(ALL LISTINGS BY TITLE IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
I’ll try and keep this consistent with the Amazon star system (so 1 = hate and 5 = love) since that’s more or less ubiquitous and the main place I buy all my books of whatever description, and so I can do what’s really important and give you the links and a way to see if you agree with me. 😉 However, I will give the odd .5 for those books that nearly made it to the next level as a more realistic and personal scoring system 😀 I actually don’t do reviews for books I didn’t like and couldn’t hand on heart give it a 3 star rating (which might not be a reflection on the writing as such, just that I couldn’t get past not liking the genre too much or the voice – tech stuff). Sometimes if the author asks for genuine constructive feedback I’d maybe get in touch off the record (I’ve picked up the odd editing job that way), especially if I think there’s merit in the story or subject matter.
MY 4.5 plus star reviews will all go on this header page and I’ll keep the listings for the dedicated page for Rave Review Book Club and DreamWorlds/LinkedIn buddies updated at the top. So without further ado – The Five Stars which will remain a select list as I don’t give top marks unless the work is outstanding in some way, which’ll become obvious when you read the review – usually because I’ve been very pleasantly surprised…
And The Whippoorwill Sang (by Micki Peluso RRBC)
This is not a perfect book, but neither are the world-renowned ones that I love best. Like those beloved classics that I’ve loved most of my life, this is a book about what’s important in life – those you love most and belong to in the ordinary, everyday manner of living. It’s about heart and family and carrying on no matter what. It’s a wonderful story, but it’s not fiction. It’s a memoir about a family, and it took decades to be written because it’s mostly about the death of one of the author’s six children at the tender, promising age of fifteen.
Micki Peluso has been writing about other things as well for a long time, but this book needed to take it’s time to be told as Ms. Peluso takes us on her life’s journey in 1959, running away to get married; living with in-laws and with her own ditsy, unstable mother and bigamous stepfather; setting up home; having her first baby; more babies and assorted animals arrive; taking in her younger brother when life with their mother cuts up rough; uprooting the whole family to live in Las Vegas after an hilariously muddled road trip from the East Coast to the western desert to scout out the good life; then back again within the year, almost broke and starting over in a haunted house. But the story begins much later, in 1981, when young Noelle is mortally injured by a drunken hit and run driver, and the family are given the worst news at the hospital, with Micki’s husband, Butch, five hours away, desparately driving back to them. In the opening chapter the pain of this tragedy is red raw and palpable with the words falling hard like tears. And so the family tale unfolds in flashbacks that are snapshots of a large and happy family who love, laugh, cry, fight, and tumble along life’s road, interspersed with the harrowing scenes at the hospital as the extent of Noelle’s injuries are laid bare and Micki and Butch struggle to keep hope alive when the doctors say there is none, through to their final letting go as they realise their daughter cannot stay with them any longer. Small doses of horrified sorrow and pain between the glimpses of extraordinary love and easy comfort of a ‘normal’ hectic, frustrating and funny family life.
No wonder it took took decades to write and why Butch wouldn’t read it before it was completed. The heart is written in there always and that’s why this gets 5 stars and is recommended without hesitation for anyone who’s had a family they love.
Babe Driven (by Lizzie Chantree RRBC)
Light, frothy and full of sunny days, beautiful dynamic people and hot locations – this is a perfect holiday read, whether or not you’re spending it at the beach!
If sexy, well-written holiday romances with sultry, feisty ladies, smouldering Alpha males and writing that has oodles of attitude and flair are your thing, then pop this one in your suitcase/Kindle then lay back with something long and cool close to hand and the time will just fly by in the most entertaining way imaginable. Romances aren’t usually my thing but I’d be churlish if I let this affect my review, as this is an excellent breeze of a book and just what the doctor SHOULD order to chase away those summertime blues. You’ll enjoy it – guaranteed!
The Battle for Brisingamen: Freya’s Power by Harmony Kent
Coming at this from a different tack because of the Doggerland connection and a devastating geological event that saw the fracture and sinking of a huge portion of the north-western European landmass between the British Isles from the English Channel/La Manche up to Scandinavia over 6000 years ago (the Storegga Slide). Although the sinking probably happened over hundreds of years, the Slide did cause a massive and widespread tsunami and it’s this that most likely gave rise to the oral traditions for Atlantis and Lyonnesse in the Arthurian myths, which also had echoes in Norse mythology as well. So this all works in very plausibly with Harmony Kent’s wonderful weaving on the legends of Freyja’s Brisingamen Necklace and the various realms of Dwarves, Elves and other mystical races co-existing still into modern times under the aegis of Yggdrasil the World Tree.
I adore interpretative writing that can reinvent and invigorate our creative heritage and gives us tantalising glimpses of the reality behind the legends and ‘fairy tales’ that fuel our human need for dreaming and fantasy. I couldn’t quite give 5 stars because some of the passages came a little too fast and furious at times – even in the heat of battle sometimes you get a fracture of calm than can inform the action, even if it takes a split second in reality. A little less haste might have helped keep the progression of, for instance, the various facets of the advance of the Dwarf armies a little clearer, but really this is minor carping, especially for a debut novel. Personal preference also insists that I mention, whilst applauding the non-shrinking of violets, that the sex scenes were probably over-stated and kind of jarred with the narrative a bit and were, arguably, superfluous to the story arc for being so full-on. So far as I was concerned these more or less went under the radar thereafter having served their purpose. Less is more as they say and if it wasn’t important to the overall story then perhaps a more seasoned writer would have kept things romantic more muted, to keep to the overall tone of the whole?
Overall I liked this book very much indeed and would thoroughly recommend it to all Norse myth nuts! 🙂
Death in the Family (The Sophie Morgan Vampire Series: Bk 2) (by Helen Treharne RRBC)
The Sophie Morgan Series continues with the same pulsing and snappy black humour, but in this second book the tension is remorselessly twanged as pointy-toothed skeletons come rattling out of family closets as Sophie slowly finds out what her mother got up to on a student visit to Denmark. Charles Ferrers also returns, dragged not so reluctantly back into his role as vampire policeman and enforcer by the ancient Byzantine clans who’re hell-bent on retrieving stolen historical evidence of their sinister and underlying string-pulling of the human world that’s been clandestinely acquired by the brother of her unknown father.
