Saturday, 16 June 2018

UPRISING by Kate L Mary @kmary0622

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read Outliers, Book #1 of this series by one of my favourite writers, and was looking forward to the next episode.

Genres: Post Apocalyptic, Dystopian, Adventure, Fantasy.

This series is set in a world many years after the downfall of a previous society.  A group called the Sovereigns rule this new world, aided by the strength of the soldier tribe, the Fortis.  The Outliers are made up of four tribes, who work for them.  The main character in the series is Indra, a young woman from the Winta tribe.  In the previous book she fell foul of those in power and saw her husband die at their hands, and also developed feelings for a Fortis soldier, Asa.  Though women in the Winta trible are expected to be submissive and concentrate on things domestic, Indra finds a strength she didn't know she possessed.  When Book #1 ended, she was out in the forests, hunting both animals for her tribe to eat, and Fortis soldiers.

Uprising concentrates on Indra's growth, as circumstances conspire to decimate their tribe.  Taking survivors into hiding, she sees what must be done to right the injustices done to her people and the other Outlier tribes.

Kate Mary is just such a good writer.  Her characters spring off the page and she has a real knack of illustrating the passion between two people without saying very much at all; Asa in this book is, in my mind, another version of Axl in her Broken World zombie apocalypse books, who was very much in the Daryl Dixon mode; suits me!  The ending is great, and I assume there will be more...

There's no recap from the last book and I've got a really bad memory, so I downloaded Book #1 again (I've downloaded them both on Kindle Unlimited) to read the last 10% of it to remind me what was going on.  The books are not stand alone; you need to read them in order, as it's a continuing story.   I thought the pace was just right, the story imaginative, and I'd definitely recommend this series to anyone who likes this genre.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

SICK by Christa Wojciechowski @ChristaWojo

4 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: Novella, (very) dark psychological drama

This is a short novella that I read in just two hours, and possibly the most peculiar book I've ever read.  John Branch is an impoverished aristocrat who lives in squalor with his wife, a podiatric nurse called Susan; the book is written from Susan's first person point of view.  Throughout their marriage he has suffered one illness after another, and terrible accidents; many of his maladies baffle the doctors.  Suzie lives on frazzled nerves and chocolate bars, but they love each other, and exist in their own little world of their house and his illnesses.  Their relationship is odd in the extreme, with their baby talk, and the way she refers to him, and he acts, as if he is a child.  She is a plain woman who had little in her life before they met; he is everything to her.

At first I wasn't sure if I was going to finish it; I wondered if English was the author's first language as Susan talks about singing John his favourite 'lullaby' when he is ill, and describes him as having 'pretty lips'; there are several other odd word choices, and I couldn't work out if they were part of the peculiarity of the couple, or if they were just ill-chosen.  Also, a hyphen is used instead of an em dash throughout, which is confusing when the hyphen is used for two different purposes in the same sentence.  Thirdly, the book is graphic in its descriptions of blood, puss and worse; I can do gory violence, but not bodily functions/secretions.  But at the same time it's very well-written; it's dark, vivid and horribly depressing.  As it went on, I thought, yes, I do want to read it, but perhaps it'll be one of those '3*, good but not my cup of tea' books.

Then I got to appreciating it more and more, and I understood how clever it is.

It becomes clear that all is not what it seems in the dingy servants' house where they live, on the estate that once belonged to John's family, but Suzie is too tired, undernourished and concerned for John to investigate the irregularities.  When the truth about John's illnesses comes out, the whole story is turned on its head.  

So I ended up giving it 4* because I liked it ~ I would recommend it to anyone who is not squeamish and likes something a bit out of the ordinary.  And I think I might pick up the sequel at some point, too; I am most intrigued to see what happens next!

DAYS OF CHAOS by Jack Hunt

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read the 1st book in the series, Days of Panic, and liked it enough to download this, the second.  Discovered the first via Amazon browse.

Genre: Post apocalyptic EMP survival thriller.  Part II of series

It's a couple of weeks after an EMP strike on New York, and the four survivors from the first book are settled in Lake Placid, a town 300 miles away from NYC.  The tipping point has passed, and civilised society is on the slide.  People divide into groups: those who run about like headless chickens and believe that the army/government will save them, the savvy survivors who see the danger ahead, and the baddies, who are hoping to cash in on others' desperation.

As before, the story is great.  Elliot, the PTSD suffering ex-Marine stands out as the best character, and I very much liked the conflict between him and his old army friend Gary, now a police officer running the town, who doesn't see that he can't keep law and order and expect the townsfolk to pull together in the way that they might have in a lesser crisis.  Meanwhile, Damon's ex-friend Cole and his drug-dealing and violent crew feature large in this book ~ I liked that Cole is the intelligent baddie, who sees ways of putting himself in control of both his town, Keene, and next door Lake Placid, that his more thuggish mates don't understand.  It's pacy and eventful - all good....

