Posts Categorized: Review

Mystery review: ‘The Riddle at Gipsy’s Mile’ by Clara Benson

November 16, 2015 Review 0

This is the fourth book in the Angela Marchmont series of Christie-esque murder mysteries, and after the seaside romps of the last outing, this one is back to the classic structure: a country house, a body and an array of possible suspects.

Angela Marchmont herself is a pretty low-key amateur detective, who sometimes seems to uncover information or deduce things more by chance than skill. She’s not a flamboyant Poirot type, but she also doesn’t seem as astute as Miss Marple. What she does have, however, is a great deal of curiosity, and a willingness to go out to start rooting round for evidence herself, although she thinks of it as helping the police.

If she herself is a little bland, she is surrounded by an array of much more colourful characters. I like her American chauffeur, William, and also Freddy, the aristocratic newspaper man. I hope we’ll see more of Freddy, and his outrageous sidekick, Gertie McAloon. This book also features some unusual characters for a book set in the twenties – members of a black jazz band, and the Chinese owners of a nightclub. This was a fun look at a slightly seedy side of twenties life.

The plot unfolds in the expected way, with enough clues and red herrings to satisfy, and there was a great deal of subtlety in the final revelations. I guessed most of it, but it doesn’t really matter with this kind of book. Those who don’t work it out can be amazed by the author’s cleverness, and those who do can be amazed at their own. Another very enjoyable four stars.


Fiction review: ‘Little Face’ by Sophie Hannah

November 13, 2015 Review 0

Click to view on Amazon

This is one of those books that starts well, and then descends into some tortuous farce which requires a drastic level of improbability. Lacking a single likeable character, a realistic plot or convincing writing, I’m really struggling to find anything positive to say about it. I kept reading it to find out how it ended, so there’s that, I suppose.

The premise is intriguing. A mother leaves her two-week-old baby for the first time, taking a modest trip to a health club she’s joining, and having a drink. When she returns home, she insists that the baby isn’t hers, that somehow her own baby has been stolen and a different baby substituted. Her husband, who has been looking after the baby, disagrees. This immediately sets up the central conceit of the book: is Alice (the new mother) right? Is she mistaken, suffering from some delusion? Or is she lying?

Whatever the cause, Alice sets a chain of events in motion that involves the police and here we meet the two central characters of the book. Wait a moment, you might be thinking, isn’t this about Alice? You’d think so (I certainly did, especially since Alice’s story is told by Alice herself, in first person perspective), but no, the main characters are the two cops, Charlie and Simon. Charlie’s a woman, despite the name, and she has the hots for Simon. Simon is a genius, apparently. We know this is true because he says so himself. And Charlie must be pretty smart, too, because she has a first from Cambridge. It’s important that we’re told these things, because if we were judging solely on the basis of their actions, we’d have deduced that these two are actually morons.

As the story unfolds, and the two detectives struggle through the investigation, Simon goes off-message more times than a rogue politician (following his instincts, apparently) and is praised to the skies for it. Charlie, meanwhile, who appears to be following a plausible line of enquiry, is hauled over the coals and told to listen to Simon’s instincts. Because he’s a genius, apparently. Hmm.

The plot degenerates after that into ridiculous levels of implausibility, which involves some quite distressing episodes of what I can only describe as torture. And the big reveals at the end? Meh to one and NO WAY to the other. All I can say is: the author cheated. I finished the thing, so two stars. Usually, when I dislike a book, I suggest the sort of reader it might be better suited for, but in this case I really can’t find any reason to recommend this. Avoid.


Fantasy review: ‘The Death of Dulgath’ by Michael J Sullivan

November 8, 2015 Review 0

Yippee! A new Royce and Hadrian story! I was lucky enough to get this before the official release by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign. For fans of the boys, this is the third story in the Riyria Chronicles series, which was written after the Riyria Revelations trilogy, but precedes it in the story’s timeline. It’s possible to read either first, but personally I think it makes more sense to read the trilogy first, and then move on to the prequels.

The plot is straightforward: the new Countess of Dulgath has been the subject of several assassination attempts. Royce and Hadrian are called in as consultants to advise her courtiers on likely methods of future attempts and suggest ways to circumvent them. And you don’t have to be as cynical as Royce to smell a rat, and suspect that they haven’t been summoned to the far end of the continent just for their advice.

