Review: Last Argument Of Kings

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Last Argument Of Kings
Last Argument Of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was every bit as excellent as I expected it to be. Joe Abercrombie’s skill as an author cannot be overstated. The plot moves swiftly, the language is clean, yada yada. He’s a great author.

What I enjoyed most about Last Argument of Kings, though, was the characters. Joe Abercrombie writes “grey” characters like no-one else. Is Logen Ninefingers a good man forced into fight after fight, or is he really a homicidal maniac? Is Sand dan Glockta a good man in a bad position, or is he a sociopath? Even the minor characters are notably ambivalent. Whether this is Abercrombie deliberately playing with fantasy tropes (the wizard isn’t as benevolent as all that either), deciding that he’s tired of characters who can be neatly sorted into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, or just deliberately making sure that his readers never know quite what to think, I don’t know. Just as you think you’ve got it worked out, Abercrombie has his characters do something that shakes your certainty: this is not fantasy where the characters have the luxury of easy decisions, and they then have to live with the consequences.

But this is another thing one notices about many fantasy novels: after all the dust has settled, the good guys retire to live a life of peace and prosperity, and everything is pretty much OK. Abercrombie, again, doesn’t have much truck with that. We’re talking war, people. We’ve all watched the news. When it’s all over, do we really think everything goes back to normal immediately? War is not glorious: it is messy and tragic. Good people die along with the bad. Nobody, as Glockta says, gets what they deserve in life. And everybody has to live with what happened, with the gaps in their lives and their property. And, of course, in their morals. What happens to your own personal morality if you have to do appalling things to survive, and to achieve your goals? What if you’re threatened and blackmailed? Yes, we’d all like to believe that we’d willingly die before compromising our most basic morality, but would we really? When it gets down to it, how many of us would choose someone else’s pain rather than ours?

Abercrombie also has a master’s touch when it comes to poisoning chalices. I don’t think anybody ends up with an untainted chalice, although some of the poisons are pretty subtle. (The closest, though, is Glockta himself. I was really, really happy about the way that turned out.) There is one instance, done very subtly, where you think… wow. A combination of perceptiveness and ruthlessness on the part of one character, obliviousness on the part of another, and a species of living hell on the part of a third. You’ll know it when you get to it, but, really, what Abercrombie giveth with one hand he taketh away with the other. And vice versa.

This book could be adequately subtitled: Be careful what you ask for: you might just get it.

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In which I lament my lack of self-control – Kindle Oasis vs Kobo Glo HD

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Kindle-and-KoboIt’s official. I have no self-control. Breaking strain of a KitKat.

I have bought a Kindle. Not just any Kindle. The most expensive Kindle on the market. The Kindle I said I would definitely never, not ever, buy. Because it was far too expensive to justify. And stuff.

In my defence, it was my birthday, and the far-too-expensive Kindle was partially paid for by birthday money from my husband and my parents, and birthday money – should you be lucky enough to be financially stable – is meant for buying frivolous things that you can’t otherwise justify (like Kindles), not ordinary stuff like socks.

I always said, I would never have a Kindle. I was a Kobo girl. I don’t have anything against Amazon (how could I, when Amazon made it viable to be an indie author?) but Kindles never tempted me – they were too big, too clunky, especially compared to my three Kobos. The big Kobo is waterproof; the little Kobo has a 5″ screen; and the Kobo that is just right is a 6″-screened piece of elegance, far nicer than any Kindle I’d seen. And half the price.

Up until now.

Up until Amazon brought out a Kindle that is more than 30g lighter than my late, lamented Sony PRS-T1.

I’m a gadget girl. Other women, or so I read, love buying clothes and shoes. I can be in and out of a clothes shop in under 30 seconds, trailing my poor husband like the tail of a kite: “Do keep up!” On the other hand, when he sneaked off to PC World without me, the cad, we had Words. Not that I wanted anything there in particular; I just wanted to look. So I completely understand the desire to spend half the morning looking at clothes and then not buying any. I just do it with electronics.

But… Kindle.

First Impressions

I bought the WiFi only version; not only am I unlikely to be so desperate for reading matter that I will need to buy a book where there is no WiFi, but in the unlikely event that that happens, I can use the personal hotspot function on my iPhone to provide WiFi. So, no need to pay the extra £80 or however much it is to get the 3G version.

It is slightly shorter than my Kobo Glo HD, and slightly wider, so it’s kind of square. There’s a wider non-screen part on one side, for holding, and that’s where the buttons are.

