Wednesday, 18 March 2020

The Book Of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

The first thing I would like to address in this review is the elephant in the room - religion.  This book is definitely going to cause ructions in some quarters, dealing as it does with a fictional representation of Jesus Christ as being a normal human man and the "lost years" between birth and becoming a Leader Of Men.  Depending on your proclivities the representation of him as living a normal life in those years and even taking a wife may be a real hot button issue; for me I find it wholly realistic that he would have been married as this was very much the expected norm at the time.  The representation of him having brothers and an Earthly family may also be an issue for some but again, this sits true for me.

The main thrust of the story though is not Jesus and his life, it is about Ana and her life.  From daughter of a senior official for Herod Antipas through betrothal, marriage, loss and fear how her life develops in a time when women were seen as a man's chattels.  Ana has a strong, clear voice that draws the reader in and I found myself reluctant to put the book down.  I am reluctant to talk too much about the plot as it unfolds so organically on the page that to mention more than the bare bones I feel spoils the adventure for another.

The historical research feels impeccable and the realisation of Nazareth, Jerusalem and Alexandria come alive on the page.  The sights, the sounds, the smells they are all evoked by the text and the author really pulls you back to this time.  The language used is very much now which makes it completely accessible and I was relieved that there was little in the way of trying to replicate the sentence and speech patterns of the Before Common Era peoples.  Whilst some may prefer this I find that it provides a disconnect as you spend much of your time trying to parse the words in to a format which makes sense to the reader and for fiction is wholly (in my opinion) unnecessary.

I was not prepared to be so swept up in this novel and to enjoy reading what could be such a tragic story.  There is an underlying message of hope in Ana's tale that seeps off the page and catches the reader unawares.  If you know your New Testament then many of the background events feel familiar (I was educated at a Convent school so did find myself playing "spot the link" quite frequently) and it also gives a good explanation of Judaic custom that is still followed by some branches of the religion to this day (eg., the Mikvah).  Don't be fooled though whilst there is a lot about Religion in this book first and foremost this is Ana's story and from the moment she first daubs in her prayer bowl she gets her most heartfelt desire; to be a Voice.

I can see how this book of fiction could be seen as being divisive and how some may find it shocking and maybe even blasphemous.  For me it is neither of those things; it is a story told with passion, empathy and a deep understanding of people.


Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Time's Convert by Deborah Harkness

To set things in context my favourite book of the trilogy is Shadow Of Night which is mostly set in Elizabethan London.  Bringing history to life is something that Deborah Harkness does exceptionally well and that novel sparked my interest in that particular time period.  When I saw that a new book was coming out set in the same universe I was excited but trepidatious which led to me purchasing it on my eReader and then waiting over 12 months to read it as I was wary of being disappointed.

This book is mainly about Marcus and Phoebe, who develop a relationship in The Book Of Life.  We do get to see a fair bit of Matthew and Diana as well as the extended family but they are only really there to provide a breather between the historical detail.  As Phoebe transitions to a vampire Marcus seeks refuge with his sire Matthew and Diana sets of a chain of events where Marcus relives his transition and his human and vampire lives.  The historical detail is rich and enveloping and really sucked me in so that I became unaware of time passing whilst I was reading.

However, if Historical fiction is not a genre that you enjoy then this book will probably leave you cold.  It doesn't really add much to the All Soul's canon apart from a few more insights in to the structure of Vampire Society and some of their traditions.  Whilst there is a cast of characters that we already know they are not there to further their own stories but to flesh out Marcus and Phoebe's tale.  Definitely a companion piece to the trilogy but more Philippa Gregory than Bram Stoker.

This book takes us from the American War Of Independence right through to the French Revolution.  Marcus certainly seemed to be able to pick a battlefield.  It also sheds some light on to what actually happened in New Orleans.  This is touched on slightly in the previous novels but only from Matthew's perspective, now we get to find out how Marcus got himself in to that predicament.  Blood Rage gets mentioned a few times but it felt like it was wedged in there, as though the author had somehow forgotten about it's existence until Jack arrives to spend time with his family.

This is a far more gentle tale than the main trilogy and was a nice change of pace from all the tensions with the Congregation.

The Bad Mother's Detox by Suzy K Quinn

4.5 Stars

This is a new series to me and from the off it was clear that there was a pre-story here that I had not read.  Turns out this is book two and apart from fairly frequent references to the history of Juliette, Nick and Alex not having read the first book is not a drawback as everything you need to know is recapped.  Told in diary format by Juliette you have to trust that her narration is honest but it does feel disingenuous in many sections and it would have been interesting to see Nick and Alex's viewpoints.

