Book: Tourmaline by James Brogden

Tourmaline is the second novel by author James Brogden. Brogden faces quite a challenge due to the success of his debut novel, The Narrows. He set the bar so high with his first publication and must now follow his own critically-acclaimed, accomplished piece of writing. As with any second novel, fans want to see everything they loved about The Narrows but they also demand something new and improved. As such, Tourmaline was set to be Brogden's difficult second album.

Suffice it to say, Brogden has made this second album look easy. Tourmaline is every bit as masterful as The Narrows. It is grounded, gripping fantasy, with strong elements of horror, plenty of dark humour and a cast of beautifully-realised characters.

If The Narrows was Brogden's Reservoir Dogs, then Tourmaline is his Pulp Fiction. Or, to use a literary reference, if The Narrows was Carrie, then Tourmaline is Salem's Lot: bigger, bolder and more ambitious.

The Stephen King reference is apt because Brogden shares the prolific storyteller's talent for inserting humour into the darkest of moments. There are many laughs to be had from the hradix, for example, which is essentially a reptilian monster stuck in the body of a child, who the heroes adopt as a pet halfway through the novel. Brogden also has King's flair for depicting scenes of utter horror. A scene where a swarm of floating bones and tendons attacks the heroes like ravenous wasps instantly springs to mind. And the monstrous araka is a fearsome creation, perfectly introduced in the opening prologue.

However, King-sceptics needs not fear. Brogden bypasses King's penchant for over-writing and Tourmaline is therefore a lean, mean, fast-paced and well-edited read. Equally, those not keen on fantasy should not be put off. Tourmaline is not high fantasy. There are no dragons and wizards. The story is grounded in reality, with recognisable characters, much like George R R Martin's first entry in A Song of Fire and Ice.

Indeed, half of the action is set in our everyday world. Brodgen takes the ingenious decision to adopt a dual narrative structure in the early chapters to ease newcomers into the idea of another world. We glimpse this new world a piece at a time: at first, it contains only one man lost at sea. Then, gradually, other characters are introduced in the form of a small crew on a scrap-ship. This softly-softly approach makes the reader comfortable in another universe so they won't even blink when Part Two arrives, set almost entirely in the other world.

Ironically, it is the action in the real world which is one of Tourmaline's greatest USPs and an author trademark that Brogden established in The Narrows. Specifically, the story takes place in Birmingham (UK), second largest city in England, jewel of the Midlands, home of the balti curry and a place with more canals than Venice and more parks than Paris. It is the perfect place to set a fantasy novel: large, diverse, cultural, modern but traditional and rough around the edges.

Locals to Birmingham can enjoy references to the Sea Life Centre, Hagley Road and the infamous Spaghetti Junction. Meanwhile, University of Birmingham students and alumni will be excited by the opening which is set in the campus-based Barber Institute of Fine Art. Even better, a University of Birmingham security guard saves the world. Now that's something to put in the 2015 prospectus.

The vast ensemble is brilliantly put together. Brogden skilfully captures the voices and personalities of dozens of characters, making us feel sympathetic to all of them, hero or villain. It is testament to the characterisation that the inhabitants in the fantasy world are just as relatable and recognisable as those in the real world. Brogden switches between their perspectives with admirable dexterity. Brogden's talent for language is worth a special mention. With so much story, action and snappy dialogue, a lesser writer may have skimped on the poetry but this is not a luxury that fantasy writers can afford. After all, they have to build a new world in our mind's eye. Brogden accepts this mantle with relish. A ship encounters "a maze of beautiful but navigationally perilous coral reefs which rose into thousands of shimmering pillars, as if the microscopic creatures which built the coral had one day decided to build up towards heaven." The Birmingham locations get their own share of Brogden's poetic pen. Describing the Sea-Life Centre as echoing with the "shrieking of children, tinny ocean-themed muzak and the pervasive thunder of water" is one of many observations that will have local readers nodding.

Tourmaline is one of the finest books published this year: addictive, thrilling, fantastic, saturated with imagination and brimming with story. It deserves a long print-run, critical acknowledgement and commercial success, as does the talented James Brogden.

