Sunday, 15 July 2018

DOCTOR PERRY by Kirsten McKenzie @kiwimrsmac

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: Dark comedy/horror

Doctor Perry is an evil medical man from the pages of an Edwardian horror story, complete with black leather doctor's bag and a curious potion he asks patients to drink.   The crux of the plot is about what happens when you drink said potion; this came as a surprise to me, and the build-up to it was well done.

Much of the action takes pace in a retirement home, with an abundance of characters.  Some are well-drawn and realistic (Elijah, the main man, was particularly good), others conforming to perceived stereotypes, which I felt was intentional, as this is not a 'serious' horror story.  I changed my mindset about what I was reading once I saw that Perry is more a like a dastardly doctor you might see walking out of the mists on an old BBC drama, or a Jekyll and Hyde type old film.  Patients drink a 'tonic' from Perry (rather than one obtained via a pharmacy) with little questioning about what it contains.  Of course this is pure pantomime, in an era when many patients look up even prescribed medication on the internet to make sure it is safe.

The writing is generally good, with wit and understanding of human nature (always a plus) but it needs another go-through with a copy-editor/proofreader who knows how to punctuate/has more of an eagle eye.  There was a fair bit of incorrect punctuation, mostly missing commas or commas that should have been semicolons, and many, many run-on sentences/comma splices.  The sort of uncorrected punctuation errors present in the book are not of the type that would be noticed by everyone, perhaps only by those they call 'punctuation Nazis', but unfortunately I am one of these!

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

THE LAST FEAST by Zeb Haradon

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I'd reviewed the author's last book,The Usurper King, for Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, and thought it was great.  The author approached me to see if I would like an ARC of his new release.

Genre: Sci Fi novella

I loved this book and kept rationing the last thirty per cent because I didn't want to reach the end.  It's a long novella, maybe almost a short novel.   

Jim is the last man left in the universe, staying alive in a small pod that orbits a black hole.  Rewind to how he got there: he has been alive for a thousand years, since around our time, achieved by the anti-ageing technlogy available in both the near and distant future.  He and his crew of six are travelling to an interstellar colony.  From the blurb: En route, the ship gets momentarily caught in the powerful gravity of a black hole and is flung trillions and trillions of years into the future. The passengers find themselves in a time of maximum entropy, where all life is extinct, all the stars have burned out, and there is nothing left in the universe except a black hole and a complete vacuum extending in all directions.

On board, those remaining divide into two factions: those who think it is worth sending out distress signals, and those who understand that there is nobody left to receive them.

I love Zeb Haradon's writing style.  I know next to nothing about how space stuff works (indeed, that very phrase is an indication of this), but he describes it in such a way that it is a) not even remotely boring, b) understandable and c) totally believable.  The book is inventive, gripping, clever, funny, heartbreaking, horrific, and a total page-turner.  For those who mind about such things, there is a certain amount of grisly stuff, but this is not unreasonable since he is having to convert his own waste products into calories, and the last people alive are contemplating eating the body of a former crew member in order to stay alive.  Just a warning for the particularly squeamish.

As well as his current situation, Jim talks, now and again, about his life before: his wife and son, and hints about what happened to the world in the millennium after our time.  I would love to read more about this, if you ever fancy writing it, Mr Haradon....

It's great, highly recommended, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.


Sunday, 8 July 2018

LUCKY STAR by Holly Curtis

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: 1980s nostalgia, coming of age

Set in 1984, this story opens with a group of schoolboys who go on a shoplifting trip to Guernsey, keen to get their hands on designer sports gear they crave.  Protagonist Ben is particularly desperate for a certain pair of trainers.  This is intermingled with him seeing the gorgeous Susie and falling instantly in love with her, all set to a backdrop of Madonna's Lucky Star.

What I liked:
1. It's nicely written, and flows well; it's an easy read.  The characterisation is very good, I thought, and the dialogue is, for the most part, realistic; natural.  I liked the usage of regional slang words like 'dinlo' and 'clump' (and the fact that the author didn't feel the need to explain them!).
2. There are elements that are very typical of kids of that age, and it's good to read about a time when young people didn't have their eyes permanently fixed on smartphone screens.  It certainly ticked a few nostalgia boxes.

