Monday, 30 December 2013

SBR's Top Ten Best Reads of 2013 - Part II

These are not necessarily books published in 2013, rather books that I have read and reviewed on this blog throughout the year.

In 5th place it's the funniest romance novel of the year for me
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

In 4th place it's the brilliant first instalment of the Country Saga
Fire Country by David Estes


In 3rd place it's a clever, funny and perceptive 
portrayal of life in the 21st century

In 2nd place it's the fabulously gripping dystopian sci-fi novel
WOOL by Hugh Howie

***SBR's Best Read for 2013***
A sci-fi / fantasy novel that has
 an enchanting quality about it
 The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Sunday, 29 December 2013

SBR's Top Ten Best Reads of 2013 - Part I

These are not necessarily books published in 2013, rather books that I have read and reviewed on this blog throughout 2013.

In 10th place, a sister's tale about 
her overweight sibling
Lionel Shriver's Big Brother


In 9th place, a psychological thriller that I found both 
chilling and fascinating 
Undreamed by Paul Western-Pittard


In 8th place a new fairy tale inspired by French folklore
Nandana's Mark by Heidi Garrett


In 7th place a smart YA fantasy novel,
White Cat by Holly Black


In 6th place a unique spin on a marriage gone horribly wrong
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (Science Fiction Sunday no 4)

 ***SBR's Best Book reviewed in 2013***

Publication date: 20th August 2013
Published by: Bloomsbury
Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy (Young adult)
This is a review of the audio version

The Bone Season is one of those novels with an intricate and complex plot - the kind that I find challenging.  At first I thought it was because I lacked knowledge of the fantasy sub-genre that deals with clairvoyants and spirits (although this is true).  However, as the plot unraveled, I realised that some of the terminology was not explained until later on and things became clearer as the story developed.  Some readers have a problem with this, but not me. (I actually get enjoyment from that point of clarity I experience once things start to fall into place in my head). Also, because I listened to the audio version I didn't have access to the organogram, map and glossary available in the text version. So, if my summary is about as clear as mud, that could be why.  

The book is set in 2059 in an alternate reality, a world where there are 7 orders of clairvoyance.  There is a hierarchy within the order, based on the voyants' abilities. The more common the ability, the lower down the food chain and the rarer the ability the higher up. Some have the 'sight', i.e., they are able to see spirits, while others can only sense them.  It is illegal for voyants to practice - which is almost the same as saying it is illegal for them to exist.  They are generally marginalised and forced underground.  Their only means of survival is to commit mime crime, i.e., to practice in exchange for cash .  Life is hard and, inevitably, the strongest ones resort to organised (mime) crime, forming a syndicate.  Many clairvoyants end up working for the syndicate.  The weaker ones that don't struggle to survive alone and are at constant risk of being arrested and sent to 'The Tower' (what eveyone knows to be a prison for voyants).  

Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is part of a faction of the syndicate based in central London run by Jaxon Hall; a group known as the Seven Seals.  Each of them have different abilities that are extremely rare and highly sought after.  She is somewhat protected in this group.  Paige does not have the 'sight' but her ability allows her greater access to the aether than most voyants and she is in tune with its workings.  The aether I understand to be the plain where spirits reside (sort of like purgatory). She can pick up anything irregular in someone's dreamscape.  A dreamscape, I understand, is how voyants perceive the spirits they have access to. There are many different types of spirits, e.g. the poltergeist, which is powerful enough to inflict harm on a voyant.  Voyants engage with spirits and seek to influence and, in some cases, have control over them.  In doing so the spirits help them in mime crime and protect them when they are in danger.  The factions within the syndicate are jostling for rogue spirits to bring on side.  Most voyants have limited access to the aether caused by a force that holds them back once they get to a certain point.  It is described as a silver cord attached to their being. Paige's silver cord extends further than most so she can go deeper than others can. She does however need to be put to sleep and administered oxygen to be able to do so for long periods.  She is employed by Jaxon to act as a sort of spy in the aether, a surveillance tool is how she describes it.  Her ability gives the Seven Seals an advantage and some power in the syndicate. 

