Monday, 15 July 2019

TREAD: Fallen Nation by Jeff DeMarco @DeMarcoWriter

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: Twitter

In a Nutshell: Post-apocalyptic/military novella

Lately I've read some of a post apocalyptic series concentrating on the survival aspect, and a novella that I'd class nearer the horror end of the genre; Tread:Fallen Nation, however, is military-orientated.  All of these books have one aspect in common: the effect of a global disaster on the people.

The main character in this book is Evan, a soldier back from the Middle East who finds his country in meltdown after a mysterious virus has devastated the land.  The US is, in effect, in civil war.  Evan is already disillusioned about the ethics of some of the military, and war itself, and becomes more so as his new tasks are laid out before him.

I knew nothing of the author's background until I read the notes at the end, but it was clear he comes from a similar background to Evan; the details, not only about the weaponry but also the practices, are most convincing, at the same time as being written so that a layperson can understand.  I liked, too, that he destroyed certain myths about the effects of an EMP, which has probably spoiled me for books of this genre that involve such things!  

'Hell, the whole idea of electromagnetic pulse or nuclear detonation permanently damaging electrical systems and communications is just garbage.  Just sayin'; this ain't the movies'

He has a cool writing style, perfect for the subject matter, and I was particularly impressed by the dialogue, which struck just the right chord.  He delivered a good atmosphere of bleakness, using few words.

'Evan rounded the rocky outcropping and found a man in dirtied clothes, his face covered by a white and black shemagh, hunkering down against the boulders as though clinging for dear life.  In the insurgent's eyes ... no, the man's, not the animal he'd been conditioned to see them as, he found only fear.'

I felt it could do with a final round of copy-editing to iron out minor proofreading errors and add a bit of clarity here and there, but I'm one of those people who winces at misplaced commas, and it is far better presented than many self-published books of the genre.  I would definitely recommend it to any fans of military-oriented post apocalyptic stories.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

SEVERED KNOT by Cryssa Bazos @CryssaBazos #RBRT

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads
On BookBub


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

In a Nutshell: Fiction centred round the treatment of Scottish and Irish royalist prisoners during the English civil war; slavery in Barbados; romantic aspect.

I enjoyed this book so much.  The basic story: Iain Johnstone is a Scottish 'moss-trooper' imprisoned by Cromwell's men after persuading many of his contemporaries to go south and fight for Charles II.  Mairead O'Conneil is a young woman staying at her uncle's house in rural Eire for 'safety' while her father and brothers fight the Parlimentarians ~ but then the soliders come... and both Iain and Mairead find themselves on a slave ship bound for Barbados.

I hadn't read this relatively new writer before, but I'm glad I've discovered her; she's seriously talented.  The book is professionally presented, which I appreciated so much; it is clear that the research has been both meticulous and extensive, but at no time was I overly aware of it; I never felt that I was reading her research notes, as can so often be the case.  The atmosphere of the prisons, the slave ships and the Barbadian plantations, with all their horrors, is colourfully illustrated, and her characterisation and dialogue kept me engrossed, throughout.  I liked, too, that it gave me a view of how the English troubles spread far and wide.  Aside from all this, it's a terrific adventure story.

Within the plot is a romantic thread, a background shadow in the first half of the book that steps closer to centre stage as it goes on.  The theme is the romantic novel standard of two people taking against each other on sight then being extraordinarily rude to each other whenever they cross paths before finally admitting their passion, which can work well if cleverly written, and this was. 

Sadly, though, because of the descriptions of Mairead (tiny, skinny, frizzy-haired, plain, sprite, 'Mouse') I could only ever picture her as a sort of meek teenage imp, rather than a woman likely to inflame the passions of the Sean Bean-as-Sharpe/Boromir-like Iain, so it fell a little flat for me.  This sort of opinion is only ever personal viewpoint, though, and I must bear in mind that I not a fan of romantic fiction, generally; I was glad that other non-love stuff made up the main body of the book.

Despite these reservations, I am still rounding the 4.5* up to 5* on Amazon in the interests of objective reviewing, because it really is an exceptionally good novel, and I will definitely place her on my mental 'read more' list.



Friday, 5 July 2019

CONGEAL by John F Leonard @john_f_leonard

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I bought it when it came out, as I love this genre and very much liked this author's last book.  Then it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, so I am reviewing it for Rosie too :)

In a Nutshell: Post apocalyptic/horror novella - nasty slimy stuff that covers the world!