The case, which also contains half the battery, is a nice bit of kit. It just clicks into place, guided by magnets. There’s no fiddling around trying to get bits lined up – it just finds its own way. There is also no audible “click”. Very nice. There are also magnets in the flippy part of the case, so that when you fold it back underneath the Kindle for one-handed reading with the case on, it sticks there.

Setting Up

Setting up was very easy. It arrived already knowing who I was, so it connected to my Amazon account straight out of the box, as soon as I input the house WiFi password. It automatically connected to Goodreads too, but you can disconnect it, or change the account to which it connects, in the Settings (settings>reading options>social networks).

You can also connect your Kindle to your Twitter and/or Facebook accounts, which I have not done.

The Reading Experience

The on-off button is at the top, with the micro-USB port, if you hold it in your right hand. If you hold it in your left, they’re at the bottom. A nice touch is that the Kindle detects which way around it is, and flips the screen so that you can use it right-handed or left-handed. The buttons also flip, so the top button is always page-forward, and the bottom is always page-back. However, if you prefer, you can go into “settings” and swap them over so that the top button is “back” and the bottom one is “forward”. I’ve done that, because I have small hands and I had to stretch slightly for my thumb to hit the top button.

Comparison to my Kobo Glo HD


  • The first thing I noticed is that the Kindle doesn’t have a traditional bezel – the reading screen is not recessed. It’s flat, with a sort of “bumper” around the very edge of the device. So, on the one hand, crumbs won’t get stuck on the edge of the reading screen… on the other, they’ll get stuck against the bumper instead. I do like the flat screen of the Kindle – it looks so much smarter and more modern – but there is still that crumb-trapping potential, so I’ll mark it as “neutral”.
  • The Kindle has two buttons for page turns; I never missed page turn buttons on my Kobo – but these buttons are nicely placed for one-handed reading.  I think I might mostly use the buttons, but, again, I was always perfectly happy with my no-button-touch-screen Kobo.
  • Strangely, without the light on, the white screen background on the Kobo is slightly whiter than than on the Kindle. But with the light on full brightness, the Kindle’s contrast is better than the Kobo’s. So, the Kindle screen appears to go from “not as good as the Kobo” to “better than the Kobo” depending on screen brightness. I always set my Kobo’s light at 9%, but the Kindle’s light needs to be set higher.

Kindle Wins

  • The Kindle Oasis is a pretty, pretty thing. It makes my poor Kobo Glo HD look thick and clunky in comparison.
  • Speed and responsiveness. I think the Kindle wins here. Mind you, I never felt that my Kobo was slow – but the Kindle just seems to be that bit snappier.
  • The Kindle is lighter when held without the case, and I can feel the difference. I can imagine that long periods of reading will be far more comfortable with the Kindle. This is possibly not just to do with the absolute weight – because the Kindle is only about 50g lighter than the Kobo (although that does, admittedly, work out at the Kindle being only 72% of the weight of the Kobo) – but also the distribution of the weight. As most of the weight of the Kindle is in the side closest to the hand, it feels even lighter than it is (law of levers, principle of moments, etc).
  • Integration with Goodreads. This is probably not an issue unless you actually use Goodreads. I do. So I’m thinking that this might be a major advantage for me. Let’s face it – we’re all a little bit lazy (some of us are a lot lazy). If you have to change to a different device to post that really great quote, you just don’t bother.
  • Amazon store. We all know that Amazon has more choice, at lower prices, than Kobo. Plus, I like Amazon’s store better.
  • Kindle app integration. This is one of those little luxuries that I never missed, reading on a Kindle, but I’m probably going to kind of like. There are those moments when you don’t have your primary reader – and if you read a book you bought from Amazon, it will sync across your devices. Not like my life is ruined if I have to go and find the page – but it’s nice not to have to.

Kobo Wins

  • The Kobo has many more fonts, and much more choice when it comes to setting up your font size and line spacing exactly how you want them. Compared to the Kobo, the Kindle is very limited indeed.
  • Kobo allows you to customise your homepage much more: it has a series of tiles which you can dismiss or move around. You get tiles for the last couple of books you’ve been reading, the last few books you added, and so forth. This is a better layout, I think, than Kindle, which uses a third of the screen real estate for recommendations. Kindle gives you an option to disable the home screen completely, so you just get your list of books. However, I quite like having the book I’m currently reading front-and-centre, and a link to my Goodreads want-t0-read list. But if I don’t want recommendations, I have to go without the other features of  the home page.
  • Kindle does not have a dedicated space for your currently-reading book: the big slot that looks as if it ought to be actually changes to whatever book you did something to last – whether that is reading it, or adding it, or whatever. Unlike Kobo, which does have a dedicated space for the last two or three books you were reading.
  • Kobo seems to be better at side-loading books. I have a lot of non-Amazon books, which I side-load with Calibre. When loading hundreds of books onto my Kobo (as I do every time I get a new device), the Kobo has taken several minutes to digest them, but not as long as the Kindle. The Kindle looks like everything is fine, but when you try to search for the new books shows “not yet indexed”. Looking on the internet, indexing sometimes takes hours or even days. 


