Sunday 26 December 2021

My Top Five Books of 2021 (and some more...)

I've reviewed 51 books on this blog this year, and tried to do my usual top twenty or top ten ... but I couldn't.  Too many instances of 'which do I include, this one or that one?'  I found, however, that I was able to choose my top five.  I don't very often give my '5 GOLD stars' rating; there were only two last year.  It's for the books that make me think '5 stars doesn't really do it justice'.  These are my chosen five of the seven I awarded this year.

Click the book title for my review - includes Amazon/Goodreads links.

Mistress Constancy by Gemma Lawrence

Part one of the story of Jane Rochford, wife of George Boleyn

(I actually gave two more of Gemma's books 5 gold stars, but chose this one as my favourite!)

True story: the evacuation of the people of East Prussia at the end of World War II

The Silkworm Keeper by Deborah Swift

'a novel of nuns and courtesans, artists and priests, in the shadow and splendour of the Eternal City' - 17th Century historical fiction.  Stunning!

Life is Like a Mosaic by Sally Cronin

Pictures with free verse poetry - I am not a poetry lover, generally, but this is more like observations about life.  A real gem (and I bought the hardback!).

Cousin Calls by Zeb Haradon

If I had to choose one book as a favourite for the year, it would be this.  Man walks into a bar on Christmas Eve some decades into the future, to wait for a cousin he has never met.  While he's waiting, four others provide their stories about what happened when they got a phone call that said, 'you don't know me, but we're cousins'.  Unusual, hilarious, genre-free and brilliant!

Such a good reading year, so many I recommend; if you would like to take a look at those to which I gave 5 stars, please click HERE.  

Here are a few of them:

The Heart Stone by Judith Barrow 

A Matter of Conscience by Judith Arnopp

The White Rajah by Tom Williams

Trashlands by Alison Stine

Faring Forth Again on the Shoe by Val Poore

Catch Me If I Fall by Nikki Rodwell

For those I gave 4.5*, please click HERE.

Here are a few of them...

Mists and Megaliths by Catherine McCarthy

Near Death by Richard Wall

Black Irish Blues by Andrew Cotto

Later by Stephen King

...and here are some more I've loved - I hope you will discover some of my recommendations for yourself.

Happy reading!

Creation by Bjorn Larssen
Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review
Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Saturday 25 December 2021

TEARS OF AMBER by Sofia Segovia

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read about it on book blogger Cathy Ryan's post Stand Out Reads of 2021

In a Nutshell: WWII evacuation of the East Prussians

I read this over two days, totally glued to it.  It's fiction based on a real life story as told to the author, based on two families in rural East Prussia and what becomes of them as the Germans begin to lose the war.  The families are not connected; we read their stories alternately.

The main characters are Ilse Hahlbrock, who is about six at the beginning of the story, and Arno Schipper, a year or so older.  When their parents hear that the Russians are advancing from the East, their parents make the decision to flee.  There follows a journey so treacherous it is no surprise that not everyone makes it, as they become starving refugees dependent on the charity of strangers, their wits and luck for survival over a long, perilously cold winter.  Even after the war is over their trials are not, as the families are split up, never knowing if those they love are alive or dead, or if they will ever see them again.

Now and again the narrative moves from Ilse and Arno to their mothers, Wanda and Ethel, or to their fathers, who are both in constant danger of being conscripted, once the German army becomes desperate for more bodies.  Also, Janusz, a Polish prisoner who was assigned to work on the Hahlbrocks' farm, and whose story is particularly emotive.  Knowing that he is in danger from the Nazis, they take him with them.  Even years after the end of the war, both families endure hardship and danger that we cannot imagine.

Wikipedia tells me that 'The German population of the province was largely evacuated during the war or expelled shortly afterwards in the expulsion of Germans after World War II. An estimated 300,000 died either in war time bombing raids, in the battles to defend the province, or through mistreatment by the Red Army or from hunger, cold and disease', but this book shows what these few words actually meant for these ordinary people who just wanted to live out their lives on their farms, but were driven out of their homes with only what they could carry. 

Pictures are all of the evacuation from East Prussia in 1945

In the beginning of the book, I was most interested to see how the children were groomed at school to believe that Hitler was something close to a god, that Jews and Poles were subhumans and deserved ill treatment, or worse.  But not just the children - many of the adults, too, were brainwashed by the propaganda.  For instance, some people on whose charity the Hahlbrocks were forced to depend would not allow Janusz in their house.  Also, all they heard on the news was endless reports of impending German victory, though some of the people tuned into, for instance, the British radio stations, where they discovered that the Führer was not as invincible as they had been led to believe.  At the beginning of the story, we see how the people truly believed that in the glorious future that awaited all Germans.  

(Incidentally, I read that in 1920 the people of East Prussia voted on whether to become part of the Second Polish Republic or remain under the command of Weimar Germany; 97.89% voted to remain).

This is an incredible story, written so compellingly.  The only miniscule complaint I have is that I wish it hadn't been translated using American words like 'cookies', 'candy', 'movies', etc, as the people are European.  But that hardly matters - can't recommend this book too highly, and I definitely want to read more about it.

Monday 20 December 2021

The Eradication of Humanity by Social Media by Lena Ma #TuesdayBookBlog

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book:
 It was offered for review by book blogger and blog tour operator @shanannigans / RR Book Tours

In a Nutshell: Exploration of social media, mostly TikTok, and how its obsessive use affects young people.

This book was not quite as I expected from that dramatic title, and I soon discovered that I am definitely not within the target demographic. It's an exploration of the culture surrounding the TikTok app; other sites are briefly touched upon, namely Facebook, Twitch and Instagram, but mostly as a comparison, examining only one or two areas of the sites.  Having said this, I now know a great deal about TikTok, all of which was most interesting; many members of its royalty are named, and I found myself wondering who Charli D'Amelio was.  I looked her up on Youtube and ended up spending half an hour watching her dance videos - I can see why she's so popular.

Ms Ma has concentrated her study around those who use the platform to gain fame and fortune, and writes extensively on how damaging this can be, and the lengths to which users will go to achieve their goals, from the silly and fun to the darker than dark.  I did find this all quite fascinating, as well as her in depth look at how the site works; its algorithms, and so on.

Where the book falls down is in its limited outlook.  It assumes everyone uses social media in the same way, addicted to the 'likes', constantly checking for evidence of popularity, sharing all manner of personal content with no thought for privacy.  Ms Ma makes constant generalisations:  

'Most of us live mundane lives that leave us unmotivated, work 9 to 5 jobs and come home to alcohol and television.'  Um, no, we don't, but this is, apparently, why 'we' are all so addicted to social media.

'Why are we so desperate for internet and TikTok fame?  Why do we see losing followers and fame as the end of the world?' (Answer: millions, of us aren't, and don't).

'We constantly feel the need to check up on our own profiles or feeds to see if people like our material or not'.  Every day I see many young users of Twitter who use social media for reasons other than posting selfies and videos of themselves to get attention.  I have a bright, attractive, outgoing niece of 20 years old, who doesn't use any of the sites much at all.  My nieces-in-law are of a similar age and have 'lives', not just phone screens.

Ms Ma writes well and this is a basically a good book; if it wasn't, I wouldn't have read it all.  However, I think it needs more thinking through, and most definitely a different title.  She does not have enough material to cover the present one; Twitter, for instance, is scarcely mentioned.

To write a proper study of this massive and complex subject, Ms Ma would need to look at the beginning of social media and how it evolved - MySpace, the original, is not mentioned at all.  Her ideas are good, and have weight, but I think that she needs to use Facebook and Twitter more to actually understand how they work, and research how people other than her contemporaries use them.  Alternatively, give the book a different title that indicates what it actually is: an exposé of all that is wrong and dangerous about TikTok.  As such, it is extremely good, and I can imagine many disillusioned users of the site lapping up every word - and telling their friends about it. Of course, the place to promote it would be TikTok itself; I hope she realises this!

This is the best line in the whole book, and one to bear in mind, for many reasons:
No social media site has ever been created or optimised for the sake of its users.

THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin #TuesdayBookBlog

 4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Recommended to me by Twitter writer friends John F Leonard and ST Campitelli.

In a Nutshell: Post Apocalyptic Epic

Doing something a little odd here - reviewing a book of which I have only read 60%.  The reason is that this is a LONG book and I have temporarily abandoned it so I can catch up with some other reading.  

What it's about:


First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear—of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he's done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. Wolgast is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors, but for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey—spanning miles and decades—toward the time an place where she must finish what should never have begun.

I loved the first part, the character of Brad Wolgast, and death row inmate Carter chosen for the military experiment.  I was 100% into the setting up of the story, reading about Jeanette, a single mother who tries to do the best for her daughter, Amy - the central character.  The thirty-two minutes mentioned in the blurb are gripping, as the speed in which the world falls.  I especially liked a section from the POV of Ida, a young girl sent away by her parents to live in a new, safe colony.  

Then I arrived at the world two or three generations along, when most detail about the 'Time Before' has been forgotten, with only Ida left from that era; she is an old, old woman now, whose mind falters.  I enjoyed it very much at first and was particularly interested in the threat that none of them are aware of - that the power will run out.  However, as it went on I found myself skip-reading a little, because there are so many characters in this new colony, and only a few of them (Peter, Martin, Alicia) stood out with much of a personality - I got confused trying to remember who was who and how the relationships all fitted together.  I still wanted to know what was going to happen, but it seemed a bit too drawn out.  My interest was piqued once more when Amy reappeared, but because I no longer found it as 'must read' as I had at first, I decided to put it aside, or I will still be reading it this time next month.

To sum up: it's a rather stunning book, a great achievement, and if I was on holiday or ill in bed I might even have finished it.

Sunday 19 December 2021

THE DOLL by Laura Daleo

out of 5 stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

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

In a Nutshell: Scifi novella

When I started to read this story and realised that it involved a man who couldn't get over the death of his girlfriend and heard about a company who made synthetic humanoid replicas, I was immediately reminded of a TV programme I saw a couple of years back in which the same took place - I don't think it was Black Mirror, but something similar.  It's a basic idea that I've come across a few times, and it's an interesting one.  

This was an easy-read, entertaining book and I did enjoy the middle third.  I had a few misgivings, though, mostly to do with the main character, Jeremy, in whose first person POV the story is related.  He is meant to be a rich, good-looking, hipster sort of guy who flips houses for millions of dollars, but I felt I was seeing inside the head of a rather nervous woman, not a confident, successful man.  He kept referring to his 'man bun' (do men who wear their hair this way actually call it that?), describing the clothes he put on in the way that women do, and coming across hesitant and rather gauche.  He just didn't feel ... masculine.

I think it's got potential, but needs more thinking through, maybe with the help of a good professional developmental editor.  However, from an 'is this a fun read or not' point of view, it certainly ticks a box - if you're not as picky as I am you may enjoy it a great deal!

Thursday 25 November 2021

LITTLE ROOMS by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Last in a series by one of my favourite authors - automatic purchase.

In a Nutshell: The last years of of Elizabeth I

I actually missed about three of this ten book series because, you know, so many books so little time, so I thought I'd chance not knowing exactly what was going on and dive into the finale - and what a finale it was.  It's a huge achievement to have written such a detailed biography of a historical character, and must make Gemma Lawrence one of the finest authorities on the last of the Tudors.

Little Rooms opens with contemplation on old age and death, a thread that continues throughout the whole as Elizabeth looks back on her life, those she has cared for and still misses, and feels Death waiting for her in the shadows.  I loved her outlook on what it means to grow old; anyone over the age of fifty will identify with all that she says, particularly her thoughts on how she views the young, and how they view her.

Much of the book is taken up with the bizarre behaviour and treachery of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and stepson of Elizabeth's life-long love, Robert Dudley.  Here I was aware of the gaps in my reading, as I hadn't read about Dudley's death or her favouritism towards Essex.  Not knowing the history of the later Elizabethan period actually added to the 'page-turner' quality of this book; I couldn't wait to find out what would happen to this sly, fickle young man, what would happen in Ireland, etc.  I was most interested in the Bolingbroke and Richard II comparison, too.

In Little Rooms, Elizabeth comes across as all I've imagined her to be at this stage in her life - a wise old woman hitting out with a stick and her sharp tongue, bestowing much on those she loves, applying sense and reason to problems in the realm with great insight and a dry wit.  All of this, while wearing elaborate gowns, wigs and make-up.  In fact, 'elaborate' doesn't even go there.  See below.

It was great, but you really should start at the beginning of the series!

Monday 15 November 2021

CROMBY'S AXIOM by Gary J Kirchner #RBRT

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon
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: dystopian; battle against invasive technology.

There are so many good dystopian books around now, and I love reading the many, wildly different versions of what might await us in decades to come.  I enjoyed this, the debut novel by Gary J Kirchner.

In the future, the people are crowded together in cities and connected by the Hive mind; all thoughts are connected, all information just a micro-second away.  Tommy is a world famous athlete who finds himself lost in the 'Fallowlands' of Switzerland - and, worse than this, he has somehow become unconnected, as he discovers when he searches for the information he needs about where to go and what to do.  Eventually he meets up with members of the Ketchen: rebels who live outside the cities and the Hive mind.

The differences between life inside the Hive and the old world of the Ketchen give one a lot to think about, especially if one is of a certain age and grew up without the technology that exists now.  The sinister truth about Tommy's world unfolds gradually, and is no less shocking for being almost expected.  Several times, one of the people who controls Tommy offers some depressing reflections of our real world:

'...from the days of metal electronics and hand-held interfaces to skin graft technology and visual implants and finally to seamless thought communication, the same pattern was followed: technology is developed, a vanguard establishes its use, meek voices raise issues of privacy and ethics, which simply get swamped in the global rush to embrace this newest step...'

And about why the Ketchen are allowed to exist:

'It's healthy to have an enemy.  It brings people together... the idea that 'out there' are outlaws, bad guys who want to do your side in.  If the Ketchen didn't exist, we'd probably invent them'.

Tommy is a likable character and, despite my feeling that some of the explanations could have been edited down to be more reader-friendly, the story held my interest throughout.  The exciting events of the last ten per cent of the book, and the ultimate end, are particularly good.  I'd definitely like to read more books set in this world.

Monday 8 November 2021

TRASHLANDS by Alison Stine @AlisonStine #TuesdayBookBlog

 5 out of 5 stars 

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read about it on Kindig Blog HERE (thank you!)

In a Nutshell: Climate change/industrial pollution-orientated dystopian

Some decades from now (anything from 50 to 100 years' time, I believe), the earth has flooded, many flash fires have occurred, and waters are polluted by industrial waste and plastic.  Society as we know it has broken down, and new ones have emerged.  The currency for the poor is plastic - they 'pluck' it from the water and sell it for recycling into house bricks, which affords them a meagre, subsistence-level way of life.

Coral, Trillium and Mr Fall live in Scrappalachia, formerly without the 'Scr', a vast area of junkyard.  Their own corner is dominated by a strip club: Trashlands.  Meanwhile in the cities, the workers are a different sort of poor.  They live a hard life, too: a high rate of crime, queueing for food, and little in the way of comfort.

As often with this genre of book, what I was most interested in was the world-building.  At first there was frustratingly little, just a few snapshots showing how the current situation came to be, but it built up as the story went on with much more detail near the end, by which time it meant so much more than if I'd learned about it from the beginning; the narrative often divulged information in words left unsaid.  I liked how the fashion for names has changed; mostly, people are named for places, plants and animals that I imagine no longer exist: Tahiti, Miami, Foxglove, New Orleans, Mangrove, Golden Toad - and Coral.

There is no big apocalyptic happening but a slow deterioration of the world we know, starting with the floods.  This means, of course, that there is also a gradual deterioration in intellectual possibility and knowledge of the world, as the internet and TV no longer exist and most books have been destroyed; also, the people are more concerned with staying alive than being educated.  It's like a move back to medieval times, but with a polluted world rather than vast areas of lush green and clear water waiting to be utilised.

The story is told in medium length chapters from many points of view - Coral, her man Trillium and her 'father', Mr Fall; also Foxglove and Summer, 'dancers' at Trashlands, Rattlesnake Master who owns it, reporter Miami from the city, and a few others.  Always my favourite structure if done well, and this was.  The story itself centres around an event in Coral's earlier life, but the plot seemed like a backdrop for this detailed picture of our future world, rather than the opposite way round.

There were a couple of areas that I thought could have done with a bit more thinking through, like how the people of the junkyard would have been unable to work or survive on a diet of insects, weeds and the odd rat, and that petrol and diesel deteriorates in about a year at most, but every post-apocalyptic story I've ever watched or read ignores this second point; if it's good enough for The Walking Dead, I'll suspend my belief here too 😉.  To sum up, I was absorbed by this book all the way through, thought about it afterwards and would love to read more.  There: that should be all the recommendation you need!

Friday 29 October 2021

COUSIN CALLS by Zeb Haradon @zebharadon

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read two other books (The Usurper King and The Last Feast) by this author and loved them, so leapt straight on this when I saw that it was out.

In a Nutshell: A novel made up of five stories, all linked - scifi, humour, and some general weirdness that kind of makes sense.

I'll start by saying that this is one of the best books I've read in years.  Zeb Haradon is an outstanding writer; Cousin Calls is five stories linked together, and each one pulls you in and makes you forget that it's part of a larger novel, that you didn't intend to lie on the sofa reading for this long, that it's one in the morning and you really need to get some sleep, etc.  It's just - terrific.

The book is set several decades into the future, in which Harold walks into a bar that used to be a coffin shop one Christmas Eve, following a request from a cousin he has never met, to meet him there.  The bar is almost empty, aside from a couple of drinkers and the bartender.  After telling the bartender why he's there, he is warned about the dire consequences that can befall one after a conversation that begins, 'You don't know me, but we're cousins'.  (This amused me because my sister has recently been exchanging emails with a cousin of ours whom we have never met; I'd never heard of him before.  Take care, Julia...)

An old woman was smoking outside when Harold arrived; she enters the bar, and is invited to tell her 'cousin story', about her invitation to a Texan chili cook-out.  The chili is, she learns, the best in the world due to its secret ingredient.  She attends, along with her ghastly snowflake would-be poet boyfriend ('look, I told you I was an INFJ when you started dating me!'), a beautifully drawn amalgam of every similar example you've ever seen on Twitter.

Next comes Ward, with his job, money and flat worries and a hippocampal implant that will enable him to absorb material learned by others and downloaded online, from their own implants. Alas, he doesn't realise what else he will absorb from these generous donors' minds.  It's hilarious and very clever (and possibly my favourite of the five), but for some reason this is the quote I've highlighted:

'I spent about forty minutes just staring at the spider, envying it.  Imagine - no rent to pay because you literally pull your house out of your ass.'

Then there's Gordon the private detective who takes on a case so disgusting that - well, you'll have to read it.  And even the deer's head on the wall - he is called Alex - has his own cousin story to tell.  That's a good one, involving his slight obsession with the Addams Family and some interesting cervine philosophy.  Last of all we come to Jane, who wasn't able to make it for the Christmas get-together this year; her story is in her journal.  She's the woman who meets this really hot guy and has the best sex of her life, so good that she's able to overlook the fact that he has some rather unattractive pastimes (including genocide and the murdering of small animals), but the deal-breaker is who he supports in the upcoming election - most pertinent in these social media-obsessed days when the expression of one's political views can guarantee banishment to the virtual leper colony.  

Jane's problems involve her mother, trying to earn money during the 2020 Covid pandemic, and her badly behaved son.  Love this: 

     'He definitely has ADHD.' the guy {psychiatrist} said, 'but I'm also going to diagnose him with oppositional defiant disorder.... it's an impulse control disorder.  Chase has a pattern of oppositional and defiant behaviour.'
     'Yes,' I said, 'did you happen to notice that he's nine years old?'
     'It's very fortunate that we caught him this early'

Mr Haradon has a unique style that you need to read for yourself to understand why I'm raving about this book.  It's impossible to categorise, too; yes, it's scifi, yes, it's funny, with the best sort of observational humour, but it's also comment on human nature and modern life, though I get the feeling that Mr H doesn't think about much of this stuff, and just writes.  It's quite horrific in parts - if you're easily offended or disgusted, it won't be for you, though the revolting aspects are oddly inoffensive, somehow.  Probably because the writing itself is just so, so good.  I loved the ending, too.  Wasn't expecting that at all.  I already want to read it from the beginning again, and envy you, dear reader, because you have it yet to enjoy.

Oh, just buy it.  It's great, and I can't do it justice.

Monday 25 October 2021

THE GRIFTER by Sean Campbell and Ali Gunn #RBRT

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.

In a Nutshell: A multi-millionaire conman vs the homeless man he ruined.

An action packed tale about James, whose life was ruined by crooked financier Kent Bancroft, and his plans to retrieve his lost half a million pounds.  It's also about Kent himself, and how the life of a rich man does not always run as smoothly as you might think.

What I liked about this book:
  • The structure - ever since reading Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel decades ago, I've adored alternate POV books, especially when, as with this, the lives are poles apart.
  • The pace - the book marches along with just the right amount of inner narrative versus events - there are no boring waffle bits, the characters are well-developed, and all the backstory is nicely woven in at just the right time.  This is something that you may not notice unless it isn't right (like how you don't notice if something is clean, but you do notice if it isn't) - getting it spot on is an art.  
  • The writing style - flowing and so readable, so much so that I wasn't tempted to skip-read even when I wasn't too sure about the content itself.  
  • The quality of the research that had clearly taken place, about the financial detail, life as a homeless person, the art world and other aspects throughout the book.
  • The basic storyline, which appealed to me as soon as I read about it.

What I was not so sure about:
  • There were way too many errors that editor/proofreader should have picked up on, such as the phrase 'the gig is up' instead of 'the jig is up', Marlborough cigarettes instead of Marlboro, multiple instances of the word 'invite' that should have been 'invitation' (unlikely to occur at this level of society), numerous backwards apostrophes at the beginning of words. 
  • I wasn't convinced that an exclusive gym patronised by the aristocracy would be called 'MuscleBound', which sounds more like an establishment owned by Phil Mitchell from EastEnders.  It's only a small thing but it really stood out to me.
  • The story development, which I thought needed more thinking through; many developments/details seemed a tad unfeasible.  An example: a rich financier sharp enough to con thousands of people out of millions but doesn't have an efficient alarm and CCTV system at his house.  
To sum up, if you're willing to suspend your disbelief, it's a jolly good, fun book that zips along, entertains and keeps you turning the pages, and for this I commend it; being able to tell a story that amuses and keeps the attention is indeed a talent worthy of note.  Everyone has different levels of belief suspension, and mine are particularly low; most of the reviews for this book are very positive indeed.