Sophie’s uncle’s rather too convenient introduction into the storyline is what stopped me awarding 5 stars this time because it’s just a little too trite, though adequately justified as his long lost brother comes back into the picture. Ms Treharne’s writing style is impeccable however and even matures like a fine wine in this second outing so this little plot-hole is easily mitigated in return for delivering such a refreshing and grown-up vampire world to us. Really looking forward to Book 3 now!
Dining Out Around the Solar System – Book 1 (by Clare O’Beara)
Yes, Plutonian cuisine is also covered, with suitable delicacies from an ice-bound dwarf planet. However, if you’re expecting futuristic fare and retrograde SF literary recipes, there’s lots of pleasant surprises in store for you in this thoughtful, at times ultra-cynical, fantasy excursion into the not so very far into the future dystopian society of the UK and Eire.
In fact, at first you’ll think nothing too much has changed for most Londoners, who struggle to find just the one job that’ll cover the rent, utilities and luxuries like food or a new chair-bed at mum’s. Most people are faced with a stark choice between several lowly paid part-time roles, or risking their terrestrial health and peace of mind, working 6 month stints in faux gravity, mining in the asteroid belt. However, one plus of Earth’s industrial exploration of the planetary system is that sentient life has been found on the other seven planets (and titchy Pluto), and guess what? They all have marketable resources, including migrant labour. And all of them want in on Terra’s solo mastery of interplanetary travel.
We see snapshots of everyday life through the eyes of cub reporters, Donal and Myron, who forge an enduring professional partnership that takes them away from their past as geeky, bookworm children of the off-planet mining culture that has probably claimed both Donal’s parents’ lives, and subjected Myron and his mother to violent abuse for half the year, while his father, suffering an excruciating couch-bound malaise in full gravity, catches up on an enforced 6 month alcohol ban in the mining stations. Being based on e-zine London’s Eye on the Isle of Dogs in the East End, the two young lads earn their reporter spurs under the watchful eyes of their boss, ex-soldier, local news editor George, urbane former civil servant, sports editor Jeremy and the savvy features writer Pietr. Making unexpected friends along the way, Myron and Donal begin a more minute exploration of the ‘little things’ life is made of, navigating their way around future London, Stansted, now a spaceport, and collegiate Dublin; writing book reviews in coffee shops where they meet silent, poverty-stricken Martians; business-minded Venusians in the ‘burbs, who’re finding lucrative gaps in the IT market, despite having little metal on their acid-ocean world; and Shakespeare-loving, caffeine-intolerant Mercurians at Cambridge University, where Donal samples a star-crossed love affair with the daughter of the ambassador to Earth, only to lose her to her home planet.
After taking a sabbatical from journalism to take his Phd in Eire, ace hacker Donal gradually mends his broken heart and goes on a voyage of self-discovery over his optical deficiencies that blight his urban life with migraines and curtail socialising since he’s totally allergic to vid-culture. Recharged, he returns to smellier, stressful London where Myron and he plunge back into current affairs with a series of scoops on the sum of all human and interplanetary life: with affable Neptunian divers helping to salvage an explosive-laden sunken vessel in the Thames; exposing illicit tobacco-pushing on Mars; murky Jovian land deals; eternally self-exiled Saturnian dancers; and why Uranians are so snooty in their dealings with their tiny, impoverished ‘neighbours’ on Pluto. Things in England’s capital are hardly progressive either, with slum landlords and amoral big business making ordinary folks lives a miserable slog of woefully inadequate, or non-housing, in rapidly eroding sink estates and condemned Tube stations. There are few long-term job prospects and social inequities from the top to the lowest echelons of the population, as the rich get richer; the government, local and central, veers from corruption to ineptitude in effortless leaps and bounds; and the press and police have a wary trade-off on natural justice and maintaining the nebulous status quo. Donal and Myron run a teetering gauntlet between drug traffickers, offending the great and the not so good, and running through their true life investigations and the criminal subversion of labour regulations by British Space Mining, as the intrepid reporters gradually uncover the awful truth about the fate of Donal’s mother’s fatal illness and his father’s ‘disappearance’.
Despite the title, this is high concept fantasy that does science in an holistic and well-researched manner that takes you to unexpected places in the human spirit, whether that resides in the breast of a native of London, or Dublin, or Mercury, or Mars, or Saturn. For good or ill. Well-written and observed, Claire O’Beara brings her considerable experience as a journalist to bear in conjuring a totally believable future multicultural society with bells (and knobs) on, and without hammering on the pathos and hysterics. This is a subtle meandering burn of a book with a gentle but inexorable stranglehold on the suspense that pulls no punches for realism, whether or not that’s politically incorrect. The A-word causes a world of pain for both our heroes, but they stick at it, and so should you, because the rewards are all threaded through the whole and, most definitely, there in the ending.
Highly recommended for all those who don’t need ray guns (or any guns much) at regular intervals in their intellectual fantasy thrillers.
Dining Out with the Ice Giants – Bk2 Dining Out around the Solar System (by Clare O’Beara)
With this second helping in the Dining Out science fantasy series, we’re filling in some of the gaps in Donal and Myron’s journalistic career and finding more quirky insights into the secret lives of the visitors from the outermost planets in the System. The Ice Giants are, of course, Uranus and Neptune, but immigrants from dwarf planet Pluto are also prominent in this book where we find out more about their early days in London before they go into the ice cream and frosty treats trade.
What I really like about O’Beara’s dystopian London are the left field details that take what’s starting to happen in the present to logical but often surprising and illuminating conclusions as hinted at in headlines of the book blurb, from ethnic James Bonds, to flood surges, to heavy runs on ‘Flu vaccines (the British Space Mining variety). The friendly and courageous Neptunians are again stepping up (or should that be swimming) when the Thames starts to show its vicious side, before looking for a more permanent residence alongside the river. Our intrepid reporters are able to help them find something suitable AND affordable in return for past hospitality and favours from these gentle giants and also help the Plutonians find a much better place to stay after a rather unpleasant and macabre experience with a scary Uranian mushroom farmer.
