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Review of Kindle EBOOK Charmcaster – Book 3 in the Spellslinger series by Sebastien de Castell #Brainfluffbookreview #Charmcasterbookreview

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I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in this series – see my reviews of Spellslinger and Shadowblack – so I was a bit startled on learning that not only had Charmcaster been out for a while, but Soulbinder had also just been released. This is a series I didn’t want to slide away from me, so I got hold of Charmcaster with a view of taking it away on my writing retreat…

‘I was getting almost as good at running away from enemies as I was at making them in the first place. Turns out, I wasn’t running nearly fast enough.’ Kellen has begun to master his spellslinging and the Argosi tricks for staying alive, and he and Reichis have found a career that suits them both: taking down mercenary mages who make people’s lives miserable. But Ferius is concerned that Kellen is courting disaster . . .

Firstly, I want to congratulate Hot Key Books for keeping the blurb suitably concise – it’s such a refreshing change not to have to tweak/shorten it to avoid spoiling the book for prospective readers.

Next, my firm recommendation is to those of you who may have picked up this one without reading the other two books first – don’t go any further. Get hold of the previous two in the series. While I’m sure you could get the gist of what’s going on, this delightful, quirky fantasy adventure is far too good to miss.

As for Kellen, his squirrel cat companion Reichis, and Ferius, his Argosi mentor – they are once more on the track of the scumbags who have been inserting a parasitic worm into youngsters in order to control them. What I really have enjoyed about this series is that while Kellen is undoubtedly brave, he is regularly outmatched. And he does have a habit of rushing to the rescue of those he sees as innocent victims without necessarily working out whether his chances of prevailing are realistic. It doesn’t help that his squirrel cat is constantly goading him to take on any assailant in the hopes that he’ll be able to snack on another juicy eyeball… The humour in this series works as a nice counterpoint to the emotion also evident – Kellen wears his heart on his sleeve and the stakes are invariably as high as they can get, given he is tangling with some seriously unpleasant people. In other hands, this series could have been a constant, gritted struggle for survival – which is exactly what happens, but de Castell ensures the pacey writing and horrible situations Kellen finds himself in are leavened by the humour, mostly provided by the squirrel cat and his edgy relationship with his human companion.

I also very much appreciated the further insights into Ferius, Kellen’s mysterious mentor, and what drives her as I’ve found her cryptic utterances somewhat annoying. But this is the book where I bonded with her, while holding my breath. This author isn’t afraid to kill off major characters when it suits him.

Overall, this was an engaging read and worth addition to what is becoming a cracking series and highly recommended for fans of fantasy adventures.
9/10

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*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Unwritten by Tara Gilboy #Brainfluffbookreview #Unwrittenbookreview

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I liked the sound of this children’s adventure and, conscious that I hadn’t read many children’s books this year, I was delighted when I was approved to read and review it.

Twelve-year-old Gracie Freeman is living a normal life, but she is haunted by the fact that she is actually a character from a story, an unpublished fairy tale she’s never read. When she was a baby, her parents learned that she was supposed to die in the story, and with the help of a magic book, took her out of the story, and into the outside world, where she could be safe. But Gracie longs to know what the story says about her.

Once again, I’ve abbreviated the rather chatty blurb, but you’ll get the gist that this is about a girl who feels she doesn’t belong. Don’t take the tone of this book from the Disney-looking cover – this book is a lot grittier than the cover design suggests. Gracie’s flashbacks of being in a fire become increasingly upsetting, so when random chance gives her an opportunity to track down the author of the unpublished book containing her story, she takes it.

I like this treatment of the classic portal fantasy trope – it works well. The bewilderment of the well-known author at Gracie’s odd questions and keenness to distance herself from the intense, peculiar girl works really well. Gracie isn’t all that likeable at time – she’s prickly, secretive and prone to lying which is something of a risk, given that children generally prefer a nicer protagonist. However, this is one of the main themes of the book – who is the villain in this story?

