Posts Categorized: Review

Urban fantasy review: ‘Rivers of Hell’ by Marina Finlayson

May 25, 2017 Review 0

This is the third of the Shadows of the Immortals series, and it’s another action-packed and dramatic installment. This one is, as you might suspect from the title, set in the underworld, as Lexi and friends try to remove the magical collars that restrict the powers of god Apollo and Lexi’s cat-shifter friend, Syl. As always, there are plenty of twists and turns along the way, and Lexi and hot fireshaper Jake inch a little closer towards the inevitable romance.

Now, I’m going to be honest. I’ve never read a bad book by Finlayson yet, and this one doesn’t break that winning streak. It’s the usual well-written roller-coaster ride, lurching from one crisis to the next, yet always in a way that makes total sense within this world, and with that trade-mark Aussie humour – lovely! But…

It lacks many of the elements that made the previous two books amongst my favourite reads. Lexi’s ability to communicate with animals, for instance, which produced some creative moments in the first two books, is very muted in the underworld (with one glorious exception). Then there are those delightful thought-conversations with cat-Syl, which so enchanted me. None of that here. And finally, that tantalising backstory about Lexi’s mum – where is she? Why is everything different in her home town? I really, really, really wanted to know about that, and with Lexi stuck in the underworld, that didn’t happen. All of this is perfectly understandable, but disappointing.

So this was still a very enjoyable read, and highly recommended, but for my personal choice, I’d have liked a touch less relentless action and a little more of the quirky charm. Four stars.

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Review: ‘Dark Voyage’ by Alan Furst

May 25, 2017 Review 0

My book group throws up a mixed bag of reading materials, and I never quite know what I’m going to get. This one seemed most unpromising at first glance: a war-era story of spies and secret missions aboard a Dutch freighter commandeered by British intelligence. Um… not really my thing. But after I chickened out of a few, I’m determined to have a crack at everything from now on so I settled down to read.

And (surprise!) I really enjoyed it. It’s very much a boy’s own adventure, with lots of creeping about in the dark, secretly repainting the ship to disguise it (not an easy task), and never quite knowing who is on who’s side or what the ultimate objective is. There are some truly thrilling moments steering through minefields or arriving at a neutral port to find that it’s changed allegiance overnight. There are also laugh-out-loud funny moments, as when the supposed Spanish captain (in fact a very lowly crew member) is produced for the benefit of a German U-boat, and turns out to be gloriously drunk. I didn’t follow all the wartime nuances, but it didn’t much matter.

The main character, phlegmatic Dutchman Eric DeHaan, resignedly does everything that’s asked of him, even the obviously suicide-mission final job, in the desire to do his bit for the war effort. His motley crew of many nationalities goes along with it too, in the main, with only a couple making a run for freedom. There’s a gratuitous little romance, which never really rang true, and an oddly unexplained spy who’s important enough to be ferried around Europe, but then vanishes again at the end (this is a motif of the author’s, apparently, and the character turns up in multiple books). And although I’m far from an expert, the historical and nautical details were utterly convincing to me. An enjoyable read. Four stars.

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Fantasy romance review: ‘Source-Breaker’ by Kyra Halland

April 20, 2017 Review 0

Kyra Halland’s one of very few authors who writes proper fantasy romance, that is, stories that have a fully-formed romance at their heart, but are also well-constructed fantasies. It’s a hard trick to pull off (I know because I’ve tried and failed) but she does it superbly.

This book drew me in from the very first paragraph. I loved the idea of a man whose job it is to fix magical sources (the well-springs of magical power, each one different). Kaniev travels around the country to wherever his lodestone tells him a source needs attention, fixes it with a bit of arm-wavy business that only he is trained to do, and then goes on his way to the next job. That makes it sound very prosaic, like an old-fashioned tinker who turns up out of the blue, fixes your bucket and sharpens your knives and then vanishes until the next time. Except that Kaniev is hotter than any tinker. I did mention that it’s a romance, didn’t I?

