Wednesday, 20 June 2012


Title: Undead
Series: Undead #1
Author: Kirsty McKay
Pages: 294
Published: September 1st 2011
Published by: Chicken House

Being new at school bites. But at least it doesn't kill you. Mostly.

Bobby thinks she might well be on the School Trip from Hell. Too bad she's a noob, too bad her classmates don't rate her weirdo accent and too bad that Scotland is having the worst blizzard since the Ice Age. Looks like she's going to be on this school bus for a quite a while; could things get much worse?

Yep. They could.

Inexplicably, her classmates start dying...and then they come back to life again...and what's more, they're very, very hungry.
With nowhere to run and no contact with the outside world, Bobby is thrown together with a raggle-taggle group of survivors at a roadside café. There's indie kid drop-out Smitty, the class beauty queen Alice, dweeby Pete and two near useless adults: a half-conscious bus driver and a volatile petrol station attendant.
The frenemies struggle to stay alive - through explosions, deadly battles and a breakneck chase through the snowbound wilderness. Somehow they have to make it to safety - and get some answers - no matter what the cost.
Can they survive the Undead? And each other?

Roberta - 'Bobby' - has just moved back to the UK from the USA. After being dragged over there at age 9, she's now been dragged back and she is not happy about it. Then she's forced to go on a school skiing trip. Then she's forced to fight for her life against the undead whilst trying to get along with what remains of her class, none of whom she even likes. Not exactly the most fun period of her life, I'm sure you can understand.

This was a very easy read, and quite a clichéd appearance by zombies: arms held out in front of them, shuffling along and groaning. Maybe the target audience has some impact on this - it is very much a YA (young adult) novel so the alternative scarier options are maybe out. Having zombies which are super quick and strong a la I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (/the Will Smith film) or The Passage by Justin Cronin. But then I really quite enjoy the TV show The Walking Dead which has a similar kind of zombie, but more creeping tension. Maybe my real problem with the zombies here is that they aren't really scary. They're stumbling, shuffling distant horrors. There are very few interactions between them and the characters, and even then I never really felt that the central characters were in any real level of danger. You can pretty much tell who is going to turn.

And the characters fulfilled all the clichés too. Awkward new girl with no friends, check; rebellious bad boy with a hidden side, check; intelligent geeky guy, check; dumb popular girl, check; 'improbable' romance easily visible from the first few pages, check.

This is also very obviously the first in a series: while the story is concluded, the bigger story is left dangling open with very little resolved or explained. And I've got to admit that this has got me a little intrigued. I do want to know what happens next, what the national - global - consequences are of what is seen in the first book, as well as the why this all happened in the first place.

While not particularly descriptive, the writing is good. The author gets teenage language down quite well, as well as the interactions. All the flouncing and teasing and gentle mocking flirtation that comes with being 15/16. None of the conclusions they reach are jumped to - at least none of the ones that are taken completely seriously. There are jokes about Alcoholics Anonymous zombies, but Bobby doesn't assume anything until she's seen it, and there are no amazing leaps of logic which was nice to see. They know what they know, and that's it - a nice change from characters finding out one piece of information and instantly extrapolating everything from it.

This was a read for my book club (due to meet last night but cancelled because of Euro 2012), and something I never would have picked up otherwise. It is a YA book, but the blurb on my copy makes it sound very YA and that put me off a little even knowing I had to read it. And yeah, it's not the greatest book ever written or anything, but it is a good quick read that doesn't require too much thought. Will I carry on the series? I don't know yet...maybe.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Theft of Swords

Title: Theft of Swords
Series: Riyria Revelations #1-#2
Author: Michael J. Sullivan
Pages: 664 (paperback)
Published: November 1st 2011
Published by: Orbit

Royce Melborn, a skilled thief, and his mercenary partner, Hadrian Blackwater, make a profitable living carrying out dangerous assignments for conspiring nobles—until they are hired to pilfer a famed sword. What appears to be just a simple job finds them framed for the murder of the king and trapped in a conspiracy that uncovers a plot far greater than the mere overthrow of a tiny kingdom. 

Can a self-serving thief and an idealistic swordsman survive long enough to unravel the first part of an ancient mystery that has toppled kings and destroyed empires in order to keep a secret too terrible for the world to know? 

And so begins the first tale of treachery and adventure, sword fighting and magic, myth and legend.

When author Michael J. Sullivan self-published the first books of his Riyria Revelations, they rapidly became ebook bestsellers. Now, Orbit is pleased to present the complete series for the first time in bookstores everywhere.

Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater are basically mercenaries. They'll do pretty much anything you want for money. And they're good at it too - they're renowned in the underworld for their skills. They someone tries to frame them for the murder of a King - bad idea. This sends them on the run (albeit not that far, but I'll come to that later) and trying to finish the task set by the Princess who set them free, dragging her brother - now the King - along very reluctantly for the ride. This sets of a whole mess of stuff into action.

I was really very excited about reading this book. This book contains the first of the 6 stories which make up the Riyria Revelations - The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha - but the first time I came across the series it was only the first published alone. It sounded very interesting, and I added it to my (frankly quite ridiculously long) t-read list. Several months later I came across Theft of Swords and also added this, without realising that they were in fact the same book. I can't remember quite how I came to the realisation, but I figured that any book I added twice was going to be good, and put on top the fact that the author got a publishing deal based on sales after he self-published I figured this was going to be a great read.

