Author Archives: sjhigbee

About sjhigbee

Science fiction/fantasy writer & creative writing tutor and book addict. I can't walk past a book shop or library and am considering therapy.

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Battle Ground – Book 17 of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #BattleGroundbookreview

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I’ve read and enjoyed all the books in this series so far – see my reviews of Peace Talks, Skin Game, Ghost Story and Turn Coat – and was delighted when I saw Battle Ground pop up on Netgalley.

BLURB: Harry has faced terrible odds before. He has a long history of fighting enemies above his weight class. The Red Court of vampires. The fallen angels of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. The Outsiders.

But this time it’s different. A being more powerful and dangerous on an order of magnitude beyond what the world has seen in a millennium is coming. And she’s bringing an army. The Last Titan has declared war on the city of Chicago, and has come to subjugate humanity, obliterating any who stand in her way. Harry’s mission is simple but impossible: Save the city by killing a Titan. And the attempt will change Harry’s life, Chicago, and the mortal world forever.

REVIEW: First things first – whatever you do, don’t pick this one up if you haven’t already at least read Peace Talks and preferably Skin Game before that. All three books run straight on from one another, with no recap or handy reminders about what happened before. So if you just happen to pick up this one on the grounds that you recall Harry with fondness from some of the earlier books, put it back on the shelf until you’ve read the other two.

Book titles generally relate to the contents in some way, although that can often be metaphorical, or slightly oblique. But in this case, Butcher has been literal as the whole book revolves around a single major battle in the middle of Harry’s home turf, Chicago. The earlier chapters cover the battle preparations, with Harry desperately trying to prepare for the worst – and the second half of the book, which isn’t short, covering that battle. I’ve read one other book that covered a single battle in a similar fashion – Last Dragon Standing by Rachel Aaron and overall, I think that one is more successful than Battle Ground.

Butcher is hampered by Battle Ground being narrated in limited first-person viewpoint, which means that Harry has to be in the middle of whatever action is going down. While we have the advantage of seeing everything through the filter of his laconic, dryly amusing characterisation, it also means that every encounter has his trademark fighting style, along with whoever is accompanying him. And although he has a number of different companions battling beside him throughout the night, inevitably a pattern develops. That said, almost anyone who has featured throughout the series puts in an appearance during this vital encounter. I was particularly delighted to see dear old Butters acquitting himself with such distinction as he’s a huge favourite of mine. There are major losses, too. A key character dies during one of the opening skirmishes – and I was more than a bit rocked to see them go. It rocked poor old Harry, too.

Having a full-on battle throughout the book also means there isn’t an opportunity for the reader to get a breather. I frequently put the book down simply because I needed a break from the bloody action and emotional intensity that came with it. And during the latter stages, I became a bit numbed by it all, so that I ended up rereading the ending just to get a more accurate sense of the emotional tenor around the ending.

That said, I don’t want you to go away with the impression that this is a poor book. The action scenes are gripping and immersive. Butcher portrays Harry’s experiences during the battle with vividness and emotion that packs a punch. And I’m fascinated to discover exactly how he’ll take the series forward from here. It was a calculated risk to split the original book in two, which I think Butcher has mostly pulled off. Recommended for fans of the Harry Dresden series who have at least read the previous two books. The ebook arc copy of Battle Ground was provided by the publisher through Netgalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik – Book 2 of the Scholomance series #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #TheLastGraduatebookreview

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I am a fan of Novik’s writing – see my reviews of Spinning Silver, Uprooted and Victory of Eagles, Tongues of Serpents, Crucible of Gold, Blood of Tyrants and League of Dragons of the Temeraire series. So when I saw that she’d written a school-based fantasy, I immediately pre-ordered the first book, A Deadly Education and was thrilled to be able to get hold of this second one via Netgalley. Would I enjoy it as much?

BLURB: At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year—and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules…

REVIEW: I’m not sure if it’s because I was a teacher, but the magical schools sub-genre is a favourite and I thoroughly enjoyed A Deadly Education. Though I was a bit fed up with the cliff-hanger at the end – and I’m warning you now, there’s another at the end of The Last Graduate.

El isn’t such a hardcore, in-your-face character this time around. For starters, she now has a loyal group of friends, and other alliances with a handful of enclave kids who have far more resources and protections than those without that kind of advantage. And it’s just as well she’s got more going for her as this year, as the School has become a lot more aggressive – with El apparently a prime target. Novik writes action scenes really well and has a glorious suite of delightfully revolting monsters that squish satisfyingly when they meet their messy end. This series would make a wonderful TV series.

However, if you were one of those who found the descriptions of the magic and the world outside a tad tedious in A Deadly Education (I didn’t…), then you won’t fare any better in this offering. El has a lot to say about the political situation, the history of the school and the very complex magic system, particularly in the first half of the book. It didn’t bother me, partly because we need to know all the information, partly because I found it fascinating anyway. I’m a huge fan of El, who has a natural talent for horrific destruction but has had it dinned into her by her adorable mother, that she can’t afford to give into those instinct at all. And Novik manages to depict her absolutely following the rules without her coming off as sickeningly good.

