Yearly Archives:: 2014

Paranormal DNF: ‘Morning Star’ by Desiree Finkbeiner

November 29, 2014 Review 1

This is one of those books that I picked up yonks ago in the enthusiasm of a brand new Kindle, which has lurked forgotten ever since. And somehow my tastes have changed in the interim. What seemed like an interesting idea now doesn’t grab me at all.

Here’s the premise: Brianna (or Bree) is a normal teenage girl, albeit with an unusual interest in mushrooms, when she encounters a giant dragonfly and falls down the stairs. As anyone would. She recovers remarkably quickly, but then the dragonflies are everywhere, and Bree sees an attractive stranger, Kalen, who fascinates her. He speaks and dresses oddly, and is unfamiliar with common customs. From then onwards, things escalate, involving a specific mushroom Bree found some years earlier, and another stranger with dragonflies and evil intent.

And somehow none of it captivated me, and Bree’s insta-lust attraction towards Kalen got tedious very quickly. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this book, so if you like a story where a teenage girl gets swept up in otherworldly stuff, you’d probably enjoy this. I gave up at the 15% mark. 1* for a DNF.

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Fantasy Romance Review: ‘Beneath The Canyons’ by Kyra Halland

November 28, 2014 Review 2

What could possibly improve a good old-fashioned western? Why, a little magic, that’s what. Yes, folks, what we have here is a western/fantasy mash-up, complete with horses tied up outside the saloon, gambling and whoring inside, and gunfights in the street, but some of the people wearing the big hats are mages, and the mining going on in the hills is digging up something a lot more powerful than gold. And is it fun? You betcha.

Silas is a mage visiting the Wildings from neighbouring Granadaia, a bounty hunter looking to round up a renegade mage for profit. Lainie is a rancher’s daughter with her own untrained magical powers. Silas ought to hand her over for training, or else remove her powers altogether, leaving her a shell of her former self, but somehow he can’t quite bring himself to do either. Meanwhile, the town is being torn apart by the mining for some valuable commodity which damages the ranchers’ land and produces terrible nightmares. What is going on?

Now, the mystery isn’t terribly complex and most of the characters fall into one of the standard categories: white hats, black hats or red shirts. No shades of grey here. But the two main characters are lovely, a solidly honourable and gentlemanly hero, and a spirited, independent but smart heroine. Lainie’s determination not to be docile does get her into trouble sometimes, and yes, she does have to be rescued by our stalwart hero once or twice, but she also uses her initiative and is just as instrumental as he is in saving the day. And the romance between them is wonderful, sweet rather than hot (although magic does create certain… erm, interesting effects).

There’s some fascinating world-building in the background, and I would have liked a little more detail about some of it, particularly the blueskins living in the hills, who have the power to understand any language spoken to them. There’s the politics of Granadaia, with its Mage Council, too, and I loved the idea that a person’s magic is rooted in the land they were born on. Fortunately, there’s a whole series in the pipeline, so I’m hopeful that more of this will be revealed.

What didn’t work so well for me? There were a huge number of miners who were almost uniformly stupid and selfish and greedy. And a lot of them got shot in the numerous gunfights. They were very expendible, and I wondered how many of them had wives and families back in town, and perhaps wouldn’t have been quite so cavalier about their own safety in reality. But perhaps that’s just me with my twenty-first century sensibilities. [ETA: Apparently they were all vagrants and drifters, a point that whizzed by me as I sped through.] Another minor grumble: I found the plot just a tad predictable at times. There were one or two twists, but not quite enough for my taste.

But these are trivial complaints. I really loved this book, and tore through it in no time. I loved the blend of magic with western conventions, I loved the politeness (Silas always addresses Lainie as ‘Miss Lainie’) and I loved the gentle romance. An entertaining read. A good four stars.

