Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis

          From the first few chapters I was unsure about where this book was going and whether or not I would enjoy it.  The world building is handled in an efficient manner that allows the reader to put their own stamp on it whilst giving you the bare scaffold to build upon; this is surprisingly effective and I found that it sucked me in to the place.  Characters unfold on the page in a gentle manner and develop nicely as the novel moves on.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read.  It is a difficult book to describe accurately and certainly one the defies clear categorisation.  The overarching feeling I got from this tale was that it was an old-fashioned Western told from the female perspective.  Indeed, the costumes the girls wore, the places they lived in and travelled through I imbued with that Old West feel.  This was vindicated when I read the Author's acknowledgments and she listed some of the background reading she had done.  Then there is a strong Fantasy element with Ravener's, Vengeant's and the myth of Lady Ghost.  Throw in a coming-of-age element, a little gentle romance, a little bit of criminality and a strong dose of rebellion and it really is a mash up of genres.  One that works surprisingly well.

The only thing that spoilt it for me was the way the Girl's would get in to a situation and then miraculously escape.  Particularly at the end of the book it did feel a little like things were stretched too thin for believability but I still kept reading enthusiastically.

The main characters are all part of a Welcome House - the Good Luck Girl Aster and her sister Clementine, the Head Girl Violet and two Daybreakers, Tansy and Mallow.  When Clementine is due to go through her Good Luck Night and become a fully fledged member of the house she kills her brag, leaving the five no option but to flee.  Meeting up with the enigmatic Zee gives them a lifeline and the necessary skills to survive the Scab and it's surrounding wilderness as they try to escape to find Lady Ghost at the borders with the free state of Ferron.

Narrated by Aster the plot flows well and sucks the reader in.  Dialogue is sparse but realistically executed - I love that rip (and all it's derivatives) is used as a multi-purpose curse.  The six travellers all develop during their journey and learn a lot about each other but also about themselves along the way and it was a joy to follow along with them and watch them grow and blossom.

Overall, an enthralling read that not only entertains but has some good themes of personal development.

Friday, 27 December 2019

The Christmas Wish List by Heidi Swain

I am pretty sure Wynbridge exists in some weird alternate dimension where it is permanently Christmas.  I know it makes the perfect setting for the festivities and the characters do reference spring and summer occasionally but it just feels like it is isolated inside a snow globe and gets packed away on Twelfth Night.  They also always seem to get snow just in time for Christmas - whilst this sets a nostalgic scene it has been a long time since we have had anything more than the odd snow flurry around Christmas in the UK and this particular White Christmas trope is beginning to wear thin.

All that whining and yet I REALLY enjoyed this story.  It was wonderful to step away from The Hall and the stories of the inhabitants.  Yes, it does get numerous namechecks and even a couple of visits but it isn't the focus of this story.  The focus is a brand new character, Hattie who has struck up a friendship with the ageing Dolly who just so happens to live in Wynbridge.  When Hattie is made redundant Dolly gives her a refuge at her quaint cottage so that she can decide what her future holds - Will it be following her boyfriend Jonathan to Dubai?  Will it be continuing with her career in Hospitality or should she really look into working with children?

There is quite a lot going on for Hattie and when Dolly insists that they sit down and make a Christmas Wish List to help get her in the mood for the celebrations she is reluctant.  Dolly insists and it is packed full of seasonal treats - ice skating in the open air, carol singing, baking and the obligatory wearing of "ugly sweaters".  Even better Dolly coerces her in to helping out at the local Primary School in the run up to Christmas and the sheer excitement and joy of the children really comes across on the page.

The book does deal really well with more sensitive topics - estrangement from your family, manipulative/abusive relationships and the loss of loved ones.  There are a couple of scenes just over halfway through the book that are actually quite shocking but they feel right in the context of the story and not like they exist just to add a bit of drama or shock value.  The "reveals" don't have any real shock value though as they are flagged up throughout the story but I still found myself empathising with the various characters.

I genuinely became absorbed in this story and was always sad when I had to put the book down.  Yes, it is cheesy, yes you can see what is going to happen from a mile off.  Somehow that is all the more comforting and makes the book feel like a big, warm cuddle.  After being disappointed with the last couple of Wynbridge books where it felt very much like a contractual obligation The Christmas Wish List was a breath of fresh, snow-laden air.

Into The Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo

          I was really disappointed in this novel.  It just never really clicked in to place for me.  The Realms and the peoples that populate them never really came alive on the page and I was constantly aware of reading rather than being absorbed in the tale.  Because I read this on an eReader you can see your progress which can be tortuous when you aren't enjoying something because you can see exactly how far to go there is before you finish it and, unfortunately, I did spend a great deal of time looking at the percentage of the book read and sighing at how much was still to go.

