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Friday Five: 5 Favourite Books of the Half Year

Sunlight PilgrimsSix month check-in! It has been a blissful productive year for reading, so I'm - of course - cheating this list with a lot of subcategories.

The only rule is that I've excluded rereads (which knocks out things like Neuromancer and Modesty Blaise, which, as we all know, are two of the bestest books ever).

Five Favourite 2016 Books So Far

Jenni Fagan's The Sunlight Pilgrims 

Glorious. Life and love and coming of age in a rural Scottish trailer park. While the world quietly dies. A lyrical book about apocalypses of all sizes and how people can be fragile - and strong - in so many different ways. (Tangent! Literally no one else agrees that the exquisite, brilliant, soul-shattering The Panopticon was SF. The setting of The Sunlight Pilgrims will definitely put an end to that. But, in the quest to annoy genre border-sentries of all shapes and sizes, I'm going to argue that TSP is Young Adult. Yes, that's wholly to do with one of the protagonists, Stella, being a kid, but,... it works. This is (or could be) 'issue YA', and Stella, who is mid-transition, is an inspiring, infuriating, inescapably charming character who steals the book.)

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"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" by Adam Roberts

rey hanging with bb8

The most interesting thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens has to do with the cultural moment into which it was received. I don’t mean that it has been greeted so rapturously by fans and cinema-goers, that it has already earned a shedload of money, that it is set fair to overtake Avatar as the highest grossing movie of all time—we could all see that coming a mile off. I mean the acute and often panicky paranoia about spoilers this release has occasioned. How angry people get! Spoiling Star Wars became suddenly one the worst things a person could do, just below genocide and just above admitting a fondness for Coldplay.

[Editor's note: ...which is probably the right time to say - "contains spoilers".]

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Pygmalia: Photo Essay

Pleasure merchantThe following photo essay is a stand-in for this month's Pygmalia blog. Yes, I know you were looking forward to another rambling musing in re: Galateas and such, but instead, you can thrill at the sight of various locations from The Pleasure Merchant, out in paperback and ebook (Kindle and Nook) this month! 

The Pleasure Merchant; or, The Modern Pygmalion is a novel near and dear to my heart, and going around London looking first-hand for the first time at many of the set pieces was curious and intriguing. I actually teared up a bit at the sight of 12 Bloomsbury Square. I know! 

I love London. It's my favorite city in the world, and tramping around all over the place seeking various addresses in real life, rather than on Google Maps, was really just such a thrill. Many thanks to my hosts Jared and Anne for hosting me as I cavorted around, being overly excited about things like... well, like putting money on an Oyster card, fumbling through change, eating curry, saying "Sorry!" to everyone, and so on and so forth. Many thanks as well to Mark and Rachel Newton for allowing me to come to the country to impose on their hospitality, as well.

So, here we go on a trip into the heart of 18th century London - as much as we can by looking at pictures of modern London! Just imagine everyone is way sicker and instead of cars and Arc'teryx jackets everyone is in carriages and wearing frock coats. 

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Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade HouseThrough a small, easy-to-miss door in the equally easy-to-miss Slade Alley, those who are invited, knowingly or unknowingly, can find the garden entrance to Slade House.

The house itself is large and imposing, perhaps past its prime, but always a surprise to find in the context of its surroundings. In fact, how does a house this big, with grounds this extensive, even fit in the apparently available space? Why is it impossible to find its front entrance? And why, on the last Saturday of October every nine years, is someone brought by circumstance to Slade House and never seen again?

I’ll confess that I’ve always found David Mitchell a difficult writer to get on with. Most of my past efforts to get through his books have foundered in the early stages, though for a variety of reasons, so it’s hard to make a definitive “I don’t like the way he writes X” statement. Slade House proved the exception, which it achieved largely by being pacy, intriguing, engaging and creepy in a way that draws in the reader - for the most part - pretty effectively.

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Review Round-up: Flamesong, Sledgehammer and The Gameshouse

Gameshouse - PK

Three recent reads - a vintage fantasy, a terrific new trilogy and a particularly heavy-handed crime thriller.

Claire North's Gameshouse trilogy (2015), with apologies, as I did my frothing fanboy thing on Twitter, but, these are simply brilliant. The trilogy is comprised of three novelettes (novellas? long shorts? maxistories? minibooks?), each with a different narrator, setting and - wonderfully - tense. All three feature players in the enigmatic Gameshouse - a location/organisation for those that gamble, and gamble to win. The outer room is for the games we all know and love. The inner room is for the real players, the ones that manipulate lives and nations. 

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Review Round-up: Knitters, Pirates, Cops, Princesses and Priests

TheBig SinA quick-fire round-up of eight recent holiday reads - including some vintage mysteries, a brand new fantasy, a YA that'll have you in stitches (fnar) and a saucy pirate romance. Most of these were recommendations via Twitter, so thank you all for sending them my way!

