Posts Tagged ‘Reviewer-Keith’

Monkey Wars

Richard Kurti

monkey warsWhen the Langur monkey troop rises to power on the dusty streets of Calcutta, it is at a price. A brutal massacre drives the Rhesus troop out of the place they called home and forces them to embark on a dangerous journey. But one Langur monkey, Mico, is prepared to stand up to the tyrannical Langur regime and fight for truth, friendship and love. As Mico uncovers the secrets and lies at the heart of the corrupt Langur leadership, he quickly realizes he is playing a dangerous game. And when monkeys turn on each other, there can be no survivors…

The author has a flair for spectacular set-pieces and drama, honed during his time as a screenwriter. This is clearly on display in the opening chapter where a troop of Langur monkeys invade the cemetery where a peaceful group of Rhesus monkeys live, killing most of the residents leaving just a handful of refugees.

The first part of the book alternates between the experiences of Papina, a young Rhesus girl and Mico, a young boy in the militaristic Langur troop. Papina’s story tells of a small group of survivors, trekking the city to find a new home where they will be safe, and to pick up the tatters of their life. Mico is the runt of his family, far smaller than his brother, but with a sharp mind. By chance, he witnesses some of the Langur soldiers brutally kill a lone Rhesus, yet their leaders are claiming that the Rhesus are the aggressors leaving him conflicted and unsure who to trust. Langur boys all do military training, so he joins up and tries to fit in.

Papina sneaks into her old home through a secret entrance and meets Mico on a training exercise. They form an uneasy friendship, her stories of the Langur attacks contradicting the official reports he’s been told, adding to Mico’s doubt. Mico’s clever mind is noticed by Tyrell, one of the Langur leaders and he is promoted to the Intelligence Division.

In the middle section of the book, the Langur go on an all-out war against all the rest of the monkeys in Kolkata, with Mico stuck between following the orders of the increasingly paranoid Tyrell, and protecting Papina and her friends. The rest of the Langur, bred from an early age not to question orders, and fed with misinformation, revel in their bloodlust. There are certainly some shocking events in the book, though the book never gets too gory for the intended audience.

The novel also avoids melodrama, the fast pacing meaning there’s no time for characters to wallow in self-pity and introspection, or at least when they do it is implied and not on the page. The darkest character is probably Fig, a Rhesus mother who has lost everything from her life. Despite only being a minor character, she plays a crucial role in the story. I think an adult book may have fleshed out her depression more fully, though this is not really a criticism.

The world building is well done too, the descriptions of the locations around the city feel like real places, and are teeming with life (both human and animal).

Verdict: I really enjoyed this book, it is fast-paced throughout, constantly inventive, and my usual complaint of poor endings in novels doesn’t apply (a solid ending, with a few deliberate hanging threads). A great introduction for teens to the machinations of politics and complexities of war.

Reviewed by Keith

Publisher: Walker
Publication Date:May 2013
Format: ARC
Pages: 400
Genre: War
Age: YA/Teen
Reviewer: Keith
Source: Provided by publisher
Challenge: British book, Debut Novel
(previously a screenwriter)
Posted on:

The Long Earth

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

the long earthNormally, when there was nothing to do, he listened to the Silence.
The Silence was very faint here. Almost drowned out by the sounds of the mundane world. Did people in this polished building understand how noisy it was? The roar of air conditioners and computer fans, the susurration of many voices heard but not decipherable … this was the office of the transEarth Institute, an arm of the Black Corporation. The faceless office, all plasterboard and chrome, was dominated by a huge logo, a chesspiece knight. This wasn’t Joshua’s world. None of it was his world. In fact when you got right down to it, he didn’t have a world; he had all of them.
All of the Long Earth.

The premise of this book is that the Earth is just one link in a long chain of Earths, each different. Plans are leaked onto the internet of a box, known as a “Stepper”, built from simple electronic parts and powered by a potato, with a three way switch on the top. Operating the switch allows a person, along with anything they are carrying, to “step” one link along the chain, either “East” or “West” as the two directions have been dubbed. Collectively, the whole chain is known as The Long Earth.

