Posts Categorized: Review

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.

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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.

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Romance review: ‘Outlander’ by Diana Gabaldon

June 7, 2016 Review 0

Where to start? This is one of those books that half the world has read (or seen on TV) and everyone has heard of and has an opinion on. The basic premise is the traditional one for any portal story – a modern-era character who steps into the past and has to survive/adjust/get home. Nothing original there. The twist here is that the story starts in 1945, with Claire Randall on a second honeymoon with her husband in Scotland, the idea being to get reacquainted after wartime separation. As with any portal story, this part is way, way too long (actually, the whole book would be improved by being cut in half, but no matter). I didn’t develop any connection with husband Frank, so I didn’t much care when Claire left him behind, and her desire to get back to him never quite rang true.

The Scotland of 1743, where Claire ends up, is far more interesting, and much of the historic detail seemed quite authentic to me. The characters – not so much. All these braw Scots warriors, honed in clan wars and battles with the English, treated Claire with astonishing gentleness, as if she were an honoured guest instead of a woman found (apparently) screwing an English soldier. In the real world, I suspect she’d have been raped and/or killed pretty smartly. But no, they take her back to their castle where, even though they believe she’s a spy, they put her in charge of doctoring the residents. Now that’s just asking for a mass poisoning. And she sets about being all perky modern woman, instead of keeping her stupid head down.

And then there’s the hot young Scotsman, Jamie. Again, he’s terribly gentlemanly and, even though all the maidens have the hots for him, he’s still a virgin. Hahahaha! Yeah, right. But lucky Claire is forced to marry him, because reasons. And then the sex breaks out and the book goes to hell in a handcart. Now, I have no problem with sex in books, even quite large quantities of it, as here – frankly, they go at it like rabbits, and never mind about poor old left-behind-in-the-future Frank. That’s OK. A bit less rutting and a bit more plot wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it’s not really a problem. Well, OK, a lot less rutting. It did get repetitive after a while.

No, what I really disliked was the amount of violence and gory stuff in the book. Every chapter, it seemed, had another skirmish, and another graphically-described wound for Claire to stitch up with her twentieth century skills (how lucky that she was a nurse!). And by the time I got to the halfway point, and the sex and violence were getting a bit mixed up together, things got too murky for my taste. I know from reviews and a bit of skimming that all of that gets worse, so I gave up on it at that point. Nicely written, and the history seems accurate, as far as I can tell, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. One star for a DNF.

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Mystery review: ‘Spider’s Web’ by Mike Omer

May 26, 2016 Review 0

I don’t read many police procedurals, being more of an amateur sleuth type of gal, but I’ve loved the author’s previous books so this new series was a must-read for me. The plot is the usual – there’s a seemingly random killing of a jogger in a park, and it gradually becomes clear that this is just one of a sequence of similar cases. The murderer’s MO is intriguing – the victim receives a text with a picture of something (a gun, a car…) and shortly thereafter is killed with that item as the murder weapon. And there’s a messed-up cop, and an interfering journalist, and a perky forensic psychologist (a profiler) and all the familiar elements.

What makes this book different from a thousand others? Firstly, the characters. You’ve never lived until you’ve encountered Rabbi Friedman. I swear he’s not like any Rabbi you’ve ever heard of before. Frankly, Rabbi Friedman is awesome, and I hope he’s going to turn up in later books in the series, because he’s just too wonderful to be a one-shot deal. Atticus Hoffman is great fun, too. Then there are the cops, who all have their quirks but are still totally believable, rounded characters, ordinary characters that are so real you feel you’ve known them for years.

The main cop, Mitchell, gradually disintegrates over the course of the book, but it all makes perfect sense and the reader feels all his bewildered pain and suppressed anger, and totally sympathises. I loved his awkward conversations with Zoe, the profiler, someone he completely doesn’t get but has to try to come to terms with anyway. His relationship with his sister, Tanessa, is a lovely mixture of pride and older brother protectiveness.

