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The cover to Claudia Gray's Star Wars: Lost Stars.

Star Wars: Lost Stars review

If Lost Stars by Claudia Gray is an indicator of the new Star Wars expanded universe, then I think we could be looking at something pretty cool.

I was a big fan of the old Star Wars EU. But when Disney bought Lucasfilm, they wiped the slate clean. No more Corran Horn, Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Dash Rendar, Galen Marek, Ysanne Isard, or Grand Admiral Thrawn. The Star Wars EU had decades to build up success and history. There was a lot to live up to.

Lost Stars is a YA novel about two lovers, Thane and Ciena, both in the service of the Empire. Thane defects to the Rebellion. Cue tragic romance. I won’t lie, I really wasn’t sure about it. Could a couple of unknown, star-crossed lovers shoe-horned into the original trilogy really compare with the Thrawn trilogy?

Spoiler: it can’t. But it’s still good.

But by ending the war now, before it truly begins, the Death Star will save more lives than it took.

I wasn’t sure a YA tragic romance was a good fit for Star Wars, but actually the tone is almost perfect. That has something to do with what Lucas made, and something to do with Gray’s writing. She gets the feel of Star Wars. She captures that brisk sense of adventure so well you feel you could be reading a novelisation of deleted scenes. Almost

And the best thing Lost Stars offers is its fresh perspective. Thane and Ciena rationalise Alderaan as a necessary evil, a space opera Hiroshima. And the destruction of the Death Star is a terrorist act, a war crime that slaughters thousands of good officers. And these contrary viewpoints work well because Gray isn’t writing villains or ciphers. She’s writing complicated characters. Thane is a cynic, sure that no government is perfect, content to work with the one in place until he can no longer abide its methodology. Ciena is an idealist, seeing the order and the stability the Empire has to offer.

And who is this General Calrissian? Thane decided not to ask that question out loud. If the Rebel Alliance was happy turning over its two most critical missions of all time to a bunch of brand-new generals, okay, fine.

I’m always sceptical when a writer tries to weave new characters into an existing story. It smacks of a retcon. Why did we never see this guy? Why did they never mention her? But Gray pulls this off well. Thane and Ciena aren’t big players, and the only movie characters they meet are minor. Tarkin, Mon Mothma, Captain/Admiral Piet, and even they only have brief appearances. These cameos offer little glimpses and expansions to their characters and, by not leaning on the main cast of the trilogy, Gray builds a sense of a much vaster galaxy.

This also allows Thane to question who the Rebel heroes are, since he never sees them involved in any real military efforts, yet they always seem to be in charge. It’s funny, and a nice nod to the fact that both Thane and Ciena suffer from the same illness of Luke, Leia, Han and co.: they’re often in situations they don’t belong for the sake of the plot. Thane obviously becomes an X-wing pilot but is given ground assault duties. Ciena is a deck officer but gets sent out in TIE fighters. But this is Star Wars. Our heroes can’t be constrained by realism. Which is why a con man and a gas miner was allowed to lead the greatest Rebellion offensive of all time.

Sometimes we’re loyal to more than one thing. When there’s a conflict, we have to choose which loyalty to honor.

The biggest problem with Lost Stars is that it’s trying to serve two masters: the story and the hype. Released in the lead-up to The Force Awakens, the cover is splashed with promises of exclusive content that ties into the new film and never-before-scenes from the Original Trilogy. Thane and Ciena don’t just find themselves in situations they don’t belong. They find themselves shoe-horned into events. Events conspire, contort even, to bring both into contact with Alderaan, Yavin, Cloud City, Endor. And in order to fit all that in and get some post-Jedi events, the plot takes big jumps through time. Sometimes it feels like Thane and Ciena’s Greatest Hits, and the final showdown seems a bit rushed, slotted in with very little explanation at all.

Which is a bit sad, because there’s a good story in here. And if Gray had been given a bit more space and fewer marketing boxes to tick, there was the potential for a deeper, more meaningful telling to match a deep and meaningful tale. The story between set pieces shows a war more devastating than anything the films portrayed, and the galaxy she created was big enough that Thane and Ciena didn’t have to be at every movie battle. Personally I think it would have been stronger for it.

Lost Stars doesn’t always navigate its way around the Original Trilogy perfectly, but it’s an enjoyable story, well-written, with strong characters. Being YA it doesn’t have the heft of the Thrawn trilogy, but it’s got the fast-paced adventure Star Wars is known for. I’d readily pick up a sequel.

Cover to the UK edition Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb: Review

Sequels are tricky things. They suffer from anticipations and expectations. They promise more of what you loved, but there’s always a secret fear that the writer will have lost “it”, “it” being that magical touch that made the prior installments so good. Everyone has been crushed by a sequel at some point. Once you’ve experienced your own personal Phantom Menace, the prospect of a sequel is never the same. So it’s fair to say that I approached epic fantasy Fool’s Assassin with a mixture of hope and dread.

