Category Archives: historical

Review of KINDLE Ebook A Second Chance – Book 3 of The Chronicles of St Mary’s by Jodi Taylor

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While still not feeling all that well, I dived into this one for a bit of fun and escapism…

St Mary’s is back and nothing is going right for Max. Once again, it’s just one damned thing after another. The action jumps from an encounter with a mirror-stealing Isaac Newton to the bloody battlefield at Agincourt. Discover how a simple fact-finding assignment to witness the ancient and murderous cheese- rolling ceremony in Gloucester can result in CBC – concussion by cheese. The long awaited jump to Bronze Age Troy ends in personal catastrophe for Max and just when it seems things couldn’t get any worse – it’s back to the Cretaceous Period again to confront an old enemy who has nothing to lose. So, make the tea, grab the chocolate biscuits, settle back and discover exactly why the entire history department has painted itself blue …

As you may have gathered from the blurb, in parts this book is laugh-aloud hilarious – what isn’t quite so obvious is that in other places it is heart-breakingly sad. What it never does is stand still. Taylor writes with a frenetic energy that pulls me into her story, holds me there – and when I’m finally flung out at the other side, I’m dizzily certain that I’ll never feel quite the same again. Even though this is the third time I’ve been smacked around the chops by Max and the St Mary’s gang, it is still an onslaught as much as an adventure.

As the blurb mentions, the historical trips are still going strong and Max, along with the rest of the disaster-magnets that make up St Mary’s history department, fling themselves into each time-travelling adventure with reckless enthusiasm. Taylor could have so easily opted to make these books straight comedic adventures – she certainly writes humour with verve and skill that has me sniggering aloud all the way through. But what, for me, elevates all these books, are the interludes where Max is dealt a lethal blow to prevent her from fully enjoying her life. Despite her love for the job and St Mary’s, she is to be denied personal happiness alongside a special someone. I know I was feeling poorly, but even if I’d been bouncing with health, I think I would have still wept.

I blew my nose, blinked away the tears so I could continue reading – it’s hard to focus on the print when you’re bawling like a fallen toddler – and just as I was settling down to rejig my expectations and read something instead a whole lot more sombre than I’d initially intended – a thing happens which once again transforms the mood and tenor of the story.

I’ve been reading avidly for over fifty years and during that time, I’ve learnt that the majority of books follow certain rhythms. But Jodi Taylor ignores those precepts and instead, mixes it all up quite outrageously. Furthermore, she gets away with it. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot since I read it. It won’t be long before the fourth book, A Trail Through Time, will be summoning me back to St. Mary’s. I just need another box of tissues, more emotional energy and then once more, I’ll be good to go. In the meantime, if you crave a real roller-coaster ride through Time, track down the first book in the series – Just One Damned Thing After Another – I can guarantee that you won’t have read anything else quite like it.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Dancing With Death Book 1 of the Nell Drury series by Amy Myers

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This classic country house murder mystery from Severn House popped up at Netgalley and caught my eye…

1925. The fashionable Bright Young Things from London have descended on Wychbourne Court, the Kentish stately home of Lord and Lady Ansley, for an extravagant fancy dress ball followed by a midnight Ghost Hunt – and Chef Nell Drury knows she’s in for a busy weekend. What she doesn’t expect to encounter is sudden, violent death.

This cosy mystery is a thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing read. Myers evokes the period well as steady, sensible and very ambitious Nell Drury, working at Wychbourne Hall as Chef, suddenly finds herself confronted with a violent murder of one of the guests. While it might have seemed unlikely that a young woman would land a prize post like this, due to the shortage of young men after the ravages of WWI, this was a time when a generation of women had an opportunity for a career – so long as they didn’t want to get married. Nell is one of those women. Fans of Downton Abbey will recognise the strict hierarchy of below stairs as she regularly locks horns with housekeeper, Mrs Fielding, who is thoroughly disapproving of a female chef.