And then there’s the humour. Some authors skip the humour altogether with this kind of story, and some will throw in the odd snippet of black humour, but this book runs the full gamut from dry, that makes you smile wryly, to genuine tears-in-the-eyes belly-laughs. It was the stand-out feature of Omer’s previous books for me, and here he does it again. The guy just has the most amazing sense of humour.

As the case builds to its climax, the pace gets faster and faster, and even though there’s nothing terribly revolutionary in the last few chapters, certainly nothing that an aficionado of the genre won’t have seen many times before, it’s done so well that it had me turning the pages in breathless anticipation. And there’s a moment at the end that just had me punching the air with delight. This is a great start to the series, and I’m looking forward to the next. A good four stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Fairytale Curse’ by Marina Finlayson

May 22, 2016 Review 0

I’ve loved everything the author has written to date, so this was right at the top of my reading list. It’s not my usual fare (YA? High school? Proms? Really not my thing) but Finlayson achieved the seemingly impossible and taught me to love werewolves, so I was pretty confident she could work the same magic again.

Here’s the premise: 17-year-old twin sisters CJ (the pretty one) and Violet (the other one) wake up after a party to find they’ve been cursed. Whenever they speak, they spit diamonds (CJ) or frogs (Violet) from their mouths. And they’re not the only ones to find themselves on the wrong end of a fairytale curse. But strangely, Mum and Dad aren’t quite as surprised as might be expected. Turns out they’re part of a whole organisation devoted to keeping the unpleasant fairies (Sidhe) harmlessly locked away. And wouldn’t you just know it, those evil fairies are breaking out and looking for revenge.

Cue all sorts of mayhem and dramatic goings on, and (since this is YA) there’s a hefty dollop of romance in the background too. This was a lot of fun, and I loved that the schoolkids were, in the end, instrumental in restoring some semblance of normality, with only a little help from the grown-ups. There are a bunch of unanswered questions left dangling for the next book in the series, but the immediate threat was resolved very neatly. This felt just a tad too YA for my personal taste, but that’s the only thing keeping this to four stars.

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Urban fantasy review: ‘Grim Haven’ by Jen Rasmussen

May 6, 2016 Review 0

I don’t read a whole heap of urban fantasy, being more of an epic sort of reader myself, but this is a fun, just-one-more-chapter type of read. It’s my kind of book – quirky, original, with a surprise round every corner. When I tell you that the scene that sent shivers up and down my spine involved the bad guys simply walking around a building, you’ll understand that this isn’t your average let’s-hurl-thunderbolts-around urban fantasy. This is Hitchcockian (is that a word?) levels of tension.

Here’s the plot: Verity has her own form of magic, a quiet type that involves writing spells on paper, which she uses for self-protection. She likes to keep a low profile, but an accidental encounter with some unpleasantness of the non-human variety draws her into a centuries-old war. She seeks refuge in her home town, where she’s just inherited an old hotel, but this is not your average American town. Cue all sorts of magicky weirdness.

And then there’s Cooper. Yes, let’s talk about Cooper, who’s hot, has muscles in all the right places, is very cute and – is a chef. OK, that’s unusual but boy, isn’t this better than werewolves and demons and all that other bad boy stuff? What could be sexier than a man who can run up a steak diane and a pavlova at times of crisis? Or, let’s be honest, at any time. And if he happens to be good in bed, too – result!

OK, Cooper is distracting me from the plot… actually, I’m OK with that. The plot unfurls in the usual way, with plenty of twists and turns and a finale that had me holding my breath, it was so tense. And the romance weaves in and out of it all beautifully. Sigh. And there’s a neat twist at the end that sets things up for book 2 in the series rather well. This is a solid, entertaining start to the series, with enough intriguing backstory to both the main characters to keep me reading. A good four stars.