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Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Killing Rites’ by M L N Hanover

November 27, 2014 Review 0

The fourth in the Black Sun’s Daughter series, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Abraham, and at last things are coming to the boil. Jayne has finally stopped shopping and randomly cataloguing dear Uncle Eric’s many houses, and started to think more carefully, both about herself and what she’s doing, but also about the people who surround her. People who give her (mostly) unconditional love and support, but are also individuals with their own hopes and dreams and murky past histories. And Jayne now knows for sure that she has a rider – a demon residing inside her, who helps her in moments of extreme stress, but who is generally regarded as a Very Bad Thing.

This book leaves behind former lover Aubrey, now trying to reconcile with his ex-wife, and, for most of the time, philosophy-man Chogyi Jake, leaving Jayne with one-time priest Ex, a man she now knows desires her. It’s a sign of how far Jayne has come that she doesn’t fall into bed with Ex, despite the two of them being thrown together in a pretty intense way for some time. But Ex’s intentions are not towards Jayne’s body, but her immortal soul; he wants to exorcise her, to rid her of the rider inside her, and at the same time lay to rest his own ghosts.

This book has a very different tone from the previous horror-fest. There are some dark moments and dramatic confrontations, it’s true, but the heart of the story is Jayne confronting (literally) her inner demon, finding out something about who or what she carries inside her. Jayne also has to come to terms with what she as an individual truly wants. In many ways this is more of a coming of age story than most that call themselves that. Jayne finally grows up.

It’s typical of the author that when he writes urban fantasy, he isn’t content to wheel on the evil beasties and leave it at that. Nothing in this book falls neatly into good and bad. Sometimes the best of intentions lead to terrible outcomes. Sometimes all you can hope for is a least worst option. Sometimes you have to hurt the people you love to do the right thing. Sometimes good things are destroyed along the way. And sometimes you need to join forces with a lesser evil to defeat a greater one.

This book is about trust and faith and doing the best you can and being able to bend when the wind blows. And love. That too. A fine book, and much deeper than urban fantasy has any right to be. Five stars.

Footnote: and that’s it for me. I won’t be reading any more about Jayne Heller and friends. Not because this is the end of the series – it isn’t, there’s a fifth book out. The series was projected to be ten books long, but I believe it was terminated after five. No, the reason why I won’t be reading on is because book five, ‘Graveyard Child’, isn’t out in ebook form. Can you believe, in this day and age, that it’s not possible to get an ebook version of any book still in print? But I don’t read dead tree books any more, so I’ll never know how the series ends. Which makes me sad.

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Fantasy Review: ‘Watcher’s Web’ by Patty Jansen

November 26, 2014 Review 0

I’m a sucker for a portal story, where the main character falls through some sort of access point into – well, whatever the author cares to imagine (past, future, parallel world, some other planet altogether). It’s always fun to watch the character work out what’s happened, and trying to deal with the new setting. It can be trite, but there’s always room for a fresh take on the idea.

Jessica has always been an outsider. She’s taller than average, for one thing, not very womanly in shape, has some odd birthmarks, and then there’s the whole web of light thing she does with her mind. Useful for dealing with truculent bulls, but it can kill, too, and she’s still not sure how to cope with it. And then one day, something odd happens and the small plane she’s in crashes somewhere weird. As in very weird.

Straight away I like that the inhabitants of this weird place don’t automatically speak English. And they have tails! Yay for humanoids with tails. Although some of their customs do seem to be very, very odd… But they’re not the only people around. This is, in fact, a very complex place, with a number of different species (or sub-species or races, not sure exactly how it works), and some complicated political arrangements. And Jessica is thrust into the middle of it all, seen as a saviour by more than one faction, but not necessarily for good reasons.

I’ll confess I didn’t always know exactly what was going on. Some aspects were deliberately mysterious, like Jessica’s strange mental connection to the man called Daya, and sometimes characters were keeping information from her or outright lying, which made it difficult to follow. Then there was Jessica’s web-like power, which I never fully understood. But the story swept me along and I never worried too much about the details.