But Nell has other things to worry about other than whether her soufflés will rise, when Lady Ansley appeals to her to ensure none of the servants are caught up in the bloody murder. I like Nell’s character. Her cool-headed steadiness and self-confidence comes from having to fight for her place and growing up in the war years, which still casts a long shadow over most of the characters – and quite right, too. Myers has very much caught the flavour of the age, it seems to me, having grown up with stories of the time from my grandmother, who was a flapper.

In order to make this sort of book really work, we need a good spread of likely suspects amongst the supporting cast and Myers certainly provides plenty of memorable, strong contenders. We have the eccentric aunt who is convinced the house is crowded with a posse of ghosts, all keen to make contact with their living counterparts; the gang of bright young things, including the three Ansley youngsters who are caught up in the frantic round of parties and nightclubbing; two school friends who seem far too attracted to each other rather than their supposed partners; the vamp; the terrifying elderly female relative (think Maggie Smith); and her arch-enemy a sprightly avuncular gentleman. In the middle of this, you have poor, bewildered Lord and Lady Ansley… There is also a strong cast of below stairs characters and a rather forbidding detective from Scotland Yard who travels down to investigate the murders as the local bobbies are completely out of their depth.

This is all as cosily familiar as a late-night cup of cocoa – but there is a good reason why Agatha Christie-type murder mysteries work, demonstrated here by Myers’ well-written homage. The pages simply turned themselves as I dived into this one while struggling with a heavy cold. The denouement was also well handled – I hadn’t guessed whodunit or why and was also pleased that some of the red herrings cast around during the investigation weren’t necessarily as herring-like as I’d thought. It always slightly annoys me when an author provides a parade of suspects and a trail of clues – only to suddenly provide a completely different set of motives with a flourish at the end. Myers isn’t guilty of such a sleight of hand. My only niggle is the very, very abrupt ending – unless for some reason my arc is missing a final paragraph. But this one is recommended for fans of a classic cosy mystery set in a country house.

While I obtained the arc of Dancing with Death from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.

8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Fool’s Gold – Book 8 of the Liberty Lane series by Caro Peacock

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I regularly look at the murder mystery offerings on Netgalley and this one caught my eye as something different and intriguing…

September, 1841. A new arrival has taken London society by storm. Lord Byron’s handsome illegitimate son, George, recently arrived from the exotic island of Cephalonia in the company of his guardian, the mysterious Mr Vickery, has been setting female hearts aflutter. But not all the attention George attracts is welcome. Mr Vickery has been receiving disturbing letters from a woman who calls herself Helena, and he hires Liberty Lane to find out who Helena is and what she wants.

Of course, the catch is that it is the eighth book in the series, so would I find myself floundering at all? Nope, not for a second. Peacock is far too adroit and experienced a writer to fall into that pitfall and from the first page, I was pulled into this twisting story where the plot snaked in all sorts of unexpected avenues. So I had to read it in one greedy gulp to find out exactly where it was going.

Liberty Lane is clearly a remarkable young woman as a female investigator at a time when her male counterparts were looked down upon with contempt and suspicion – obviously there is a hefty backstory here. But I certainly found myself believing in the 19th century London streets depicted by Peacock and as a historian, there were no glaring anomalies that yanked me out of the story. Without holding up the action or pace, all sorts of little details contributed to make the world vividly convincing – and I very much liked the fact that she does not expect her horses to go galloping or cantering everywhere, which they generally didn’t.

I also enjoyed her characterisation. Alongside Liberty, there is a supporting cast who leap off the page – the beautiful, blind George is suitably enigmatic and Mr Vickery is by turns exasperating and open-hearted. But Liberty’s small team help to bring this story alive – it seemed entirely plausible that she would be on good terms with an experienced horseman, Amos, running a livery stable, for she often needs sudden access to transport and the main mode of transport back then is horsepower. Young Tabby, a streetgirl part of a gang of children surviving on their wits, is also a regular gatherer of information for Liberty.