Kaniev’s suffered some mysterious failures recently, but his next job is at Source Chaitrasse, where Fransisa is the Priestess in charge, nursing resentments of her own, and not at all pleased to have her work disrupted by this hot bloke who thinks rather too well of himself. She ought to send him on his way, but maybe the source does need a bit of fixing. And then he’s so hot… I think I may have mentioned that’s it’s a romance. But when a ceremony goes wrong and Fransisa is torn away from her everyday world into the grasp of a dangerous rogue sorcerer, she and Kaniev must overcome their mutual dislike and past failures to defeat the sorcerer before there’s a catastrophe.

Now the fantasy element of the story isn’t the most complicated one ever in the history of fantasy, but it works fine and the depth of world-building more than makes up for it. The author is brilliant at creating worlds which appear simple on the surface but are endlessly complex and fascinating underneath. The idea of different sources of magic, each subtly different, each affecting the people using them in different ways, is beautiful but also powerful, and the concept of the time source blew me away. I didn’t see that coming, but that’s the sign of great world-building, when a basic idea can be applied in a multitude of ingenious ways.

The romance element was charming and delightful and tear-inducing and heart-warming and utterly wonderful. I loved, loved, loved that these two are not in the first flush of youth (the author says they’re facing mid-life crises!), and Fransisa isn’t your average skinny beauty, either – she’s a nicely rounded lady, which Kaniev likes a lot. Kaniev? Well, he’s the conventional hot hero, with the muscular arms which he shows off with a sleeveless leather vest and silver jewelry. He might be just a little vain. But definitely hot. Their final coming together made me go all mushy inside, and if the epilogue was just a tad sentimental, these two earned their right to it.

Would I recommend this? Only if you like delicious romances wrapped up in terrific fantasy. And hot blokes. Five stars.

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Urban fantasy review: ‘Nothing But The Truth’ by Angela Holder

April 20, 2017 Review 0

I’ve had some mixed experiences with Angela Holder’s writing in the past. White Blood was a wonderful 5* read for me, a quirky and original story based around an unusual heroine, a wet-nurse. But the first part of her Tevenar series, The Fuller’s Apprentice, was a less resonant read. I enjoyed the intriguing magic system, the detailed world-building and the philosophical points raised. I was less enamoured of the glacially slow pace, the info-dumping and the lack of plot development, so much so that I never managed to get round to reading the rest of the series. The writing was uniformly excellent, however, so when I saw this new book out with its intriguing premise, I had to give it a go.

Nothing But The Truth depends upon the conceit that Allison, the main character, has a physical reaction to lies. If someone lies in her vicinity, she’ll either throw up or get violent pains in her head. The stronger the lie, and the nearer she is to it, the worse the reaction. Now this is a neat idea with all sorts of possibilities, and the book opens with Allison struggling to manage in a typical high school, full of the sort of small and large lies that teenagers tell every day. She leaves school to start homeschooling (a sensible idea), and meets a group of somewhat eccentric other homeschoolers, among them Asperger’s boy Charlie and cautious, sensible Lindsey. This part of the book is excellent, and when a former school friend is murdered, Allison and her new friends set out to put her lie detection ability to good use.

So far so good. However, as the friends progress with their investigations and become increasingly involved with shady goings on, the story starts to go off the rails a little. There were several times when, despite Lindsey’s hand-wringing over how dangerous a thing was, they did it anyway, got into deep trouble and had to be rescued by the cavalry (grown-ups, mostly – the main characters are all mid-teens). And the resolution of the murder and the teacher’s behaviour were both too simple for my taste – I’d have liked something a bit deeper, or just more subtle. And after rather a nicely-done showdown with the Big Bad, the ending, almost an epilogue, was positively glib, and (frankly) a bit dull.

Despite all that, I enjoyed the read, and raced through it to find out if it turned out the way I thought it would (it did). There was a moralistic tone to the story, which, while being appropriate for the situation and the age of the presumed audience, felt a touch heavy-handed to me, but the writing was up to the author’s usual standard, and I enjoyed the mixture of characters. I would have liked more detail about some of the minor characters – Allison’s mother for instance, who was constantly off meeting clients. I wondered what sort of work she did, and a part of me hoped it would be something magic-related, but we never find out. And Charlie’s parents don’t show up at all until the end. But these are very minor quibbles. The intriguing premise, great characters and terrific readability make it a four star read for me.

