Sunday 29 December 2019

FALLING by Elizabeth Jane Howard

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads
On BookBub

How I discovered this book: I read many novels by EJH years ago, but none since Getting It Right in the 1980s; my sister recommended this one to me.

In A Nutshell: A successful writer in her twilight years becomes romantically involved with a con-man ~ based on events that really happened, which are detailed HERE.

Daisy Langrish is a sixty-year-old, successful playwright who has known much pain and loneliness in her life; the loss of the beloved aunt who brought her up, betrayal by two husbands.  When she buys a country cottage as a retreat, she meets Henry Kent, a gardener who lives on a boat.  Slowly, slowly, he inveigles his way into her life.  They become close, and she is happy to be granted another chance for love and companionship.  On the surface he seems like the perfect man, in so many ways... but he has been less than honest about his history, and his motivations.

The story is written in alternate viewpoints—Henry in the first person and Daisy in the third, and some of the story is conveyed by way of letters and diary entries.  All of this worked beautifully; I was completely engrossed in this novel all the way through.  That Elizabeth Jane Howard is a master of the human drama goes without saying, but what I liked most about it was the unravelling of Henry's hidden self, which is done so subtly.  There is enough information for us to realise that he has an alcohol problem, and that he has a short temper and reacts violently when events do not go the way he wants, but this is never lain out in black and white; it is suggested, as the picture of him slowly builds...

When I started to read the book I already knew about the true story, but knowing what sort of outcome it must have didn't spoil it; indeed, it opens with Henry saying that Daisy has told him their affair is over, and gives a fair indication of the sort of man he is, so this review is no 'spoiler'; the beauty of the book is in the gradual seduction of Daisy, the uncovering of Henry's past life, and the question it left me with: did Henry actually love her, as much as he was capable of loving anyone?  Of course, we do not realise the full truth about his personality until his actions are revealed by others, because he lies to himself and, thus, in his narration to the reader.  Are his feelings part of the fantasy he must create, in order to make his behaviour acceptable in his own mind?

By today's standards this is a 'slow' book, and, although set in the mid 1980s, seems a little dated, more as if it is set in the 1960s or early 1970s; also, there were some elements I questioned.  For instance, Henry's most recent wife, Hazel, is supposed to be a fair bit older than him.  He is sixty-five.  Yet she is working as a physiotherapist; if she is nearing or possibly over seventy, wouldn't she have retired?  When the truth about Henry's past life is revealed, it seems a little muddled and rushed, with Daisy's friends having conversations with complete strangers which are then reported back to Daisy; I was disappointed by this, as I was so looking forward to it; although the way it was wrapped up was realistic, it felt a little anti-climactic.  I wondered if it was just me, but I looked at other reviews and some of them said the same.

However!  I still give this book five stars because I loved it, generally, and looked forward to getting back to it at every moment I could.  

Wednesday 25 December 2019

NEANDER by Harald Johnson #RBRT

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads
On BookBub

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member; I offered to review it for the team, though I had already bought it after reading the author's previous publication, New York 1609.

In a Nutshell: A time travel adventure (modern day to Neanderthal times) that ponders questions of an anthropological nature.

Tom Cook is a science journalist working on an archaeological dig in Gibraltar, when disaster strikes in the form of a boat accident—his pregnant fiancée is missing.  When Tom goes searching for her, he slips through a time portal that takes him back.... way back, to 40,000 years ago.  Neanderthal man has yet to become extinct, though the threat of Homo Sapiens is on the horizon.

Tom finds ways to communicate with them and become part of their world.  Quite early on, I saw that this was not just a time travel adventure, and that Tom's actions would have repercussions, which added interest, as I looked forward to finding out how great these would be.  Tom has a wealth of knowledge to teach his new family, and draws on his own research about Neanderthal man to find the best methods to help them, especially when they come face to face with the more ruthless Sapiens.

In the notes at the back, the author mentions having read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; I've read three books by Harari and could feel the influence; I actually thought 'ah, he's been reading Sapiens' a couple of times, before I read the notes, but this wasn't a negative; I liked it.  