However, while the setting is vividly depicted and the characters believable and entertaining, what sets this murder mystery apart is the sheer skill and dexterity of Peacock’s plotting. Just when I thought the story was off in one direction, it snapped around and the momentum and stakes were cinched ever higher. Of course, this means the ultimate climactic denouement has to not only deliver in terms of plenty of action and high drama, but also resolve all that tension entirely satisfactorily. And yes, this one certainly did. I have not read any of these mysteries before, but I’ll certainly be looking out for more – if your taste runs to historical murder mysteries with plenty of tension and action, then this one comes very highly recommended.

While I obtained the arc of Fool’s Gold from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.
10/10

Top Ten Unique Reads…

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Once again those fine folks at The Broke and Bookish came up with a Top Ten Tuesday list I found irresistible, so I put my thinking cap on and came up with these – hopefully you’ll forgive the fact that it isn’t Tuesday…

Snowflake by Paul Gallico
A delightful story of the life of Snowflake, who was “all stars and arrows, squares and triangles of ice and light”. Through Snowflake’s special role in the pattern of creation and life, Paul Gallico has given us a simple allegory on the meaning of life, its oneness and ultimate safety.
A teacher read this one to us when I was in the equivalent of today’s Year Six and I was enchanted. I tracked down a lot more of Paul Gallico’s reads – and to be honest, many of them are unlike anything I’ve ever read, before or since. But they certainly fired up my taste for something different…

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
A carnival rolls in sometime after the midnight hour on a chill Midwestern October eve, ushering in Halloween a week before its time. A calliope’s shrill siren song beckons to all with a seductive promise of dreams and youth regained. In this season of dying, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois, to destroy every life touched by its strange and sinister mystery. And two inquisitive boys standing precariously on the brink of adulthood will soon discover the secret of the satanic raree-show’s smoke, mazes, and mirrors, as they learn all too well the heavy cost of wishes – and the stuff of nightmares.
We were on a caravan holiday in France and I’d scooped this one off the shelves to take with us. I read it one heavy, hot summer afternoon while nibbling on chocolate – suddenly very glad for blazing sunshine and comforting presence of family. And as soon as I got to the end, I started reading it all over again, wanting more of that alluring prose and dark ideas.

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan
Tricia Sullivan has written an extraordinary, genre defining novel that begins with the mystery of a woman who barely knows herself and ends with a discovery that transcends space and time. On the way we follow our heroine as she attempts to track down a killer in the body of another man, and the man who has been taken over, his will trapped inside the mind of the being that has taken him over. And at the centre of it all a briefcase that contains countless possible realities.
There is no one whose imagination works in quite the same way as Tricia Sullivan – and this amazing offering is certainly unique. I loved this quirky story and the directions in which it went, while following the fortunes of all the remarkable characters who seem perfectly reasonable – until you realise the prism through which you are looking at them has refracted into something different…

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
The Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world, and it’s on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch, professional hero and troubleshooter, is hired to put it out – but there’s more to the fire, and the Pipe itself, than meets the eye. The job will take Gonzo and his best friend, our narrator, back to their own beginnings and into the dark heart of the Jorgmund Company itself.
Another extraordinary tale that swept me up, held me rapt and then – finally – released me with a doozy of a twist ending I certainly didn’t see coming. This roller-coaster read snaps off the page with memorable lines and exuberant characters – see my review here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
This is a remarkable book – more so as it is based on a true event. And as we follow Rosemary when she goes on a quest to try and track down what happened to Fern, we discover a heartbreaking story of loss and abandonment that started with the best of intentions and ended up blighting the young lives of all the siblings in the family – see my review here.

