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Zero Point by Neal Asher

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Earth’s Zero Asset citizens no longer face extermination from orbit. Thanks to Alan Saul, the Committee’s network of control is a smoking ruin and its robotic enforcers lie dormant. But power abhors a vacuum and, scrambling from the wreckage, comes the ruthless Serene Galahad. She must act while the last vestiges of committee infrastructure remain intact – and she has the means to ensure command is hers.

On Mars, Var Delex fights for the survival of Antares base, while the Argus space station hurls towards the red planet. And she knows whomever, or whatever, trashed Earth is still aboard. Var must save the base, while also dealing with the first signs of rebellion.

And aboard Argus station, Alan Saul’s mind has expanded into the local computer network. In the process, he uncovers the ghastly experiments of the Humanoid Unit Development, the possibility of eternal life, and a madman who may hold the keys to interstellar flight. But Earth’s agents are closer than Saul thinks, and the killing will soon begin.”

REVIEW: This second book in ‘The Owner’ series picks up right where the last book left off, with Saul’s takeover of the Argus space station and his simultaneous destruction of the power of the Committee. The helpful sections of background information that were present in the last novel are still present throughout this one, and enable the reading to continue to gain a deeper understanding of this new, apocalyptic world despite the fast-pace of the current plotline. As the blurb suggests, the book is divided into three main strands – the stories of the psychopathic Serene Galahad, the new leader Varalia Delex, and ‘The Owner’ himself, Alan Saul. The action kicks off instantly, with this book instantly gripping the reader just as the first did and taking them on a whirlwind journey of rebellion through space and time. Within the first hundred pages of the book, Saul is fatally wounded and, as he falls deeper and deeper into unconsciousness, it is up to Hannah Neumann to not only keep Saul alive, but also to assume command of the ship using the instructions that the only living part of Saul – his computerised and vastly expanding brain – are giving her. At the same time as Hannah struggles with her vaguely directed leadership, Var is also struggling to maintain her position on the Antares base as the seeds of dissent begin to be sown among her crew, leaving her with no-one to turn to and no-one she can trust. Finally, there is Serene Galahad, a ruthless tyrant who plans to purge the Earth of its excess population using the terrible Scour disease (which resembles something similar to the Ebola virus) and is harsh towards anyone who opposes her. We are also introduced to the perspectives of two other characters; Clay, Serene’s right-hand man who is beginning to feel the urge for rebellion himself, and Alex, whose dangerous mission aboard Argus lead him into all kinds of trouble. This characters both add an interesting extra dimension to the book, and it is also nice to see previous characters, like the twins Brigitta and Angela, who bring both intelligence and wit to the crew of Argus. The book ends on a touching note with the reunion of siblings Saul and Var, but with Serene still on the loose, many questions remain unanswered. I look forward to finding out where the next book will take Saul and Var as they begin to grow in both strength and ruthlessness.

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Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens by Lisa Hilton

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “In an age where all politics were family politics, dynastic marriages placed English queens at the very centre of power – the king’s bed. In the mercurial, often violent world of medieval statecraft, English queens had to negotiate a role that combined tremendous influence with terrifying vulnerability. Between 1066 and 1503, twenty women were crowned Queen of England. War, adultery, witchcraft, child abuse, murder – and occasionally even love – formed English queenship, but so too did patronage, learning and fashion. Lisa Hilton dispels the myth that medieval brides were no more than diplomatic pawns.”

REVIEW: My knowledge of English Queens begins with Eleanor of Aquitaine, disappears for over a century and returns during the Wars of the Roses, where from then onwards I tend to be pretty good or at least average in remembering who they were and what factors marked their queenships. Therefore this book was really useful in giving me an insight into the lives of all of England’s medieval Queen consorts with mini biographies that explore the characters of these Queens, as well as their relationships with their husbands, the political circumstances surrounding them, and the nature of their queenship. The book was engaging and interesting, and went into a surprising amount of depth given the sparse number of pages given to the analysis of each Queen and their reign. I found several historical figures that were new to me and greatly captured my imagination, particularly Isabella of France, who I knew nothing of before reading this book. I was also pleased to read more on Anne Neville, who I have a great interest in but who is often neglected in works on medieval history. The only thing that spoilt this book slightly for me, however, was the fact that Hilton and I have extremely different opinions on Richard III – she sees him as the undisputed murderer of the Princes in the Tower and cites evidence of deformity and cruelty to prove her point, some of which has since been disproven since the books publication in 2008 due to the discovery of Richard’s skeleton in a Leicester car park. Other than this, however, I found the book absolutely fascinating and was glad to be given the chance to explore new historical figures, as well as being reacquainted with some of my own favourite Queen consorts. I would highly recommend this to anyone who is looking for an introduction to medieval English Queens and English policy in general during this period, as it provides a great insight into not only the private lives of Queens but also the social, economic and political circumstances prevalent in England during this period.