Most people can step using these boxes, though they experience severe nausea each time, so they tend to only move a few steps away from our Earth. A few people, such as Joshua are natural steppers, and can do so without the aid of the stepper box and with no ill effects; others cannot step at all. The tension between these groups is a constant undercurrent throughout the book.

It appears that humans have only evolved on our Earth (the Datum as it is called), so the Earths East and West of us are ripe for colonisation and solve overcrowding. The only snag is that objects made out of iron cannot be taken, though no-one knows why. Any steel has to be mined and forged on the planet it originated on.

The majority of the book follows Joshua, a recluse who, after some persuasion, foregoes his usual solitary lifestyle to go on an adventure. He beging exploring deep into The Long Earth with Lobsang, an AI who claims to have once been human (Lobsang seems to be a name that crops up a lot in Pratchett’s work!). Lobsang has built an airship called The Mark Twain that is capable of stepping much faster than any human can – worlds flick past in the blink of an eye, and they only stop when they find something interesting. They choose to travel West, in a choice I can only assume is meant to mirror the Westward exploration and colonisation of North America.
Unfortunately, Lobsang is a bit of a throwaway character – He’s quite quirky and funny, but I get the feeling he only exists to explain things to Joshua (and through him to the reader), and seems to spend the majority of his time being smug each time he does something new.

However, there are other groups of characters who offer alternative viewpoints to The Long Earth and its consequences, a group of settlers on their way to colonise an Earth ideal for their desired agricultural small town lifestyle; the police force in Madison, Wisconsin who have to make sense of everything that’s happened, and maintain law and order across several versions of their town; various groups of politicians bickering about who owns the other Earths, how to tax the people; other natural steppers who are hiding out a long way from Earth Zero; the nuns who brought Joshua up in the orphanage, etc.

It’s a fascinating novel that never gets dull as the book progresses, though I get the feeling that Pratchett and Baxter were struggling to find a good ending for this book – after all, if there are an infinite number of Earths on the chain, where do you stop? There’s a “shock” ending when the non-steppers have set off a nuclear bomb in Madison, the town where Joshua grew up, though the reasoning behind this is suspect. Why would the non-steppers want to destroy the only planet they have?

Verdict: A great start to the series, which feels more like a Baxter novel than a Pratchett. I can’t wait to read The Long War later in the year, which should hopefully answer some of the questions raised.

Reviewed by Keith

Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: June 2012
Format: Hardback
Pages: 344
Genre: Science Fiction
Age: Adult
Reviewer: Keith
Source: Own Copy
Challenge: British book
Posted on:

In The Shadow Of Blackbirds

Cat Winters

shadow of backbirdsDoes proof of the spirit world exist?
It’s 1918. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, the government ships young men overseas to the front lines, and neighbor accuses neighbor of spying for the enemy. In this stew of fear and confusion, sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and “spirit photographers” for comfort. She has never believed in ghosts, but during her bleakest moment she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love – a boy who died in battle – returns to her as a spirit. Why has he returned? And what does he want from Mary Shelley?
Illustrated with haunting early-twentieth century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a time eerily like our own.

The story begins with a long train journey from Portland to San Diego. Mary Shelley is moving to live with her aunt because her father was arrested and her mother had passed away some time ago. The train stinks of onions (widely believed at the time to prevent flu), and everyone is hiding behind their masks, mortally afraid of every cough and sneeze. Mary Shelley passes the time reading letters from her sweetheart Stephen, who has gone to war in Europe. As an opening chapter, it’s a well thought out way to set the scene and atmosphere of paranoia without heavy exposition.

