Thursday, 14 October 2021

CREATION by Bjorn Larssen @bjornlarssen #RBRT

(Subtitle: Why Odin Drinks Book #1)

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 I also bought the paperback, because I was fairly sure I'd like it!

In a Nutshell: In the beginning there was confusion...

I read Bjørn Larssen's debut novel, Storytellers, which made some references to Norse gods and featured a certain subtle humour in places.  I also read his second novel, Children, which is about the children of Norse gods and contains far more funny bits.  I've read many of his blog posts and follow him on Twitter; the conclusion I've come to is that Mr Larssen is a terrific comedic writer, first and foremost, so I'm delighted that he's actually written A FUNNY BOOK!

Creation is a novella, a slim paperback (beautifully presented), is hilarious, and made me laugh out loud on several occasions, which books rarely do.  It's about Odin and his brothers, Vili and Vé, creating the world.  Except they're not very good at it and don't really understand what they're doing.  They wonder how to get the food out of Audhumla the cow, why words like 'anvil' 'laptop' and 'algebra' keep popping into their heads, how the flying water happened and why the wolf bit off the peacock's head.  Odin discovers that, along with man and woman, he has created irony. 

I think it's the sort of book you find screamingly funny or you don't, depending on your sense of humour.  I echo the words of Bjørn's husband, when he finished reading it: 'When can I get more?'

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

LINE by Niall Bourke

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read a review of it on Mairéad Hearne's blog, HERE

In a Nutshell: Dystopian. Speculative Fiction.  From the blurb - Line pushes the boundaries of speculative, high concept fiction. Deeply moving, it also touches on many of the pressing issues of our turbulent world: migration and the refugee crisis, big data and the erosion of democracy, climate change, colonialism, economic exploitation, social conformity and religious fanaticism

At some unspecified time in the future, Willard lives on the Line - a constantly moving tented community that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction.  Line dwellers subsist on the bare essentials, their faith that what lies at the end is worthy waiting for, and the fear of consequences should they dare to leave; away from the Line there is nothing.  A failed attempt to escape means a fate worse than death, as is attempting to skip one's place.  It has existed for generations, and children know of the sacrifice made by their parents and their grandparents to afford them their current place.  Nobody knows why it began or where it goes, just that they are heading towards some better unknown.

I loved the first part, with a restless Willard questioning his life.  The writing was great, most absorbing; I was so impressed by the whole concept of the Line and looked forward to finding out how the people had been coerced into living according to its rules, believing in the myth of the end, and how the Line had developed its own code of law and become its own society.

Around half way through, we leave the Line and surrounding nothingness, and are presented with what feels like a different book, detailing the wider truths about the world.  Much of it appears in the form of a printed handbook, about the current economic situation, about technological progress and philosophy.  It's extremely dense and complex, and rather dull; you know when you read a text book because you need to learn about something, but the way in which it is written makes your brain shake its head and say, 'Nuh-uh, not storing all these words'?  That was how this was.  I kept trying to take it in but it didn't want to stay.  I felt as though the ideas had not been developed enough; the whole middle section about the new London seemed disjointed, and I just didn't buy it.

During the last one fifth of the book we come to the whys and hows of the Line: the psychology of how and why people queue and wait, of hope, faith, religion, generational beliefs passed down, of the vision behind the line and the whole truth about it—so up my street I welcomed it in with coffee and cake, and loved it all over again.  Fascinating.  The end was sad and bleak, but right for the story.  I like those sort of endings.

To sum up: a first class idea and I'm glad I read it, but I felt there needed to be more.  More background, more detail, more attention to 'readability', more character-based narrative and fewer pages out of the handbook.   And thanks again to Mairéad for introducing me to it :)

Friday, 8 October 2021

NEAR DEATH by Richard Wall @writinblues

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Twitter; I'd seen a few tweets about it from the author, then one day I took a look.

In a Nutshell: Murders most brutal, with a paranormal theme.

The story is set in the early 1960s in New York and rural South Carolina.  John Henry Beauregard, a Korean War veteran, is working as the chaplain in Sing Sing prison, when he is called to give last rites to Joseph Hickey, a vicious murderer whose crimes were so horrific that details are withheld from most.  Hickey taunts John, and promises that he'll see him again, even though he is about to be frazzled on Old Sparky.

As other similar murders begin to take place, John and his friend, NYPD cop Eugene, begin to explore possible theories that sound insane even to themselves.  They are both psychologically damaged and at times just trying to hang onto the threads of their lives.