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The Silversmith’s Wife by Sophia Tobin

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “The year is 1792 and winter hangs heavy in Berkeley Square. As the city sleeps, the night-watchman keeps a cautious eye over the streets, and another eye on the back doors of the great and the good. Then in the dark he comes across the body of Pierre Renard, the local silversmith, lying dead, his throat cut and his valuables missing. It soon becomes clear that Renard had more than a few enemies, all with their own secrets to hide. At the centre of this web is Mary, the silversmith’s wife. Withdrawn and weak, haunted by her past and near-mad with guilt, hers is a story of murder, love and buried secrets…”

REVIEW: I don’t often read historical fiction books in this particular style, as any books I have read previously that combine history with crime I have tended to find quite dull. This book, however, enthralled me from the start and had me gripped the entire way through – and not just because I wanted to find out who had murdered the silversmith Pierre Renard, either. The novel tells the story of how the circle of silversmiths in London society cope with the death of one of their most prominent. charismatic and charming figures, who also happens to be one of the most hated men in London. The book focuses mainly on the stories of Mary, Renard’s widow, whose grief and suffering for the disabled brother that Renard took from her in the early years of their marriage has earned her a reputation as being half mad and alienated her from society; Harriet, his mistress, a young and beautiful gentlewoman married to a man who aggressively pursues the company of young boys to his own wife; Joanna, Harriet’s servant, who is struggling to cope with the death of her lover and the loss of her child many years before; Alban Steele, a visiting silversmith who has spent most of his life in love with Mary from afar; and Digby, the night watchman in Berkeley Square, whose hatred for the rich and obsession with both drink and Pierre’s death makes him very difficult for the reader to like or empathise with. Each character is written in a manner that is extremely compelling, and the reader develops their own type of attachment to all of them – even the spoilt, frivolous Harriet, whom we soon develop an almost paternal attraction to. The personal lives of these characters add intriguing levels of depth to the main vein of the story, that of trying to find the murderer of Renard, and are cleverly added to with the revelations from Renard’s diary at the beginning of each chapter. The reader soon finds themselves strongly sympathising with these characters for their various plights – I felt a strong sense of empathy towards Mary in particular, and was glad when she finally found happiness with Alban Steele towards the end of the novel. The revelation of Renard’s killer was very well done and a great surprise to the reader, which is of course what one wants from a murder mystery! The only problem I had with this book is that I felt there were still some loose ends that needed to be tied up, particularly with Harriet, whom I would have liked to have found out more about. There is a sequel, however, which I’m sure will answer many questions and which I am greatly looking forward to reading!

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The Departure by Neal Asher

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “The Argus Space Station looks down on a nightmarish Earth. And from this safe distance, the Committee enforces its despotic rule. There are too many people and too few resources, and then need twelve billion to die before Earth can be stabilised. So corruption is rife, people starve, and the poor are policed by mechanised overseers and identity-reader guns. Citizens already fear the brutal Inspectorate with its pain inducers. But to reach its goals, the Committee will unleash satellite laser weaponry, taking carnage to a new level. This is the world Alan Saul wakes to, travelling in a crate destined for the Calais incinerator. How he got there he doesn’t know, but he remembers pain and his tormentor’s face. He also has company: Janus, a rogue intelligence inhabiting forbidden hardware in his skull. As Janus shows Saul an Earth stripped of hope, he resolves to annihilate the Committee and their regime. Once he’s discovered who he was, and killed his interrogator…”