I am going to keep the Kindle, and it will become my primary reading device (and so I should hope, at that price).

For me, this was my first Kindle, so I get the “Kindle experience” for the first time, and I would not have bought the older Kindles: they are all bigger and heavier than my Kobo. The lightness of the Oasis was a major factor for me.

However, many of the things that push me in that direction are not completely related to the Kindle Oasis itself – more to its essential Kindleness: the integration with Goodreads, the link with the Kindle apps. I do really like the lightness of the Oasis, and its flat screen, but my Kobo was perfectly good. More than good – the Kobo is a very nice piece of kit in its own right.

Moreover, the Kobo has a nicer and more useful homepage, as it always shows the book you last opened, and you can rearrange it pretty much how you want.

So I’d say… unless you want an Oasis just because you really want the best Kindle out there, it’s a lovely piece of kit but ultimately not worth the price as a reader. But something that many reviewers seem to forget is that practical utility is only part of the reason why people buy a product. It’s like cars: a Toyota Aygo and a Porsche Boxer are both relatively small cars that will get you from A to B. But people still buy Porsches, because they don’t just want sensible transport – they want a luxury experience. The Oasis is like the Porsche of readers: expensive and luxurious, but if all you want is something to allow you to read ebooks, not the one to go for. If you’re a serious reader, and you want the luxury, and you’re more concerned about the physical form factor than having the ability to set up your text exactly how you want it, then the Oasis will give you what you want.

Writing a short story

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pen-and-paperI’m a member of the New Street Authors writers’ group, and at the last meeting, someone had the bright idea of producing a group anthology. One short story from each of us. Of course, we said. Great idea, we said.

OK, write a story by the end of July. Subject: New Street, Birmingham.


My writing has always tended towards novels, just like my reading. I’ve never been much for short stories. However, short stories are useful for an indie writer – they’re good publicity material, if nothing else. Write some, publish and price them free – and people can try your writing out, risk free. Plus, short stories can be fun – if you’re writing (or reading) in a series, short stories are good to explore ideas or secondary characters that are never going to get their own novel, for one reason or another.

But writing short stories is different to novels – and even though my number of novels currently stands at <1, I know that.

Firstly, you can’t use the same kind of idea. Novels sprawl. Anything more than 50,000 words is a novel, which gives you an awful lot of room to play with. A short story is generally accepted as under 7,500 words. You can’t just take a novel-type idea and chop bits off until it fits. You have to find an idea that is naturally <7,500 words long. This is a good thing. Think about all those ideas that you binned because there just wasn’t enough there to make a novel: those are short-story (or novella) ideas. This does not mean that they are necessarily less good. Think Fabergé. Just because it isn’t a Tintoretto that covers an entire wall in the gallery doesn’t make Fabergé’s little jewelled eggs any less art. They are small and perfect in every detail. That’s short stories: an idea that is exactly the right size, perfectly delivered.

Secondly, if you worry too much about word count as you’re writing your first draft, you’ll never get anywhere. That’s pretty much the same for novels, but with short stories the pressure to keep your writing tight is greater. With a novel, you might cut thousands of words when you edit your first draft. With a short story, every paragraph, every line, counts, and it induces a sense of paranoia. But that’s for later. Just get the damn thing down. Worry about word count later. Apart from anything else, the first draft often shows you that what you thought was going to work, actually doesn’t. Write now. Fix it later.

Thirdly, everyone knows that novels take ages to write (“ages” being anything from about a month to fifty years). Not until you try to write a short story do you realise that the same thing is true of short stories. It may only be 7,500 words, but it’s probably not going to be something you can knock out in a day. Accept it, and keep typing.

Right… back to the carnivorous worms.

Review: The Victorian House

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The Victorian House
The Victorian House by Judith Flanders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was excellent.