....however, the lack of editing and proofreading still bothered me too much.  Run-on sentences and missing commas galore, lazy grammar, and the strange appearance of an philosophical/practically instructive omniscient narrator now and again, when the author wants to make some point about human nature or describe how a gun works.  These passages would have worked much better if they'd been part of Elliot's inner or spoken dialogue.  There are actually a couple of semicolons in this book, but I think whoever put them in must have thought 'hey, what about that little bitty thing with the dot and the comma underneath?  Don't I have to shove a couple of them somewhere?', closed their eyes and stuck them in randomly.  

Jack Hunt obviously knows his survival and gun stuff, though not how women talk to each other - Jack, please know this now: no woman will tell her friend that her husband has come onto her unless she wants to get one over on her.  Seriously.  The potentially interesting Jesse and Maggie continued to fade into minor characterhood, having become attracted to each other (allegedly); other than that, they seem to serve no function apart from being the third character needed to drive a car, or to take a bullet so that Damon can talk about how to deal with gunshot wound.  Talking of Damon, he has gained a long-term girlfriend in this book, who was never mentioned in the last...

....but, I still kind of liked it.  If the books had been given a bit more spit and polish, and a proofread by someone who knows how to punctuate, I'd definitely download the next one.  As it is, I probably won't, at least not for a while.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

DAYS OF PANIC by Jack Hunt

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Amazon browse.

Genre: Post apocalyptic EMP survival thriller 

Days of Panic charts the progress of four main characters during the first couple of days after an EMP strike on New York City, which kills off the power grid for the whole state.  Elliot is a homeless PTSD-stricken Iraq veteran, Damon an ex-con, Maggie has just escaped from an abusive boyfriend, and Jesse is a loner motorbike messenger still mourning his dead wife.

Another story runs alongside, that of Elliot's wife Rayna and their two kids, living in a small town upstate, with the luxury of Elliot's prepper shelter for when society collapses, as it begins to do almost immediately.

I liked how Hunt, in good disaster movie tradition, sets up his characters by illustrating their pre-disaster lives.  As those lives become entangled and they traverse the chaos to escape to Lake Placid and Rayna's house, though, I felt that Jesse and Maggie got somehow lost along the way.  Elliot and Damon were clear to me all the way through, totally 3D, but the other two became just names on a page.  I liked the Rayna story, that worked very well.

The suspense in this novel is terrific, and I enjoyed it all; I particularly liked how feasible it was, with Elliot (Hunt) knowing his stuff about both EMPs and bug out shelters; I found it completely convincing.  My only problem with it was one I keep finding with books of this genre, though this was better than others ~ it reads like it's been written quickly, checked over a few times, then bunged up on Amazon.  Jack Hunt is an excellent writer and I shall definitely download the next book, though only because I can do so on Kindle Unlimited; I may not if I had to pay for it.  There are lots and lots of run-on sentences (I don't think there is one semicolon in the whole book), and lazy grammar and missing punctuation. Then there are instances such as Elliot estimating that the four of them could walk the 285 miles to Lake Placid in four days.  Dude, that's over 70 miles per day.  Even experienced, fit hikers with proper footwear would consider half that distance pretty hard going, and Maggie had an injured leg, which makes me sure that the book has never seen either an editor or very thorough re-drafting.  Shame - if it had a couple of good re-writes and a proofreader/copy editor who knows his/her stuff, it would be terrific and the stuff of which 5* reviews are made.  Having said that, Jack Hunt publishes a new book every five minutes and sells tons of them, so I doubt he will care too much what I think!

I did like it, quite a lot in places, which makes it worthy of 4*, but in the interests of objective reviewing I feel I can only give it 3.5*, rounded up on Amazon and down on Goodreads.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

HIDEAWAY by Roger Hayden

First two books: 3 out of 5 stars
Third book: 2 out of 5 stars

On  Amazon UK
On  Amazon US
On Goodreads

How I discovered these books: Amazon browse.