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Review: ‘Water For Elephants’ by Sara Gruen

April 5, 2017 Review 0

The framing story here is that of an old man looking back on his life with a third-rate circus in the thirties. Is it a romance? An action story? Making a point about circuses? Not a clue. It was an easy read, and I was never tempted to abandon it, but frankly I have no idea what to make of it. Parts of it were wonderful, parts were ho-hum and a few parts were downright stupid, a real curate’s egg of a book.

Let’s start with the good bits, which was basically everything involving elderly Jacob (who’s 90 or possibly 93) in the care home. The descriptions of the other residents brought them to vivid life, Jacob himself was utterly believable as a curmudgeonly old man falling out with another the same, and the daily frustrations of age and an institutionalised existence were filled with pathos.

The ho-hum bits were most of the middle. Circus life ought to be filled with colour and movement and life, but somehow it all faded to nondescript lifelessness. The early parts, where Jacob leaves his comfortable middle-class existence behind and joins the circus, working his way swiftly from hired low-paid muscle to circus vet, had the air of an author showing off her research. We get a quick guided tour around some of the seedier elements – there’s a graphic description of what goes on in the stripper’s tent, for instance, which has no particular relevance to the plot.

Once we get past the exposition phase and our hero falls for the wife of the animal director, the action hots up and veers off into stupid. I lost track of the number of times the hero was beaten up, only to be back to normal almost instantly. In one scene, he’s beaten so badly that he ends up concussed, but he then does the whole running-along-the-top-of-the-moving-train thing, with a knife in his mouth. And then back again. The whole romance is basically unbelievable. What did he see in her? I suppose she was hot in pink sequins, but she didn’t seem to have much between the ears (but to be fair, nor did he).

There were some more complex characters, like Walter the dwarf, who would have made a more interesting hero, frankly. But the star of the book was Rosie the elephant, who had more character than most of the humans. Poor Rosie suffers a lot, in fact a number of the animals suffer, for one reason or another, but the humans don’t do much better. At one end of the circus train, the owner and his acolytes live in luxury, with the best food and plenty of booze (the book is set in the prohibition era), and are able to go to expensive nightclubs. At the other end, the grunts who do all the work don’t get paid at all, and get tossed off the (moving) train whenever they outlive their usefulness.

And then we come to the end. Both the thirties-era ending and the present-day ending were beyond silly, but everything got tied up with a neat little bow, I suppose. The unevenness of the two eras and the stupid endings keep it to no more than three stars.

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Review: ‘The Cleaner of Chartres’ by Salley Vickers

March 15, 2017 Review 2

I never know what my book group is going to inflict on me next. This one I at least managed to read, although it fell short of being enjoyable. I prefer a simple story, well told, with believable characters, something that I find absorbing, even if it may not be compelling. This was deficient in all areas.

The story revolves around Agnes, who appeared one day at the cathedral at Chartres and stayed for twenty years, finding a place in the town and gaining friends along the way. How she came to be there, and how her life begins to unravel, are slowly unfolded. Agnes herself is something of an enigma. She takes on odd cleaning jobs to make ends meet, both at the cathedral and for various other people, and at first she seems to have no personality, being very compliant and passive. She appears to be mentally deficient (she can’t read, for instance), yet she makes some astute observations and notices when people need help. She’s very quiet, yet has numerous friends. She failed to learn to read as a child, yet now she learns very quickly. She was badly treated at her convent orphanage, had a baby at fifteen and was sectioned afterwards, yet is quite open and trusting in her dealings with people. I found her not very believable, and couldn’t get interested in her.