This is not a book for people who are already knowledgeable on the topic of domestic daily life during the Victorian age in England. Flanders does, however, manage to combine an informative overview with a considerable degree of entertainment value – especially if you read the footnotes, were most of the humour is.

I read this as research for my novel (which will be finished within the next year or so). My novel is set in a Victorianesque world, and this book was excellent for background. Flanders does not get bogged down in detail, but she does manage to get the ‘feel’ of the period very well indeed. One thing that particularly struck me is the sheer filthiness of the cities (particularly London, as the largest city) – Flanders does not just say “it was filthy” but demonstrates by discussing little adjustments people had to make, like not putting out a white tablecloth until a short time before the meal, or it would go grey. This level of atmospheric pollution is something that we just don’t have to deal with in the UK any more, so it’s hard to imagine without the examples Flanders gives.

Another interesting area is the illustration of how limited many middle-class women’s lives were – again, something that we find it difficult to appreciate from our twenty-first century standpoint. We might intellectually know that the Victorian period was probably the one in English history where women’s rights and status in society reached their lowest ebb, but Flanders provides illustrative facts, including that since women were supposed to spend their lives catering to their families (particularly the men), pretty much the only way for a woman to get some time to herself was to be ill – which provided a cast-iron excuse for retiring to one’s bedroom and closing the door. It provides an interesting alternative viewpoint on the fragile Victorian lady – women’s health was generally poorer than men’s because of their poorer diet and lack of fresh air and exercise, but being a professional invalid definitely had its attractions for any woman who wanted to escape the endless round of service to others. This was something I hadn’t even considered before, and it’s the sort of thing that shines a light from a different angle and makes everything suddenly look different. One example Flanders gives is Florence Nightingale, who spent many years as an invalid – but managed to drive huge changes in public health by writing from her bedroom. Would she have been able to do that work if she had – as society expected of a woman – either got married and spent her life looking after the husband and kids, or moved in with a relative to act as an unpaid housekeeper?

This kind of little detail often gets missed from the big histories, and it’s vital for anyone who wants to reproduce the world (or something like it) because it is important for how people lived in their day-to-day lives. Writing big plot events pushes the story along, but writing the background detail makes it feel real.

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Ebooks on the way down? I don’t think so.

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The Bookworm, a painting by Carl Spitzweg

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg

The Guardian has published yet another article prophesying the demise of ebooks:

…Now the official Publishers’ Association confirms the trend. Last year digital content sales fell last year from £563m to £554m. After years on a plateau, physical book sales turned up, from £2.74bn to £2.76bn.
They have been boosted by the marketing of colouring and lifestyle titles, but there is always a reason. The truth is that digital readers were never remotely in the same ballpark. The PA regards the evidence as unmistakable, “Readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital.” Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen…

Well, speak for yourself.

I can only speak for myself, too, but my experience is exactly the opposite.

Firstly, to me, a book is not a physical object: it is the author’s words. If I bought a paper book and all the pages were blank, I wouldn’t say “Well, it’s the feel of it in my hands that’s important, isn’t it?” – I’d demand a refund.

I’m not the first person to think this way: Ray Bradbury said it before me, in Fahrenheit 451At the very end, Guy Montag is introduced to the people who, by memorising a book, take on the identity of that book, with the aim of preserving the author’s words for future generations. These people are not hoarding paper copies: they’re hoarding the actual words, to be set down in physical form later, when it’s safe.

Further back, the Indian sacred texts, the Vedas, were transmitted via oral tradition for centuries before they were written down. In the Guardian‘s view, then, these books are not “real books” because they are not set down on paper.

I was an early adopter of ebooks, on the grounds that was cheaper to re-buy my paper novel collection in ebook format than to buy a new house, and that was the choice with which I was faced (either that or go and live in a tent in the garden, because getting rid of some books was clearly not a viable option). My first “ereader” was a PDA with a battery life of about an hour. Any serious reading had to be done with the device in the charging cradle, and even a technophile such as I had to admit that this method of reading was never going to challenge paper books.

Then e-Ink came on the scene, and I bought my first ebook reader, which was a very expensive (by today’s standards) iRex iLiad. It was wonderful: it was light, it was portable, and I could have as many books on it as I wanted. And its battery lasted more than an hour, goodbye PDA.

And so I bought books. My dealer of choice was BooksOnBoard, and I bought so many books that they made my account a “trusted account” so there were no daily limits – I was spending over £100 at a time, replacing my thousands of novels with electronic books. Of course, I could have scanned the paper books and converted them that way (and for those I couldn’t get digitally, I did), but scanning a paper book is only the beginning of the process. Even with good OCR, you have to go back and fix the mistakes. It takes hours, and even if you “pay” yourself a stupidly low hourly wage, it’s still massively cheaper to buy a new, retail e-copy.