Touchstone – Book 1 of the Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn
Cayden Silversun is part Elven, part Fae, part human Wizard—and all rebel. His aristocratic mother would have him follow his father to the Royal Court, to make a high society living off the scraps of kings. But Cade lives and breathes for the theater, and he’s good—very, very good. With his company, he’ll enter the highest reaches of society and power, as an honored artist—or die trying.
This remarkable series is a tour de force. I haven’t read anything quite like it and I don’t think I ever will… Cayden is a remarkable, spiky character cursed with genius and flashes of prescience. No one else has ever managed to depict the cost of this type of talent so thoroughly as Rawn in this magnificent series, which deserves to be a lot better known – see my review here.

Among Others by Jo Walton
When Mori discovers that her mother is using black magic, she decides to intervene. The ensuing clash between mother and daughter leaves Mori bereft of her twin sister, crippled for life and unable to return to the Welsh Valleys that were her own kingdom. Mori finds solace and strength in her beloved books. But her mother is bent on revenge, and nothing and no one – not even Tolkien – can save her from the final reckoning.
The writing is extraordinary in the pin-sharp description of the everyday, alongside the remarkable and Mori’s character is so compellingly realistic and nuanced, I’m undecided whether there is a large chunk of autobiographical detail wrapped up in this book. And I don’t really care – other than to fervently hope, for her sake, there isn’t too much that is borrowed from Walton’s own life. Memorable and remarkable art invariably is a fusion of imagination and reality – and this is both a memorable and remarkable book. See my review here.

A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thomson
Summer 1968: the day Senator Robert Kennedy is shot, two nine-year-old girls are playing hide and seek in the ruins of a deserted village. When it is Eleanor’s turn to hide, Alice disappears.
Thomson immediately plunges into the world of young girls, depicting first Eleanor’s rich interior landscape and then allowing us to access to Alice’s carefully modulated world, where her doting parents watch her every move. Thomson paints an exquisite picture of each girls’ fragilities, their aspirations and pin-sharp awareness of adult expectations. She beautifully inhabits the terrible, wonderful world of childhood – and the girls’ growing antipathy towards each other as they are forced to play together – until that disastrous game of hide and seek. This thriller/mystery is like nothing else I’ve read – see my review here.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
This is the first of the acclaimed Man Booker prizewinning books about Henry VIII’s bully boy Thomas Cromwell, who oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. Mantel instantly had me off-balance with her present tense, third person deep POV when we first meet Cromwell being beaten by Walter, his drunken father, and he is lying on the ground trying to summon up the will to move. So Mantel quickly gains our sympathy for her protagonist – but rather than chart his adventures in Europe where he spent time as a mercenary and scholar, we then jump to when he is in Cardinal Wolsey’s employ and establishing himself as a man of substance.
The biggest problem for Mantel in choosing this period of history, is that many of us know the progression of events all too well. But while that is the frame and backdrop in this compelling read – it is Cromwell’s intense presence throughout that had me turning the pages and mourning the fact when there were no more pages… See my review here.

Embassytown by China Miéville
Embassytown, a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. On Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.
Miéville’s brilliant imagination produces a truly unusual alien species with a Language where emotion and meaning are inextricably linked, requiring human identical twins raised to be able to think and talk in tandem in order to keep the isolated human enclave, Embassytown, supplied with food and resources. Until it all goes horribly wrong… A fabulous examination of what it means to communicate. This book should be required reading for all prospective diplomats, in my opinion… See my review here.

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Winter Tide – Book 1 of The Innsmouth Legacy by Ruthanna Emrys

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After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future. The government that stole Aphra’s life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race. Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.

For those of you who don’t recognise the references, Winter Tide is set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft, the famous horror and dark fantasy short story writer and novelist. Though he died unknown and poverty-stricken, Lovecraft is popularly regarded as the father of dark fantasy due to his vivid and disturbing world where creatures from another dimension inimical to humans are on the verge of breaking through to our world. Emrys manages to give us an insight in the life of one of the two survivors of the Government attack on Innsmouth in 1928, which is reported and written about in Lovecraft’s writing.

