Sunday, 18 March 2018

OUTLIERS: Volume 1 by Kate L Mary @kmary0622

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read almost all the books in the Broken/Twisted World series by this author, so Amazon kindly let me know when she had a new book out. 😉

Genre: Post Apocalyptic, Dystopian, Futuristic 

I really liked this book, as much as Kate Mary's zombie series.  Protagonist Indra is a member of one of the four tribes of Outliers, in a world where the Sovereign people rule, with the Fortis providing the muscle.  The Outliers are the workers, the weak, who rely on hereditary jobs in the Sovereign's kingdom.  Immediately, I wanted to know where this strange land is supposed to be; a fantasy world, or Earth?  The suggestion that it's Earth comes at just the right time, as Indra is shown the remains of one of the cities.  Centuries before, their world had been overcrowded, with technology so sophisticated that the inhabitants' weapons could wipe out whole kingdoms; this they did, unleashing 'poison' into the world that rendered much of it a wasteland.  'What they had fought over none of us knew for certain, but we know that it had not only destroyed them, but left the earth barren and dry... poisoning it for future generations.'     

Yes, I think it's mean to be Earth, but we don't know.  Books exist, containing writing that no one can understand.  I love that the question was put into my mind but not answered fully, and hope there will be more about this in future episodes.  There are other clues ~ the rich Sovereign have grown weak, small and plump because they are waited upon and spend much time eating and drinking, and the women make all the decisions (!!).  However, in the wilds, where Indra's tribe (the Winta) live, women are the weaker sex; they tend the home fires while the men go out hunting.

The beginning of this new series builds up nicely, painting pictures of the world I know I am going to continue to read about.  I liked how KLM has done this; it's not a big information dump, but she skillfully sets up all the info we need about the Sovereign, Fortis and Outliers within the first few chapters of the story, so we're good to go for the rest.  I was engrossed from the start.

After lots of terrible things happen to Indra, her friends and family, she looks around at the women of her tribe ~ women unarmed, women defenceless and useless.  This, she knows, must change.

As I was reading, I thought, 'KLM has been watching Outsiders', and in the Author's Note she thanks the show for giving her the name Asa for the guy I had my eye on as the main love interest/hero of the hour.  Works for me ~ I love Outsiders (I picture Indra looking like G'Winveer, for anyone else who watches it).

This first instalment of the Outliers saga is a real 'easy-read' at the same time as being a totally gripping page-turner, and I read 90% of it in one day.  Any negatives?  There are a few small editing glitches (the same information repeated more than once, a couple of minor instances that seemed like afterthoughts dropped in, instead of being threaded through the story), but nothing that would worry most readers, and I give this a wholehearted thumbs up.  Roll on May, when Book #2 is published!

Friday, 16 March 2018


4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Genre: Alternative history, dark humour, Scifi, crime, fantasy, adventure....

I chose this book from the review team submissions list because I liked the idea: an alternative present, in which the crimes of Ted Bundy have not been discovered, and he is now running for president, as a Republican.  Senator Bundy is facist, sexist, you-name-it-ist, and pro-guns; in this alternative reality, active shooters (who number amongst his supporters) are a force to be reckoned with on a day-to-day basis, rather than an occasional horror. 

I did not know what to expect when I opened the book; it has an unremarkable cover (an Amazon standard?), few reviews and low rankings, but I'm happy to report that, as far as my review blog goes, never has the phrase 'don't judge a book etc' been more apt.  Zeb Haradon is a terrific writer with a real story-telling spark that's superbly dry, witty and world-weary, and his humour is absolutely up my street.  The book is clever, unusual, touching, funny and in parts made me laugh out loud, a rare occurrence; I was heard to mutter 'Brilliant!' in a couple of places.  I read it in 48 hours.

The Usurper King is told from the first person point of view of Jim Galesh, a 40 year old guy who has always struggled to find his place in the world.  He has a broken marriage, a drink problem, and suffers from a disease called TAP: Technologically Acquired Progeria.  This was acquired via 'some sociopathic prankster who decided to write the first hybrid biological/computer virus'.  Basically, he is ageing much more quickly than he should be (and the stuff about his time working in computer journalism, where he got this disease, is hilarious).   

Jim is on the way to winning big money when he stars on the game show Guts!, on which contestants practice extispicy ~ predicting the future by studying animal entrails.  Via the show he meets super-intelligent hillbilly Nick, who introduces him to the idea that Bundy is a serial killer, and that many of the murders attributed to the Green River Killer were actually committed by Bundy.