As the book continues, we meet her Aunt Eva, who lives with her pet magpie, Oberon, works in the local shipyard and seems to spend the rest of her time making onion soup to ward off the flu. Eva likes Stephen’s older brother Julius, a spirit photographer who Mary Shelley already clearly dislikes and believes is a fraud. Mary Shelley meets Mr Darning, another local photographer who specialises in debunking spirit photography, though has so far failed to find any trickery in Julius’ studio.

After getting to meet the characters, we learn that Stephen has been killed in battle, and this is where the book really gets started. As the back cover says, Stephen starts to appear as a ghost to Mary Shelley, seemingly terrified of birds. The rest of the book depicts Mary Shelley becoming increasingly more determined and desperate to help Stephen to rest in peace, with some decent twists and turns along the way. A lot of the characters turn out to be not who they seem at first, and the final revelations are not ones I could have guessed.

When I first read the back cover, I half expected this book to be a silly romance between a young girl and the ghost of her boyfriend, but I’m happy to report that it’s far more interesting and worth reading than that. It draws interesting parallels with modern life – the irrational beliefs people have in placebo remedies for fatal illnesses; how shellshock, or post-traumatic stress disorder as it is now called, is seen as something to be ashamed of, rather than a mental illness that needs proper treatment and support.

One thing that isn’t so convincing in the book is the ages of Mary Shelley and Aunt Eva. Mary Shelley seems far too mature for her age of sixteen, whereas Eva reminds me of my Nan, not a woman in her mid-twenties as the text states. Perhaps people become more mature in desperate times of war and illness, but I’m not completely convinced by the book’s portrayal. That’s not to say they’re bad characters though.

The novel is apparently aimed at ages 12 and up, though I’d say it’s a little too gruesome for that age. It feels more like an adult novel to me than what would normally be in the YA category.

Reviewed by Keith

Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication Date: April 2013
Format: ARC
Pages: 416
Genre:Historical fiction, Mystery
Age: YA
Reviewer: Keith
Source: Provided by publisher
Challenge: Debut Author
Posted on:

Keith The Cat With The Magic Hat

Sue Hendra

keith the catMeet Keith.
Keith is a cat with a magic hat – or at least, that’s what the other cats think. But when Keith’s hat falls off one day, it seems that magic is still possible after all!

My wife bought this one for me as a joke Christmas present, as I share the protagonist’s name. The cover proudly proclaims that it’s “From the creator of Norman and Barry”, so Hendra clearly has a liking for traditional British names.

The book tells the story of Keith the cat, who one day has an ice cream cone dropped on his head. There’s no explanation as to where the ice cream comes from – perhaps it drops from space or pops in from an alternate universe. However, I have made a careful analysis of the artwork, and I believe that it is a three scoop vanilla, strawberry and chocolate cone with a flake and sprinkles.

Keith’s friends tease him about it, and to cover his embarrassment, he claims that the ice cream is in fact a magic hat (the flake conveniently fulfilling the role of a magic wand). He begins to perform tricks, all of which are simply coincidences, but his feline friends lap it up (pun intended).

Eventually, the cats are chased up a tree by a dog and they ask Keith to magic the dog away. Whilst thinking, the ice cream drops off Keith’s head and lands on the dog, who is then chased away by a swarm of very happy looking wasps. Keith is then pronounced the cats’ hero.

It’s only on a second reading that I noticed that the wasps gradually build up throughout the book – a clever bit of visual foreshadowing. In fact the art work is consistently excellent – bright colours and bold shapes with some nice characterisation on the faces.

The only niggle for me is the morality of the tale. On the one hand it shows a character who triumphs through his resourcefulness, but on the other it shows that lying can be a successful strategy. I’m not convinced it can just be called pretending or make-believe as the other cats seem to fully believe Keith’s assertion that the ice cream is a magic hat and he never says otherwise, even when they are in danger. Whilst lying arguably has real life benefits in some instances, I’m not sure this is the sort of lesson I want my three and four year olds to learn just yet.

Verdict: A bright colourful and fun story, with some curious morality.