Worst still was the fact that this was the second time Robin Hobb had done this to me. The story of royal bastard FitzChivalry (or Fitz) began in the Farseer Trilogy and had a downbeat but definite end. That ending was opened up in the Tawny Man trilogy but, while it was something of a retread of the first, Hobb pulled it off and gave Fitz a happier ending. Now Fool’s Assassin would be the beginning of a third trilogy, a third attempt to open up a closed book. Would the law of diminishing returns strike? Could Fool’s Assassin be the book where she lost “it”?

We live in our bodies. An assault on that outside fortress of the mind leaves scars that may not show, but never heal.

To enjoy the Fitz books, you have to love Fitz. Stubborn, headstrong, sometimes maudlin, not always wise, with a strong sense of morality and rarely a sense of how to employ it. You feel less that Hobb has create the hero of an epic fantasy and more a real, flawed man to hang her story on. Fitz is not the same character he was in the first trilogy, though. His experiences have battered him, strengthened him in some senses, weakened him in others. He’s older, more mature, but in some ways he’s the same old Fitz. He’s not a bad analogy for the novel as a whole.

Robert Zemeckis once said that people like a sequel because they want to revisit characters and places they loved the first time around. Hobb understands this, and so Fool’s Assassin respects, recalls and revisits the previous installments. Thus there are visits to Buckkeep, and characters like Chade and Kettricken and Dutiful make appearances. Even absent characters are present through recollection or, in a sense, resurrection. Fans of a particular relationship they might think ended will not, I feel, be disappointed. In some sense, Fool’s Assassin is the same old Fitz story.

But just as Fitz’s new maturity and responsibilities are the most interesting things about him, Fool’s Assassin works best where it leaves behind all the old intrigue and politics of prior stories. Instead of trying to preserve a royal family and its kingdom, the focus of this novel is closer, more immediate: Fitz’s family. This by necessity creates a smaller story; so small the first map is of Fitz’s house. But though it is smaller in scope it is deeper in feeling, which is where Hobb’s novels always do best. And it’s a perfect way to open up Fitz’s world to new narratives. Yes he’s had a happy ending, but happy endings very rarely lack their own complications.

Hobb also takes this opportunity to open up the story to new narrative techniques. Fans of these books might think it heresy, but trust me: you will love reading the chapters written from a viewpoint other than Fitz’s.

You might be surprised to find that facing life can be much harder than facing death.

But, just as Fitz can’t let go of some of his old, poorer habits, so Hobb couldn’t quite let go of old story elements. So Chade inserts new intrigues into Fitz’s life (without any explanation for Fitz or reader) and, perhaps worse, too many old characters remain. Consider how much time has passed since the beginning of the first trilogy; some characters just shouldn’t be breathing anymore. I’m not usually so bloodthirsty, but Hobb only highlighted this by teasing a number of character deaths only to snatch them back from the jaws of death mere pages later.

Time is an unkind teacher, delivering lessons that we learn far too late for them to be useful.

Fool’s Assassin also made me realise something about Hobb’s books I’d never noticed before. Have you ever described a story in a single sentence? “Unassuming hobbit must destory a magic ring to defeat a dark lord”? “Young rebel must learn the powers of the mystical Jedi to topple an evil Galactic Empire”? “Royal bastard trains as an assassin to help save his kingdom”? Most stories make sure you can offer such a description early on. “Here’s the type of story you can expect”, they say, and either fulfill that expectation, subvert it, or disappoint it.

Fool’s Assassin doesn’t do that. And not just that, but all the Fitz books. Hobb writes a story that ambles its way through the plot. It’s certainly a pleasant amble, even an entrancing amble. But it leaves the reader in a sort of limbo. The reader doesn’t know what to anticipate, what to dread, what to attend to and what to be intrigued by. This is what makes Chade’s new intrigues frustrating. They seem so disconnected from the new world Fitz lives in and there is no explanation to them. So they stand out like a sore thumb and even seem like filler. Most readers of Fool’s Assassin won’t mind this, because they’ll have read prior trilogies and thus be happy to go where Hobb leads. But I suspect newer readers might not be willing to offer Hobb the trust she deserves.

Do not agonize about yesterday. Do not borrow tomorrow’s trouble. Let your heart hunt. Rest in the now.

But here is why I love Fool’s Assassin, and all Hobb’s work, despite those grievances: you don’t worry about them whilst you’re reading. Hobb’s prose is beautiful in its description, searing in its truth, compelling in its narrative, and it forces you to forgive all sins. It puts character before lore and it lets character drive plot. Her worldbuilding is not overbearing; it intrudes on the page only rarely, when it needs to. There is still the magic, the grand locations and action scenes that epic fantasy demands. But it’s all focused on character. And those characters are so well-drawn, so deeply developed, that you’ll love them by the end. It isn’t the plot that keeps you turning the page; it’s wanting to see your beloved characters delivered through that plot, safe and sound.

If you’ve read the previous Fitz books but you’re worried about Phantom Menace syndrome, set aside your fears. Fool’s Assassin is a worthy sequel to the series. If you haven’t read any Fitz books, don’t start here. Yes, you might enjoy it and, no, you don’t need to have read the others. But you’ll miss out on the history, the nuances, and the clever callbacks, and I like you too much to let you do that to yourself. So go read Assassin’s Apprentice and worth your way up to Fool’s Assassin.