I fell in love with this spare, gripping tale within a couple of pages – the character and premise immediately pulled me into the story where a paranoid and jittery US Government are seeing threats from anyone who looks different, back in 1949. Of course, part of the power of this story is that that febrile fearstoked political atmosphere so well depicted in this thriller also uncomfortably reflects the same mindset pervading mainstream thinking now in the 21st century.

Aphra is a marvellous character and the first person viewpoint (I) gives the reader a ringside seat into her sense of isolation, her anger at the loss of all her family with the exception of her brother and her constant, prickling feeling of danger whenever in a new situation, given her odd appearance. This could have so easily descended into a bleak trudge – but her spiky determination not to be overwhelmed by her grim circumstances gives us a clue as to why she survived while so many others died.

The story, without any apparent headlong rush, nonetheless steadily unspools, gathering momentum as this odd, compulsive world continues to beguile. The parent race, the Yith, are also represented and there are some welcome shafts of humour in amongst the turmoil and danger. I read way longer than I should have done to find out what happens next and climactic scene on the beach when Aphra meets her grandfather fully displays Emrys’s impressive talent. When I finally finished, I was dazed and excited in equal measure. And I cannot stop thinking about this one… In short, another outstanding read that has me humming with pleasure and excitement. Ruthanna Emrys. Remember the name – she is a talent to be reckoned with and this is a series that shouldn’t be missed by science fiction and fantasy fans.

While I obtained the arc of Winter Tide from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.
10/10

Review of The Vanishing Throne – Book 2 of The Falconer Trilogy by Elizabeth May

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I encountered the first book, The Falconer, at the beginning of the year and loved the intense, brutal writing style of this YA genre mash-up, so was delighted when this offering became available at the local library.

thevanishingthroneAileana took a stand against the Wild Hunt, and she lost everything: her home, her family and her friends. Held captive by her enemy, and tormenting herself over her failure, escape seems like only the faintest possibility.

Whatever you do – don’t start with this book. Go back to The Falconer, which ended on a devastating cliffhanger and pretty much picks up exactly where the first book left off. So if you start with this one, while you may not be floundering too much, you will definitely be missing an important chunk of the story. Having your main character being subjected to sustained torture can be tricky business, especially in a YA read, and needs careful handling. Fortunately May deals with it well and Aileana certainly is left with wounds that run deeper than the scars inflicted as the storyline progresses.

I was concerned that as the first book galloped towards an apocalyptic climax, the second book would necessarily be something of a let-down – and it proved to be nothing of the sort. May doesn’t ease up on the pace one iota and Aileana is immersed into another series of twists and turns that reveals yet more of the fae and their tortuous relationship with humanity reaching back millennia.

It was also a treat to meet up again with the strong supporting cast of characters who people The Falconer… I was very relieved that Derrick, the stroppy pixie, survives. Apart from anything else, the repartee between Aileana and Derrick provides some very welcome humour. Not that this is particularly downbeat – there is too much going on and too many issues for our protagonist to consider for the mood to become too gloomy. However, it is gritty – wounds cause scars. People sustain losses. And bear grudges…

Once more, I was swept up into this enticing, edgy world. Though as I approached the ending I became increasingly concerned that it could not compete with The Falconer’s shocking conclusion. But I need not have feared – as I got to the final page, I was scraping my jaw off the floor, while being very relieved that I shan’t have to wait too long for the final book, The Fallen Kingdom, in this exciting, entertaining series. Highly recommended.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Artie Conan Doyle and the Gravediggers’ Club – Book 1 of the Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries by Robert J. Harris

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I really liked the blurb for this children’s mystery based on the supposed adventures of the young Arthur Conan Doyle. Would the charm persist beyond the book’s description?

thegravediggersclubOne day Arthur Conan Doyle will create the greatest detective of all – Sherlock Holmes. But right now, Artie Conan Doyle is a twelve-year-old Edinburgh schoolboy with a mystery of his own to solve. While sneaking out to explore Greyfriars Kirkyard by night, Artie and his best friend Ham spot a ghostly lady in grey and discover the footprints of a gigantic hound. Could the two mysteries be connected?

