Sunday, 22 November 2020

A MEAL IN WINTER by Hubert Mingarelli

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book:  I read a review of it on BookerTalk book blog.

In a Nutshell: Novella about one day in the life of three German soldiers.  Written in the first person from one point of view. 

On a freezing day during a Polish winter, three German soldiers out 'hunting' find a young Jewish man hidden in a hole.  After his capture, hungry and tired, they make camp in a deserted hovel, where they break up furniture and doors in order to make a fire and cook the little food they have into a soup. Soon, a guest arrives: a Pole, who displays great animosity towards the Jew, and offers his bottle of alcohol for a share of their meal.

The novella, which I would say took me about two or three hours to read altogether, centres around that cold afternoon and evening in the hovel, while the five wait for the meal to cook and, finally, get to eat. The German soldiers are portrayed not as monsters, but simply as men trying to find a way to sleep at night, in view of what they must do.  Of the three, Bauer is the most ruthless and jaded; I had the impression that he has only become so because of the horrors of the holocaust.  Emmerich, on the other hand, is plagued by guilt and fear about the effects of their actions on the rest of his life.

The brutality of their existence, and those of the Pole and the Jew, underlined for me once again how we in the Western world in the present day know so little about true hardship.  It's beautifully written, highly atmospheric, a story that will stay with me for some time.


Thursday, 19 November 2020

APPARENT HORIZON by Patrick Morgan #RBRT

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK

On Amazon.com

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: A man with nothing to lose.  

This was a terrific story, a most original idea that would make a marvellous film or miniseries.  Three friends, Michael, Drew and Aaron, get together on the eve of Drew's wedding.  Aaron, who works on top secret projects at NASA, tells the other two about a gamma ray burst that will hit the southern hemisphere the next day. He warns that it will quickly destroy the food chain, cause massive radiation and thus end human life on earth, sooner rather than later.  Basically, the world is about to end. 

During Drew's wedding the sky does indeed light up at exactly the time Aaron predicted, but the news media dismisses it as a harmless event, as he warned would happen. 

The story is written in the third person POV of Michael, and details his reactions to this news, and the effect it has on him.  Having always been an introverted sort of guy who lived a 'safe' life, he wonders if, now that there is so little time left, he can let loose a part of himself that he is not even sure exists. 

The characters are all clearly defined, and the dialogue is great—you know it's good when you don't feel as though you're 'reading dialogue', as I didn't, in this.  The plot itself is extremely well thought out, with plenty of surprises, though a few warning bells did ring for me early on.  On the whole I enjoyed reading it, though I found it somewhat lacking in suspense; there was too much 'Michael did this, then Michael did that'.  I thought some of the detail could have been edited out; a loss of around twenty-per cent could have made it sharper, fast-paced, more of a page-turner.  It just needed a bit more pizazz, to do justice to the excellent plot. I also expected a final twist that never came; okay, I'd actually decided what it would be, but this is Patrick Morgan's book, not mine!

This is a commendable first novel, and I'm sure that the author will develop his style as he continues to write.  Nice one.


Thursday, 12 November 2020

THE BOY AND THE LAKE by Adam Pelzman #RBRT

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK

On Amazon.com

On Goodreads and BookBub



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

In A Nutshell: Literary coming-of-age novel set in 1960s New Jersey, with a low-key mystery.

From the blurb, I thought this book would be dark and plot-driven; it mentions protagonist Ben's suspicions about a body found floating in the lake, thus: As Ben’s suspicions mount, he’s forced to confront the terrifying possibility that his close-knit community is not what it seems to be—that, beneath a façade of prosperity and contentment, darker forces may be at work. I expected all sorts of sinister revelations, but the Ben's questions surrounding the death of Helen Lowenthal form the background rather than the main story—though when his answer arrives, it is shocking indeed.  I love a good twist within a twist that I didn't even half-guess, and this certainly ticked that box.

Essentially, this is a coming-of-age novel.  Although I think it could have done with a little more plot, the writing itself is spectacularly good, of much literary merit, making it a joy to read.  The subtleties of the characters, traditions and social protocols of the Jewish community in the 1960s were acutely observed, as were the marital problems of Ben's parents, his mother's neuroses, and his own burgeoning drink problem.  Later, the lake by which the community lives is contaminated, which I took to be allegorical of not only the underlying problems within the society that was Red Meadow, but the 1960s themselves—the corruption and unrest beneath the image of hope, prosperity, revolution and the Summer of Love.  Or perhaps I'm reading too much into it.

It's one of those books that I didn't absolutely love because of personal preference about genre, but I can appreciate is first class of its type.  Should complex family intrigue, stunningly good writing, coming-of-age dramas and the strange new world of the 1960s be totally your thing, I would recommend that you buy and start reading this immediately.  And the ending is perfect.