You’ll thank me for it.

Get Fool’s Assassin from: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Apple iBookstore

The incredible cover art to Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

2014: Year in Review

Is it me or years getting shorter and shorter? It doesn’t seem that long since I was last trying to remember what I’d read and which I should write about. For newcomers to the blog, I always jump on the “year in review” bandwagon, but I review my year. Everyone else is listing the best books released in 2014, I’m listing the most impressive books I read in 2014, regardless of when they were published.

The way I figure it, “the cutting edge” sounds painful and something to avoid; I prefer the comfortable middle.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

So good it garnered a review of its own, this was one of the few instances when a book lived up to its hype. The main character used to be a spaceship and the society she comes from has no concept of gender. Original, imaginative and engaging, I’ve not read a space opera like this for a long while and I can’t wait to read more.

Unbroken Ties by M. Latimer-Ridley

The sequel to Legend Unleashed, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. There’s a world, under the one we know, of magic and wizards and werewolves. The war between the latter deepens in this installment and it also explores the ramifications of what happened to wizard Alastair Byron and werewolf Halvard Wolfram in the last book. Although it felt a little rushed at times, it was great to see that the Byron/Wolfram arc wasn’t tied up in a neat little bow; things get complicated for a while, which is how I like my fiction.

Min by Lola Rayne

A raunchy contemporary romance, I should state that I am totally not the target demographic for this novel. I would never usually pick up a book like this, but Rayne has an excellent style that’s filthy and funny and makes me smile; she could probably write a treatise on farming tools of the 1300s and it’d still be an enjoyable read. So although this type of book isn’t my cup of tea, I still enjoyed it immensely, and you should definitely give it a try.

You by Austin Grossman

You was a strange reading experience. The tale of a successful guy who quits his job to work at a video game developer set up by his schoolmates, I don’t think it works well as a novel; elements of the story disappear unresolved, some events have no reason for being other than the writer wanted to write about them, and frankly it’s all a little contrived. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, largely because it was the first time I’d read a novel that dealt with video games as if they mattered. So if you’re a video game geek, you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise you should probably read something else.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

If, like me, you thought The Da Vinci Code was a decent if over-hyped summer blockbuster book, do yourself a favour: don’t read The Lost Symbol. It appears to be a mere clone of its older brother. Langdon on the run from the authorities. A strange, unstoppable figure enmeshed in his faith, hunting Langdon. Even the same historical figures and books are recycled at times, and you can see the “twists” coming from the first page. I really wanted to like The Lost Symbol but I hear Inferno is a better read?

What books did you read this year? Leave a comment and tell me all about them; I’m always looking for more to read!

My Problem with Kindle Matchbook

Kindle Matchbook is a great idea: buy a paperback and get the ebook version at a discounted price (or even free). It’s a nice reward for a reader and it helps remove the format quandry (as ebooks are often cheaper but not as nice to own). There’s just one problem with Kindle Matchbook.

It’s not universal.

It’s not available in every country and, of course, you can’t make use of it if you have a non-Kindle ereader device or app. I enrolled The Fey Man in Matchbook but I’m painfully aware that my UK-based readers, for instance, can’t take advantage of it. And anyone reading their ebooks on a Kobo or iDevice are out in the cold too.

So here’s my solution: if you bought a copy of The Fey Man in paperback and you want a free copy of the ebook version, take a picture or yourself with it and post it to my Facebook Page or upload it to Twitter (be sure to mention me with @realjtk!) I’ll send you a copy of the ebook in your preferred format (and help you get it on your ereader as well).

(P.S. There’ll be no DRM in this ebook, either, so you’ll be free to share it with friends. Because I’m nice like that.)

George R. R. Martin's Game of Thones is one of the most famous fantasy series.

Top Fantasy Novels: A Game of Thrones

Surprise, surprise, eh? Seems we can’t get away from Game of Thrones no matter where we go. But there’s a reason for that: it’s a very good fantasy novel.

The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words.

George R. R. Martin does a brilliant job with his characters. Ned, Jon, Tyrion, Cersei, Daenerys, Arya (and so many, many more), all very different and all very complicated. Evil characters have redeeming features, good characters do evil things. Martin does an excellent job of keeping you hooked as characters you hate prosper and characters you love stumble into doom.

Because there are no happy endings in Westeros.

Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?

One of the reasons A Game of Thrones has attracted so much attention is that it is a fantasy novel like no other. It is brutal, it is coarse, it is harsh and it has no remorse. Martin doesn’t tip-toe around the truth of the story. Characters have sex, get hurt, get maimed, and die. Love that character? They’re going to die. Hate that character? Well, they’ll probably die too; everybody does. In this way the novel is very fair: nobody gets what they want. Especially the reader.

A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep his edge.