Genre: EMP strike, post apocalyptic, survival

Okay.... this is a weird one.  The first book (Book 0) was free.  It has a fair few bad reviews on .com (as well as some good ones), but I adore this genre so thought I'd give it a try.  It's a short novella about an EMP strike on the US (electromagnetic pulse, taking down the power grid, also cars, phones, etc, are useless) by the North Koreans, with the story set in St Louis, Missouri.  It opens with a Negan style scenario, a few weeks after the disaster when everyone is surviving as best they can, with a stronger group attacking a weaker one and demanding all their stuff.  It was a bit amateur in style, with tense and grammar errors, daft dialogue, etc.  But I decided to read on and see if got any better.  It did!   The next chapter steps back to just before the strike.  Main character, novelist James, has to rescue his news reporter wife Marla from downtown now that the city is in chaos.  They meet up with prepper Larry, who says they can go out to his cabin in order to survive; Larry can see the writing on the wall.  Back at James's house, the National Guard arrive and start hauling everyone off to refugee camps. 

The free book ended with a humdinger of a cliffhanger, and by then I was enjoying it, despite its downsides.  The building panic and James's dilemmas about whether to help people or go find Marla were so well done; the author can certainly build suspense and tell a story, and the whole situation about James's neighbours believing that the National Guard were their saviours, vs Larry's assurance that martial law would be no picnic, was gripping.  The cliffhanger was so well-placed that I downloaded the next part straight away.

Confusion One: Part 2 is called Book 1.  Confusion Two:  It is also called Hideaway, but at least the author has remembered to put his name on the cover of this one.  

I expected to pick up from where the last one ended, but instead the first 20% is a re-hash of first part of the story, this time told from Marla's point of view.  As we'd already been down the shock-horror-what's-going-on road, I couldn't see the point of this, as it didn't add anything to the plot.  I don't mind a little revisiting via a different POV now and again, but there has to be a reason for it.  So I skimmed through that bit and started to enjoy it again once we got back on the road in the Larrymobile.  Up in the cabin now, then down in the nearby town, townie James ignores Larry's survivalist advice and brings a whole bunch of trouble on.  The genre clichés have been criticised in some of the bad reviews, but I was more bothered by James managing to hit and kill moving targets despite having hardly even knowing how a gun worked the week before.   More unnecessary adverbs and evidence of non-existent editing, such as this contradictory and repetitive beauty: 

He could tell in her expression that she noticed the 
unfamiliar plain blue shirt he was wearing, different from 
the University of Tennessee one he was wearing before he left.  
But it was a minor detail, and he didn't think she'd notice.

BUT I was still enjoying the suspense, the story itself and the good characterisation of James and Larry.  The cliffhanger was more of a stop half-way through a scene this time, but I really wanted to know what happened so I downloaded the next one: Part 3, called Book 2, also called Hideaway, again with no author name on the cover.  

Here we meet the 1980s version of Charles Manson, who Marla suddenly remembers being in the papers.  Unfortunately, this one doesn't appear to have any actual credo apart from saying that he wants world domination and to kill all outsiders.  This third part was a bit too daft; the basic idea of a cult leader was good, but it seemed like the writer had had a fair idea but couldn't be bothered to think the details through.  Then the goodies lock up/kill the baddies and it just sort of stops.  And that is a better ending than the book had.  Aside from this, the scenario from the prologue in the free book is never mentioned again or re-visited, although one of the baddies later encountered by James is in it, but I kept waiting for the tie-in that never came ~ it's like the author forgot he'd written it, which is one of the reasons I wonder if the book was even read through before publishing.

To sum up:

The Good:  This guy can write, there is no doubt about that, and I would rather read a book like this than something immaculately edited, proofread and structured by a writer with very little story-telling talent.  During the first two books I wanted to keep turning the pages, which is what so much of this writing thing is all about.

The Bad:  It's a mess, structurally, so much so that it's almost like an exercise in how not to structure a novel.  It needs taking back to the drawing board, and the help of a good content editor, followed by a copy (line) editor and/or a proofreader.  It reads like a first draft: great in places, dreadful in others.  But if it went through a few re-writes, was edited and proofread properly, it could be a terrific book.  Like, just one book.  The 'series' was no longer than an average sized novel; I don't understand the point of dividing it up, it was just irritating.  And a tip for the writer, if he ever reads this: rather than suddenly introducing new characters that existing ones suddenly remember they remember, it works better to at least mention them early on, or show a scene from their POV.  Something.

The Weird:  Love the pictures on the cover, though I don't understand why the middle one has a picture of boats and water, as the story takes place in a city and wooded mountains, and someone ought to tell Mr H about the name thing.  Okay, I guess I just did.

Possibly the most curious set of books I've come across since I've been buying Kindle, which is why I had to keep reading and also felt compelled to review it, but I really do think it has masses of potential to be very good indeed.

Friday, 1 June 2018

BRAND NEW FRIEND by Kate Vane @K8Vane

4 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.