This is pure fantasy and escapism and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It helps that Juliette's voice is warm, funny and engaging.  So, even though I didn't entirely trust her and found that my brain was doing a lot of internal eye rolling and "Yeah, right"ing  I still raced through the book.  There is such a disconnect with reality displayed that you can't help but enjoy it.  Nobody is getting a mortgage on a fire damaged hovel that has no roof; I don't care who you are mortgages just aren't given on that type of property.  Least of all to someone with no regular income and, let's face it, Juliette does not have a regular income.  Throw in the whole weird Nick applying for sole custody thing and it amps up the unbelievability.

It is, though, undoubtedly fun.  Books are designed to do many things and one of them is entertain and this does that.  I didn't laugh out loud but it did make me smile and that is something that rarely happens when the supposed humour of a book is used as one of it's main selling points.  I like that despite living on top of each other Juliette's family is close knit and seem to genuinely love each other, it's just the people she chooses for herself that aren't good for her.

Great fun and allows you to leave reality far behind.

Monday, 9 March 2020

The End Of The World Is Nigh by Tony Moyle

2.5 Stars

Strangely prescient read, considering I started reading this in February 2020 as Covid-19 started to make a worldwide impact.  All the more ironic really as the book deals with a prophecy that predicts a pandemic causing cities to be put under quarantine and mass panic stirred by media outlets.  A fictional prophecy that is strangely running parallel to the times we live in - if only oranges really would help.

I felt strangely let down by this book, it just didn't gel for me.  Whilst there are some sound attempts at depicting medieval life through Phil's exploits the choice of language jarred greatly with the setting.  The voices for medieval life and modern life are the same which made it very difficult to feel any genuine connection with the historical setting.  I wasn't expecting the author to slip in to a heap of forsooths and sirrees but because the narration had no pitch change it all became a bit blah and bland.  The juxtaposition between ancient and modern can be handled without resorting to time appropriate verbiage but it was ineffectual here.

It also didn't help that I genuinely did not like any of the characters in the book.  Ally Oldfield was the nearest I got to liking anyone and that was because she was relatively open and honest in her hostile superiority.  I got the feeling that Phil was supposed to be who the reader really liked but I just wanted to slap him on a regular basis.  Gabriel was just an abomination and every worse trope of a "Millennial" you could possibly conjure up from skimming the internet.

Despite being all too real a scenario in the modern day - minus the Nostradamian Gloom - this really wasn't for me.  I couldn't wait to finish the book and was tempted on several occasions to just label it a DNF and be done with it all but I persevered and limped to the end.  I noted it as a 2.5 Star read in my notebook but on reflection it was more a 1.5 - 2 but I will stay with my impression on concluding the book.

Queen Of Someday by Sherry D Ficklin

3.5 Stars

This was my second read through of the book and I did find myself racing through it but feeling somehow cheated.  I remember it being full of far more intrigue than it actually was.  In effect there is a lot of handwringing and overblown emotions that just overpowered the story for me.  Even worse, I couldn't really understand why Sophie was putting her future in jeopardy by catting around with "the help".  Beyond physical attraction there seemed nothing to draw her to Alexander or Sergei and as things progress the "meeting of minds" thing just fell somehow flat for me.

I don't think it helped that everytime Sophie was depicted as being conflicted about something she would more or less retire to her bed and throw a bit of a strop.  Where was the wild creature who took on bandits with a knife hidden in her boot?  It just felt like as soon as she arrived at the Royal Court all her strength and vivacity drained away and she almost became a simpering pawn in the "game" between the Empress and Peter.

The glimpses of the Court Opulence were well drawn, I just felt like the true lavishness was downplayed a little - probably deliberately as even genuine Historical accounts boggle the readers mind and it is hard to really wrap your head around just how much Show there was.  Knowing where the real Catherine's story went gives me pause as to how the future books will handle her development as a ruler.  Although, the way this book opens shows that this fictionalised version has the spirit to become that leader the way it ends makes it hard to comprehend.

Definitely little in the way of genuine history here but it does give you a little taste and did lead me to do some light research in to the real person.  Some of the highlights of her pre-reign are here but a fresh spin has been placed on them to make it all seem a little more Machiavellian and dangerous for her than it really seems to have been - although History is written by the victors so how much spin Catherine herself put on the reports of her early life and reign is unknown.