The reader doesn’t get an easy ride, either. There’s no summarisation or recaps or clues to help the reader along. Which is great; too many fantasy novels spoon-feed their world to the reader. But A Game of Thrones has a lot of characters, intrigues, histories and storylines to keep track of. You’ve got to pay attention to this book. But whilst that can make for a reading experience that requires a lot of work, it makes too for a rich and realistic world. You could believe this was all true, if it weren’t for the magic.

Winter is coming.

But even the magic itself seems realistic. Because, while there’s a hint of it in the prologue, there isn’t much magic at all in this novel. Like so many great lies, 99% of the novel feels true so, when the 1% finally arrives, it’s so much easier to swallow. It’s masterfully done and a pleasure to experience.

You wear your honour like a suit of armour…you think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down…

And that is where I think the true strength of A Game of Thrones lies. It feels very real, even when it’s telling you about impossible things. Martin does a marvellous job of selling a fantasy novel as almost a historical drama and fills it with compelling character and constant heartache to make sure you can’t stop reading. I’m certainly addicted to this fantasy series. Are you?

Super Review: Woman in Black by Susan Hill

You’ve probably heard of The Woman In Black, no doubt thanks to the film starring Daniel Radcliffe. That’s how I heard of it. I saw a trailer for it that looked scary and cool. But mostly scary. So I decided to go see it. But before I could, I heard that the book was excellent. And that, if I enjoyed that, I should really go and see the play too. So that’s what I did. I resolved to read the book, then see the play, and only then would I watch the film. What I found was that they all form a triptych of stories, each with a similar core but also very different due to the medium itself.

For I see that then I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence, once lost, is lost forever.

I started with the book (because you should always start with a book). And I should start my review of it by saying the perfect ghost story is Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (for reasons I briefly mentioned here). Susan Hill has obviously read the book because her story displays nearly all it’s best qualities: it’s short, tense, filled with emotion. The pace is almost perfect. While a plot summary might sound dry or even slow, I was frenetically turning the pages. Sometimes it was obvious what was coming next but, in the best tradition of horror, the dread of waiting for it and the hope it wouldn’t come were kept alive in equal measure.

I was also pleased that the story wasn’t set in the modern age. We’re just too sceptical these days for a ghost story to have the same impact, whereas characters who can believe in ghosts give the reader permission to do so as well. Hill also made it easy to empathise with the titular Woman and that made her all the more believable.

If I were to recommend a ghost story, The Turn of the Screw would be it. But The Woman in Black would be right behind it.

The Woman in Black was adapted for stage in 1987.
Who is she? Your surprise?

The play came next as it did in life. I was surprised to learn the cast had only three members: Arthur Kipps (the protagonist), The Actor and The Woman. Interestingly, The Actor plays Arthur in the narrative and Arthur himself plays the supporting characters; the play adds to the story the premise that Arthur has hired The Actor to help him tell his story. It makes the play rather meta – it’s a play about putting on a play – and it intrudes a little on the narrative at the beginning, making the play slow to start. But once it gets out of the way, this gimmick allows the play a small cast, which lends a more intimate air to the play. Perfect for a ghost story!

Like all good plays a lot is left to the imagination. This area was easier for me because I’d already read the book; I went in with images in my head. But my girlfriend, who hadn’t read it, confirmed that the play evoked the necessary imagery with both words and effects. The latter, mostly restricted to lighting, smoke and the occasional yet still heart-stopping scream, were kept to a minimum and so more effective for it.

Far more effective, though, was when the Woman silently swept past me as she headed down the aisle to the stage. I’m not too proud to say I jumped!

The best thing to say about the play, though, is that it retained the tension of the book. That’s what makes it worth seeing. If you get a chance to go, don’t hesitate!

There will be a sequel to the Radcliffe-starring Woman in Black.She makes us, she makes us do it. She makes us! They took her boy away so now she takes us.

And so to the film. Last and, unfortunately, least. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a terrible film. It tells the core story with a few interesting changes, most notably that Arthur’s wife is dead, a haunting woman in white to contrast the darker, physical haunting. And the film explores more of the Woman in Black’s rage; you get a real feeling of the force of emotion that keeps this Woman’s spirit tied to this world.

Unfortunately Radcliffe couldn’t properly convey the age required by the role, leaving Arthur seeming a boy in a man’s clothes. And the film itself was more visceral than the book or play; we were treated to some of the typical ghost story tropes. Bodies rising out of pools of blood. Shadows flitting over doorways. Lights going out in a hallway. And so on. Some of them succeeded in making me jump. But Woman in Black was about the sort of fear that grows in your mind and then festers once the story is done. Moments that make you jump induce the sort of fear that is gone moments later. It’s not the same at all.

The film also added a malevolence to the Woman by making her directly responsible for children’s deaths and then trapping their spirits with her in a sort of grey limbo. This adds a quest element to the story that wasn’t there before with Arthur and supporting character Daley trying to pacify the Woman and free the children. Which is all well and good but it wasn’t in the original story and it isn’t needed. It also alters the ending dramatically and not for the better.