El is bad-tempered, overly cynical, far too touchy and apt to push away those who genuinely want to befriend her – but despite that, she is rigid in trying to avoid doing harm. I really like the fact that she isn’t the overwhelmed, put-upon victim doing the best she can in awful circumstances, either. She’s far too powerful for that. That doesn’t stop her from becoming increasingly trapped in a terrible situation, where the right thing to do is plain terrifying. I also enjoyed the humour, albeit a tad dark-edged, that runs through this story. And I am impressed with Novik’s successful portrayal of a Brit main character, complete with the sardonic street-wise dialogue.

While there is plenty of action throughout, the pace and tension really picks up in the second half of the book, which was difficult to put down once it hit its stride. I was glad Himself had warned me about that ending, though – otherwise I think it would have gone flying across the room. Which is why I’ve passed the warning on. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining read – and I’m very much looking forward to the third book in the series. The ebook arc copy of The Last Graduate was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.
9/10

SUNDAY POST – LIVING WITH LONG COVID #2

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In my previous article, I wrote about the run-up to the crisis that had me in despair, which happened just after my last major relapse in the third week of August. In this Sunday Post, hosted by Kimberly, the Caffeinated Reviewer, I’ll talk about what I discovered when I was well enough to be able to go online and search for more information.

The first couple of times I’d searched, I’d found some rather generic advice and a couple of accounts by other sufferers. But there was nothing specific that I could actually use to help me form any kind of coherent recovery plan. The doctor had organised a blood test, which discovered that I was slightly deficient in vitamin D, which I promptly fixed by ordering the recommended dose of tablets. However, that didn’t appear to make any difference. This time around, my online searching hit the jackpot.

Almost immediately, I came across an article recommending that Long Covid sufferers struggling with chronic fatigue get hold of a book – Classic Pacing: For a Better Life with ME by Ingebjørg Midsem Dahl, which I immediately ordered. I went for the print version, which is a bit of a beast, but I use a bookstand so I’m not holding it and I think it’s by far the better option. There are tables and lists, which are much easier to read on a real page, rather than on an ebook. At long last, I had a measure of the extent of my condition and – even more importantly – a strategy to try and stabilise my symptoms, so that I wasn’t trapped in this miserable pattern of recovery and relapse. The book recommends that I gauge my energy levels, then attempt to operate below my limit to ideally avoid becoming bedridden again.

That said, I was a bit chastened when I realised just how limited my life would be – no more quick trips to the beach for the foreseeable future. But we reckoned it was worth it if it helps my ultimate recovery from Long Covid. It also recommends that I take advantage of any equipment to enable me to rest – like using a bath stool to sit while showering, for example. This has meant I’m able to shower more frequently, which helps my mental health. When I am too weak to shower, most days I can still manage a quick wash while sitting at the sink. I went to the physio to get a set of very gentle exercises I can do lying down, on my good days, to try and stop my body becoming a flabby blob. Though fortunately, so far I haven’t put on any weight. On really good days, I take a walk around the block with Himself, using my walking staff as support to help with my balance issues. I think I’m getting a bit quicker, but a dozing snail could still overtake me with ease.

The other major recommendation was to rest frequently during the day, after each task. This prospect would have left me dismayed – but for the fact that someone online had recommended using meditation. Not only does it assist in resting the mind and body, it also teaches calmness and focus. When I mentioned this to my son, he immediately pointed me towards Headspace, an app I could upload onto my phone. This has been a huge help in helping me rest mindfully, but also to meditate on getting better, keeping positive and being kinder to myself. There are also sleepcasts and meditations to help relax before bedtime, which is important as I have a dysfunctional relationship with sleep that goes back years.

I now keep an activity journal, where I write down what I do every day and give each day a mark out of 10 for my mental and physical state. Himself has been putting these in a graph – I’ve now two months of data, as I’d started keeping the score before my relapse. This is important as Time now feels very odd. Each day runs quite slowly, but when I look back, days and weeks seem to bleed into one another so my perception of what has gone before is completely impaired. And obviously, to aid my recovery I need to understand whether I’m getting better or not, so I need a clear record of what happens on a daily basis.

I no longer make any plans – and this was initially something of a struggle as I’m an inveterate list-maker and each night, I’d work out what the coming day’s tasks would be. But I simply can’t, as I never know how I’ll be feeling. I can have three good days in a row – and the next morning wake up feeling fragile and slightly sick when I move. So it’s best not to add an extra twist of disappointment by then having to put a line through any activities I was looking forward to doing.