One night, Paige takes what seemed to me to be a foolish risk, which results in her unintentionally killing someone using her ability (this happens fairly early on so it is not a plot spoiler).  The plot thickens when she is captured and taken to the Sheol I penal colony, located in Oxford but unknown to most people outside.  Sheol I is occupied by the Raphaite a powerful race who came from another dimension and have an invested interest in ruling clairvoyants.  To Paige's horror, she discovers that the voyants are not only prisoners in Sheol I but also slaves to the Raphaite who regard them as inferior.  She is selected by the consort to the Blood Sovereign (who asks to be referred to as Warden) to be his personal slave and, as such, she is expected to obey him.  She struggles to conceal just how unpalatable it is to her and she does not do 'obey' very well.

This is the first of a 7 part series and this one is essentially about two things (1) the dynamic of Paige and Warden's relationship - a relationship that left me uneasy in the beginning - an observation rather than a criticism (on account of the whole master/slave thing), and (2) the Blood Sovereign's desire to capture the rarest clairvoyants and collect them like precious jewels. Paige meets a number of characters in Sheol I and they aren't expendables*. 

I found The Bone Season fascinating and intriguing.  Paige and Warden's story is told with dramatic irony as we, the readers, witness the evolution of their relationship.  This is extremely well done, in my opinion.  It seemed to me that only the surface was scratched in this first installment, and there is plenty of potential for development, so no wonder there are 6 more to come. 

I found myself drawing parallels with the Hunger Games and White Cat of the Curse Workers series
by Holly Black, although I would say the writing of this book is superior to the former and, in contrast, I had to use the grey matter to get to grips with it. (I confess I had to listen to it twice.) I liked the complexity and found it very imaginative.  I would also say it has an enchanting quality about it - similar to the type of novels that go viral.  Many are comparing it to the Harry Potter series, but I've not read those. A book has to be really good for me to take the time to read/listen twice but, not only was I happy to do so, I want to read the text version before the next installment. I think some books are better read than listened to, and this is one of those.

*expendables are what I call characters who have a minor role and aren't important enough for the reader to care about.

Thursday, 2nd January 2014
Update: I am beginning to wonder whether The Bone Season is (among other things) an homage to well-known and loved young adult fantasy fiction novels.  I have just finished Shadow and Bone and have discovered that Shannon's novel bears a striking resemblance to the central plot of that book, also.  It is so similar I do not believe this could be a case of coincidental commonalities.

My appeal to readers

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Christmas Novella: The Christmas Star by Diane Darcy

Publication date:  10th October 2011
Published by: Self-published
Genre: Fantasy/Romance
Length: 97 pages

My Synopsis
Twas the night before Christmas ... well not quite, but close. It is December at night and Marilyn Banks is outside of her farmhouse in Wyoming heading towards the barn on her way to feed her sheep.  She sees no sign of the moon in the night sky but she does see a bright star.  It is shining so brilliantly it reminds her of the star in the Christmas story.  She knows it is pointless but she decides to make a wish.  She wishes for the one thing that will make her and her loved ones happy.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Chicago, Elise Banks is also out at night.  Having returned from work she is unloading her stuff from her car.  She enters her apartment and gets ready to spend another night alone with her cats and romance novel.  While heating her evening meal she sorts through her mail and comes across a postcard-sized announcement that Gabriel Christensen is giving a seminar on "How to get organised, get focused and get the life you really want."  She throws it in the bin. She reaches in her handbag to get something and, to her surprise, the very same card is in there.  She throws that one away too.  She resumes the search in her bag and pulls out, yes, yet another identical card, which she bins. The following day she has to give a presentation at the staff meeting at work.  After a successful talk her boss tells her he is sending her to a seminar.  He wants her to listen to the lecture and take notes. It turns out to be Gabriel Christensen's seminar.

Elise attends and while there she notices that Gabriel is making regular eye contact with her as he speaks.  It is almost as if he is directing the lecture at her. He starts to talk about forgiveness and this makes her uneasy. Elise is persuaded to not only write a letter of forgiveness to her father, to whom she hardly speaks, but also to address it and (symbolically) mail the letter in a mock mailbox provided by Gabriel.  When she tries to retrieve her letter at the end of the seminar it is nowhere to be found.

Soon after, Elise receives a phone call from her father.  He tells her he got her letter.  He invites her home for Christmas so that they may patch up their differences.  Elise accepts ...