Another fine novella that fits perfectly into the limited space - I do appreciate writers who understand how to use the shorter format so well.

Amelia had a happy life with a man she loved, but then the Clag arrived; now she's stuck in a deserted city with a guy she can't stand, as the nasty slimy stuff from the deep bowels of the earth rises up to swamp the world....

Having just read two post apocalyptic novels that centred round human relationships and practical survival, Congeal underlined to me how many subsections this genre has; this one is far into the 'horror' end.  Amongst its many strengths, I liked the short, sharp prose style, so appropriate for the horror and despair of Amelia's situation, though not without dry humour.  I also enjoyed that those in the group with whom she found herself trying to survive—a standard in all PA stories—were not all of the likeable, resourceful, charismatic variety, as is so often the case; Pete, Maurice, Yvonne and the others were types she would have avoided like the plague (pun intended) in real life.

A good ending, too—I had no clue about Amelia's fate, even by 95%.  Anyone who has read the author's recent novella The Bledbrooke Works will enjoy the connection between the two, but both are entirely stand alone.  Oh, and one more thing - in the flashbacks to Amelia's pre-apocalypse life, she refers to her mother as 'Mom', several times.  As she is English, living in England, and her story is written by a British author, I questioned this - out of place American English is one of my 'ouches', but apparently it's a Birmingham-Irish thing as well; just making this point in case it's one of your 'ouches', too.



Friday, 28 June 2019

THE MORNING STAR by C W Hawes @cw_hawes

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: bought a while back via a passing tweet; I chose it out of the many unread books on my tablet after it was recommended by a Twitter friend.

In a Nutshell: Survival eight months after an incident that killed off the majority of the population.  Setting: various places in the US, settling in Missouri.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.  Having started and abandoned two other books of the same genre before opening this one, it was great to find something intelligently written by a writer with real talent; as soon as I'd read the first page I was sure I was going to love it.

Bill Arthur is a guy in his late fifties who is surviving after whatever happened on 'That Day'.  Along his travels southwards from Minnesota, after leaving groups that weren't working out, he teams up with several others, and they settle in Rocheport, Missouri.  All is going smoothly - but then another group turn up, led by a religious zealot.

This is a post apocalyptic book about real people, about survival and the effect of TEOTWAWKI on humans used to every technological convenience.  It's told by Bill in the first person, in a laid back sort of diary format.  Of course, this structure has its limitations, namely in describing events that happen to others in Bill's group, and further afield, but this is handled well, and never clumsily.

I liked Bill a lot, enjoyed reading his philosophical thoughts and the methods employed for the group's well-being; I was engrossed all the way through.  Although not a gun fights and action book, it is not without suspense and danger, and is certainly a page turner.

I've knocked off half a star because of an editorial issue (ie, one the editor should have picked up on) that is one of my pet whinges: the not infrequent use of the term 'Sally (or whoever) and I' when it should have been 'Sally and me'**, and because I was frustrated that we were never told exactly what happened on 'That Day', or why it occurred.

These minor issues aside, I absolutely recommend this book for lovers of this genre; it's a quiet gem, and one I'm glad I've discovered.  C W Hawes is a terrific writer, and I've already begun the second book in the series.
 

** I wrote a blog post about this, a while back, entitled 'The grammatical error that even the most intelligent people make' - it's HERE if you want to read it.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

SECRET KILL by Robin Storey

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.

In a Nutshell: Novella.  Former criminal turned good guy is forced back into the underworld.  Set mostly in Melbourne.

I liked this book more and more as it went on.  Ex-crim Jackson Forbes is confronted by a grown-up daughter he never knew about - and she wants something from him.  Not just fatherly love, or money, but help; Frida is in trouble, and Jack is about to be pitched back into a world he thought he'd left behind.

This is a novella (40K words or under; I imagine this is around 40k), and I appreciated the way in which the story fitted perfectly into the shorter length; there was no feeling that it needed more detail anywhere, which in turn made me feel as though I had read a full-length novel.  Any longer, and it might have dragged, or been filled with superfluous detail.  It's an easy read and well-written, with a convincing plot.

I read another book by this author and my main complaint about that was that the characters didn't come across.  In Secret Kill, however, I felt that Jack and Frida were completely real; there were no sudden shifts in personality like before.  There was one revelation about Jack's past that made me less sympathetic towards him, but, boy, did he pay for it.  I was fairly set on 4* all the way through, but the unexpected and unusual ending made me want to add an extra half star.  Good one.