Red-headed Tania (short for Titania) is first glimpsed by hyper-sensitive Donal at London’s New Years Eve Fireworks celebration by the river and, realising there’s something literally other-worldly about her, he and Myron go on a Cinderella hunt across the city and cyberspace, after losing her in the crowds after midnight. Once found, Donal quickly realises this is not going to go anywhere romantically, but uber-cool, almost mannequin-like Tania and he are interested enough in each other to stay in touch for mutual pursuits (Donal also does restaurant reviews). Which is when he discovers that Tania has dozens of wage-slave plutonians tending to her underground mushroom plantation. Suffice it to say Uranians don’t appear to know the first thing about health and safety, although she does have a very basic, if not fundamental understanding of re-cycling… Hint of a spoiler there, but far better to take the ride yourself!
Yet another excellent and insightful read from Clare O’Beara, well-deserving of 4+ stars and, I hope, not the last we’ll see of Donal and Myron.
Dragon Fireside Tales (by Adam Boustead)
I like variety and I love fantasy, so I’m a sucker for fantasy anthologies and always look out for them. This one didn’t disappoint and I really enjoyed the wide and eclectic collection of quirky, snappy tales and meaty, touching poems.
I have problems with the 5 star system – they really aren’t enough to get over the full ambient nuances of a book, so I always say why my 4 star ratings don’t reach a 5. Dragon Fireside Tales is a high 4 – if I had 10 to give it would get a 9. You HAVE to love it to give a 5 – but high 4’s are very lovable as well, except there’s a big enough ‘but’ to trip it up. So these are my fairly minor quibbles. As others have noted there’s a slight lack of polish, which is mainly grounded in the editorial and proofing department but are enough to jar you out of the ‘moment’ a little too often. The other is more subjective on stylistics and is the result of my own bias against ‘ta-dah’ endings. This didn’t happen a lot, but there were a couple of places in there that set my teeth on edge with a lack of sublety, or awkward execution. Small things only and, like I said they didn’t stop me enjoying the entire experience, particularly the poetry which was achingly evocative. I will certainly look for more reading pleasure from Adam Boustead’s pen and thoroughly recommend this diamond in the rough of a book to all lovers of inventive and ‘left field’ fantasy.
Dreamers (by Ted Farrar)
Perhaps the moral for this if you’re adept at dreaming in technicolor is never to eat cheese before bedtime. I loved this inventive, jazzy, street-smart fantasy horror so much I stayed up until the not so wee small hours to finish devouring it – and my tablet died at the beginning of the culminating chapter, though thankfully after the definitive climax where the not so helpless heroine is put beyond the malevolent clutches of the main antagonist.
Dreamers takes place mostly in the 1980’s where ciggies are still smoked everywhere and there’s no alternative to landlines. The setting in and around Leeds has the ring of truth and a gritty authenticity to underlay the frankly stunning and original fantasy elements, where dreams are most certainly real and, if you die in your sleep, your mind is condemned to gurgling animalistic zombiedom, always supposing that your body had not already been murdered by one of your fellow Dreamers… The four central characters, Cole, Anemos, Bright and Greenspite, two living, one murdered and the other very much at death’s door, leads DI Gumbold of the Leeds police force, already mired in trying to find the real-life Yorkshire Ripper, into a grisly, but frequently comedic danse macabre as twenty leading sleep clinic subjects and their researchers are systematically hunted down by a serial killer with gut-curdling supernatural powers and a viciously audacious masterplan to devastate the nightmarish Land of Sheol – and ultimately to invade heaven itself.
If you appreciate dark fantasy, black comedy and pushing your imagination to roller-coaster heights and troughs then please, please do yourself a real favour and read this rarity – a truly original and funky Tale of the Unexpected, with buckets of blood but not a vampire in sight! There are slayers and plenty of literal and metaphoric demons though. And goblins – or are they? Read it NOW!
Finding Billy Battles (by Ronald E. Yates RRBC)
I’m not entirely sure why this misses the 5th star because there’s very little to fault with the writing which is, almost without exception, engaging and well-paced. Possibly it’s to do with the understandable lure of embedding the historic fiction around real historical figures. I was pleased however that the temptation of including the OK Corral episode was resisted although it was mentioned in passing just a little too often coupled with the reappearance of Wyatt Earp, especially at less impactful points in Billy’s life, which began to get a little cheesy for my taste, although it was interesting to see the famous supporting players at more mundane periods in their timelines. Doc Holliday’s story held my interest most in fleshing out his better known characteristics, and it’s in portraying the more sedentary and domestic aspects of life in the western states in the late 1800s that the writing starts to fascinate and appeal most (or maybe I’m just plain contrary).
Billy himself is a very likeable hero, both in flashback at the end of his life in mid-20th century America and as a young man earning his spurs and cub reporter’s pen in Dodge City and Denver. Life on the wild frontier is plausibly described, with decent and disreputable settlers, claim-jumping, rustling, gambling, gun-fights and whoring all fitting into the picture in a way that charms whilst stripping away the ‘Randolph Scott’ veneer of romantic twaddle that surrounds the Old West of Hollywood and 50s and 60’s TV cowboy fare. The parts that worked best for me were the more urban and international flavours that came into the mix, with the struggling ‘chinaman’ who actually came from what would be called Vietnam and the urban sections in Denver or in Chicago. Moments of drama and pathos too in Billy’s homelife with him risking life and limb on the prairie while hist wife birthed their first child, and then some years later as she falls fatally ill at the train station after an idyllic vacation. So tons of atmosphere and emotion to help a cracking story along and 4 stars very thoroughly earned.
Highly recommended read with authentic writing and scenery to match!
Finding Gina (by Lizzie Chantree RRBC)
Lizzie Chantree really does have a winning way with romantic fiction. On this third outing, I really enjoyed the return of the light touch and humourous asides with a slightly quirky storyline of a young woman trying to come to terms with a seemingly dysfunctional family background, where her father turns to the bottle when her mother dies and spitefully trashes his mother’s professional integrity.
Gina is an engaging heroine who sets about righting the perceived wrongs that her estranged granny has perpetrated on various people,and this good samaritan activity brings her to the notice of freelance journo, Lewis. A just about plausible comedy of errors ensues when Lewis is inexorably drawn to lovely, kind-hearted Gina when she helps his floundering best friend Toby set up his new business venture. Lewis totally fails to recognise that Gina is the mystery woman he’s been trying to trace for a feel-good article – until he meets her granny!
There’s a lot to like in this upbeat tale with vibrant, likeable characters, and so this is a + 4 star rating from me. Perfect for an undemanding vacation read.