The build up is excrutiatingly slow.  The first 30% of the book is spent world building and introducing us to our protagonists Tavia, Saxony, Karam and Wesley.  By the time they start on their quest to bring down Ashwood I had genuinely stopped caring.  I much prefer "show don't tell" storytelling and for some reason I felt like I was being told (in minute detail) about every nuance of their intertwined relationships with both each other and their environment.  Strangely, the world building element never really gives you a sense of what the various Realms actually look like so the characters are moving through a landscape that is ephemeral and seems to consist largely of towns with rather Victorian sounding cobbled streets or forests.

There are a couple of good set pieces - the Courtesan's House and Ashwood's Castle - where action takes the forefront.  Even then, there is the tendency to meander off the point and stretch the action out for far more pages than is necessary to tell the story.  Primarily this is achieved by showing each scene from each of the 4 main character's viewpoint - by the time you get around to reading the fourth viewpoint you have had enough and are more than ready to move on and all tension has dissipated.

Even worse a fifth character gets introduced about 60% of the way through, Arjun.  Even once he has been identified as one of the Leaders by the Phantoms he is still a shadowy figure in the story and we never get to find out much about him.  He just pops up now and then to add some magical fire power.  He is also very much a fifth wheel as there are underlying romantic undercurrents between Wesley and Tavia and Karam and Saxony (I did heartily approve of the LBTQ+ relationship).

The reveal of the source of the voice in Wesley's head came as no surprise.  The only surprise was that when he went through the Regret Trial and it was witnessed by the others nobody recognised the source (I'm trying hard not to give it away as this is supposed to be a twist).  The book leaves us on a "cliffhanger" for the future of the intrepid 5 but I have no desire to see how things work out for them - all I want to know is will Karam and Saxony finally get it together and if my suspicion as to the true identity of Wesley (of course Blood Magic was used to hide him in plain sight - honestly, this again) which, if I'm right, makes the whole Tavia thing rather unsettling.

On the whole I found this overlong and boring.  What it needed was a lot of red pencil and strong editing to pare everything back.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Christmas at Wynter House by Emily Harvale

3.5 Stars

Cosy festive read that has no real surprises buried within it's pages.  From the moment Neva arrives in Wyntersleap to spend Christmas at the remote village with her family you know how it is going to end up.  So much so the whole Wynter brothers triangle actually served to annoy me - it was clear from the moment she met both Adam and Rafe which way this was going to go.  I found myself more interested in the dynamics between Neva and her family (parents Dawn and Dennis and her sister Rowan, her husband Nigel and their fantastic daughter Sasha) than in the romantic aspects of the story.  Sasha was definitely the star of the book for me and an 8 year old that I found startlingly familiar - I was all about the Horror at that age, still am to some extent.

The village may be small but it is packed with quirky characters - although I did find it odd that with so few cottages a pub and a general store managed to survive, definitely a fictional moment.  It was a refreshing change that not all the characters were "nice" as this tends to be a pitfall of this genre.  Although, even the "nasty" ones turn out to just be a little bit misunderstood.

A good pick up and put down read that will entertain in between all the shopping, cooking and wrapping.

This was my first Emily Harvale novel and it was a decent enough read.  I note that she has a reasonably sized back catalogue so I may plunder that on my next book buying splurge.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Miracle On Regent Street by Ali Harris

Evie is almost invisible, in fact most of her colleagues call her by the previous Stockroom Girl's name.  In her self-imposed uniform of black trousers and white shirt she mans the Stockroom at failing family Department Store Hardy's.  It's not exactly a busy place and once she had the shelves sorted to her satisfaction the highlight of her week is the Delivery Guy Sam - although, what he is delivering who knows as there is still pre-war stock sitting in the dank little room.  When she discovers that an American chain, Rumours, is looking at buying the property and turning it in to a super fashion-forward, high tech store she is appalled and sets out to save this charming old store.  Ably assisted by the background staff that no-one really notices - Felix the aged security guard, the team of Polish cleaners, Sam and the inimitable Lily from the basement cafe - Santa's Elves get cracking on transforming the store to it's old fashioned glory.

There are a lot of things that I could pick at about this novel as they just make no sense.  However, the whole is so charming I decided to let go of things like putting 1950's cosmetics on sale.  Ali Harris really brings Hardy's to life on the page and you can almost smell the dusty air and hear the hush of the customer free departments slowly coming back to life.  It is a huge heap of nostalgia and full of New Look type Glamour (and believe me it needs that capital letter).