One of the high spots was discovering, half way through, the identity of 'JW', Bundy's Democratic rival, which explained some things like Chicago's high murder rate ~ it was dropped in so smoothly.  Elsewhere, some of the parts I loved best were those about Jim's family: his son Reg, who he adores, and neurotic ex-wife Agatha and her control freak family.  There are a wonderful few pages about his in-laws:

"Do you remember Clippy?  That's the cartoon paper clip in Microsoft from the late 1990s.  You would open a new document and start writing and it would just up and force its fucking self into your writing and say "it looks like you're writing a letter" and try to offer these unhelpful writing tips while you look for the X button to shut it down.. I think they call it Office Assistant.... anyway, Agatha's mother was like a cross between Clippy and Nurse Ratched... then there was her father.  As you might imagine, the years with Clippy Ratched have left him a shell of a human."

Often, it was just the day-to-day observations that I loved the most, or odd sentences; I highlighted so many.

"They had the kind of faces you see in an illustrated dictionary next to the definition of the word 'loser'." 

"Some other dork trying to look like a thug came in carrying a baseball bat.  'I understand you don't want to co-operate.  I'm the guy they bring in to help people co-operate.  They call me Mr Co-operation'."

Nick"You got a phone?  I mean one of them fancy ones with the internet on."

Jim goes to a doctor to try and get more of the medicine that helps him cut down drinking, the doctor is reluctant to give it, and tries to steer him, instead, towards the Twelve Steps.  Jim: "The only criticism of it I read came from these AA lunkheads and websites for rehabs who stood to lose a bundle if people found something that actually worked."

I'm giving this 4.5* because there are a fair few proofreading errors (missing vocative commas, argh!), particularly in one section around the middle that wasn't as well put together as the rest of the book (it's when Jim is trying to get Bundy looked into), to the extent that I wondered if it had been written in a hurry, an afterthought, but I'll still round that 4.5* up to 5* on Amazon, because it really is a great book.  Another proofread, a bit of a tidying up in places, and it would be outstanding.  I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who likes clever observational humour of the dry American kind.  The end is totally, totally unexpected, by the way.

Whether or not some of it is a comment on the current political situation in the US, I really couldn't say.

" the old British class system, where mediocre people get special privileges because they were born into wealth.  But it does seem there is a natural aristocracy - one which comes from intelligence, acquired ability, self-education, a natural curiosity about the world, an independence of thought, or maybe just a vigor for life - and which cleaves society into the winners and the losers.  The losers, finding themselves impotent in mastering the art of life, are naturally going to be envious and bitter, and voting for Bundy was their revenge against the world."

Monday, 12 March 2018

WACO: A Survivor's Story by David Thibodeau and Leon Whiteson

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I have recently watched the TV mini-series about Waco, after which I was in a state of appalled shock about the treatment of innocent people by the FBI and ATF.  The TV series showed both sides; I wondered if the book would, too.

Genre: non-fiction, memoir, crime.

In case you don't know, the siege in Waco, Texas occurred in 1993, when the US law enforcement decided that a religious community headed by one David Koresh should face prosecution for certain crimes, including child abuse.  The ATF turned up with armed guards, and after some exchanges of fire (I am not going to say who fired first because I wasn't there and this is a book review, not an article about the siege) there was stalemate between the two sides.  The siege ended six weeks later, when the ATF and FBI mowed the compound down with tanks and let CS gas (the sort that is banned in warfare) into the compound.  As usually happens with this gas, it caught fire.  76 people died, many of them children.  The FBI's version of the story was that Koresh had burned the place down with his friends and family inside it ~ a religious cult style suicide pact, echoing that of Jonestown in the late 1970s.  All the survivors deny this.

The book begins with the end of the siege, in all its horror, then goes back to David Thibodeau's own story, about how he met David Koresh and ended up living with the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel.   I liked that he is not all-believing about the visions and beliefs of Koresh; at no time did I feel he had been brainwashed by a cult leader, simply that he was a guy who'd always felt a bit of an outsider and was looking for some deeper meaning and somewhere to belong, like many who join these unorthodox religious communities.  He does not seem convinced that Koresh was, as per his own beliefs, the Lamb of the Fifth Seal mentioned in Revelations, but he valued his interpretation of the Scriptures and his teaching, generally.

Thibodeau is also quite open about his mixed feelings regarding Koresh's 'New Light' revelation; as actor Michael Shannon says, in the TV series, when breakaway religious leaders receive revelations from God, they always tend to involve having sex with lots of young women ~ in this case, some underage girls and the wives of the men in the community, while the men themselves were required to remain celibate.  Thibodeau himself comments that the females 'chosen' for the honour of bearing Koresh's children just happened to be the more physically attractive women of the community.  Okay, that's the scurrilous bit.  There were also accusations of child abuse from those outside.  During the siege, some of the children were let out.  Experts who cared for them said that they seemed happy, normal and properly looked after, and showed no signs of abuse whatsoever.  The only crime committed by the Branch Davidians appears to be Koresh's, of having sex with underage girls, but he's dead now, and has been for twenty-five years. 

