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IMG_0001What’s it all about?

In The Executioner’s Heart we are dropped into an alternative steampunk Victorian world where Scotland Yard is called in to a series of murders The victims have had their chests cracked open and their hearts removed, and because there is a ritual element to the deaths the head of the investigation, Sir Charles Bainbridge, calls in Sir Maurice Newbury and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, who specialise in dealing with the supernatural in a scientific manner.

It quickly becomes clear that the legendary killer The Executioner is involved, but what’s the motive and why take the hearts?

Why did I want to read it?

I’m not sure where I came across this book but I know one of the attractions, besides the storyline (which let’s face it is quite cool) is the very lovely cover.

What did I think of it?

One chapter in I realised that this was not the first in the series of books about Newbury and Hobbes (it is in fact the fourth novel and there is also a book of short stories) but by then I was hooked and decided to continue (although pleasingly I realise that we have the first two on our shelves already – they belong to the Book God). I enjoyed it. It has a very nasty killer whose back story we come to learn as the plot unfolds, it has plotting and intrigue and spies and rituals and cults and action sequences and Queen Victoria is a totally monstrous figure, and of course it has a cliffhanger. Quite a big cliffhanger actually, will be interesting to see how it works out in the next novel which I think comes out this summer.

Great fun.

UPDATED due to appalling proofreading, dreadful spelling and the lack of closing bracket. Sloppy work if you ask me.

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AngelmakerI could actually review Angelmaker in one word – awesome. I totally, totally adored this book which was recommended  by my dear friend Silvery Dude who then bought it for me as a belated birthday present in Waterstones Piccadilly the day after the Oscar ceremony when I went to assist him in the spending of his Christmas book vouchers.

I also *fangirl squee* had a Twitter exchange with Nick Harkaway, the author, after which I swooned and then finished the book in a massive reading session on Good Friday.

This is the story of Joe Spork, who repairs clocks and automatons and other lovely mechanical devices in London, and is asked to fix something really peculiar which kicks off a whole series of events which brings him to the attention of secret bits of the government, a magnificent super villain, a notorious serial killer and a strange sect of monkish types. In this situation he finds himself in the company of the greatest lawyer in the world (sorry Silvery Dude) Mercer Cradle (on whom I now have a huge girly crush), the lovely Polly and the nonagenarian spy Edie Banister.

And then there are the mechanical bees.

This is just rollicking good fun, an exciting and pacy story with lovely, sympathetic, complex and realistic characters that I became very attached too. Without giving too much away (and deciding not to go on and on about Mercer but, you know, best thing in a lot of very very good things) I loved it when Joe decided to tap into the influence of his late Dad-with-a-criminal-past. I loved the fact that everything that happens in this has consequences both good and bad for the characters and so has a real heart of truth in amongst all the fantastical elements.

And there’s quite a bit of enjoyable naughtiness as well. For those who like that sort of thing (count me in).

Almost impossible to articulate exactly how wonderful this is. One of my absolute favourite reads of the year, can’t see it being shifted at all.

Rather unfairly, I feel as if I had been reading this book for decades, and that’s a shame because (a) it was really very enjoyable in many ways and (b) I have the other two books in the trilogy still to read so am taking a break and trying very hard not to not read them.

If that makes sense.

Because both the Book God and Silvery Dude enjoyed the story (SD has I believe now read them all) and I am not one to give in when the recommendations of bookish cohorts are causing me trouble (not that it’s a competition, no of course it isn’t, don’t be silly).

But it took me AGES to get through this. It’s not that I wasn’t having a good time with the lush prose and the melodrama and the plot twists and the villains, alliances made and lost and made again, all with some naughtiness to boot.

It was just a reluctance to pick the thing up; it was HEAVY in hardback, though undoubtedly a pretty book – what you can’t tell from the picture is that this is a white hardback with transparent blue plastic overlay (which I was always anxious not to damage, so that didn’t help) and an embossed black mask – masks are very important to this story. And it was tiring to read – something about the prose style which was so over the top (though it suited the story) that it was at times exhausting. But I struggled on through all these hardships because I liked the three main characters and I wanted to know what was going to happen.