But, as I said, it’s not a terrible film. It’s very watchable. But this experiment has proven the hypothesis that we all knew to be true: the film adaptation is almost never as good as the original book. Despite being a solid film, it sits at the bottom of an ascending list of quality, in which the play sits in the middle and the book sits triumphant at the top.

So that’s it! Super review over. But now I want to know what you think. Did you like the book? The film? Have you seen the play? And what do you think of plans to make a sequel to the film? Leave a comment and let me know.

Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

If you read my review of House of Leaves, you may finish reading this review thinking I have a weakness for narrative gimmicks. You wouldn’t be wrong. Sometimes I read a book purely because it sounds like it’s doing something weird with narrative. But, in this case, I read the book because I saw the trailer for the film. And I didn’t understand it at all.

Cloud Atlas tells six stories from six different time periods:

1) notary Adam Ewing’s travels around the Chatham Islands in the 1850s;
2) composer Robert Frobisher’s apprenticeship to composer Vyvyan Ayrs in 1931;
3) journalist Louisa Rey’s investigations into a coverup surrounding a nuclear facility in 1975;
4) editor Timothy Cavendish’s incarceration in a nursing home in the present day;
5) rogue clone Somni~451’s interrogation in a dystopian future;
6) goatherd Zachry’s encounter with a technologically advanced visitor in a post-apocalyptic future.

If you’re expecting the stories to link up, get ready for some disappointment. The only connections are thematic. Well, that and one character in each story has a similar birthmark. I never did figure out why.

A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.

Here’s my biggest problem with Cloud Atlas: the stories are all split in half around the centre of the book. So you read the first half of story one, then the first half of story two, then the first half of story three, four and five. Then it’s all of story six before you get to read the ends of stories five, four, three, two and one. This has the effect of making the first half of the book an exercise in frustration and the second half one in relief. Sad to say I reached the end of Cloud Atlas and said, “I’m glad that’s over.”

Now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework.

That’s not to say that Mitchell is a bad writer. Far from it. I enjoyed a lot of this book, particularly Frobisher’s letters and Somni~451’s interrogation. Mitchell writes in very different styles in this novel and he does so successfully. Except for the sixth story. The style he adopted is annoying and I skimmed that story in an effort to escape.

Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds, an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.”

Aside from that awful style, Mitchell is a good writer. I would pick up another of his books, though I couldn’t recommend this one. The series of beginnings left me dissatisfied for the first half and the series of conclusions left me breathless with resolution for the second half. It’s a nice narrative device in theory, but in practice it doesn’t work.

In short, I can’t recommend Cloud Atlas. But, off the back of it, I would recommend Mitchell as a writer. Which is an usual result from an unusual book.

Review: Legend Unleashed by M. Latimer-Ridley

“Little Alice here is taking a trip down the rabbit-hole with you then.”

Regular readers will know that I interviewed M. Latimer-Ridley about Legend Unleashed before Christmas. Now that No More Books 2012 is over and I’m free to buy books again, I didn’t waste much time in picking up a copy. Thanks to the preview on their website I already knew it started with some brilliantly intriguing imagery. But how was the rest of it?

A wide black oak grandfather clock towered in front of him. A figure had been chiselled into it; a snarling animal with human hands trying to escape. Roughly carved and splintering in places, it was fused to the ground in a mixture of stone and wood. Numerous white rocks encircled it in a symbolic ring of salt, old magic that was supposed to trap demons inside.

Temperance Levinthal is a regular girl who finds herself caught up in a conflict between wizards and werewolves and finds out more about herself than she expected. Maybe that sounds like standard fare but it’s written with a wit and a warmth that keeps you engaged. There’s no overblown dramatics and not much teenage angst either. M. Latimer-Ridley hit the right tone unfailingly and that made this book an absolute pleasure to read.

“Poor crazy Levinthals, I hope you’ve taken your medication today, you’d be mad not to!”

The Twilight series has made paranormal romance seem rather hundrum now. In fact it’s difficult to make paranormal YA stand out. And Legend Unleashed doesn’t take massive steps to do so. Rather it folds in quirks and foibles that are memorable enough to make the story feel fresh yet comfortably familiar.

For example, Temperance is well aware that she suffers “hallucinations” and takes pills to keep them at bay. She relies on them for stability and it’s a very nice touch to see her rely on them more and more as her world is increasingly filled with impossible things. I do wish more had been done with this idea, but perhaps this will come up in a sequel. For now it’s a nice wrinkle.

A part of her had always wanted to find someone as lonely as she was.

This is a book that wears its Young Adult audience on its sleeve and I loved it for that. There is an enormous influx of YA titles of late and you get the feeling that a lot of writers are chasing the Twilight dollar. No such feeling here. This is true YA. It’s not a dumbed-down “adult” book; it’s written for its target audience. And, like all great books, it can be enjoyed by anyone.

It was nice to see wizards as well. We’ve seen lots of witches and werewolves and vampires but the poor wizard seems to get short thrift. So kudos to M. Latimer-Ridley for resurrecting the wizard.