REVIEW: As those of you who frequently follow this blog may have noticed, I am not normally a science fiction fan. I was encouraged to read this book by my boyfriend, who doesn’t often find books that engage him – but he insisted that this book was unputdownable and, out of curiosity, I had to give it a try. He was definitely write. ‘The Departure’ is the first volume in The Owner series, and sets the reader up with an image of an Earth that is worryingly not too difficult to imagine. We are introduced to this dystopia with small sections of information at the beginning of each chapter which tell us about the disintegration of institutions such as the NHS, and these paragraphs really help to set the scene and give the reader a greater understanding of the world in which Alan Saul, the protagonist of the novel, finds himself. Saul is an interesting and extremely complex character, and the reader can flit from admiring him to hating him in the space of just a few sentences. Yet at the same time we ultimately want him to triumph over the corrupt Committee, whose goals at diminishing the human population are basically reverting to a very slow and torturous form of genocide. The reader sometimes appears to be represented in the novel by Hannah Neumann, Saul’s ex-lover and later companion who is often horrified by his apathy to killing and seems to represent the moral dilemma in which Saul finds himself. The relationship between Saul and Hannah is an interesting one, one which fails to develop into romance but in which it is clear that feelings between them remain and that they need each other in order to achieve their ultimate goal of defeating the Committee. Saul’s struggle against authority is mirrored by the shorter story of Varalia, whose tale also appears in short segments throughout the novel Varalia is a highly intelligent woman sent up to Mars during the earlier period of Committee rule and who now realises that she needs to rebel in order to save those stationed on Mars from starvation and eventual death. The relationship between Varalia and Saul, who are clear parallels to one another, is one that the reader can work out for themselves even before we are told, but it is still exciting to uncover the mystery of the connection between the two. It is difficult to say more about this novel without giving away too much, as this is a fast-paced tale with many twists and turns that often leave the reader shocked and almost breathless. The brutality of this cruel new world and the revolutionary battle against it makes it hard to put the book down even for a moment, and I found it to be truly gripping. I would highly recommend it to science fiction fans – and if, like me, you were not previously a fan of science fiction, this would be a good book to get started on; it will definitely give you the sci-fi bug! I am greatly looking forward to reading the further books in the series.

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Splendid by Julia Quinn

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “American heiress Emma Dunster has always been fun-loving and independent with no wish to settle into marriage. She plans to enjoy her Season in London in more unconventional ways than husband hunting. But this time Emma’s high jinks lead her into more dangerous temptation…

Alexander Ridgely, the Duke of Ashbourne, is a notorious rake who carefully avoids the risk of love…until he plants one reckless kiss on the sensuous lips of a high-spirited innocent. Soon sparks – and laughter – fly when these two terribly determined people cross paths during one very splendid London spring Season…”

REVIEW: This is Julia Quinn’s debut novel which I have, ironically, discovered only after reading many of her later works. The raw talent that Quinn possesses for writing Regency romances sees its establishment in this novel, which was just as entertaining and easy to read as all of her later novels, if perhaps a little less polished. Quinn’s first novel tells the story of the ‘splendid’ Emma Dunster, who travels to London to spend the social Season with her beloved cousins, Belle and Ned, in the very heart of the great city. Emma makes a huge impression on London society, but on none more so than the dashing and standoffish Alexander Ridgely, whose interest in Emma begins during an unlikely encounter in which she saves his nephew whilst dressed as a serving maid. Alexander and Emma’s relationship is one that blossoms gradually throughout the novel, with moments where the reader truly wants to knock some sense into them and get them together sooner! Yet the friendship that develops between them is both surprising and tender, although heavily tinged with desire, and this makes the later romantic relationship that develops between them far more believable than it might if Emma were simply seduced. The relationship between Alexander and Emma is the main focal point of the novel and one that is both gripping and entertaining throughout. The other more minor characters in the novel are also very well written and provide a brilliant humorous element to Alexander and Emma’s relationship – in particular, Alexander’s mother and sister, and Emma’s cousin Belle, all three of whom constantly conspire to bring the couple together in increasingly scandalous ways. The only part of the novel that falls short, however, is the ending. It is only at this point that the reader begins to recall that this is Quinn’s first novel, and by the ending it appears that she is trying too hard to create a shocking plot which simply ends up being unrealistic. The kidnapping of Belle by an unwanted admirer and the subsequent rescue attempts – which are often thwarted through crossed wires and changed plans – is an entertaining part of the book but one that seems to have little bearing on the rest of the story and almost appears as an afterthought, added on even after the marriage of Alexander and Emma; which, in my opinion, would have been the obvious concluding point. I greatly enjoyed this book all the same – Quinn’s books are the perfect form of escapism and great for some light relief when life is becoming stressful. However, I would warn those who have only read her later novels to bear in mind that this, as Quinn’s debut novel, can at times fall short of the standard we are used to from her fantastic works of regency romance.

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Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings…until she meets Peter Pan in the forbidding woods of Neverland. Immediately, she falls under his spell – holding him like a secret in her heart. Peter is unlike anyone she has ever known. Reckless and brave, he both scares and enthralls her. She will risk everything – her family, her future – to be with him. But Tiger Lily soon discovers that the most dangerous enemy can live inside even the most loyal and loving heart.”