Of the other characters, most are caricatures, without any depth to them at all, and no, telling us their whole history the first time we meet them doesn’t give them depth or make them credible, it just makes the book stodgy and (frankly) boring. Once the book gets past the midpoint and the dumping of information wholesale is no longer deemed necessary, the story picks up a little speed. Even so, the unfolding plot is too predictable to be interesting and the ending was, frankly, quite unbelievable.

I know I’m a picky reader, and there’s some excellent writing in here, amid the stodge and the cartoon-like behaviour of some of the characters, and the French setting may appeal to some readers (although apart from the odd word tossed in, like patisserie, very little French atmosphere seeped through). I’m sure there’s meant to be some profound parallel between the main character’s life and the labyrinth on the cathedral floor, although I’m not sure what it is. I daresay the meaning whizzed over my head. Recommended for anyone who enjoys literary fiction and is less fussed than me about a heavy writing style, but for me it was only three stars.

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Urban fantasy review: ‘Murdered Gods’ by Marina Finlayson

March 4, 2017 Review 0

Marina Finlayson is one of my all-time favourite authors. Her stories just seem to resonate with me, and I’ve enjoyed every single thing she’s written. Which makes it more than a little nerve-wracking whenever I pick up a new book – will this be the one that falls flat on its face? Well, no is the answer, not by a long shot.

In the previous book, Lexi got into a whole heap of trouble over a stolen ring with magical powers, although with a hot fireshaper around, there were some compensations, too. But the ring’s doing some odd things, and Lexi’s own ability is unusual too. Controlling animals seems pretty tame when you’re surrounded by shifters in a world ruled by powerful shapers, but where did that ability come from? Lexi decides to go back home to the human territories to ask the one person who knows – her mum.

Accompanied only by her faithful pal Syl, a cat shifter who refuses to take human form, Lexi heads off on what should be a simple journey. But that’s not going to happen, right? With some really, really angry people on her tail and a lot of mysterious goings on back home, the story sucked me in big time, and I just couldn’t put it down. I’m not going to say any more because – spoilers! But you can be sure that there’s a ton of action, lots of neat twists and a glorious punch-the-air moment when the cavalry arrives (in a most unlikely shape!).

Be warned, however, that some of the big questions raised in this book remain unresolved. There’s no cliffhanger, as such, but there are definitely unfinished aspects left for the next book. I can’t wait! Five stars.

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Mystery review: ‘A Case of Murder in Mayfair’ by Clara Benson

January 23, 2017 Review 0

This is the second in the spin-off series from the author’s Angela Marchmont series or murder mysteries set in the twenties. This time, Freddy Pilkington-Soames, insouciant man-about-town, finds himself in the middle of a drugs-and-murder case amongst a set of film people. A famous Hollywood actress somehow falls from a high balcony during a party announcing her landing a plum part. She wasn’t the nicest person in the world, so no shortage of suspects with a grudge against her, including another actress, a cameraman, a producer, the actress’s sister and so on. Freddy joins forces with another journalist, the less than scrupulous Corky Beckwith, to investigate.

This series has one advantage over its predecessor – Freddy is able to take a far more active part in events than the ladylike Angela. So there’s a great deal of creeping about at night, sneaking into suspects’ houses and getting into fights. Freddy’s also rather resourceful, although there’s sometimes an element of luck involved in placing him at just the right spot for things to happen.

This one wasn’t quite as light-footed as the first in the series, and I’m hoping that Freddy gets out of town occasionally in future books. Angela got about quite a bit – Cornwall, Scotland, Italy spring to mind – and several of her books had a country-house feel to them redolent of Agatha Christie, which I marginally prefer to the seedy side of London. But a good entertaining romp, nevertheless. Four stars.

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Review: ‘The Warden’ by Anthony Trollope

January 16, 2017 Review 0

I’ve never read any Trollope before, but my book group likes to mix things up, so here we are. This was a real surprise to me. It was published in 1855 and my previous dabblings in that era have left me less than enthusiastic. Overly wordy, sentimental, turgid and a real slog to get through – that was what I expected. What I got was funny, sharply observed, sympathetic and surprising easy to read.