Alongside the tale of trying to rescue the store there is Evie's private life.  Having had a disastrous relationship that ended 2 years ago she is still living with her high-flying sister, Delilah and her "something in the City" husband Will.  All that changes as she meets the dashing Jacob in the store and she starts to dream of more than just baby-sitting and working.  Although, Evie does have an unrealistic expectation of adult relationships and it is all her parent's fault - after all their's is the fairytale she aspires to and also the reason she loves Hardy's so much.

I really loved this book and particularly enjoyed every second in the store.  From finding out snippets about the people running those departments to dealing with the rather ghastly Carly.  The descriptions of the displays Evie creates solo and then with the help of her team of Elves are vibrant and it kind of reminded me of the film Mannequin with a 1950's twist.

A genuinely good fun, feel good book that is perfect for the season.

Friday, 20 December 2019

How To Play Dead by Jacqueline Ward

          3.5 Stars

I found that I enjoyed this book less and less as it went on.  Initially it was engrossing and absorbing and I was thoroughly enjoying it.  Unfortunately, it becomes incredibly repetitious and I was left feeling like there were a good 100 pages of filler thrown in that were no doubt meant to underline the dichotomy between Ria's professional life and her personal life but which left me wanting the author to just get on with it already.

The idea is a good one and the novel definitely deals with the topic of domestic abuse in a strong way.  However, I felt like it only paid lip service to the terror felt by the victims and that they were there only as a platform to showcase how incredible Ria is.  As we learn more about her past I hate to admit it but I did find myself thinking "yes, and..."  Whilst her experience was no doubt traumatic and would have had a lasting and indelible effect on who she became as an adult it did mean that the "power" of her position now became somewhat undermined as she seemed to equate that experience with the years of terror that her clients have been subjected too, especially Sheila.

The insertion of Tanya's story was a good foil for the work Safe Me does but the true identity of Tanya was not a surprise and from the first time she speaks up, via her diary entries, the reader knows she is intimately connected to Ria.  That sort of spoils the reveal around halfway through and also reveals who the stalker is and why it is happening now so many years down the line.  I was also disappointed that the debt aspect became glossed over as that just doesn't go away but continues to impact your life long after you have managed to claw your way out of it.

Taken as a whole it is a strong story and there is a decent amount of tension built up - mainly via Jim's intimidation of Sally and the staff.  Overall, it was a reasonable enough thriller but it did leave me feeling oddly unsatisfied with the ending and the conclusions that the author invites you to draw felt somehow like cracks were being wallpapered over.

As you can see from the rating I have given the book it wasn't a disaster, indeed I perceived it as slightly better than average on completion.  In retrospect I think I have been over generous and a solid 3 would have been fairer.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

The Gift Of Happiness by Holly Martin

At the risk of damning with faint praise this book was simply okay.  It ticks the festive boxes but I found the characters and their situations either wildly unrealistic, impossibly twee or an annoying combination of both.  It became clear early on in the book that this tale picks up from an earlier story set in this strange place called Happiness.  As this story deals with characters that seem to have been more or less peripheral previously this isn't really a detriment to enjoying this book.

One of the highlights for me was the replacing of Jesus in the Nativity with a snowman toy and then the taking of photos of Jesus in various outfits around the village.  There was a genuine sense of fun around it and it gave a much needed depth to the character of Ruby.  To be honest if it wasn't for that she would have just come across as fairly man hungry whilst avoiding commitment.

The author also makes an attempt at more raunchy scenes.  Sadly, these really don't work and read like an advert for the condom industry so often are they mentioned.  They are also more cringe than anything but are mercifully short.  Although, anytime Ruby and Jacob find themselves alone together I did wince in anticipation of their inability to keep their hands off each other - fortunately they do seem to be able to exercise a little restraint and can be alone without embarrassing themselves.  It also all felt vaguely incestuous with relationships between Ruby's best friend Willow and Jacob's brother, Jacob's sister and a mystery man who turns out to have a link to Ruby.  Are there really so few options for these fictional people?

I also had major issues with the set up of the village of Happiness; it just doesn't have any grounding in reality and the disparate bunch of characters that seem to live there are like no others found anywhere.  Just all around peculiar in quite an unsettling way.

The festive sentiments go some way to salvaging the novel and the wonderful range of events that Ruby dreams up for the village to take part in are a great idea.  I particularly loved the Angel sculpture idea and it wasn't something I had come across before.

On the whole this just scraped a 3 Star and if it hadn't been for the wonderful sense of seasonal warmth and bonhomie that exudes out of the pages this would have been lucky to get a 2.

The Christmas Invitation by Trisha Ashley

I normally adore Trisha Ashley's novels but there was something missing in this one and I can't quite put my finger on what.  On the surface of things it has everything her other books have:

Feisty and creative heroine with a disastrous long term relationship behind her.

Wonderful rural North of England setting.

Quirky older characters that go on to have an important role in the Heroine's life.