The plot unfolds in the usual devious way, with innumerable twists and turns. Some were predictable and some took me by surprise, but either is fine. Like a murder mystery, working it out ahead of time makes the reader feels smugly clever, but failing that, one can admire the author’s cleverness instead.

But the plot isn’t as compelling here as the characters. Sherwood the painter, Scarlett the entertainer at the inn and, most of all, the quiet centre of the story, the Countess herself, are all deeply intriguing, as well as the familar duo of Royce and Hadrian. Their double act is well-known now, but somehow it never gets old – Hadrian the innocent who sees good in everyone, and Royce his darker counterpart, the cynic who sees nothing but selfishness and greed. And who’s to say which of them is wrong?

I loved every minute of this book. The humour, the camaraderie, the unexpected moments of fun or sadness, the how-will-they-get-out-of-this twistiness, and an ending that was both inevitable, yet also had a surprise hidden away. Very neat. Five stars. Mr Sullivan can write as many of these as he wishes.


Fantasy review: ‘Dragon’s Bride’ by H L Burke

November 7, 2015 Review 0

It’s always a sad moment, reaching the end of a series and waving farewell to favourite characters. Will the author produce a final triumphant flourish, or will it fall a bit flat? Will obstacles be swept aside too easily, or will everything make perfect sense? Fortunately, the author got pretty much everything right in this. Ewan and Shannon’s story was tied up in a very satisfactory way, bad guys got their comeuppance, good guys got their reward and even the time travel worked out very neatly.

Let’s start with Ewan and Shannon. I was always very pleased that Ewan embraced his dragon-ness, and Shannon was cool with it, too, even as they both had good reasons for wanting him to be human again. It seemed likely to me that the end of the story would have to be bittersweet, with one or both of them having to make a sacrifice. But the author cleverly produced an ending that satisfied on every level. I can’t say more than that without giving things away, but I loved the final resolution. Perfect.

The sub-plots were less interesting to me. Ryan’s chase round to find his son felt suspiciously like filler, Shannon’s pregnancy issues likewise, and Acacia and Will seemed to be there solely as plot devices. The resolution of Riley, in particular, felt very contrived, and the rebellion never really rose to the occasion. In the end, I’d have traded most of this for more time with Ewan and Martin.

It’s tricky to do time travel plots without getting tied in knots or leaving plot holes big enough for a dragon to fly through. There were some nice twists here that took me by surprise, but it all fell into place very logically. The fae were well-drawn, but I did find their magical powers a bit arm-wavingly convenient at times. How shall we get out of this particularly desperate mess? Oh, look, here’s someone with the power to just poof! make it all go away.

In the end, though, this story was all about Ewan and Shannon, and the resolution of it was note perfect, although the sub-plot niggles keep it to four stars.


Fantasy review: ‘City of Mages’ by Kyra Halland

November 6, 2015 Review 0

This is the fifth, and penultimate, part of the Daughter of the Wildings series of western fantasies, and this is the moment I’ve been looking forward to from the start. Finally, we get to leave the Wildings behind temporarily and visit Granadaia, the home of rogue mage Silas, and the place where mages are the wealthy aristocrats, and those without magic (Plains) are not much more than slaves.

At the end of the fourth book, To The Gap, Silas had been shot and captured by mage hunters, to be taken back to Granadaia. It’s all down to his wife Lainie, Wildings-born and a mage with both Granadaian and Wildings abilities, to ride to the rescue. Although I missed Silas, it was wonderful to watch Lainie rise to the occasion and work out ways to find her man and then rescue him, almost single-handed.

The opening of the book feels a little bit like a rehash of the cattle-drive in To The Gap, although this time there are Granadaian mages alongside the hands, and Lainie has to steer a careful course between the Wildings folk, who are suspicious of all mages, and the Granadaian folk, who are suspicious of untrained mages. However, luck falls her way, seemingly.

Granadaia is fascinatingly different from the Wildings. Some aspects felt a little bit modern, but it felt believably different from the western-style Wildings – instead of the desert, with its capricious flash-floods, Granadaia is a lush, green place, all its land given over to intensive agriculture (which is why they need the Wildings cattle), tall cities and the estates of the mages, of course. I have to say, I found it fascinating to see a society where mages are the ruling class, not just tools to be used and controlled by those in power, but actually wielding all the power themselves. And Silas’s family is very much part of that controlling power. This was very much a ‘meet the relatives’ story, and all the more fun for that reason!

