Posts Categorized: Review

Mystery review: ‘Aunt Bessie Assumes’ by Diana Xarissa

October 18, 2016 Review 0

As cozy mysteries go, this is about as cozy as it gets. Aunt Bessie is a lady of bus pass age living beside the beach in Laxey on the Isle of Man. One morning she (literally) stumbles over a body on the beach, and, since she knows everyone on the island, she’s roped in by the police and her own curiosity to help solve the crime. As always, there are plenty of suspects, and all sorts of skeletons in closets to be revealed before the murderer is brought to justice.

There’s nothing fundamentally amiss with this book, and I was never tempted to abandon it. However, the pace is glacially slow, with inordinate amounts of unnecessary dialogue and repetition, and a great deal of page time is devoted to drinking vast amounts of tea and loving descriptions of every single food item passing Aunt Bessie’s lips. When she cooks, we’re treated to a blow-by-blow account of every ingredient and cooking utensil and process involved. It’s easy to read, however, and the odd Americanism felt reasonable to me given that Aunt Bessie grew up in the States.

As a mystery, let’s just say that my first guess was the correct one, and there were no challenging puzzles to unravel. For anyone who enjoys this kind of lightweight and undemanding story, there are plenty more books in the series, and the Manx setting is charmingly different. For me, it only rates three stars.

Divider

Fantasy review: ‘The Healers’ Home’ by S E Robertson

October 2, 2016 Review 1

Another awesome story from the author. A world you can immerse yourself in. Characters who are so real, you’re sure you must have met them some time. A story that weaves itself around you like a silk cocoon, soft and gentle and totally mesmerising. If you’re looking for action, this really isn’t the book for you, but if you want literary fantasy, where the characters matter more than anything else, this is the book for you.

The premise: in the first book of the series, The Healers’ Road, Agna the healer and Keifon the Medic, with their very different backgrounds and approaches to healing, were thrown together and had to reach a working accommodation. Two years on the road and a lot of adjustments saw them become strong enough friends to consider settling in the same northern town, Wildern. Agna hopes to open an art gallery. Keifon wants to become qualified to practice medicine in his new home, and also hopes to make an arranged marriage and have a family. This second book in the series opens with Agna buying a former dry goods store to convert to an art gallery, where the two of them will also live until Keifon gets settled.

The early part of the book is rather slow. There’s a great deal of ambling around the streets and into furniture shops, with much discussion of the necessary purchases for their new home. Then the details of food items have to be gone into, and there are shifts at the hospital to be itemised and so on and so forth. As a way of introducing the world, it’s quite effective, but I did get rather impatient to get to the meat of the story. Even when things do start to get moving, everything seems to go very smoothly. Agna’s approaches to patrons for the gallery are successful. Their work at the hospital goes well. Keifon finds a new project to absorb him. Nothing terribly bad happens, even though Keifon agonises endlessly about being ‘nameless’ and about taking advantage of Agna’s hospitality.

Things do get more tense eventually, as the past comes back to bite both our main characters, and they have to make difficult decisions in situations where there are no right answers. Or perhaps I should say, no perfect answers. The conclusion leaves the pair in happier circumstances, but with a very interesting situation for Agna to deal with. I look forward to seeing how that works out, and there’s a character from her past that I’m rather hoping will turn up in the future.

Any quibbles? Well, Wildern seemed almost too pleasant place, all told, (at least until events close to the end) and a little more overt drama early on would have added some spice. There was some terminology used that struck me as being quite modern in feel: rest room, pen pal and municipal trash can, for instance. Not a big deal, however.

The second book in a series always loses a little of the bloom of freshness, but the pleasure of rejoining familiar characters more than compensates. A slow-moving, gentle and wonderful story. Five stars.