Saturday, 15 June 2019

MAHONEY by Andrew Joyce @huckfinn76

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:  Family saga about three Mahoney men, from Ireland's Great Famine of 1846, to the 1930s.

I adore family sagas through the generations, and have a great interest in American history of the last two hundred years, so I leapt on this book when I saw it on the review team list.

The book is split into three sections: Devin, the 19 year old from Ireland eager to make his fortune in America, his son, Dillon, who sets out to travel west, and David, the privileged son of Dillon, whose fortunes take a different turn during the Depression. 

I'll start by saying that a great strength of this book is the dialogue, which never falters in its quality, and is the main reason why the characterisation is so good.  I was also most impressed by the research that had gone into the book; it is clear, throughout, that Mr Joyce has a great understanding of the peoples of each time and place in the novel.

I adored the first part, about Devin; I looked forward to getting back to it each time I had to put it down.  Devin's route to America is depicted so colourfully that I was completely engrossed.  I was disappointed when his section ended; I wanted to carry on reading about him.  I liked the next part, about Dillon's adventures in 'Wild West' Wyoming, but, although the book continued to be well-written, admirably researched, and flowed so well, I was less convinced by Dillon as a character.  

My interested was piqued again by the start of David's section - I loved reading about the spoilt, self-centred young man who cared nothing for his family or the struggles lived through by his father and grandfather.  His first experiences as the Depression hit kept me engrossed, too, but after he changed his way of thinking, I became less convinced by him.  I think what I was not so keen on was the way in which Dillon and David kept bumping into strangers, on the road and in bars, and everywhere else, who offered them the chance to change their lives for the better.  Devin's life seemed more realistic, whereas Dillon and David appeared to fall into one piece of great luck after another.  I was also less keen on David's section because so much of it was dialogue-led, which is not a preference of mine; this is not a criticism, just a personal preference.

Despite the aspects about which I wasn't so sure, it's a most entertaining book.  I think it has real value as a fictional history of America the period between 1846 - the 1930s, even if I felt some of it was rushed through; there is a lot of material for one novel.  Mr Joyce can certainly write; I have just downloaded another of his books, Resolution.  I was also impressed by how he wrote Devin and David in the third person, but Dillon in the first; this was absolutely the right choice, and a clever one.

I'd most certainly recommend this novel for lovers of family sagas through the ages, particularly if you have an interest in American history.




Monday, 10 June 2019

NEW YORK 1609 by Harald Johnson #RBRT @AuthorHarald

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 didn't choose it at first; I did so after reading this review on the blog of Sean, another team member.

In a Nutshell: A fictionalised history of the invasion of the land that became New York, and the city's founding.

A terrific novel, telling of the 'discovery' of Manhattan Island by Henry Hudson, and the beginning of the callous and careless ruination of the Native American way of life.  

The main character is the part-white Dancing Fish, who believes he is gifted with insight into the ways of the 'visitors' from the east.  The story starts in 1609 and moves, through four parts, through to the 1640s, as gradually the Manahate and other tribes are pushed out of their land; the book tells, also, of how they begin to take on the ways of the white man, and become less self-sufficient, something that saddens Dancing Fish.

This is a long book, but at no time did it feel over-written or padded out.  It seems like a foreshadowing of many years to come, as the greed and cunning of the 'civilised' treads into the ground and destroys a culture that had existed, successfully, for hundreds of years; indeed, it makes one question the meaning of the word 'civilised'.  Only once or twice did we see the Europeans' respect for the natives' affinity with the land, in Henry Hudson, in Boucher, an early explorer who was left behind by his party, and Marie, his daughter.

In the latter part of the story, the settlers' treatment of the natives is unbelievably brutal, sickening and heartbreaking, made worse because you know that all this and more really happened. But the ending is not without hope; Johnson's characters have a wisdom far beyond most of their enemies.

Johnson finishes with notes, in brief, about what happened afterwards, and explains which parts of his story have their grounding in fact.  Highly recommended.




Saturday, 1 June 2019

HOTEL OBSCURE by Lisette Brodey @LisetteBrodey

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I read about it in an interview with the author on another author's blog.

In a Nutshell: short stories, separate but with connections, all taking place in a rundown hotel.