Nearly ten years later, my ebook conversion project isn’t finished – but there are only a handful of books left to do.

So, in my little n=1 study, purchases of ebooks have dropped dramatically from the early days – but this is not because I’m less interested in ebooks, or because I’ve returned to paper. My initial ebook-buying frenzy was the result of conversion of my existing library to digital; I’m now on the plateau, buying digital to add to my library. So of course my purchasing has slowed down.

I still buy a lot of books – more than I ever did before digital. I don’t have to think “where will I put this?” because my book reader has a capacity of thousands. I can buy, download, and be reading in seconds or minutes: buying a book doesn’t take hours or days. Plus, many books are cheaper now, so I can afford more of them. Digital is the high-volume reader’s dream come true: infinite bookshelf space, low prices, and a massive choice.

I don’t think that I’m unique amongst readers. I would bet that a good proportion of the initial sales figures of ebooks was readers like me, re-buying books they already had on paper, in a format that they could read on their new reading devices. Now that initial phase is over, we’re back to “normal service has been resumed” in ebook-buying land – or, more accurately, “normal service has begun”.

Likewise for reading devices: in the beginning, everyone who wanted to read digitally had to buy a book reader. The only alternative was desktop/laptop, and that’s not really viable. Now, the initial distribution phase is over: everyone who wanted a book reader has got one, and new sales are increasingly often going to be existing customers replacing their old readers (and not everyone will do that every year) or new customers (children/young people getting their first reader). Additionally, there are new ways of reading ebooks: affordable tablet computers have arrived. The first iPad was released in 2010, and it was as expensive as a top-flight bit of kit might be expected to be. Nowadays, the price of an entry-level tablet computer has dropped: you can buy a Kindle Fire for under £50 – which is cheaper than the entry-level Kindle, at £59.99. Of course eInk book reader sales have dropped – not only has the initial rush subsided, but there are now options that just weren’t available in 2007 when I bought my iLiad.

People considering the difference between ebooks and paper should also consider those people who can’t read ordinary paper books. The obvious population are partially-sighted people. My husband is a teacher, and one of his students (years ago now) was partially sighted. She couldn’t read ordinary-sized text, and the only large-print books available were those aimed at older people: Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, and so on – hardly calculated to appeal to a fourteen-year-old girl. My husband showed her his iLiad, and she was instantly entranced. Here was a way for her to read the same books her friends were reading: every book could be large print. Her parents bought her a reader, and later thanked my husband.

Then there are the people for whom manipulating a paper book is difficult. What if you only have one hand, or no hands? What if you can’t manage the weight? Book readers are light, and they can be held and the pages turned with only one hand. Or they can be propped up and the pages turned with only a touch.

On the other hand, Amazon has now opened two physical bookshops. Why would they do that if paper books are dying? I would suggest several reasons:

  • I think paper books are dying, but they are doing so very slowly. Paper will be around for a number of years yet, and Amazon is not the sort of company to let any business opportunity slip through its corporate fingers (and let’s not forget, Amazon sell paper books too).
  • Physical browsing is different from internet browsing. Cookies and algorithms show you the books the system things you’ll like, and that’s often a good thing; I’ve made some great discoveries that way. But browsing the shelves of a bookshop can introduce you to things you would never have encountered otherwise. Plus, just browsing a bookshop is fun.
  • Amazon also sells its electronics – Kindle, TV, Echo, etc – in its physical stores. Being able to inspect these gadgets in person before buying is much more important than with books. Despite what the Guardian says, if you’re buying a novel, you’re buying it for the story (which you can still check out online with the free sample), not the great typesetting and the cream-tinted heavy paper pages. (Or maybe that’s what Guardian journalists do buy books for. Miaow!)
  • Amazon is the biggest bookseller in the world: it can afford to open, and if necessary subsidise, a few physical bookshops.
  • If I were a paranoid person who thought that Amazon was really out to destroy the bookselling industry, then I would think that this was the next stage in Amazon’s campaign. After all, people who buy books from an Amazon physical bookshop are still buying from Amazon. And if they’re buying from Amazon, they’re not buying from Barnes & Noble, or Waterstones, or whatever the alternative is. Guess who wins?

So what are my predictions for the ebook market, if I think the Guardian is wrong?

