Posts Categorized: Review

Pauline’s self-published gems of 2014

January 15, 2017 Archive, Ramblings, Review 0

Edit: Reposting this which got lost in a cyber-black-hole.

I read a lot of self-published books – about half my reading, both this year and last. I don’t specifically choose that, I follow my nose where books are concerned. If I like the look of a book, from reading the first few pages, I’ll give it a go. It doesn’t always work out, but I’ll try anything that’s well written and isn’t just a zombie-fest. I’ve found I’m just as likely to be happy with a self-published book as with a traditionally published one, although I confess I’m very selective. If there’s the merest hint of a grammatical error in the first chapter, that’s a no go.

But there are some areas where the self-published books outshine the traditionally published ones. Here are a few ways:

1) The ebooks are usually cheaper. Self-pubbing authors have far more control over pricing, and also don’t have those hordes of PAs and editors and fancy New York offices to maintain. I can buy two or three self-published books for the price of one standard trad pubbed book.

2) The book can be as wild as the author wants. So if an author wants to write an all-action steampunkish affair, complete with airships, demon hounds, rats-on-steroids (wearing clothes! And wielding swords!), a pyromancer, dwarves, a geeky hero and some brilliantly weird machinery, he can do that. And Scott Marlowe did! I can’t wait for the movie version of this to see what the Nullification Engine actually looks like.

3) The book can be a retread of a tired idea, with a fresh spin. Trad pubs would likely tell you that YA post-apocalypse is s-o-o last year. Saturated market, ducks. But Fallen Down World by K E Douglas has a brilliant opening, a clever array of breathless car-chases and dramatic escapes, intermingled with more introspective passages, very appropriate for the end-of-the-world scenario. And the author doesn’t shy away from the desperation and loneliness in the situation.

4) The book can blend genres with impunity.

A) What could be better than a good old-fashioned western? A western with magic, that’s what! Gun fights and a spunky rancher’s daughter, plus mages and some intriguingly fantastical non-humans. And a nicely understated romance, to boot. No bookstore or library would have a clue where to shelve Beneath The Canyons by Kyra Halland, but for self-pubbers – no problem.

B) Or how about a fantasy romance? Mostly this comes with compulsory werewolves these days, but Bound by Kate Sparkes is well-written and well-plotted, with a nice balance between the romance and fantasy elements, and isn’t that a gorgeous cover?

C) Or maybe you’d prefer a glorious mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy, which starts in present day Australia and ends up… well, somewhere quite different, with humanoids with tails, and mind-bending stuff, and some steampunkish elements and… well, you just have to read it. Watcher’s Web by Patty Jansen

5) Self-pubbers can step away from fashionable grimdark and gloomy realism, into the almost obsolete literate high fantasy style of Tolkien. Silvana The Greening by Belinda Mellor is set in a world where tree spirits, Silvanii, reside in trees in the wildwood, living in harmony with men. Occasionally, a Silvana will choose to take a human husband, leaving her tree to take human form and live a different life. A charming story.

6) A self-published book can take the time to tell a quiet story about people. The Healers Road by S E Robertson can only be described as literary fantasy, a real treat to read.

7) Finally, self-pubbers can, if they want to, write the epic fantasy trilogy (or pentology or whatever-ology-they-like) to end all epic fantasies, with a completely worked out history of the universe and mythology, any number of weird creatures, hordes of shapeshifters and ogres who count in base 6. Oh, and wraiths. Gotta love the wraiths. I don’t need to say much more about The Splintered Eye by H Anthe Davis, since you all bought it the last time I raved about it, right? Right? Sigh. Just buy it, it’s piking awesome.

