Polansky, and in the US it's simply known as Low Town. It is a dark fantasy novel, set a in a new world created by Daniel Polansky, and it's supposed to be very dark, gritty and violent. This is the first book in a series of books all set in Low Town. Someone is murdering children in Low Town, and only one man can stop the killer. I've seen a lot of very positive reviews for The Straight Razor Cure and I was delighted when Daniel Polansky asked the publisher to send me a copy to review.

After reading only a few pages from The Straight Razor Cure it reminds me of two books I've read recently, Among Thieves and A Serpent Uncoiled. Low Town is a district in the great city Rigus, where the poor and rejects from finer society live. It's a derelict maze of alleys and passageways ruled by criminals and shunned by the law. A dark stain on the pristine map of the city. This probably sounds familiar if you read Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick. Warden is an ex-military, ex-police officer who now runs his one man crime empire peddling drugs to the rich and the poor. He has literally carved out his own territory, but he makes sure he does not get in over his head, and the size of his territory is enough to make a living. Nothing more; nothing Less. Unfortunately, he is also a user of his own products. Having very recently read the excellent A Serpent Uncoiled I cannot help but finding similarities between the two protagonists. This bodes well for The Straight Razor Cure.

That Warden is a dangerous man you should not cross is made perfectly clear in the opening chapters, where he is forced to deal with a rival dealer, who is trying to muscle in on his territory. Unarmed he takes them on and utilises the skills he learned fighting a war from the trenches. No fancy moves, no honour, just put them down before they stick you. Warden is a beast in a scrap and I certainly wouldn't want to stand in his way. Often he samples his wares before a fight, and it's hard to tell if his recklessness comes from the drugs or not. The melee is well written. It's fluid and brutal, making it feel realistic, and also giving you a real taste of danger urgency.

Alas, Warden is not allowed to quietly live out his life selling drugs and drinking beer in the pub he co-owns with an old friend. When he finds the mutilated remains of a young girl in an alleyway, he is forced to a reluctant reunion with his old partner, Crispin. When Warden worked for the intelligence service Crispin was his partner. Quite quickly it becomes clear that Crispin and his fellows are in over their head, and Warden has to step in. It's a little bit of a trope, but one I don't mind at all. You can't help being awesome.

Daniel Polansky really shines with his world building in Low Town. It's convincing, and we only get the information we need to understand what is happening right now. We are given a first taste of the history of the city and of the factions involved in the city politics. I'm sure Daniel Polansky has a lot more planned for the next book.

He manages to get the atmosphere of Low Town just right. It is one of those books which almost play like a movie while you read it. The surroundings and the action sucks you right into the book, which is exactly what I'm looking for in a book. I could feel the cold from the bad weather and hear my blood thundering in my ears while they were scrapping.

Warden is a complicated character with a lot of depth to him if you look beyond the cliches that surround him. He might be a hard ass and a drug dealer, but violence is a last resort. You can say he is a little bit stereotypical as he, like many other reluctant heroes, struggles with the social bit. Every time he talks to a friend he pushes them further away. There is a softer side to the man who at first appears to be all hard edges. Early in the book he forms a reluctant friendship with one of the many urchins, a boy named Wren, living on the streets. He takes him in as an apprentice, and tries to straighten him out. To start with Warden is a bit of a mystery. We don't really know much about him, which immediately makes him interesting. Daniel Polansky very effectively uses flashbacks to fill in some of the gaps, but again I'm sure there will be more revelations in the coming books.

The Straight Razor Cure is a interesting genre crossover of fantasy and hard boiled crime. I bet a lot of detectives out there wish they had the possibility of having a divination to help them solve a murder. This could obviously make for a very quickly solved murder and a short book. But like in real life, a criminal can still cover his tracks. It's a clever plot that moves along smoothly, but I feel Warden could have been less reliant on his contacts to make him slightly less passive. This is a very minor criticism, but he did seem to wait around a lot for people getting back to him instead of going forth to do righteous ass-kicking.

I'm left with a very good feeling after reading Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure. It's very similar to what I felt after reading my first Joe Abercrombie and Brian Ruckley books. Daniel Polansky is now one of the writers whose books I will buy automatically.  The Straight Razor Cure is gorgeously dark and gritty, with a protagonist with just the right mixture of brooding and mystery to him. Add the ability to take on three armed men unarmed, and we have all we need for an action packed book.

Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure weighs in at 356 pages and is published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

Recommendation: read

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who Won?: Roil

And we have a winner!

Congratulations to: Lalith Vipulananthan, from Enfield, England.

Funnily enough, the book for my next giveaway arrived yesterday.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Publisher Review: Infinity Plus

Time for another, very brief, publisher review. This time my merciless gaze is firmly locked on Infinity Plus. A couple of days ago I received an email from them telling me (and others I'm sure) about some of their new books. Instead of just reposting the email on my blog I think it's worth mentioning a few things about Infinity Plus. Infinity Plus is different from other publishers. They don't normally publish new books, but instead make sure that out of prints books become available again in your favorite eBook format. The idea is the authors themselves choose which of their books they want to preserve for future readers. Not all of the books published by Infinity Plus will be fiction, some of it will be non-fiction as well. A noble cause.

To find out more about Infinity Plus visit their website and/or follow them on Twitter (@ipebooks).

So far I've only managed to read one book from their catalogue, but that book was very good. It was A Writer's Life by Eric Brown and you can read my review of it here.

That's it from me and my mini-review of Infinity Plus. Let's have a look at their latest books instead.