I have to say, though, that I’ve never read a book with so many words where so little actually happens. Much of the body of the text is made up of lovely commentary on the characters, their histories, quirks and motivations, together with the author’s opinions on the church, the newspaper industry and the legal profession. Some of that is interesting, but some is also very repetitive and long-winded, and could have been scrapped without any loss at all.

The plot revolves around doing the right thing. Is it acceptable to follow a course that is morally correct but might harm people one is fond of? What happens if one person’s view of moral correctness differs from that of other respected people? But mostly, it’s about the characters being driven to do what feels right to them even though the consequences may be disadvantageous to those around them or even to themselves. Everyone who plays a part sincerely believes that their actions are the only proper course, from the reformer who triggers the story to the bedesmen, the warden himself, the archdeacon, the daughter, the newspaperman and the barrister.

The ending is fairly predictable, with almost everyone worse off than they were before, but the author’s lightness of touch makes it more of a comedy than a tragedy. The characters make the book, and I enjoyed the read, but there’s enough Victorian caricature combined with wordiness to keep it to three stars.

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Five self-published gems of 2013

January 15, 2017 Archive, Ramblings, Review 0

Edit: This is my original post, reposted here because it got lost in a cyber-black-hole.

Self-publishing gets a bad rap. Some wit once said: the best thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it; and the worst thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. Occasionally, trawling through the endless heaps of optimistic offerings on Amazon, it seems as if half the world’s population sat down at the computer, rattled off that novel they’ve always wanted to write, and without a single further thought clicked the ‘Publish’ button. Bad spelling, bad grammar, no punctuation at all, wooden characters, trite plots…

But there are authors out there who write as well as any of the big names, and better than many of them. They take the time to edit thoroughly, they add professional cover art, they take endless trouble with formatting. Their work is indistinguishable in quality from anything put out by the traditional publishers. And the great virtue of taking control of your own publishing is freedom. Self-pubbers can write what they want, in the way they want, as long or as short as the story needs to be. They’re not constrained by genre or perceived marketability or what’s hot. They can be as original as they like, and many are astonishingly imaginative.

The very best of my self-pubbed reading this year will be noted in the forthcoming Barney Awards, but here are a few others that gave me terrific reads this year.

The Wandering Tale by Tristan Gregory

This is a collection of four novellas set in a single world, and only loosely connected: a minor character from one story becomes more important in the next one. Each one is published and sold separately. Start with The Swordsman of Carn Nebeth. When a man returns to his village after nineteen years away fighting in the wars, young William is fascinated by his stories of the life of a soldier, and the battles he’s been in. But when other former soldiers start to cause trouble, he realises that bravery isn’t just for kings and soldiers. This is a cracking story of a boy growing to manhood in a small village, and learning the truth about being a hero. Great characterisation, a well judged balance between action and slower passages, a perfect ending and with more emotional resonance than I’ve seen in some well-regarded works many times its length. A beautifully crafted piece which I loved. There’s a lot of subtlety in these stories. People are honourable without being stupid or caricatures, they behave in believable ways and display both intelligence and strength of character. Even the bad guys have reasonable motivations. Below the surface are some thought-provoking themes – of war and honour and duty and bravery, the responsibility of power and the pragmatism of politics. Each episode is a little gem in its own right, but together they add up to something much more interesting.

The Five Elements by Scott Marlowe

A cracking read with elements of steampunk, alchemy, a fairly standard form of elemental magic plus there’s a fair dose of science in the mix as well. The main character, Aaron, is a sorcerer’s apprentice, but unlike the usual such character, he’’s a scientist, using logic and scientific knowledge to investigate effects related to his master’s work. He’s a terrific character, both immature yet intelligent and enterprising, perfectly aligned with his age. I absolutely loved his ability to approach any problem in a logical, scientific way, and find a rational solution. This is so refreshing in fantasy, which all too often turns to magic at such moments. The pace is rapid and there’s a dizzying array of twists and turns, to the point that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next, or who was a good guy and who was a villain, almost to the end. The ending is appropriately grandiose and with unexpectedly thoughtful undertones. The author is to be commended for not taking the easy way out at this point. One of those books I tore through at high speed – that just-one-more-chapter syndrome; it’s an unusual, pacy story, with an unexpected plot-twist in almost every chapter, and great fun to read.

