Saturday, 21 September 2019

INTRIGUE & INFAMY by Carol Hedges @caroljhedges

5 GOLD 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 would have bought it anyway because I adore this series!

In a Nutshell:  Mid-Victorian murder mystery, set in London.  Book 7 of a series of stand-alones.

Loved it, loved it.  When I got to 80% I found myself slowing down because I didn't want to read it too quickly.  In this 7th book of the series, racism rears its ugly head, showing that it is far from being just a 20th and 21st century problem.  Stride and Cully must deal with a series of arson attacks on businesses, and the brutal murder of an old Italian man.

Elsewhere, socialite Juliana Silverton is thoroughly enjoying the attention received since her engagement to hedonistic rich boy Henry Haddon, her delight marred only by a secret from the past ... and the appearance of Henry's younger half-brother's new tutor.

This book is as expertly structured as the rest of the series, and includes similarly colourful characters and the ever-present chasm between rich and poor, so much a theme in all the books - and in certain areas of life nothing has changed; young aristocrats with powerful connections are able to get away with the most heinous of crimes, just as they always have been and are now.  

Although illustrating society's problems in the most deft way, Ms Hedges does not fall into the cliché of making all the privileged characters the 'bad guys'; I was pleased to see a happy outcome for one, in particular.  I guessed the perpetrators of the crimes quite early on, but this didn't matter a jot; the joy of reading these books is the writing itself, the vivid pictures of 1860s London, and the slow unfolding of sub-plots.

I can't help but think of what star rating I will give a book while I am reading it, and this was a solid 5* all the way through, but what earned it my extra 'gold' star was the end twist that I never saw coming.  It was beautifully executed, and made me smile as I realised how other aspects were explained by it.  

If you haven't read any of these books, I recommend you start now - and I hope this is not the end of the series....

Monday, 16 September 2019


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.

In a Nutshell: SciFi, dystopian techno-thriller involving AI and social media

What I liked:
  • The author has talent; this a most original novel that makes some interesting points in an intelligent and well-informed fashion.  Basically, he can write good sentences, has a fine handle on suspense, and uses words creatively.
  • It is clear that he really knows his subject: Silicon Valley, the dangers of AI and dependence on social media; how it is now so ingrained into our culture.  The Echo Chamber shows a good understanding of the future that is just around the corner, some of it already happening; the manipulation of our thoughts and prejudices by the media, the lack of security concerning the data we give out so freely, and its use by AI to re-order the population.  This is all stuff I love to read about, and some of which I have written about myself, so certain aspects had me engrossed.
  • It is inventive; I was impressed by the world put together within the pages, and the insight.
  • There are some great twists.
  • It's well professionally put together, and decently proofread.
  • The author has something to say.  This, I think, makes a novel more than just a story.

What I was not so sure about
  • It's very technical in parts; as I've said, I have an interest in the subject matter, but some of it I found rather heavy-going.  I think that if you don't have a quite good understanding of new technology, much of it might go over your head.
  • The structure: it goes back and forth between 'Before' (the collapse of the US) and 'After', with other 'Outside Time' sections.  I'm usually a fan of going back and forth between different periods, but in this case I think a linear structure would have worked so much better.  I kept enjoying the 'Before' parts, then being dragged out of it to read about different characters and situations, 'After'.  This hampered the flow, and made it definitely not an 'easy read'.*  I wondered, at times, if it was experimental for the sake of being experimental.
  • The dramatic event and its fallout, when it happens, is dealt with so quickly - instead of seeing it experienced from character point of view, we are just told about it, in a brief fashion, by a narrator.  
  • Most of all - there is little or no characterisation.  I felt as though the author had thought up a brilliant plot, but added the characters as an afterthought.  Mostly, they're just seem like names on the page, as vehicles for what he wanted to write about.  Only one is at all three-dimensional (Orion). 

This is a debut novel, and, as I said, I can see that Mr Evans has talent and a great deal to say, but I think he needs to take some time to learn about writing as a reader, and understanding that characters are central to any story - because readers react to what happens in a fictional world because of how it affects the people they're reading about, not because of the events themselves.  It does, however, have a few stunning reviews, so if you're madly into tech rather than people, you might love this book.

*When I was writing my novel Tipping Point, about certain powers-that-be using data given freely on social media to determine who would survive a virus, I originally used the alternating between before and after structure, until, during the second draft, I realised how frustrating it was to read; I'd be enjoying the build up of suspense as I was redrafting, then be taken out of it to read about a scenario months later.  With so many styles being commonly used these days - multiple POVs, both 1st and 3rd person narration, time-slips, etc, it can be easy to complicate for no particular reason; sometimes, the simple format of just telling a story from start to finish is the most readable.  Not always, but sometimes.