We are immediately plunged right into the middle of this mystery as Artie and his friend and sidekick, Ham, have a spooky encounter in a churchyard, which persuades Artie that the young trainee doctor lodging at their house is up to no good. Harris has managed to layer the character rather effectively. While watching Artie in action, I’m forcibly reminded of a juvenile Benedict Cumberbatch – opinionated, bossy and invariably convinced he is superior to those around him. More endearingly, Artie is prone to make more mistakes and go blundering more haphazardly into situations than his supercilious sleuth.

The historical feel of the period is effectively depicted with the occasional old fashioned word, such as ‘kirk’ instead of church, for instance but reading the context, I think most young readers could work out what the word means. We also have a number of interesting characters. I like the fact that Artie’s family is rather dysfunctional, with a father suffering depression in a time when there is no sickness benefit or safety net for those struggling on the poverty line. Ham also has a difficult background, with a father who has died and a widowed mother trying to cope.

There is plenty of banter between the two boys, as Ham is reluctantly dragged along in Artie’s wake. Most of the time he goes along with it – but just occasionally his pointed remarks regarding Artie’s tendency to go crashing into a situation make him pause and reconsider. I was pleased it is Ham’s contribution to the adventure that is the major gamechanger during the climactic final flurry of action.

Any niggles? I could have done without Artie’s jabs about Ham’s size. This is particularly unfortunate, I feel, in a book aimed at the children’s market when there are now significant numbers of youngsters heavier than is healthy. Surely, in an escapist adventure overweight children are also entitled to be able to enjoy the fun without such reminders of their problems?

That apart, I enjoyed this romp and I think many youngsters will do, too. There is plenty of action and some creepy moments without slipping into anything too horrific for newly independent readers, or those having this one read to them.

While I obtained the arc of Artie Conan Doyle and the Gravediggers’ Club from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.
8/10

Friday Faceoff – A Room Without Books Is Like a Body Without a Soul…

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This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This week the theme is books, so I’ve chosen The Physic Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

 

physicbookofdeliveranceThis is the offering produced by Hyperion Books in May 2009. It’s a beautiful, eye-catching cover, depicting the old fragile book that has been passed down through the family. This is my favourite cover.

 

physicbookofdeliverance1This cover produced by Voice in April 2010 takes several of the main elements from the original design, but has included the figure which I think makes it look rather cluttered and messy.

 

physicbookofdeliverance2This cover, produced by Penguin, also depicts a book with another title – I’m assuming it’s for the US market – but the tone is way off. The book isn’t horror, but it is certainly grittier and more hardhitting than this rather flowery, fanciful design conveys.

 

physicbookofdeliverance3Whereas this German edition, produced by Page & Turner in August 2009, has gone to the other extreme. This cover suggests severed goats heads and frantic virgins tethered to the altar, which isn’t what this book is about, either. If I’d picked it up thinking that’s what I was getting I’d be thoroughly fed up, so it isn’t doing its job.

Review of KINDLE Ebook of A Symphony of Echoes – Book 2 of The Chronicles of St Mary’s by Jodi Taylor

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We are back at St Mary’s, a top secret, government establishment where historians travel back in time to investigate what really happened. It’s an exciting and dangerous occupation that requires a certain attitude, which our protagonist Max has in spades…

asymphonyofechoesThe sequel to the hit book Just One Damned Thing After Another. Follow the adventures of those tea-sodden historians at St Mary’s as once again they dance on the edge of disaster.

And there you have it – the blurb certainly doesn’t venture anywhere near spoiler territory, does it? Once again, Taylor’s punchy prose scoops the reader up into Max’s world and catapults us into the middle of St Mary’s, where Max feels she belongs for the first time in her life. If she didn’t have such a desert-dry sense of humour, this could be a very grim read as plenty goes wrong. I keep thinking, as I read all the sudden reverses and nasty surprises that constantly assail our adventurers, that this series would transfer very well to TV. In the meantime, it’s a joy to read it as the rain lashes down outside and I feel comfortably happy I’m not in the middle of these disasters.