I was pleased to find that the seventeen stories in this collection are all quite long, making this book novel-length - there's plenty to get your teeth into.  One element I loved was loose connections between them; if you have a shocking memory like mine, it's best to read them in order, and without too much of a break in between, so you don't start thinking, 'oh yes, she's talking about that chap in that other one, two stories before...which one was it?'  But it doesn't matter if you don't remember, because each works well on its own.

As with most collections, some of them I just quite liked, others I liked more, and a few I thought were outstanding.  There isn't one weak one, though; it's a fine book, all round.  Number three was the first one I really loved, and remained one of my favourites; 'I'm a Fucking Cliché' had a totally different voice from the first two, and featured a self-destructive writer.  I also liked the one that connected to it, 'I Miss Him (The Great Sabotage)'.  The more I read, the more I admired Ms Brodey's understanding of the human psyche; many contained such astute observations, perfect dialogue, immaculate characterisation and some delightful turns of phrase.

Others I liked a lot:
  • 'Twenty-Seven', about a musician's appalling luck in life.
  • 'Only Sixteen', which was one of the saddest.
  • 'To Be Perfectly Frank'.
  • 'Thursday, Wrapped in Sadness' - another heartbreaker.
Some are told mostly in dialogue, others in the inner narrative of the protagonist, either in first or third person; I preferred the latter, but even here there was an exception; 'Junk Truck', a most compelling tale in which the main character is stalked by a lonely, probably psychotic woman desperate for her friendship.  As with others, the tone reminded me, on occasion, of Dorothy Parker's short stories, which I have read over and over. 'Junk Truck' had its threads neatly sewn together in the final story, 'Ellmore J Badget Jnr's Very Unusual Day'. 

This isn't a book for those looking for something 'feel-good'; though not without humour and the occasional happy ending, the stories are sad, raw, tragic, enveloped in loneliness and desperation, sometimes of the character's own making.  But other times not; on occasion I felt so sorry for the person I was reading about that I wished I could climb the dingy staircase of Hotel Obscure and make everything okay for them.  Yes, I most certainly recommend :)

Finally, I love this, taken from another review on Amazon.com: 

'There is, though, an eighteenth story that is not immediately apparent. It belongs not to a person, but to the Hotel Obscure itself. We don’t know the beginning of the hotel. We don’t know the ending. We only know the middle. The beginning and the ending are for us to provide. The middle is provided by Ms Brodey.'



Wednesday, 29 May 2019

THE BLEDBROOKE WORKS by John F Leonard @john_f_leonard #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.

In a Nutshell: Long-short story about an old sewage works and the horrors lurking within.


I liked this story a lot—I've read an earlier novel and a shorter story by John F Leonard, and his writing has come on in leaps and bounds; this is a different class.

'Back before the Domesday Book, the little spot known has Bledbrooke had started out smaller than small...During the Middle Ages, it shuddered into a village while no one was looking'  

Bledbrooke is a strange town, in which electricity often fails and phone reception is almost non-existent.  Donald Hobdike is the Manager of Works; on the day in which the story takes place he must go down to the old, abandoned sewage works to fix a problem.  A young ex-con, Mikey, is assigned to help him.  And down they go...

The characterisation of the two men was a joy to read, with astute observations about each others' generation, and their own lives; there are some highly descriptive turns of phrase that I so appreciated.  The chapters alternate been the points of view of Hobdike and Mikey—and another being; the one that lurks beneath.  It was this that took it to another level for me, as the prescence beneath Bledbrooke contemplates its existence over millennia, and the nature of mankind.

'The periods of slumber grew progressively shorter as it acclimatised and located fresh supplies of food.  Millennia or intertia became centuries of torpor and eventually decades of inactivitiy.  With each waking, evolution had shimmied and leapt down new paths, throwing up bewilderingly brittle lifeforms that lasted a celestial instant and were gone.' 

It's darker than dark, sinister and highly readable.  Worth 99p of anyone's money, or it's available on Kindle Unlimited, too.





Tuesday, 21 May 2019

NO MORE TIME TO DANCE by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads




How I discovered this book: I didn't so much discover it as wait for it to come out and make haste to Amazon as soon as I saw (on Twitter) that it was available!  I've read and reviewed almost all this author's books.

In a Nutshell:  Part II of a two book series about the life of Catherine Howard.