The basic plot: Paolo is a BBC journalist, who gets a call from Mark, an old friend from university days, when they were fellow animal rights activists. Then a newspaper report exposes Mark as an undercover police officer, and his former 'handler' is murdered.  Paolo is wrenched away from his affluent life, with the house in Suffolk, successful wife and two children, back to his days at Leeds University, and the friends he knew at the time.  Who exposed Mark?  Who was really responsible for an on-campus fire back in the 1980s, in which a security officer died?  Paolo soon discovers that there is more going on than originally met his journalistic eye...

This book was a slow starter for me, but by about 20% I started to get more into it, and by half way through I was enjoying it a lot, and looking forward to getting back to it.  The story dots back and forth in equal measure between the murder case and Paolo's life back in what I assume to be around 1984; gradually, the two stories merge.  I found the murder/conspiracy plot and present day half of the book only moderately interesting, but loved the sections set in the old days ~ the desperate-to-be-hip-and-relevant characters and the atmosphere of the time were so real.  The wannabe cool guy Paolo, terminally bored Isabel, spiky, chip-on-her-shoulder Claire and determinedly zany 'Ratman' are so well drawn, as was their dismissal of football-and-a-pint boy Graham, the odd man out.  I loved how aspirational they all were, though over the years their aspirations changed ~ from the 'making a difference' cliché and being seen as authentic and academically inspired despite having been drunk/stoned/speeding/in bed with a stranger until 4 am the night before, to succeeding in the capitalist society they once claimed to despise.

What kept me reading was the astute observations, and the slow unfolding of the changing dynamic between the friends - I actually would have been happy with just this as a novel, with maybe just the security officer murder aspect; Ms Vane's understanding of her characters is good enough to carry a less sensational plot.  Only two aspects grated a tiny bit ~ in the 1980s Claire is meant to be a working class girl from Durham, but she talks like a middle class girl from the south; there is no trace of the North East in any of her dialogue.  Also, they all refer to 'uni' instead of 'university' ~ aside from the fact that it's ghastly, I am not sure people had started doing so in the early-mid 1980s.  I believe it originated from Aussie soap operas; the first time I heard it was around 1989.

To sum up, I'd give 3* to the 'main' story which, for me, had too many long conversations with people explaining to each other why things happened and how they found them out, but 4.5* with some 5* moments to the whole 1980s element ~ thus, I shall round up at 4*.   I didn't love it all but I liked it (some parts very much), and it's definitely worth a read.  Especially if you were a student in the 1980s, I should think.

Monday, 21 May 2018

THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES by Hyeonseo Lee and David John

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read a review of it on ~ thank you for introducing me to it!

Genre: Memoir, non-fiction, adventure, North Korea 

'There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens.  The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in their brutal system...blurring morals so that no one is blameless.  A terrorised Party cadre will terrorise his subordinates, and so on, down the chain; a friend will inform on a friend out of fear of punishment for not conforming.  A nicely brought-up boy will become a guard who kicks to death a girl caught trying to escape to China, because (her attempted escape has made her) worthless and hostile in the eyes of the state.'

Hyeonseo Lee—or Min-young as she was in North Korea—is a defector from the Kims' brutal regime.  She escaped 'by accident', shortly before she was eighteen; all she had wanted to do was take a look at China, over the river, before her coming of age meant that she would be punished as an adult for any misdemeanours.  But when the time came to go back circumstances had made it too dangerous, and so she began her life on the run.

 Looking back at Hyesan, where Hyeonseo/Min-young grew up, 
from across the river in Changbai, China, where she first escaped to.

I've been wanting to find out more about life inside North Korea for ages, and was glued to this book.  If ever you wonder why people put up with these regimes in which your only privacy is the thoughts inside your headand not even these, if you betray the 'wrong' emotion by a facial expressionthis book will make you understand.  Min-young knew no different.  In North Korea, life centres around proving loyalty to the Kims.  It is like a religious cult on a huge scale, total brainwashing.  There is no contact with the world outside the borders, and all citizens are taught, from a very young age, to believe in the absolute power of the Kims.  They are spoken of as gods, with the belief instilled that they are admired and respected the world over, and that North Korea is the greatest country to live in.  Even the history taught to schoolchildren is untrue, re-told to show the Kims as great warriors and saviours of the people.  The great famine of 1996 (yes, a northern hemisphere country in which thousands starved to death, just twenty years ago) was blamed on the evil Americans instigating trade sanctions.  While the people were dying, the Kims lived like princes.