Much of the book is taken up with the siege itself.  After a while the to-ings and fro-ings did feel a bit laboured, though I understand why Thibodeau felt it necessary to include every detail.  When I got to his 'afterwards', when he was a guest on many TV shows and faced criticism from people who wanted only to believe the worst, I was not surprised that he took the opportunity in this book of making sure that everyone knew exactly what happened.  It's a book that needed to be written, but to be honest I did find it a little boring in parts.  Perhaps I shouldn't have watched the TV series, which was spectacularly good, first.  I'm glad I read it, but I think it could have been chopped down in places to make it more compelling; as it was, I found myself skip-reading, whereas if it had been less dense I am sure I would have read all of it.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

THE SCANDAL OF CHRISTENDOM by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was one I had been waiting for, as with all books by Gemma Lawrence!

Genre: Tudor historical fiction

'If this is Katherine's dusk, I would have everyone know it is my dawn'.

Having just finished this long book in forty-eight hours, I wonder if Gemma Lawrence knows Anne Boleyn better than anyone else who has ever written about her ~ not the facts (though this book is intricately detailed), but the understanding of the woman herself.

This fourth book in the series covers the period when the Great Matter is finally resolved (as much as it can be), when Anne becomes Queen, gives birth to Elizabeth and becomes pregnant for a second time; at the end, I wanted, as ever, to stand with a whip over the writing desk of Ms Lawrence and demand she write the next one now, and not sleep until it is done.

The beginning of the book sees the continuation of Anne and Henry's battles with Katherine and Spanish ambassador Chapuys, the Pope and all those who oppose them.  I was glad to see old rumours dispelled, such as Anne orchestrating the plot to poison Bishop Fisher, but she is not painted only in glowing colours.  Lawrence's Boleyn is far too intelligent, self-aware and analytical not to see that her frustration causes her to act in ways she regrets; indeed, she shows unseemly pride in flaunting the ermine-trimmed gowns of purple given to her by Henry (both ermine and the colour purple were to be worn only by royalty) and is sometimes spiteful, but one can hardly blame her if she sought to soil the reputation of, for instance, the King's great friend Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, who was very much against her.

'Did I stop to consider that I was spreading the same evil that had once hurt me?  I did not ... I should not have lowered myself.  Katherine would never have done as I did.'

Here, she is too harsh on herself.  Since she first won Henry's love she has had to hold her head up high in front of all who would see her downfall, until she becomes 'as used to (the tales of her wickedness) as a crumbling dotard may become to gout'.

Gemma Lawrence puts myths and Hollywoodised images about other players to bed, too; Katherine was ridiculously stubborn, and hurt her own daughter in refusing to stand down; she also hurt the very man she claimed to love so much, and the good of the realm.  Then there is Thomas More ~ the reality of this 'man of God' who tortured and burned to death those whose beliefs didn't coincide with his, couldn't be further from the kindly uncle-like figure played by Jeremy Northam in Showtime's The Tudors.

Thomas More

There is more to this book than courtly intrigue, of course.  I loved the images of the countryside of long ago:  'We rode out through glorious, crisp mornings and heard corncrakes cawing in the fields... tall oaks, elms and yews seemed to bow as our horses clopped under them ... merlins flew over moor land, chasing meadow pipits across the gorse-covered hills.'  There is much to be learned about how the Church of England was born, about rituals of christening and coronations ~ and amusing snippets showing how little the people of the 16th century knew about the human body: 'The baby is drawing on your blood to help him grow, my lady.  That is why women's courses cease when they are with child'.  

We also learn the good about Henry, and why he is still the most famous and written-about of all the kings of England.  He was not just a tyrant ~ he built up the navy to greatness, and had a way of talking to the common man as if they were friends of his, not lesser mortals, which made him so loved by his people.  

In everything I've read and watched about Anne and Henry, it seems that she had begun to lose his heart even before she failed to give him a son, for which she met her death.  I believe it is simply that he was so indulged that if someone wasn't shiny, new and exciting, it no longer held his absolute attention.  Anne is probably the most famous woman to give truth to the quote (most commonly attributed to financier James Goldsmith) 'when a man marries his mistress, he creates a vacancy'.   As soon as she is pregnant with Elizabeth, she begins to hear rumours of his other women.