Divider

Fantasy review: ‘For The Wildings’ by Kyra Halland

September 29, 2016 Review 0

This is the sixth and final part of the Daughter of the Wildings series. I’ve been trying to think how many series I’ve managed to keep up with for six books, and it’s not many. A couple of murder mystery series, perhaps. But in fantasy? Nope. I rarely even get beyond the first book, and only a few stand-out series keep me hooked for a trilogy. So it’s a testament to the strength of the author’s writing that I’ve read and enjoyed every word of all six books.

It was the premise that first caught my eye. Wizards and magic combined with old west cattle ranching and guns? Count me in! And the stories were just as good as I’d hoped. Leading man Silas is a true western hero, tough and determined, but a real gentleman too. His lady, Lainie, is his equal in every respect, and maybe, just maybe, has a little bit more magical power, even. There are villains and good guys and others who veer about from one side to the other. And there are horses and saloons and dried up creeks and flash floods and all the other good stuff that goes with westerns. And wizard battles! What could possibly be better?

At the end of City of Mages, Silas was ill and without his magical power, but Lainie had managed to get him back to home territory. Now she has to find a safe place for them both to hide while she tries to heal him, and help him recover his power. And wouldn’t you just know it, but the dastardly villains are still on their tail, and this time if things go wrong, the whole Wildings will be lost and its people will be slaves. So the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Once again it falls to Lainie to be resourceful and create new ways of combining her magical abilities to defeat the bad guys, but this time she’s not on her own. I love the way Lainie and Silas work together with magic and plain common sense — they make a great team! It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that things work out pretty well in the end — I was very, very happy with the outcome.

I’ve enjoyed all the books in the series, but if I had to choose a favourite, it would be Book 5, City of Mages. Partly it was because it took us to a different part of the world quite unlike the cattle-ranching Wildings, which was an exciting change. Partly also because Silas was out of commission for most of the book, so Lainie had to step up and show just what she could do single-handed, which was pretty spectacular. And partly, of course, because of that awesome wizard battle — Lainie against nine powered-up mages. Brilliant stuff.

But, as with all the best series, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Like all the author’s books, the world-building is exceptional, and each book reveals a little more of the complexities of the various cultures, and the several different forms of magic, which all make perfect sense. The characters change and grow, book by book, as Lainie learns to use her abilities and gains confidence, and Silas learns to trust her and not over-protect her. Their romance is gentle and rather sweet. It’s a terrific read — highly recommended. Five stars for this book and the series.

Divider

Mystery review: ‘A Case of Blackmail in Belgravia’ by Clara Benson

September 11, 2016 Review 0

For anyone who read all ten of the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the 1920s, this spin-off series is an absolute must. Featuring the gloriously insouciant Freddy Pilkington-Soames, this first book in the new series has all the author’s trademark elegant phrasing and delightful humour, combined with twenties glamour and a gentle murder mystery to be solved. I was a little concerned that Freddy, a comedic bit part in the Angela series, might be too lightweight to carry an entire series on his own, but I needn’t have worried. Freddy turns out to have a very deft hand in managing affairs so that the murderer is brought to justice without his society cronies missing the cocktail hour.

Here’s the plot: the magnificently named Ticky Maltravers is the toast of London high society, adored by everyone—or so it seems, until somebody poisons him over dinner. Now it turns out that numerous people with secrets to hide had every reason to wish him dead. But which of them murdered him? It’s not a spoiler (because it’s in the title) that a number of society figures are being blackmailed by Ticky, so the trick becomes one of keeping all those secrets out of the hands of the police and the newspapers, while also ensuring that the killer doesn’t get away with murder.

In a book like this, the plot isn’t really the point. I guessed the murderer’s identity very early on, so I was able to feel pleasantly smug when I was proved right, but that just means the author dropped enough clues and didn’t cheat by pulling out a long-lost identical twin at the end. The real joy in these books is the authentic writing style, which cleverly evokes the era. The slightly Bertie-Wooster-esque humour had me laughing out loud on almost every page. The danger with this style is that it can veer perilously close to slapstick at times, but for me it never went over the top and worked perfectly to leaven the sometimes lengthy sentence structure.