I am looking forward to reading the next in the series though, see how that pesky married life works out before becoming Empress Consort.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

4.5 Stars

Based on my love of Urban Fantasy and the fact I am all caught up on PC Grant I have been branching out looking for other series that may sate my appetite.  Having seen the Harry Dresden books regularly referenced in reviews of other genre authors I figured I'd give the first one a shot.  Happily, I did enjoy it, it's not quite up there with PC Grant yet but if reviews are reliable then things do get better as the series evolves.  At least it gives me a whole slew of books to obsess over.

There was something missing in this book for me though and I still can't put my finger on it.  The delineations of the magical world are given a sound grounding and the author has clearly thought his mythology through before starting.  Dialogue is a little clunky - however, I like that because real life conversations are often clunky as all get out.  Characterisation is brief and you are sort of left to sift through the text to figure the various protagonists out from their actions, like that a lot.  I think it was the pacing that was off, initially this was going to be a 4 star review but seeing as much of the plot has stuck with me 3 weeks and a handful of books later I decided to upgrade it a smidge.

One frustration for me was allusions to Harry's past and the fact he now has the Doom Of Damocles hanging over him; along with a permanent Council shadow who seems determined to execute him.  It just all felt a bit superfluous somehow and as though it was added for deliberate intrigue that just falls flat.  We get that Harry could do very, very bad things with his magic if he chose and seeing as the book opens with a grisly murder that is potentially magical in origin we already know this.  Just felt a little like it was all a bit over done and needed to be pared back.

Allusions to other magical creatures inhabiting the Human sphere were handled well.  I was particularly enamoured with the skull spirit, sounded like a cross between a Sicilian Grandmother and an 80s Frat Boy.  The faerie element was well handled too and the thought of them just wanting lots of pizza made me very happy.  I was also happy with the magic that was outlined in the book, a cross between you just either have it or you don't and just knowing the right set of ingredients to make it work.

Overall, a good start to the series and I will definitely be reading more.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Falling by Jane Green

I really enjoyed reading this book, it doesn't really bring anything new to the reader but it does give a sense of cosy familiarity to the reader.  You know what is going to happen almost from the moment Emma moves in to her rented Beach House in what sounds like an exclusive Summer Town (I'm sure some people know this area of the US Coastline but I'm pretty much clueless).  There are the usual speed bumps in the road to happiness but regular readers of the genre know this is just the way it has to go for love to blossom (yes I am rolling my eyes as I type that).

In all honesty I could not for the life of me figure out what Emma and Dominic had in common beyond physical attraction.  As a character Dominic is very flat on the page and lacks any real depth beyond being a single dad who works as a bartender and rents out his Grandparents old home to keep himself afloat.  Emma herself is a little more interesting but the English Reserve trope is overdone and rather than being reserved she comes off as being downright rude and selfish.  I was also left feeling a little uncomfortable by some of her interactions with Dominic's son as they felt more than a little like she was using the child to get to the dad.

Despite the above I found myself actively wanting to read one more chapter and enjoying the story.  Lots of ups and downs that felt fairly true to life (well, life as it rolls out in Novel World) and some interesting interactions with characters on the periphery of the tale.  I particularly enjoyed the interplay between Dominic and Emma and their respective parents.  Both of them have their own reasons for keeping their parents at arms length and whilst the tropes are overplayed (in my opinion) they do still work.

My biggest issue was with the ending of the book.  There is no way that the whole Guardianship thing would have happened, it just wouldn't.  It actively left a bad taste in my mouth and I hated that the author felt the need to tie everything up with a neat little bow.  Should have been left on a down-note.

The Lost Lights Of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

          The sad thing about this book is that I could see what the author was trying to achieve but it just didn't engage me.  Initially I thought I was going to really enjoy the novel as we hear from three disparate characters:

Chrissie - One of the last occupants of the remote island of St. Kilda.  Relocated to the Scottish mainland after a disastrous and isolated winter.

Fred - Spent one summer on St. Kilda a couple of years before the relocation and is now imprisoned by the Germans after the surrender at St Valery.

Rachel Anne - Chrissie's daughter who remembers little of her brief time on St. Kilda and is desperate to learn more.

The timeframe moves between the 1940's and the 1920's with the odd dip back in to Chrissie's childhood.  At first this works well and hearing from the three viewpoints is interesting as the Historical research has clearly been done.  You get the sense of the remoteness of St. Kilda and the strategies that it's community have developed to survive.  You understand how Fred's experiences after St. Kilda mirror that and how it is being paralleled as he escapes from the prison and strives to return to England.  You see how Chrissie still feels that isolation whilst living on the Mainland and how her daughter is struggling to make sense of her place in the world with no knowledge of her background.