My Review
I liked this novella because it had many of the elements one would expect of a Christmas story.   It is about a family that has been torn apart by matters that took place a long time ago.  Elise and her father were unable to forgive each other because of old wounds that have not healed well.  Fortunately, with Marilyn's intervention; a wish, an angel and a miracle or two, Elise and her dad are able to forgive each other.  There was reference to the true meaning of Christmas and  I thought all of this was nicely done.

There is also a love story at the centre. I liked the humour and the dialogue between Elise and Jason.  It showed that they were kindred spirits and (despite the turmoil and angst) they seemed to pick up where they had left off all those years ago.  Yes, they act like a couple of kids, but for me that was about them reverting back to how things were when they were together as kids.  Their exchanges are neither soppy nor overly sentimental, which is how I prefer my romance novels to be.

Is the writing exceptional? No (But then neither is my own.).  Are there vocabulary issues?  Yes. Pernickety readers may take issue with it but it did not matter to me.  The storytelling is what shone through ... as brightly as the Christmas Star.

This is a good read from an independent author.  It was a free Kindle download and I would recommend it.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Plagiarist by Hugh Howey (Science Fiction Sunday no 3)

Publication date: 15th March 2011
Published by: Broad Reach Publishing
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 58 pages

Publisher's synposis
Adam Griffey is living two lives. By day, he teaches literature. At night, he steals it. Adam is a plagiarist, an expert reader with an eye for great works. He prowls simulated worlds perusing virtual texts, looking for the next big thing. And when he finds it, he memorizes it page by page, line by line, word for word. And then he brings it back to his world.

But what happens when these virtual worlds begin to seem more real than his own? What happens when the people within them mean more to him than flesh and blood? What happens when a living thing falls in love with someone who does not actually exist?

My Review
The Plagiarist is a novella by Hugh Howey, author of WOOL.

I enjoyed this immensely. I am a big fan of science fiction (books, films and TV), especially the sort that are about 'ideas'; the philosophical kind like Ray Bradbury's novel The Martian Chronicles or the film 2001: A Space Odyssey  (although I quite like the space invaders kind like Star Wars, also).

What this story reminded me of most was the movie Blade Runner, adapted from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is the science fiction Holy Grail, as far as I am concerned (and probably one of the best movies ever made). If I told you why it would ruin the plot, so I won't. I did not see the twist coming but in hindsight a lot made sense.

If you are a writer (or like me dabble), I strongly recommend you read this book, because what it is really about is writing - or at least it is for me. Adam demonstrates all the characteristics of a writer and he talks about the stuff writers sometimes experience and feel.
  • The self doubt - that feeling of not being good enough, especially compared to the greats - a feeling so strong that you don't feel worthy (to the extent that you think maybe you should just give up and leave it to those who do it really well).  Insecurities that must be overcome.
  • The tendency to procrastinate because writing is so hard (yes I do appreciate this).  
  • The importance of reading (in moderation).  Adam has a tendency to spend too much time reading and hardly any time writing because it is SO HARD.  Instead he spends his time searching for the next Shakespeare in the virtual world.  (Hmm, now who does that remind me of?).  He does however create haiku and he keeps them stored in his head.  They come naturally to him and the reader gets to read one at the beginning of each chapter.  Every now and then his girlfriend, Amanda, manages to persuade him to share one with her. 
A lot of this spoke volumes for me as I could relate.  It made me feel like I am not alone. 

Adam thinks it is his mission to find the next Shakespeare but, in truth, it's irrelevant if he achieves it or not. In his quest to do so he discovers love in a virtual world known as Hammond. The 'virtual' girl he falls for is Belatrix and Adam soon becomes fixated with spending all of his time with her.  He feels a sense of shame knowing he should focus on his relationship with his real girlfriend, Amanda.  But he cannot help the way he feels about Belatrix, even if she isn't a real person.

I could not help but draw parallels with the 'virtual worlds'  in this story and the actual world of publishing, a world saturated with - well, to be frank - works that aren't good enough. And with self publication being so easy and quality control not so tight with publishers, the volume  of such works is constantly increasing.  Is book publishing out of control?  Is a cull the answer?

For some authors, writing is a way of preserving their mortality - in the sense that they will live on through their work after they die - and for some this is a motivator.

It may only be 58 pages long but you get so much from those 58 pages.  The above are just some of the interesting ideas that I took from the story.

