Thursday, 12 October 2017

FOR THE THRILL OF IT: Leopold, Loeb and the murder that shocked jazz age Chicago, by Simon Baatz

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I've always been interested in and had just watched a documentary about this case, so sought it out.


Most people know about Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two college boys from affluent Chicago families who murdered young Bobby Franks just 'for the thrill of it', to see if they could plan the perfect murder and get away with it.  The fascinating element, I think, is the 'why', and this book gives a detailed background, in which we discover that Leopold was a bright, hardworking but socially inept boy who became infatuated with the feckless, hard drinking, handsome and popular Loeb.  Their relationship appears to have been one of those 'perfect storms', in which the intense, lonely Leopold allowed Loeb to turn his fantasies into reality.  Loeb had been obsessed with detective stories from a young age, and started off his secret criminal career by committing petty vandalism, then discovered that, in Leopold, he'd found the ideal partner with whom to carry out the ultimate crime.

Bobby Franks, the victim.

The background about Leopold and Loeb's personalities was detailed and insightful.  Baatz has provided similar intricate detail about the prosecutor and defender, too; I understand that they are important to the story, as Robert Crowe was determined they should hang, whereas Clarence Darrow was equally determined to save their lives and was fiercely against the death penalty, but I felt that these chapters could have been chopped down a little; I got the impression that Baatz had done months and months of research for this book and was hell bent on including every single bit of it. 

More interesting is William White's analysis of the boys' personalities and fantasies, and how each allowed the other's to take shape.  I felt I learned more key points about them from this shorter section than from the earlier individual histories; it made more sense.


What this book lacked was the atmosphere of the era.  'Jazz age' Chicago is mentioned only in the title; I would have liked to know more about the college life of Loeb and his friends, for instance, to arrive at more of a sense of place and time.  Other reviews have said that it is too much like a newspaper report; I felt that, too.

Near the end of the book is much discussion about Crowe, Darrow and the death penalty, and also an account of how prison life treated Leopold and Loeb.  Loeb was murdered by a fellow inmate in 1935, but Leopold was eventually granted parole in the 1950s.  I found this last chapter most interesting.  The story ends at 72%, and the rest of the book is taken up with an author's note, sources, etc.


Nathan Leopold shortly before his death in 1971

Saturday, 7 October 2017

DONKEY BOY and other stories by Mary Smith @marysmithwriter

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads
 

How I discovered this book: It was submitted to Rosie Amber's Review Team, of which I am a member.  Two years ago I read No More Mulberries by this author, which I liked a lot.

This is an interesting and diverse collection of stories, set in several locations, from Scotland to Pakistan, where the author lived for a while.  Some of them were written as monologues, which have been performed.

I liked those set in Pakistan best, my very favourite being Accidents Happen, about a girl whose mother marries a man she hates.  I liked it so much I read it again, straight away.  I also liked Donkey Boy itself, about a little boy who has to work for his father instead of going to school, and Trouble with Socks, about the sort of ghastly, patronising auxiliary in a care home who thinks that physically disabled means mentally deficient.  The last one, a longer story called The Thing In Your Eye, was interesting.  A woman believes she sees evil in people in their eyes; this left me a little unsure, as I didn't know if we were meant to think it was all in her mind (as everyone else does), or if she really could 'read' people.  

They're all unusual, with a theme of private sadness.  I liked a very short one called My Name is Anya, too, about an Afghani girl adopted by Scottish parents.  They're ideal for a nice bit of lying on the sofa, afternoon reading when you're not in the mood for complicated plots.



Thursday, 5 October 2017

WHISPERS OF A STORM by Anthony Lavisher @alavisher

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: I've got to know the author a little via Twitter and thought I'd like to try one of his books, after reading some good reviews.  This is the first episode of the now complete Storm Trilogy.

The novel is set in the medieval-esque fantasy world of the Four Vales, and follows the story of two main characters: Cassana, a noblewoman, and stonemason Khadazin.  The story contains all the ingredients necessary for an epic fantasy series ~ political intrigue, wrongful imprisonment, conspiracies, dark secrets.  I thought the land of the author's imagination was constructed well; it's all believable, with some original ideas that make this very much his own story.  One element I liked was that his women are certainly not second class citizens; nobleman's daughter Cassana is sent to represent her father in political dealings, and others are military captains and solidiers.  From adolescence, the girls are taught military skills alongside the boys.

