Friday, 22 March 2019

THE WIRE RECORDER by Thomas A Levitt #RBRT

4 out of 5 stars

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

In a Nutshell: character drama spanning several decades, dealing with sociopolitical issues of mid-twentieth century America.


I was attracted to this book because of the great title, the great cover, and the blurb that spoke of the 1951 campaign to root out communists in the US film industry, something that interests me greatly.  Mr Levitt writes well, and the book flowed along nicely.  I did like much of it, hence the 4 stars, although it was not the book I expected.

The anti-communist witch-hunt is dealt with in a brief fashion in the first ten per cent, after which the novel is about the life of Sophie Hearn, the daughter of Larry, who suffered under the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) campaign.  Running alongside Sophie's story is that of Steve, whose parents were also involved; I found his early development one of the most compelling parts of the book, especially as it took place in a time when developmental disorders went unrecognised.

Mr Levitt creates the atmosphere of 1960s California so well, I would imagine from personal experience, and many of the incidental characters come alive immediately, particularly in their dialogue.

The reason I didn't enjoy the book quite as much as I had hoped is that there was not much actual plot; it is more of a biographical account of Sophie's life, with chapters dedicated to the social issues of the time.  Throughout, I kept waiting for some real conflict, or suspense; opportunities for drama were missed, with any problems (one character's excessive use of marijuana, and, later, the logistics of a mixed race marriage) being resolved quickly and easily, within a page or two, almost as if the author had a checklist of issues to be mentioned.

I enjoyed reading Steve and Sophie's experience at their student parties (and the ridiculous dialogue of the hippie idealists was extremely well done), but few of the scenarios tied together, events happening in isolation.  I wonder if there was perhaps too much material for one book; the author has dealt with not only the HUAC campaign, but also the newly permissive 1960s, sexism, drugs, the women's lib movement, living in a commune, new teaching methods, racism, the difficulties of mixed race marriages, employment problems—all this is crammed into one medium-length novel, whereas any one of those subjects would make a great basis for a story all on its own.  This is a debut novel, and I know it can be a temptation to play all your cards straight away!

The bulk of the book is about Sophie running an experimental school, and her subsequent difficulties in finding a post in a 'public' school.  Sadly, I never got a sense of who Sophie was, though Steve was a rounded, three-dimensional character.

What kept me turning the pages was the writing style, which is extremely readable, the entertaining snapshots of particular aspects of the era, the fact that the author clearly knew his subject matter so well, and the excellent dialogue in the portraits of incidental characters.  In the last fifteen per cent, too, there is more of a coming together of Sophie and Steve's lives, a little more suspense, and an explanation of why and how they were affected by what happened to their parents at the beginning of the book.

To sum up: as a fictional account of the sociological history of the era, this is a most fascinating book; for those who are looking for a plot-driven novel about the HUAC campaign and its affects, though, not so much.



Thursday, 14 March 2019

HERE AFTER by Sean Costello

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: Amazon browse

In a Nutshell: Man whose son has just died goes on a mission to find the son of a friend who has been abducted.  Paranormal element.

I was attracted to this book because I'm a sucker for a cover with a road going into the distance, and I made the decision to buy because the reviews are so good.  I didn't realise until later that I'd read an earlier book by this author, Squall, that I thought only so-so; this book, though, is in a different class.

The early part, when main character Peter is dragging himself through his days after the death of his son, is so well done and believable.  I'm not usually much of a one for death-in-family dramas, but this is very readable.  At a group for parents who have lost children, he meets Roger, whose son was abducted.  Roger is a mess; aggressive, drinking too much.  Peter begins to see a connection with Roger's son and another boy abducted previously.

After the great start I felt my enthusiasm for this book ebb and flow; sometimes I was really enjoying it, other times I thought it needed a bit of editing down, as there is a fair bit of detail that I found too long-winded.  Then I'd start to enjoy it again, particularly in some terrific bits of dialogue with some people Peter meets on his search; small town types, and a great section in which some the policemen on watch outside another abducted child's house are killed.  You know when you read a few pages and find yourself sitting back, thinking, wow, that was good?

One thing I did like was that the paranormal element (only minor) is not over the top; it was just kind of touching.  And he never tried to explain it, which absolutely worked for me.

The last third of the book is the best, really gripping, and the plot unfolds in a way I would never have guessed; it would make a great TV series.  I definitely recommend!




Friday, 8 March 2019

THE CLEANSING by Anton Eine @AntonEine

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
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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 short story 

I liked this story - it's clever and well written.  Unusual, too - it consists only of dialogue, with no dialogue tags, between two beings (aliens) in a space ship, many miles from our galaxy, and many millions of years (one presumes) into the future.  

The aliens' mission is to wipe out any life on Earth, but as they look into the future of humankind they become increasingly intrigued by the way in which we have fought to survive pandemics, invasion, wars, all manner of natural disasters; they're especially interested in the way we have documented our history in intricate detail.

