Lock In: John Scalzi

★★★★

Yesterday was my last free day before the New Year, so I indulged myself with a book binge, having been to the library on Saturday. John Scalzi’s novel is already tipped as being a modern sci-fi classic, for all that its central concept is all too plausible. Set in a world some fifteen years in the future, it shows us the aftermath of Haden’s Syndrome, a global flu-like epidemic, which leaves many of its sufferers ‘locked in’ to their bodies. Thanks to a rapid advance in science, these ‘Hadens’ are able to access and interact with the world through specially-implanted neural pathways which allow them to control mechanised bodies, or ‘threeps’ (named for C-3PO). One such Haden is Chris Shane, the only child of a wealthy would-be senator, who contracted the disease as an infant and has spent his life as the poster-boy for an increasingly powerful lobby group. But now he wants to escape his privilege and give something back, working as an FBI agent. It’s just sod’s law that his first day on the job coincides with a murder case that looks set to upend everything he knows. Part sci-fi, part FBI gumshoe procedural, this is a ridiculously gripping book stuffed with incredible ideas.

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A Change of Time: Ida Jessen

★★★★½

You must forgive the recent erratic posting. Life has been getting in the way, with lectures and work trips flying at me from all directions, plus some very pleasant socialising. Besides, WordPress have just introduced a new editor which isn’t quite as intuitive as I’d like. But never mind. I’m bumbling on as best I can, and have just finished reading a really gorgeous little book: A Change of Time by the Danish author Ida Jessen. Through her diary, a widowed school-teacher in early 20th-century Denmark remembers her late husband and uses her loneliness as a spur to revisit her life and, slowly, anxiously, recover her sense of self. For once, cover and book coexist beautifully: Jessen’s novel is like a Hammershøi in prose: a haunting, timeless, intimate exploration of loss, rendered by the translator Martin Aitken into elegantly spare English. Although the book won’t be published until March, I just had to write about it now, before the feeling of it fades; and it’s deeply suited to these long, dark winter evenings. A little jewel.

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Deposed: David Barbaree

★★★½

A remote prison in the scrubland outside Rome, 68 AD. The kind of place that you’re sent when the world wants to forget that you even exist. One afternoon, as young Marcus runs errands at the jail, he sees a new prisoner brought in. A man who has been blinded and brutalised, whom the guards treat with scorn as they leave, who has been brought here to be forgotten. A man named Nero. Eleven years later, Rome has settled into the rule of Vespasian, though the struggles of rival would-be emperors are fresh enough to make life difficult for his son Titus, who has taken charge of keeping the peace. Old factions die hard in Rome. And then, one day, news comes of a new arrival in the city. A senator from distant Spain, unknown to anyone. A blind man, with a young man named Marcus at his side, who has come with a great fortune to play his part in Rome’s future.

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Kings of the Wyld: Nicholas Eames

★★★★

The Band: Book I

They used to be epic. There was a time when Clay Cooper and his old band Saga used to raise the roof: their deeds the stuff of popular songs and breathless admiration. They broke sieges, slew monsters and (almost) killed a dragon. Each of their members was a legend in his own right (apart from their series of short-lived, unfortunate bards). But that was a long time ago now. Twenty long years separate Clay Cooper from the glory of Saga’s heyday and, when the frontman Gabriel turns up on his doorstep, begging Clay to help him get the band back together, Clay is tempted to say no. They’re old men, now, after all: he has a wife and daughter, and he’s turned his back on the Clay Cooper of old. But Gabriel needs their help to track down his own missing daughter. Before Clay quite knows what’s happened, he’s setting out with his old friend to do the impossible: to reunite Saga for one last, great, glorious farewell tour.

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False Lights: K.J. Whittaker

★★★★

I always love getting recommendations. Honestly, it brightens up my day every time. When RT enthused to me about this book, I realised it was already in my TBR pile and promptly moved it to the top of the list. And I’ve devoured it at high speed. It opens in 1817, two years since Napoleon scraped a narrow victory at Waterloo and placed his brother Jérôme on the English throne. Now English curfews are enforced by French troops and English patriots executed by French guillotines, and discontent is rising. We follow three characters into the heart of this powder-keg: Kitto Helford, an aristocratic fourteen-year-old with patriotic ambitions; his older brother Crow, the laconic Earl of Lamorna, whose withering arrogance hides a soul traumatised by war; and Hester Harewood, the resourceful daughter of a dashing (black) naval officer.