This book was a joy to read from the very first word, and I loved seeing Freddy taking charge and behaving responsibly, yet without losing his ineffable Freddiness. There was a mild romantic interest, too, which was a nice touch, and I applaud the author for not making the police into idiots or buffoons. Highly recommended. Five stars.

Divider

Urban fantasy review: ‘Gathering Black’ by Jen Rasmussen

September 7, 2016 Review 0

Oh, that difficult second book of the series. The first is always full of surprises, every quirk of the author’s created world new and fresh. The final part is the big battle where evil is defeated, all the wrongs are set right and everything ends on a happy note. And then there are those middle books (this is the second in a planned five-book series). It’s very easy to drop the ball at this point, but here the author distracts with plenty of action and a whole heap of mysteries. Where are these precious sapwood seeds that both sides want so badly? Who is the traitor in the clan that’s supposed to be protecting them? And most of all, who can be trusted and who’s following their own agenda?

The most delightful aspect of this series, for me, is the concept of place magic, something that our heroine, Verity, has been using in a small way all her life, but began to realise in the first book of the series, Grim Haven, was far more powerful than she’d realised. I loved the way she protected herself and those around her by writing little magical notes stating that nothing will happen, everything will be fine, no one gets hurt. And she found an ingenious way to protect the whole of the hotel she’d inherited. But now she has to step up and find even more powerful ways to develop her magic, and this whole book is a series of lurches and missteps in that direction. The author makes it a real struggle for her to progress and that felt very realistic.

As for the characters, Verity’s a truly likable heroine, not in any way the typical kick ass female so beloved of this genre, although she’s obviously incredibly powerful in her own way. She feels, mostly, like a regular person doing the best she can, facing up to the inevitable but cleverly and never, ever giving up. New introduction Arabella is far more the conventional kick ass type, and gorgeous with it. Cue all sorts of female uncertainties, because there’s also Cooper, Verity’s boyfriend. I really liked Cooper in book 1. This book? Not quite so much. There was far too much all-round grumpiness for my liking, and not enough be-nice-to-Verity moments. Come on, Cooper, appreciate her a little more openly, please. We readers want a good quota of heartwarming lovey-doviness.

The plot — well, it’s pretty much what you’d expect. Our heroes step up to the plate and try to do what needs to be done without getting killed. Or worse. There are some pretty horrifying moments in this book, so the overall tone is kind of downbeat at times. Still, there are some delicious punch-the-air moments, too, unexpected outbreaks of humour and the setpiece battles are very well done. Overall, I found it a somewhat darker book than the last one, but the battle for the sapwood seeds is building up nicely. Looking forward to the next installment. Four stars.

Divider

Mystery review: Awash by Dawn Lee McKenna

August 15, 2016 Review 0

Book 6 of the Forgotten Coast series already, and still more to come. Anyone who’s read this far will know what to expect — fascinating characters, lots of drama, plenty of humour and McKenna’s trademark brilliant dialogue, where the subtext beneath the words stretches halfway to the earth’s core. Never have characters said so much with so few words. I don’t always fully understand exactly what it is they’re saying (or not saying) but trying to work that out is part of the fun.

For anyone whose interest is in the crime-of-the-moment, with the personal lives of the characters a minor note, this isn’t the series for you. Here the characters are what it’s all about, and again in this book the crime to be solved is deeply connected to Maggie, the female cop who is the heart of the series. Maggie was raped as a teenager, and when she’s called to investigate a very similar case to her own, she becomes deeply involved.

While the case is absorbing and heart-rending, it’s the slow progression of Maggie’s own emotional life that’s the most riveting part of this series. As Maggie and Wyatt inch towards a proper relationship, and possibly marriage, her fascination with the local crime lord, Bennett Boudreaux, threatens to derail everything. I love both her two men. Boudreaux epitomises southern courtliness, even while he has a history of ruthlessly dispatching anyone who falls foul of him. And Wyatt is just beyond-words awesome, with his dry humour and not-totally-relaxed-about-it tolerance of Maggie’s relationship with Boudreaux. The oh-so-polite macho posturing between the two men at the oyster bar is just superb, capped only by Maggie’s meeting with Boudreaux at the end, with its multiple layers of meaning. Did I mention how much I love McKenna’s dialogue? Brilliant stuff.