REVIEW: This twist on the classic tale of Peter Pan had me hooked from start to finish and I read the entire book in one sitting. Anderson turns the character of Tiger Lily, a mere footnote in the pages of J.M. Barrie’s book and the majority of the film adaptations into a protagonist in her own right, introducing the reader to a brave and admirable young woman who makes her own way in life regardless of the disdain of the rest of her tribe. Tiger Lily was raised by the leader of the tribe, Tik Tok, an extremely interesting character who seems to represent the transgender community in a way we rarely see in young adult fiction; he is a male noted as being extremely feminine, preferring to wear his hair long and dress in clothes usually prescribed to the female members of his tribe. The fact that he retains a position of power despite his differences is something I felt was really inspiring and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his character, only wishing that we could have learnt more about him and his backstory. Tiger Lily may be the protagonist of the story, which initially revolves around her relationship with the parental Tik Tok and her closest friend, a young boy named Pine Sap who is clearly in love with her  – but the story is, in fact, narrated by a far more famous character; Tinker Bell. Tinker Bell follows Tiger Lily from the beginning to the end of the story, as an almost unnoticed companion whose devotion for Tiger Lily – and later for Peter Pan – comes through with every word. Through Tinker Bell we learn of Tiger Lily’s daring exploits, such as her saving of the shipwrecked Englander Phillip and her later friendship with Peter Pan. Upon meeting Peter, Tiger Lily soon becomes lost in spending time with him and the Lost Boys, partly to escape her fears of the marriage that has been arranged for her with Giant, a frightening and violent older member of the tribe. The love that blossoms between Tiger Lily and Peter is gradually built up and extremely well written despite being told through the jealous eyes of Tinker Bell, who has also fallen for Peter but loves Tiger Lily too much to prevent her from losing out. Peter is also written extremely well – vulnerable yet arrogant, he is the perfect combination of wild and daring hero and frightened little boy, so that the reader can understand why Tiger Lily so wants to care for him. Things change dramatically with the arrival of Wendy, however, and as the Englander Phillip makes drastic changes to the lives of Tiger Lily and the rest of the tribe, Tiger Lily’s world begins to fall apart. This book is one of the best reimaginings of a classic story I have ever read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Each and every one of the characters was engaging and often bought a unique element of suffering to the story that made the reader keen to learn more about them. I would highly recommend this book not only to fans of J.M. Barrie’s original but also anyone looking for an adventurous, exciting, easy read that can be enjoyed at leisure.

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Anne of Cleves by Elizabeth Norton

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RATING:3.5/5

BLURB: “‘I like her not!’ was the verdict of Henry VIII on meeting his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, for the first time. Anne could have said something similar upon meeting Henry and, having been promised the most handsome prince in Europe she was destined to be disappointed in the elderly and corpulent King. Forced to proceed with their wedding for diplomatic reasons, Henry and Anne tried to make the best of the situation, but attempts to consummate the marriage were farcical. After only seven months of marriage Henry was so desperate to rid himself of Anne that he declared himself impotent in order to secure a divorce. Anne was also eager to end her marriage and, with her clever handling of Henry obtained one of the biggest divorce settlements in English history. Anne of Cleves is often portrayed as a stupid and comical figure. The real Anne was both intelligent and practical, ensuring that, whilst she was queen for the shortest period, she was the last of all Henry VIII’s wives to survive. Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, lost his head for his role in the marriage, but Anne’s shrewdness ensured she kept hers.”

REVIEW: Prior to reading this biography, I had only ever read about Anne of Cleves in historical fiction or in books that were about all six of Henry VIII’s wives – never before had I read a factual book dedicated entirely to her. Although Norton’s biography of Anne is short, this makes it both concise and easy to read – packing such a large amount of information in so few pages makes the book engaging and interesting the whole way through as each page tells the reader something new. This biography reveals Anne of Cleves to be a fascinating historical figure, highly undeserving of the reputation she generally holds as being dull and unintelligent. Her marriage to Henry was Anne’s first marriage, and in order for it to take place she was separated from her family and sent to a country where she knew no-one and had barely any grasp of the native language – just as Catherine of Aragon had done so many years before. As Anne’s relationship with Henry so famously began to crumble, the reader cannot help but feel sorry for this woman who is unable to seek advice from those around her and is left adrift and unsure of herself in a strange new land. The way Anne handles her separation from Henry, however, is highly admirable, showing a great level of independence and authority for a woman in this time period when her rights would have been so constrained. Anne cleverly and willingly took up her new position as the King’s Sister and showed every honour to Henry, his children and his next two wives until her own demise during the reign of Mary I, many years after the death of Henry himself. Anne was clearly much more strong and intelligent than she has been perceived to be and that was thoroughly well-illustrated in Norton’s book. I did feel, however, that the book could have been longer to avoid parts of it seeming rushed. I also felt that, at time, Norton placed far more of a focus on Henry’s character and feelings rather than those of Anne. Overall, though, I still enjoyed the book greatly and am pleased to have learnt more about this fascinating woman.