Saturday, 7 November 2020

CHILDREN by Bjørn Larssen @bjørnlarssen

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK

On Amazon.com

On Goodreads and BookBub


 
How I discovered this book: I read the author's Storytellers and loved it, so looked forward to this.

In A Nutshell: A re-telling of Norse myths

I'm not the ideal reader for this book, as all I know about Norse mythology is (very) basic information about Odin, Thor, Freya and Loki, what Valhalla and Ragnarok are, and that's about it.  Also, I am not a fan of fantasy, on the whole; magic and hallucinatory goings on - nah, you can keep it.  However, I was hugely impressed by Storytellers and had read some excerpts of this before it was published, which I liked a lot, so wanted to take a look at this.

The main characters, their stories told alternately and in the first person, are Magni, son of Thor, and sorceress Maya, who has had a somewhat difficult upbringing, not least of all under the watchful eye of the goddess Freya, one heck of a piece of work, to say the least.  I liked Maya; she was amusing and spunky.  I loved Magni; yes, even when he was taking part in raids on farms, and killing people.  

Children is atmospheric, clever, brutal, emotional, extremely well-written, intelligent, imaginative, and funny—and the dialogue is spectacularly good, some of the best I've read.  Now and again, the dialogue and Magni's inner thoughts made me laugh out loud, which rarely happens when I read.  The sexual activity in the book does not hold back, but get this: it didn't make me cringe.  And that comes from someone who almost always cringes at sex scenes.  Magni's feelings for Herjólf were so real, so well-portrayed; anyone who has ever been in love (or infatuated with) someone who remains elusive will feel Magni's pain throughout.

My favourite part was when Magni was first involved with the outlaws (I loved Ludo, too!), and I also liked Maya's encounter with Harbard, the idea of Idunn's fruit, Magni's conversations with his father, and the information about what each of the 'worlds' is all about, which interested me enough to look up more about Norse mythology.

Subject-wise, it wasn't absolutely my cup of tea, and I did get a bit confused with all the Norse names sometimes ('hang on, was that a person or a place?'), but it's definitely a novel of which Bjørn Larssen should be very proud indeed, and if the magical and mythological floats your boat, I would recommend that you buy it without delay.


 

 

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

THE WAITING ROOMS by Eve Smith @evecsmith

 4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads and BookBub


 

How I discovered this book: Amazon Browse

In a Nutshell: dystopian alternative present, post-'Crisis', in which everyone lives in fear of viruses.  Yes, I'm aware of the irony in that sentence.

I gathered that this book is set not in the future but in an alternative though chillingly relevant fictional present; there are some suggestions of the years in which events took place, though not many.  At some point which I took to be the recent past, the 'Crisis' has occurred: over 200 million deaths and counting, as spiralling drug resistance means that ordinary infections can kill, and the availability of antibiotics that actually work is severely limited.  Seventy years old is the cut-off point for being allowed anything but over-the-counter medication.  If ill, men and women wait for a painful death, or can choose to end their own lives.

The narrative zig-zags between present and past, a structure I always like, as the meshing of the two timelines is gradually revealed.  Kate, a nurse in the restriction and doom-filled present, has a husband and daughter, but knows she was adopted.  The other main present day POV is that of Lily, a woman in a private care home facing her seventieth birthday.  The chapters in the past centre around Mary, a biologist in South Africa, who meets the married Piet Bekker, and begins a love affair.  It is clear almost from the start that Mary later becomes 'Lily' (ie, this is not a spoiler); the reasons why are revealed slowly, throughout the book.  The plot centres round the Crisis itself, the part Mary and Bekker played in the TB pandemic, and family secrets.

I enjoyed reading this unusual story, which brings to mind many frightening real life predictions.  The contrast between Lily and Kate's world in the present and Mary and Bekker's carefree life at the end of the last century is heartrending, and makes me glad I am old enough to remember the 1960s-90s.  A most memorable part for me was Mary's obsessive love for Bekker; her every emotion and action were so real.  Bekker was horribly arrogant, and I felt so sad for her, especially as time went on; the 'other woman' is so often seen as a person whose feelings are of no importance.  In order to avoid facing up to choices made by the husband and father, the family is inclined to place all blame on the girlfriend.

As for Africa, the sense of place was so vivid; it made me feel nostalgic for somewhere I have not been.