I enjoyed this book all the way through.  Throughout the main story, mostly told by John in the first person, are short chapters that hint about why events are taking place, with the reader being left to piece it all together, gradually.  The pace and drip-feeding of information worked so well, and made the story a real page-turner.  Lots of unpredictable events; I do love a novel in which I can't guess what's going to happen.

The characters of John and Eugene were very likeable, as was Vinnie, the hard-nosed lawyer who flips the bird at convention and authority, and I loved the writing style, which was clear, simple and effective.  I only had one problem with it: 'black', as in the colour of a person's skin, was spelled with a capital B in most but not all cases.  I know this is favoured by the politically correct in this day and age, but it was not so at the time John was telling this story, and it looked out of place.  Similarly, John uses the phrase 'people of color', which was not introduced and popularised until at least a decade later.  I wouldn't usually nit-pick about stuff like this that wouldn't bother most people, but they really stood out to me.

Paranormal is not my usual genre of choice, but it totally worked in this story, seeming possible and believable, and I liked the author's take on what happens after death.  The book is clever, humorous in parts, touching, terribly sad and fairly brutal, with gory and shocking detail, so it's not a book for the faint of heart.  I'm very glad I stopped on that tweet, clicked the link to Amazon and downloaded it on Kindle Unlimited.  At some point I shall take a look at the rest of Mr Wall's work.  Nice one.

Monday, 4 October 2021

MISTRESS CONSTANCY by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: One of my favourite authors, and have been looking forward to this since I knew she was writing it.

In a Nutshell: Book 1 of The Armillary Sphere series, about Lady Jane Rochford

A terrific few days' reading!  Like Ms Lawrence, I have always felt sympathy for Jane, wife of George Boleyn—I think she had a raw deal and, though enjoying the privilege that came with noble birth, was dealt a marked card, i.e., a husband who would never consider her as he did his family or his own requirements.  Her whole life with him was like having a visitor's pass to a club she would never be allowed to join.

This first episode of The Armillary Sphere series takes us from Jane's childhood to the moment of Henry VIII's avowal to make Anne Boleyn his next queen.  Jane's view of court life is different yet again from those in Ms Lawrence's series about Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, but most interesting of all was the 'second sight' that has been given to her for the purpose of these novels—flashes of insight into a future that might be.  So clever, and so sad that she had to hide this gift for fear of being thought insane.  Jane's life seemed full of fear; the passages about her despair at George's lack of interest in her, and the way she felt empathy with Katherine's over the King's indifference, were heartbreaking; in those days, of course, women could not just walk away and find a better life.

Something I hadn't read about before that I found horribly fascinating—it's common knowledge that Katherine of Aragon wore a hair shirt, but I didn't know about the effects of such practice.  This, and the details of Katherine's fanatical religious devotion, made me wonder if she was possessed of certain psychiatric maladies that she passed on to her daughter, considering the progress of Mary's reign.  I realise that we can't judge the actions of those who lived over five hundred years ago by the standards of these days, and that they both suffered a great deal at the hands of the men who ruled their lives, but the behaviour is not dissimilar.

In this book, more than any other of Ms Lawrence's historical novels, Jane says much about how women were viewed as a subspecies completely under the control of men.  Unlike Anne and Empress Matilda, though, Jane had neither the mettle to fight against it nor the disposition to accept it, which added to her unhappiness.  I loved reading about her mixed emotions towards Anne, her accounts of their day-to-day lives—and, especially, the scenes set in Hever Castle and Penshurt Place, because I visited them two years ago, so could picture them so clearly!  There is one account of festivities held in the Baron's Hall at Penshurst, a place I found fairly mind-blowing, so that was a real treat. Also, when I read about Henry's bedroom being prepared at Hever—I have been in that room!

I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent book, and am so looking forward to reading about how Jane's relationship with her husband and his family progresses, and her part in the rise and fall of Anne.  Highly recommended!

Pictures from my trip to Hever and Penshurst HERE

Thursday, 30 September 2021

I Jonathan, A Charleston Tale of the Rebellion by George W B Scott #RBRT

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.

In a Nutshell: Historical drama about Charleston during and after the American Civil War.

Jonathan Vander is marooned in Charleston on his way back to his hometown of Boston, just as the Civil War is brewing.  Circumstances leave him with nothing but the shirt on his back, but he makes himself a life there.  He does not fight in the war; this is more of a social than a military history, showing how the war affected the people during and for many years after.  

The book is written as though a third hand true story; as an old man, Jonathan gives his account to his great-great nephew, who then gives it to the writer.  It is one of those novels that you're aware of being a heck of an achievement, all the way through; the research that has gone into it is evident without one ever feeling that one is reading research.  It's highly readable, and I loved the writing style; it was a delight to read an author who uses the language so well, and is acutely aware of the words and phrasing that would have been used in this period in history.