A routine journey to check out the Hanging Gardens of Babylon goes wrong to the extent that I realised why so many of the time-travelling historians die and then an antagonist from the first book pops up, causing yet more mayhem. Having said that – Taylor has written this one, so that if you did pick it up unaware it was part of a series, you wouldn’t flounder for long.

For all her snarky asides – which I love – Max has had a dire childhood which has left her with scars and vulnerabilities and it is this mix of gutsy derring-do and sudden, painfilled fury that makes her such an engrossing protagonist. She regularly gets things spectacularly wrong and never fails to come out swinging when her back is against the wall, being brave to the point of foolhardiness.

Taylor keeps the pace up, often skipping the preparation or lead-up to an expedition so one moment it is being proposed – and the next we are right in the middle of Babylon or at the court of Mary, Queen of Scots. I found myself at the end of the book with something of a jolt, wanting yet more and convinced the slight lull in between the action was merely a precursor to yet another hair-raising adventure. And it won’t be long before I return to this series, for it has wormed its way into my head so I often find myself thinking of Max, Leon and Peter and wondering what will next go wrong for them. If you enjoy time travelling tales with plenty of action, then don’t start here – go looking for Just One Damned Thing After Another, which is a quote about the way some historians view history, apparently. It certainly seems to be the case at St Mary’s.
10/10

2016 Discovery Challenge – November Roundup

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After reading Joanne Hall’s thought-provoking post, I decided to read and review at least two women authors unknown to me each month. During November, I read two Discovery Challenge books, which takes my yearly total so far to thirty four books I’ve completed written by women authors I haven’t previously encountered.

Synners by Pat Cadigan

In Synners, the line between humanity and technology is hopelessly slim. The human mind and thesynners external landscape have fused to the point where any encounter with ‘reality’ is incidental. Now you can change yourself to suit the machines – and all it will cost you is your freedom. And your humanity.

This cyberpunk winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award takes a while to get going as the group of disparate characters are established amongst a tech-heavy world in a near-future where everyone is increasingly reliant on their technology. Given that this was written and published back in 1992, before many of our current technological gismos were in current use, Cadigan’s world is eerily prescient. I felt very at home with much of her near-future predictions, which is a tad worrying when considering how it all ends.

 

Renting Silence – Book 3 of the Roaring Twenties Mysteries by Mary Miley
renting-silenceCan 1920 s script girl Jessie do Mary Pickford s bidding and uncover a real killer? When Jessie is asked by her idol, the famous actress Mary Pickford, if she can do some private investigating for her, Jessie reluctantly accepts. A girl was found stabbed in her bedroom with another woman lying unconscious on the floor next to her, a bloody knife in her hand. With no police investigation into the murder, it’s up to Jessie to hone her amateur detective skills and prove the girl’s innocence before she hangs for murder.

While I was aware that I’d once more crashed midway into a series, this isn’t a major deal as Miley is far too adept for keep her readers floundering. Instead I quickly bonded with Jessie, a sparky character with plenty of spirit who is embracing the opportunities Hollywood has presented for her. It is also the perfect setting for all sorts of mayhem and murder.

As with all the best historical whodunits, Miley uses the adventure to present us with a slice of Jessie’s life. While I cared about seeing the mystery solved, I was every bit as involved with Jessie’s ongoing concerns, such as her wardrobe choices, her problematic romance and interest in the Hollywood gossip. Miley vividly recreates the 1920s world for us, from the clothes and the Hollywood glamour and the thrill of drinking forbidden alcoholic drinks.

