Monthly Archives:: July 2017

Sci-fi mystery review: ‘Gingerbread Man’ by Lee Strauss

July 3, 2017 Review 0

This one took me by surprise. Because I’d downloaded it for free some time back (more than a year ago, in fact), I had no idea why I’d been attracted to it or even what sort of book it was. I simply opened it and began to read, and at first it seemed like fairly standard fare: a college campus, some geeky students doing typical geeky student things, a rape, a murder, bla bla. And then things veered sharply off in a very different direction and I got interested.

It’s not surprising I was confused. The full title is “Gingerbread Man: A Marlow and Sage Mystery Thriller (A Nursery Rhyme Suspense Book 1)”, and the Amazon categories are the expected mystery and thriller variants. But buried in the book’s description is the truth: this is Science Fiction Mystery Romantic Suspense, and it uses the conceit of alternate (or parallel) worlds to drive the plot.

Marlow is the headline geeky student, who befriends fellow student Teagan online. But when they set up a date to meet up, both claim that the other never showed up. And when Marlow bumps into Teagan on campus, she claims not to recognise him. Now this is nicely intriguing stuff, but when there’s a rape, then a murder, and then Teagan disappears, Marlow sets out to find her, and that’s when things get really interesting, and the alternate world business really kicks off.

The problem with alternate worlds is twofold. Firstly, each time there’s a jump, there’s a new setting and new characters to get to know, and although the characters are technically the same, there are enough changes in their backgrounds and upbringing to make them feel very different. The differences are nicely done here, but it still feels like starting all over again. It’s disjointed, jumping directly from an exciting part in a now-familiar setting, and suddenly we’re somewhere else altogether.

The second problem is that the alternate worlds are not always equally interesting. The third world (which it would be spoilerish to describe) is quite interesting, but by that point I just wanted to get back to the action and resolve the Teagan crisis, so any time elsewhere felt like treading water.

There were aspects of the book that I enjoyed very much. The early chapters, where Marlow and Teagan were communicating fine online, but some odd things were happening (like the photos that wouldn’t transmit, and the missed date at the coffee shop), were nicely intriguing, and drew me in beautifully. Once it became obvious what was happening, I lost interest slightly. The sciencey bits were a little clunky, and, as mentioned, not all the alternate worlds were equally interesting.

The characters – well, none of them really grabbed me. I appreciate that the romantic pairing for Marlow is Sage (it’s in the title, for goodness sake), but it seemed to me that he spent almost as much time thinking about and worrying about Teagan. The minor characters never really jumped off the page for me.

And here’s a really trivial detail that tripped me up a lot — the writing style is rather pedestrian. There’s a lot of ‘I did…’ and ‘I went…’ and ‘I ran…’, one after the other, and it got distracting. I really wanted to get in there and reword a few sentences, just for variety. Now, this is partly me being an author myself, so I notice the rhythms of the writing more than someone who’s reading solely for fun, and partly because I’m a nitpicky so-and-so, but it got between me and the story a lot, so I mention it. Ninety nine percent of the population wouldn’t be bothered by it, I’m sure.

I enjoyed this quite a lot, even though it wasn’t what I was expecting. The world-jumping was easy to follow (thank you, author!), the story was eminently readable and the early mysteries were intriguing. However none of the characters stood out, and the pedestrian writing style keep it to three stars for me, but I recommend it as a good read for anyone looking for a not-too-complex sci-fi themed mystery.


Fantasy review: ‘The Royal Companion’ by Tanya Bird

July 2, 2017 Review 0

I have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know what genre it is. The author says it’s a romance, and categorises it as medieval and Regency, which niggles at my tidy mind – how can it be both? Regency – no way. It has nothing in common with the historical Regency or fictional representations of it. In fact, I discovered it as an advert on the page of one of my own Regency romances, very out of place among the Pride and Prejudice fan-fiction that’s normally advertised there. But since the ad worked on me, I suppose it’s an effective strategy. But this is definitely not a Regency book.