Interspersing story chapters with diary/magazine/book extracts relevant to the central character in some way.

Rough around the edges Love Interest that the Heroine has a "past" with.

Yup, it's all there but something misses the mark with this story.  It certainly isn't down to the marvellously named Clara Mayhem-Doome and maybe therein lies the problem.  Clara is such a fun and intriguing character that I think I actively resented Meg taking over the story when all I really wanted was to spend time with Clara.  She is such a bulldozer of a woman but one I think we would all like to know.  Next to her Meg feels insipid and never really manages to shine in her own right.

I also didn't like the back story between her and Lex, it was all so contrived and I found it hard to believe that the mythology of what happened that fateful ever got started.  Then throw in the mystery of Meg's mother and the ensuing revelation of her ignominious beginnings that tied, quite unbelievably, to the Doomes and it all began to feel a little like two reasonably good ideas for a novel stitched together to make a moderately successful story.

So, why give it four stars if that's how I feel?  Simply, it is the warmth and the humour that lifts the story.  Trisha Ashley knows how to write and how to engage her reader and this book exemplifies that.  I may not have taken to the main character, I may have found the plot ludicrous but I still didn't want to put the book down!

Just as an aside, shortly after I started this novel my husband was hospitalised with pneumonia - exactly what Meg was suffering from.  At one point Meg states that the illness is not bacterial and is always viral.  Sorry, pneumonia can be bacterial, viral or fungal.  It is better to get the bacterial version as antibiotics are a boon and certainly helped my husband recover enough to be sent home after 5 days in hospital rather than the weeks and weeks Meg spent hospitalised.  However, this leads me to also moan about how rapid her recovery on discharge from hospital is, not only is she standing for hours on end to paint but she is going on lengthy country side walks.  Trust me this thing takes your legs from under you and the other half finds even simple tasks exhausting.  As you can tell this irritated me no end but I have not let it colour my judgement of the novel itself.

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Majella O'Brien lives with the shadow of "The Troubles" on a daily basis.  Living in a border town means that even after the Good Friday Agreement there is still a simmering undercurrent of tension between the Loyalists and the Unionists in Northern Ireland and from what little we glean of Majella's earlier life it seems her father and his family and wider range of acquaintances were intimately involved in the Unionist cause.  Throw in the fact that Aghybogey still has clear separation between faiths, so much so they live on opposite sides of the bridge, and this novel feels set in a Northern Ireland more akin to the 1970s than the 2010s.

Entirely narrated by Majella, this is her story of life in a small town where family are disappointments and the options for a slightly peculiar female are very limited.  As described by the jacket blurb the main thing Majella doesn't know is that she is Autistic.  However, this reader isn't sure that she really is, or, if so she is only mildly on the Spectrum.  Majella is naive but this can easily be put down to her cloistered upbringing.  She is emotionally stunted, but so are a lot of people.  She has tics and self-soothing actions that seem out of place.  When you stop to think about her upbringing it seems that the self-soothing is the only comfort she got as her parents seem to have been too wrapped up in their own lives to provide a child with much in the way of comfort.  I think it just annoyed me that the Autistic label was bandied so freely by the publishers when it seems that all Majella's "problems" are merely coping mechanisms and products of her cold upbringing.  Okay, I'll tuck my soapbox away now.

I sort of enjoyed this book but I also found myself reading it in fits and starts as I found myself becoming bored with the story.  Majella's voice just didn't hold my attention for prolonged periods.  It also doesn't help that it starts and finishes with no real "point", just a snapshot from a damaged life that has a glimpse of a brighter future.  A brighter future that came at a terrible cost to her paternal Grandmother.

The writing is strong and the author has developed a clear voice for Majella, an astonishingly honest voice at that.  Unfortunately, it just didn't engross me in the tale and I was constantly being reminded that I was reading rather than being there - admittedly, parts are so well executed you feel like you are reading someone's diary but then it loses it's grip and you are back to feeling "oh, yeah it's this quirky book".

There is humour in the book but this can tend to the coarse side - no real surprise when you consider Majella works in the local Chippery and deals with the inebriated on a nightly basis.  It also illuminates the routines we all fall into - ordering the same takeout meal, having the same banter, doing the same things every day in an almost ritualistic way.

I can see that some people will absolutely rave about this book and I can understand why they would.  It just wasn't my cup of Spar Value Coffee.


The Little Shop On Silver Linings Street by Emma Davies

First things first, as soon as you find out about the rather twisted competition Bea has set for her three sons you know what the outcome will be.  Seeing as the whole book sort of revolves around the premise of Lawrence, Bertie and Kit getting to know Daisy so they can choose the perfect jewellery for her it is a little bit of a disappointment that the outcome is not more hidden.  Unfortunately from the moment Bea announces it the reader knows how things will shake out and you are just hopeful that the ride to get there is worth the investment of your time.