For me The Plagiarist is 5-a-day fiction.  [You know how we are supposed to eat 5 fruit and veg a day?  They are good for us.  They are important sustenance and keep us healthy.]  This novella gave my mind sustenance and fed my soul.

I don't allocate ratings on this blog because I feel it is rather simplistic to compare books in that way.  However, I cannot fault this story and it gets full marks from me.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Christmas Novella: Christmas at the Beach Cafe by Lucy Diamond

Published by:  Pan Books
Publication date: 7th November 2013
Genre: Contemporary fiction for women 
Length: 100 pages

My Synopsis
Evie Flynn is about to have her first Christmas at her beach side cafe, which she inherited earlier in the year following the death of her aunt.  After a busy summer she is ready to enjoy the holiday with her new love, Ed.  Just the two of them.

Ed's long lost younger brother turns up after a long period of travelling and Ed is keen for him to stick around, since he hasn't seen him for a while.

Evie's best friend turns up not long after with a tale of woe about a cheating boyfriend.

These unexpected arrivals and a series of mishaps that follow mean that Evie's plan for the perfect romantic first Christmas with Ed doesn't go to plan...

My Review
This novella is a follow-up of Lucy Diamond's book, The Beach Cafe, which tells the back story of how Evie Flynn came to be living in Cornwall and running a cafe.

The story begins on the 1st of December with Evie looking out of the window and seeing snow falling outside.  She runs out, feet bare and full of excitement.  Despite the cliche, I thought this was a nice start to a Christmas story.  Turns out she was dreaming and is woken up in bed by Ed. (I suppose that is more realistic.)

I appreciated Evie's excitement about the approach to Christmas, and I even went along with her getting overly emotional about a broken glass angel Christmas decoration (since her deceased aunt gave it to her).  I did however, become a bit exasperated with her complaining about Ed for wanting to be a perfectionist when producing the meals for HER cook book, apparently taking too long. Ed is a chef so, naturally, when he makes mince pies he insists on making them from scratch.  Evie thinks they should get store bought mince meat. If only he would, I quote, 'chill out on the perfectionist front.'  Because, apparently, this is all too much and is wearing Evie's patience thin, which had me thinking, Your patience?  And how much help do you suppose she gives Ed with the preparations of these dishes?  I'll tell you.  None!  She tells us she can't possibly help him in the kitchen since she cannot boil an egg. Instead she leaves him to it while she goes down to the beach to have a sulk.  Which had me thinking, here's an idea Evie, how about doing some work? Nah, too obvious. 

Ed is dealing with a messy divorce and has been in contact with his estranged wife.  She sends him a Christmas card, which causes Evie and Ed to have a spat and Evie to go down to the beach for another sulk.  Ed soon goes after her and apologises, although I am not sure what for.
I liked the stuff about the irritating and manipulative brother, Jake.  He really does get under her skin. Well done Jake.

There is an attempt at  humour but it falls short. Could this be why Evie is so annoying? Are we supposed to guffaw, roll our eyes and say, 'Oh Evie, what are you like?'

Christmas At The Beach Cafe is a (very) light and unremarkable read.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad (Science Fiction Sunday no 2)

Translator: Tara F. Chace
Publication date: 5th April 2012
Published by: ATOM
Genre: Science Fiction / Thriller (YA)

My Synopsis
The year is 2018 and NASA has sent out an invitation around the world for teenagers to take part in a trip of a life time.  Those who take part are to be entered into a lottery and 3 of them will be picked to join astronauts on an expedition to the Moon.

In Stavinger, Norway, sixteen year old Mia hears about the lottery but she is not interest in signing up.  She just wants to keep rehearsing with Rogue Squadron, her all girl rock band, work towards getting a record deal and become an international success.  Unfortunately, her parents have other ideas and enter her without her knowledge.

In Tokyo, Japan, sixteen year old Midori is out shopping with her friends.  Midori is a misfit who is bullied at school but has found sanctuary among a spot known as Harajuku, where being a misfit is normal.  Standing outside the shopping center with her Harajuku girlfriends she sees the advert about the lottery on a giant billboard and becomes transfixed.  Midori wants to escape a life that she sees a being condemned to banality.  She sees the lottery as her opportunity to do just that (i.e., escape).