There were a couple of aspects about which I was not so sure; I couldn't work out why Lily, at just sixty-nine, seemed more like a woman in her nineties.  She had crippling arthritis, but the other descriptions of her (papery skin, wispy white hair, etc) seemed unlikely.  Several of my friends are in their late sixties, and look much the same as I do (I'm 61); my mother didn't seem that decrepit even in her late eighties, and she had Alzheimer's.  It's possible that I missed something; there was a lot of information to take in (if I did, please tell me!).  Also,  I wished there had been a little more explanation of the Crisis itself, exactly how it unfolded, what actually happened, rather than just snapshots; the accounts were a little haphazard, and I felt it was here that the zig-zagging between time periods came unstuck.  A bit of chronology might have helped.

On the whole, though, it's one of those 'not 5* but better than 4*' books, and one I definitely recommend.



Thursday, 22 October 2020

THE 5TH WAVE by Rick Yancey

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK

On Amazon.com

On Goodreads

On BookBub 



How I discovered this book: Amazon Browse

In A Nutshell: Post Apocalyptic thriller, with EMP blackouts, tsunamis, pestilence and aliens (yep, it's got the lot!). It is also YA.

I didn't realise when I bought this book that it's YA.  I've recently read other post-apocalyptic books in which the main characters were adolescent, that didn't feel YA at all.  It was only later that I looked at its categories on Amazon, and discovered the intended audience.

That having been said, at first I loved it.  Starts with Cassie, who is 16, in the later stages (the 4th wave) of the takeover of Earth by aliens.  Back to when they first appear - a ship, hovering near us in space for 10 days, while the entire country is in uproar about what it might mean.

The 1st wave is an EMP blackout that wipes out the electrical grid.  The 2nd is a spate of tsunamis around all coastal areas, forcing survivors into the centre of all countries.  3rd, a plague that wipes out 97% of humanity.  The 4th is discovered only gradually - apparent humans who are 'infested' with something that alters their brains to make them think like the aliens.

First we see what happens to Cassie, from the 1st-4th waves.  Next, a chapter from the POV of a teenage boy, who actually survives the plague.  Thirdly, one from the POV of one of the soldiers whose was impregnanted with whatever it is that the aliens put there - this happened 4 years before.  This part, in particular, I found most absorbing.

Then we go forward a little and find Cassie trapped in the snow, almost dead.  This is where the book fell down for me.  Her saviour just happens to be an amazingly hot-looking guy of around 18, who is living in a cabin alone.  Somehow, he has all the equipment and know-how to save her from certain death.  Despite them having lost everything, being in horrendous danger and, no doubt, deep shock, the two engage in flirtatious teen banter, and it becomes more like the sort of romance I would have abandoned even when I was at the younger end of the book's target market.  So I stopped reading it, which was shame, because the rest of it was SO good.  I might go back to it, and just skip-read the romance bits.  I'm not sure. 

I wouldn't normally review a book I didn't finish, but I am doing so because a) I had already set up this page with the links, b) the rest of it was extremely good, and c) it might help other YA writers to realise that 'teenage' doesn't mean 'unaware that developments are ludicrous'.  On the other hand, it's got literally thousands of great reviews, so maybe it's just me.  On the other other hand, some of the lower star ones also complain about the emphasis on the teen crush, rather than the excellent plot.  So maybe it's not.

 

 

Monday, 19 October 2020

SENTINEL by Carl Rackman @CarlRackman #RBRT

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


 
How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, but I'd bought it anyway, as I've very much liked other books by this author.

In A Nutshell: Government conspiracy/sci-fi thriller

This is the sequel to Rackman's Voyager, which I haven't read, but it totally works as a stand-alone; there is enough information about what happened before, without long, tedious explanations.  Could actually be presented as a masterclass in how to do this!

Former pilot Matt Ramprakash is now an aviation expert for M15, and, along with many from other government agencies, etc, awaits assitance from anti-terrorism body Sentinel in taking action on a hijacked plane - but who are the hijackers?  The discovery that his old enemy, the Triumvirate, are involved, leads him to Antarctica, along with Sentinel, his wife - and Mirage, a 'supersoldier' who has been genetically engineered - or has she?

As I was reading this, it occurred to me that Carl Rackman has invented his own genre - seemingly earthbound thrillers that end up being a bit paranormal, without it seeming weird.  Works very well!  The amount of research that has gone into this book is evident; it's highly professional, extremely well-written, and should appeal to anyone who loves an intricate government thriller.  With some alien stuff thrown in.  I read at the end that a third book is planned - I would love to see some of it from the point of view of the Visitors.  The ending was one of the best I have seen for this type of book—the sort that makes you want to open the next instalment immediately.

I felt it could have been edited down a little in places, with less factual detail and fewer conversational exchanges, to tighten up the pace, but that could be just personal preference; it's a smart, intelligent novel of which the author should be most proud.  And I know it's a cliché, but it really would make a fabulous TV series!