  1. Paper will be the format-of-choice for non-fiction for the foreseeable future. The ease of flipping back and forth, and the indexing, make paper a good choice for non-fiction. Unless, of course, e-textbooks become more like mini downloadable websites, to be used mostly on tablets. I don’t think (at present) eInk is the best choice for books that one typically does not read start-to-finish as the page turns are just a fraction too slow.
  2. Paper novels will be around for the next few years – at least 5-10, and probably more. Moving from paper to digital is a big change, bigger than moving from vinyl to downloads (via cassettes and CDs) was for music. Books have always been physical objects, unlike music. It’s much easier, psychologically, to move from buying a music CD to downloading, because the experience of music doesn’t change; you put your music-format-of-choice in the player, and away you go – it still comes through your headphones or speakers in the same old way. Books are different: it’s a big culture change to move from rows of paper objects with pretty covers on your shelves, to electronic files on your computer/reading device. So the change will be slow, but I think it will happen. Eventually, the many practical advantages of digital will win out over sentiment and habit.
  3. The mass-market paperback is going to be the first victim. The combination of bigger profit margins on ebooks and the rise of indie publishing will result in smaller print runs of mass-market paperbacks, and then a move to print-on-demand as print runs become too small to be viable. This will be seen first in indie publishing (where print-on-demand is the norm already) and small presses. Eventually, the larger publishers will go print-on-demand too.
  4. The hardback will stick around for a lot longer. The hardback is the format of choice for occasions when appearance counts: gifts; presentations and prizes; and reading posh literary fiction on the train.
  5. Paper novels are unlikely to die completely for the foreseeable future, if only because there will be the die-hards (like those who swear vinyl is better than digital for music) who want paper and will provide a market for it, even if at the print-on-demand level.
  6. The dedicated book reader is here to stay. Occasional readers will probably read on their smartphones or tablets, but high-volume readers are more likely to want a dedicated device that is light, has excellent battery life, and doesn’t make their eyes ache.

Time will tell which of us is right!

Review: The Faraday Cage

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The Faraday Cage
The Faraday Cage by Steve Turnbull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an anthology of five stories set in the same steampunk universe, in which the Faraday effect is used to nullify gravity, thus allowing both air-breathing flight and spaceflight. There are also colonies on Venus and Mars and several space stations.

The existence of the colony on Venus requires (given what we now know about Venus) a degree more suspension of disbelief than is usual as we have to ignore what we know to be true: that Venus has a mean surface temperature of 462 degrees C, and atmospheric pressure at the surface 92 times greater than earth, making human colonisation highly unlikely. However, the steampunk genre leans heavily on the legacy of Victorian science fiction writers, in which trips to Venus feature regularly (Voyage to Venus, Journey to Venus, A Trip to Venus etc), so this is forgivable.

The Haemophage
On a mining base in the asteroid belt, people start dying by having their blood sucked out. The main character, the station’s security chief, must solve the murders – his job made more difficult (or not?) by the arrival of a mysterious woman. I particularly liked the setting of this one, and would like to read more about the main characters, both of whom were more interesting than could be properly explored in the word count allowed. The murders were rather slow to appear and the resolution was rather quick, but still a very enjoyable story – admirably fitted, I think, to being the prequel to a full-length novel. Hint, hint.

Taking the Cure
The main character, a young ensign on his first deployment, is faced with a bigger problem than any ensign should have to cope with. This was one of my two favourites in the book. It’s the kind of story where the impact doesn’t really hit you until about half an hour after you’ve finished reading it. Then you realise that the motives of one of the characters could be read in two entirely different ways – putting a completely different spin on the ending. Very, very good. This, I think, is going to stay with me for a while.

Iron Curtain
My other favourite. The main character, not a military type like his brothers, goes to Russia to build a “Faraday Floor” for the Czar’s family. This is the story of a young man whose unaggressive attitude is a disappointment to his family, but who is determined to make his own way and earn enough money to marry the woman he loves. The relationship between the two young people was done well, and the ending was just right, I think. It didn’t have quite the delayed impact of Taking the Cure but it had a depth that ensures it stays with you.

Dear Prudence
Girl meets boy. Misunderstandings ensue. Etc. My least-favourite story in the anthology. I thought the two young lovers were each equally wet and annoying (but the dog was quite amusing). Luckily, the rest of the anthology makes up for it. This is also the only story that had virtually no steampunk element. Although airships and a couple of gadgets were mentioned, they were not important to the story and could have been removed without much trouble. In fact, it occurs to me that the reverse could equally have happened: the steampunk bits added afterwards, to make a standard historical romance fit into a steampunk anthology.