Neander held my interest all the way through; of course time travel stories always depend on disbelief suspension on the part of the reader, but the fantasy must be believeable within the fiction, and for the most part this was; I'd give it about seven out of ten, because I needed to know more about how he communicated with these prehistoric people in order to be completely convinced by the fact that he did.  Also, I was so looking forward to finding out how Tom's actions of 40K years ago impacted on the world we know now, but there was less detail than I'd hoped for.  On the whole, though, this book is fun and an easy read, an inventive, interesting and original story, as well as providing questions and ideas on which to ponder, which makes it a win-win as far as I'm concerned; yes, I recommend it!

Monday 23 December 2019

DEAD MEAT: DAY 1 by Nick Clausen #RBRT

3 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.

In a Nutshell: Beginning of zombie apocalypse

This is a long short story, possibly a novelette, illustrating Day One of a zombie apocalypse; I read it on a long train journey.  It is described as a novella in the blurb, but it didn't feel that long. 

What I liked:
  • The basic premise: a day-by-day account of the zombie apocalypse.
  • How the outbreak was supposed to have started; an unusual and clever idea, not one I'd read before.
  • The characterisation was good, with each of the three protagonists clearly defined, in their dialogue, actions and (most importantly) their inner thoughts; the relationship between the three is explained early, and works well.
  • The pace is good, and the writing mostly flows well. 
  • That the book was written in the present tense, which I always prefer for more suspense and immediacy.
What I was not so sure about:
  • One of the main three characters is supposed to have seen loads of zombie films and every episode of The Walking Dead, but, when his group are trapped in a room with a zombie the other side and discussing their options for escape, does not appear to have learned how to kill them.  They devise complicated plans that involve throwing stuff over them; they seem to think it more important to cut their arms off rather than kill the brain—the emphasis is on not getting scratched (which may but may not kill you) as opposed to getting bitten (which means a painful death and reawakening as a zombie).
  • I was confused earlier on because Thomas, Dan and Jennie were talking about the police not existing any more, and their family and friends possibly having become the walking dead, yet I thought the zombie they encountered in this house was supposed to be Patient Zero.  This is resolved to a certain extent, but at first I kept flicking back because I wasn't quite sure what was going on.
  • Flashbacks are written in the present tense, which I don't think worked.
  • Too much use of the present continuous: 'the heat wave is going on' and 'the windows are sitting high', instead of 'the heat wave continues' and 'the windows sit high', for instance, which would have read so much better; some of the sentences were a little flat or clumsy.
Basically, it's a great idea and reads fairly well, but I think it needs some more redrafting and fine-tuning to make it live up to its potential.

Sunday 22 December 2019

My Top Twenty Books of 2019

They didn't necessarily come out in 2019, but that's when I read them.  

I've only read around 60 rather than my usual 90-ish books this year, because I've had more trips away, the house has been in upheaval, I've published two novels of over 100K words apiece, and begun the next one ... so good, 'getting stuck in' reading time has been limited.  

The twenty that follow are all books to which I have given either 4.5*, 5* or my extra special 5 Gold Stars, and as such recommend most highly.  

The only problem with lists like this, of course, is that it is hard to leave out those that just bubbled under... so I hope you will look at my 4 Star Reviews too! 

Please click the title for my full review, with Amazon/Goodreads links.

Numbers 20-11 are in no particular order:

The Bledbrooke Works by John F Leonard
~ Horror ~

Adventures of a Southern Girl by Linda Sue Walker 
~ Memoir, Humour ~ 

The Morning Star by C W Hawes
~ Post-Apocalyptic ~

Tribe of Daughters by Kate L Mary
~ Post-Apocalyptic ~

Mountain Man: Prequel by Keith C Blackmore
 ~ Zombie Apocalypse ~

Severed Knot by Cryssa Bazos
~ 17th Century History ~

By The Feet Of Men by Grant Price
~ Climate Change Post Apocalyptic ~

Sisters of Arden by Judith Arnopp
~ 16th Century History ~

Hotel Obscure by Lisette Brodey
~ Short Story Collection: Dark Psychological ~

New York 1609 by Harald Johnson
~ 17th Century History ~

I usually do a top ten countdown, but this year I've found rating them in order of preference impossible ~ therefore, numbers 10-1 are in no particular order either, but they're my top ten favourite books of the year.  Unless I've put two together, as they make a complete story.  So really it's twelve 😉 😁