'Now that I was his wife and Queen, I was vulnerable.  Before, when I had ruled him as a mistress, I had held the power.  Now, he was my master.'

Anne discovers that theirs is not this grand passion that can weather all storms, after all.  She loses her own strength, which she hates: 'It is so easy to forget ills when one is offered love again.  When a heart has known love once, it will do anything to keep it.'

This was the part of the book that really earned its 5 GOLD stars, a personal rating I don't give that often (it's one better than 5 stars!), not just for Anne's pain when she begins to see Henry through new eyes, but her love for her daughter, which is heartbreaking.  I loved my daughter more than life, more than faith, more than Henry.  If I could have held her forever and never let her go, I would have done so. There was nothing more important than her.  

Anne feels sympathy for Katherine as Elizabeth is taken from her to reside in her own household (as is normal for royal children); she comes to feel many parallels with Katherine over the following months.  Most sad, though, is that she does not see the two people who will bring about her downfall: the two Janes, Boleyn and Seymour.

Jane Seymour

This book left me wondering two things: if Katherine had stepped down, while Henry was still in his prime, might Anne have borne those sons and saved herself?  And then I wondered if Anne's life might have been so much happier if she had married, for instance, Thomas Wyatt, and lived the life of a lady of great learning and teaching, who could have given so much to others of similar mindset; a bit like a more attractive and charismatic Margaret Beaufort, perhaps!  

Gemma Lawrence never fails to write about her subjects as no one else has. This is, as I have said before, the only series about Anne Boleyn you need to read.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018


3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Genre: UK dystopian, futuristic

The basic plot:
In the future, all men in Britain are sterile. Fertility drugs for procreation are given only to couples whose genetic matches are approved by the state. Those without a family history to prove their genetic heritage are known as broken branches, treated as inferior citizens and not allowed to breed, so that the genetic purity of the National Family Tree will be preserved.  On presenting an application to have a child, each case is decided upon by a jury of over forty people, randomly chosen from the genetically approved public.

The novel contains some feasible ideas about the not too distant future: compulsory DNA sampling at birth, genetic enhancement of a foetus being the norm, and, of course, the necessity for health insurance, usually provided by an employer, which some say we are heading towards sooner rather than later.  Mr Ellis shows some nice turns of phrase and imaginative metaphors, and I liked some of the philosophy (often inner dialogue) about the human race as a whole.

On the whole, though, I felt the finished article needed a bit more thinking through. I needed to know straight away why all the men were sterile, but it is not revealed until half way through.  Several generations before, a male contraceptive pill had been introduced in order to control population, that ended up causing sterility.  Hmm.  I'm not convinced that many men would take it in the first place, given that virility is an important element of the masculine identity.  A character called Maiya doesn't know she is infertile until told by a doctor that she was the victim of a government sterilisation programme, but neither we nor Maiya are told what this programme was, and for some reason she doesn't ask.  I had too many unanswered questions, generally. 

Other stuff I liked: early on, the 'pub culture' scenes are well done and authentic.  When protagonists Grace and Tom submit their application to become parents, we are shown snapshots of the conversations between couples chosen as the 'jury', to show how they arrived at the decision, an inspired touch which made for an entertaining and revealing sideshow about human nature; I would have loved more like this.  Alas, though, there was a lack of individuality in the dialogue, generally; practically all couples call each other 'love'.  Almost all the characters have short tempers and say 'fuck' a lot.  Sometimes the technology appeared not to have moved on as it might; it's meant to be several generations into the future but people still talk about their 'mobile' phones, a phrase that's started to sound a little outdated even now.

Interspersed between the main chapters are some curious short ones written from the point of view of someone who turned out to be a computer programmer (I think).  Some of it is a bit 'fourth wall', about the writing and publication of the book itself.  He talks about a new programme called 4cast which can programme futures according to DNA and data collected all over the world ~ another of the great ideas present in the novel.  Again, though, it all seemed a bit haphazard.

To sum up: an original story containing imaginative, unusual concepts.  I read all the after-book acknowledgements, etc., and must thank the author for the Wikipedia entry about the Tasmanian aboriginals ~ fascinating stuff, it led me to look up more.  Ellis thanks his beta readers for 'getting through the third draft' ~ speaking as a writer who still finds dodgy bits as late as the fifth draft, I felt it could have done with another one or two.  The grammar and punctuation (copy editing) is mostly fine, but I think some professional content editing would make this book as good as it could be.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

MARY ~ Tudor Princess by Tony Riches @tonyriches

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, but I would have bought it anyway because I've enjoyed the other books I've read by this author, especially Jasper.