Loved it, loved it.  This second book takes us from the beginning of Catherine's marriage to Henry VIII, to her death, and in this book, as in the previous one, Gemma Lawrence shows us a different Catherine from the one so often portrayed; a young woman ill-educated, but not without intelligence and understanding of people.  A woman who knew what she must do to survive, until those who resented her position whispered the words that would bring about her downfall.

At the end of the book, Ms Lawrence's notes give her educated opinion about many of the fictions and assumptions told down the years, about this fifth wife of Henry.  For instance, Catherine never actually said that she would rather die as the wife of Thomas Culpepper than live as the wife of the King, as she was facing her death, and it is unlikely that she had the raging physical affair with Culpepper as portrayed, for instance, in Showtime's The Tudors.  We actually have very little factual knowledge about her.


Lawrence's Catherine talks much about the lot of women in that period in which she lived, and about the men who abused her (Manox and Dereham): Their greatest power is our silence.  An echo through time, of all women too scared to speak out about abuse, both mental and physical.  This aspect, though, is not rammed down the reader's throat; the book is just a cracking good read, in which I was totally engrossed all the way through.  The historical detail paints perfect pictures, both of the way in which the people lived, and England itself (I loved reading about the Progress, the buildings, the countryside).  

There was so much I loved about this book: the portrayal and understanding of Henry's motivations, fears and self-delusion, the fact that Catherine never refers to him as 'Henry' but always as 'the King' or 'my husband', and the sense of suspense when she doesn't know that she is far from safe is real page-turning stuff.

Excellent two book series.  Highly recommended.




Wednesday, 15 May 2019

MONKEY TEMPLE by Peter Gelfan @GelfanP #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: Friends, wives and lovers and the complex dynamics of the relationships between them. Jules, a freelance editor, is jolted out of sliding unresistingly into old age by best buddy Ralston, and memories of the 1960s and 1970s.  Told in Jules' first person POV.

An unusual and entertaining book, mostly based around a short period during the twilight years of protagonist Jules, his wife, Ritz, and their mixed bunch of ageing hippie friends from the old days—mostly the complicated and high-maintenance Ralston, who is determined not to see Jules go gently into that good, comfortable retirement.  Mostly, it's about Jules' relationship with Ralston.

Deciding that the time has come to leave New York, he and Ralston go on a road trip to look for a house for Jules and Ritz.  When they find a possibility, Ralston has plans for it other than simply being his friends' last home.

Interspersed with present events are Jules's memories of their past, chaotic life; the travelling, the experiences and the sex, drugs and rock and roll of the 1960s and 70s.  For this reason I'd say it would be appreciated mostly by the over fifty-fives, those who have experienced the backpacking type of travelling or are familiar with, shall we say, a more erratic lifestyle; I think some of the references might go over the heads of anyone who ticks none of those boxes.  Maybe it's a book about old hippies for old hippies.

Much of the narrative and dialogue is centred around the subject of the characters' ageing processes, rubbish that is talked about 'alternative' philosophies, and also Jules's observations about the writing world.  I found myself smiling a lot, and highlighting passages I agreed with or enjoyed.  Alas, I forgot to highlight many, but here are a few.

(about Jules's client, who is writing novel based on her life)
'Problem is," I said, 'her life's not a story.'
...'Everyone's life is a story.'
'No it isn't.  Things happen, but that doesn't make it a story.'

'You can learn something by studying its opposite.  Like, who the hell knows how to be happy?  So instead, think about what makes you unhappy, and avoid it.'

'Doesn't it ever occur to you that ... when you don't like someone, it's because there's something very wrong with them?'
'Of course...and then I try to distinguish the subjective from the objective'.
'What a bunch of pseudo-intellectual bullshit. Nothing's objective...it's just a cop-out'

'The truth hit me.  The journey to transcend ego is an ego trip' 

Yes, I enjoyed this book, and would definitely recommend.  My only criticisms are practical ones; at £6.13/$7.97 for the Kindle version it's priced a bit high for the market, and the rather dull cover doesn't do the book justice, or give any indication that this is a dryly amusing, entertaining and poignant story about artists, writers and other colourful people who have spent their lives living and thinking outside the box.  I'd have chosen a sunset streaked road with a back view of Jules and Ralston driving over the horizon, corny though that may be—or a few of them sitting on the dilapidated porch of the Monkey Temple.



Friday, 10 May 2019

AN EMPTY VESSEL (BY VAUGHAN MASON) by JJ Marsh #RBRT

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.