PS I’m not trying to persuade anyone to give up traditionally published books, because, you know, some of them are pretty good, too. But if you do come across a self-published book, don’t dismiss it on sight, because it just might be an undiscovered gem.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Ruling Mask’ by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

December 27, 2016 Review 0

One of the best aspects of epic fantasy, for me, is the way each book in a series opens out the scope of the story a little more, allowing glimpses of previously unseen locations. This book does that, too, and even though almost all the action takes place within the confines of the city of Rodaas, there is much to discover about the place. But what this series does so gloriously well is to draw back the veil concealing the mysteries of the people of Rodaas – its odd history, its religions, its swirling rivalries on the streets and the background of Duchess herself. And in this book, for the first time, we begin to get a good close-up look at the rulers of the city.

This is a plot-heavy book, with multiple threads weaving back and forth, involving the many different political and economic factions of the city. Many fantasy cities feel like those fake wild west towns, where the saloon is nothing but a sheet of plywood propped up as a backdrop to the pretend shootout. Rodaas, by contrast, feels entirely functional and real. The different quarters, the tradespeople going about their business, the beggars and priestesses, the Red and the Greys, the lightboys and ganymedes, and all the multitude of administrators high and low, and every last one of them is operating according to his or her own agenda. To be honest, I found it hard to keep up with, but that’s not a criticism, it’s high praise. There are vanishingly few books that have so much depth.

But it’s the characters that shine, for me. Not just Duchess herself, but Lysander and Castor, Jana and her brother, the oddball scholar Cecilia, and a whole range of minor characters. Castor became a more significant player in this book. In the previous book, he seemed to be something of a plot device at times, disappearing when convenient, then reappearing just when Duchess needed him. I never minded (I’m a sucker for a warrior-type), but in this book a lot of the odd aspects to him finally start to come into focus, and that gave me goosebumps. Hearing snippets about Duchess’s brother, Justin, also gave me goosebumps. We’ve already seen what happened to her sister, so I hope we eventually catch up with the brother again.

Once again the climax of the story is a seemingly impossible task for Duchess to accomplish, but this is becoming a little predictable now, especially since Duchess’s specialness is ever more apparent, and the likelihood of failure is small. There were one or two elements in the book that seemed unnecessary (the Coast Road, and Aaron’s actions), put in just to wring out some extra emotion, but I’ve thought that before in this series and found there was a deeper significance, so I’m trusting the authors on this.

Overall, this is a deeply thoughtful and well-written series, up there with the best of them, which rewards careful reading. So why only four stars? It’s a personal issue – when a series is as multi-stranded and deep as this one, yet there long gaps between books, I find it impossible to remember all the details of what happened previously. Without either a summary of the story so far or a list of characters, even with careful exposition (which is the case here) I miss a great deal of the more subtle nuances. The failure is mine, not the book’s, but it still diminishes my enjoyment somewhat. For anyone whose memory or ability to pick up subtle clues is better than mine, I commend this book to you. It’s also the sort of series that would reward multiple readings. Four stars.

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Mystery review: ‘Angela’s Christmas Adventure’ by Clara Benson

December 23, 2016 Review 0

A short and sweet Christmas story for fans of the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the 1920s. There’s snow and presents and some missing jewellery, stolen in a seemingly impossible crime, which Angela and the irrepressible Barbara set out to solve in their own inventive but persistent way. There are walk-on parts for Angela’s maid and chauffeur, and of course, the delicious Edgar Valencourt. If the mystery isn’t terribly plausible, it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because it’s all jolly good fun. Four stars.

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Review: ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Toibin

December 17, 2016 Review 0

An interesting story historically, perhaps, but in many ways it fell short for me. Eilis is a young woman in a small town in post-war Ireland, a place with few prospects. Her brothers have gone to England to find work, and her glamorous older sister, Rose, has a job and a social life and a worldly wisdom Eilis is entirely lacking. So when Rose arranges for Eilis to go to New York, with a job and accommodation organised by a helpful priest, Eilis meekly goes along with it. It’s never very clear to me exactly why Rose does this, especially given the later revelations of the story, but then there wouldn’t be much plot if she hadn’t, so I’ll go along with it.