The Computationer
Gilda Dettwiler needs a Babbage Analytical engine. An air-plane which crashed within a few miles of her home probably has one on board; if she can salvage it, it might solve several of her and her family’s problems. This one is a straightforward Boys’ Own (or maybe Girls’ Own!) adventure, with dangers both human and natural, and unexpected allies. A quick, enjoyable read, and a good one to round off the anthology, ending it on a high note.

Overall, a solid four stars. A seriously recommended read if you like your steampunk with a bit of depth to it – particularly Taking the Cure and Iron Curtain.

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Review: The Custodian of Marvels

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The Custodian of Marvels
The Custodian of Marvels by Rod Duncan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fitting end to an excellent trilogy – except that it’s apparently not a trilogy and not the end (says the author! – hooray!). I think it is the best book of the three by a considerable margin – not to say that the others weren’t good, because they were. This one was just so good that I ended up not doing anything I had planned to do, in favour of carrying on reading.

This is essentially a heist book: Elizabeth Barnabus is persuaded to join a gang intending to break into, and steal from, the International Patent Office. It’s known that the IPO keeps examples of “unseemly science” that it deems not conducive to the good of the common man. If some of those marvels could be stolen, the thieves might live very comfortably on the proceeds.

Or the IPO itself might be destroyed…

There is a great deal of action here; for the first time, Elizabeth is taking the initiative – and I think that’s intentional on the part of the author. Elizabeth has spent two books running away – now she can’t run any further, and she can’t hide. The time has come to stand, and to fight back. Which she does.

This book includes many things that I enjoy: intellectual property law; clocks; locks; filing systems. But what I liked the most, I think, were the interactions between Elizabeth and the other gang members, each of whom had their own motivation for joining the heist. They are all real people, with lives outside the book, which have led them to take part such a dangerous plan.

The heist itself does not go as planned (obviously) but what is discovered, and what is left hidden, bring the story to a very interesting end. I find myself wondering whether Duncan intends to leave it there – which he could very well do – or continue it on (now I know he intends to continue – excellent!). There are certainly enough loose ends to support further books in the sequels – but to leave it there would also be satisfying, in a way. Life is not neat and tidy. Most people’s real life stories do not end in such a way, to allow the book to be closed with the knowledge that nothing interesting ever happens to that person again.

But I wonder: what happens when you think that your choice is between death and victory, but you turn out to be wrong? And how do you define victory?

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Review: Unseemly Science

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Unseemly Science
Unseemly Science by Rod Duncan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unusually for a second book in the series, I think this one was even better than the first.

Elizabeth Barnabus is living a double life, both as herself and as her male twin. The events of Book 1 are still having an effect – although Elizabeth now owns her boat free and clear, she has also come to the negative attention of the authorities…

Unseemly Science follows Elizabeth as she attempts to solve a mystery relating to the ice farmers (an excellent concept!) and avoid legal threats to her liberty at the same time. And somebody seems to be following her…

And why is the Patent Office so interested in the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook anyway?

One might also ask why the young Patent Office official from the previous book seems so interested in Elizabeth personally, but one would probably get a pitying look if one did. I look forward to seeing how that one plays out…

One thing I like about this trilogy is that Elizabeth is very much not in control of events. Even when she thinks she is, things have a habit of turning around on her. She is almost powerless in the face of her enemies, and much of the time, pretty much all she can do is dodge one bullet at a time. She knows she is in danger, and this gives the books what I think is a realistic feeling of threat: this is not the kind of book where the underdog suddenly develops amazing powers of strategy and a host of allies to take her from being at the bottom of the pile to being a series threat to the powers-that-be. Elizabeth is not a threat: she is continually one step away from getting squashed flat. However, she has something that powerful people want – but what is it?

I shall now go and acquire the next book in the series – The Custodian of Marvels – to see how the trilogy plays out.

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Strange Names

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JusticeTerry Pratchett’s novels include a variety of characters with strange names. Many of them live in the mountain kingdom of Lancre, where people do things their own way. And where “Chlamydia” is regarded as a pretty name for a girl (but hard to spell, so the girl got called “Sally” instead), or three brothers get called Primal, Medial and Terminal (educated family). Or consider the gravedigger in Ankh-Morpork, Legitimate First (“can’t blame a mother for being proud”).

But does this ever actually happen in real life?