Finding Katie (by Harmony Kent RRBC)
Five stars HAS to mean I love it – and I do.
Make no mistake – self-harming is a super-heavyweight topic to tackle as a work of fiction and, for some it’s not a subject they’d find easy to handle, or indeed even pick up in the first place, so this review isn’t a recommendation as such, because not everyone will want to read it. In fact, Finding Katie is what is known in the UK as a ‘marmite’ book – you’ll either end up loving or hating it… You will not however, be immune to it, and this is largely because of Ms. Kent’s brave and bold decision to write this in the 1st person, so that what you’re reading is essentially Kate Charlesworth’s inner narration. In her own words, and with all her feelings and fears laid bare and red raw as the blood she craves to sweep away the terrible, painful trauma that led to her being compelled to murder her own childhood on her ninth birthday.
So, in her own raging, wrung-out, at times wise-cracking and, at others, despairing words, 17 year old Kate unfolds her history, emotional blockages and self-inflicted wounds, sometimes viciously and then, in contrast, with humility, exhaustion and with an over-arcing vulnerability that will leave you appalled, breathless and as tender and battered in spirit as Kate is physically and mentally. Not an easy story, but there moments and flashes of dark humour, passion and a tremulous hopefulness that means it’s really very hard indeed to understand why Kate seems to hate herself so much, when all you want to do is hug her tight and be in her corner as she works her bewildered and often cantankerous way through the mess she’s in, to comprehending why she’s the way she is and how she wants to survive it.
Finding Katie, the little girl whose trust and happiness had to be obliterated from existence, is a storm-tossed ocean of a read that literally takes you to hell and back out – washed up on an isolated inner desert landscape where the only thing that makes sense is the feel of your blood oozing from the razor’s edge that you hold in your own hand. It’s a book that puts you on the inside and will change how you see ‘stroppy’ teens forever. Definitely not for everyone – read it if you dare and make up your own mind!
Glimmer of Guile (by Mary Patterson Thornburg)
I’d already ‘met’ Vivia as a young teenager in Mary Patterson Thornburg’s novella, The Boy-Wolf, so I knew I was already in for a real treat but I was absolutely bowled over by this truly scrumptious banquet of a witch tale. Vivia’s all grown up now and come into her full guilish powers as she ventures out on a dubious quest to challenge and dethrone a very evil witch in a neighbouring land, who’s stolen away King Horok’s son and heir, Tedor. Even from the start Vivia knows there’s more to the situation than her community’s malicious leader, Harken, is revealing to her and so Vivia first seeks out her old mentor, the powerful witchlord Taso Raym, so she can complete her training in the Great Shift, the power to shape-shift, only to find that he too has been violently abducted by the very sorceress, Orath, whom Vivia has to vanquish.
The telling of Vivia adventures and the people she meets along the way is both compelling and exciting and all told with great skill, sensitivity, and a high style that is as satisfying for an adult reading audience as for younger ones, without compromising the darker themes, or getting overly gratuitous during the action sequences which are, without exception, well-paced and entirely plausible.
My only real quibble is that it wasn’t long enough, but this isn’t a criticism in any way, as all loose ends are tidied up and things that start out as unresolved, such as Vivia’s uneasy and potentially disastrous physical attraction to Taso Raym, show us that witchfolk are about as good at handling intimacy and love as the rest of us, even if we don’t run the risk of losing our power once we wave goodbye to innocence. This is high fantasy that is truly magical, because it doesn’t keep trying to shock and awe the whole time, but spins out with grace and sublety while we’re shown a world that we’d like to know more about, because it’s possibly not so far removed from ours in terms of human nature and all its complications.
Wonderful fantasy. Great writing. Go read it!
Haunting Megan (by Rebecca Reilly RRBC)
I’m resisting the temptation to go to five stars with this review, possibly because I think I ought to be generous, as I’m so NOT a mystery/thriller fan… I really enjoyed this book because it’s brave about it’s core subject matter (child abuse and deeply dysfunctional families) and really well-written, with a superb sense of place, whether that’s in the pristine wintry mountains, or the squalid home where Megan’s older sister and surrogate mom gets knifed to death.
There’s something in this book for everyone with a touch of the paranormal (the haunting sequences are well up to Stephen King standards!), police procedurals, detective work, serial killers and angsty YA tribulations as we follow Megan and, to some extent, her 2 younger twin sisters, growing up way too quickly. I think it’s this miasma of sub-genres that, in the end, began to irritate me slightly, despite their being handled really well? Like I said – thrillers aren’t my preference and I’d be lying if I said that I loved this novel simply because of the great writing because, in the end, my heartstrings kind of got tired of being pulled… I WOULD recommend Haunting Megan highly to any one who enjoys tautly written, emotionally insightful and cerebral murder mysteries that don’t pull any punches. Ms. Reilly never steps over the line into gratuitous horror – it’s very finely-tuned indeed and, for that reason, I’m more than happy to award a very high 4 stars.
A House Without Windows (by Stevie Turner RRBC)
This is a high 4 star rating from me, which means I DO love it, just not enough to place the book among the best I’ve ever read, regardless of genre and other aesthetics (that’s also taking in typos etc…). A House Without Windows is what I call a ‘marmite’ book as there’s no way you can be indifferent to it, you either love or hate it. I love it because it’s well-written and tackles very dark subject matters with style and deep insight – and that’s REALLY hard to pull off as a writer. There’s also a large element of admiration from me in how the story is structured and handled, as the bulk of the book is concerned with the recovery period AFTER the central plot event, and the repercussions and aftermath from the perspective of the main point of view characters who tell their own stories.
This is a method of story-telling that’s very effective when it’s done properly as it puts you inside the head of that character, so you’re effectively experiencing what they’re going through. Ms. Turner accomplishes this almost faultlessly, and certainly convincingly, except perhaps with Edwin and, at times, Joss, where I found the plausibility wavering a little, as has been noted elsewhere, in the son’s willingness to idolise the incarcerated and thoroughly irredeemable father. The Edwin character’s complexity is, for the most part well done, but began to unravel slightly for me in the final scenes where he’s some kind of invincible ninja leaping around a strange house, when, for the rest of the book, he’s been this obsessive control freak who needs to deliberate at length when he’s faced with anything new… It kind of worked out OK, but it jarred the flow, which is a pity because the female antagonists were all excellently rendered, even when they were in some danger of turning into ‘Mary Sue’ paragons.