There is a lot going on in this thoughtful, well-crafted story. The archetypal wicked queen isn’t as much of a pantomime villain as Gracie first thought. And what about her parents’ behaviour? Her mother’s stubborn refusal to discuss any of the weirdness poor Gracie keeps encountering is at worst selfishly stupid and at best short-sighted; while Gracie’s father opts to stay out of her life. Again, not exactly stepping up to the plate, is he? The adventure deals with some hefty issues with Gracie making an unpleasant discovery about her own role as the royal princess in the story.

As a children’s adventure tale, it has been brought to a satisfactory, reasonably upbeat conclusion. I have found myself thinking a lot about this thought-provoking and intelligently written story that I think would be an ideal book to be read and examined as a class project.

While I obtained an arc of Unwritten from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Kindle EBOOK Lethal White Book 4 of the Cormoran Strike novels by Robert Galbraith #Brainfluffbookreview #LethalWhitebookreview

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I didn’t enjoy Career of Evil – see my review here – as much as the previous two books and was a bit worried that this was a series that would be sliding further down into the gritty grunge of the murder mystery spectrum, as it’s not what I prefer to read. However this time around, I absolutely loved this one – it’s my favourite so far…

“I seen a kid killed…He strangled it, up by the horse.”
When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic. Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott—once his assistant, now a partner in the agency—set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

This story spans the full range of the social class system in England – from a mentally ill young man, clearly unable to adequately look after himself to a Minister of the State with a complicated family life. Cormoran Strike, dogged private investigator, cannot shake the feeling that Billy wasn’t hallucinating about the horrific murder he described.

As part of the investigation, Robin goes undercover in the Houses of Parliament as an intern and that made for fascinating reading, given that Rowling got access to the overcrowded, shabby offices where most of the admin work is carried out. The murder mystery part of the book twists in all sorts of directions, until the crime-fighting duo finally pull enough clues together to work out what was going on. Which is when that title really comes into its own…

This long book isn’t solely about the murder mystery element – at least half the book is given over to Cormoran and Robin’s complicated private lives. In fact the book starts with a major event in Robin’s life that also impacts upon Cormoran – and if you have crashed midway into this series, you’ll be forgiven for wondering if you’ve somehow ended up with a romance. Though there isn’t all that much that is happy or romantic in this book. Both Cormoran and Robin are finding it difficult to keep their partners happy, given the demands the Agency is making upon their time. While Cormoran frequently finds the inevitable walking and standing he has to do creates real problems with his artificial leg, Robin is also battling with panics attacks caused by the last case where she was attacked and injured. I really like the fact that these protagonists aren’t Teflon-coated – they are brave and both crave adventure, but also have to deal with the fallout when an incident becomes terrifying and life-threatening.

This is a long book, but at no time did I feel I was trudging through it. The final denouement was a genuine shock – I hadn’t guessed who the culprit was – and the book managed to tie up all the loose ends, leaving me wanting more…
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Select Few – Book 2 of the Select series by Marit Weisenberg #Brainfluffbookreview #SelectFewbookreview

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I really enjoyed this first book in this YA paranormal series, Select – read my review here – so when I saw the second book was available, I immediately requested it and was delighted to be accepted.

After rejecting the cult-like influence of her father’s family, Julia moves into a fancy hotel in downtown Austin. But she finds herself alone except for her boyfriend, John–and her fears. The FBI is also keeping a close eye on Julia hoping she can lead them to her father, Novak, as he’s wanted for questioning in his former assistant’s death. Will she ever be able to blend into normal society without being traced by her father? Will the FBI ever leave her alone? Can she ever find happiness?