If I have one complaint about this book it is this: it feels too rushed. M. Latimer-Ridley weave a nice world but I didn’t feel I was given enough time to explore it and settle in. Events happen at a breakneck speed and even major revelations don’t seem to have quite enough space to breath. It was quite a shame as I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if the pacing had been a bit calmer. As it was the plot always seemed to have one eye on the horizon. I’d have preferred its full attention on the moments as they unfolded.

That said, if werewolves and YA are your thing then this book is for you and I can definitely recommend it. Legend Unleashed has a well-crafted world with some great characters and a nice, twisty plot. But all I can really say is that I would buy any sequels: what greater recommendation is there than that?

Review: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

It’s time to ‘fess up: I have an English Literature degree. That means I know what the meaning of words like “mimesis” and “bildungsroman” and “post structuralism”. They mean “I want to sound clever so I shall use big words.” Sometimes they also mean “I don’t understand so I shall hide behind big words so people will assume I know what I’m talking about.”

Knowing that was very useful for reading House of Leaves.

“We all create stories to protect ourselves.”

House of Leaves is the story of Johnny Truant, a young man who comes across a manuscript. This manuscript is a critical analysis written by a blind man called Zampano of a film called the Navidson Record. The film tells the story of the Navidson family who move into a house only to find that it is, to use a technical term, downright weird.

So there are at least three stories: Johnny Truant’s efforts to deal with the manuscript; Zampano’s efforts to deal with the film; and the Navidsons’ efforts to deal with the house.

So it’s not a straightforward book by any means. And sometimes that’s fantastic. There are layers of narrative and meaning; it’s like an onion. Or an ogre. Either way it’s full of hints and clues and mysteries. There are references to Yggdrasil, Cherenkov Light, the labyrinth and the Minotaur, all suggesting a meaning just out of reach. It’s like the TV show Lost in book form and I love it.

But sometimes the layers are just in the way. The analysis is supposedly satire but all too often it comes off as straight. Too clever for its own good. Too full of big words in an attempt to seem like a big, dense, literary work. Yet, in contrast, Truant’s story wastes its potential and degenerates into a parade of drink, drugs and derrières.

Lude sure as hell doesn’t understand it. One-because I’ve fallen for a stripper: ” ‘fuck a’ and ‘fall for’ have very different meanings, Hoss. The first one you do as much as you can. The second one you never ever, ever do.”

In truth the best story is Navidson’s. Danielewski’s house is deep and dark and unexplained and Navidson’s exploration of it is tense and has you turning the pages frantically. Not only that but it stays with you. Reading this book won’t scare you; it will frighten you in a deep and dark place. It will remind you of the unknown depths of the world and make falling asleep very difficult indeed.

The house is history and history is uninhabited.

But despite how unsettling and frustrating and frightening this book is, Danielewski claims this is a love story. But if it is, I have the same problem I have with Jane Eyre: one party is elevated above the other and love cannot be found until that party is damaged or maimed somehow. It leaves a fundamental inequality in the relationships of this book and it just feels wrong to me. If it is a love story, I can’t recommend as such.

That said, I have to recommend House of Leaves. Because while the overly-present author, too-clever “satire” of critical analysis and redundant narratives could be as annoying as all hell, this book affected me. It touched me and altered me and changed the way I think. And it’s such a rare book that can do that. So go read it.

But not at night.

“Since when did you bring a gun?” Navidson asks, crouching near the door.
“Are you kidding me? This place is scary.”

Interview with Young Adult Authors M. Latimer-Ridley

Writing duos aren’t a rarity, but M. Latimer-Ridley are. Two writers with impeccable taste (after all, they follow me on Twitter) and an excellent sense of humour, I was very pleased to hear that they’d finally finished the novel they’d been talking about for so long. To celebrate the publication of Legend Unleashed, I shone a light in their eyes and subjected them to the third degree.

Congratulations on publishing Legend Unleashed!

Many thanks James!! We really appreciate the chance to answer your questions and visit your blog! It’s nice to be somewhere new instead our old blogging gaff *glances round, peering in behind the blogging curtain* Very nice. Pretty swanky place you have here! :D

Thanks. Please put that down. Now, tell us all about Legend Unleashed.

Well, it’s a young adult fantasy novel. Our main character, Temperance Levinthal is accidently swept up into a magical world by the handsome Alastair Byron. She’s really a very reluctant participant in their adventure, which would be nothing like us, as we’d be leaping in joy at the chance to see real magic. She’s not so impressed!

However, we’ll give you the blurb! It describes the book without giving too much away:

When an infamous criminal is unleashed from his prison, it has consequences for everyone in Carwick. Temperance Levinthal in particular…

Temperance is satisfied with her ordinary life. Dealing with her eccentric, childlike parents is all the excitement she needs. That changes when Alastair Byron returns home.

After a failed matchmaking attempt by her father, sparks fly between her and Alastair-just not the good kind.

They are forced together though, when they are implicated in a grisly murder. Their search for the truth leads them to a secret world beneath Carwick, filled with werewolves, wizards and other magical faey.

However, uncovering the truth is far more dangerous than they’d ever imagined.

There are secrets within secrets.

