Thursday 28 June 2018

LITERATURE by Guillermo Stitch @GuillermoStitch

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, but it was this review by fellow team member Olga that made me choose it. 

Genre: Futuristic, noir, dystopian, black humour.

This unusual novella takes place over the course of one day, and is set during a time when literature has been made illegal, and where secret, underground networks exchange books... Billy Stringer, the hero, is caught up in one of these. It's one of those 'life in the day of' scenarios, in which you find out more about Billy's situation by way of flashbacks, including his dying-a-death relationship with girlfriend Jane, her parents' disapproval of him, and an occasion when he got embarrassingly drunk while socialising with her colleagues.

In this strange world we're given a hint of how the lack of reading material has affected the literacy skills of the people. Billy and Jane communicate on their 'tabs' ~ everyone has one, in the same way that, increasingly, people in our world are attached to their smartphones as if they are an extra limb without which they cannot function.  The way in which Billy and Jane write to each other makes 'text speak' or the abbreviations used on social media look like great literature.  Words are spelled phonetically, using the fewest possible letters, as if they have never been taught basic English, despite being both educated and intelligent.

It's a curious book; the characters and atmosphere are painted cleverly and effectively.  I liked the writing style very much, with its dark humour and astute observations.  Occasionally there is a poignant reminder of the world of the past: 'There was a reception desk that Billy supposed had been used when the building was new, a good couple of hundred years ago.  Nowadays everyone would be scanned discreetly and visitors directed via their tabs and earpieces'.  

'We don't know exactly when Literature® takes place and we don't know exactly where'

I did like it, and I realise that part of the point of it is that we don't know 'when' or 'why', but I would have liked just a little more explanation.  I read parts of the first quarter of the book over a few times, thinking that I had missed something, and was a third of the way through before I realised that I didn't really know exactly what was going on.  Just a little more scene setting would have made it even better, I think, and would give it a broader appeal, especially to lovers of dystopian fiction.  The blurb likens it to the 'razor wit of Raymond Chandler' and the 'extraordinary vision of Philip K Dick'; I am put off by such comparisons as I think they are for the reader to decide upon, which is why I passed it by at first glance.  In this case, the story stands up well enough on its own without making such grandiose claims.

Wednesday 27 June 2018

WRITING A PAGE TURNER by Elizabeth Bailey and Mark Dawson

4 out of 5 stars

Free on Amazon UK

How I discovered this book: I saw this during an Amazon browse and downloaded it out of curiosity, because it was free. 

Genre: Writing advice.

I write a fair few advice blog posts for new writers, and like to find books like this that are worth recommending. This is good; it only takes half an hour to read and gives some no-nonsense tips on how to make your book more of a page-turner by means of cutting the waffle, not head-hopping, etc. It's basic, solid advice, much of which is about what not to do, as well as what to do. It's never a bad idea for old hands to read this sort of thing, too, as it reminds us never to get too self-indulgent; I read a couple of points that made me think, ah yes, I must keep reminding myself of that.

Please note - this book does not tell you how to write a novel, and assumes you have the basic talent, a great plot, and that your characters/story arc already worked out. What it will do is help you to make that story worth reading.

Friday 22 June 2018

JUDGE THE BEST by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I have read all Gemma Lawrence's historical novels and loved them, without exception.  This is the 5th and final book in the Anne Boleyn series, and I have been looking forward to it for months!  

Genre: Historical fiction from fact, Tudor period. 

Judge the Best covers the final period in Anne's life, from her first still-birth (after the birth of Elizabeth) to the bringing about of her downfall by Thomas Cromwell, and her execution.  It is a long book, I believe about 160K words, but I never felt that I was ploughing through it.  I was riveted all the way through, and felt sad when I got to the end.

So much has been written about Anne Boleyn; I have always been on the 'she was innocent and the whole thing was dreamed up by Cromwell to get rid of her because Henry wanted a new wife who might give him a son' side, and if there was any doubt in my mind, I would be completely convinced of her innocence and the sins committed against her by this book.  It has also showed me further sides to the story ~ how much of a danger to Cromwell she had become, aside from other political considerations.

'Guilt and innocence seem to be one and the same at this time.  It all depends on the King... not on evidence, confession or actual sin...just on what Henry believes.'

Anne's last moments are told by Thomas Wyatt, in which he suggests a deeper reason for Henry's wish to rid himself of her: he could not control her.   She would not behave herself, unlike the insipid Jane Seymour.  I see Anne's inability to produce a son as his all-encompassing motivation: to prove himself the strong, virile, god-like figure who could produce male heirs.  None of us knows the absolute truth, of course.  I feel that Gemma Lawrence's is the most likely, of all I have read.   After the end of the novel, she gives much evidence of Anne's innocence, and also discusses Henry's descent into tyranny, lechery and ill health—and provides a brief look at the rest of Henry's life and the unfortunate women who would be chosen to sit on Anne's throne after her, as well as the fates of the other players in the story (I've saved the 'other players' bit to read in bed, shortly!).

'..there would always remain a part of him that would doubt.  I knew it was there, in him.  That was why I would die by the sword.  Because he knew I was innocent.

Cromwell should watch that doubt, I thought.  This is the lesson he has not learned.'


As ever, with this series and all of this author's work, it is meticulously researched with the detail unobtrusively woven around her own words, viewpoints, and portrayal of her subject.  Never, like in many other works of historical fiction, do I feel I'm reading a text book; every event is told only through the eyes of Anne.  She shows Anne as I believe she was: a woman born before her time, who was passionate, loyal, highly intelligent, sometimes cruel, impulsive, generous, strong, dignified, reckless, considerate, deeply emotional, self-critical, and so much more.  

'Tomorrow, he will kill me, but he will become the ghost in truth; a pale imitation of the great man he could have been.  A demon set up on a throne where a godly king might have ruled.'

I am one who thinks that the idea of gods, heaven, afterlife, etc, is wishful thinking, but sometimes I wonder if there exists, somewhere, a trace of what we were; I can't help but hope this is so, when I think how delighted Anne Boleyn would be to see, nearly 500 years after her murder, how she has lived again in these books, which I recommend most highly to anyone who is interested in her.  The series is a terrific achievement, and a magnificent tribute to this most fascinating of women.

'The great irony of Henry's quest for a male heir is that it was his daughter by Anne who would go on to be remembered as the greatest monarch of the Tudor dynasty, rather than his son, or even himself.'

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.