The ending is suitably nail-biting, and if I didn’t find the final magely shootout totally convincing (I know Lainie’s powerful now, but even so…), it was still hugely enjoyable. This wasn’t quite the pleasantly adventurous romp of some of the previous books. Seeing Silas in captivity was gut-wrenching, and the author used the symbolism of Silas’s hat to remind the reader constantly of what was at stake. And OMG, I would never have thought the single word ‘Friend’ would reduce me to tears. Another skillfully written chapter in the series, which neatly resolves one problem while setting the scene for (hopefully) an even bigger showdown in the final book. I can’t recommend this series enough! Five stars.


Mystery review: ‘Landfall’ by Dawn Lee McKenna

October 16, 2015 Review 0

Another dramatic story in the Forgotten Coast series. This time there’s a hurricane on the horizon, and the Florida coastline is vulnerable. I’m going to be honest, I’m not usually a big fan of the kind of high-octane thrill-ride expected of this kind of premise. It tends to be too frenetic for my taste. I like to have time to smell the roses along the way, so to speak, which is probably why my preferred genre is epic fantasy.

I needn’t have worried, though. Yes, there’s a lot of dramatic action, and the hurricane is no small part of that, but the author’s main focus has alway been firmly fixed on the characters and their wonderful interactions. So in the midst of all the drama, there’s also time for the characters to find out about each other, and for the reader to find out more about them, too. These are people with lots of secrets. And there’s plenty of humour too. For anyone who’s a fan of Stoopid the rooster or Coco the dog, you’ll be pleased to know that they have starring roles in this book. Four stars.


Fantasy review: ‘The Fuller’s Apprentice’ by Angela Holder

September 29, 2015 Review 1

I absolutely loved the author’s previous book, ‘White Blood’, so naturally I couldn’t resist this one. Unlike the previous one, it’s the first part of a trilogy, but there are similarities, too, in particular, an interesting magic system, closely allied to the religion of the country. Wizards can only use magic in association with an animal familiar, and only in certain limited ways: for healing, for making legal judgements by examining actual events of the past, and to move things (or prevent them moving). These are interesting restrictions, and, as with all fantasy, part of the enjoyment is seeing the multitude of different ways even a limited application of magic can be used.

The two main characters are Josiah, the titular fuller’s apprentice, a young man of reckless impulsiveness, and the rather serious journeyman wizard, Elkan. The two meet when Josiah is amusing himself by running backwards and forwards through the fulling machinery (a scene that reminded me somewhat of the chompers scene in Galaxy Quest!). When things go wrong, Josiah is saved by the quick-thinking wizard, who then offers him a job as his assistant when the Master Fuller wants to fire Josiah.

The two of them, together with Elkan’s familiar, Sar (a donkey), begin a slow amble through the scenery which goes on for chapter after chapter. There’s a great deal of detail here about how the magical healing process works, how the legal system works, and also the wizard’s role as a kind of priest (he officiates at a marriage at one point). We even get a description of waulking (a precursor to fulling as a way of preparing woven materials). This is not uninteresting, but it’s very, very slow, and action moments are few and far between. It’s very tempting for an author who’s worked out all the subtleties of her invented world to the umpteenth degree to squeeze all of it into the story, but it does make the pace glacial. The problem is compounded by dialogue of greetings, detailed explanations of medical conditions, and so forth, which could easily have been condensed or skipped altogether.

Apart from the magic, the world-building is nothing earth-shattering. The population is largely agricultural, with all adults assigned to craft guilds, and trained in one or other craft, even if, in practice, they might be doing a variety of other tasks. This leads rather interestingly to the idea that children are named for their parents’ craft and their own, rather than taking a family name. Thus, Elkan is known as Elkan Farmerkin Wizard. Machinery is limited to simple mechanical devices (like the fulling mill), sailing ships, and the like.