And whilst I wasn't exactly wrong, I wasn't exactly right either. This was a good book, don't get me wrong. It was imaginative and well written and wonderfully descriptive at times, but there were a few too many (and too obvious) info-dumps, plot holes and things that didn't make sense or that were slightly too convenient. Incredibly clever people (and creatures) doing very stupid things purely to allow for the plot. "I've got the upper hand, so rather than keeping it and ensuring you do what I want, I'll let them go as a gesture of faith." You keep the upper hand. That's what people want - don't just go giving stuff away.

There's the whole scale thing too. After reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, I'm used to amazing, epic, intricate schemes being pulled together at the last second and leaving you (or me at least) mystified for the whole rest of the book as to what on earth is going on or how everything's going to work. While the thievery side isn't really the focus at all in either of the stories in this book, I felt that the author was trying for something like this and didn't quite pull it off. Similarly, the literal scale of the world was almost amusing, which I feel awful for. I have relatively recently jumped on the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones etc. by George R. R. Martin) bandwagon and I'm used to huge distances being traversed, massive armies being gathered and it taking days, weeks to get anywhere. So when we're told that they've gathered like 40 knights and a couple hundred soldiers but that the other half of their army won't get there for all of 18 hours it just fell a little flat. I understand that this isn't really a failing of the book (and indeed the smaller scale setting is good as a foundation for the world which is then expanded on slightly in #2 and will presumably continue to be built on) but rather a reflection on my past reading and how this has impacted the way I read books.

Still, I enjoyed these books. They were funny quite a lot of the time and the characters of Royce and Harian were very interesting, and their relationship was very good. You can see how close they are, that they trust each other implicitly, but they argue and banter like friends do too. Avempartha particularly had very good pacing, and I liked the little links between the two, showing how the world has moved on in the intervening months (years? I'm a little unclear exactly how much time had passed) since The Crown Conspiracy. There are some very good secondary characters, and I'm glad to see that the author doesn't mind killing people off...always better if you're not always entirely sure that everyone's going to survive!

The set up for the next book has definitely got me intrigued, and whilst in the middle I was undecided about whether to carry on with this series or not, the end made the decision for me. Yeah, I could see the 'reveal' coming, but that doesn't make me want to know what happens as a result of it any less!

A good book with interesting characters that maybe could have been tightened up a little, but still a good read.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Devil in the White City

Title: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.
Author: Erik Larson
Pages: 464 (paperback)
Published: February 10th 2004
Published by: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that 'The Devil in the White City' is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims. Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works. The magical appeal and horrifying dark side of 19th-century Chicago are both revealed through Larson's skillful writing.

Daniel Burnham and H. H. Holmes are two men who took advantage of Chicago winning the prestigious rights to hold a World's Fair. One was an architect who was determined that the event would beat the Paris Exposition a number of years before and who pushed himself and everyone around him to achieve this. The other was a serial killer who took advantage of the many people who visited the fair alone, using his charm and charisma as a mask to his psychopathy and as a way to slake his thirst for death. Two very different men, but their stories are interwoven into this book.

I don't read many non-fiction books, and I when I do they tend to be more psychology-based. While one could argue that the whole 'psychopath serial killer' thing is rather psychological, this isn't really the focus. Given that much of what it is thought Holmes did is based on speculation rather than fact you never really get inside his head at all. In spite of this being somewhat outside my normal reading I really enjoyed this book. Larson has obviously done his research - and done it very well - but also manages to put it on the page in a way that is both informative, interesting and (most importantly) engaging. While still not exactly a book I could sit and read for hours at a time, I could quite happily sit and read a number of chapters in a go.

This is achieved in part because of the interweaving of stories throughout, all essential to the fair and the events which transpired. Burnham and Holmes are the main focus, but there are other people who were equally important which get their share of the page-time. A couple were quite random and you didn't really see how they'd have any impact until they did. But there were also just stories of the fair from regular people who had no impact on the larger picture. Couples meeting at the fair and small follow-ups to their lives, what people thought of various things and those who would later became famous (various future Presidents cropped up, and Mark Twain went to Chicago but never made it to the fair) or were related to famous names (Walt Disney's father worked there). The narrative does a great job of showing just how much of an impact this fair had on America and it's people.

While there isn't any mystery to Holmes' true nature it is interesting seeing how he interacts with people and how his psychopathy evolves over time. He is an incredibly charming and disarming man, and there are many accounts of him defusing difficult situations, be they financial or when someone comes looking for missing people, with the greatest of ease. Without a doubt inventive, he is something of a criminal master-mind and very adept at hiding his killing, to the point where no one can really even guess as to how many victims he had.

Burnham and the building of the fair is interesting in a whole different way as you see the fight he had to become an architect, to win the necessary people over to the cause, and then navigate all the bureaucracy to achieve the vision he had of this magnificent event. He fights incredibly hard all the way and refuses to give up on what he wants, which is true of a number of other people involved in the build. The other that stands out is a young engineer who had an idea to top that of the Eiffel Tower (the centre-piece of the Paris Exposition) who had to fight to have others believe it was something that was achievable...but I won't spoil who he was or what he built for those, like me, who don't already know.

I went into this knowing absolutely nothing about the World's Fair in Chicago, and have come out wishing I was alive to see it thanks to the picture painted here. It sounds amazing, and this book does both it and the darkness in Holmes justice. Well worth a read.