Jessica herself is a gloriously independent-minded, spiky individual, the ideal focus for a story like this because she constantly asks the obvious questions that also spring to the reader’s mind. She doesn’t always get a straight answer, but at least she asks, and she keeps on asking. She also makes efforts to avoid being manipulated too much by the people around her, but it’s difficult to know who to trust in this strange new world. She also has to come to terms with her powers and the revelations of her heritage, and that’s a lot to take in.

It was disappointing that such an otherwise intelligent, sensible and together character ended up drawn into sexual relationships which only served to complicate everything. I wasn’t sufficiently drawn to either of the men to be rooting for either of them. Really I was only rooting for Jessica, and longing for her to stand up to both of them and tell them to ^&*% off and leave her alone until she’s sorted out which way is up in this strange new world.

The ending was the usual dramatic high-action affair, with a few things sorted out but plenty of scope for further developments in the series. Overall an enjoyable read, with bonus points for the originality of the setting. Four stars.

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Fiction Review: ‘My Memories of a Future Life’ by Roz Morris

November 24, 2014 Review 0

I have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know how to characterise it: literary paranormal fiction, maybe? Or a psychological… hmm, not thriller, exactly, but mystery, perhaps. And although it was interesting, in an oddball sort of way, it never quite flowed for me. It felt just a bit out of kilter like a slightly convex mirror, everything coming across as distorted. Maybe that’s appropriate for the story, I don’t know. Certainly the future parts were much more interesting and vivid to read about.

The premise is that a talented London pianist, Carol, finds herself unable to play because of repetitive strain injury. Her flatmate, Jerry, is pursuing his personal demons by way of regressive hypnotherapy; he feels he’s been a victim of Jack the Ripper in a previous life. Carol tries it too, but finds herself in the future, a soothesayer called Andreq, someone who is trained to soothe people using some technique called xech. Everyone is able to xech, apparently, but not future-Carole, although no one seems to know that, at least not officially. She seems to be able to wing it when required, though. Present-day Carole takes herself off to some coastal backwater to recuperate, where her hypnotherapist, Gene, is also now working.

The London scenes were fine, but the stay in small town Vellonoweth (is that an anagram?) is treated with big-city contempt. It must be very amusing to be so scathing about such quaint customs as half-day closing and quirky local radio, and part of me was entertained by all this vitriol, while the other part was outraged on behalf of the inhabitants of Vellonoweth and small towns everywhere. To be honest, it was hard to believe in this very small place which is apparently stuffed to the rafters with aspiring singers for Carol to attempt to teach. Not to mention wall-to-wall clairvoyants and the like.

Of the main characters, Gene, the enigmatic hypnotherapist, is easily the most interesting. Every scene with him is unexpected, and I never felt I had a handle on him at all. Just too enigmatic altogether. His relationship with Carol was a fascinating mix of professional distance, suppressed sexual tension and an edge of something much, much darker. A compelling character. Jerry, the London friend, is fun, if not particularly original. Carole herself is a curious mixture of upper-class haughtiness and arrogant disdain for lesser mortals, at least in musical terms.

The ending was a little too contrived for my taste, and the author would have done better, in my view, to cut short the post-drama ruminations and leave the reader to take from it whatever he or she will. The writing style is sharp, although I occasionally found the use of metaphor too intrusive. But that’s a matter of personal taste.

A quirky and thought-provoking read. Four stars.

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I’m back!

November 24, 2014 Current writings, Publishing/marketing 2

Did anyone even notice I was gone? No? Oh well. I’ve just spent three very pleasant weeks in Australia, first in Adelaide, then crossing the Nullarbor desert by train to Perth, then back to Adelaide to catch the plane home. Great weather, great food, great wine, great people – so friendly and just all-round nice people. And an astonishing number of them from my original stamping ground of Merseyside. Very weird to fly half-way round the world and hear so many Scouse accents.

I got plenty of reading done on the long flights to and from the UK, and on the train. Thank goodness for a well-stuffed Kindle. I have eight reviews ready to post, and several other books partly read. Lovely to be able to catch up on my reading, and not to have twenty other things vying for my attention.