The plot – well, there really isn’t much of a plot. Elkan and Josiah move about healing, judging and conducting religious ceremonies. There’s a sub-plot with bandits, who wander into the story from time to time causing trouble, but mainly the focus is on a variety of challenges for Elkan and his companion-in-magic, Sar the donkey. This makes the story very choppy and episodic. Every few chapters, there’s a new town or village, a new medical condition described in disconcertingly modern terms, followed by a cure, or a long discussion about why it can’t be done.

Of the characters, the conflicted and quite complex Elkan is the most interesting. At first he seems rather dull, happy in his work and disapproving of Josiah’s impulsiveness. But later, as we learn more about him, he becomes a little more nuanced. Josiah does some pretty stupid things, but he does learn to see things in less black and white terms. I’d have liked to know more about Sar the donkey, but perhaps that will come in future books. The other characters are mostly too numerous to be more than hastily-drawn sketches. Some effort is made to give the bandits some depth, but ultimately all these minor characters are either good guys or bad guys. The only character whose behaviour stretched my credulity was Meira. Her actions felt like plot-drivers, rather than something which would arise naturally. But it was a minor point.

But as the book goes on, the happy healer and fixer aspect is increasingly mired in difficult choices, and this is where the book really shines. It’s impossible not to share the grief when people die, despite the wizard’s best endeavours. How do you explain to simple folk that some things just can’t be fixed, even with magic? And when there’s a disaster, with many people needing help, how do you choose? And is it possible to give so much yet ask for nothing in return, not even personal happiness? All these questions and more are addressed by the end of the book, as well as the important one: the issue of free will. And although the characters don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary, they still got under my skin so that I cared very much what happened to them.

The ending gave me a complete side-swipe. That was really NOT how I saw this going. But it all followed completely logically from the developments up to that point – one of those oh-of-course moments, not wait-what? And then everything is nicely set up for book 2.

A very readable book, well written and nicely thought out. It was terribly slow moving, and I often found myself muttering: yes, yes, but get on with it. Even so, I found myself thinking about aspects of the story while I was doing other things, and always picked it up again with pleasure. That’s the sign of a good book. I shall certainly be watching out for the next in the series. Recommended for the characters, the setting and the interesting magic system, rather than action. Four stars.


Fiction Review: ‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

September 25, 2015 Review 1

My book group makes me nervous. Very often the choice of book is something I just can’t get through, despite being well written (Wolf Hall), or it’s something I would have enjoyed a few years ago but find boring now (The Mayor of Casterbridge), or I find it completely unbelievable (The Neon Rain), or I think it’s pretentious nonsense (most of them). In return, I inflict dragons and gender-bending aliens on them, so I suppose it evens out in the end. But occasionally, it’s an unreservedly enjoyable read, as here.

This is probably not a book I would have picked up voluntarily (in my experience, anything within hailing distance of the Man Booker prizes is to be avoided at all costs), but I found it a pleasant, easy read. Tony is an elderly man looking back to his youth and certain events there, and he seems a nice enough, if ordinary, bloke. He hasn’t done much with his life, but he’s contented enough, gets on well with his ex-wife and his daughter, doesn’t have too many regrets. And then, out of the blue, he’s left some money and a letter in the will of someone he can’t even remember. And this opens up a whole can of worms for him, relating to the girlfriend of his youth and a schoolfriend who killed himself.

Since the book is written is the first person, there’s the issue of Tony being an unreliable narrator, but even so, there are some events which he blithely sails past in his recital which any normal person would have remembered in a bit more detail than that. Could he seriously have forgotten what he said and did? Even though it was decades ago, and self-preservation blurs the edges considerably, it’s hard to believe.

The revelations at the end are not particularly original, or even interesting, and, to be honest, the author has to jump through hoops to keep some facts hidden until the very end, and this makes the characters behave in quite incredible ways. Veronica, for instance, the former girlfriend – why on earth would she not simply tell Tony what had happened, instead of expecting him to divine it, somehow? So the plot went off the rails at this point. Nevertheless, it was still an enjoyable read, and there’s plenty of thought-provoking depth in there for those who like that sort of thing. Four stars.


Fantasy review: ‘White Blood’ by Angela Holder

September 21, 2015 Review 0

I loved this book. Completely adored it, from the first moment we meet Maryn, curled up in bed beside her husband, feeding their new baby, through the tragedies and challenges that follow, right to the end. I loved Maryn, and loved, too, reading about one of the great unsung heroines of past times, the wet nurse. It’s a fascinating profession, one that takes a lowly born woman and plonks her down right in the midst of a great and powerful family. And it’s perfect for fantasy, as here, because Maryn ends up as wet nurse to the newest heir to the kingdom, baby Barilan.