I liked reading Khadazin's story best, as I found him the most three dimensional character; I was interested in his backstory and everything that happened to him.  In Cassana's chapters in particular, I found the book a bit on the description-heavy side, with mundane detail that slowed the pace down.  Having said that, this is a novel let down only by the elements that hinder most debuts, and that authors usually 'grow out' of: overly explanatory dialogue, too many adjectives and adverbs, using ten words where five will put the point across with better effect. However, fantasy epics often tend towards flowery prose; one could not accuse GRR Martin, for instance, of writing in a spare fashion.

The characterisation, atmosphere and world-building is very good; some professional TLC would make it as good as it could be and give the punctuation a bit of spit and polish (nb: do bear in mind that I am one of those weirdos who erupts in hives at a misplaced semicolon!).  It's only 99p, and I'm sure that it will tick all the boxes for addicts of this genre.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

HOME TO ROOST by Chauncey Rogers

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


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

When trying to 'tag' this book for my blog, I wasn't sure under what genre to put it; possibly there should be a new Amazon category for it, called anthropomorphic suspense, or something.  There's a horror aspect too - it gets darker as it goes on.  Okay.  The basics.  It's about chickens, mostly Little Crown, a small black rooster, and how he finds his way in the world (or the coop).  But it's also NOT about chickens, but about social hierarchy and pressure.  Another reviewer labelled it 'Animal Farm meets Watership Down', which sums it up, I think.  

I loved some of the all-too-human observations, like the way in which Long Tail the Father Rooster does not want Little Crown to learn to fight, because he wants to be all powerful, and show to the hens that he can protect them.  And how the chickens think that the Great Yolk (actually the sun, which they consider to be ruler of all things) prizes chickens over other beings, and looks after them first and foremost.  Reminded me of the practice of armies praying to an entity in the sky for victory in battle, with the self-important assumption that such an entity would necessarily favour them over the opposing armies.  

Home to Roost is written mostly from the point of view of Little Crown, and the first half dots back and forth between his very early life, when he was adopted by the daughter of the farmer's daughter, and before and after 'the racoon incident' ~ an attack outlined at the beginning.  Other points of view are from dogs or occasional humans.  It's well-written and clever, but I think it would have worked better without all the to-ing and fro-ing with the timeline, just as a straight narrative; I didn't think going back and forth between time periods added anything to it.  I also thought the whole thing was too long; chopping down by about a third would have given the story more impact.

Little Crown (earlier and later to be known as Brad) gains knowledge about coop life through the somewhat limited guidance of the Mother Hen, faces fear in the form of cats and snakes, experiences love, loss and revenge.  It's good, and interesting; I'd say that it would appeal most to readers interested in sociology and psychology, and people-watching in general.

Monday, 25 September 2017

OATH BREAKER by Shelley Wilson @ShelleyWilson72

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: I know the author from the Twitter writers community but had never read her books.  I had, however, seen a few very good reviews for this one, and decided to cut my YA Fantasy teeth on it.
Please note: I told Shelley that if I found YA werewolves were totally not my thing then I would let her know, rather than write some bullshit half-hearted/dishonest review.  As it happened, although I doubt this will ever become a favourite genre (something to do with being over 40 years older than the target market, I imagine), I thought Oath Breaker was jolly good!

The story starts with motherless Mia's horrible father having been killed by a werewolf, Mia being shipped off with the cold, distant Uncle Sebastian, and madly missing her beloved brother, Zak.  Mia is most surprised to discover that Uncle Sebastian runs a school for werewolf hunters.  Enter evil bitch Felicity, new pals Lizzie and Adam, and a total hottie called Cody who Mia meets when out running a marathon.

She uncovers a truth about the (life and) death of her mother, hears strange rumours about what is really going on at the Hood Academy (and the odd mysterious scream), and know she must take the oath to become a fully-fledged werewolf hunter...

So why did I like this, much to my surprise?  I'm not au fait with the werewolf world (being more of a zombie sort of girl), but I was most interested to find out what it's all about!  Shelley Wilson writes in a great style that's so readable, and the characters all came to life with ease; I wanted to know about them.  Most of all, though, the atmosphere really worked.  There are no great pages of description, but this book is real proof that writing can be descriptive without being chock-full of adjectives and metaphors.  I could feel the still, dense, damp wood where Mia met Cody, see the quiet village with its tea shop, imagine the dark halls of the Hood Academy (not sure if they were meant to be dark, but they felt so to me!).  I wanted to be in the story ~ and any book that provokes that reaction gets a tick v.g from me!