The section dealing with Eilis’s journey to America and settling into life in Brooklyn is quite interesting, but it’s curiously flat. We never get any real inkling of a personality in Eilis. She drifts along, doing whatever is suggested to her. The priest asks her to help out at the Christmas charity, when she’s homesick the priest helps her start evening classes, then an Italian man takes an interest in her. Eilis goes along with all of it, without, apparently, a thought in her head beyond pleasing other people.

And then, when she’s summoned back home to Ireland, she does that too, leaving behind the nice Italian boyfriend and drifting into another relationship altogether. And this is where I lost patience with her entirely. For a good Catholic girl, she doesn’t seem to have too many moral scruples about two-timing. So the drama at the end seemed completely unnecessary to me, and could all have been avoided by a little openness. What was the point of all the secrecy, anyway? Why wouldn’t Eilis tell her mother about the nice Italian boyfriend, who might have been only a plumber but was still a Catholic boy. Too silly for words, and I just wanted to shake Eilis.

Nicely written and the historical details were interesting, but I had no time for a character who was so self-effacing she was almost transparent. Three stars.

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Mystery review: ‘Web Of Fear’ by Mike Omer

November 25, 2016 Review 0

The third outing with Omer’s gloriously quirky cops in the Glenmore Park Police Department. This time the spotlight is firmly on Hannah, who’s a bit of a mess in lots of ways, but grimly determined to prove her worth to the department. Naturally, almost everything that can go wrong does. Poor Hannah!

This story was a bit different, since it focused on a child kidnapping case. That’s always going to be harrowing, and occasionally the author’s sense of humour jarred with the grimness of a child in captivity. I’d find myself laughing at one of those wildly funny scenes the author does so well, and then the switch to Abigail in her cellar would have me feeling guilty for finding anything funny. And therein lies the skill of the writer, to invoke that very visceral response in a reader.

If I have a complaint at all about this series, it’s that the constant jumping from character to character can be unsettling. I didn’t notice it so much in the previous two books, but there was a moment in the middle of this book when I really wanted to settle down with just one point of view. It can be very illuminating to jump around, and the author uses the technique to brilliant advantage sometimes (that poor birthday guy! But so funny), but it can be tricky to avoid overuse. Fortunately, the end was just as adrenalin-filled and nail-biting as one could hope, and ensured another five stars. A great series.

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Fantasy review: ‘Assassin’s Charge’ by Claire Frank

November 14, 2016 Review 0

It’s a novelty these days to find an assassin character who visibly fulfils that role, both in practice and in temperament. Rhisia Sen is a paid killer for the Attalon Empire, so well-paid for her work that she can almost afford to retire. But when she’s offered an outrageous amount of money for a kill, she can’t resist just one more job. But if something seems too good to be true, it usually is, and this is the job where Rhis finds out just how far she will go to fulfil a contract, and where she’ll draw the line.

This book drew me in right from the first chapter, where we see Rhis on a mission, and realise how skilled she is, and how cold-blooded an assassin needs to be. But her next job is a little different, and when she finds out that she has to kill a child, she goes on the run with him rather than comply, and finds herself the target of a contract in her turn. From then on, it’s a race to escape the various assassins sent to hunt them down, to find out why the boy, Asher, is so special and to reach a place of safety for the boy and Rhis herself.

The first part of the book works really well. The initial kill, the glimpse of Rhis’s luxurious lifestyle, the long trek through the backlands of the Empire and then the confrontation with Asher and his family — all these elements are utterly absorbing.

However, once Rhis commits herself to saving Asher, the story becomes more episodic. There’s a lot of hopping about here and there — to find a ship to escape on, to rescue the boy after he runs away, a visit to the Atheneum (a giant library) for information, a side trek into the mountains to find out more about Asher’s history, and so on. And at each stage, there was someone or other leaping out of the scenery trying to kill our heroes, and Rhis has to find ingenious ways to defeat them. This isn’t uninteresting in itself, and the author is superb at describing fights, but it did become a little repetitive after a while. And the love interest felt rather perfunctory to me.