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Regency review: ‘The Lucases of Lucas Lodge’ by Clara Benson

May 6, 2016 Review 0

This is a real treat for Janeites, or anyone who read Pride and Prejudice and wondered what happened to Maria Lucas after big sister Charlotte married Mr Collins, and three of the Bennet sisters all found husbands. Clara Benson wondered, too, and this is her imagined answer. It’s a charming and light-hearted tale of muddles and misunderstandings, written in a style that any Janeite will love.

There are no Bennets in sight, just Maria Lucas, her parents, Miss King (the heiress saved from Wickham’s clutches in P&P) and some new characters renting Netherfield Park. I found all the characters (except one!) to be rather too nice, and perhaps not as quirky as genuine Austen characters, but this just made them all the more realistic. I particularly liked the way Miss King, a tiny bit-part in P&P, is given a great deal of depth here. Nicely done.

The setting is quite confined, just Lucas Lodge, Meryton, Netherfield Park and a rather puddly lane nearby, which has a starring role in a number of scenes. I was a little surprised that Maria is at home so much, when she has so many rich friends and relations now who could invite her to stay, but the author does explain this.

This is a wonderful, readable book with a delightful romance, lots of humour and all the charm of a Jane Austen novel. I couldn’t put it down! One word of warning: the book is an excellent pastiche of Regency wordiness, with no concessions to modern language, so anyone who finds Jane Austen’s phraseology tricky will have the same problem here. A very good four stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Strength To Serve’ by Claire Frank

May 5, 2016 Review 0

This is the third part of the Echoes of Imara series, which started with To Whatever End and An Altered Fate. It’s truly epic fantasy, with an array of characters pursuing their own agendas and plenty of world-threatening events in prospect. Our ‘heroes’, husband and wife Daro and Cecily and their friends are still dealing with the aftermath of the altered wielders (magic users). Pathius, the son of the former king, is in Imara while the Imarans help him to recover some stability. Meanwhile, the Lyceum loses a valuable artifact and asks Cecily to recover it. And across the sea in Attalon, Isley is imprisoned by the Emperor, as he plans an invasion.

One of the highlights of the second book was Daro’s stay in Imara, and this time it’s Pathius learning about the Imaran ways. The Imarans have a wonderfully ‘other’ feel to them, and everything about them and their land is strange, exotic and beautiful. There is a depth of characterisation in this section that really appealed to me, as Pathius and Ara inch towards an understanding.

Pathius is such a complex character. He’s the son of the king deposed (that is, killed) by Daro and his pals in an uprising that took place before the start of the first book. Pathius was believed to be dead too, and his reappearance is hugely awkward for the new king, Rogan, and everyone else. In book 2, he was dabbling in an uprising against Rogan, but that was defeated and in this book he has to decide whether he will continue to pursue a course as rightful heir to the throne or become a loyal subject of Rogan. He’s conflicted by his own history, and also by Cecily, with whom he shares a small part of the Imaran bond between Daro and Cecily. The book’s title, The Strength To Serve, gives a clue to which way it will go, even though the other characters are still suspicious of him. I very much want Pathius to be one of the ‘good guys’ but it’s obvious that he carries around a lot of baggage and could easily go to the bad at any time.

Daro and Cecily and their pals are (I presume) the people we’re supposed to be rooting for. I’ve always had a huge problem with that, hence the quotes round the ‘heroes’ up above. These are people who treasonably bumped off the previous king, and yes, he sounds like a pretty unpleasant guy but still — king! And here they are again in this book, behaving in very questionable ways. Callum, Daro and Cecily all do things towards the end of the book that have me questioning both their judgement and their ethics. The actions of Callum and Cecily I can just about accept as being necessary for the greater good, but Daro’s actions were completely beyond the pale, risking huge numbers of lives for a personal vendetta. I’m comfortable with grey morality, but to me this was not the action of a hero.

This is ironic, because earlier in the book, there’s an event which paints him very different colours, as a man undertaking a very difficult and dangerous task for the good of his people. His battle in Thaya is a great action set-piece, Daro at his masterful best. In fact, all the action scenes are superbly done, and anyone who enjoys mage battles or more traditional sword-and-spear work should read these books.