The good news is that, on the whole, it is well worth the time spent getting to Bea's decision.  Yes, Daisy can be exceptionally infuriating at times and the author's explanation for why she is the way she is just feels half-hearted and poorly thought through.  Much of Daisy's character relies on her "quirks" and these often serve to mask her real personality so she does come across as quite flat in sections of the book and as simply annoying in others.  I also found her constant lack of self-confidence vaguely irritating, not that the character had these crises of confidence but more the repetition of the author reminding us.

The three very different "dates" that the brother's set up for Daisy are fun to read about and I did almost feel as though I was there with her.  This was particularly true with Bertie's choice and even Lawrence's; Kit's less so as it felt slightly too removed from reality.  I also found myself feeling slightly sorry for Lawrence as he is more or less demonised throughout the book, although it does give the reader the opportunity for a good old fashioned seasonal Boo, Hiss!

I was surprised to realise that this is set in a fictional world that the author has taken us to before - I presume the previous book details Flora and Ned's journey.  However, a prior knowledge of this little fictional world and it's characters really isn't necessary as it is enjoyable as a stand alone book. 

In fact, this is the perfect accompaniment to a cold winter's night, a roaring fire and some crumbly mince pies.

A Perfect Cornish Christmas by Phillipa Ashley

3.5 Stars

I didn't really read the blurb for this book so when I started reading and found it was set in Porthmellow Harbour I was actually really pleased to be in a familiar setting.  However, it is only really a back drop to the story with a host of new characters and the odd name drop cameo of the characters from A Perfect Cornish Summer.  Bit disappointing really as I would have loved to catch up with Sam and Chloe.

The other disappointment in the book is that, for this reader, it tries to do too much.  Instead of settling on two or three main themes throughout, it all gets a bit muddled and jumbled up whilst trying to cover everything.  So much so, I found myself losing interest in the central story of the fall out from what should have been a fun present the previous Christmas that turned the whole family inside out.  The author does do a good job of showing family dynamics and how each individual reacts to the revelation that Scarlett is not her father's biological daughter, but the whole push to discover the circumstances regarding her birth do become a little tedious after a while.  This is not helped by all the other side plots that are brewing.

The Christmas Festival does sound wonderful and I almost found myself wanting to go - even if the torch parade did make me think of the Shetland New Year celebrations.  The whole setting does come alive in this book and at least the tide does come in occasionally at Porthmellow, although I don't think it is the time of year to be taking the plunge in to it's wild waters.

There are some nice romantic flourishes throughout the book for Scarlett, her sister Ellie and even their mother.  Ms. Ashley does a good job of making these heartwarming and touching whilst just about avoiding the schmaltz that it is easy to slip in to at this time of year.  Although, I will admit I was far more interested in Ellie's potential romance than in Scarlett's.

A nice, easy festive read that brings plenty of cheer.

Christmas At The Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

My first festive read of the year and it certainly ticked all the festive boxes.  Lots of twinkly lights and frosty mornings, even a dramatic storm or two on the coast.  Throw in some dramatic set pieces for Polly and Kerensa and this should have been a delicious start to the festive season.  Should have been but fell slightly wide of the mark.

Maybe it is because I am new to these characters and have not got to know them through the earlier Mount Polbearn books.  Maybe it is because I am beginning to grow weary of Cornwall as a setting - it really does feel like every other book is set there over the last couple of years.  Maybe it is because the most entertaining and relatable character is a bizarrely named anthropomorphised puffin.

Despite having given this three stars when I finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago I am now beginning to wonder why I rated it so "highly".  In retrospect all I can remember of the storyline is the ridiculous and contrived situations that Kerensa and Polly get themselves in to; the horrendous Reuben character that I am sure people only tolerate because he is not shy in sharing his ridiculous amounts of wealth and the doormat that is Huckle (honestly, where do these names come from?)

I usually enjoy Ms Colgan's novels but this one did leave a sour taste in my mouth and has made me wonder whether or not to continue exploring her back and future catalogue.  There was enough festive fun to keep me entertained and I obviously enjoyed enough of the book to give it 3 stars, I'm just wondering why as I think back to the story and all I can remember are things that irritated me.  Definitely not the author's finest.

Wilde Women by Louise Pentland

3.5 Stars

I was really looking forward to settling down with a good brew and this book to see how things shake out for Robin after the events of the second book.  Unfortunately, it didn't live up to the promise of the second novel but it was still a pretty good read.  It just has issues with repetition, particularly with Robin's inner monologue - we get it.  Robin is struggling to blend all the disparate parts of her life together and there are only so many times I can read the same dilemma phrased slightly differently before my mind wanders off in boredom.