More concerningly, both Rhis and the boy behaved stupidly at times. The boy’s antics were perhaps understandable, given his age and sheltered upbringing, but several times Rhis, the supremely skilled assassin, was taken by surprise and found herself at a disadvantage, which had me shaking my head in disbelief.

On the positive side, I loved the way both the boy and Rhis changed over the course of the story. Asher learned some harsh lessons about life and death and protecting your friends. Rhis softened considerably and learned to trust someone other than herself. And the ending took me by surprise, and finally showed Rhis’s intelligence and creativity.

For those who’ve read the Echoes of Imara series, this book offers a fascinating glimpse of another part of the same world, but it’s not at all necessary to have read those books first. A good, action-packed read, with some excellent characterisation in Rhis and the boy, and the mysteriously creepy Athon. Recommended, and you don’t just have to take my word for it, since this book is a finalist in Mark Lawrence’s competition for indie books, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016. Four stars.

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Urban fantasy review: ‘Speak’ by R M Webb

November 11, 2016 Review 0

I don’t read much urban fantasy, but this one grabbed me from the opening pages. There’s an intensity to it that I don’t often find in any kind of fantasy, which tends to concern itself much more with actions, events, reactions, battles and magicky stuff. This one is all about Zoe, and is so well embedded in her head that I felt everything that she felt, heard everything she heard, responded exactly as she did. That’s a rare talent, for an author to get under a character’s skin so strongly.

Here’s the premise: Zoe seems like just another girl — quieter than most, a bit subdued, a bit odd, perhaps. She has trouble talking to people, and sometimes she just goes into sensory overload, and can hear everything, every last detail. She has a best friend, Becca, who looks out for her, understands her and protects her from the world. And then, one evening at the bar, she meets Noah, who has a weird effect on her…

Since this is urban fantasy, it’s obvious that Zoe is ‘special’ but it takes a long time to get to the discovery point. By then, the action begins to get fast and furious, much is revealed and much, naturally, remains to be discovered about Zoe and the world she belongs to, because this is, after all, the first part of a series.

For regular fans of this type of story, there perhaps won’t be much that’s new, but the depth of reader investment in Zoe makes this a special read. I loved it. Five stars.

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Sci-fi review: ‘The Trouble With Time’ by Lexi Revellian

November 6, 2016 Review 0

The author is one of very few whose work I will buy without hesitation, because I’ve never read a bad one yet. This one didn’t break the pattern, but for me it wasn’t quite the unalloyed pleasure of her previous books. This is mostly because of the time travel theme, one that I find tricky at the best of times. I like a nice, linear plot that proceeds at a steady pace from A to Z without too many meandering deviations. Time travel stories start at A, but after that all bets are off. They may proceed to Z, then jump back and forth, or they may abandon all decorum and simply loop the loop and twizzle about like a demented fly. This one felt quite comfortable and I was keeping up nicely until the midpoint when it suddenly went into a Primer-like tailspin and I got hopelessly confused. I felt I should have been taking notes!

The other unsettling issue with this book was the characters. None of them quite grabbed me, and at times I wasn’t quite sure who I was supposed to be rooting for. Jace? But he was off the scene for long spells and isn’t terribly likable. Floss? She doesn’t show up until late in the day, and doesn’t seem particularly interesting at first. Quinn? He’s a charmer, but hardly a hero. Kayla? No, not really. The ending felt like a neat way to set things up for the rest of the series, so maybe the problem is just the weight of setup detail.