Anyway – any semantic criticisms on my part were eclipsed by the excellent writing style and my overall enjoyment of the book. Four plus stars well and truly earned and I highly recommend this to everyone who enjoys taut cerebral thrillers.
Interludes: a collection of short erotic fiction (by Harmony Kent RRBC)
Well – Harmony’s hit the spot yet again! Saucy, sexy and often really sensitive, there’s not one dud in this collection of short erotic tales.
I like the way Harmony’s put this all together, starting short and sweet with 1,000 words, then 2,000, 3,000, and so on, right up to 10,000 words, making this a meaty and satisfying collection for any taste, all gathering buzz and momentum as she explores different facets of sexuality and sensation. Hard to pick a favourite, but the Cornish Line and the poignant farewell love story of a hospice patient and her ex-nurse were highlights for me, combining heart and soul with other organs to tell stories which don’t fail to stir the emotions as well as the blood.
It’s a real treat when a really great writer tackles the mighty peaks of passionate desire – Ms. Kent is a fearless, world-class mountaineer!
Jazz Baby (by Beem Weeks RRBC)
This book really deserves the 5 stars even though ‘coming of age’ stories rarely come up with anything too new in the scheme of things. I’ll come clean and say right off that I used to work in the courts that deal with the aftermath of ‘saving’ abused children, so there’s little in here that actually shocked me too much, but few writers who tackle this subject ‘authentically’ rarely avoid piling on the social conscience reactions and simply concentrate on what makes their teenage hero tick. And boy does this Baby tick!
Other reviewers have mentioned the content and how Baby/Emily Ann seems to shrug off all the terrible things that happen around, and to her, so I won’t go in that direction. What really convinced me to give 5 stars was that all the characters in Jazz Baby were so well drawn, because Mr Weeks never let the pathos factor get the better of him and got the balance between gaining our sympathy and having his characters EARN our respect and affection, just right. Baby is carried through her various ordeals by her sheer drive and charisma for chasing her jazz dreams, despite the odds, or maybe because of them. The dysfunctional relationship with her parents, particularly her cold, resentful mother, cheated out of her own ambitions as a ballet dancer by falling pregnant, actually spurs Baby on and, as we find out more about the past sins of the daddy and mommy, and the slog of poverty and prejudice she’s trying to leave behind, we find out WHY she loves to sing and pour all the agony and passion into the blues, as the ‘men done those gals wrong’ lyrics soar away and loses her in the fantasy of a white trash girl who can belt out the notes as good as a black one.
So I can believe in her focus on the New York jazz dreams and why she ignores or blanks out the rest, with the music becoming her true lover and consolation. The rest of the writing is simply sublime in taking you back in time to sultry, sleazy N’Orleans, with the mud, murk and mayhem of the riverlands forming a mesmerising backdrop and the twangy, tangy language of the Big Easy and environs working the final magic of a writer at the peak of his powers, by putting you right there in the bayou with the cavalcade of memorable characters.
I rarely give 5 stars unless I really love the book – there’s nothing you can’t love in this one.
Legend of the Walking Dead (by Joy Nwosu Lo-Bamijoko)
This is a high 4 star assessment from me, so lets cut to the chase on why this amazing and refreshingly original book didn’t quite get to 5 stars for me.
The sense of oral traditions are woven into this exploration of life beyond death from the viewpoint of an Igbo mother and son, so there’s a distinctive and wholly authentic African rhythm all the way. However, for a written story (as opposed to a sung, or chanted story) there are too many reiterations, or paraphrasing threaded through, that at times did detract from the story flow for me.
So, this is stylistic call on my part that caused the blip on an otherwise enthralling and unique insight into an edgy and evocative mythology, that blends the familiar christian and syncretic beliefs of Ms. Lo-Bamijoko’s native Nigeria, and delivers something truly special to the often hackneyed and derivative world of paranormal fantasy.
It’s a wonderful book and I heartily recommend it, blips and all.
Not One Among Them Whole by Edison McDaniels
In many ways this is an astoundingly rich and evocative read with a quintessentially American voice that I’d dearly like to give 5 stars to – but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it because the one thing it lacks is that magic buzz that means it makes it onto my all-time greats list. It came very close though, so the 4 stars is well and truly earned in spades and I can’t recommend it too much for anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a keen surgical edge and a funky paranormal twist.
This is a personal judgement call as my own standard for 5 stars is that I have to REALLY love it warts and all so that’s my two cents and no reflection on other people’s opinions in here. What I like most about this book is that everything and everyone has a shade. There’s no absolute bad or good, just human, heroic, cowardly, robust, vulnerable, impervious, venal and just plain terrified and confused raw pain that matches the emotional and twangy verbal tones of the recurring characters as we follow them through the travesty and glory that was Gettyburg, that landmark battle in the American Civil War. The blood flows long after the fighting was done in the field hospitals set up by both armies where the surgeons must run on empty or with the help of tobacco, whiskey, ‘recreational’ use of opiates or pure cussedness for days on end to tend to the wounded, making sometimes arbitrary life or death decisions as they go. Edison McDaniels has taken the humour out of M*A*S*H but kept the story-telling and empathy going full-tilt and transplanted it firmly almost 100 years previously in the thick of America’s deepest and most ravaged war wound and told a great and explicit (in the very best sense of the word) war saga in down at home and resounding language.
If there’s one accolade for the Great Historical American Novel then Not One Among Them Whole must be a serious contender for the title. Highly recommended.
The One Hour Guide to Self-Publishing (by Dave Bricker)
Highly recommended for all writers and self-publishers of any ability from newbie typesetters to experienced design for print people, this is the guide to own and dip into on any facet of writing and publishing any kind of book from scratch to online purchase.
Written in straightforward and clear language, you don’t need to be familiar with techno terms and there’s a wealth of information and tips for all stages of the publishing process that can be easily absorbed, or dipped into again and again. It is indeed readable in 60 minutes if you need an intense info shot, but this book is THE go to basic manual for all independent writers and publishers whether they opt for print, or eBooks, or both, with the added bonus of some ideas on how to market your end product once it’s on sale.