I pay close attention to what I eat and drink. Fortunately, I don’t have much of an appetite so I’m not tempted to snack or comfort-eat – but I learnt early on that sugar is not my friend in any form. It makes me tired, depressed and causes joint pain, particularly in my back where I have a dodgy disc, anyway. So no sweets, biscuits, or cakes – I’ve even discovered they put sugar in lots of bread. So it’s sourdough slices for my morning toast and in the evening, there’s plenty of fresh vegetables, often with a side salad, all prepared by Himself. I love my lapsang souchong, but limit myself to two cups a day – and then it’s onto a variety of herbal teas, including peppermint and liquorice; lavender and oat; redbush and turmeric. While I’m aware that caffeine can be inflammatory and it would be ideal to cut it out – there’s a balance. And right now, I reckon I need those two cups of tea in my life.

I need to stay upbeat and positive to get through this – and not just for my sake. Himself has been an absolute trooper throughout – unfailingly kind and nurturing. But I’m very aware that he is under enormous strain, not only holding down an important, safety-critical job, but then coming home and looking after me, while doing all the housework, shopping and cooking. Whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself, I remember that in many ways he has it worse than I do. And whatever the future holds – there isn’t a quick fix ahead of us. I’m banking on being part of the statistical cohort that eventually recovers – I have to believe that. I had a wonderful life before this happened and I want it back. But realistically, I still have months ahead of me – maybe years – whereby I have to focus on pacing myself below what I can do in the hope that gives my body sufficient surplus energy to devote to healing itself. Wish me luck! In the meantime, I’ll try to post updates on my progress and anything I’ve encountered or experienced that might help others in my situation. Thank you so very much for your comments and good wishes – it’s been lovely to reconnect with so many of you. Though please understand that I’m likely to disappear again, as being able to spend any time in front of the computer only happens when I’m feeling at my very best.

I’ve been reading like a fiend during my illness – thank goodness for books, both audio and digital! Without them I’d be gibbering at the moon by now. I lead a very limited life and being able to escape into all sorts of intriguing worlds and adventures has helped to pass the time and keep me entertained. This week I’ve read:-

Assassin’s Bond – Book 3 of the Chains of Honor series by Lindsay Buroker
Yanko and his friends must escape a Turgonian prison and find passage back home before their enemies claim an advantage that could change the world. And not for the good of the Nurian people.

But even more trouble awaits at home. Civil war has broken out, Yanko’s family is in danger, and the man who sent him on his mission has disappeared. If Yanko can’t find Prince Zirabo, he’ll forever remain a criminal and be hunted down by his own people. Worse, his only chance to survive and redeem his honor may be to rely on the one person who’s been trying to kill him since his adventure began.
This next instalment in this entertaining adventure is full of action, incident, quirky amusing characters and laugh-aloud moments. Buroker has become a favourite author of mine over the last few months. I’m so impressed at her ability to tell a cracking story full of tension and emotion and yet still manage to inject real humour throughout.
9/10

The Necropolis Empire: A Twilight Imperium novel by Tim Pratt
Bianca Xing has spent a lifetime on a provincial planet, dreaming of travelling the stars. When her planet is annexed by the Barony of Letnev, Bianca finds herself being taken into custody, told that she’s special – the secret daughter of a brilliant scientist, hidden away on a remote planet for her own safety.

But the truth about Bianca is stranger. There are secrets hidden in her genetic code that could have galaxy altering consequences. Driven by an incredible yearning and assisted by the fearsome Letnev Captain, Dampierre, Bianca must follow her destiny to the end, even if it leads to places that are best left forgotten.
This is a real treat. Pratt’s breezy tone drives this adventure forward with verve and pace which had me really caring for the protagonists. He writes truly nice characters very well, which is harder than he makes it look. Review to follow.
9/10

The Broken Throne – Book 16 of the Schooled in Magic series by Christopher G. Nuttall
The Kingdom of Zangaria has fallen into civil war. On one side, King Randor and his forces, determined to impose his rule over the entire kingdom; on another, the noblemen who want to crush the king; on a third, Princess Alassa and the Levellers.

Caught in the middle, Emily must steer a course between her loyalty to her friend, her duty to people who put their faith in her and her fears for the future. But King Randor has unleashed forces even he may be unable to control…
This is another cracking series that has continued to deliver all sorts of unexpected twists and turns that has me enthralled. This particular episode charts some of the fallout caused by Emily bringing inventions from contemporary Earth to a feudal system driven by magic.
9/10

Battle Ground – Book 17 of the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher
Harry has faced terrible odds before. He has a long history of fighting enemies above his weight class. The Red Court of vampires. The fallen angels of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. The Outsiders.