Friday, 13 September 2019

THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads
On BookBub

How I discovered this book:  I didn't so much discover it as awaited it with baited breath after reading The Handmaid's Tale.

In a Nutshell: A dystopian Christian fundamentalist America - what happened next.

Fans of the TV series should not expect the continuing story of June, for this long-awaited sequel is a different version of the story, in which June features only in occasional references.  This is the written/spoken testament of three people: Aunt Lydia, Hannah/'Agnes' (the daughter of June/Offred), and one other person whose name I won't reveal because it would be a major spoiler.

The book is written in alternating chapters between the three, dotting from one to another with little indication of who is speaking, at first, or the exact timescale, though you get used to this.  All three stories held my attention absolutely, all the way through - and I loved the inclusion of a group that doesn't feature in the TV series.  The Pearl Girls are missionaries to other countries to recruit for Gilead, and are essential to Margaret Atwood's new plot.

Any negatives?  Only very slightly - the path of Hannah/Agnes means that she knows no world other than Gilead, of course, and although she is something of a rebel in her head, she is bound to have their belief system ingrained within.  At the beginning there was little difference between her 'voice' and that of the third POV, but she becomes more devout as she grows up and follows a route other than the one her 'parents' chose for her.  The story speeds up in the last third, and the change in her seemed to come too suddenly.  I was unsure about one aspect of the continuity, too, as the three POV stories converge. 

Despite any slight misgivings, this book was even more compelling than I had hoped, faster moving and with more action and events than The Handmaid's Tale, and gives more indication of what really goes on in Gilead, and how fragile the whole structure really is.  Also featured is a backstory for Aunt Lydia that is different from the one on the TV, and just as interesting.  Highly recommended - if you loved the prequel and are an addict of the TV series, you'll adore this.


Monday, 2 September 2019

BY THE FEET OF MEN by Grant Price @MekongLights

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.

In a Nutshell: Dystopian, post climate change

I was really impressed by this book, set during an unspecified time in the future when all that has been predicted about our destruction of the planet's ecosystem has come to pass.  Across Europe, meagre supplies of fresh water, medical supplies and other essential cargoes are delivered between settlements by 'Runners' - the drivers of huge trucks.  The stars of this book are two of these Runners, Ghazi and Cassady - who are called on to make a delivery to deep in the Italian desert, where scientists are working on a way of reversing the 'change'.

'Standing in their way are starving nomads, crumbling cities, hostile weather and a rogue state hell-bent on the convoy's destruction'

I read the paperback version of this book, unusual for me as I prefer to read on Kindle, but I'd just like to say how well-presented it is, and I am pleased that I now own it.  

As for the story itself, the world-building is terrific, totally believable, inventive and clearly well-researched, with details building up gradually to present a full picture of this fantasy world that may or may not be a taste of what lies ahead for humanity.  The atmosphere is just as it should be for a story about a dying planet; it's raw, dark, sinister, and there is also a certain strength, cameraderie and resignation of their circumstances between the characters that keeps you rooting for them.  Aside from anything else, they know only the world they now inhabit; they refer to the actions of the ancestors who destroyed the world within which they now have to scratch an existence.

This is only this author's second published novel, and he clearly has a lot of talent.  Definite recommendation for anyone who is interested in this genre, or loves reading about resolute men and women overcoming adverse circumstances in a hostile landscape.


Monday, 26 August 2019

THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read one of Margaret Atwood's dystopian books before, Oryx and Crake, and liked it, though, like thousands of others, I was inspired to read this after watching the TV series.

In a Nutshell: Dystopian, set in an imaginary former America, in the 1980s

If you're one of the five people in the world who haven't seen the TV series,
much of America has become 'Gilead', ruled by Christian fundamentalists and cut off from the rest of the world; this is the story of one of the 'handmaids', rare fertile girls forced to bear children for high profile couples after sterility has become commonplace.

The story is told in the first person by 'Offred', though in the book we never have her real name confirmed, or that of her child.  It is slow in pace, especially at first, but this does, of course, reflect the pace of her life.  I did wonder, during the first few chapters, if anyone reading the story without having seen the series might take a while to appreciate it or even understand what is going on, as the world in which 'Offred' now lives is revealed to the reader only gradually.  I adored this book, all the way through, and couldn't read it fast enough, though I did feel frustrated by the lack of explanation - but when it comes, half way through, it is all the more shocking to find out how the 'normal' world became Gilead.