I have once again made major changes to the very chatty blurb, and my advice is – don’t read it before picking up the book. The first book ended on something of a cliffhanger with a sudden revelation right at the very end, which turned everything on its head and had Julia making a snap decision not to join her family in their flight to a new life. So the start of Select Few has Julia coming to terms with that decision, after realising the enormity of her loss. She now has to make her way without her sister, whom she loves and misses and her overbearing authoritarian father. While at times she has revelled in her new freedom, she has also discovered that freedom is often accompanied by loneliness. Her relationship with John is also problematical, given that revelation at the end of the first book, so while her feelings for him are a comfort, he is often at a loss to understand her behaviour.

The reason I can discuss John’s feelings with such authority is that this book is a dual narrative with Julia’s first-person viewpoint telling most of the story, interleaved with John’s observations, addressed directly to Julia in the form of some kind of journal. If you haven’t read Select I recommend you do so if you are not feeling particularly bonded with the main characters, or you cannot work out what is going on. Given the first slice of the story is taken up with what is happening, I think this is one of those series where you really can’t crash midway in the series without floundering – and that would be a shame as I found the early part of the book particularly gripping while I tried to work out where it would go next.

Of course, if you are held at the start, the build-up has to really lead something – we’ve all read books which start with a bang and simply can’t sustain the momentum. Fortunately, Weisenberg has sufficient story and drive that the climax and final stages bring the book to a satisfying and convincing end.

I wasn’t as fed up with the inevitable love triangle as I usually am, and to be honest, I’m not sure why. But perhaps it was because I was sufficiently caught up in the main story and found the road trip also helped Julia comes to terms with some important issues along the way. Recommended for fans of paranormal coming-of-age books. While I obtained an arc of Select Few from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc A Muddle of Magic – Book 2 of the Fledgling Magic series by Alexandra Rushe

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One of my book blogging buddies was looking forward to this one (sorry – I can’t remember who!) so I nipped across and requested it, not realising – again – that it was the second book in the series.

What’s a nice Southern girl doing in a place like this?
Whisked from humdrum Alabama to the fantastical land of Tandara by a mage who won’t take no for an answer, Raine Stewart finds herself tangled in a muddle of magic. A Dark Wizard is out for her blood, a demonic golem has orders to dispatch her . . . and she stinks at magic. Being a wizard, even a baby wizard, is harder than Raine thought.

This is an amazingly rich, detailed world – and I was a bit more adrift than was ideal, given I hadn’t read the first book. But this portal fantasy adventure was great fun with a wealth of magical beings – there are dragons, giants, a rich variety of trolls and fairies, wizards, seers, ghosts and shape-shifters. I enjoyed Raine’s character and while there were times she was a bit overwhelmed, she mostly coped with the major culture shock extremely well. Since she arrived in this fantasy world, she has managed to make a number of friends with some powerful beings – sufficiently successfully so as to draw down some very unwelcome attention from a powerful dark wizard. So with a huge price on her head, she is also having to be continually guarded – which she finds especially irksome, given that before she was yanked into this portal world, she was an invalid with a poor prognosis.

While the adventure is mostly in Raine’s viewpoint, there were moments when suddenly we would get someone else’s pov, which I found a bit jarring. That niggle aside, I really enjoyed this world. It is very much a classical fantasy adventure in the Tolkien tradition with a rich variety of different creatures and Rushe is deft at giving us plenty of description without holding up the pace too much. I loved her serpent Flame, while the puzzles surrounding a number of the other main characters kept me turning the pages and enlivened a long train journey.

There was plenty of snark and humour thrown in amongst the plots, kidnappings, brutal fights, snooty courtiers and lantern-jawed heroes. My favourite is probably Gertie, the foul-mouthed, drink-loving troll who takes Raine under her protection and is full of smart-mouthed opinions about the outraged courtiers and haughty queen who hates her. And in amongst the banter and nonsense, there are some poignant moments of loss and heartache in the form of unrequited love and a desperately unhappy marriage.