What I was less sure about:
1. The basic premise.  I realise the kids who flogged the designer gear would have had money, but where did Ben and his friends get the cash to travel to Guernsey, get taxis, eat in caf├ęs, buy beer, etc?  There was no indication of him asking his aunt for it.  I also don't buy that a group of daft 16 year olds suddenly became proficient at shoplifting from upmarket shops, where assistants know all the tricks.  I think it's a fun idea that needed a bit more thinking through.
2. I found the whole Susie-love-at-first-sight thing a little hackneyed, more like something you would see in a 1980s film, but the 'coming of age' genre has grown more sophisticated since then; also I felt the whole novel needed chopping down a bit.

So not really for me, but the fact that it's nicely written and the characterisation is good, and it has the nostalgia thing going on means it may appeal to those who like a light read about a time they remember, and enjoyed films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

A PLAGUE ON MR PEPYS by Deborah Swift @swiftstory

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I'm a huge fan of Deborah Swift and have read all her books,most recently Pleasing Mr Pepys.

Genre: 17th Century Historical Fiction.  The Great Plague.

I LOVED this book, so much I think I may run out of superlatives!  Without doubt the best book I've read this year, and has taken over from The Gilded Lily as my previous favourite of Ms Swift's.

Set in London in the mid-late 17th century, the main characters are Bess and Will Bagwell.  Will is a modest, unassuming but exceptionally talented carpenter, while Bess is a spirited girl who comes from the dingy and dank slums and is determined to build a better life for the couple.  But from the moment they buy the house in respectable Flaggon Row, their troubles multiply.  Financial disaster is ever-looming, as one stroke of bad luck and bad judgement follows another, not helped by the slippery presence of Will's cousin Jack Sutherland, a man with the eye for a good swindle.  

Will longs for work on a ship, in dock, and Bess knows the only person who can help is Naval big shot Samuel Pepys.  But for his help there will be a price, and one which might destroy her marriage.  Pepys features in the book as a secondary character and the reason for much of what happens to the Bagwells rather than as a main character; I mention this in case potential readers think it is a book primarily about the man himself.   For me, though, the real star of the book was London itself, dirty, noisy, 17th Century London, with its dangerous characters, dodgy dealings, the vast chasm between rich and poor, social snobbery, and finally, the plague, which lurks in the background until the last quarter of the book when it takes a terrifying centre stage.  It's riveting.  The whole book is, but especially the way in which the plague takes hold of the city.

Ms Swift's characterisation is so compelling, her storytelling is a dream, and her descriptions of the time and place and the way the people lived are so vivid, so detailed and intricately researched (without you ever feeling that you're reading research notes), that I felt as if I was being given a window back in time.  A special mention for Beth's mother, Agatha, a former prostitute and wonderful character.  A short author's note at the back gives more information about Pepys and reveals the real identity of Bess Bagwell.

Utterly brilliant, you have to read it.  I've just finished it at one in the morning after being engrossed for two evenings, and had to write the review immediately.  Thank you, Deborah Swift ~ I don't think I will be able to pick up another book for a couple of days!

Sunday, 1 July 2018


3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Amazon Browse

Genre: Post Apocalyptic, Dystopian, Pandemic

This is the first in a three book series about a pandemic, the Su Flu.  It is told in diary format, the diarist (Chris) being an every-day sort of guy in his thirties, living in Chicago with his wife and two kids.  I wasn't sure about it at first; I liked the writing style, but one aspect was badly thought out: he and his wife watch the news about the flu and the increasing panic on TV news, but no reference is made to social media.  No mention of videos uploaded to Youtube, of posts on Facebook or Twitter ~ most people of his age use social media as a regular part of their lives.  The wife is supposed to have an internet shop—she would need to be social media savvy for this, but 'the internet' seems to be a little-used facility that appears only on her laptop, not on their phones or the TV, in the way of people more than twice their age.

The virus spreads, and within a week or so the fabric of society is breaking down, big time. It's well-written, flows nicely, and I wanted to keep turning the pages; I liked it.  Now and again I felt there was too much practical detail, such as the complicated layout of the condos, staircases, doorways, etc; too much, I couldn't visualise it.  Callahan would have done better to skip this and let readers form their own pictures.

It's a book for the lovers of this genre who are fascinated by survival on a day-to-day basis (like me), rather than those who want lots of guns, explosions, armies and/or zombies; it reminded me of the first 'Surviving The Evacuation' book by Frank Tayell, and provides great detail about how they eat, wash, keep safe from looters (and worse) outside; this was right up my street.  Every day, the family's situation gets a little more worrying, and I very much liked the way in which their awareness that this is the new reality increases all the time. 