Panama (by C.S. Boyack RRBC)
This is not a perfect book but I loved it and will read it again, so it gets the five stars for the simple reason that I got it because the subject intrigued me and Boyack’s writing came as the most unexpected and very enjoyable surprise for me. I usually talk about the story a little in my reviews but I see that this has already been done to some extent, so instead I’m going to concentrate on the ride as a reader.
I write myself and therefore I also read and review a LOT. I’m an aficionado of fantasy and the paranormal, but my reading habits are fairly wide and reasonably tolerant, although crime and YA sci-fantasy tend to hold sporadic attraction – it takes a lot to truly impress me, and giving me an experience I didn’t expect is right up there on my list of why I’m going to love a book. I didn’t expect famous gunfighters living under deep cover as a canal work team boss turned policeman, or jungle zombies fighting under the banner of Spain, led by a demon out to destroy the sorceress who raised him and cowboys making deals with the devil to spring a captured friend from slavery… in a tale about how the Panama Canal almost didn’t get finished. The writing is funny and sad, cynical and naive, plausible and incredible, and quirky as hell – and it all works and makes you feel like you’re right in there with the characters who all leap out at you, even if they only show up for a few pages. I was mesmerized in fact and the odd spelling, or grammar/phrasing error, or blip in the pace didn’t irritate me in the slightest because the storyline was just dazzling and pulled me along long past my bedtime into the wee small hours making my eyeballs go fuzzy in the process just so I’d give them a break.
It takes a lot to make me really fed up that there’s no more book left to read and that’s why this one gets 5 starry stars – and I do believe in ghosts and hoodoo now!
Perian’s Journey (by Sue Bridgwater & Alistair McGechie)
This is a quest that threads its way through Perian’s life, sometimes shining clear and at other times obscure and even terrible as the hero’s story twists and turns from early heady triumphs and descends into despair and negligence, and then into doubt and a need to find some kind of vindication for the path his adventures have drawn him into.
A lot of the book has a dream-like, reflective quality that suits the story and the hero well, but one of the best things I thought as the tale unwound, lay in the ‘guide’, a wizard, and the main antagonist, a sorceress. Most fantasy has clear demarcation in the good and evil stakes and although this starts out that way, a growing ambivalence starts to emerge, once Perian’s ‘blockbuster’ challenges appear to have come to a happy conclusion and the action gives way to the business of attemtping to follow a ‘normal’, if ennobled, path of marriage and parenthood.
From that standpoint, this is the book’s main strength, as the ‘life as adventure’ motif teaches us all in the end; and so this is no safe fairy tale for children, but a mature metaphor for most people’s journeys, and the knocks and setbacks that kick in eventually, almost invariably as we begin to get complacent with our lot. For sword and sorcery drama addicts this book may be disappointing at first, even though most of the mainstream action takes place in the earlier passages. However, I’d certainly recommend that readers stick with it, as the tale deepens and scopes into a very realistic view of how much the little things matter to how a life should be lived with purpose and responsibility and, in the end, humility, if one wishes to truly do good by others and be an honest champion for the people they love.
Relative Strangers (The Sophie Morgan Vampire Series: Bk 1) (by Helen Treharne RRBC)
Yet again I mourn the lack of a halfway house between 4 and 5 stars because this so nearly made it to the top of my list… There’s so much to enjoy and very little to pick holes in with an engaging, very funny and refreshingly un-angsty take on that tired clapped out demi-monde where creatures of the night prey on us oblivious mortals.
As the ‘B’ word has been used in other reviews here, I’ll go ahead and say that this is Sunnydale with lots of tea and bikkies (definitely NOT cookies), a little bit of Belgian chocolate and a decidedly not extraordinary heroine in Sophie Morgan, who’s slightly dysfunctional and socially inept, while able to take the mickey out of herself, even if she’s taken a bad beating.
The seamy underbelly of Antwerp and South Wales are perhaps less visible than in downtown Sunnydale (no vampire bars as such, although they’re there but unsuspected due to their hypnotic powers), but there are some people in the know and, gradually, Sophie begins to get a grip on what’s going on and we follow her back to England. But, having once scratched the seedy surface of vampire existence she gets a very nasty visit from suavely menacing Charles Ferrars that brings her back down to earth and running scared back home to her mum in Wales – it’s a series, so more alarming developments await her there as the story comes to a satisfying and gutsy conclusion.
Great and very promising start to a fresh and subtly off-key, ‘just below the threshold of normality’ approach to a hackneyed genre that’s long needed a good shot of plausibilty pumped into it’s veins and arteries!
Second Lisa (by V. Knox)
Here’s a tale about Leonardo Da Vinci and the most enigmatic portrait ever painted that most people would like to know about, but is rarely written intimately from cradle to beyond the grave.
How do you define an era, or its most famous of famous sons? Veronica Knox comes close to nailing down the elusive Mona Lisa and the nature of the genius of the man who created her, by filling in the missing personal and domestic gaps that encompass the life of Leonardo Da Vinci and his closest kin by a subtle lyrical weaving of historical fact and speculative fiction that transcends time and death. The core of the story is conveyed through the self-imprisoned presence of Leonardo’s putative (and highly plausible) sister, Lisabetta, residing in the world’s most celebrated portrait, housed in the Louvre. When hard up artist and single mum Veronica Lyons and her son Jupiter first set eyes on the Mona Lisa in 2008, Lisabetta decides that the moment has come to free herself and steals away with the mother and child on one last earthly adventure, back home on the chilly west coast of Canada.
Art History has surprising little to say about Leonardo’s life, but most of what is known comes not from his great paintings, of which there are only a few handfuls surviving, but from his workbooks where he pursued his real passion for science, biology, engineering and most of all for birds and flying. Through Lisabetta, speaking to Veronica from dreams, Veronica learns about Leonardo the strange child, the troubled man and the ever-curious alchemist. Along the way we see other worthies of the age from Lisabetta’s female perspective: of Piero da Vinci, the father who constantly turned his back on his eldest illegitimate son; Verrochio the master studio painter eclipsed by his apprentice’ superior skill with a brush when he was barely a teenager; heir to the studio, the vindictive but darkly attractive catamite, Lorenzo di Credi; and charismatic artist Sandro Botticelli who also worked for Verrochio and whose friendship was highly valued by the young da Vinci and his studio assistant sister.