In a Nutshell: a book within a book, about a woman in prison, condemned to death.

My understanding is that this long novella is a book mentioned in a novel by JJ Marsh, a work written by one of her characters, Vaughan Mason.  Though not clear on the blurb, this is what Rosie told me she thought it was, when I chose the book to review.

An Empty Vessel is most interesting story that depicts the thoughts of Nancy Maidstone, a woman accused of murder 1958, the day before her execution, and her life from childhood up until that point.  Other chapters are from the point of view of her lawyers and others involved in the plot.

JJ Marsh has a highly readable and compelling writing style and has created characters that jump off the page, with excellent dialogue, both spoken and inner, from the thoughtful Doctor Waterhouse and his socially self-aware wife, to Nancy's self-serving brother, Frank, to the women she worked with at the supermarket that led to the abrupt downturn in her life, to Nancy herself, for whom my sympathy increased the more I read. Every character story is a tale within itself, rather than just a part of the whole, and I was completely engrossed in each one.

The story gives a colourful picture of ordinary life in the 1950s, with all its social prejudices, accepted behaviour and sometimes almost charming innocence about the world.  Running through all the scenarios is the question of whether or not Nancy is guilty, and if so, why she would have committed such a crime, but there is so much more to enjoy than simply an amassing of clues. 

An entertaining, heartbreaking and unusual story - I loved it.



Tuesday, 7 May 2019

DESPERATE PASSAGE by Ethan Rarick

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: it was recommended in the acknowledgements in The Hunger by Alma Katsu, as one of the books she had used for her research.

In a Nutshell: Non-fiction - account of the Donner Party's fatal crossing of American by wagon train, in 1846/7.

I was gripped by this book all the way through.  It tells the story of a party of pioneers travelling from Illinois to California in 1846, to start a new life.  But they made 3 fatal mistakes: they set off too late, they travelled too slowly, and, instead of taking the traditional route up into Oregon and down into California, they took a short cut, the 'Hastings Cut-Off', little knowing that Lansford Hastings, who was trying to lure more Americans into Mexico-owned California, had never actually tested the route himself.  Somewhere between a third and a half of the pioneers perished en route.

The account is fascinating on so many levels: Rarick gives a great insight into the characters of the travellers, and I actually found it easier to follow the large cast in this non-fiction account than in the novel.  I like that he dispelled many of the myths about the relationship between the travellers and the native Americans; for the most part, the latter were helpful, and friendly.  

The already difficult journey becomes tragic in the extreme once the party realises that they have hit the mountains at the onset of winter; a large section of the book is concerned with this part of the journey, with all its horrors; starvation, divisions in the group, failed attempts to cross the high peaks, many deaths, and cannibalism. Rarick has given all viewpoints, taken from those who survived it, the rescuers, and the accounts in the newspapers afterwards.  The last part of the book is spent discussing what was true, what was exaggerated, and the downright lies that were conjured up for the purpose of selling books and newspapers.  Also, he tells what happened to the survivors after their ordeal was over.  

Most tragic of all is the thought that within some of the survivors' lifetimes, new technology would have made their crossing so much easier, saving many lives. 

A terrific book that I recommend most highly.


Wednesday, 1 May 2019

THE HUNGER by Alma Katsu

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I've read a few reviews of it on book blogs, via Twitter.

In a Nutshell: Fiction taken from fact - pioneers crossing America heading for California, in 1846, slowly realise that a great danger is walking alongside....

I didn't realise until I read the author's notes at the back that this is based on a true story; I wish I had known.

The atmosphere in this book is a such a winner, and the naïveté of the families who set out to travel through uncharted territory, from Illinois to California, is quite pitiful; they fancy they are setting out a great adventure, little understanding the size of America, the range of temperatures and terrains, the dangers they might face when trying to transport their families and entire homes through completely wild lands.

Main characters feature: Stanton, a lone traveller with a troubled past; Bryant, a man fascinated with the Native American culture; Tamsen, a dissatisfied trophy wife; Reed, a pompous former shop owner; Elitha, a young woman who hears voices, the sinister Keseberg, whose back story is flesh-crawlingly gruesome, and there are points of view from various others, too....

...in fact, there are so many characters that I sometimes forgot who was who, but the main ones were well-drawn enough for them to stand out, and I realised after a while that it wasn't absolutely essential to remember everything about a character, just because he or she had a name.