Another cracking read in this series. Five stars.

Divider

Fantasy review: Radiance by Grace Draven

August 15, 2016 Review 0

This is one of those curate’s eggs books, for me – good in parts. It was recommended in a discussion on the fantasy subreddit as a book that tackles the difficult question of romance in a fantasy setting well, and in particular a romance between two people of different races, and yes, that’s definitely one of the good parts. The fantasy part? Not quite so successful.

The romantic couple are the heart of the book. Brishen is a prince of Bast-Haradis, the no-longer-needed younger son, traded in marriage to secure an alliance with the neighbours. Ildiko is equally unwanted, the orphaned neice of the Gauri king. She is human, a red-haired child of sunlight. He is Kai, grey-skinned and nocturnal. Both are accounted good-looking to their own race, but are ugly to each other. The book opens with their arranged marriage, each of them dutifully fulfilling their role but nervous about the ‘otherness’ of their marriage partner.

They quickly find that beauty is more than skin deep, and a meeting of minds can be just as rewarding as physical attraction. If I have a quibble with the romantic elements, it’s that they get along with each other rather too quickly, and neither of them ever makes a mistake, says the wrong thing, offends the sensibilities of the other, even inadvertently. It was all a bit too perfect. I would have liked a little more conflict between the two of them before (surprise!) they each decide that the other is all right really, and (eventually) settle into wedded bliss. Be warned that the sex, when they do get round to it, is a long-drawn-out affair.

If the main characters are beautifully drawn, and their relationship totally believable, the others are less well realised. They fall into traditional good/evil roles and Brishen’s parents, in particular, are so ludicrously over-the-top cartoonishly evil that I just rolled my eyes. And the scenery is full of an array of enemies who leap out from behind rocks for a killing spree at every verse end. It got tedious, and I confess to skimming the last third of the book.

I’d have given the romance alone 4* and the fantasy 2*, so I’ve settled on a final score of 3*. If you’re more tolerant of the conventional good guys/bad guys dichotomy, and the cross-race romance intrigues you, I can recommend this. It’s very well-written and this is just the start of the series, so it may be that the fantasy side of things comes to the fore in the later books. And I guarantee that you’ll never look at a pie (or a potato!) in quite the same way again.

Divider

Mystery review: ‘Deadly Web’ by Mike Omer

August 5, 2016 Review 0

“If there was one single reason to be a man, it was the ability to pee in a bottle.” With this opening line, you know at once that this isn’t just another police procedural mystery — this is a Mike Omer mystery, and that means large dollops of humour mixed in with the serial killers and blood. I’m not normally a fan of police procedurals (give me a cozy any day), but I’ll read anything this man puts out. I love his books.

I enjoyed the first in the Glenmore Park series, Spider’s Web, but this one is even better. The characters are becoming even more finely drawn than before, and this time the crimes to be solved seemed more realistic and the police handling a tad more sensible. I also liked that the two cases to be solved didn’t turn out to be somehow related at the end. Or perhaps I should more cautiously say, if there was a connection between them, it whizzed over my head (which is always possible).

The twist to both cases is that they revolve around the internet (a theme of the series – the web of the titles). One murder victim has a secret online identity harrassing women. The other has a secret online identity in a computer game. Trawling through the victims’ social media presence is a critical part of the police investigation, and I absolutely loved the time when the cops had to go into the game to interview a witness. A classic moment!

If you like police procedurals with compelling characters, intriguing mysteries and some laugh-out-loud moments, I highly recommend this series. Five stars.