But this time it’s different. A being more powerful and dangerous on an order of magnitude beyond what the world has seen in a millennium is coming. And she’s bringing an army. The Last Titan has declared war on the city of Chicago, and has come to subjugate humanity, obliterating any who stand in her way. Harry’s mission is simple but impossible: Save the city by killing a Titan. And the attempt will change Harry’s life, Chicago, and the mortal world forever.
Don’t pick this one up unless you have read Peace Talks and clearly recall the story or you’ll flounder. The action moves forward from the previous book and Butcher doesn’t hang around. And the title is spot on – the whole book essentially describes an epic battle, from the build-up to the immediate fallout. Review to follow.
8/10

Scorched Heart – Book 4 of the Firebrand series by Helen Harper
My parents were brutally murdered when I was five years old. Their killer has spent the last twenty-five years in prison for his terrible crimes – but I still have unanswered questions. After all, I am the phoenix. When I die, I am reborn in fire and brimstone. It happens again and again and again. I have no idea where my strange ability came from and nobody to ask.

Now another shocking murder has been committed in the small village where my parents died and there is evidence which suggests the killer is supernatural. The crime gives me the perfect reason to return to my childhood home. I can offer my expertise as a Supe Squad detective – and seek the truth behind what I really am. The trouble is that I might not like what I find.
In this, the fourth instalment of this exciting Brit-based urban fantasy featuring Emma, we finally discover the mystery behind the tragedy that has overshadowed her life since she was five. Harper’s pacy plotting and engaging characters have drawn me into this world and I really enjoyed the twisty climax to this tense murder mystery.
9/10

Owl’s Fair – Book 2 The Owl Star Witch series by Leanne Leeds
Once Astra Arden realized her life’s direction had been chosen for her by the goddess Athena, the former witch tracker did her best to adjust. After all, there were destinies you could fight to change, and there were destinies that, when refused, might get you turned into a stone statue for eternity.

When the altruistic Alice Windrow comes to Athena’s Garden for a tarot card reading, the cheerful young woman seems to not have a care in the world. Known throughout the town for her philanthropy funded by a distant relative’s substantial inheritance, she only wishes assurance that the marathon she sponsored will come off without a hitch. The reading takes a turn when Athena’s glowing Star Card flips—showing someone has it in for the innocent Alice. Can Astra and her sisters unravel the plot in time to stop Alice’s murder? Or will the generous girl find that her marathon is officially over—for good?
I’d found some of the reads this week a tad intense – so I went looking for something a bit more lighthearted. And recalled that I’d recently read the first book in this enjoyable urban fantasy series about poor old Astra having to move back home and being tasked to prevent murders before they happen on behalf of the goddess Athene. She even has a talking owl for help – though Archie provides all sorts of problems along the way, too. This enjoyable offering is skilfully plotted, with plenty of twists and tension along with the laughs. Just what I needed!
9/10

Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. I’m very aware that right now, it’s a very one-sided relationship and I don’t know when I’ll be in a position to start to reciprocate. In the meantime, do take care and have a lovely week:).

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of In the Shadow of Deimos by Jane Killick #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #IntheShadowofDeimosbookreview

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I’m a sucker for murder mysteries – and I have a particular fondness for whodunits in a sci fi setting. Stuck on the ship in deep space, or on a colony in a hab bubble where the outside atmosphere is lethal provides ideal locked room scenarios without having to reach for outlandish reasons why everyone is cut off and fleeing isn’t an option. So when I saw this offering, I immediately requested it.

BLURB: Mars, 2316. The recently created Terraforming Committee arbitrates the dramatic development of Mars by powerful rival corporations. When a rogue asteroid crashes into a research center and kills its lone technician, the fragile balance between corporations is shattered. The World Government’s investigation into the accident reveals a multitude of motives, while a corporation insider stumbles on a dark conspiracy. Two Martians with very different agendas must navigate a trail of destruction and treachery to uncover the truth and expose those responsible, before Mars falls to Earth’s corruption. As lines blur between progress and humanity, Mars itself remains the biggest adversary of all.

REVIEW: As I checked up on this book after finishing it, I discovered that a boardgame called Terraforming Mars provides the setting. I was blissfully unaware of the game while reading the book, so don’t let that nugget of information put you off. It doesn’t matter to anyone picking up the book, as it doesn’t impact your reading experience in any way.

This is a slow-burn mystery where the daily rhythm of the teams who are tasked with terraforming Mars is explored in some detail. So this isn’t one for murder mystery fans who only want a splash of sci fi in their crime scene. However, I appreciated the way Killick gives the reader a very clear picture of how the terraforming effort is progressing, while introducing us to the main protagonists. Inevitably there are strains between competing corporations – and also some major issues are discussed. Should Humanity be altering Mars to suit our needs at all? What if in doing so, we inadvertently destroy some biological organisms that we haven’t yet discovered? As a science fiction fan, I found all this fascinating, especially as running alongside these plotlines is the growing sense that all is not well within Mars’ fledgling community.