In Paris, France, seventeen year old Antoine is having difficulty getting over his first love. Since Simone dumped him for another boy, he has become sad and somewhat  obsessed with standing on the first level of the Eiffel Tower so he can peep at her through her bedroom window, using one of the pay telescopes.  When he finds out about the lottery, he sees the trip to the moon as an opportunity to impress Simone.  How could she not want him back after he returns an international celebrity?

The lottery is held and Mia, Midori and Antoine are the winners.  With their parents in tow, they travel to the US to start their training before the launch.  Each of them has a strange experience before they leave.  It is almost as if something or someone is trying to tell them something.  But what could that be?

There is a reason why no one has been sent to the moon for over 40 years.  So why now?

There is a media frenzy over all of this and the launch is televised everywhere.  Mr Himmelfarb is an elderly man living in an old people's home and suffering from Alzheimer's.  In his prime he worked for NASA and had the highest security clearance.  On the day of the launch he is placed in front of the TV and while the rocket takes off, he starts to remember things that cause him to feel extreme terror and he starts to scream...

My Review:
172 Hours of the Moon is divided into 3 sections.

The first 'The Earth' covers what happens before the launch.  As outlined above we learn about the characters and their reasons for wanting to go.  None of them are interested in space or space travel and their reasons for going seem trivial - especially when there is so much at stake.  But these are teenagers absorbed in their own little worlds and so they are unable to see the bigger picture.  Their innocenc and naivety is understandable.  They are placing their lives in the hands of the adults they trust to make responsible decisions and believe they will be taken care of.

There are some really nice scenes in the first section.  The chapters showing Mr Himmelfarb were interesting.  He is existing in an environment that is strange to him and does not remember much.  He is basically waiting to die.  His relevance to the story is that he has insider knowledge of what is really going on.  After the launch he experiences a moment of clarity and becomes lucid.  He realises it is up to him to warn NASA of the danger ahead. 

The second section, 'The Sky' is all about what happens on the trip to the moon and what happens when they arrive. They take up residence on Darlah 2, a compound made up of 4 units that was built by robots and designed to allow astronauts to exist inside for short periods of time.

It soon became clear to me that this novel was to be a thriller.  Something scary is on the moon and it is after them.  It doesn't take a genius to guess that the characters are going to be picked off one-by-one, starting with the expendables*.  It then became a case of working out who would survive and make it back to Earth.

The third and final section, 'Afterward', is self-explanatory.  I won't say any more about this for obvious reasons.

Be warned this novel is very dark and perhaps parental guidance/discretion should be applied for under 15s. If I was to pick a single word to say what it is about it would be mortality.  It is about the fact that death is coming to all of us eventually, and for some it will happen sooner than it should. I would say the book has the reader face up to this reality; to stare it in the face and not look away. There is a disturbing scene where Coleman, one of the astronauts, remembers an experience he had when he was 9 years old. The scene later ties in with his story on the moon.  It addresses the uncomfortable emotions associated with death: fear, anxiety, loss, pain, suffering etc.

I thought this was a grown-up novel that does not patronize the teenage readers it is aimed at.   I liked the idea of what it sets out to do (see above) but I had issues with the feasibility of the premise.  If NASA is allowed to send teenagers on the moon it better have a bloody good reason for doing so.   The reason given is not justified, and somebody somewhere would think to do a risk assessment, surely?  Also, unfortunately, it has gaping plot holes, which kind of ruins it.  Too many things just don't add up.  I can't go into detail and avoid spoilers, but the holes are so big it would be hard to miss them.

I wonder if Johan Harstad is a fan of the film Alien (Ridley Scott) and the novel Solaris (Stanislaw Lem, also adapted for film 3 times). It feels as though this novel has been influenced by both; the thriller aspect of the former and the strange unexplained phenomena of the latter.  This is not a criticism since I too have been known to pay homage to some of my favorite films/novels (sometimes unconsciously) in my own work.

 I liked the first section a lot but it falters once they land on the moon for me.