I also found the networking group exceedingly cringe making.  From the naff name; Women Who Win, seriously? To the whole exclusively female aspect it just felt divisive and endlessly uncomfortable with the dodgy business "advice" to the supposed support network that was established early on that didn't really have any bearing on other characters and only served as a foil to show more of Robin's angst.

This novel really is all about Robin with the inimitable Aunty Kath relegated to very much a supporting role and even though the reader figures out what is going on with her far earlier than Robin does the resolution is exceedingly rushed and the repercussions are not explored at all, never mind adequately - this could have easily been the entire last quarter of the book instead of the rushed handful of pages that are devoted to it.  There is also only a passing reference to other characters that were so important in the first two books; all so we can spend more time listening to Robin moan about her rather enviable situation.

On the up side there is some decent situational humour and getting to see Robin lose her ever-loving mind at the film company meeting was satisfying.  What little we get of interactions between Robin and the other characters has a good level of believability and the dialogue is realistic.  All plus points.

Unfortunately, she is so wrapped up in her own little slice of the world she is neglectful of her friends and how her boyfriend is still hanging on for her I do not know as she constantly sidelines him, particularly when she decamps herself, her daughter, Aunty Kath and her best friend with baby to New York.  For me Robin just doesn't work as a sympathetic character in this book; she came across as completely self-absorbed and unable to see anyone else's point of view or position.

I did enjoy it but in a kind of car crash, rubber necking way.

Better than the first in the series but not as good as the second book.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Fated by Benedict Jacka

2.5 Stars

I was genuinely looking forward to reading this novel, I really enjoy the Urban Fantasy genre and have been lookign to try a few new authors and I had seen people raving about this novel and comparing to the PC Peter Grant books (which I am a complete fan girl about) and the Harry Dresden books (on my wishlist to try).  Oh dear me was I disappointed.

Here's the thing, they are billed as being Urban Fantasy set in Camden.  For me they were just pure fantasy that happened to have a quasi-real world setting.  There is no real interaction between the magical folk and the regular humans and no acknowledgement of the wider implications for the two rubbing against each other.  Camden and the wider London area just seem to be there to act as a draw for the reader and make you think you are getting something you aren't.  Then throw in a stroll through a London Park to meet up with a magical, centuries old creature; a magical party in Canary Wharf and explosive happenings in the British Museum.  The settings are largely irrelevant to the plot and it may have worked better to have this set in a complete fantasy world that the author could manipulate to his desires.  As it is I did feel a little "conned" by the Urban Fantasy tag because for me it simply isn't.

Then we come to the magic and the nagical people and creatures.  The magical system just doesn't seem to be coherent.  This is sadly true of our main character, and narrator, Alex Verus.  He is supposed to be able to see all the possible futures for a course of action and then states that until a decision is made he cannot see how things will work out but he is still able to manipulate events by choosing the timeline he wants to happen.  This doesn't make any sense at all because although he has made a decision to follow one possible thread the ultimate outcome of it depends on the decisions made by other invested parties and not just him.  Yet, time and time again everything happens as he predicted it would.  I got irrationally angry at this and the more the book progressed the less able I was to let it slide.

Alex's back story was interesting but the reveal was drawn out for far too long, indeed I spent a good portion of the book wondering if I had joined part way through the series and should already know what all these asides were about.  Nope, it really is the first one the author just wants to drip feed us the information.  The "voice" of Alex Verus is actually one of the most enjoyable things about the book and along with the action sequences the only thing that kept me reading.

For me this is a missed opportunity as there are some great ideas for a magical world here but just not executed to their full potential.  I have seen reviews that say the second in the series is much better but from having read this one it would have to be a freebie before I would consider picking it up.

The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch

Having read some of the early reviews I was a little wary of this one as I love the Peter Grant series and it seemed like this was a major disappointment to a lot of the fan base.  However, I think this may be because it is a novella and therefore much, much shorter than the novels we have come to expect.  So, going in to the story forewarned that this was only going to be a quick read (check the page count people - I always do) I set aside a few hours on a day off so I could blitz through it in one sitting.

I am pretty sure this story is meant to be read in one big chunk as it just keeps luring you on to read one more chapter until you get to the denouement.  I will admit I thoroughly enjoyed this briefer glimpse into Peter Grant's world and every so often there were little bits and pieces tossed in that had me thinking "hmm, that's going to get brought up again in the next couple of full length novels".  It was also refreshing to have Sgt. Kumar of the BTP back on the page in more than a cameo role and we even got to spend a little time with Toby - huzzah (I have strangely missed the little four legged fellow in the last few novels).  For me I was even relieved that there was no Faceless Man, no Leslie (I am getting a little bit fed up of that sub-plot truth be told) and only a passing reference to Bev and her family.  This is just a nice little slice of investigative work and even brought in a  couple of new service characters from the sprawling London suburbs that I hope we get to revisit.