I’m impressed that Rushe has managed to pack so much vividness and detail into a book just shy of 400 pages – she achieves this by also ensuring the pace keeps moving forward as fantastical creatures, magic artefacts and scheming wizards spin through her story. And there might be a muddle of magic – but there is nothing muddled about the storytelling. While I obtained an arc of A Muddle of Magic from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10

Review of INDIE Ebook Fifty-One by Chris Barnham #Brainfluffbookreview #Fifty-Onebookreview

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I met this author right at the beginning of the year, when I mentioned that I also reviewed books, so tucked the arc away in a safe place and promptly forgot about it. Really sorry, Chris!

Jacob Wesson is a timecop from 2040, sent back to WWII London to stop the assassination of Britain’s war leader. The assignment plays out with apparent ease, but the jump home goes wrong – and from there events slide out of control. Will Jacob be able to ever return to his own time?

I’ve heavily edited the very chatty blurb – whatever you do, don’t read it. It gives away far too much of the plot, which is so well told that it was would a crying shame to already know in advance what is going to happen. Needless to say, the jump goes awry and Jacob isn’t retrieved quickly. Of course all operators are trained for this eventuality, but they are repeatedly assured that with their implant locators and a team of trained observers keeping a close eye on all sensitive timestrands – and WWII is a very sensitive strand – his rescue will only be a matter of a few days.

I wasn’t all that sure I liked Jacob very much. In fact, the crew from 2040 are all rather edgy and slightly unpleasant, with the exception of the newest recruit, Nancy. But that might be the result in living in a besieged London, where everyone is terrified of being blown up by a suicide bomber and parts of the city are cordoned off behind blast-proof walls. While other areas of London have simply gone feral. The infrastructure has badly suffered and the streets are dirty and littered – to the extent that Jacob finds himself preferring blitzed London and the comradeship he sees on a daily basis, although everyone is clearly suffering and the rationed food is dreadful.

Barnham manages to depict both versions of London very effectively without holding up the pace. Jacob grew on me as his character expanded while he learnt to live during WWII. He is brave, resourceful and thinks on his feet and discovers that he is capable of loving wholeheartedly – something he’d thought was beyond him. The other character I loved right from the word go is Amy, who is also tough and resourceful through sheer necessity. The generation who lived through the war were remarkable and Barnham gives us a sense of that without lapsing into sentimentality.

It would have been so easy to dip this book in a layer of treacle, but Barnham resists that temptation. While the romance does power a vital part of the storyline, this book isn’t primarily about the love story. It’s far more concerned about what happens if in the future we develop the means to travel back in time and alter the timeline. What is to stop terrorists or fundamentalists illegally travelling back and attempting to alter the timeline? And if that does happen a number of times – who decides which alteration stands?

I really like Barnham’s approach that slowly unspools throughout the story that became steadily more gripping. It is an intelligent, powerful take on time travel that is going to stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended for fans of time travelling tales.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Indie EBOOK arc Sadie’s War – Book 3 of the Currency Girls series by Rosemary Noble #Brainfluffbookreview #Sadie’sWarbookreview

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I read and thoroughly enjoyed Noble’s novel about the early days of Grimsby in her engrossing tale, Ranter’s Wharf, see my review here. So when I heard she was bringing out a new historical novel – this time featuring Australia – I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy in return for an honest review.

Sadie is brought up amongst the vineyards of the Yarra Valley whilst her work-obsessed father reaps riches from the boom years before the Great War. With post-war depression looming, Sadie’s only option is to flee from her disastrous marriage, seeking refuge in Cleethorpes, a small seaside town in northern England. Years later, when her sons are in RAF Bomber Command, she receives a letter from her long-lost brother which forces her to confront the past and her part in her family’s downfall.