'We knew a family who'd been deported because the father had rolled a cigarette using a square of cut newspaper without noticing that the Great Leader's face was printed on the other side.  His whole family was sent to the mountains for a backbreaking life of potato digging'

This picture of Kim Song II at the mass games was made by thousands of children 
holding up pieces of coloured card.  Hyeonso and her friends would have to hold them up for so long that they had no option but to urinate in their clothes.

Of course, people are far from happy.  Corruption and trading on the black market is rife, and the only way to live more than the most meagre life.  That such practices are commonplace is not surprising, in a country which openly manufactures and exports heroin and crystal meth to boost its economy.

Hyeonseo/Min-young came from a relatively well-to-do family so did not suffer as some, but she visited provinces where the famine had hit hard, and there is no detail spared.  Her life in North Korea takes up only the first quarter of the book, which disappointed me slightly, but there is plenty more to come ~ during the next ten years she overcomes many, many brushes with the law, usually via informants, each time with the very real danger of ending up in the terrifying North Korean prison system for the rest of her life.  She suffers, too, missing her family and never knowing who she can trust, but she is an incredibly bright and resourceful young woman; truth being stranger than fiction, if you saw her character on a TV thriller series or read about it in a novel you might think 'no, too far-fetched; all that couldn't happen to one person'.

Near the end, when she helps others defect, she shows how getting out is not the end of the story ~ sometimes, those who have escaped do not know what to do with their freedom.  They miss their families, and the more simple life inside the walls of Kim World.  

It's a fascinating book, as well as being extremely readable, and I recommend it most highly.

Monday, 7 May 2018

SKINHEAD by Richard Allen

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads 

How I discovered this book:  This book first came out in 1970, the first and most well-known of a series of cult novels by Richard Allen.  I went to a fairly rough school from 1970-1972*, where the (scary) skinhead girls of the 3rd and 4th years would lend it to we 12-year-old babies.  It got passed round the whole class, and I remember it used to fall open at Chapter 8, the rude bit.  When I spotted the new digital version during an Amazon browse, I had to buy it to see how it had stood the test of time, and if it was as bad as people said it was, even then.

Genre: violence, crime, social comment.

Briefly:  The story tells of a couple of weeks in the life of Joe Hawkins, the 16-year-old leader of a skinhead gang from Plaistow, East London.

Violence - tick
Sexual content - tick
Nudity - tick
Bad language - tick
Racism - tick
Sexual violence - tick

It's hard to give this a star rating as there are so many elements to take into consideration.  As a piece of pop culture history, it's a gem.  The characterisation is pretty good, and it certainly kept me turning the pages.   Now and again clever insights are succinctly delivered, and the atmosphere of the time - the post-1960s optimism, pre-decimalisation era, when the East End no longer ruled, is so well illustrated I almost felt nostalgic for a time and place about which I know little.  A soldier, Jack Piper, who falls foul of Hawkins' bovver boots, talks about the fate of his working class parents in the dreariest part of London in a way that is quite heartbreaking.  The attitudes of the older working classes, particularly the police, to the new liberalism of the 1970s is, I dare say, spot on.

...but then there's the exposition, the bad punctuation (the proofreader from the New English Library, its first publisher, must have thought that a semicolon is a random alternative for a comma, whenever you feel like it), the exclamation marks, the lazy grammar... and, in places, lack of research/realism.  'Richard Allen' (pen name) was nearly 50 when this was written, and it's clear he doesn't know what the effects of 'pot' are, or even that it wasn't called that by anyone other than newspaper reporters.  He appears to think that all hippies, or 'hairies' (haven't heard that word since 1972!) are unemployed and indulge in regular orgies.  Joe Hawkins and his band of thugs never use the 'f' word, and call people things like 'stupid idiots', though the 'c' word does appear once or twice.  

It's really quite a horrible book, depressing and nasty, from Joe himself (who, Allen makes clear, is not the victim of social deprivation or an abusive childhood, but was born a psychopath), to the way women are portrayed (old bags or total slags), to the way in which the older people worry about the lack of control over the new breed of thugs.  Yet I kept turning the pages.  Go figure, as they say.

Oh, and by the way, the Chapter 8 'rude bit' is no stronger than anything you might read in one of today's mainstream 'steamy' romances.  In an age when you see more explicit stuff in network TV dramas than would have been included in under-the-counter soft porn films in Joe Hawkins' day, it is quite tame.  And actually not badly written.

*I was 'lucky' enough to experience the first year of easing into the new comprehensive school system, which meant not being able to go to the Grammar School until I was 13.  I think this had an adverse effect on my whole attitude to education, and possibly my whole life, because I had to learn to be rebellious in order not to get picked on by the rougher girls.  On the other hand, it probably taught me an interesting snippet or two that came in handy later in life, when I started writing.