Even Alastair may be more than he seems…

Now tell us a little about yourselves. What made you want to be writers?

Ridley: Well…I know this is true for Latimer as for me but I’ve always loved to write. When I was younger I got unending encouragement from my parents and one English teacher in primary school in particular. She was fantastic. Plus my school was really brilliant about inviting Irish authors to visit (Gordon Snell-Maeve Binchey’s husband, Siobhan Parkinson, Don Conroy, Tom McCaughren, Martin Waddell, Michael Mullen all came in my time there), we were really spoilt, so from a very early age I was aware of what an author did. I remember in particular Marita Conlon McKenna visiting, I loved her famine novels. I brought a massive pile of books up to her to sign, she was so friendly and she wrote, ‘To Rachel. Another Bookworm! Lots of luck.” I remember thinking; I’d love to create worlds and characters, to make people love these imaginary places like she does, and so all down through the years I’ve tried to do just that.

Latimer: I didn’t read as much as Ridley when I was young. I did draw a lot of pictures though, and as I drew them I would think up stories for the person or creature I was drawing, to the point where I was actually talking to the character in the picture! In later years, I got really caught up in reading, particularly my brother’s high-fantasy books. I enjoyed coming up with stories and ideas. I don’t really know when I put pen to paper, but once I did I never stopped. When I get an idea, I just want to write about it! And meeting Ridley and striking up a friendship with her, really encouraged the ideas! Whenever I told people I was writing, no one ever said ‘that’s silly’- throughout my life everyone has been very supportive.

Having the support of your friends and family is so important. I suppose you’ve got support built into your partnership! How did that come about?

Ridley: Well, we’ve been friends for years and we have almost the exact same reading tastes, so we’ve always swopped books, giving our RSAs or LSAs (Ridley/Latimer Stamp of Approval) on the particularly brilliant ones. Many times after a book, we’d gossip about it, discussing what we would have changed or added and eventually we started to joke about writing a book together. We started to believe that we could put everything we’d ever wanted to see into it. Our main aim was and has always been to create a book, a real ‘find’ that would deserve an RSA or LSA.

Latimer: We can pinpoint the moment we decided to write a book. We were out for a walk one day, talking about books and we sort of stopped and said… ‘we could write one?… could we? We could… right?’ Then summer of that very year, we started work on a series – that had many incarnations until it reached the final plot! But it was fun, we worked on it in the library non-stop, annoying other people with our whispering and spending all day there! Pretty good fun, because during breaks Ridley took me around the library pulling out books going, ‘read this, and that’ and so on; I caught up on lots of books she read in her childhood!

What’s the writing process like? Do you have to make many compromises or are two heads better than one?

Ridley: No, there haven’t had to be many compromises I don’t think. No major ones anyway! We’re very respectful of the other’s ideas or dislikes. Two heads are definitely better than one, at least for us, we bounce ideas off each other and they build to even greater things than if we’d just thought things up alone. Plus it’s fun! :D We tend to have massive long tea breaks where we think up plots that usually start off with a particular character, or scene or following the words, ‘wouldn’t it be brilliant if…’, then we divide everything up into chapter summaries and we each get half of them. One of us starts the book and the other ends it. Simples.

Latimer: We’re lucky in that we can say, ‘no that idea’s not going to work’ or ‘hey how about this?’ I think it helps make our writing and ideas stronger and we’re very similar in terms of where we want to take characters. It is fun to see the idea grow and change into the finished product. All our ideas for books seem to start in a very different place to where they end up – but it’s definitely fun, because you are almost a reader yourself!

What are your influences?

Ridley: Anything and everything really, travelling, art, history, the discovery channel! In terms of reading I love fantasy, young adult and crime novels. Some of my favourite writers include Kelley Armstrong, Cassandra Clare, J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K Rowling. I also love animated films, the tales that Pixar, Aardman and Dreamworks tell are fantastic.

Latimer: I’m influenced by history and science; in little ways, like sometimes I read something and it sparks an idea. When I travel and see new things I often come back with new ideas. In terms of writers, I love Terry Pratchett’s humour and quirky characters; I love J.K Rowling’s world and J.R.R Tolkien is just a master storyteller.

Will either of you try a solo venture some day? Or are together until the end?

Ridley: Well, I’ve no plans for any. Latimer, you off to pastures greener? <(; _;)>

Latimer: I don’t think so. It’s M. Latimer-Ridley for the long haul. We have so many books yet to write, I doubt either of us will be going anywhere soon. I think a lot of ventures we have in mind fall under the M. Latimer-Ridley banner.

Ridley: We’re not against it, but either way, I think even if one of us went off to do a solo project, it would be as a side venture and it would never be completely by ourselves, we’d definitely seek the input and feedback about it from the other person.

Latimer: Yes, I think that would be the case. We’d never be 100% solo and M. Latimer-Ridley would always be around regardless.

I think our first interaction was you telling me how much you love dragons, yet your novel is about werewolves. What gives?