Noble has done a great deal of research, as many of the characters featuring in this family saga are actual family members, including Sadie, although not much is on record about this intriguing woman, other than the fact that after her failed marriage, she left for England. This is a fascinating tale fictionalising her life, stretching back to Sadie’s childhood, where her earliest memories are of being constantly moving houses, the next one ever grander and better than the previous one. Though her growing up years are blighted by the sudden death of her mother, which brings about a set of circumstances which probably wouldn’t have happened if there had been a vigilant and caring mother-figure at home. I really enjoyed Sadie as a character – she wants to please and conform, as girls were trained to do back in those days, but when it all hits the fan, she also proves that she has plenty of courage to take the necessary steps to start again.

In charting Sadie’s life, Noble gives us a vivid insight into the life and times, including customs, food and entertainment in an easy, natural writing style I have come to associate with her books. This is a real strength of the book, which makes it a delightful read.

The depiction of life during WW2, which is the other narrative running alongside Sadie’s earlier experiences, works well as a contrast to those days of heat, sunshine and socialising in Australia, as life in England on the Home Front was demanding. People were frequently hungry, cold and exhausted as they dealt with food rationing, war work and sleepless nights during bombing raids. This is all well described as part of Sadie’s daily round without holding up the story, while she is also desperately worried about her sons, who are all away fighting.

The only niggle I have is the wrinkle in the developing love story. It feels a bit contrived for the purposes of the narrative arc, but it’s not a dealbreaker. Do also read the Afterword, which is fascinating. I had no idea that Stanley, Sadie’s beloved brother, had led such an interesting life after his time in Australia. This is highly recommended for fans of sagas and historical adventures featuring WW2 and Australia.
9/10

Review of Library book Like a Boss – Book 2 of the Windswept series by Adam Rakunas #Brainfluffbookreview #LikeaBossbookreview

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I had only recently finished Windswept, which I loved – see my review here – and was delighted to discover this sequel also nestling on the library shelves…

After buying her favourite rum distillery and settling down, she thought she’d heard the last of her arch nemesis, Evanrute Saarien. But Saarien, fresh out of prison for his misdeeds in Windswept, has just fabricated a new religion, positioning himself as its holy leader. He’s telling his congregation to go on strike, to fight the system. And unfortunately, they’re listening to him.

I got the sense from reading this one that it was the success of the first book that inspired this one, rather than the story arc. Or perhaps it was the added pressure of that success – but whatever the reason, this book lacked the impact and sheer energy of Windswept. However, given I absolutely loved the first book, I was perfectly happy to read something along the same lines, even if it was a paler, saner version. Padma is now involved in trying to sort out the economy after those arranged against this plucky little colony want to see if fail…

While the scenario of the entrepreneurial individual ranged against the uncaring corporation is a regular theme within science fiction, it rarely takes centre stage – and kudos to Rakunas for making this the main engine of this story. However, his handling of some of the characters didn’t quite work for me – particularly Evanrute Saarien. He was the big, bad villain in the first book, who clearly wanted Padma dead – and his willingness to allow her to thump him, while having two huge bodyguards right alongside, simply didn’t convince. I couldn’t see any force on any planet allowing someone with such a huge ego permitting that to happen without there being retaliation. Similarly, I wasn’t convinced when the main antagonist was revealed, either. If they had wanted to effect such a major change, I don’t feel they would have waited such a long time before putting in place their plan.

Although I had these reservations, they weren’t dealbreakers. Because the main character, Padma, was still engrossing and unstoppable and I have a soft spot for the amazing world Rakunas has created. I hope if he returns to this world, however, he gives himself sufficient time to ensure the story arc involving the main supporting characters also are as strong as the worldbuilding and that extraordinary protagonist. Recommended for fans of colony world adventures.
7/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook No Time Like the Past – Book 5 of The Chronicles of St Mary’s by Jodi Taylor #Brainfluffbookblog #BookreviewofNoTimeLikethePast

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This is one of those outstanding series that I keep revisiting and yet trying to spin it out as I don’t want to the fun to stop…

St Mary’s has been rebuilt and it’s business as usual for the History department. But first, there’s the little matter of a seventeenth-century ghost that only Mr Markham can see. Not to mention the minor inconvenience of being trapped in the Great Fire of London…and an unfortunately-timed comfort break at Thermopylae leaving the fate of the western world hanging in the balance.