I got some writing done, too, although I find travelling less conducive to creative thought. Still, I got a couple more chapters written of the current work in progress (book 4 in the Brightmoon world). I also did a full read-through on book 3, so progress is being made.

Current state of play:

Here’s a quick rundown on where the various books are at:

‘The Plains of Kallanash’: published, sold/lent around 80 paid copies, plus around 800 free copies.

‘The Fire Mages’: currently awaiting final beta reports, then one more edit and proofreading, ready for a January publication date.

‘The Mages of Bennamore’: complete and ready for editing. Cover art booked. Publication (I hope!) around May 2015.

‘The Mines of Asharim’: about 70,000 words written, probably about half-way.

Coming up:

I have another set of free days planned for Kallanash for early December – 3rd/4th/5th – and a little light promotion to help things along. So if you know of anyone who might like a free read, let them know.

I’m also beginning to plan for the release of ‘The Fire Mages’ in January. Beta readers have been very positive about it, and not found too many glaring plot holes so I’m going to give it a modest promotional push – a blog tour and a few not too expensive email lists. It will be quite fun to have two books out! I’m beginning to feel like a proper author. 🙂

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‘The Plains of Kallanash’: first promotion results

October 29, 2014 Publishing/marketing, The Plains of Kallanash 4

When ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ was published in September, I took the decision not to do any serious promotion. There were several reasons for that, not least the fact that I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing, so very likely I would be wasting both time and money. But the main reason was the received wisdom that promotion is pointless until you have at least three books out. Why promote a single book, the thinking goes, when you can’t offer an enthusiastic reader anything else? Once you have three, preferably in a series, then promoting book 1 leads to increased sales on books 2 and 3.

But I’d decided to enroll with KDP Select (it seemed easier to stick to Amazon until I had a better grasp on this publishing lark), so I had free days to use. And I’ve been active on Goodreads for years, so a giveaway there seemed a good idea.

Goodreads Giveaway 16th Sep-26th Oct

The purpose of a Goodreads giveaway is not, in fact, to give away oodles of books, hoping for people to read, rate and review. Since the only product that can be given away is the print version of the book, that naturally limits the scope of the prize (LibraryThing is the place for ebook giveaways). Publishers with big marketing budgets can afford to give away ten or twenty books, but self-publishers will probably want to limit themselves to one or two. What you hope, however, is that a lot of people will sign up for a chance to win the book, and along the way will notice it, add it to their shelves and (if you’re lucky) buy it. It attracts attention to the book.

The biggest signups are at the beginning (when the book appears on a list of new giveaways), and at the end (when it shows up on the ending soon list). I had almost 60 signups on day 1, then around 5-10 a day until the last few days, when numbers skyrocketed. Eventually 1,632 people entered the giveaway, with 264 on the final day alone. However, I discovered that the giveaway ended the moment the calendar ticked over to the last day (26th). I’d expected it to run right through 26th, giving Sunday browsers a chance to enter, and I could pop the winning copies in the post first thing Monday. I shall know for next time.

Was it worth while? For getting the book noticed, certainly. Over 800 people added the book to their to-read shelf. However, it’s only produced 8 additional ratings and no extra reviews. It’s hard to know how many people actually bought the book as a result. It was priced at $0.99 for most of the time, and free for the last day, so I’m sure a few picked it up, but there was no obvious spike in sales. Taking postage and packing into account, it’s probably cost me less than $30, which is not a lot for the number of people who now know the book exists.

KDP Select Free Days 25th/26th Oct

I chose the weekend of 25th/26th October for my first 2 free days to coincide with the end of the Goodreads giveaway. I paid $20 for a Bknights promotion on 25th, and the book was also mentioned on various lists, Tweets and websites which trawl Amazon looking for new free books. I advertised the free days on my blog, on Twitter, on Google+ and on Wattpad. I’m not a big Facebooker, so I didn’t post there.