The dream-like melding of known history and inferred fiction is seamless and irresistible as we follow Lisabetta’s and Veronica’s somnolent dialogue and exploration of Renaissance Italy and France. Delving deep into the wellspring of prodigy and genius endowed on both Leonardo and autistic Jupiter Lyons, the two women spin themselves a mutually conducive cocoon of friendship and romantic rivalry over the sensitive talents of Sandro Botticelli, as they roam over the cusp of the High Renaissance from Lisabetta’s birthplace in Anchiano, near Florence to Leonardo’s final home in Amboise, France. Their dream journey swirls back and forth in a backwash of emotional nuance as Lisabetta paints not only her own portrait as one of the many variations on the Mona Lisa theme, but her brother’s convoluted psyche as she helps him navigate a sane path through his neuroses as the unworthy, rejected bastard son, who has to battle through the plagues as well as the blessings of superlative brilliance that brings him doubt, debt and perennial insecurity as well as fame, as his prowess as an artist leads to disillusionment and the heretic path that he is the first to tread, as his curious genius draws him ever further from the secular world towards arcane and, often forbidden, scientific mysteries.
This is a story that gives context to the underlying spirit of La Gioconda that has nothing to do with it’s usual perception as the image of Lisa del Giocondo neé Gherardini and everything to do with Da Vinci’s superlative mastery of the soul of art and the way in which genius is an alien state, misunderstood and shunned as often as it is lauded and envied. The equally spellbinding depiction of Jupiter Lyons high functioning autism alongside Lisabetta’s story is made all the more poignant as his mother learns to see his world with his eyes and discovering the consonance with the Da Vinci mind to bring the Renaissance milieu into focus with the new millennium and man’s interpretation of all the worlds about us.
Veronica Knox’s luxurious prose carries the lives of the Da Vinci into new planes of comprehension and wonder as Veronica’s dreaming brings her the peace and closure she has longed for on her own tortured trail through family life and artistic endeavour. This is a gentle waft of a book that is definitely worth staying with as it entices you back into a place and time where the world changed forever, and asks you to see it through the eyes of an artist.
Slivers of Life – a Collection of Short Stories (by Beem Weeks RRBC)
Can’t quite put my finger on why this isn’t a five star for me because this is a really well-written, skilfully observed, ballsy and intelligent collection of short stories, and certainly far and away the best one that I’ve read in the past year. So, a little shame-facedly, I have to fall back on the ‘I love it’ factor, because for 5 stars I really have to love it and want to put it right up there with the greatest books I’ve ever read and I can’t honestly say this. Perhaps it’s because they’re shorts, but there you go – mushy stuff doesn’t necessarily have to be pinned down…
Anyway – more precise things about these Slivers that I can really sing out about is that there’s something in here for absolutely everybody with a heartbeat and the ability to read, as all life is certainly in the mix of passion, humour, fantasy, horror, misery, deception, prejudice, anger, love, birth and death and the business of living in the actual and alternative versions of this world. There are even vampires and the paranormal for those of us with a penchant for the hidden horizons. along with lots of fateful conclusions and just rewards depending on your viewpoint!
This is a very high 4 stars indeed and something I’d recommend for anyone who’s short on time, but particular about what their eyes and brain engage with, so discerning commuters, travellers and vacationers – this is THE book you need on your reading list to dip into something fine and satisfying, like the best literary gumbo you’ve ever tasted!
Summers Dark Waters (by Simon Williams; Illustrations by Ankolie Noire RRBC)
With some trepidation I’m breaking the 5 star review charm here because, whilst this is a well-written, enthralling book with beautiful and wistfully menacing illustrations (actually here I would happily award 5 stars as these are really top drawer) it didn’t quite have the ‘oomph’ factor for me to get it all the way up to a 5. It’s a very high 4 star assessment as there’s really nothing much to complain about aesthetically, as the atmosphere broods to good effect and the mysterious tone is carried through and buoyed up by good character development and plotting that draws even adult, jaded fantasy cynics like myself in.
So why not the extra star? Well it’s hard to describe in a way, except for the obviously erratic paragraph indentation formatting which went on throughout the book and rather spoiled things for Ankolie Noire’s exceptional artwork. But I carp of course – what really set my teeth on edge was the way that certain characters came and went without really leaving much of a trace in the plotline. I’m thinking mostly of the otherworldly Mark here, but also of Patrick when Joe and Amber have to go on the run. This is probably because of this being the first in a series (I hope) and we’ll get more information on Mark and his mysterious ‘family’ I’m sure in future outings, as Joe and Amber’s role in the Order starts to be revealed, despite their very existence being the reason that their parents were expelled from the mystical society. That banishment also chafed a little and seemed odd when Aunt Emma and Amber’s father start saying that Joe is now a Guardian of the Order and its secrets – which he isn’t to know about yet… That’s really what irritated me I think, although, in mitigation Joe’s sudden endowment with eldritch powers happened sooner than the adults had expected, explaining away why they weren’t a little more informative as to what was happening to him. Anyway – that’s my opinion and didn’t stop me thoroughly enjoying Simon Williams first foray into YA fantasy. Certainly I’d recommend it for any older child or young teen who likes sci-fi and sword and sorcery environments that are thought-provoking as well as having lots of chase scenes. Very high 4 stars from me – which is still really good as 5 stars get a tad over-used sometimes.
There is a Reaper: Losing a Child to Cancer (by Michael Lynes)
This is a deeply moving and thought-provoking book about a family dealing with a situation that all parents dread. With everything you need to know about the content laid bare in the title, Michael Lynes tells his family’s story with a raw and tender honesty, that evokes the deep emotions and insights that his whole family experienced during Christopher Aaron Lynes valiant, but ultimately mortal, battle with juvenile leukemia and his passing not long before his eighth birthday.
With no holds barred and no false heroics in the telling, one is left with an enduring admiration and empathy for this family’s journey through fear and anguish, fading hopes and tortuous gambles, only to meet the inevitable with bravery, dignity and fortitude. Christopher was an exceptional child, with great promise and spirit that any parent would have been proud of. This book carries a beacon of hope and understanding for every family, whether or not they have to face an ordeal like this one.
Trigger Finger by Jackson Spencer Bell
OK – here’s the thing. I don’t give out 5 stars lightly unless the book’s absolutely one of the best I’ve ever read and I’ve fallen in love with it. This is also regardless of genre preferences and also faulty proofing or editorial.