The problem is it never develops past this.  Everything you really need to know about the book is covered in the first 30 pages and then it just became a slog to get to the end, and this isn't a long novel.  It just felt like it was.  Rachel Anne more or less disappears and the story concentrates on flipping between Fred's experiences as he tries to escape using the underground developed by the French Resistance and Chrissie's life on St. Kilda, mainly centring around the time Fred was there.

To be honest I felt like I was being beaten repeatedly about the head with how tough things were just to survive on St. Kilda.  How remote it was.  How much they relied on passing ships for the basic necessities.  What I never really felt was any connection with the characters, they seemed to merely be there as a foil for the setting and that made for the worst of all things, a boring read.  Yes, there is a lot of action and tension around Fred's escape attempts but it is diluted so much that I found myself losing interest.  A real missed opportunity as there are some interesting themes to be explored here but without living and breathing characters it was never going to work and the characters just didn't work for me.


Monday, 2 March 2020

Gheist by Richard Mosses

I really wasn't sure what to expect from this novel but I found myself completely engrossed after the first couple of chapters. It has a little bit of various sorts of supernatural trickery and all set in the City Of Sin. The publisher's blurb really doesn't do this book justice at all, but it is a pretty accurate summation of the events.

Kat finds herself stranded in Las Vegas after her fiance does a bunk owing a whole lot of money to various loan sharks. Unfortunately, they seem to think that Kat is responsible for his debts and in order to try and pay it off she resorts to illicit, high stakes poker games which bring her in to contact with the unofficial Sultan of the Strip - Danton. Danton has a few unusual acquaintances and decides that the only fair thing to do is to use some of their talents to take something very precious to Kat; something she will do anything to get back.

Throw in a weird little church where the congregation are all ghosts, the planning of possibly the biggest heist in Vegas history and a whole lot of general weirdness and I found myself gripped. I honestly didn't expect that to happen but after about 4 or 5 chapters I was in this book all the way and thoroughly enjoying every moment. Well, almost every moment - Clint's flashbacks to when he was alive seemed to drag on and on, the reason why this character is belaboured so much becomes apparent in the big showdown but that still didn't stop them boring me.

The metaphysical world is well thought through and there do seem to be an awful lot of rules governing it. The idea of anchors for ghosts is a good one and used intelligently through the book; as is their ability to react with the physical world. Characterisation is solid throughout but I was desperate to learn more about Melchior and also about the Church.

Well constructed, exciting and a refreshing slant on an unseen world.


When I Was You by Minka Kent

3.5 Stars

I am a bad reviewer, it is a good 3 weeks since I finished the book but things got away from me and I am only now starting to catch up on my reviewing.  The thing that mainly stuck with me about this book is the setting - or, more accurately, the Queen Anne House that Brienne lives in and where the majority of the "action" takes place.  There is a lot of love lavished on the house by the author, so much so it becomes another character in the book.  Sadly, it is a character that has little to add to the overall tale.

There is no real suspense in this tale, the author clearly explains what is going on and then allows us to see things from the protagonists point of view as well as the victims.  There is an attempt at ascribing a motive to the protagonist but it is never really fleshed out enough and there are some glaring inconsistencies.  Still, read it quick enough and you can give them the side eye as you skate on past.  Works for me.  In retrospect the book is full of plot holes and raises so many questions about this purported situation that are never satisfactorily answered.  Whilst I can appreciate where the author wants the tale to go it never successfully achieves the final result as too much is left flapping in the wind like forgotten laundry.  The whole premise is on shaky ground virtually from the get go and even as there is an attempt to ratchet up tension and make you wonder if Brienne is imagining things, going crazy or if there is something more sinister going on you know exactly what is happening - and this is before the author blows the whole thing up at the start of Part Two and explains exactly what is going on.

From the notes in my little aide de memoir there must have been things I enjoyed about this book as I have given it a slightly above average score.  My recall tells me that it was mainly enjoyable because the old grey matter could (indeed needed to) disconnect and it was a generally throw away tale that flowed nicely in the telling and provided light entertainment.  Not exactly a good recommendation I know but it all depends what you want from your read at that moment in time.  Overall, escapist tale that does not bear scrutiny of the most cursory kind but it does entertain.

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 ...