Genre: Tudor historical fiction

Like many people, I have an unquenchable thirst for good fiction about the Plantagenet and Tudor period.  I wondered if Mary Tudor's story in itself would be enough to sustain a novel, but was pleased to see that it added to my knowledge of the Tudor period and I liked the way the author used her story to produce another, interesting perspective on that of Henry VIII, as Mary fretted over the troubles with France and watched the fortunes of her friend Queen Catherine plummet.

There are some clever ideas in this tale of Henry's sister, such as placing the thirteen-year-old Anne Boleyn as her maid, on the night of her wedding to King Louis of France.  Whether she really was or not I don't know, and neither does it matter, though we are given the information that Anne became one of the ladies of Mary's bedchamber.  That the reader knows more about what was happening at court than the protagonist is a smart move, as we turn the pages in anticipation of her finding out; as an aristocratic woman of her time, Mary's life was, of course, subject to the machinations of the men who controlled her.  Later, when kept away from court at Brandon's seat in Suffolk, she knew only what she heard from others, which included very little of her own husband's infidelities.

As is usual with Tony Riches' books, it is clear that much research has been undertaken without it ever seeming research-heavy, a skill I always admire. 

Brandon and Mary/Margaret in Showtime series The Tudors;
for the series, Henry's two sisters were combined into one character.

Given that the story is of a whole life, and a not uneventful one, this is not a very long book and at times I felt that more detail might have made it more absorbing, for instance in the development of Mary's first, brief marriage to King Louis of France, of Charles Brandon's feeling towards her, of the discovery of her husband's infidelity, and the loss of her first son.  I didn't feel I knew Mary until half way through, and at times it seemed the story was being somewhat raced through as new characters emerged, older ones died off until, had I not known a great deal about this time, I might have forgotten who was who; on the other hand, it is written as Mary would have seen it—and novels of Tudor history are always hampered by the fact that everyone is called Anne, Mary, Catherine, Charles, Henry and Thomas!

I did enjoy it and read it in two sittings; I just felt that, on occasion, the story required extra depth to make me feel really involved with the main character and less as though I was reading a catalogue of factual happenings.  It's as well-written as all Mr Riches' books, though, and that I read it so quickly shows that I found it a page-turner.

Mary's death at the end was beautifully executed.  I do love a good ending.  I'd definitely recommend this book as an addition to the library of fellow Tudor addicts.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

THE DISASTER ARTIST by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell @gregsestero

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I watched the film (starring James Franco, excellent) and had to read it!

Genre: Memoir, show business

The Disaster Artist is about Greg Sestero's life with his friend, Tommy Wiseau, a strange, deluded figure of unknown nationality (some think he is Polish), unknown age (rumoured to be over 60), who was in possession of a vast fortune of unknown origin with which he made the 2003 film The Room, that has now gained a cult following.  It's not even so bad it's good, though it is known as the best bad film ever made; this is one of the better trailers for it that I found on Youtube, featuring its 'highlights'.

Greg Sestero meets Tommy Wiseau at a San Francisco acting class, and they strike up a friendship; there is something about the stranger that fascinates Greg.  His acting is terrible; he doesn't understand basic technique, and will take no direction.  But Greg envies him his confidence and (outward) lack of concern about what anyone thinks of him.

The books traces their path through many disappointments in their quests to become great Hollywood stars, culminating, after a few small successes on Greg's part and much emotional turmoil on Tommy's, in the making of The Room.

The book's chapters alternate between the chronological story of Greg and Tommy, and the making of the film itself.  This structure worked very well as it slowly builds up a picture of the whole, and eventually the story of Tommy's past comes out in fragments, though how much is a product of Wiseau's imagination is not known.  This book probably answers more questions than any other speculation I've seen; most of it seems pretty feasible, too.


I think this book is best read after seeing the film, and preferably after watching The Room, too, as many of the scenes are referred to, though this is not essential.  Throughout, you will sometimes feel sorry for Tommy and at other times wonder why someone has not landed him a fatal punch or two.  At first I thought Greg was just using Tommy for his money, but as the book progresses he is honest about the fact that he had to share the flat in LA with Tommy because he couldn't afford to live anywhere else; essentially, I think his friendship probably kept Tommy going when he had no one else.  That he was Tommy's only companion did not take long to dawn on him.  On the whole, I don't think Greg painted himself in too glowing a light, and the way he and Tom Bissell have presented Tommy is at times quite touching.

The book is great, the story itself fascinating.  The film is excellent.  The Room is ... a hilarious disaster.  I recommend all three, most highly - start with the James Franco film, and I guarantee you will have to watch The Room once you've seen it!