Killick’s smooth, unfussy writing style pulled me into the story, so that I stayed up faar later than I should to discover what happens next. Because while this one starts slowly, there are several excellent action scenes that are all the more shocking because of the relatively low key beginning. And the climactic episode out on the surface, where a man is struggling for his life after being double-crossed, is one I won’t forget in a hurry. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale – as well as the slightly bitter-sweet ending, which has stayed with me. I shall be looking around for more of Killick’s books and thoroughly recommend this Mars’ murder mystery. While I obtained an arc of In the Shadow of Deimos from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
9/10

SUNDAY POST – LIVING WITH LONG COVID – March to August 2021

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I’m aware that after mentioning on my blog that I was struggling with Long Covid, I would occasionally pop up for a few articles and then disappear again. Sometimes there would be a smiling pic of me and Himself, looking reasonably okay. However, there hasn’t been any continuity and I increasingly haven’t been visiting other blogs or being part of the lovely online bookish community that matters so much to me. So while I can, I thought I’d try to explain what has been happening over the last seven months during this Sunday Post article, hosted by the Caffeinated Reviewer. This section takes us to the third week in August…

Looking back, having Covid now seems a bit of a blur. I do know that Himself and I went down with it together. He was a lot sicker than me, as he had problems breathing which was aggravated by his severe sleep apnea. He needs a mask and a machine to help him breathe, but the breathlessness meant he couldn’t wear his mask. Neither could he manage breathing lying down. At its worst, he spent several days – at least four – sitting in his chair in the corner of the lounge, gasping like a fish out of water. His hands were freezing and yellow and he couldn’t get warm. That was the bit that really scared me – Himself hardly ever feels cold. And never in the house with the fire going.

Given that we’d gone down with the same illness at the same time, you’d think our symptoms would be similar, but they weren’t. I didn’t have any breathing problems and instead of Himself’s difficulty in keeping warm, I was running hot with a temperature. But more than anything else, I felt achy and tired. Overwhelmingly tired. Apparently I slept eighteen hours at a time – Himself several times struggled up the stairs to make sure I was still breathing. But then, I regularly also checked up on him during the middle of the night, after jerking awake bathed in sweat in the middle of a fever-dream, convinced he’d died in his chair in the corner of the lounge. I couldn’t sit in there with him, because it was unbearably hot and I was in too much pain with aching joints and a stiletto-sharp stabbing between the ribs on my right side. That still bothers me during my relapses. I remember becoming convinced that he’d die – and feeling utterly helpless. We had a finger monitor to check our blood oxygen levels and Himself was low enough that the Dr phoned him every day to ensure he wasn’t ill enough to go to hospital. I recall feeling that we were in the middle of a complicated nightmare and when I look back on it, that whole period seems like a very bad dream.

Thankfully, we gradually started to recover. However, I still slept a lot and would wake up, groggy and hot, feeling weary. It took me nearly another two weeks after Himself had returned to work in April, before I began to feel a bit more like myself. But every so often I would try to do something, only to be engulfed in a terrible sensation – as if I’d run a very long race. I’d be sweating, my body was shaky and weak, the room would start tilting and I’d feel as if I was about to be sick. Tiredness… fatigue… exhaustion… those words don’t begin to describe it. Sometimes, just putting my feet on the floor while getting out of bed brings it on.

However, I was sure it would pass and very gradually, with a few hitches, I seemed to be getting better. It helped that we had a lot of sunshine in June and July. Indeed, by mid-June I was up and about, and although I did have the odd day when I felt terrible, I finally believed I was able to put the whole horrible experience behind me. Then came the curtain-washing incident. I wanted to clean the house thoroughly and decided one lovely sunny morning to wash the curtains. I managed the lounge curtains and the first set in the hall. But getting on a stool to take down the next set – I was hit again with the same symptoms – shakiness, terrible weakness, dizziness and suddenly I was retching. I crawled upstairs and back to bed. And spent days there, only able to stagger to the adjacent toilet when I had to.

And that has set the pattern ever since. I have intervals when I begin to feel a bit better, but the minute I try to do a little bit more, particularly writing – I am once more felled by incapacitating fatigue. It also blankets my emotions. I’m not upset, or sad when I’m bedridden – and I certainly can’t cry, as I don’t have the energy. I call it ‘zombie mode’. I was also coping with my hair coming out in handfuls. Thankfully that’s now stopped and I’m grateful that my hair used to be really thick, as I’ve lost about half of it. Everyone assures me that it will grow back. Additionally, I suffered badly with eczema across my back, itching terribly during the night sweats that still plague me, even when I’m not in the middle of a relapse.

That depressing routine – of starting to feel a little bit better, before suddenly finding I was overwhelmed by exhaustion – has laid waste to my life. I can’t even reliably empty the dishwasher, or clean the bathroom sink. Small bits of writing can only be done on very, very good days, and there aren’t many of those. I often cannot shower or get dressed and putting on make-up is a distant dream. And while everyone around me was unfailingly kind and encouraging – particularly Himself, who has been a superstar throughout – I began to increasingly feel that this was all that lay ahead of me.