Funny thing is we have discussed dragons in the past and whether we could feature them in one of the books, but as much as we love them, they just never seem to fit in to any of our plots, well not the ones that we have so far…but one day perhaps! :D

You’ve mentioned that Legend Unleashed is your fourth novel. What happened to the first three?

Ridley: It’s the fifth book now; sometimes I forget there’s a fourth book written. We have a four book series already under our belts. These were the very first books we originally started writing together. They took us five and half years to finish. The plot for Legend Unleashed was fleshed out for about three years before we actually wrote it. We felt we really needed to get the characters of the series we were already working on and that world out of our systems before we could move on. They’re a different genre too, more like fantasy novels, and they need a lot of editing. I think over time we gradually gravitated towards the young adult genre and for the future books we have planned they definitely seem to be within that area.

Latimer: We’ll definitely be back to them one day, but they are our very hairy babies at the moment! They need a lot of work, but they’ll get it one day!

Do you think you’ll ever release this series?

Definitely, though we just haven’t included it on our publishing and writing schedule for the next year. There’s so much editing to do on it, four whole books, it’s a bit of a daunting task! But we really love the characters and series, so it will definitely see the light of day!

So the series was fantasy but Legend Unleashed is young adult? What drew you to YA?

Really, the fantasy series isn’t a proper epic fantasy, there are definitely more elements of YA than usually found in a pure fantasy novel. So I suppose it wasn’t so much that we switched genres, we just refined what we liked to write about. Fantasy, but with a young adult twist on it!

You’ve published Legend Unleashed through Cranmer Publishing. What led you to them rather than going it alone?

Cranmer Publishing is actually our business. We do consider it a separate joint venture however, to our co-authors status. So we’re business partners too. We’ve always set out to be as professional as possible in all aspects of our books. After long discussions, we decided we would establish Cranmer Publishing and eventually, when we feel it is the right time and we’ve gained enough insight and experience, we will begin to accept work from other authors. That day is certainly not within sight yet however. We’ve freelanced out a lot of the jobs in terms of cover design, structural editing, copy editing and formatting, so we’ve begun to build up a good team behind us.

What is it about publishing others’ work that appeals to you?

Oh, it’s that dreamy notion of finding that diamond in the rough! To be the first to set eyes on the next great book, isn’t that why most people go into the publishing industry? That future is a long way off for us though!

And what is a Cranmer?

It’s connected to our pen name. We both went to Oxford separately and we each discovered the story of the Oxford Martyrs, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. For some reason, it really stuck with us. However, there was also a third man that was connected to their story, and that was Thomas Cranmer. So we thought it would be a nice way to connect the three together again.

You created a book trailer which I’ve previously raved about. What led you to create an animated trailer?

Ridley: And we were chuffed you liked it so much!! We both love art, so it seemed natural to wander down that route when we were brainstorming ideas for the trailer. Animation is also another passion of mine. I love watching all of the Pixar and Dreamworks films, not to mention Aardman. That these lumps of clay or computer dolls (or ‘character rigs’) are manipulated with such skill to show emotion and movement that we cry and laugh as we follow their stories on screen; I just think that it’s amazing really, almost like magic. Good writing does the same; characters that never before existed, are now very real in our heads, all through the power of words. I wanted us to give animation a try as it was another facet of our world building, I had no doubt in my mind we could succeed in creating something and if we did, it would definitely be a unique trailer, though unique in a good way we’d hoped!! Plus as an added bonus, I got to combine two of my passions!

Latimer: The trailer was really Ridley’s hard work for sure! I merely whip-cracked! I think it was born out of passion and a desire to try something a bit different, which is what we like to do.

What does the “M” stand for?

I’m afraid it’s very boring. However, it shall remain our little secret and if we told you, we’d have to give you a potion to erase your memory. :D
OBLIVIATE! *ping*

Protego. What’s next for M. Latimer-Ridley?

Next will be the sequel for Legend Unleashed, which is nearly finished, that won’t be out until late 2013 though, sooner than that we also have a short story planned, featuring a young Temperance. Then we have many other plots and ideas bubbling away on the backburner, for example last weekend we were discussing ideas for a book that’s at the back of a queue of six others patiently waiting to be written. Sometimes, we get excited by a new character or plot and then realise with a sigh, we won’t get to it for another few years. (Together we really aren’t short of ideas!) Eventually, we’d also love to have our four book series edited and published but we know we need to be patient on that one!

Finally, what is it about dragons you love so much?

Ridley: How could you not love them? They’re terrifying and beautiful all at the same time! One of the best fantasy creatures ever! There really aren’t enough books out there with dragons featuring heavily in them! I can’t wait to see what Smaug looks like in the new film, The Hobbit!

Latimer: Could we make a werewolf-dragon? No, *thinking*… wait… that would basically be Falkor from The Neverending Story, wouldn’t it? Oh, I love him!

Buy Legend Unleashed nowYou can buy Legend Unleashed now from all major eretailers including:

Amazon US: ebook paperback

Amazon UK: ebook paperback

Smashwords: ebook

While you’re waiting for it to arrive, you can also check out M Latimer-Ridley’s blog and website.