The diary format has its limitations; sometimes a scene needed playing out instead of reporting, I felt, but on the whole I'd say the author has dealt with these limitations very well.  

I was going to give it 4* right up until the end....the surprise development and how it was set up for the next book was a great idea and unexpected, but it had one huge flaw.  Much of what I imagine will be one side of the story in Part 2 hinged round them finding a letter from a friend of Chris's called John Stevens, dated 6 days before the diary started, and offering Chris and his family a place in John's bunker type camp in the back of beyond.  All through the diary, Chris had been talking about where on earth the family could go if they left Chicago. He never once mentioned this offer; I didn't think I remembered it, and I checked back to the beginning afterwards, even did some word searches to make sure I hadn't missed it.  I hadn't.  So I reckon the author thought of this great new twist right at the end of the book, but didn't realise he needed to go back and redraft a little, to set it up.   So I've got to take a half star off for that, alas.  I find that this is what lets so many books of this type down: the lack of planning and redrafting to make them as good as they could be.  I liked this book.  It's good, I'm going to download the next one and I'd still recommend it, but it needs some more fine-tuning.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

LITERATURE by Guillermo Stitch @GuillermoStitch

3.5 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, but it was this review by fellow team member Olga that made me choose it. 

Genre: Futuristic, noir, dystopian, black humour.

This unusual novella takes place over the course of one day, and is set during a time when literature has been made illegal, and where secret, underground networks exchange books... Billy Stringer, the hero, is caught up in one of these. It's one of those 'life in the day of' scenarios, in which you find out more about Billy's situation by way of flashbacks, including his dying-a-death relationship with girlfriend Jane, her parents' disapproval of him, and an occasion when he got embarrassingly drunk while socialising with her colleagues.

In this strange world we're given a hint of how the lack of reading material has affected the literacy skills of the people. Billy and Jane communicate on their 'tabs' ~ everyone has one, in the same way that, increasingly, people in our world are attached to their smartphones as if they are an extra limb without which they cannot function.  The way in which Billy and Jane write to each other makes 'text speak' or the abbreviations used on social media look like great literature.  Words are spelled phonetically, using the fewest possible letters, as if they have never been taught basic English, despite being both educated and intelligent.

It's a curious book; the characters and atmosphere are painted cleverly and effectively.  I liked the writing style very much, with its dark humour and astute observations.  Occasionally there is a poignant reminder of the world of the past: 'There was a reception desk that Billy supposed had been used when the building was new, a good couple of hundred years ago.  Nowadays everyone would be scanned discreetly and visitors directed via their tabs and earpieces'.  

'We don't know exactly when Literature® takes place and we don't know exactly where'

I did like it, and I realise that part of the point of it is that we don't know 'when' or 'why', but I would have liked just a little more explanation.  I read parts of the first quarter of the book over a few times, thinking that I had missed something, and was a third of the way through before I realised that I didn't really know exactly what was going on.  Just a little more scene setting would have made it even better, I think, and would give it a broader appeal, especially to lovers of dystopian fiction.  The blurb likens it to the 'razor wit of Raymond Chandler' and the 'extraordinary vision of Philip K Dick'; I am put off by such comparisons as I think they are for the reader to decide upon, which is why I passed it by at first glance.  In this case, the story stands up well enough on its own without making such grandiose claims.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

WRITING A PAGE TURNER by Elizabeth Bailey and Mark Dawson

4 out of 5 stars

Free on Amazon UK

How I discovered this book: I saw this during an Amazon browse and downloaded it out of curiosity, because it was free. 

Genre: Writing advice.

I write a fair few advice blog posts for new writers, and like to find books like this that are worth recommending. This is good; it only takes half an hour to read and gives some no-nonsense tips on how to make your book more of a page-turner by means of cutting the waffle, not head-hopping, etc. It's basic, solid advice, much of which is about what not to do, as well as what to do. It's never a bad idea for old hands to read this sort of thing, too, as it reminds us never to get too self-indulgent; I read a couple of points that made me think, ah yes, I must keep reminding myself of that.

Please note - this book does not tell you how to write a novel, and assumes you have the basic talent, a great plot, and that your characters/story arc already worked out. What it will do is help you to make that story worth reading.