There came a day, just after last relapse when I reached the bottom. I was in despair. Before I got sick, I’d had a wonderful life as a writer and teacher – a life that I’d worked hard to achieve. And now, it seemed to be lying in ashes at my feet. I knew I’d much to be grateful for. Unlike many Long Covid sufferers, I’m not in chronic pain and I don’t suffer the terrible breathlessness that afflicted Himself when he was ill. I’ve a wonderful, supportive husband, who is unfailingly nurturing and kind. But still… this seemed a terrible way to have to spend the rest of my life. I was taking vitamins and supplements, trying to be mindful of my energy – and yet, during August I suffered yet another relapse. This one stretched on for fourteen days and when I finally felt well enough to get up again, I was desperate not to end up in zombie mode again, too tired to think or feel. My previous efforts to find information online hadn’t amounted to much more than some vague advice, which hadn’t been all that useful.

And as if in answer to my prayers – the following day, that’s what happened. A major breakthrough. I’ll talk more about that in my next article – though I can’t promise when I’ll post it. In the meantime, I’m so very grateful for those of you who continue to visit and like and comment whenever I summon the energy to publish a review – thank you!

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* The Man Who Died Twice – Book 2 of The Thursday Murder Club series by Richard Osman #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #TheManWhoDiedTwicebookreview

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I finally picked up a copy of The Thursday Murder Club back in April. Initially, I found it slow-going as the story took a while to hit its stride. But I ended up being impressed with the depth of characterisation, the humour and well-handled moments of real poignancy. So when I saw this one available on Netgalley, I was thrilled to be approved.

BLURB: It’s the following Thursday. Elizabeth has received a letter from an old colleague, a man with whom she has a long history. He’s made a big mistake, and he needs her help. His story involves stolen diamonds, a violent mobster, and a very real threat to his life.

As bodies start piling up, Elizabeth enlists Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron in the hunt for a ruthless murderer. And if they find the diamonds too? Well, wouldn’t that be a bonus? But this time they are up against an enemy who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at knocking off four septuagenarians. Can The Thursday Murder Club find the killer (and the diamonds) before the killer finds them?

REVIEW: If you haven’t yet read the first book, don’t worry about picking this one up as I don’t think it matters all that much. Osman effectively introduces the main four seventy-somethings, who are every bit as likeable as when I first met them. We swing straight into the story – Osman has really found his feet with this one and it shows.

The pacing, plot twists and overall structure are spot on. And while there were a few amusing moments in the first book, I found myself laughing out loud with this one on a regular basis throughout. There is a Dickensian, slightly larger-than-life feel about all the characters that never lurches into caricature – and I like Osman’s evident respect for his protagonists. Now I’m of a certain age, I get fed up with TV programmes and books that poke fun at older characters. Once again Elizabeth drives the story – someone with a busy, somewhat dark past, who is still able to run rings around everyone else. And yet, she also has her vulnerabilities.

I read a fair number of murder mysteries and it’s a tricky balance not to get blasé about the murder victims, particularly when there are humorous moments in the mix. Osman never falls into that trap. Without getting too dark and intense, he always makes it clear that someone dying before their time is a very big deal. In fact, there is a strong sense of right and wrong throughout the story that I really appreciated. The plot is delightfully twisty and the ending is masterfully handled – that last line is superb. You may have gathered that I loved this one – and you’d be right. If you’re looking for an outstanding contemporary murder mystery with plenty of humour and packed full of memorable characters, this one comes very highly recommended. While I obtained an arc of The Man Who Died Twice from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of An Untidy Death – Book 2 of the Decluttering Mysteries by Simon Brett #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #AnUntidyDeathbookreview

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I enjoy reading Simon Brett’s writing – see my reviews of Death on the Downs, Mrs Pargeter’s Public Relations, The Liar in the Library, The Killer in the Choir and Guilt at the Garage. But I’d particularly enjoyed the first book in this series, The Clutter Corpsesee my review. I snapped this one up with excitement when I saw it featured on Netgalley, though I was a tad worried at just how much I was looking forward to diving in, as that can often be a recipe for disappointment – would I enjoy this one as much?

BLURB: “My mother’s going to kill herself . . . That is, if I don’t kill her first.” When Alexandra Richards approaches professional declutterer Ellen Curtis to ask her to help sort out her mother’s chaotic flat, Ellen gets the impression Alexandra doesn’t like her mother very much. But after hearing the local news, Alexandra’s exasperated words don’t seem such a joke…

REVIEW: And that’s as much of this very chatty blurb that I’m inclined to share – don’t read it as it spoils far too much of the plot. I loved this one – indeed, it’s on my Outstanding Reads of the Year list. Ellen is a lovely character, who is briskly efficient and clearly extremely intelligent. She also has dealt with a devastating tragedy in her life with fortitude and resilience. And yes… I know she’s fictional, but I finished this book full of warmth towards this wonderful, three-dimensional protagonist. Brett is an accomplished, experienced author whose main characters are often a bit larger than life, but Ellen isn’t one of those. Her thoughtful, quieter outlook drew me right into the story as she tries to unpick what appears to be an accidental death that she increasingly feels is something else.

