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.Follow PaulineMRoss
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.Follow PaulineMRoss
Wow, long time since I did one of these!
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
There are very few books that get me so mad that I want to throw them across the room, but this is one of them. The author wrote a perfect historical romance, well-written, well-researched, the era brilliantly conveyed and the characters fascinating. She then destroyed it utterly by bookending it with a prologue and last chapter which turned it into something else altogether. I suppose the intention was to elevate the book from the realms of mere romance to historical fiction or even literature, and I daresay for many, possibly most, readers that worked fine. My book group, for instance, for whom this was a monthly pick, liked it well enough and most saw nothing wrong with the ending.
But for me, it ruined the whole story. It took a main character who had, after many years vacillating and being pushed around by her family and history, finally taken charge of her life, and then put her straight back into the box of being passive. And her reasons for that were (to me, anyway) opaque. She had everything she’d ever wanted — her lover, her daughter, her art, the freedom to be whatever she wanted to be — and she threw it all away to stay in her convent. This could have been a compelling ending. She could have accepted a life devoted to God, for instance, or she could have simply decided she was happy there. But no, she was so far from happy that she later kills herself, a great sin in those days (not a spoiler — this is revealed in the prologue).
I’m not an intolerant reader, and I can suspend my disbelief in a thousand different ways before breakfast. I write epic fantasy, after all, so fantastical events are my bread and butter. But people are people, no matter how outlandish the setting. With orcs, elves, wizards, demons, werebeetles, you-name-its — well, fine, actual results may vary. But for human beings, there are certain rules to be followed and motivations have to be credible. You can’t have a character do something just because. No, really, you can’t. There has to be a reason and it has to be believable, and in this book the character’s decisions were neither.
You can read my full, very ranty, review here.
Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.Follow PaulineMRoss
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.Follow PaulineMRoss
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.Follow PaulineMRoss
Occasionally, I like to tell you about a book that’s caught my eye, one that I haven’t yet read myself, but one I feel deserves a bit of a spotlight shining on it. Benedict Patrick is an author who’s already attracted a lot of attention. His debut novel, They Mostly Come Out At Night, has been highly praised and was a round-winner in Mark Lawrence’s competition for indie fantasy, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016 (or #SPFBO2), although sadly it missed out on making the final group of ten.
Now his second book, Where The Waters Turn Black, is about to be released, and it sounds just as original and fascinating as the first. You can pre-order now, or buy on the 16th, at just 99c (or equivalent) until 22nd. If you have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited or Prime, you can borrow for free. It’s a stand-alone, so no worries if you haven’t read the first book. Here’s the link to Amazon.com.
When gods and monsters battle, her music will not protect her…
The Crescent Atoll is a remote string of tropical islands, connected by long canoe journeys and a love of stories.
When Kaimana, a young ocarina player, discovers the lair of a taniwha – a legendary monster – she finds herself inspired. The song she is composing about their encounter will be her masterpiece, but her disturbance of the beast attracts the ruining gaze of the god of war. She must convince the taniwha to trust her if they are both to survive.
Where the Waters Turn Black is a standalone novel from Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld series. Inspired by the myths and legends of South Pacific island cultures, this book is perfect for those seeking fantasy stories with a hint of the unfamiliar.
And this is as good an excuse as any to show the awesome cover from the first book. And waddayaknow, this one’s 99c for a while, too. You can buy or borrow it at Amazon.com.
The villagers of the forest seal themselves in their cellars at night, whispering folktales to each other about the monsters that prey on them in the dark. Only the Magpie King, their shadowy, unseen protector, can keep them safe.
However, when an outcast called Lonan begins to dream of the Magpie King’s defeat at the hands of inhuman invaders, this young man must do what he can to protect his village. He is the only person who can keep his loved ones from being stolen away after dark, and to do so he will have to convince them to trust him again.
They Mostly Come Out At Night is the first novel from Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld series. Straddling the line between fantasy and folklore, this book is perfect for fans of the darker Brothers Grimm stories.Follow PaulineMRoss
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.Follow PaulineMRoss
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.Follow PaulineMRoss
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.Follow PaulineMRoss
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.Follow PaulineMRoss