The medieval part, on the other hand, I can just about see – there’s a king and a whole royal family, there’s a castle, the nobility indulge in boar hunting, archery and tournaments, the usual things. But it’s set in a created world, not part of the real medieval world, and to my mind it is clearly fantasy. So, fantasy romance, then? Well, no. Although this is about two people falling in love and being together despite obstacles, the equivocal ending puts it firmly outside the realm of romance. Let’s call it alternate world fantasy, or just a genre mashup. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The premise: poor farmer’s daughter Aldara is sold by her mother to the obnoxious prince Pandarus, who gives her to his brother Tyron as a Companion. Companions are an interesting concept. On the one hand, their function as royal bed-warmers is a time-honoured and unoriginal one. But they are also trained to be beautiful, talented and adept at conversation, which makes them in some ways comparable to Geisha girls. Aldara finds the transition from independent-minded farm girl to meekly subservient courtesan a difficult one, not helped by Tyron being a reclusive and tortured soul, subject to black moods after action in one of the many border skirmishes plaguing the kingdom.

I found Aldara to be an uneven character. Sometimes she’s behaving with the utmost propriety, curtsying and remembering titles and pretending to be interested in the men’s conversations, as she’s required to do, yet at other times she’s being wildly outrageous, scandalising everyone. I’d have liked to see a little more consistency in her actions, and perhaps a steady progression towards a clearly defined goal. I’m not quite sure, looking back on it now, whether she ever truly accepted her role as Companion or not. It seemed to depend rather a lot on Tyron.

As for Tyron… well, what to say about a hero who causes his love so much grief? Would it have been so hard for him to make some effort to protect her, instead of simply ignoring her? And even when they’re lovers, he doesn’t bother to let her know that he’s safe and well. To be honest, I found his behaviour unforgivable, which is not a word I use lightly. When bad things happen to the heroine, and here the bad things are pretty harrowing, I like to think that the hero would have done everything in his power to prevent the bad things, and that if they happen anyway, it’s because his hands were tied and he was helpless to intervene or protect. But not in this case. Here the supposed hero actually creates the situation where it was almost inevitable that, sooner or later, bad things would happen. So, no, I can’t quite forgive him for that.

Some of the other characters in the book were, in many ways, far more interesting than the two main characters. The retired Companion who trains the new recruits, for instance, is a very complex creation. I’d have liked to see more of the queen and the princess, too, who I felt had more depth than portrayed here. And then there was the younger brother and his archery-champion Companion, who were simply enjoying a pleasant and amicable relationship. That would have been a bit more fun to read about than the darkness around Tyron.

I had a few issues with some of the premises. The idea of a Companion, taking a peasant girl and training her up (in just a few months!) to be a sophisticated and intelligent consort for a prince, able to hold a conversation amongst the nobility, is intriguing but inherently implausible. I couldn’t see any reason why peasant girls were preferred over (say) minor nobility. And then there’s the issue of motivation. Why, for instance, did Aldara’s mother sell her in the first place? They didn’t have so many children that a daughter would be an excessive burden. And why tell her nothing at all about what she is being sold for? That made no sense. Then there was the issue of poverty. I get that the ordinary folks were struggling to survive, but why on earth were servants within the royal estate struggling to survive, to the extent of needing to steal food? Surely the servants would be fed, and fed pretty well, too. And then there was Tyron’s behaviour, which made no sense. Even when he was supposedly falling in love with Aldara, he never cared enough for her to protect her. And why not sleep with her? That was what she was there for!

Some minor quibbles: lots of little typos, like a wide birth, pales of water, and something that was omitting noises. There were intrusive modernisms (to my ear), like sourcing food, or the need for personal space. Sometimes modern insertions like this are done for effect, but I found they just jarred me out of the pseudo-medieval setting.

This was an interesting and unusual read that would perhaps do better marketed as literary fantasy. I applaud the author’s attempt to explore a refreshingly different setting and some unusual characters. Despite all my quibbles, I found it fascinating, because I never quite knew what was going to happen. The weaknesses in the characters and the unsatisfying ending keep it to three stars for me, but I recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different.