Overall, I found this to be the distilled essence of his longer works in this fantastical world.  That means I thoroughly loved it.  As much as I have enjoyed all of the series (indeed, thus far everything has been 5 Star) there are some things that I am dreading will reappear in the next full length novel (Lies Sleeping) and I know there will be some repetition of the relationship between The Folly and the Metropolitan Police, some awkward plot bringing Leslie and the Faceless Man into a tangential enquiry to the one that is the main meat of the book and probably some fracas between Peter and the Lady Ty.  Doesn't mean I won't enjoy it but the fact these things were largely missing in this novella was a breath of fresh air.

I think if you go into the book accepting that it is only a novella (and likely an idea for a full length novel that just didn't pan out) so you can get it read in a couple of hours you will enjoy it far more.  I would also recommend that you read this series in order as some ideas are gently expounded on as the books progress and I suspect that if you don't have the grounding of the earlier books then some of it is going to be completely mistifying.  Just one final thought:

I loved the nod to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series when talking about Nightingale's boyhood school - not only did it make me smirk, it forced me to post about it on Facebook for the first time in around 8 months.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

A Visitation Of Angels by Carolyn Haines

I haven't read any of the other Pluto's snitch series, in fact I purchased this book in error as I don't like starting a series of books part way through.  However, it did sound like an intriguing premise so I decided to just plunge on in and give it a go.  I can honestly say that not having read any of the previous books was not a barrier to enjoying this one.  The characters soon become clear in your head and the author shows you what they are all about rather than telling you.  There is some background information given at several points during the story and whilst this was fine for a newcomer to this fictional world it may be an annoyance to someone who is reading "in order".

There is a lot going on in this story.  Setting aside the more spiritual and supernatural themes there is a lot about general 1920's social attitudes.  Raissa is a thoroughly modern woman and finds that she needs to sublimate her personality and dress in a way that is not her usual fashion when she finds herself going to rural Alabama.  A place where women are seen and not heard, where skirt lengths are definitely much longer than in her more metropolitan circles.  She also finds that she is not expected, or encouraged, to have let alone voice an opinion and that despite women now having the vote rural Alabama is still clinging to notions and morals of 100 years ago where the womenfolk are concerned.

Along with the heavy feminism thread running through the tale it also touches on attitudes towards homosexuality.  Reginald very definitely has to hide who he is and you get the definite impression that Raissa is more than just his close friend and business partner, she is also his beard.  The story also touches on corruption of officials, ostracism of those that do not conform to one set of rigidly held beliefs; eg. the sign when they enter Mission regarding Gypsys.

The construction of the world is very well done and the descriptions of the strange society in Mission is very well drawn.  I could not detect any judgment from the author about the sheer wrongness of the situation there, she allowed Raissa and Reginald to articulate that, what I did get was a clear and concise, almost bored, description of how it was and how it would be.  Nice not to have something overdramatised or a "look how terrible it all is" agenda and for the author to allow their characters to speak rather than them overtly manipulating them to fit their personal agenda.

Unfortunately, this is supposed to be a supernatural tale and I did find that this aspect was rather disappointing.  Initially the nature of Gabriel was confusing and then you become very frustrated with Raissa for taking so long to figure out what is going on.  There is a nice twist towards the end with the Pinkerton Agent (whose name I cannot remember but think it may have been Michael).  There is a lot of drawing out events which I think was supposed to generate tension for the reader but I found it just dissipated things for me and everything felt rather slow going until the last 20% or so of the book when things get very pacy.

Not a bad read, but not a great one either.

The Pact by Amy Heydenrych

          There is so much that I found wrong in this book that I am not entirely sure where best to start.  For a start the title is confusing, there is no real "pact".  I guess the title refers to the final reveal of what happened to Nicole and that page and half contains a pact of sorts.  Maybe a better title would have been The Entitled or The Clueless.

As you can tell, I really didn't like this book and I did struggle to finish it.  After allowing myself a few DNF's in 2018 I was determined that 2019 would be different so I powered through but it took a lot of bribery to get me there.

First off the characters in this book are entirely unsympathetic and to say it is written by a woman the female characters in particular are written in an almost misogynistic way.  They are either power hungry shrews (Nicole), the delicate ingenue who is afraid of her own shadow (Freya) or tough cookies with a frail centre and trust issues (Isla).  The men are either manipulative narcissists (Jay, Julian) or tender ciphers (Simon).  Nobody feels like a rounded person on the page or as though they have any basis in reality  which is happen as well as if you met anyone this one dimensional in reality the world would probably implode with the banality of it all.