Ellen is also surrounded by a strong supporting cast – I love her relationship with her ebullient mother, who is clearly dissatisfied with Ellen’s life choices and delights in emphasising her closeness with Ellen’s daughter. Unlike so many fictional families, they don’t get to hurl hurtful truths at each other that in real life would probably cause complete estrangement. And I also found Ellen’s relationship with her son, who suffers from clinical depression, achingly realistic.

I’m conscious that I’ve managed to make this one sound a rather fraught, dreary read – and it’s nothing of the sort. Set in my neck of the woods, I found myself spluttering with laughter at Brett’s pithy descriptions of local settings. Meanwhile, the murder mystery is beautifully plotted. The pacing is spot on, there are a satisfying number of potential suspects – and of course, I’d spotted the perpetrator. Until halfway through the denouement scene, when I realised it wasn’t who I thought it was… Nicely done! All in all, this is by far the best written murder mystery I’ve read this year and while I’d recommend that you grab the first book, just because it’s also a cracking read – it isn’t necessary to appreciate this gem. Very highly recommended. While I obtained an arc of An Untidy Death from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Murder at Standing Stone Manor – A Langham and Dupré mystery by Eric Brown #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #MurderatStandingStoneManorbookreview

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I’ve read two other books in this series and thoroughly enjoyed them – see my reviews of Murder Takes a Turn and Murder Served Cold. Right now, I’m particularly drawn to historical murder mysteries, so I was delighted to see this latest book in the series available and to be approved to read it.

BLURB: Newlyweds Donald Langham and Maria Dupré have moved to the country. They’re excited about starting a new life in the picturesque village of Ingoldby-over-Water – and about meeting their new neighbours.

But they’ve barely moved into Yew Tree Cottage when their new neighbour at Standing Stone Manor, Professor Edwin Robertshaw, invites Donald over to discuss some ‘fishy business’. Shortly after, a body is found by the professor’s precious standing stone in the manor grounds. Donald and Maria discover tensions, disputes and resentment raging below the surface of this idyllic village, but can they find out which of the villagers is a cold-blooded killer?

REVIEW: This is another enjoyable, well crafted murder mystery from an experienced writer who knows what he’s doing. The setting – a village deep in the English countryside in the mid-1950s in the depths of winter – is perfectly realised. I enjoyed learning about the village characters and possible suspects. One of the entertaining parts of this story, is that it is a while before the actual murder takes place – so I had fun working out who was going to be the eventual victim and who would be the murder suspects.

I liked the fact that World War II is still hanging heavily over the lives of several people who had served – it brought home to me just how much it affected the generation that went through it. Once the murder occurs, the leisurely pace picks up and there are more attempted deaths in quick succession. Donald Langham is given a great deal of licence to go off and do his own thing with the blessing of the local police, which works well for the purposes of the story.

The plot is satisfyingly twisty with plenty of suspects who had strong motives for murdering the initial victim. I enjoyed the well-handled denouement which manages to provide a complete surprise without short-changing the reader. All in all, this is an enjoyable read that provides a solidly written whodunit, complete with a cast of entertaining characters in an attractive, clearly depicted setting. Recommended for fans of historical whodunits, after the style of Agatha Christie. While I obtained an arc of Murder at Standing Stone Manor from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Inhibitor Phase – a Revelation Space novel by Alastair Reynolds #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #InhibitorPhasebookreview

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Alastair Reynolds is one of the game-changers in hard sci-fi, with his amazing, bleak far-future Revelation Space. I devoured them years ago, awed at the inventiveness and depth of hard science packed into these stories with such a very different feel – and indeed, no one writes quite like Reynolds. So I always pay attention when he produces something new. I thoroughly enjoyed his Revengers series, see my reviews of Revenger, Shadow Captain and Bone Silence. I also absolutely loved Slow Bullets. However, I wasn’t so impressed with House of Suns, which I felt was let down by the ending. Would I enjoy this standalone, which is set in the Revelation Space world?

BLURB: Miguel de Ruyter is a man with a past. Fleeing the ‘wolves’ – the xenocidal alien machines known as Inhibitors – he has protected his family and his community from attack for forty years, sheltering in the caves of an airless, battered world called Michaelmas. The slightest hint of human activity could draw the wolves to their home, to destroy everything… utterly. Which is how Miguel finds himself on a one-way mission with his own destructive mandate: to eliminate a passing ship, before it can bring unwanted attention down on them.

Only something goes wrong. There’s a lone survivor. And she knows far more about Miguel than she’s letting on . . .