Although written in 1984, the story is chillingly prescient; Offred talks of the false flag* operations, designed to create fear within the people, so that they will not complain when their privacy and liberty is taken away ... then there is the lack of paper money, with transactions made only via 'Compubank'; another withdrawal of privacy and removal of a person's ability to stay anonymous.

Even though the people are kept relatively safe, they are fed, and have comfort and adequate medical attention, it is the the removal of liberty and the ability to communicate, and the ever-present, underlying threat should one not comply with all rules, that makes this the worse sort of horror story.

Obviously the TV show has ratings to think about, and so the story develops differently; viewers will want some happiness and resolution for June/Offred, some reconciliation, and a 'personal journey' for her, in which she grows, positively - but this was written in a time before heroines were required to be kick-ass.  The end is left open for almost all the characters... but after it finishes there is a great addition to the book that rounds it off in a different way: a transcript of a lecture given in the year 2195, talking about all that is known about the Gileadean era, much of it from Offred's account.  

Good news for those who, like me, can't get enough of either the book or the telly version - the long-awaited follow-up, The Testaments is out on September 10th.  

*...countries organize attacks on themselves and make the attacks appear to be by enemy nations or terrorists, thus giving the nation that was supposedly attacked a pretext for domestic repression and military aggression.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

ENTERTAINING MR PEPYS by Deborah Swift @swiftstory

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Deborah Swift is one of my favourite authors, and she very kindly offered me a review copy, but I've bought it on pre-order anyway!

In a Nutshell: 17th century historical fiction, set in London.

What an excellent trilogy this is!  Three books set in the Restoration era London of Samuel Pepys, with him as a secondary character. I think #2 is still my favourite (actually one of my favourite books of the past ten years), but I loved this one too.

This is the story of Mary Elizabeth 'Bird' Knepp, a young woman stuck in a ghastly prison of a marriage, until one day she goes to the theatre, and knows straight away that this is where she is meant to be.  But this is no drudgery-to-diamonds historical romance, despite her flirtations with Pepys; it's 17th century London at its most filthy, squalid and hungry.  Each time I read one of Ms Swift's books set in London during this time, I think 'I really must read Pepys's diary - I really AM going to, this time!

The book is not just about Bird, but also Livvy, her Dutch maid, living in England at a time when being Dutch is almost as bad as being Catholic.  Then there is Stefan, a young theatre player who realises something about himself when he is no longer allowed to play female parts - and Christopher Knepp, Bird's taciturn husband.  There are some other wonderful secondary characters, too, such as Knepp's cantankerous old mother, and Bird's horribly superficial father - and 17th century theatre itself; such a vivid, fascinating picture is painted.

The climax of covers the last twenty per cent, with the Great Fire of London - I was utterly gripped all the way through; it brought the horror of those days to life in the way that no other account I've read ever has.

The books intertwine but are complete stand-alones, so you can read them in any order.  They're SO worth reading; I read this in three days because I didn't want to put it down.  Do give this series ago - you'll feel as if you're in Pepys's London with the turn of every page.  Honestly.

Monday, 19 August 2019

LIPSTICK by Peter Davey @PedroYevad

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Twitter

In a Nutshell: Infidelity and mystery in glorious French locations

This is a book to download for a beach read, for anyone who hasn't gone on holiday yet!

Antoine Cassernet has it all; a prestigious banking career, good looks, a beautiful wife, three children, homes in Paris and the Normandy countryside, and a string of lovers.  Then he becomes entangled with unstable film producer Madeleine de la Cruz, and his perfect life is thrown into disarray. 

I loved the settings of this book, and am sure that the author must be familiar with several of them, as the exotic French feel of the story seemed so real, not one borne of research.  A novel based around multiple marital infidelities, there is a slightly tongue-in-cheek essence to to the whole story that I enjoyed.  As far as the mystery is concerned, I had suspicions about the outcome early on, having read a couple of books years ago along similar lines, but then my thoughts were led down several different alleys and I changed my mind - many times.  Suffice to say that the characters are keeping many secrets, and they come out gradually, one after another, to reveal complicated layers of motivation.

I will tempt you further by saying that the cover doesn't do the book justice; the author's skillful pen conjures up such an appealing picture of Parisian jet set glamour and French country houses in the summer, and I would love to see some of that reflected on the cover.  It's an easy, fun read - recommended!