 

Tackling my TBR
In a bid to try and reduce the teetering pile by my bed, I’ve decided to report back on how I’m doing in the hope that it will nudge me to read more of them. Last month, I’m pleased to say, I managed to read four books languishing on my To Be Read pile:

Penric’s Mission – a Penric and Desdemona novella by Lois McMaster Bujold
Learned Penric, a sorcerer and divine of the Bastard’s Order, travels across the sea to sunlit Cedonia on penricsmissionhis first covert diplomatic mission, to attempt to secure the services of a disaffected Cedonian general for the Duke of Adria. However, nothing is as it seems and Penric is forced to use his own wits and resources. As well as those of the demon that lives alongside him in his body…
Firstly, avoid reading the blurb – it gives away far too much of the story and given this is a novella, there simply isn’t time for the narrative arc to recover from such a reveal. I’ve included a modified version that doesn’t contain any spoilers.

Fairly rapidly, Penric’s mission is in trouble and from then on, he is forced to think on his feet. I really like the way Bujold sets this up as one kind of story – and then suddenly changes everything around. I had intended to begin this book this morning and break off to complete it later tonight – except that once I started it, I couldn’t put it down until I’d reached the end. Once more, Penric’s wry humour, his self-effacing manner and the real danger he and his companions find themselves in hooked me in and wouldn’t let go.

 

Bloodrush – Book 1 of The Scarlet Star trilogy by Ben Galley
bloodrush“Magick ain’t pretty, it ain’t stars and sparkles. Magick is dirty. It’s rough. Raw. It’s blood and guts and vomit. You hear me?”
When Prime Lord Hark is found in a pool of his own blood on the steps of his halls, Tonmerion Hark finds his world not only turned upside down, but inside out. His father’s last will and testament forces him west across the Iron Ocean, to the very brink of the Endless Land and all civilisation. They call it Wyoming.
This is a story of murder and family.
In the dusty frontier town of Fell Falls, there is no silverware, no servants, no plush velvet nor towering spires. Only dust, danger, and the railway. Tonmerion has only one friend to help him escape the torturous heat and unravel his father’s murder. A faerie named Rhin. A twelve-inch tall outcast of his own kind.
This is a story of blood and magick.
But there are darker things at work in Fell Falls, and not just the railwraiths or the savages. Secrets lurk in Tonmerion’s bloodline. Secrets that will redefine this young Hark.
This is a story of the edge of the world.

I immediately liked the premise of a fantasy set in the Wild West as the railroad is being built and very much hoped the book would live up to the punchy blurb. It does. Merion is a really appealing protagonist – a suddenly orphaned thirteen-year-old, who is uprooted from all he knows and shipped out to the wilds of the frontier to live with an aunt he’s never met.

 

Synners by Pat Cadigan
See above – this offering also had languished on my TBR pile FAR too long…

 

The Banished Craft – Book 1 of The Shkode trilogy by E.D.E. Bell
Struggling to solve the mystery of her parents’ murder, Cor comes across a mystery much deeper—a thebanishedcraftsecret society who predicted that someday their world would be devastated. That time is now. In a world where women are not allowed to read, live alone, or pursue knowledge Cor presses forward, discovering a new magic and the power to wield it. A world away, Atesh works in the Imperial Labs, devoting his study to the turmoil destroying his home and endangering dragonkind. Instead he discovers a long-hidden truth. Humans are real.

One of the reasons why I wanted to return to this world is its richness and sheer quirky difference. I’m used to worlds being endangered by maniacal gods/powerful mages/artefacts – I can’t recall another world risking extinction because the child of a powerful being accidentally touched it… However, any impulse to burst out laughing is steadily eroded as we become engrossed in the lives of our protagonists on the sundered worlds. Bell handles the epic nature of her narrative really effectively, as both societies – stressed by the environmental upheaval – start to fall apart.

So that’s where I am so far on Tackling my TBR challenge. Once again, November was a far better reading month than I’d expected and my Discovery Challenge target, which was twelve books now looks stupidly unambitious, but then I’d expected to be doing a great deal more writing this year. How are you getting on with your reading challenges now the year is rapidly drawing to a close?