The price drops to free at midnight Pacific time, or 8am UK time, so naturally downloads were slow to start with – just a few copies in Europe. Things started to pick up around 8am Pacific time, and then increased dramatically around 10am Pacific with around 120 downloads in the following 2 hours. This is around the time of the Bknights promo, so although Kallanash was placed well down the list, it was clearly very effective.

After that downloads dropped off slightly (yes, I checked every hour!), but the overall results were better than I expected:

Day 1: 532 downloads

Day 2: 252 downloads

Total: 784 downloads

Most (689 or 88%) were from the US, but there were 45 from Germany, 39 from the UK, 10 from Canada and 1 from Italy (Ciao e grazie, persone d’Italia!).

Most entertaining of all, the pace of downloads on day 1 weaseled me into the free bestseller charts, peaking at #401, and reaching #7 in the free Sword and Sorcery sub-chart, and #8 in the Epic Fantasy sub-chart. Which was all great fun to watch (and take screenshots of), but of course it doesn’t mean anything. Free downloads don’t affect normal sales rank at all, and only drive sales if they number in the thousands. The only thing that’s changed is that 784 extra people now have a copy of the book stuffed into a dusty corner of their Kindle. And maybe one or two of them will read it. Eventually.

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Sci-fi (?) review: ‘The Mengliad’ by Jana Janeway

October 27, 2014 Review 0

This has an intriguing premise: imagine that half the people you see around you everyday are not, in fact, human. Imagine they look the same, but genetically they’re very different, so they avoid daylight, eat differently… No, no, come back! These are not vampires. I did get worried for a moment, I’ll confess – all that preferring the dark – but these are Mengliads, and they’re quite different from vampires. Instead of drinking blood, they eat — actually, I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing that, but it amused me hugely.

Jessica has a normal, if somewhat dull, life until something happens to revive her dormant Mengliad DNA and she becomes (more or less) a Mengliad herself. I liked that there’s no halfway, blended state, you can only be one or the other. And there are no superpowers in evidence, just a somewhat different physiology. And discovering how that differentness affects her is just part of Jessica’s problem.

Being only the tenth accidental conversion in Mengliad history, Jessica is a target for the scientists who want to research her situation. She’s also a target for the section of Mengliad society who want to keep themselves uncontaminated by mixed-blood individuals, and it’s not research they’re interested in. And both groups want to keep the whole thing under wraps so that regular humans never find out about Mengliads.

The end result is a fast and furious chase to keep Jessica safe and avoid the many bad guys. Now the plot is wafer-thin, there’s a huge amount of angsting and crying and clinging to the hot bloke for comfort, and every third word seems to be italicised for no obvious reason. And you know what? It didn’t matter. This is a lot of fun, there are plenty of twists, the sex is hot, the action is heart-pumping between bouts of angst, and I found myself reading faster and faster to find out how it ends. Be warned, though, the ending felt more like a respite before another outbreak of chasing around.

I’m torn between three and four stars, but the sheer entertainment value (and the hot sex) bumps it up to four. And the opening; isn’t this a great opening paragraph? How can you resist?

It’s survival of the species, and that’s all it knows. Needing a blood meal, the protein necessary to its offspring, it searches the streets of New York for a victim, unremorseful.

Spotting potential prey, it swoops in for the kill. Biting into warm flesh, it takes what it needs without regard to the owner, but danger presents itself, and it can’t obtain all it requires. Another source is vital.

From its vantage point, it doesn’t take long to find. Soft flesh, warm blood, it starts to feast, the task nearly complete.

Darkness.

“Stupid mosquito.” She slapped the insect hard, killing it, and then flicked it off her arm before continuing towards her destination.

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Historical fiction review: ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Sarah Dunant

October 27, 2014 Review 3

I loved this book. Right up until the very last chapter, I loved it. And then… if I hadn’t been reading on my Kindle, I’d have hurled the thing across the room. Ack. I can’t talk about the reasons for this without giving away spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything, don’t read the second half of this review.