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Silk and Song: Dana Stabenow

★★★★

There’s something about the Silk Road that sparks off a latent dream of adventure deep inside me. One day I’d love to travel through these souks and caravanserais and to visit Samarkand, but for now I have to restrict myself to my imagination. And this wonderful book gave me ample opportunity for that. It’s a sprawling adventure, epic in every way, that crosses the breadth of the known world in the 14th century. Our heroine is Wu Johanna, the remarkable (and fictional) granddaughter of Marco Polo. Like a fairytale heroine, the orphaned Joanna escapes her wicked stepmother – and her ardent suitor – to follow her heart and heritage as a merchant on the trade routes of Asia. Dreaming of finding her grandfather, she presses further and further west with her small but loyal band of friends and family – and one very splendid horse. This is a super book, full of scents and spices and adventure, set in a most unfamiliar period of history, and with a very determined heroine at its heart. It’s a winner on all counts.

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The Table of Less Valued Knights: Marie Phillips

★★★

In the darkest, least distinguished corner of the Great Hall at Camelot is a table they never speak of in the songs: the Table of Less Valued Knights. Here the retired and the also-rans live in the shadow of their glamorous peers on the famous Round Table. Sir Humphrey du Val is one of these past-it paladins, banished from the first division for an unchivalrous act and resigned to spending the rest of his life in the company of toothless has-beens. But then, one Pentecost, Fate throws Sir Humphrey an unexpected chance to distinguish himself once again. Before he knows it, he’s out on the road, riding to avenge a damsel in distress; but little does the poor knight realise that his trials are only just beginning. Cheerfully silly, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail crossed with A Knight’s Tale, this is an all-out medieval romp.

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Siracusa: Delia Ephron

★★★½

It was meant to be such a delightful break. Two American couples, tangentially connected, decide to holiday together in Italy: first in Rome and then in Syracuse in Sicily (‘Siracusa’, the characters call it, to distinguish it from Syracuse in New York). Vivacious Lizzie hopes to rekindle her relationship with her novelist husband Michael, who has withdrawn into his most recent book. Her old flame Finn, now married to uptight Taylor, looks forward to spending time with his irrepressible former girlfriend. And Taylor, prim and self-consciously cultured, looks forward to introducing her precious daughter Snow to the glories of the Old World. Yet our travellers find that Italy exacerbates, rather than heals, their divisions. And worse is to come, for Siracusa will prove the backdrop to a tragic and unforeseen crescendo.

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The Pumilio Child: Judy McInerney

★★

Over the past year, while working on Mantegna, I’ve often though it a shame that there aren’t more novels about him. He had the kind of life that cries out for fiction and so, when I stumbled across this novel on Netgalley, I couldn’t resist. But I didn’t get on with it terribly well. It isn’t just that I found it hard to engage with it as a piece of historical fiction – though I did – but I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by the numerous errors, which could have been avoided by a ten-second check on Wikipedia. Perhaps this warrants a discussion about the purpose of historical fiction. We can get into that later, because (you won’t be surprised to hear) I have strong opinions about it. Perhaps it also warrants a discussion about whether you should read novels set in your specialist historical period. But the most remarkable thing is that I’ve actually ended up feeling sorry for Mantegna who, while one of the most unpleasant, litigious and self-conscious artists in history, does not deserve this. I should warn you that this is a long one and there is much ranting. I’d suggest you make a cup of tea first.

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Red Birds: Mohammed Hanif

★★½

My brain feels a little scrambled right now. I thought I knew what I was getting with this book and, for the first two thirds, I did get that, more or less: an ironic satire on the modern cycle of war and international aid. We’re introduced to the bleak aftermath of war in a remote corner of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Smart, ambitious teenager Momo has dreams of becoming a billionaire entrepreneur, fuelled by the stories he’s read in his dad’s magazine about the Fortune 500. But how’s a kid to get started in a place like this, where even the aid workers have given up and drifted away, and the local American air base has shut up shop? To make matters worse, Momo’s big brother has been missing for months, his dog Mutt has got himself electrocuted, and an American pilot has just wandered in from the desert. And what of those red birds? Well, that’s where it all gets more than a little weird.

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