So tell your friends, tell your family, tell yourself: go read Tourmaline.

Tourmaline is published by Snow Books and available as a paperback from Amazon, currently priced at £7.16.

By Simon Fairbanks who can be contacted via @simonfairbanks

Book: Million Dollar Dress by Heide Goody

Book review by Simon Fairbanks Million Dollar Dress is chick lit packed with quick wit by local author Heide Goody.

It tells the story of Justine, who obtains a high-tech dress which can change the body shape of the wearer. Once Justine masters the technology, she can alter her slightly plump body image to match that of a Hollywood supermodel. Meanwhile, a host of interest parties are looking to take the dress for themselves.

The synopsis may suggest this is targeted at a female audience and it would certainly please this market. However, Million Dollar Dress offers a rich plateau for readers of any demographic and genre: the plot moves with the pace of a thriller, the dress itself is pure science-fiction and its comedy is universal.

It is this comedy element that propels Million Dollar Dress above the rest of its canon. Heide Goody has a particular knack for delivering an ensemble of sharply-observed characters and executing comedy set pieces with the chaos and energy of a Carry On film. Anagram fans will note that Million Dollar Dress contains two LOLs and you will certainly be laughing out loud as the story escalates.

The titular dress is a clever concept. As with all best science-fiction, it introduces a futuristic notion that addresses everyday concerns, specifically those relating to the body image culture which keeps certain magazines and reality shows in business.

The dress also acts as the MacGuffin and provides the perfect excuse to bring together an unlikely ensemble, ranging from fashion designers to military operatives. Particularly memorable characters include Blake Charwood (Sutton Coldfield's answer to Justin Beiber) and Justine's interfering mother figures, Pat and Irma. Their recreation of a scene from Alien to scare off an interested party is hilarious.

And best of all, the novel is set in Birmingham so there are plenty of regional references (the Bullring, the Jewelry Quarter) which act as an extra reward for local readers.

You can download Goody's novel for Kindle for a reasonable £2.05. And Million Dollar Dress is worth every penny.

By Simon Fairbanks who can be contacted via @simonfairbanks

Contact Heide Goody via @HeideGoody

In Other Hands by Iain Grant

Book review by Simon Fairbank

In Other Hands is a novel about five characters living in Birmingham who cross each other's paths in a series of unlikely coincidences. The story is written by local author, Iain Grant, and published by Pigeon Park Press.

The five-perspective approach with such a rich ensemble keeps the story fresh and makes for a page-turning reading experience. A lesser writer might struggle with such breadth (and depth) of characters but Grant slips between them effortlessly.

Readers will be divided over which character is their favourite: homeless Templeton, fox researcher Karen, amateur sleuth Nadia or terminal psychiatrist Jane. Many will rightly favour Danny, the reformed paedophile who regularly escapes into the fantasy of online gaming. Danny is a particularly difficult character to make sympathetic but Grant appears to relish the challenge. The scene where Danny is holding a little boy's hand is a tense, uncomfortable and brilliant piece of writing.

As ever, Grant's talent for witty dialogue exchanges is correct and present. One feels it is only a matter of time before he tries his hand at a screenplay. Perhaps his collaborative comic novel Clovenhoof will get a much-deserved BBC3 adaptation in the near future.

The sixth character in this modern day masterpiece is the setting. Joyce had Dublin, Dickens had London and now Grant has Birmingham. The city is realised in all of its timeless, charming Midlands glory with plenty of shout-outs to locations both in and out of the city. It will provide an extra frisson of joy to any Brummie or Birmingham graduate turning the pages and is worth buying for this reason alone. As Grant himself writes in the Dedication: “You might be able to imagine a story like this being set somewhere else. I can’t.”

If a criticism can be levelled at this masterful work, then it is this: Grant should have called the novel Five Ways, after Birmingham's infamous roundabout. Then again, the film adaptation can resolve that one.

In Other Hands is available for Kindle download on Amazon, currently priced at £1.94. A true bargain in this reviewer’s opinion.

Contact Iain Grant via  @iainmgrant or @pigeonparkpress.

By Simon Fairbanks who can be contacted via @simonfairbanks