Prologue Books are one of my go-to publishers - whomever is putting together this list of out-of-print fiction is doing a cracking job. (Also, they use Amazon well, so I can find their books by searching Prologue Crime or Prologue Western, which is really helpful.) Anyway, that baseline of praise established... Jack Webb's The Big Sin (1952) might be one of my favourites so far. Webb's story ticks all the right narrative boxes: a cop versus a Big City machine, a man framed for murder, criminals being forced to choose between doing 'bad' and doing 'evil', the works. And, beneath it all, he underpins everything with a discussion of faith.

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Pompidou Posse by Sarah Lotz

Pompidou PosseFreedom's just another word for nothing to lose.

And with that, Janis Joplin captures the beautiful/painful dichotomy of Sarah Lotz's Pompidou Posse. Vicki and Sage are seventeen and practically drowning in freedom. After an incident (fire, building, art college), the two friends make the only 'rational' decision: they run away to Paris. Armed with Pet Semetary, some 2000AD comics, a few of their favourite sculptures and, of course, their boots, the duo head to the city of love to find themselves. They're young, they're artistic; they've got enough money for at least two bottles of cheap wine... and, plus, they're together. What else do they need?

As it turns out: quite a bit. 

Pompidou Posse oscillates between the joy and the agony of perpetual freedom. Vicki and Sage are responsible to no one and to nothing; their anarchic existence is purely about scraping together enough money for wine, shelter and the occasional shower. Any excess is spent on, well... more wine (or other addictions). This is freedom: they're making art, they're making friends, and they're living beholden to no one.

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The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks

The-Broken-Eye-HCI'm reading and reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can follow along here. Voting has closed, but the awards aren't announced yet, so I'm plowing on...

The Broken Eye (2014) is the third in the four book Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks. The books take place in a world where light is power, with 'drafters' as the wizards able to wield said power. The Chromeria - an alliance of powerful drafters - has been (more or less) running the world, stewarding over a (more or less peaceful) sort of aristocracy. Although drafters are the top of the pecking order, there are checks and balances in place - largely involving noble families, the high church, a handful of military organisations and a seemingly-infinite number of secret conspiracies. 

Arguably the greatest 'check' is the cost of drafting - as the wizards use their power, it begins to change them. The immediate effect is an emotional one: drafting 'blue', for example, makes you more logical, while 'red' makes you angry. But there are long-term physical changes as well, with drafters eventually becoming more and more colour-infused, and eventually turning into 'wights' - colour-monsters. Although drafters can rule the world (and largely do), it is difficult for them to maintain that power. As a last nod to their humanity, for centuries drafters on the verge of 'going wight' (pun!) have willingly sacrificed themselves. They live fast, die young, and leave very colourful corpses.

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Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

Prince FoolsI'm reading and reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can follow along here. Voting has ended, but the prize isn't announced yet, so I'm forging on...

Prince of Fools (2014) is the start of a brand new series from Mark Lawrence. Lawrence's previous trilogy, The Broken Empire, picked up last year's DGLA with its concluding volume - Emperor of Thorns.1

Prince Jalan Kendeth is a noble and a jackass - and he would, I think, be the first to admit it. Born to privilege, but not responsibility, his primary concern in life is avoiding his creditors. And when Snorri Snagason - a captive Northerner - is hauled into court, Jalan thinks he's found a way. Snorri's a scary bastard, and, after pulling a string or two, he's Jalan's scary bastard - a pit-fighter that can get Jalan out of debt.

Except Snorri doesn't quite behave to plan. He escapes and, after an unfortunate magical incident, Jalan's dragged off with him. The two are linked together by a backfiring magical spell - one that's been kept from completion by Jalan and Snorri being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now they're two halves of an occult whole, a broken circuit. They can't bear to be together, but, magically linked, they can't stay apart. The heroic Snorri and the unscrupulous Jalan are off in search of a cure - a search that will take them through all the broken kingdoms of the land, and eventually, to a deep dark horror lurking in the frozen North.

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Age of Iron by Angus Watson

Age of IronI'm reading and reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can follow along here. Voting has closed, but the winners aren't announced until August, so I'm plowing on...

Age of Iron (2014) is a gory, goofy, visceral romp. It combines a historical setting with shameless anachronism, enjoyable characters with gory violence and a simple (if largely reactive) plot that's focused on causing as much destruction as possible over the course of a few hundred pages.

Dug is a warrior - he's earned his really big hammer and his very impressive mail shirt. He's also, in a now-familiar trend that can be traced back to the works of David Gemmell himself, 'too old for this shit'. Experienced enough to understand he's not immortal, Dug's looking for an easy gig - someplace where he can wave his weapon around, but avoid taking a spear to the face. 

Unfortunately, his retirement gig - a sort of warrior-in-residence to a small town - comes to an abrupt and bloody end, when said town winds up in the path of a power-hungry local king, Zadar. Dug gets the hell out of dodge, but only after witnessing a massacre. 

Meanwhile, on the massacring side, Lowa is the leader of a troop of immensely talented archers - several laps further along in the arms race than anyone else in proto-Britain. Unfortunately, she's wound up on Zadar's bad side, and she too needs to get the hell out of dodge.

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