The story held my interest all the way through; it ticked boxes from imaginative to funny, and I thought the chosen method of execution, ie the dialogue, was inspired.

Please note: I have since heard from the author who told me that I totally missed the point of this, ie, that the book is set in the present, and the aliens are watching our films, thus seeing the disasters, etc.... never mind.  I enjoyed it as it was, anyway!!!

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

NOT HERE by Genevieve Nocovo

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
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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: Mystery/thriller set in San Francisco.

Dina Ostica, a 23 year old podcaster living alone in San Francisco, has a troubled background after escaping a difficult relationship.  The mystery begins when her friend, an old hippie who is her go-to source for material for her podcasts about life in and the history of the city, disappears.

I thought the atmosphere of the city came across as most authentic; it is clear that the author has a fine knowledge of the place.  I liked the subject matter; Dina's story was very 'current', with issues raised so relevant to this part of the 21st century.  The problem I had with the book as a whole, though, was that it felt rather flat.  There were too many irrelevancies that were not woven into the story, like what people wore and what they ate, intricate detail about gym sessions and mundane conversational exchanges.  Dina is written in the third person, in such a way that we never experience her inner thoughts; we are told how she feels, or what she thinks about something, but I felt that I was being supplied with information, rather than getting to know a character.

The plot is well put together (aside from the fact that I couldn't work out how Dina hoped to make enough money to live on from podcasting), the ideas are interesting and the book is professionally presented, but the writing itself needs some work if this series is to become memorable.  The information was all there, such as what a place looked like and what happened after what had happened previously, but I never felt involved in the story or the characters.

I believe this is the author's debut novel.  It is competent and the basics are there, with some excellent plotting and slow build of suspense; she just needs to work on really getting inside the head of her characters, seeking ways to make her storytelling more captivating, and her dialogue more realistic, character revealing and interesting.




SHADOW OF PERSEPHONE by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
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On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I love this author's books and she has instructions to let me know as soon as a new one comes out!

In a Nutshell: the first in a two-part series about Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII.

Gemma Lawrence has given an interesting and unusual view of Catherine Howard in this first book about her life, which starts when she was sent to be brought up at the house of her grandmother, Agnes Howard, from the age of around seven, and takes us right through to her wedding to Henry VIII.  Ms Lawrence gives a thorough explanation, in the back of the book, about why she sees her not as the frivolous, superficial butterfly who knew little and cared less, but as a abused, lonely child, damaged by her early experiences, who, though not academically educated, was intelligent, clever, and used those experiences to gather her wits about her for what was to come. 

As with all Ms Lawrence's books, this spares no historical detail.  In the first twenty per cent, when Catherine was child and the country was caught up in the saga of Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon, there is much talk of what was going on at court.  This is conveyed mostly in staged conversation between Agnes Howard and the Duke of Norfolk (almost like a play), and although it is interesting, and relevant to the world in which Catherine would eventually find herself, I looked forward to getting back to the story of Catherine.  As the novel progresses, her own life soon takes centre stage once more, and I was completely engrossed; it was one of the those books that got better and better as it went along, and by 80% I was trying to read slowly to make it last longer

The second half of the book concerns much about when Catherine went to court, and the Anne of Cleves fiasco.  This part was particularly fascinating to me, as I have only read a few accounts of the second and more fortunate Anne, the true winner in the tale of Henry VIII's six wives.  I loved the court gossip; much of the tale is told in this way.  

Few reliable accounts about Catherine Howard exist, and if I sometimes thought that Ms Lawrence wrote her as more mature, analytical and intelligent than one imagines her, this all made sense in the notes about her at the back, where Ms Lawrence gives a highly convincing argument for the young Howard girl having far more savvy than history would have us believe - you've won me over to your way of thinking, Gemma!  If you already know the story of Catherine, it might make sense to read these first.

The novel tells us much about the lot of women in those days - even if rich, from a 'good' family and in possession of much beauty and intelligence, their lives were never their own, with their futures completely at the whim of men's wishes and politics.  Those who survived and gained some happiness were masters of the game, or simply those who were in the right place at the right time - but even clever souls like Anne Boleyn and Catherine could not get every move right.  Maybe the cleverest of all were those who understood their lot and didn't try to assert themselves - like Anne of Cleves.

This was a fine book, and I am already counting the days until the release of the second part. 


Sunday, 24 February 2019

THE SEA WAS A FAIR MASTER by Calvin Demmer

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
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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: 23 short stories/flash fiction, in the genres of horror/thriller, with a bit of fantasy/scifi

As is usual with short story collections, these vary.  I very much liked the first one, On the Seventh Day, set on board ship, and hoped it set the scene for the quality of the rest of them.  

The ideas behind the stories were entertaining; Mr Demmer creates atmosphere well, and has a good sense of suspense and timing, so although there were no dropped-jaw-worthy twists or denouements, I still enjoyed reading most of them.  Some hinted at a larger story, which was artfully carried off.