Reviewed by Keith

Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: July 2012
Format: Paperback
Pages: 32
Genre: Picture book
Age: Picture book
Reviewer: Keith
Source: Own Copy
Challenge: British book
Posted on:

Keith’s 2012 review

What was your favourite book of 2012?
My favourite book of 2012 is Heartstone by CJ Samson. It’s the fifth of the Matthew Shardlake series and the best of them so far. I love the writing style and how the world is so well realised, making you feel like you’re in the middle of a historical naval war between England and France.

Which book are you most looking forward to reading in 2013?
The book I’m most looking forward to reading soon is Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre, about how the pharmaceutical industry is causing real harm to patients by withholding important clinical trial data from doctors and the public. It’s a follow up to the excellent Bad Science which is one of those important books *everyone* should read.

Post by Keith

Posted on:

Pandora’s Star

Peter F Hamilton

It is AD 2380 and humanity has colonized over six hundred planets, all interlinked by wormholes. With Earth at its centre, the Intersolar Commonwealth has grown into a quiet, wealthy society, where rejuvenation allows its citizens to live for centuries.
When astronomer Dudley Bose observes a star over a thousand light years away vanish, imprisoned inside a vast force field of immense size, the Commonwealth is anxious to discover what actually happened. As conventional wormholes can’t reach that far, they must build the first faster-than-light starship. Captained by Wilson Kime, an ex-NASA astronaut a little too eager to relive his glory day the Second Chance sets off on its historic voyage of discovery.
But someone or something out there must have had a very good reason for sealing off an entire star system. And if the Second Chance does manage to find a way in, what might then be let out?

Pandora’s Star is the first of five (at the time of writing) large novels set in Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe. The first two of which are known collectively as the Commonwealth Saga, the other three (set centuries later) known as The Void Trilogy.

The book begins with the spectacular public unveiling of Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs’ experimental wormhole technology when they play a prank on the first manned mission to Mars in 2050, almost instantly making NASA and its space program redundant.

Fast-forward three centuries, and humanity lives in a peaceful society spread over hundreds of worlds – each one having at least one wormhole station through which you can take trains between worlds, or in some cases simply walk through. As there is no shortage of resources or new planets to colonise, there have been no wars for generations.

People are effectively immortal as the technology exists to return their bodies to their 20s as they grow old. Most people also have implants recording their entire mind, so that they are killed (the book calls this “bodyloss”) in an accident or murdered, they can be “relifed” into a new cloned body in a matter of months, with all their memories and personality intact.

The religious consequences of this “relife” process are glossed over, though Hamilton’s earlier Confederation trilogy examined eternal human souls in great depth, so perhaps it is for the best that this was not repeated here.

Instead, the practical considerations are well thought through. Can someone legally commit murder if the victim can be brought back to life? How do you punish someone who is effectively immortal? One of the characters, Paula Myo is an investigator in such a case and with this we really get a sense of how a society could work with such possibilities, even though all of this is unrelated to the main plot of the book.

In fact, much of the book is spent in careful world building, making this future civilisation feel very real. There are a lot of story threads following an ensemble cast of dozens, making it sometimes a little difficult to keep up with what is going on, though there is a handy list of the main characters at the front of the book to remind you.

As to the main story, it is a mystery story for the first half of the book. What is inside the giant forcefield so far away? Who built it? Why was it built? Should humanity be poking around with it? There’s a lot of politics involved in getting a project off the ground to go and find out and I found myself itching for the mission to get going and almost frustrated during these chapters, as indeed some of the characters clearly felt. However, the eventual payoff is spectacular.

Verdict: A long and very complex novel, though well worth it both for an incredibly well-realised future society and fascinating multi-threaded plotting.

Reviewed by Keith

Publisher: Pan Books
Publication Date:2010
Format: Paperback
Pages: 1144
Genre:Space Opera,Speculative Fiction
Age: Adult
Reviewer: Keith
Source: Own Copy
Challenge: British author
Posted on: