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.

Thursday 14 October 2021

CREATION by Bjorn Larssen @bjornlarssen #RBRT

(Subtitle: Why Odin Drinks Book #1)

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 I also bought the paperback, because I was fairly sure I'd like it!

In a Nutshell: In the beginning there was confusion...

I read Bjørn Larssen's debut novel, Storytellers, which made some references to Norse gods and featured a certain subtle humour in places.  I also read his second novel, Children, which is about the children of Norse gods and contains far more funny bits.  I've read many of his blog posts and follow him on Twitter; the conclusion I've come to is that Mr Larssen is a terrific comedic writer, first and foremost, so I'm delighted that he's actually written A FUNNY BOOK!

Creation is a novella, a slim paperback (beautifully presented), is hilarious, and made me laugh out loud on several occasions, which books rarely do.  It's about Odin and his brothers, Vili and Vé, creating the world.  Except they're not very good at it and don't really understand what they're doing.  They wonder how to get the food out of Audhumla the cow, why words like 'anvil' 'laptop' and 'algebra' keep popping into their heads, how the flying water happened and why the wolf bit off the peacock's head.  Odin discovers that, along with man and woman, he has created irony. 

I think it's the sort of book you find screamingly funny or you don't, depending on your sense of humour.  I echo the words of Bjørn's husband, when he finished reading it: 'When can I get more?'

Tuesday 12 October 2021

LINE by Niall Bourke

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read a review of it on Mairéad Hearne's blog, HERE

In a Nutshell: Dystopian. Speculative Fiction.  From the blurb - Line pushes the boundaries of speculative, high concept fiction. Deeply moving, it also touches on many of the pressing issues of our turbulent world: migration and the refugee crisis, big data and the erosion of democracy, climate change, colonialism, economic exploitation, social conformity and religious fanaticism

At some unspecified time in the future, Willard lives on the Line - a constantly moving tented community that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction.  Line dwellers subsist on the bare essentials, their faith that what lies at the end is worthy waiting for, and the fear of consequences should they dare to leave; away from the Line there is nothing.  A failed attempt to escape means a fate worse than death, as is attempting to skip one's place.  It has existed for generations, and children know of the sacrifice made by their parents and their grandparents to afford them their current place.  Nobody knows why it began or where it goes, just that they are heading towards some better unknown.

I loved the first part, with a restless Willard questioning his life.  The writing was great, most absorbing; I was so impressed by the whole concept of the Line and looked forward to finding out how the people had been coerced into living according to its rules, believing in the myth of the end, and how the Line had developed its own code of law and become its own society.

Around half way through, we leave the Line and surrounding nothingness, and are presented with what feels like a different book, detailing the wider truths about the world.  Much of it appears in the form of a printed handbook, about the current economic situation, about technological progress and philosophy.  It's extremely dense and complex, and rather dull; you know when you read a text book because you need to learn about something, but the way in which it is written makes your brain shake its head and say, 'Nuh-uh, not storing all these words'?  That was how this was.  I kept trying to take it in but it didn't want to stay.  I felt as though the ideas had not been developed enough; the whole middle section about the new London seemed disjointed, and I just didn't buy it.

During the last one fifth of the book we come to the whys and hows of the Line: the psychology of how and why people queue and wait, of hope, faith, religion, generational beliefs passed down, of the vision behind the line and the whole truth about it—so up my street I welcomed it in with coffee and cake, and loved it all over again.  Fascinating.  The end was sad and bleak, but right for the story.  I like those sort of endings.

To sum up: a first class idea and I'm glad I read it, but I felt there needed to be more.  More background, more detail, more attention to 'readability', more character-based narrative and fewer pages out of the handbook.   And thanks again to Mairéad for introducing me to it :)

Friday 8 October 2021

NEAR DEATH by Richard Wall @writinblues

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Twitter; I'd seen a few tweets about it from the author, then one day I took a look.

In a Nutshell: Murders most brutal, with a paranormal theme.

The story is set in the early 1960s in New York and rural South Carolina.  John Henry Beauregard, a Korean War veteran, is working as the chaplain in Sing Sing prison, when he is called to give last rites to Joseph Hickey, a vicious murderer whose crimes were so horrific that details are withheld from most.  Hickey taunts John, and promises that he'll see him again, even though he is about to be frazzled on Old Sparky.

As other similar murders begin to take place, John and his friend, NYPD cop Eugene, begin to explore possible theories that sound insane even to themselves.  They are both psychologically damaged and at times just trying to hang onto the threads of their lives.

I enjoyed this book all the way through.  Throughout the main story, mostly told by John in the first person, are short chapters that hint about why events are taking place, with the reader being left to piece it all together, gradually.  The pace and drip-feeding of information worked so well, and made the story a real page-turner.  Lots of unpredictable events; I do love a novel in which I can't guess what's going to happen.

The characters of John and Eugene were very likeable, as was Vinnie, the hard-nosed lawyer who flips the bird at convention and authority, and I loved the writing style, which was clear, simple and effective.  I only had one problem with it: 'black', as in the colour of a person's skin, was spelled with a capital B in most but not all cases.  I know this is favoured by the politically correct in this day and age, but it was not so at the time John was telling this story, and it looked out of place.  Similarly, John uses the phrase 'people of color', which was not introduced and popularised until at least a decade later.  I wouldn't usually nit-pick about stuff like this that wouldn't bother most people, but they really stood out to me.

Paranormal is not my usual genre of choice, but it totally worked in this story, seeming possible and believable, and I liked the author's take on what happens after death.  The book is clever, humorous in parts, touching, terribly sad and fairly brutal, with gory and shocking detail, so it's not a book for the faint of heart.  I'm very glad I stopped on that tweet, clicked the link to Amazon and downloaded it on Kindle Unlimited.  At some point I shall take a look at the rest of Mr Wall's work.  Nice one.

Monday 4 October 2021

MISTRESS CONSTANCY by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: One of my favourite authors, and have been looking forward to this since I knew she was writing it.

In a Nutshell: Book 1 of The Armillary Sphere series, about Lady Jane Rochford

A terrific few days' reading!  Like Ms Lawrence, I have always felt sympathy for Jane, wife of George Boleyn—I think she had a raw deal and, though enjoying the privilege that came with noble birth, was dealt a marked card, i.e., a husband who would never consider her as he did his family or his own requirements.  Her whole life with him was like having a visitor's pass to a club she would never be allowed to join.

This first episode of The Armillary Sphere series takes us from Jane's childhood to the moment of Henry VIII's avowal to make Anne Boleyn his next queen.  Jane's view of court life is different yet again from those in Ms Lawrence's series about Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, but most interesting of all was the 'second sight' that has been given to her for the purpose of these novels—flashes of insight into a future that might be.  So clever, and so sad that she had to hide this gift for fear of being thought insane.  Jane's life seemed full of fear; the passages about her despair at George's lack of interest in her, and the way she felt empathy with Katherine's over the King's indifference, were heartbreaking; in those days, of course, women could not just walk away and find a better life.

Something I hadn't read about before that I found horribly fascinating—it's common knowledge that Katherine of Aragon wore a hair shirt, but I didn't know about the effects of such practice.  This, and the details of Katherine's fanatical religious devotion, made me wonder if she was possessed of certain psychiatric maladies that she passed on to her daughter, considering the progress of Mary's reign.  I realise that we can't judge the actions of those who lived over five hundred years ago by the standards of these days, and that they both suffered a great deal at the hands of the men who ruled their lives, but the behaviour is not dissimilar.

In this book, more than any other of Ms Lawrence's historical novels, Jane says much about how women were viewed as a subspecies completely under the control of men.  Unlike Anne and Empress Matilda, though, Jane had neither the mettle to fight against it nor the disposition to accept it, which added to her unhappiness.  I loved reading about her mixed emotions towards Anne, her accounts of their day-to-day lives—and, especially, the scenes set in Hever Castle and Penshurt Place, because I visited them two years ago, so could picture them so clearly!  There is one account of festivities held in the Baron's Hall at Penshurst, a place I found fairly mind-blowing, so that was a real treat. Also, when I read about Henry's bedroom being prepared at Hever—I have been in that room!

I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent book, and am so looking forward to reading about how Jane's relationship with her husband and his family progresses, and her part in the rise and fall of Anne.  Highly recommended!

Pictures from my trip to Hever and Penshurst HERE