The plot itself jumps around to cover Freya's tough college days when she was living out of her car, through her early days at Atypical (a tech start up from hell) and for a few months after the murder of Freya.  Whilst used to the flashback style of storytelling I found that it really grated in this book.  There was no continuity to which timeline we were going to be in and you could literally go from a page and a half set in the here and now then to a page 4 years ago and then get 3 pages of a month before the murder.  I can understand what the author was trying to achieve with this but it is so incredibly bitty it undermines the device.

Ultimately, the plot centres around a so-called prank that Freya plays on Nicole which then backfires spectacularly.  However, the blurb and the first half of the book make you think it backfires in one way when it turns out that all that is smoke and mirrors and it actually goes very wrong in a different way (yawn!).  I honestly am not sure what disappointed me most; the lacklustre characters or the pedestrian plot with a very thin idea stretched so far as to become almost invisible.

The only thing that stopped this being a 1 Star read was the fact that it highlighted office politics and work place bullying.  Something that any wage slave is more than aware off and usually suffers through at least once in their working life.  Other than that for me this is one to avoid.


How Beautiful They Were by Boston Teran

3.5 Stars

This book swerves between two viewpoints - that of Nathaniel Luck which is told in "real time" and that of his erstwhile stage manager which is told in a flashback style. It does make for a little confusion at time as they are not clearly delineated and it sometimes took several lines before it clicked in my brain why the perspective had suddenly changed. This was not helped by the fact it didn't engage me as much as I thought it would. Largely this is down to the actual writing style which not only seeks to tell a story set in a Victorian era but seems to try to emulate the writing style of the period as well as evoke the prevailing attitudes and living conditions of the time.

There is also a heavy handed attitude to morality throughout and almost a "look at how barbaric it all was" view point. All the way through the reading I was reminded of the old maxim "The past is a different country, they do things differently there". Whilst we should not forget atrocities that man perpetrated against man for simply being born with a different coloured skin, having a predilection for the same gender or into a penurious household this book seems to beat you around the head with it. There is no subtlety evident in the telling and rather than a mirror being held up to our collective pasts you are bludgeoned around the head with it.

What saved the book for me was the glimpses in to the raucous theatre life. The characters that inhabit these shady theatres and Nathaniel Luck's reflections on his craft and how he could improve, how he could captivate, how he could bring real life to the stage and make it interesting. His personal journey is also interesting with all it's meanderings in to despair and joy.

To be honest, the whole thing is done better by Martha Conway in The Floating Theatre.


Living The Dream by Lauren Berry

3.5 Stars

The tag line for this book irrationally annoys me "A millennial tale about...".  From having read this book it is just a standard about that good old work / life balance and how much the world is ready to stab you in the back at every turn.  Honestly, if this story is representative of the millennials then it equally applies to us doddery old Gen X'ers too.  I'm sure it applies to those who have gone before and those who are yet to come too.

Okay, that mini-rant over I did enjoy the story, it just didn't "grab" me.  I enjoyed each page and the way the plot (such as it is) unfolded and the characters were relatable.  It was just vaguely pedestrian.  It had nothing to say, ultimately, that we don't already know but it was fun and fluffy and passed the time in an agreeable fashion.

Emma, hates her job but can't see a way out to do what she really wants to do.  She lives in a very dodgy flatshare that means it's inhabitants can't register for a doctor or register to vote because it isn't actually a domestic property but at least the rent is cheap and they avoid Council Tax.  Not forgetting the perk of as many pleather handbags as you can get a five finger discount on.  Throw in a friend that she doesn't seem to actually like very much and a best friend who is as messed up as she is by the whole working life and "following your dream" guff as she is and you have a pretty standard chick lit set up.

Make no mistake, despite the blurb and the tag line this is a solid piece of chick lit.  Complete with handy resolutions all around and a couple of happy endings thrown in.

Emma and the delightfully named Clementine Twist are relatable (to an extent) and fun characters.  They mess up, they own their mistakes and you know from the first few chapters that they will come good.  This makes it enjoyable in a box set binging kind of way.  You don't really want to savour the story you just want to barge through it like a bulldozer.

The cringy office at APRC will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an office environment.  Maybe that is where the appeal for this one really lies; the reality of working life and office politics blown up to exaggerated proportions.  Certainly the resolutions for the two main characters don't exactly ring true to life for the vast majority of us wage slaves.

I did enjoy it but it didn't pull me deep and keep me turning those pages.


Shopaholic Ties The Knot by Sophie Kinsella

What is it with Becky Bloomwood and completely unrealistic scenarios?  I desperately want to slap her and bring her screaming in to reality ...