The party have started out too late in the season, and face many problems on the way, as, against advice, they take a route that is supposed to shave many miles off the journey, which becomes increasingly arduous ... and, waiting in the wings, is another danger.

I did enjoy this book, a lot, though I thought it could have done without the supernatural aspect, which didn't really work for me, and seemed superfluous, turning the book into a genre it needn't have been; the darkness of man himself was enough to add all the terror the story required.  However, this side of it is not too over-played, and I enjoyed it enough to buy a book suggested in the notes at the back - an account of the actual story, which Katsu used in her research: Desperate Passage by Ethan Rarick.

I felt that some of the individual stories could have been rounded off more (I was left not knowing exactly who had died and who hadn't, or maybe I just couldn't remember, because the dramatis personae was so extensive), but on the whole the ending was satisfactory - I do most certainly recommend, and look forward to reading the book mentioned above.

(note 7/5/19: Nearly finished Desperate Passage, which I highly recommend.  Had I read it first, though, I don't think I would have enjoyed The Hunger as much as I did; I would have been too irritated by the way Katsu changed the story and characters, and gave so little story space to what was actually the longest and most horrifying part of the journey.  To read The Hunger just as fiction, is probably better.)



Wednesday, 17 April 2019

JANE THE QUENE by Janet Wertman @JanetWertman

3.5 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.

In a Nutshell: the story of Jane Seymour, 3rd wife of Henry VIII.  Book 1 of 2 book series, The Seymour Saga.

A light piece of historical fiction that, on the whole, I liked.  I was tentative at first, being very much 'Team Boleyn' as far as the six wives are concerned, but I was pleased to note that Jane Seymour was not portrayed as the meek angel of many a historical novel or TV drama, but every bit as calculating as her predecessor in her mission to capture the heart of Henry VIII; she was used as a tool by her ambitious family in exactly the same way.

The book is written in alternative third person POVs: that of Jane herself, and Thomas Cromwell.  I liked that the author showed the downfall of Anne Boleyn to be a fiction carefully constructed by Cromwell, who knew that Henry needed to get rid of her so he could marry another who might give him a son, but that he could not afford to have another abandoned ex-wife who refused to disappear.  Thus, a story had to be concocted to justify the murder of Anne.  I also liked the explanation of the dissolution of the monasteries; it is clear, concise, and makes for a good understanding of the whys, hows and consequences.  Janet Wertman writes factual detail in a fashion that is both easy to read and entertaining; thus, this book would be an excellent choice for someone who doesn't know much about the era; for instance, she even explains what a monarch's yearly Progress is.  Now and again I was a little too aware of the research being translated into the narration, but on the whole it was executed well.

The author is American and, alas, I did come across some American English in dialogue, along with historical inconsistency and modern phraseology.  Examples: 
  • 'Snuck' - the British English past tense of the verb 'sneak' is 'sneaked'.
  • 'Snicker' - British English is 'snigger'.
  • 'Gift' used as a verb and 'caring' used as a general adjective to describe someone - these have only crept into British English in more recent years.
  • A reference to mashed potatoes - potatoes were not introduced into this country until some fifty years later, by Sir Walter Raleigh.
  • The phrase 'in for a penny, in for a pound' - the first recorded use of this phrase was in a play, in the late 17th century.
  • 'teenagers' - not in use until the latter half of the 20th century.
  • Henry said, 'You center me, Jane'.  So American and 21st century that it might as well have 'Gee' at the beginning and 'lol' at the end!
I also thought that, now and again, the dialogue between Kings, courtiers and Jane was too familiar, and doubted that Cromwell would have introduced the idea of Anne Boleyn's treason to the King while both were in the presence of Jane Seymour.  I'm aware that writing historical fiction that takes place outside one's own country must be an incredibly hard thing to do, and I always feel sorry for authors whose editors have let them down.  Google alone is a wonderful and easy-to-use tool.

Despite these 'dodgy' areas, though, I did enjoy reading it.  The writing flows, Ms Wertman tells a story in a compelling fashion, and I believed in the characters; these three factors alone are much of what this writing thing is about, after all.  With assistance from a more experienced editor (possibly an English one?), I imagine her work would get better and better.  To sum up, I would say this is light fiction for the newer reader of the genre; perhaps lovers of programmes like Showtime's The Tudors series, or who enjoy an introduction to the period, rather than the serious history addict - avid readers of this genre are notoriously picky!