The pace is slow initially, and the world-building isn’t anything out of the ordinary, although the magic system, based on blood use, is clever. The physicality of it means that magic can be felt, like a buzzing in the bones, as well as being seen through sweeps of blue light. I liked that different cultures have hedged magic round with all sorts of rituals and superstitions, subtly different from each other, so that it blends seamlessly into religion.

The characters leap from the page, fully formed and totally real. Maryn herself is wonderful, just a lowly-born woman, humble and grateful for her new job, while never forgetting all that she’s lost. The first part of the book, as she adjusts to her changed circumstances, is a wonderful evocation of royal life, as seen by one of its most junior inhabitants. It’s fascinating, and totally believable, that the royals simply don’t see Maryn, so they talk state secrets in front of her, as well as ascribing the baby’s good health and size to his inheritance rather than her plentiful milk! At every point Maryn’s reactions felt exactly right, to me. In fact, all the characters responded in realistic ways to the difficulties facing them. Sometimes things went badly wrong, too, so that it felt as if Maryn was taking three steps forward and one back. But again, this makes it all the more believable.

At about the 40% mark, the plot dives headlong off a cliff, leaving behind the comfortable world of servant life, and thrusting Maryn into a situation that’s life-threatening both for her and for the baby. From then on, the pace is frenetic, and doesn’t let up for an instant, right up to the dramatic confrontation at the end. There were times when I could have done with a respite from the constant tension, just to catch my breath!

The ending is very elegant, and although I anticipated some elements of it (I was actually shouting ‘Use the [X]!’ at my Kindle at one stage), there were one or two twists I didn’t foresee, as well. And then some lovely moments at the end that had me sighing with pleasure.

You can tell I enjoyed this book, a lot. Books are enjoyable for any number of reasons, but just occasionally I come across one that I feel might almost have been written specially for me. This is one of those books that just resonates with me. But a word of warning: there is a lot – a whole lot – of detail about breastfeeding and babies and diapers and cracked nipples in here. I loved it all, but for anyone who’s less than enthralled by such matters, best pass on by. But for me – a perfect five stars.


Fantasy romance review: ‘Dragon’s Rival’ by H L Burke

September 17, 2015 Review 0

This is the third in the series The Dragon and the Scholar, and the story is blossoming now. It’s focused more on the personal elements than the background plot, but I found this more interesting anyway. The on-again off-again sort-of romance between dragon-prince Ewan and scholar Shannon has reached a critical point, and Ewan’s rival Ryan, another prince, is there waiting for Shannon when things fall apart. Everything depends on Ewan: will he admit his love for Shannon or deny it all to give her a chance of happiness with Ryan?

I’m not generally a big fan of characters who say and do things to protect another character ‘for their own good’. It’s presumptuous and disrespectful not to allow them to make their own decision. But in this case, Ewan has been enchanted (or cursed, perhaps) by an evil sorceress, now dead, to take the form of a dragon permanently. If Shannon chooses to be with Ewan, she gives up all possibility of a sexual relationship and children. There’s also the problem that dragons live longer lives than humans. That’s a heavy price to pay, and Ewan’s actions to push her towards Ryan are very understandable in that context. The tragedy of Ewan’s situation adds a darker shade to an otherwise rather lighthearted story.

The background plot is nothing wildly original, just the usual conspiracy to take over the kingdom. One of the weaknesses of this series, to my mind, is that the characters fall too neatly into the good guy/bad guy boxes. I really like a hero with foibles, or a villain who has some redeeming qualities. That’s how people are in real life, and it makes the story so much more realistic if the characters aren’t simple black or white, but have at least some hint of grey about them. But that’s a personal preference, not a major criticism.

Fortunately, the background shenanigans never come close to overwhelming the story, which focuses firmly on the two principle characters and their troubled romance. A reader would have to have a heart of stone not to root for these two likable characters to get back together, and the author elegantly contrives to ensure that Ryan isn’t left too broken-hearted, either. Very nicely done. Four stars.