REVIEW: Reynolds used to be a space scientist and that clearly shows in this book, which is absolutely crammed with all sorts of technical details to explain why the world is the way it is. I’m aware that I used to thoroughly enjoy reading these types of books, back in the days when most hard sci-fi was stuffed full of techie toys and deep explanations as to why things were the way they were.

Reynolds has attempted to humanise Miguel by giving us a ringside seat in a first-person viewpoint. And the gripping start of this book quickly pulled me into the adventure. However, because this is set in the Revelation Space world, there are all sorts of techie tricks and gismos that we apparently need to know about in jaw-dropping detail. Inevitably, in order to keep the pace up in a book crammed with all sorts of adventures, the characterisation suffered. It doesn’t help that he is a posthuman, who has lived for a very long time with layers of experiences that makes it difficult to empathise with him. And Reynolds simply hasn’t the time or inclination to give us more than a few bonding moments with a very complex being, so that over the course of the story, I didn’t really care about any of the main protagonists.

I also struggled with the sheer bleak awfulness of the lives that humanity has been reduced to in this terrible post-apocalyptic universe that has been razed by the Inhibitors. That’s more my problem than the writing – I hadn’t remembered just how terrible the Revelation Space world actually is. However, I didn’t have any problem with continuing to turn the pages, due to the stunning inventiveness of Reynolds’ imagination. I never knew what would happen next. And there were times that when I thought I did know what was going on, it turned out to be something else. If you have read and enjoyed Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels, then track down this one – you won’t be disappointed. If you are fed up with the current taste for character-led space opera and yearn for the hard sci-fi adventures we used to see, then grab a copy. This wasn’t my favourite Reynolds’ read – but it certainly offers something very different from much of the current space adventures on the shelves. The ebook arc copy of Inhibitor Phase was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.
7/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of The Women of Troy – Book 2 of The Women of Troy series by Pat Barker #BrainfluffNETGALLEYbookreview #TheWomenofTroybookreview

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I encountered The Silence of the Girls last September – see my review – and it blew me away. While it was a powerful, disturbing read, I have always had a soft spot of Greek myths and this retelling really stayed with me. So I was thrilled to see this turn up on Netgalley – and even more thrilled to be approved to read it.

BLURB: Troy has fallen. The Greeks have won their bitter war. They can return home as victors – all they need is a good wind to lift their sails. But the wind has vanished, the seas becalmed by vengeful gods, and so the warriors remain in limbo – camped in the shadow of the city they destroyed, kept company by the women they stole from it.

The women of Troy.

Helen – poor Helen. All that beauty, all that grace – and she was just a mouldy old bone for feral dogs to fight over.

Cassandra, who has learned not to be too attached to her own prophecies. They have only ever been believed when she can get a man to deliver them.

Stubborn Amina, with her gaze still fixed on the ruined towers of Troy, determined to avenge the slaughter of her king.

Hecuba, howling and clawing her cheeks on the silent shore, as if she could make her cries heard in the gloomy halls of Hades. As if she could wake the dead.

And Briseis, carrying her future in her womb: the unborn child of the dead hero Achilles. Once again caught up in the disputes of violent men. Once again faced with the chance to shape history.

REVIEW: As should be evident from the punchy blurb, there are trigger warnings for rape and violence. Although I’d like to emphasise that there is nothing graphic or sensationalised about the plight of the women who find themselves part of the booty looted from Troy. Probably the most visceral scene is King Priam’s death – and that isn’t as grisly as some of the vicious hand-to-hand fighting depicted in epic fantasies written by the likes of John Gwynne, Joe Abercrombie and Miles Cameron.

What is undeniable is the power of Barker’s prose, as she immerses us in the daily lives of the captured women, experienced in first-person pov by former Princess Briseis, who witnessed the death of her family at the hands of Achilles in the early stages of the Trojan campaign. And was then captured by him. Now he’s dead, her life has once more become uncertain – particularly as she is carrying his child. It’s Briseis who tries to make life easier for the newly captive women, traumatised by the death of their husbands, fathers and sons – and are now having to cope with being owned by those responsible for killing their families. Barker could have so easily turned this into a sensational, stomach-churning read, but her immersive, intelligent writing – while not in any way belittling what is going on – gives us a ringside seat in the camp where the Greeks are still living. For despite being the victors, they are now imprisoned on the shores where they’ve been living for the past decade…

The unfolding story of what happens within that camp, as political alliances shift and rebalance in the light of the Greek victory, makes a riveting read. I fell in love with beautiful, brave Briseis in The Silence of the Girls and this book has only strengthened my admiration for her. If you enjoyed The Silence of the Girls, then this sequel comes very highly recommended. And if you like the idea of reading a retelling of the Trojan war and haven’t yet done so, then I suggest you look out The Silence of the Girls. This engrossing series gives you a version of the story from the viewpoint of the women caught up in it – something the Greek canon never bothered to do. While I obtained an arc of The Women of Troy from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
10/10