Here’s the premise: fourteen-year-old Alessandra is the oddball of her fifteenth century Florence family. She’s not beautiful, as her sister and two brothers are, she’s not content to follow the prescribed duty for a well-to-do woman and either marry and push out babies, or take herself to a nunnery, she’s been educated and she has artistic talent. Her drawing is a secret, abetted by her slave maid, Erila. She yearns for freedom, but is constrained by the need to remain virginal. But when her father employs a painter from the north to paint the family chapel, Alessandra is drawn to him, despite the prohibitions on both of them.

You would think, given all this, that the story would play out as a romance. Girl meets painter, girl is attracted to painter, painter is attracted to girl, insuperable obstacles… yada yada. And to some extent, it does. But the author has ambitions far beyond the simple romance; she wants to write Literature. So what we get instead is historical fiction with the romance pushed firmly down to the bottom of the priorities list.

And it almost works. The backdrop of Florence – the city itself, the art, the social culture – is beautifully and lovingly drawn, with an almost painterly richness of colour and texture. The political setting, with the fall of the powerful Medici family and the rise of a charismatic religious leader, is covered pretty well, although Alessandra’s situation means that she misses most of it, and has to depend on other characters to tell her what happened. This leads to long, slightly info-dumpy dialogues. And sometimes the plot contrivances to get her into place for some historic event were creaky, to put it mildly. However, the complications and swirls of political fortunes were well described, and I was never at a loss to understand what was going on.

The characters were, in some instances, interesting, but all too often their motivations were unclear or downright unbelievable. Alessandra’s brother, Tomaso, for instance, is a major influence on her life, and not for good. Much of what happens to her is because of his machinations, and it’s hard to see why he chooses to be so evil towards her. Sibling rivalry just isn’t a good reason for some of the things he does. Why does he hate her so much?

Both the mother, with her own chequered past, and the slave maid Erila, are actually much more interesting than Alessandra herself, who always seems to be the victim of other people’s needs and manipulations. Her husband, too, is a fascinating character. All of these are people who, unlike Alessandra, made their own decisions, their own lives and remained true to themselves (yes, even the slave, who seems to have had more freedom than her mistress). The painter would have been interesting if we had ever seen enough of him to judge, but he remains a shadowy figure for most of the book. I did, however, like the conceit of not naming him, so that readers can imagine their own favourite northern painter in the role.

And then we come to the ending, and here is where everything fell apart for me. However, the rest of the book was very enjoyable, so it merits four stars but with a hazard warning: this is NOT the book to read if you want a satisfying ending.

Spoilers ahead… Read more »

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FREE this weekend: ‘The Plains of Kallanash’

October 25, 2014 Publishing/marketing, The Plains of Kallanash 3

Yes, folks, for the 25th and 26th October you can download a copy of ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ completely free from any Amazon store. If you already have a copy (thanks!), tell your friends about it. It’s an epic fantasy adventure with a strong romantic theme, and at 564 pages, it’s a traditionally sized fantasy, so plenty of story to get your teeth into. Magic, mystery, a barbarian war and an unconventional marriage – plus a dragon (sort of!).

Link to your local Amazon to download a free copy from the side bar.

Here’s the blurb:

Thousands of years after a magical catastrophe reshaped the world and pulled the moons out of alignment, the secret of magic has seemingly been lost. At the centre of the vast, forbidding Plains of Kallanash lies a land ruled by a secretive religion, whose people fight a never-ending war against the barbarians in the wilderness beyond the border.

Amongst the nobility, double marriages are the norm. Junior wife Mia always dreamed of attracting the attention of the dashing lead husband, but never dared to compete against her lively older sister. Hurst has spent ten frustrating years as junior husband, longing to test his skill with a sword in battle, longing for his beloved Mia to turn to him.

The mysterious death of Mia’s sister thrusts the marriage into turmoil. As Mia and Hurst struggle to adjust and find out what happened, they uncover sinister truths about the ruling religion. But the gods are unforgiving; even Mia’s innocent questions carry a terrible punishment. Hurst is prepared to risk everything to save her, even if it means taking up his sword against the barbarians, his own people, and the gods themselves.

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