The Mermaid and the Bear by Ailish Sinclair 
~ 16th Century History, Scotland ~

Storytellers by Bjørn Larssen
~ Early 20th Century History, Iceland ~

An Empty Vessel by JJ Marsh
~ dark psychological drama, early 20th Century ~

Desperate Passage by Ethan Rarick
~ True Life Survival Story, 19th Century, American West ~

Two in one: Shadow of Persephone and No More Time To Dance 
by Gemma Lawrence
~ 16th Century History: The Story of Catherine Howard ~

Entertaining Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift
~ 17th Century History, London ~

Two in one: The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments by Margaret Atwood 
~ Dystopian America ~

Jungle by Yossi Ginsberg
~ True Live Survival Story, Bolivian Jungle ~

The Worst Journey in the World by John R McKay
~ WW2, Adventure ~

Intrigue and Infamy by Carol Hedges
~ 19th Century History/Mystery, London ~

Sunday 15 December 2019

JUNGLE by Yossi Ghinsberg @yossi_ghinsberg

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On BookBub

How I discovered this book: Loved the film, had to read the book!

In a Nutshell: True life survival in Bolivian jungle

I'm glad I saw the film before reading the book, because it helped me to picture the places - much less frustrating than film-after-book, when you're always too aware of what has been left out.

This is the sort of story that makes you think 'if this was fiction you would say it was far-fetched'.  Yossi, Kevin and Marcus, backpackers in Bolivia, fall in with the mysterious and clearly dodgy Karl Ruprechter, if indeed that was his name, and get talked into going on a potentially dangerous adventure in the jungle.  After many setbacks and difficulties, the group splits up: Karl and Marcus to go back to a village, and Kevin and Yossi to carry on downriver, traversing a section that even experienced rafters would not attempt.  The worst happens (lots of it), the two get split up, and Yossi survives for three weeks in the jungle, on his own, in the middle of the rainy season.

I believe Yossi is on the right, I imagine shortly after his rescue, and Kevin on the left.  But I may be wrong.

The book is perfectly structured, with lengthy background about how Yossi teams up with the others and how they fall in with Karl, all of which makes for a good understanding of the mens' personalities and why various decisons and mistakes were made ... then comes the increasingly worrisome trek into the jungle, all the time with the suspense building as you wait for everything to go horribly wrong.  And I mean HORRIBLY wrong. What Yossi went through defies description, and I was totally gripped all the way through.

As for what happened to Karl and Marcus, I will not give any spoilers....

Ghinsberg shortly after rescue

It's not a perfect book; some unnecessary animal cruelty (I mean when they were ill-treated, or hunted for sport rather than when necessary for food) was hard to stomach, there were times when I thought the editing was a little sloppy (a fair few repetitions), and I thought there was too much detail about Yossi's daydreams and hallucinations in the jungle, but on the whole I couldn't give this book anything less than five stars, because I loved it, to the extent that I am just googling stuff to find out more, and locate pictures.  And I don't think I'll be able to read anything else for a couple of days - always the sign of a thoroughly good book!

It's a story of youthful optimism and naïveté, of comradeship, incredible resilience, bravery, the best of human nature and the worst - and of how the less you have, the more you value the small and seemingly insignficant.  Highly, highly recommended, but watch the film first.

Ghinsberg with Daniel Radcliffe, who plays him in the film

Also found this picture, when I googled Karl Ruprechter - the article says the one on the right is Kevin, but I can't be sure the other is Karl.

The film trailer: 

Tuesday 10 December 2019

UPON US by Blakely Chorpenning #RBRT

3 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.

In a Nutshell: Post-apocalyptic romance

I requested this book from the review team list because it looked right up my street - a world in decline, in which governments have agreed to plunge the planet back into the Dark Ages in order to let it recover (I assume).  This book takes place twenty-five years in, when crops are dying and a zombie-esque plague is on the warpath.  It is placed in the 'New Adult' in category, ie, aimed at ages 18-30; I'd put it towards the younger end of this range, or possibly even YA.

I'll start by saying that the author writes well; she uses some lovely descriptive terms, her characterisation and dialogue is mostly fine, the story flows well, and the book - not a long one - has obviously been professionally proofread.  Sadly, though, the world building left me with too many unanswered questions, though it's an interesting and unusual premise.  Of course, all post-apocalyptic and futuristic, dystopian worlds are products of the author's imagination, but I think more time needed to be spent on thinking through how this 'New Beginning' took place, its orchestration, the events leading up to it and the aftermath, to the extent that I wondered if a more simple plot, like just the virus, might have been easier to work with.

The book starts so well, with the protagonist lying in wait to ambush a man (one of the 'Privileged') to help her and these clans obtain food; there has obviously been careful research into survival methods and ancient ways of cooking and growing food, which I liked, and there is no doubt that Ms Chorpenning can write; I think that if she worked with a really good developmental editor to help her create her world in a more fully-rounded sense, this book could be terrific.

Tuesday 3 December 2019

MOUNTAIN MAN: PREQUEL by Keith C Blackmore @KeithCB1

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read the rest of the series, so this one appeared to me on Amazon!

In a Nutshell: Prequel to the 5 book Mountain Man series - the outbreak

I was so pleased to discover this - the first Mountain Man book starts a while into the zombie apocalypse, so it was great to find out how Gus got to where he is in Book #1.  Also - and I am sure I am not alone here - I always find the most exciting part of any post apoc series to be the very start, when people think 'something is happening, but maybe it'll be okay' - then come to the slow realisation that it's the very opposite, and life as they know it was breaking down even as they were kidding themselves.

In this prequel we see Gus in his pre-zombie days as a painter (of the decorating sort), on an emergency job during what will be his last normal evening of his life.  We see the night turn to shit as he is stranded in a shopping mall with a couple of work friends and a bunch of random people, wanting only to get back to the woman he loves.

The main characters (Gus and his friend Toby, mostly) are well-rounded and realistic, and the dialogue is great.  During the first half of the book I felt certain parts could have been edited down a bit, or just given a bit more spit and polish, but as Gus's plight gains momentum in the second half of the book I no longer cared; the last thirty per cent, in particular, is riveting.  

I still think Books #1 - #3 are the best of this series, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one, too.  If you love zombie series, or any post apoc, I can't recommend this series too highly.  Definitely going to have a crack at some of Mr Blackmore's horror books, too :).

Wednesday 27 November 2019

HANDS UP by Stephen Clark #RBRT

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.

In a Nutshell: Family/psychological drama dealing with murder: racially motivated or not?  Set in Philadelphia.

An interesting crime novel that's more psychological drama than thriller.  It centres around Ryan Quinn, a police officer who shoots and kills Tyrell Wakefield, a young black man pulled over in a routine traffic enquiry—or is it?  As the story progresses, we become more aware of racial profiling within the police, and especially that of Quinn's partner, Greg.  More sinisterly, this same bigotry is present within the 'civilian' white families we meet in this book.

Also centre stage are Jade, Tyrell's sister, and Kelly, his estranged father.  The story is written from these three points of view; Quinn is written in the first person, which totally worked for me, with Jade and Kelly in the third.  This also worked, I think, better than if Kelly and Jade had been in the first person as well.  They were all three-dimensional; Kelly, in particular, alternated in my head between being a basically decent guy who wanted to make up for some wrong choices in life, and an opportunistic creep. 

I very much liked how the truth about what happened that night, from Quinn's point of view, came out only gradually, and that we saw the emotional effects of the case from all three sides.

When I began to read the book the first thing that struck me was that the author can certainly write; I was drawn in, immediately, though the first ten per cent includes a fair bit of telling-not-showing (when the writer tells the reader how someone is feeling/what their personality is like, rather than showing it in dialogue and actions), and, throughout, there is too much mundane detail—we don't always need, for instance, to know what people were wearing, unless relevant, what they ate in restaurants (ditto), or how someone got from A to B.  I read in the notes at the back that the author is a (most successful) journalist, and this is evident; now and again, I felt as though he needed to be reminded that a novel's flow can be improved by the omission of detail, rather than the inclusion of every fact.

Mostly, the plot kept me interested throughout, though I didn't think the romantic involvement between Quinn and another character towards the end of the book was necessary; a friendship/sympathetic connection would have been enough, and more realistic; that it happened made both characters less credible, to me.  I also felt that Quinn's previous romantic entanglement was too quickly and neatly disposed of.

On the whole, though, I liked this novel, and it has a lot going for it.  The issues of racial prejudice and police corruption were dealt with well, and though none of the characters were likeable, they were all fairly compelling.  I think that if Mr Clark were to learn the art of ruthless pruning during redrafts and observe how other writers create tension, he could produce something most memorable.

Monday 18 November 2019

MAKE ME KING by Keith C Blackmore @KeithCB1

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK

How I discovered this book:  Had read the rest of this series, so Amazon 'told' me when this one was out.

In a Nutshell: Book #5 of a zombie apocalypse series (Canada), but I'd say it stands up fairly well as a stand alone.

I read the first 4 books of this series some time ago and have a pretty lousy memory (I can't remember how book #4 turned out at all), but this was still fine to read on its own—however, I would most certainly recommend reading the first 3 books first, in particular, as they are a stunningly good example of their type, and steer away from many of the genre standards.

In Blackmore's post zombie apocalypse world, several years on, the 'mindless' have faded out... most of them, anyway.  All that's left is an empty world... or not so empty.  Gus, Scott and his friends are living on an island, but supplies must still be found.  Which is where the trouble starts.

I adored the first half of this book, with its sinister alternate chapters from the point of view of some bad guys - later, it features some of the best escape-from-zombies chapters I've read.  I was not so keen on the last 30-40%, which takes place in a bunker inside a mountain, because I could no longer picture it, despite there being much detail; a lot of this-happened-then-that-happened; scenes that would have worked brilliantly on screen but I didn't think translated so well to a book.  However, there were still some great plot developments, and it kept me reading.

If you like the horror end of the post apoc genre, I can't recommend Books #1 and #3 highly enough. 

Thursday 31 October 2019

THE MERMAID AND THE BEAR by Ailish Sinclair @AilishSinclair #RBRT

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
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: 16th Century Scottish Historical (Romance)

I chose this book from the review team list because I've loved looking at the author's marvellous photos of Scotland on her website for some years now; I hoped that anyone so artistic and with such a love for the area in which this story is set would be a fine writer too, though this doesn't necessarily follow, of course—but I'm pleased to say that I was not disappointed.

The Mermaid and The Bear is listed as a historical romance, but it's much more than that.  At first, after protagonist Isobell escaped her London betrothal to 'Wicked Richard' and headed for a Scottish castle to work as a kitchen maid, I wondered if the book would be too 'twee' for me; beautifully written and a good example of its type, but I thought it would follow the well-trodden romance novel path of misunderstandings and awkward situations before the lovers come together, and that would be that.  I was so wrong! Although the relationship is an important part of the story arc, it is not the sole focus.

Ailish Sinclair's portrayal of 16th century, wild rural Scotland is quite magical.  On one recent evening I was curled up in bed, head on cushions and lights dimmed, and I found that I was revelling in every description of the countryside, the day-to-day life at the castle (particularly the Christmas revellry; this made me long to be in the book myself!), the suggestion of ancient spirituality, and the hopes and dreams of the characters.  Suddenly I realised that I'd gone from thinking 'yes, this is a pleasant enough, easy-read' to 'I'm loving this'.  

From about half-way through, the book becomes very dark indeed, as the witch-hunts of the time rear their gruesome head; there is a strong sense of good versus evil.  This is where, for me, it became even more interesting.

Much of the locals' dialogue is written in the Scottish dialect, but this is not overdone, so it didn't become irritating to read at all—it just added authenticity.  I liked how Isobell's inner thoughts and conversation took on the Scottish words and phraseology gradually, over time, as would be the case.  Her development over the course of the story is so realistic, and the Laird of the castle is the sort of character you can't help falling a little bit in love with.  The notes at the back add interest to the whole novel, too.

If you adore historical fiction, especially set in the 16th century, I'd recommend this book without hesitation.  If you're a bit 'hmm' about historical romance, I would still recommend it, without a doubt—and this is coming from someone who usually runs a mile from any variation on the romance genre.  Go buy it.  Now.