Yes, I liked it.  And I imagine that if I was a YA who was into werewolves, I would LOVE it. 😀



Sunday, 17 September 2017

DO YOU REALIZE? by Kevin Kuhn

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads

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

This is a most unusual and interesting novel, categorised on Amazon under 'metaphysical and visionary', and 'time travel'.

George is your average American middle-aged husband and father, unstimulated by his job, with a marriage that's lost its joy and the usual teenage children angst.  On his morning journeys to work he gets to know the curious Shiloh, who philosophises about life, the universe and everything, and asks him to beta test a new app for an Apple watch.  There is, of course, more to both Shiloh and the app than meet the eye.

Meanwhile, back in his normal life, George struggles with family problems ~ his daughter has a bad car accident, his son is being difficult and secretive, and his job is giving him headaches.  Soon, he realises that Shiloh and his mysterious app are giving him a completely different perspective on life, introducing him to the idea of parallel universes.

I loved the first half of this book.  I really like the author's writing style; George and his family are very real, and the narrative is darkly comic, interesting and highly readable, with lots of popular cultural references; I liked that each chapter has the name of a song.  I also loved the philosophy, ideas and views of Shiloh, many of which echoed my own, though this was not the only reason I was toying with 5* for the book at this stage.  I read the first 50% almost in one go.

The quality of the writing does not falter throughout, but at around 60% my attention started to waver.  Story threads that seemed interesting were quickly resolved and everything was hunky dory in George's world for quite a while - nice for George, and, indeed, this served a purpose for the outcome of the story, but it was not that interesting to read about.  Without giving too much in the way of spoilers, the app means that George relives days in his past life.  He also has vivid dreams.  I thought the dream sequences were far too long, slowing the progress of the story down, and the relived days from the past could have been written more succinctly, especially when a day was lived more than once.  Also, Shiloh's long explanations became longer (or maybe it was just me), and I thought there was too much explanatory dialogue, generally.

In the second half is a tragic episode which I thought was well done; all the threads lead to the outcome, as Shiloh reveals his purpose; sadly, by the end I felt less involved with the story.  The whole idea is a terrific one, and Mr Kuhn clearly has much talent, but I felt that the second half was written less with the reader in mind than the first. 

My overall rating is based on the fact that I'd give the first half 5* and the second half 3*.  It's a good book, and readers who are particularly interested in the metaphysical and visionary will probably enjoy it very much indeed.


Saturday, 16 September 2017

PLEASING MR PEPYS by Deborah Swift @swiftstory

5 out of 5 stars


On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: The author has been a great favourite of mine ever since I discovered her books on her history blog, via her Twitter page.  I was sent an ARC, but would have bought it anyway!

Set in 17th century London, the two main character points of view in this excellent novel are Deborah Willet, a young girl who goes to work as a lady's companion for the wife of Samuel Pepys, and Abigail Williams, an actress and mistress of a lord, who has a tragic past and a dangerous present, working as a spy for the Dutch.  Deb unwittingly gets more involved with Abigail than she intends, and before long finds herself a part of a terrifyingly dark world.
 
Samuel Pepys

It is clear, all the way through, that Ms Swift's knowledge of 17th Century London is extensive; I particularly enjoyed this rare look at how life was for Londoners, post plague, Civil War and, of course, the Great Fire.  The depiction of the dark alleyways, filthy lodgings, women of the night and the poor, unpaid sailors was so good I could see it all.  Abigail Williams, though a 'baddie', is written in such a way that I liked and felt sympathy for her, and, indeed, for all the women, simply because of the social restrictions of the time.

The plot itself is cleverly executed, building up pace gradually; by half way through the book I couldn't turn the pages fast enough, so eager was I to find out what happened.  This novel works well on so many levels: as a thrilling tale of espionage, as a peep into the world of 350 years ago, as an historical education and also a love story, that of Deb Willet and the delightful curate, Jeremiah Wells.

The Author's Notes at the end of the book were quite a revelation, as I discovered I'd been reading more of a true story that I'd thought; I deliberately left them to the end.  Pleasing Mr Pepys is one of those pieces of historical fact/fiction that makes you want to find out even more. :)

If you're as fascinated by this period of history as I am, you might like this 'fly through' of 17th Century London (pre-Great Fire), which I have looked at several times, and gave me an even better idea of what the capital was like in those days.