The Tattered Banner by Duncan Hamilton

Soren is eighteen, trying to survive on the streets, when a theft gone wrong results in a street fight and a passing swordsman recognises some talent in him. He is taken to the Academy to learn to wield a rapier and be a gentleman. It’s refreshing to read a story where the rapier is the the weapon of choice, and I found it a refreshing change from the more usual broadswords and bows. The book sidesteps all the street-boy-goes-to-posh-school cliches, and quickly gets Soren out and about wielding his rapier and discovering the extent of his extraordinary gift. These early battles are beautifully described, the highpoint of the book for me, and I loved every moment of each one (especially the belek, which was one of those awesome moments that stays with you long after the book is finished). The world behind all the action has great depth, one where magic was once widespread by is now outlawed. A terrific page-turning read, and the follow-on book, ‘The Huntsman’s Amulet’, looks like reaching the same standard.

The Fall of Ventaris by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with compelling characters and a beautifully woven plot, filled with double-dealing and double meanings, where nothing and nobody can be taken quite at face value. This follow-on is more of the same, but with even more depth, showing more of the city itself, its history, and the three main religions. The authors skillfully weave the many different strands together to create a brilliantly nuanced picture of Rodaas and its people. Duchess’s many schemes take her all round the city and below it, and these adventures bring the book to vivid and dramatic life. Some of her encounters are unforgettable: the strange candlelit ceremony at one temple, the meeting with the facet (priestess) in another and the events underground, for instance. The facets are a truly spine-chilling invention, a sort of hive-mind of masked women, all identical, and there’s a moment near the end, when the hive-mind slips slightly, which is awesome. Great characters, a compelling plot and terrific world-building; this is a polished and cleverly thought out book which would repay a second read to understand all the nuances and subtexts.

And All The Stars by Andrea K Höst

A YA post-apocalypse story in the literal sense, beginning the very instant after, as main character Madeleine finds herself amidst rubble from a disintegrated underground station. And dust, vast amounts of dust which coat everything, including Madeleine herself. And as she makes her escape through the ruined station, she encounters the base of the Spire, a black spike, which has instantaneously risen into the Sydney skyline, along with numerous others all around the world. The dust is the key, for those who encounter it are irrevocably changed. Finding out about the dust and the strange Spires, as well as simple survival, creates a pacy adventure which rattles along nicely. The characters aren’t the standard issue beautiful people who leap into perfectly honed action when called upon. These are relatively ordinary people with odd combinations of talent and weakness. Problems are solved by intelligence, common sense and teamwork, rather than brute force. Nor is everyone uniformly heterosexual. And then, just when you think you’ve got the book neatly pigeon-holed, there’s a moment which changes everything, one of those magical OMG moments when your perception simply shifts sideways to open up the story in innumerable different ways. I love it when an author manages to do that to me. An interesting and thought-provoking read.

And a bonus novella: Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

I discovered the author’s debut novel, ‘Thorn’, quite accidentally, one of those magical reads where you start on the sample and find yourself so swept up in the story you just can’t put it down. This is just as good, the first in a projected series of perhaps six novellas altogether. This has to be one of the most unpredictable stories I’ve ever read, a new twist at every turn, and as the book is incredibly fast-paced, that means a breathtaking ride. Hitomi is a lovely heroine – spirited, enterprising and imaginative, and never, ever prepared to be pushed aside. She always does exactly what she wants to do, regardless of whatever instructions she’s given. I loved the way the author managed to fudge the question of who were the good guys and who were the villains; things just aren’t that simple here. One doesn’’t expect much in the way of world-building from a novella, but there’s surely enough background here to fuel a full-sized trilogy at least. This is a wonderful book, with memorable characters, some great world-building, an action-packed plot that never lets up for a moment and a surprising twist every few pages, and beautifully written.

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