*expendables are what I call characters who have a minor role and aren't important enough for the reader to care about; they tend to be the ones to get killed off.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Christmas Novella: Miracle at the Museum of Broken Hearts by Talli Roland

Publication date: 22 December 2011
Published by:  Nottinghill Press
Genre: Contemporary Fiction for Women/Romance & Humour
Length: 65 pages

My Synopsis

Rose Delaney is a hopeless romantic who isn't exactly living the dream.  Her man has gone off to live his dream in Vietnam, leaving her alone with his cat and all the bills to pay, and she has a boring job dealing with old relics in the basement of the British Museum.  So, when she sees the opportunity to work as the assistant curator at the soon to be opened Museum of Broken Hearts, she jumps at the chance.  Rose considers herself perfect for the job, what with her PhD in sociology and her experience coordinating and organising display materials.  She completes her CV and sends off her application.  

Soon after, she receives a phone call and, in her words, The voice was deep and smooth - and undeniably sexy.  The call was from Heath Rowan, the curator, offering her an interview the same afternoon.  She accepts.  She arrives at the Museum, knocks on the door, it opens and, in her words, There, right in front of me, was a man straight from a nineteenth-century black and white film, all broad shoulders, dark wavy hair and perfect features. Naturally, Rose gets offered the job but, Heath explains, the Museum opens in a matter of weeks so she would have to be willing to work night and day to get everything ready.  Rose jumps at the chance.

Rose learns that Heath isn't really a curator (that's why he's hired her).  He is actually a corporate lawyer who, until recently, worked in the City.  It turns out his Grandma earned the reputation of being someone who liked to collect stuff that people would send her - relics of broken relationships. It was her dream to open a Museum and display all the stuff.  So when she died and left everything to Heath, it was up to him to make her dream a reality.  His long-term plan is to hand over the role to a curator and go back to practicing law in the City asap.  Rose sees this as a career opportunity for herself.  She is determined to impress Heath so he will hand the responsibility over to her.

On her first day, she catches Heath holding a locket with a pained look on his face.  He is unaware that she is standing there watching him.  She wonders what the story is.  Could he have a broken heart that needs fixing?  Rose thinks maybe she is the one to find out and help fix it....

My Review

As my synopsis suggests, this is unashamed 'Chick Lit', so perhaps it would be naive, if not foolish, not to expect a girl-meets-boy, girl and boy get close, girl falls out with boy, girl makes up with boy and they live happily ever after type of scenario.   But hey, it's Christmas and a lighthearted read can be just the thing to curl up on the sofa with.  Done well it can be great escapism.

The problem occurs when it is done badly.  And this book is one of those.  The main problem being Rose who is not exactly flying the flag for 'the sisterhood'.  On getting dressed up for Heath's benefit she tells us Heath's eyes flashed with what looked like appreciation, and I smiled to myself.  Ha! I knew men were interested in more than 'skills'.  That was the reason I tried to look nice around Gareth.  Then she explains how she let herself go after he left for Vietnam!  Why bother to look nice if there is no man to look nice for???

There is something I don't get.  Rose is supposed to be highly educated - so how come she is vacuous? Her job as assistant curator is to remove all of the items for display from the boxes (and there are a lot of boxes), catalogue them and then display them for the museum.  She comes up with this ingenious plan: I'd managed to map out everything in my head.  I was going to lay out each room as if someone still lived there; with the salt shaker [one of the items for display] on the kitchen table...

Her PhD thesis was supposedly about relationships, and so she is supposed to be an expert in this area, yet she displays such ignorance and stupidity in that regard it is beyond belief.  The plan she hatches to help Heath resolve his professional and personal problems - and that she could not recognise the need to differentiate between the two - demonstrates this.  Her behaviour was tactless, intrusive and a complete invasion of his privacy.  But Heath recovers pretty quickly, forgives her and then confesses he has a thing for her!

The conflict (Heath's inability to connect with his mother) has a chance to develop but the resolution is very abrupt and completely unconvincing. 

The book was free on Amazon but I would not recommend it. 

(Yes... I know... I am deviating from my policy rules again, *sighs*.  But you get why, right?)

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Science Fiction Sunday no 1)

Publication Date: 29th September 2009
Published by: Tor Books
Genre: Science Fiction (Steampunk with zombies)

My Synopsis
Set in an alternate reality of the past, Boneshaker takes place in Seattle, Washington and the American civil war is still occurring.

It begins with a prologue: Briar Wilkes, the female protagonist,  come home from a double shift of engineering work to find a man waiting for her outside her home.  At first she thinks he has come about Zeke, her 15 year old son (the male protagonist), which makes her anxious.  It turns out he is a writer who wants to interview her about her infamous deceased father, Maynard Wilkes, because he wants to write his biography.