So you have Celeste Temple, a young woman in a strange city who has just been dumped by her fiancé; Cardinal Chang who is a hired killer whose intended victim has already met foul play; and Dr Svenson, a medical man looking after a rather unpleasant prince engaged to be married to some poor girl. The stories of all three become intertwined with a far-ranging and diabolical conspiracy involving a mysterious painting and, of course, the glass books themselves. Which are blue.

The men are either dashing or villainous and on occasion villainously dashing; the women are chaste but brave, or vampish in a dastardly way, but all have heaving bosoms and a tendency to use their womanly wiles to manipulate the other characters for good or ill. The plot itself cracks along but I’m not entirely sure I understood what the point of it actually was. But there are steam trains and mines and converted castles and airships and a body count of significant proportions and it would probably make a brilliant TV series, and I will read the others at some point.

Honestly.

So if I was a lazy blogger I would probably just link to Raych’s post here and sit back because everything she says is absolutely right. But I do have stuff to say about this book and so will ignore my laziness and do the blogging thing.

Alexia Tarabotti has no soul (hence the title), which only a few select people know (and that doesn’t include anyone in her family). This lack of soul makes her unusual even in a Victorian society which accepts the existence of vampires, werewolves and ghosts. It also means that she can neutralise the supernatural abilities of others simply by touching them, which comes in pretty handy (pun unintentional).

The great fun of this book is its tone, which is very arch (to use an old-fashioned phrase). Actually, I could go further than that and say quite honestly that the novel is basically hugely enjoyable tosh. It has all the necessary elements:

  • feisty heroine who knows more than everyone suspects but whose talents aren’t recognised;
  • the handsome hero with whom she spends the whole story fighting but you just know she’s going to end up with him in huge romantic moment at some point;
  • sidekicks with varying levels of acceptability;
  • a nefarious plot which could represent the end of civilisation as it is known; and of course
  • the obligatory evil, twisted genius who must be stopped at all costs.

Oh, and because of the period in which this is set, an appearance by Queen Victoria herself.

I just loved it; not great art by any means but an indulgent, steampunkish romp which passes the time very pleasantly. I already have (and fully intend to read) the sequels.

Despite a TBR list that is in danger of constituting a library in its own right I haven’t stopped buying books, although I’m about to enter the pre-Christmas moratorium where the Book God and I swap our wish lists and sit on our hands until Santa has been.

And in advance of that looming date I really have been unbelievably bad on the purchasing front:

  • The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse – “It’s 1928. Freddie Watson is still giving for his brother, lost in the Great War. Driving through the foothills of the French Pyrenees, his car spins off the road in a snowstorm. Freddie takes refuge in an isolated village and there…..” I have her two previous books but haven’t read them yet, and this looks like it might be fun (and is far less chunky than the others)
  • Nancy Mitford: The Biography by Harold Acton – “This intimate biography draws a witty, real-life portrait of Nancy, based on the letters she intended to use for her autobiography…….” Sparkling and irresistible, apparently, and totally part of my current obsession with all things Mitford.
  • Changeless and Blameless by Gail Carriger – novels of vampires, werewolves, dirigibles and afternoon tea…… Again I have the first one in this series about Alexia Tarabotti but haven’t read it, so this is a bit of a chance, I suppose (what if I hate it??).
  • Blue Eyed Boy by Joanne Harris – “Once there was a widow with three sons, and their names were Black, Brown and Blue. Black was the eldest; moody and aggressive. Brown was the middle child; timid and dull. But Blue was his mother’s favourite. And he was a murderer.” Couldn’t resist it.
  • Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates – it’s a new book of short stories by the great JCO so of course I was going to get it.
  • Dreadnought by Cherie Priest – the sequel to Boneshaker which I got for Christmas (I think, may have been my birthday, too close to call) and still haven’t read. But I feel that I’m going to enjoy it when I get there.
  • Plain Kate by Erin Bow – I saw this on another blog but can’t remember whose (sorry); loved the cover and bought on impulse when in Forbidden Planet with Silvery Dude just after Hallowe’en (I bought The Unwritten 2 at the same time)
  • Decca edited by Peter Y Sussman – see Nancy above. I’m sure I’ll grow out of this at some point….
  • Coco Chanel by Justine Picardie – there was absolutely no way that once I’d got my hands on a copy I would be able to walk out of the bookshop without it. It’s important to recognise one’s limitations….
  • Tamara de Lempicka by Laura Claridge – “Born in 1899 to Russian aristocrats, Tamara de Lempicka escaped the Bolsheviks by exchanging her body for freedom, dramatically beginning a sexual career that included most of the influential men and women she painted.” Irresistible.