Trigger Finger has no real problems in the ‘technical’ department so we’ll gloss that and, for a thriller/horror piece (not my favourite reads generally), this is a well-written book, cerebral in places and gutsy throughout. I nearly gave it that last magic star, but like some others have noted the ending, for me, though clever and unexpected, felt too rushed, especially the final twist which in some respects felt like an anti-climax, deflating the ‘turn things on its head’ revelationary denouement about Kevin’s true reality into a kind of back-handed happy ever after. So, one of those situations where you want to be able to award fractions because I’d certainly say this is at least a 4.5 star, especially as it’s a debut novel.
The big plus for me are the psychological aspects, as hero Kevin Swanson plunges himself further and further into delusional ‘coping’ methodologies that only escalate when he seeks trauma counselling, after he succeeds in thwarting a break-in at his residence in which he’s injured and his beautiful wife and teenage daughter are in peril of rape, killing the two intruders. By the time Kevin seeks help months later, he’s experiencing survivor guilt in spades and is tormented by voices in his head (ironically his hero marine brother, Bobby is the main one, convincing Kevin the liberal, law-abiding lawyer, that he’s some kind of a die-hard vigilante). As well as trying to come to terms with flashback nightmares that never happened, Kevin beats himself up over keeping his dead father’s Kalashnikov, never intending to use it only to have to defend his family with what he now thinks was extreme and unnecessary force. After an antagonistic encounter with ‘The Bald Man’ on a radio talk show, things start to go downhill rapidly even as Kevin goes on to have several more violent encounters where he somehow looks like he’s going to be a victim only for the ‘hard man’ persona to rise with prejudice. He kills several more times, only to discover that all his own ‘victims’ are John Does and goes on to convince himself that there are supernatural forces at work with The Bald Man as a demonic figure sending murderous golems to show Kevin up for the ‘coward’ he really is.
There’s lots of layers to this storyline that Bell powerfully explores, deftly piling on the suspense and Kevin’s mounting desperation to ‘do the right thing’ as his home life starts to crumble away and his therapist only seems to make matters worse by refusing to accept Kevin’s explanations of the bizarre crimes he encounters. Given the gun culture in the US this does raise very pertinent and salutory issues on the consequences of the right to bear arms and to defend your home from intruders, at least, for someone who doesn’t regard themselves as a ‘gun person’ or into violence in any way. So yes, this is an unusual and left-field action thriller that fuses with elements of horror and the supernatural very effectively and indeed, creatively. Hasty endings aside it’s well worth the read, even if thrillers aren’t usually for you. Hopefully there’s more to come from one of the best new authors I’ve come across in a while.
The Wellbaby (by Zack Grenville)
I don’t read much contemporary fiction and when I do, a story about redneck folk isn’t a subject that would lure me necessarily, but I’m fortunate enough to be familiar with author Zack Grenville’s online work, so I HAD to read it and ended up being so glad that I was dipping into this well!
So what grabbed me? Amanda Prahl’s grotty wardrobe – that and her fractured relationship with her alarm clock and her barman, Ralph. Strewth – I think Zack’s seen inside my wardrobe, even though we’re strictly online buddies! Left to my own devices I too could be mistress of a stinky wreck of a home like Amanda’s, so even though I’m almost old enough to be her mommy, I was relating to her like mad, almost from the first sentence. Then there’s hapless, hopeless outta work Floyd, ‘orrible Arby the local dimestore, drugstore and every store you care to mention magnate and slobby, showboating, slip-sliding Bobcat Longstreet the mayor – the book is full of memorable characters that you’d swear you’ve met somewhere or other, even though you’ve never been near Oklahoma.
Small-town, small-minded America is made as fascinating, if not more so, than Beverley Hills or the Bronx ever were, and it’s so refreshing to have the sub-text unvarnished and unapologetic with the home truths, instead of saccharine-coated folksy plaid-shirted good old boys. The Wellbaby mixes the murk with the mirth pretty much flawlessly to give a gutsy, salty story of Amanda’s broken dreams of escape from her dead-end life and job, as Floyd’s narrow little shirt-pinning world is banjaxed by the recession, all played out against the seamy undercurrents of mean-spirited bigotry, simmering into hate crime and the sordidly greasy pole of local town politics and promos.
Seriously, if for once you’d like to read about an America that isn’t all about the movie business, leafy academia, ganglands or ghettos, whether in DC, or the East Coast, or ‘hilarious’ hilly billy ‘stand by yer man’ meets Deliverance territory, then The Wellbaby will blow those cobwebs in your mind away and take you deep down into the wellspring of Middle America, where secrets are as dirty as the soil and shaky morals hardly ever get to see the light of day. It’s a bumpy, ballsy ride full of grit, grime and gumption, all wrapped up in a story you can believe in even if the American dream is thin on the ground.
A Wizard of Dreams (by Robin Chambers)
I was yet again going to bemoan the niggardly vagaries of the five star system… However, this is a definite 5 star read as the only real solid reason for NOT going to 5 stars would have been because I have no children (even grown up ones) to share the first of this lovely fantasy series with. If I had then my reading experience would have been even more rewarding because this is one of those rare books that informs as it entertains. The story may be about a child with very special skills, but it’s appeal is much wider as there’s much for adults to enjoy as well, even if they’re not particularly into fantasy since there’s all kinds of themes running through this that bring back memories of childhood, cult sci-fi TV series, family holidays, first day at school and secret friends.
So – Mr. Chambers gave this childless fantasy pedant a lovely trip down memory lane to discover anew the joys of reading Celtic and Arthurian myth anew, all mingled in with a little boy who’s growing up ‘different’ with a benevolent invisible guardian to stop him getting too puffed up with himself, and a mum and dad who love him no matter how strange life with him gets. The many references and notes are interesting in themselves for putting younger readers in the know about things baby boomers take for granted, and reminding the older ones of bygone pleasures as well as topping off proper use of grammar and other things we should know but don’t. In fact, as well as being highly recommended clean reading for self-reading children, I think it also makes a wonderfully entertaining read for those whose first language is not English (or, indeed, American English!).
The story itself is simply charming, without being overly naive for older readers, and easy to read in the best sense, as you keep thinking ‘just a little bit more’ and end up reading far past your usual bedtime! I recommend A Wizard of Dreams wholeheartedly and am looking forward to growing up with Gordon a little more in his next adventures very soon!