Divider

Fantasy review: ‘The Cauldron’s Gift’ by Marina Finlayson

July 22, 2016 Review 0

This is one of those series that’s everything I don’t normally read: it’s YA with a teenage girl as the main character, there’s a shedload of school drama and boyfriend angst, it’s written in first person, and, would you believe it, the protagonist turns out to have unusually strong magical powers. As a rule, I’d be running a mile. But this is by Marina Finlayson, the author who seduced me into enjoying werewolves and other shifters, so it not only works, it works brilliantly.

In The Fairytale Curse, Vi and twin sister CJ found themselves spitting frogs and diamonds respectively, while others around them were turned into the sleeping beauty, an ogre and a polar bear. It turned out the Sidhe were escaping from their magical captivity, but Vi and friends managed to lock them up again, at the price of losing one of the four artifacts that kept them there, the magic cauldron that grants wishes (and wouldn’t we all like one of those!). And Vi’s dad is still a polar bear. So in this book, the race is on to find a cure for dad before he becomes so deeply immersed in beardom that nothing can make him human again. And it seems like the only way is to bring that cauldron back from fairyland. Yikes!

This one took a while to get going, but it was never the slightest bit dull and (a huge bonus for me) the events of the last book were skilfully woven in, so that I never wondered what was going on or why. All the characters are believable and behave rationally, not something that can be said for all fantasy. And they’re sympathetic too — my heart bled for Zak, and for the poor neglected ogre that nobody ever seems to think about. There’s a mystery to be solved, as well — who is the traitor helping the Sidhe to escape? Once the pace picks up around the mid-point, it’s relentless and the book becomes unputdownable. As always with Finlayson, nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems, and just when you think everything’s settled, she swipes you upside the head with another brain-rattling twist of sheer brilliance.

A terrific sequel, full of action, believable characters and the author’s Australian humour. Oh, and a starring role for some of Sydney’s great landmarks. Highly recommended. Five stars. Can’t wait to see where this goes next.

Divider

Mystery review: ‘The Mercer’s House’ by Antonia Frost

June 30, 2016 Review 0

I’m a huge fan of the Angela Marchmont series of 1920s murder mysteries, written by Clara Benson, so this new series, written under the pen name Antonia Frost, was a must-read for me. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a tautly-plotted, compelling mystery, beautifully written and absorbing from start to finish.

Here’s the premise: Zanna has been through some troubled times, but as she recovers from depression, she decides to fulfil a promise to her late father and try to track down her Aunt Helen. Her search takes her to the windswept and atmospheric Northumberland coast, and the supposedly haunted Mercer’s House, where she meets her aunt’s new family and finds an even bigger mystery: Helen and her son vanished without trace twenty-five years ago. Zanna sets about uncovering the secrets of the Mercer’s House, but finds herself swept up in a number of frightening experiences.

This is a nicely constructed modern Gothic mystery, with all the difficulties of knowing who to trust, and whether all the odd things that happen are the result of the haunted house, someone covering their tracks or perhaps Zanna losing her mind. Zanna is a very realistic main character, a very believable mixture of assertiveness and timidity from her recent personal dramas. If I have a quibble at all, it’s that I would have liked her to be a little more assertive towards the end, especially when she begins to realise what has been going on. A little bit of feistiness would have lifted the ending, I feel. But that’s a purely personal preference, and I have to admit that Zanna as written is incredibly true to life, and all her actions were perfectly consistent with her experiences and her nature. So possibly the author knows more about human nature than I do.

At the end, all the various threads of the story were neatly tied up. The romance was gentle and again, very realistic, given the circumstances, proceeding in fits and starts, but eventually reaching a satisfactory conclusion. It’s in the nature of a story like this that the heroine’s feelings for the love interest veer about from liking to mistrust to fear and back again, as events unfold, and I confess my own opinions of him switched about with every zig-zag of the plot. So kudos to the author for getting that absolutely right. This is a great start to the series. A very good four stars.

Divider