Our most recent titles:

Approaching Omega
by Eric Brown ($2.99/£2.21) [Sep 2011]
The mission to locate an Earth-like planet for colonisation has failed, three of the five colony sleeper hangars have been destroyed... Time to adjust mission parameters. Time to begin experimentation. Classic SF from international bestseller Eric Brown.

Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews
by John Grant ($1.99/£1.44) [Sep 2011]
A bumper collection - over 150,000 words! - of book reviews, many of full essay length, by the two-time Hugo winning and World Fantasy Award-winning co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and author, among much fiction, of such recent nonfiction works as Corrupted Science and (forthcoming) Denying Science.

Circus of the Grand Design
by Robert Freeman Wexler ($2.99/£2.10) [Sep 2011]
When Lewis rents a vacation house on Long Island he doesn’t expect to end up on a crazy circus train ride to nowhere. Travelling through strange and wonderful lands, he becomes lost amongst mad acrobats, sexy elephant riders, a magical mechanical horse, a giant woman and her savage, prehistoric rodent bears, an egotistical juggler, and...a fertility goddess who takes exceptional interest in him.

Meridian Days
by Eric Brown ($2.99/£2.23) [Aug 2011]
Meridian, twenty light years from Earth and with just a tiny scattering of inhabitable islands, seems the perfect place for to escape the tragedy of his past. When he meets Fire Trevellion he is drawn into a world of corruption and murder that is far darker than his past. Soon it's all he can do just to survive...

And a standalone short story ebook:
Nowhere To Go
by Iain Rowan
Iain Rowan's Derringer Award-winning story "One Step Closer" is now available as a free self-contained ebook - a number one short story download at Amazon.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

'The Falling Machine' - Andrew P Mayer

The Falling Machine is the debut novel by Andrew P Mayer. It's the first part in the Society of Steam trilogy set in a alternative version of New York. I really like the blurb for this book. It's about a 19-year old socialite Sarah Stanton and her desire to join the Paragons, the foremost group of super heroes in New York. Their current leader is murdered and with the help of an automaton she has to find his killers. Thank you Pyr Books for sending me a review copy of The Falling Machine.

Sarah Stanton is accompanying Professor Darby, the leader of the Paragons, and her childhood friend Nathaniel, to the construction site of the Brooklyn Bridge. With them is the Automaton, the Professors greatest invention, who is a mechanical man with the ability to think. Their guide, one of the Irish construction workers, takes them to the top of the tower. The two young socialites are both trying to discuss science with the Professor, but he is having none of it. He wants them to enjoy the view while the Automaton conducts some scientific measurements. Sarah Stanton calls out a warning to the Professor. Their guide has tricked them. He is now wearing a mechanical harness with several evil looking harpoons aimed at the Professor. The Bomb Lance is here to kill them all except Sarah, who must bring a message to the remaining Paragons, "The Eschaton is coming".

To the utter shock and disappointment of Sarah Stanton, the remaining Paragons do not throw themselves at the task of avenging their leader. Instead they bicker and fight over who will succeed the Professor. This leaves Sarah Stanton with the responsibility of finding the killer, and also why they wanted the Professor dead.

I like the setting for The Falling Machine. New York rivals London when it comes to awesomeness for a setting. Not sure how many, but a lot of the books I read are set in either of the two cities, and I have to remember to make an effort to find a couple of books set elsewhere. Andrew P Mayer's New York makes a sharp contrast between the different social classes. We have are socialites who live in wealth and splendour, with servants to take care of their needs. All is very nice and dandy, but then we have the slums where the poor and forgotten lives. Their realities are very different. Andrew P Mayer's New York feels like a living and breathing city.

The idea of a steampunk superheroes is terrific I think. There is something romantic and novel about the vision of a steam driven Iron Man suit, or a dashing caped crusader sporting a steam powered gatling cannon. The Paragons are all, with the exception of the Automaton, normal humans with a talent for something that has been trained to perfection. Their best days are behind them, and their intentions are not always noble. They have fallen for the allure of their own myth and are more interested in looking good than doing good. Their flaws make them feel very human, and the Falling Machine in this reminds of Astro City, which was the first comic book I read where the superheroes felt like real people.

Sarah Stanton faces a lot of obstacles on her way to finding the Professor's killer. The people she has looked up to all her life are suddenly not as noble and perfect as she thought. The divide between classes in New York and her own gender are other obstacles, but perhaps the greatest obstacle of all is the fear of an actual living and thinking machine. In a world which such class problems, there is certainly no such things as right for non-humans.

There are some really cool and interesting characters featuring in the Falling Machine, and I almost wish that Andrew P Mayer had given us more about them than Sarah Stanton. It's quite comical to start with how she can barely navigate through a furnished room without stumbling and injuring herself. She struggles to be efficient and comes across as too meek at times, and it's difficult to imagine her as a member of the Paragons. It's easier to sympathise with her in her struggles to overcome the restriction and protocols her gender imposes on her. She does at least have the determination required.

My favorite characters is The Sleuth, basically Sherlock Holmes, who is a lot of fun. We are fed scraps of stories from his long life as an adventurer, which would probably make a pretty fun book on its own. Trained in ancient martial arts and with a logical mind who is constantly analysing his surroundings, and armed with gadgets that would make James Bond green with envy. I do like his black leather featureless mask that he is wearing to strike fear into his enemies, a bit like Rorschach.

Andrew P Mayer should be pleased with his first book. I found it entertaining and will certainly pick up the next part. The mix of steampunk and superheroes work very well and you don't really have to be a fan of both to enjoy this book.

The Falling Machine weighs in at 285 pages and is published by Pyr.

Recommendation: read