Sixteen years previously, Briar was married to a wealthy scientist, Leviticus Blue, and living a life of luxury.  It was a time when both Russian and American investors were jostling to gain the advantage to access the Klondike gold in the region. Levi Blue was a notorious inventor who took part in a competition to design a machine that could drill through the almost impenetrable earth to allow the Russians access to the gold.  Having won the competition and been given a cash advancement to get the work started, Blue worked on his machine and completed it ahead of time. On the very first test run it was clear that the machine was capable of doing what it was meant to do, i.e. penetrate the earth, but things went horribly wrong when Blue lost control of the machine and it burrowed through the underground of the city, weakening foundations and causing mass destruction that ended in thousands of deaths and destroyed buildings.  The disaster caused a toxic gas within the earth's crust to be released, forcing a mass evacuation of the city.  The gas was thick enough to be kept at bay by the wall that was then built around the city.  Briar, by then pregnant with Zeke, was forced to flee.

No one knows for sure what happened to Levi and, since he is not around to pay for his crimes, Briar and Zeke are treated by most people around them as though they are guilty by association. They experience hardship on the outside, but Briar is determined to do the best she can for Zeke.

Briar's father did not approve of her marriage and they were estranged.  During the evacuation, Maynard refused to leave the prisoners in the city inside to die.  He risked his life to help them escape, exposing himself to the toxic gas which killed him soon after.  As a result of his actions, he is considered not only a hero but a saint of sorts among the former prisoners and their families.  It is rumoured that there are areas within the city where the air is breathable and that people live there.  Those who are exposed to the gas don't just die, they become undead.  They crave living flesh (they will eat animals but prefer the flesh of humans) and are referred to as 'rotters'.  The city is known to be swarming with them.

Briar believes that, collectively, Maynard and Levi have ruined her life and she hopes things will be different for Zeke.  She refuses to talk to him about either of them and so he has had to go by information from others, mostly rumours.  He sees his grandfather as a hero and he would like to think his father was not all bad.  The visit from the journalist prompts him to quesiton his mother about his grandfather, they argue and this triggers a chain reaction that has Zeke entering the toxic city (wearing a safety mask that will protect him for a maximum of 10 hours) and Briar to go after him....

My Review
This book was selected for my next book group and is the first steampunk novel I have read.  I probably would not have chosen to read it otherwise  (I ususally avoid books with zombies in them), but I don't regret it.

Ironically, after all the cruelty Briar has experienced over the years on the outside, everyone that she encounters on her mission to find and save her son is helpful and kind to her. Zeke, it would appear, isn't so lucky.  He meets a man named Rudy who offers to take him to his destination (Zeke's parents' old house).  Only, he seems to be leading him deeper underground.  On the way, they encounter a Native American princess who warns Zeke that Rudy is taking him to his death. Zeke managed to enter the city using an underground tunnel (just before an earthquake shuts off access). Briar cannot follow and she has to find a pilot to take her.  Luckily, she finds someone who is willing to do so and it turns out the pilot's life was saved by her father. Briar's constant good fortune is sort of justified by the fact that she is Maynard's daughter and he is so well respected among the people inside the city.  However, I would say that Cherie Priest is optimistic in her writing approach and, as I have alluded to above, some events occur rather conveniently (or inconveniently - such as the earthquake) and so the plot seems somewhat contrived.

The back story is mostly alluded to and I liked that about it.  There is enough to allow the reader to draw conclusions.  For example, I imagine that Maynard was a law-upholding righteous man of principle and that he probably had high expectations of Briar that she could not live up to.  I imagine that she probably married Levi Blue as an act of rebellion, which back-fired.  She was young and foolish and made a mistake that she is paying for.

Despite the zombies, this is not a scary novel.  The zombies are pretty much on the periphery most of the time and rarely pose a serious threat.  On the rare occasion that they did, it's the expendables* that end up getting captured.  I did find myself wondering if the zombies were even necessary (but I would).

Boneshaker is a gentle and passive read - so if you're looking for horror, this isn't it.  I found it to be an enjoyable read - but I am not a fan of the horror genre.

*expendables are what I call characters who have a minor role and aren't important enough for the reader to care about; they tend to be the ones that get killed off.