What weakened the collection, for me, was the dialogue, which was often unrealistic; I kept thinking, 'but people don't talk like that'.  Not in all of the stories, just some.  I thought some of them were a little over-written, too, and unnecessarily wordy; sometimes, 'stink' works better than 'pungent aroma'; knowing when to be spare with prose is one of the arts of great storytelling.

Others that stood out were the title story, The Sea was a Fair Master, The Snake, or the Humans?, and the last one, Sea Ate Nine.  
 
I think if the author spends more time on his dialogue and perhaps thinking up some really good twists in the tale now and again, to make them more memorable, he could do very well in this genre; he certainly has talent.  And if he ever turns his hand to longer fiction, it should definitely be set at sea.


Sunday, 17 February 2019

DEFENDER by G X Todd

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com



How I discovered this book: recommended by a friend

In a Nutshell: Post apocalyptic, seven years after civilisation collapse, in Texas

Seven years ago, society broke down after lots of folk went crazy, killing themselves and others, because of voices in their heads.  The population is sparse.  Defender tells the story of lone survivor-on-a-motorcyle Pilgrim, and sixteen-year-old Lacey, who has spent the post-apoc years living with her recently deceased grandmother, safe from the horrors of the world.  Pilgrim agrees to take Lacey to a town several days' travel away, to find her sister and niece.

What I liked:
  • The characterisation in the first 20%.  I thought it was terrific: the alternating chapters of Pilgrim and Lacey, their backstories and inner worlds.  I thought, 'this girl can write up a storm'.  Loved it.
  • The first encounter with baddies, a gruesome brother and sister waiting in a motel for unsuspecting travellers.  Brilliantly done, horrific, as dark as you can get, and riveting.  At this point I had five stars lined up, all the way.
  • That atmosphere of bleakness, generally.
  • The evil rednecks.  What's a post-apoc book without a tribe of 'em?
  • The ending.  Sad, but satisfactory, tying ends up but with plenty of room for moving forward to the next episode.
  • The fact that an English author has written a book set in the US and made it totally believable.  For that, I take my hat off.

What I was not so sure about:
  • The length of time in which petrol deteriorates actually makes the whole plot unfeasible.  But perhaps one can suspend one's disbelief over that; I did so for The Walking Dead, after all.  Ditto dead body deterioration; they seemed to stay unstinky and not beset by rigor mortis when necessary for the plot.
  • The food.  Aside from the odd can of peaches or alphabetti spaghetti, there is little indication of them ever eating anything, or where they found food or fresh water.  I don't require a prepper survival manual, but the survival itself is part of what I find interesting about this genre.
  • The whole 'Voice' thing didn't really work for me, but this is personal preference, not a criticism.  It was well done, and often amusing.
  • I didn't find the second half as compelling reading as the first, although it picked up again in the last ten per cent.

To sum up, when I first started reading it, I was blown away and thought, oh brilliant, I've got a new post-apoc series to get my teeth into.  Couldn't put it down.  Although I didn't continue to feel this strongly about it, and although I think the publishers have done the author a disservice by hyping it as the next The Stand, which is bound to invite derision, it's a good book.  Ms Todd is clearly very talented, with the elements I liked less more to do with decisions made by the editors than the author herself; perhaps they can suspend disbelief more easily than me!

Saturday, 9 February 2019

HOMETOWN BOYS by Mary Maddox @Dreambeast7

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
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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: Mystery/character drama set in small town Illinois

I liked this book a lot.  It's listed under crime/mystery and women sleuths, and the plot is intricate, convincing and interesting, but it was the characters and relationships between them that kept me turning the pages without being tempted to skip-read.

Kelly Durrell returns to her hometown of Morrisson in Illinois when her aunt and uncle are brutally murdered, supposedly by her ex-boyfriend, Troy.  Although he has confessed, some people think there is more going on behind the scenes, and that Troy was merely a hired hit-man.  This storyline is interspersed with complications within Kelly's own family; gradually, the two intertwine.

The book begins with the murder, when Troy is egged on, and it is clear that others had an interest in what he is about to do, but as the story unravels it becomes clear that there is far more to it.  Mary Maddox paints the picture of claustrophobic, small-town life so well, from the depressing existence of Kelly's blinkered mother, to the criminal trailer trash, to the old schoolfriend who wanted to be a model but is now an overweight housewife.  In Morrisson, everyone knows everyone else's business and, more problematically, makes immediate and often uninformed judgements about it.

This is the sequel to Dark Room, which I read and reviewed for Rosie's Book Review Team back in 2016, i.e., so long ago that I might as well not have read it (I have a shocking memory), but this did not hamper my enjoyment or understanding of the plot.  There are a few instances in which it is clear that there was a book preceding this one, but enough information is given, in a concise fashion, for there to be no doubt about what is going on.  It might have been a good idea to put a recap in the front of the book, though, all the same.

The novel has a neat ending, with all threads tied up except one, that is left dangling.... for Book 3?  Nice one, I recommend. :)