This is without doubt a beautifully written book. I finished it a while ago and have been mulling it over ever since, wondering what I could actually say about it without diminishing what was a truly lovely reading experience.

The Alchemy of Stone tells the story of Mattie, an automaton who has become emancipated (up to a point) and who has trained as an alchemist. It’s a dysfunctional society in which she lives, of Alchemists versus Mechanics, each with their own views on how the city should be run, and an underclass which appears to be rising up to overthrow the existing order.

Mattie treads a fine line between maintaining her independence and the need to find a way to get the thing she needs from the mechanic who made her – Loharri, who, though ostensibly letting her go, still holds the key which winds her heart.

I won’t say any more about the story itself, but it’s worth dwelling on the themes which develop within it.

This is a book about identity, what it means to be free, what it means perhaps to be a person. It’s also about class and oppression, about those who claim to know what’s best, about where women fit in to society, about the nature of difference, and about love. The quote on the cover of my edition says it better than I ever could:

A gorgeous meditation on what it means not to be human

And it has gargoyles.

And a man who absorbs the souls of the dead, who can still speak through him.

It’s steampunk at its best, with a main character of real substance, and an ending that I found moving, heart-breaking but also hopeful.

Seriously recommended. And if you’re not sure just look at Carl’s review here. Which has the wonderful cover that originally drew me to finding out about this book, though I’ve come to love the one on mine more.

I thought this was just lovely and am so glad that I was finally able to get my hands on a copy.

So I was trying to think how best to describe Bryan Talbot’s Grandville; hummed and hawed about steampunk, alternative history, anthropomorphic animals, played about with a few sentences but couldn’t get it quite right.

And then I thought “wonder what it say on the back of the book?” And that sort of solved my problem for me, cos what the blurb says is:

Inspired by the work of the nineteenth-century French illustrator Gerard, who worked under the nom-de-plume JJ Grandville, and the seminal science fiction illustrator Robida – not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rupert the Bear and Quentin Tarantino – Grandville is a steampunk masterpiece in which Detective Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard stalks a gang of ruthless killers through the streets of belle époque Paris.

And you know it would be very difficult to improve on that as a description; the only thing I can add is how wonderful the artwork is, how convincing the animals as characters are, what an interesting perspective it takes on terrorism, and that it’really is quite enjoyably violent in places. There’s a reference to a “hairless breed of chimpanzee that evolved in the town of Angouleme,” menial workers known as “doughfaces” , obviously humans, which adds a little bit of depth to the world Talbt has invented.

I absolutely loved this, devoured it in a sitting as you do, and can recommend it to anyone interested in Bryan Talbot’s work.

This is my first read for the Graphic Novel Challenge 2010.

So Christmas 2009 – not quite what I had expected. Stinking cold from 19 December onwards meant that I had little or no voice for significant parts of the holiday season (cheers all round from family, friends and co-workers as you might imagine) and I was also working most of the time (including part of Christmas Eve though I did give in to my cold around lunchtime). Christmas Day itself – opened presents, fell asleep for most of the day, dinner wonderful but late. That’s the advantage of just the two of us on the day, we can play it by ear and only have ourselves to please.

Main highlights so far:

  • The Gruffalo on Christmas Day was the surprising TV highlight for me – really sweet and very nicely done
  • Dr Who – well, a bit disappointing but I’m reserving my judgement until I’ve seen part two as this was so obviously a first-part-setting-up-the-big-denoument episode; but David Tennant was as lovely as ever, especially when he looked like he was going to cry….
  • Sherlock Holmes – the big Christmas movie outing – great fun, will review over on Screen God shortly

But what of the presents? Well, bookwise I did quite well:

  • Vintage Handbags by Marnie Fogg – almost obscene in its wonderfulness, a big glossy history of handbags from the 1920s, I am going to be dipping into this one a lot
  • The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon – asked for this simply because I loved the cover
  • Under the Dome by Stephen King – well, couldn’t resist asking for this one then completely forgot about it; when given the package to unwrap I thought “don’t remember asking for anything this big” – should have known!
  • Martyrs and Murderers: the Guise Family and the Making of Europe by Stuart Carroll – sixteenth century, what can I say?
  • Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded bride by Elizabeth Norton – ditto
  • The Great Silence 1918-1920 by Juliet Nicolson – the period just after the end of WWI and its impact on the social fabric, looks fascinating
  • Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen – a history of the 1970s which I am really looking forward to reading, given that it covers the decade when I was a teenager
  • Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Rodney Matthews – when I was a student I was much more of a Roger Dean fan but I’ve come to appreciate Matthews more over the years and this is a beautiful volume
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, illustrated by Hunt Emerson – a graphic novel version of one of my favourite poems
  • Amphigorey: fifteen books by Edward Gorey – huge Gorey fan, ’nuff said
  • Angel With Two Faces by Nicola Upson – sequel to her earlier Josephine Tey crime story
  • Tamsin by Peter S Beagle – picked up from other blogs
  • The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor – ditto
  • Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge – just loved the cover
  • Lovecraft Unbound, edited by Ellen Datlow – Joyce Carol Oates does Lovecraft, worth it for that alone
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest – steampunk, really been looking forward to this one
  • Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellars – and a bit of Bloomsbury to round things off

So that lot should keep me busy for a while……

TheKingdomBeyondtheWaves54345_fSo The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is sort of a sequel to The Court of the Air (which I reviewed here) in as much as it takes place a few years after the events of that book and features some of the same characters but that’s as far as it goes. It’s possible, I think, to read this as a standalone novel, and a very enjoyable piece of steampunk it is too.

What we have is an adventure-quest-type story. Amelia Harsh, she of the gorilla-sized arms who appeared briefly in the first novel, has a bit of an obsession with the lost land of Camlantis, a perfect society blown into the sky to be hidden rather than fall prey to the barbaric hordes seeking to destroy it. She is funded in her search by the wealthiest man in Jackals, Abraham Quest, equally obsessed. She heads into hostile jungle territory on a submarine with a crew of liberated prisoners and a mercenary army of extremely effective female warriors. It becomes clear, however, that she has not been told the whole story, and there is danger and treachery aplenty before she reaches the end of her search….

As I said, this is very enjoyable, although I will be honest and admit that it took me longer to get into, mostly because I found it difficult to immediately engage with any of the main characters. But once again the world of Jackals and the other societies that surround it are so wonderfully imagined and constructed that I persevered, and there came a point when all the subplots and the main story came together and everything clicked in such a way that I was really keen to find out how all this was going to be resolved. Great stuff.

CourtoftheAirStephenHun53155_fSo, what to say about  The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt, which was intended to be one of my reads for Carl’s Once Upon a Time III challenge but which I miserably failed to complete on time? Well, before getting into the meat of the plot, it’s worth recording that this is one of the best examples of steam-punk that I have read, and it’s a good introduction to that genre if you have never tried it before.

We are in Jackals, a pseudo-Victorian society with a parliamentary democracy of sorts, a nominal king (who has his arms amputated when he inherits the throne so that he can never take up weapons against his people) and an extensive secret police. We have two young people: Molly, who is an orphan in the Poor House and towards the beginning of the book is taken to work in a local bawdy-house; and Oliver, who is shunned by his local community because of the time he spent within the Feymist, from where people return dangerously changed, if indeed they return at all. A separate series of violent deaths lead these two to go on the run supported by a motley crew of helpers, before their paths cross as a mysterious, ancient evil foments rebellion, threatens civilization as they know it, and all the usual society-in-peril-waiting-to-be-saved-by-an-ordinary-person-with-a-hidden-secret stuff

This is a really good adventure story with a remarkably well-imagined world as its setting. Some of the other species (if that’s the right word) that Molly and Oliver come across are absolutely fascinating, my particular favourites being the Steammen, sentient machines with astonishing abilities and a well-developed society of their own. There is an extensive cast of characters but these are so well-drawn that there is little danger that a reader will get confused over who’s who, and the plot comes together well without those obvious coincidences that sometimes get in the way of a good tale.

I absolutely loved this; another one of those books that I got so wrapped up in that I nearly forgot to get off the train at the right station, and when I got to the last third of the book where things really get moving I basically gave up all thoughts of doing anything else and spent a happy Sunday morning polishing the thing off.

I can really recommend this, and am looking forward to reading the next book in the sequence, though not quite yet….

Bride of the Book God

Follow brideofthebook on Twitter

Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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