Snopes thinks not, taking the view that such stories are thinly veiled racism, or any other -ism, deliberately poking fun at minority groups. Which in some cases, they may be – but that is not to say that things like this don’t happen.

My husband went to university with the daughter of Mr and Mrs Harbour, whom they had named “Pearl”. A pretty, old-fashioned name, yes – but obviously Mr and Mrs Harbour didn’t think about the years of teasing their poor daughter would endure when they decided to have their little joke. Another classmate’s name was originally “Starshine” (my husband was born in the 1960s…) but she had changed it by deed poll to “Stella” when she hit 18. As a teacher, he still comes across some fairly awful things that parents do to their children when they pick a name. “Theresa Green”, for example. Or “Kitana” which is quite pretty, but more embarrassing if you know your parents tried to name you after a Japanese sword but didn’t check the spelling. Then, there was the poor girl called “Creamy”.

But usually, it’s not quite at the level of “Chlamydia”.

This week, a case in the Court of Appeal caught my attention because it dealt with exactly this situation. A mother had decided to name her newborn twins, a girl and boy, “Cyanide” (the girl) and “Preacher” (the boy). “Cyanide”, said the mother, was a pretty name for a girl, and besides, because Hitler and Goebbels killed themselves with cyanide, it was associated with positive things. The midwife contacted social services with this information, concerned about the effects on the girl twin if she was to go through life named after a deadly poison. And so it reached court, and then eventually the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal (bench of three judges sitting) decided that the court had inherent jurisdiction to hear the case, and that it would not be in the girl’s best interests to be named “Cyanide” – considering how cruel children are, and also that in the 21st century, we use our first names much more frequently than in the past. It’s now very difficult to go through life being “Ms Smith” – first names are the norm, and if yours is embarrassing, that’s a problem. Interestingly, they also considered the boy’s name. The judges decided that although “Preacher” was an unusual name, it wasn’t the sort of name that would inevitably expose its owner to ridicule and bullying. However, because children often ask how their names were chosen, it would not be fair to the girl twin to find out that while her brother had been named by their mother after a respected member of society, the court had had to stop their mother naming her after a deadly poison. You can read the full judgement here: C (Children) [2016] EWCA Civ 374 (14 April 2016). The court therefore decided that both twins should be named by their older siblings.

So yes, people do give their children embarrassing and/or inappropriate names in real life, for a variety of reasons. Some parents have reasons which seem to them to be good (like the mother whose daughter is not going to be called “Cyanide”) and others seem to be motivated more by “oh how cute and amusing” without thought for what it must be like to go through life introducing yourself as “Pearl Harbour” or “Theresa Green”.

From the point of view of an author, this is great news. You can give your character a name that will torture him/her every day of his/her life and know you are being absolutely realistic!

Review: Shadow Rites

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Shadow Rites
Shadow Rites by Faith Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With Shadow Rites Faith Hunter has done it again. The book starts with immediate action – a magical attack on Jane’s house. Who is responsible, and why? What did they hope to achieve? Jane has other problems, too, with the Witch Council coming to New Orleans, and Yellowrock Securities being responsible for security at the event. She’s pretty sure that it isn’t going to be straightforward, and indeed, she proves to be right.

There’s a mad master vampire in a pit, eyes on people’s hands, and other mysterious magics that are doubtless going to come back to bite Jane later. If Faith Hunter had this planned all along (and I think she probably did), I’m going to have to go back and read the earlier books to see what I missed! This kind of thing is, for me, the mark of an excellent author – one who lays plans years in advance, waiting to ambush her readers with something amazing that they didn’t see coming (but should have, except that the author sneakily distracted them). I love reading book #10 and thinking “So that’s why X happened in book #1.”

Since witches are involved, Molly, Angie, Evan and little Evan are featured in this book. Molly is becoming less irritating as a character, and less inclined to screw up, expect Jane to sort out the problem, and then blame Jane for the results. Angie, too, is coming into her own. I’m starting to like Angie – she’s growing out of the cutesy-little-girl phase and showing hints of being a young lady to be reckoned with.

And Edmund. I do like Edmund. Once again, one gets the distinct impression that Edmund is playing his own game – a long, deep one. The stakes (ha!) must be high, because he’s taking some big risks. He’s also got a sly sense of humour that most people don’t notice.

Jane, too, is developing. At the beginning of the series, she was working on her own. Now she’s got partners and family. She’s building a life in New Orleans, and I’m wondering when she’ll realise it.

I’m thoroughly looking forward Cold Reign, which is the next in the series.

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