I particularly liked Jonathan's observations about the futility of war; there is a good section about this in the chapter Laurels of Glory.  And I loved this:

'Duty to an abstract government whose purpose was to use the heroic idealism of youth to forward the goals of the venal wealthy.  Is it not always so?'

The observations and accounts of the attitudes towards the slave trade and segregation were most interesting; I was surprised by some of them.  'Several fine hotels on Broad Street by St Michael's Church were owned by free blacks, serving only whites.  Some freemen were themselves slaveowners, buying them to use as labourers'.  As always with historical events, though, you cannot judge them by the outlook and culture of today's world.

I found the end of the book, about the aftermath, most emotive, not to mention the moment when the reader is told what the 'I' in the title means - it is not as I'd assumed.  Now and again I felt the story meandered a mite too much; it is a very long book and I felt it could have been edited down just a little. However, I could not give it anything less than five stars, and highly recommend it to anyone with a particular interest in the American Civil War, or historical fiction generally.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

DESIRE & DECEIT by Carol Hedges @caroljhedges #RBRT

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 I bought it anyway because I adore this whole series!

In a Nutshell: Victorian Murder Mystery

I've just finished the final outing in this series of stand-alone Victorian murder mysteries, and every one has been a winner.  Frankly I could carry on reading them ad infinitum, but I understand that a writer needs a change now and then!

We enter once more the world of Detectives Stride and Cully, in mid-nineteenth century London, and are introduced to a fine array of characters, many new faces and others whom we have met before.  Of the latter, I particularly like Miss Lucy Landseer, private detective (or 'detector' as the owner of a exclusive tobacconists calls Cully and his protegée Tom Williams), who is the star of one of the secondary storylines; the main one centres around a dead body without a name, the questions being who is he, who killed him, and why?

Ms Hedges' excellent plotting and characterisation shines out on every page, with her familiar themes rippling through the story: the massive chasm of difference between the haves and the have-nots, the pretentiousness of the aspirational lower middle class, the lot of women of all classes, corrupt MPs with their 'jobs for the boys' (no change there then) and complete disinterest in and disregard for the scum of humanity that floats beneath them (i.e., everyone in the country apart from their families and peers).  Then there are the music hall artistes, the conmen, and those who think they can get away with murder.

I very much liked the parliamentary clerk known only as 'the Replacement' (the MP for which he works never does bother to find out his name), and Euphemia Harbinger, an elderly lady facing the end of her life, once celebrated in society, who is more wise and experienced than her grasping, inheritance-chasing family could ever imagine.  I also loved Harriet Harbinger, a young girl being constantly overlooked in favour of her twin brother, who has her sights set on the high seas and adventure.

As ever, the threads of the story were satisfactorily wrapped up, but this time I finished it with a certain sadness, knowing there will not be any more.  This book is an absolute treat, as are all of the other eight.  If you haven't read any of them yet, I envy you!

Monday, 13 September 2021

IMMORTELLE by Catherine McCarthy @serialsemantic

out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read short stories by this author and liked them very much; thus, I bought!

In a Nutshell: Novella, dark mystery/ghost/mild thriller, set in rural Wales about a hundred years ago (I think).

The story is about Elinor, a ceramic artist interested in pagan and supernatural folklore/magic, whose daughter Rowena dies under mysterious circumstances.  In her grief, Elinor starts work on an immortelle (a ceramic, glass-domed wreath, particularly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras) as a memento as a memento for Rowena's grave.

Soon, many local people are asking her to make immortelles for their own dead loved ones, and, around a year later, one of the departed recipients appears to her.  Elinor has always had suspicions about Rowena's death, and believes that at some point her fears will be confirmed.

As with the other stories I've read by Catherine McCarthy, this one reeks of Welsh mysticism and secrets hidden in the hills, floating by on the wind or trickling in with the tide.  It is beautifully written, with not a drop in quality all the way through; it is this, and the atmosphere Ms McCarthy creates, that made this a page turner throughout, even in the middle section which is more concerned with emotion than events.  Such was the subtle build up of suspense that I felt, all the way through, as if there might be a truly shocking occurrence just round the corner.

I'd class it as a low-key supernatural mystery rather than horror, though it does have that dark, sinister quality to it that this author pulls off so well; it probably comes naturally, as she was clearly born to write this stuff!  The story totally works; it fits nicely into the novella length with an ending that is pleasing on several levels.