I suppose I should mention Isley. Poor Isley, held as both prisoner and revered favourite of the Emperor, a gloriously mixed-up situation. She has all the self-deluded pathos that should elicit sympathy, but somehow I can’t quite forget how evil she was in the previous book. She feels a little like a plot device — someone positioned so that the reader can discover just what the Emperor is up to, and (possibly) to link to some dramatic revelation in the final book.

This is a beautifully written book, with interesting characters, great action scenes, a well-thought-out plot and excellent pacing. There are some huge reveals at the end that I just didn’t see coming, including one that made me cheer and one that had me open-mouthed with shock. So why only four stars? It really comes down to personal preference. I’m not a huge fan of long-drawn-out battles. With the escalation in the war, it was inevitable that the battles would be intense, but I found there was a little too much describing who was doing what to whom. With wielders, there’s no end of Pushing and Pulling and Reaching, and sometimes I just wanted to know what the characters were feeling. In general, I wanted a stronger emotional engagement. There were times when I got it — the exhibition in Thaya, for instance, and Pathius and Ara in Imara — but there were also times when I felt detached from what was going on, and moments when I should have been affected by an event, but really wasn’t. But that’s just me, and it shouldn’t put anyone off reading an excellent book. A good four stars. I highly recommend this series.

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Mystery review: ‘Dead Wake’ by Dawn Lee McKenna

April 25, 2016 Review 0

This is the fifth book in the Forgotten Coast suspense series, and the author is nicely into her stride now. Although there’s a crime-of-the-week element, there’s also a depth of backstory developing in the history of main character Maggie and her family. Fortunately, these aspects are woven elegantly and seamlessly into the story, and never overwhelm it.

The plot is a straightforward one: a long-dead body turns up in a wall during renovations. The local crime lord is implicated, and Maggie and almost-boyfriend Wyatt are the two cops investigating, and finding themselves with differing opinions on the case. Complications ensue, and there are all sorts of murky shenanigans to dig up before the case is resolved.

The characters are a huge attraction of this series, being eccentric without veering into too much silliness, and McKenna’s deft hand with dialogue is always a joy to read. Wyatt is my favourite, but Boudreaux isn’t far behind. And then there’s the glorious atmosphere of the location (the Florida panhandle). I’ve never been there, but I feel I know the place intimately. Reading this book, I can almost smell the salt in the air, and taste the oysters as they slide down. Mmm, oysters. And I don’t even like oysters.

Another excellent chapter in the series, as Maggie and Wyatt inch towards a proper relationship. Five stars. Can’t wait for the next installment – please write faster, Ms McKenna.

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Thriller romance review: ‘Lowcountry Storm’ by Myra Scott

April 10, 2016 Review 0

This is the first in a new series, The Malone Family Saga. These are thrillers with a strong romance component, with some raunchy scenes along the way. Sarah Elliott is an insurance claims investigator, specialising in chasing down possibly fraudulent claims by wealthy rich men. When Charleston socialite Redmond Malone files a claim for a missing two-million-dollar yacht, Sarah sets her sights on uncovering the scam and earning enough of a bounty to set her up for life. But — wouldn’t you just know it — Redmond turns out to be handsome and cute and so, so hot.

Well, yes, we can see where this is going, but that doesn’t make the tale any less fun. I really enjoyed the way the romance developed between these two. It progressed slowly enough to be very believable, and I especially enjoyed the storm scene, which was quite awesomely memorable in a number of different ways.

The thriller part worked OK too. I’m not normally a big fan of high-drama thrillers, which tend to stretch credulity beyond the snapping point, as a rule, but this worked very well. I loved Sarah’s common sense under pressure, with all her actions being perfectly logical. She made a very sympathetic and understandable heroine, and Redmond was a likable hero.

There were a few sections that felt a little clunky, as the author was working to set up the family background for the later parts of the series, but that’s a minor quibble. A good debut. Four stars.

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