All that aside, the book was still an enjoyable read, and I was never tempted to abandon it. I enjoyed the portrayal of London at different times, and the various futures were very well done. Sometimes people made the transition to a different era too easily, particularly Floss in the future, but this is far better than filling the books with endless descriptions of characters being astonished by changes in technology. I liked the idea that a lot of current technology will survive more or less unchanged over the next thirty years (there’s still email and phones, for instance), whereas other aspects (like human-driven cars) have virtually disappeared.

So plenty to like about the book, even if the whole time-travel business made my head hurt. Recommended for anyone whose brain is more capable than mine. Three stars.

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Review: ‘The Singing Sands’ by Josephine Tey’

November 2, 2016 Review 0

This is an odd sort of book. Part murder mystery, part poetic eulogy to the scenic Highlands of Scotland, part description of a recovering claustrophobic and part despairing (and very funny) description of the post-war way of life in the Highlands.

Here’s the plot: Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant is given some time off to recover from what we might nowadays call a nervous breakdown. He goes to his native Scotland to spend a month of restful fishing and striding about the heather with old friends. But on the sleeper travelling north, another passenger arrives dead in his cabin, and initiates the murder mystery part of the story. The various flimsy clues about the dead man lead Grant to the Outer Hebrides and eventually back to London. Along the way, he encounters an unlikely revolutionary, an aristocratic almost-love-interest and any number of caricature locals, who may or may not be accurately drawn portraits of the era, it’s hard to tell.

Of the various disparate parts, the murder mystery is the least convincing. Abandoned for more interesting trains of thought for much of the book, it only truly comes to life late in the day, with a highly implausible explanation of events, and a finish that had me rolling my eyes in disbelief. Overall, however, the humour (especially the visit to the outer isles, which Highlanders assure me is a totally accurate picture) and the delightful descriptions of the Highlands won me over. Four stars.

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Urban fantasy review: ‘Stolen Magic’ by Marina Finlayson

October 23, 2016 Review 0

The first of a new series, and once again Finlayson offers a book that’s everything I don’t normally read (urban fantasy? Me? Um…), and has me utterly absorbed, hanging on every word. Right from the start, as heroine Lexi breaks into a house with the aid of nine cats, I loved everything about it.

The world Finlayson lays out is (to me) a little different. There are shifters – were-wolves and a whole array of other were-species. There are vampires. There are shapers — people with a power over one or more elements. And the result is a very different-looking political spectrum. There’s no pretence here that the ‘other’ species are somehow hidden from the human population, nor that they peacefully coexist. No, the shapers are immensely powerful, and as a result, they call all the shots. There are shaper-controlled areas, where shifters and other non-humans live in cautious subjection. There are separate human-controlled areas. The differences are underscored by place-names — Britain is Britannia here, and Australia assumes its 17th century name of New Holland.

So where does our heroine, Lexi, fit in? She’s neither shifter nor shaper — her peculiar talent is to connect to the minds of animals. I’ve used this ability to a limited extent in my own books, but Finlayson uses animals in some wonderfully creative ways — even cockroaches! I’d never thought of the little blighters as anything but an irritating nuisance, but here Lexi manages to make them delightfully useful.

Plot: OK, there’s a plot. Lexi is hiding out in the small seaside town of Berkley’s Bay after a powerful shaper asked her to use her unusual talents to steal a ring from an even more powerful shaper. Not a game she can win, whatever she does, so she’s lying low, running a second-hand bookstore for the vampire who runs the pub, living above the shop with her cat. But then another shaper turns up, and life starts getting difficult…

The author’s always brilliant at drawing her characters, so it goes without saying that Lexi and all the other shifters and shapers in her world feel beautifully real. However, I have to make special mention of Lexi’s cat, Syl, who is quite awesome from start to finish, and utterly catlike in every way. I adored her. There’s also a blossoming romance for Lexi, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out in the rest of the series.

Another terrific book from the author. Great world-building, loads of action that kept me turning the pages when I really should have been doing other things, a wonderful main character, a hot but difficult-to-trust love interest, an awesome cat and a mysterious ring. What’s not to like? Five stars.

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