Max is one the historians, often described as disaster-magnets as they are generally prone to all sorts of mishaps occurring, as well as the day job being the insanely dangerous task of travelling back in time. It doesn’t help that there are also a group of renegade historians also cris-crossing the timeline equipped with one of their travelling pods who have sworn to see Max and her companions dead.

These books are very episodic, as each one covers a number of major time-travelling projects interleaved with life at St Mary’s, which is rarely peaceful. There is also a fair amount of emotional turmoil in Max’s life as her past has left scars that creates problems when she wants a relationship. Max’s hilarious first-person narrative often has me laughing aloud and nudging Himself in the ribs to read out a particular humorous gem, but what sets these books apart is that when highly dangerous, risky expeditions into the past are undertaken, often people don’t come back in one piece. Or at all… Taylor isn’t afraid of killing off characters we have grown very fond of, to the extent that I don’t get through one of these books without also weeping – and I don’t do that very often these days. Consequently, this series is always a roller-coaster read with lots of humour and heartbreak in amongst the action. Taylor’s writing is vivid and quirky and I love the fact that she always lulls me into a false sense of security by setting up a situation or scene, which suddenly changes into something quite different.

While I think you could quite easily pick up one of these books without having read any of the others and work out what is going on, it would be a real shame to do so with such an unusual and exciting series. I haven’t encountered anything quite like Taylor’s writing before, and I don’t expect to do so again. And if you, too, would like to experience the whirlwind that is St Mary’s and the madcap team of historians, then don’t track this one down, instead go looking for the first book, Just One Damned Thing After Another. Highly recommended for fans of time-travelling adventures with a difference.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Immortal Creators – Book 2 of the Immortal Writers series by Jill Bowers #Brainfluffbookreview #ImmortalCreatorsbookreview

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I’d like to be able to claim some deeper, more meaningful reason for picking this one up – but having all the depth of pavement puddle, I have to confess it was that cover that did it for me.

Sixteen-year-old author Scott Beck never wanted to be an Immortal Writer—not after his father was killed on a mission attempting to dispatch his own villain. Scott blames Shakespeare and the Writers for his father’s untimely demise, but no amount of hatred will prevent the oncoming alien attack, which has come over to reality straight from Scott’s book. Scott is forced to collect his characters—an Air Force colonel, two of the best pilots on Earth, and an alien enthusiast from the year 2134—and defeat the alien king before Earth is obliterated by his ships. But an odd sickness Scott calls his Writing Fever might just kill him before the aliens have the chance.

I haven’t read the first book in the series and I’m guessing that Scott and his father featured to some extent in that story, too, because this sequel certainly felt as if I was missing a chunk from Scott’s backstory. He loathes Shakespeare, holding him responsible for his father’s death and is dismayed when he is sucked into a similar situation that cost his father his life. Bowers does a really good job of depicting Scott’s understandable rage and grief, as well as his complicated relationship with his brother – though given it’s Dylan’s decision to secretly publish Scott’s book that creates the situation in the first place, I do think Scott should feel more angry with him over that.

The unfolding situation is well handled. Despite the fact that we were repeatedly told the Immortal Writers generally could cope with all the terrible fates facing the world, there was a real edge of urgency caused by an unexpected death that had me turning the pages to discover what would happen next.

The aliens are every bit as ruthless and horrible as everyone feared – while an upsetting traitor to humanity is also discovered, which I think would shock to those who have read Immortal Writers. I enjoyed the fact that the missions to avert the alien invasion don’t go to plan and Scott is furious and humiliated at his poor performance in the middle of these action scenes.

Once the story hit its stride, I figured I had a good idea where exactly the story was going – and then Bowers tipped it all on its head. That ending is a real doozy – and one I didn’t see coming. I’d love to discuss it more, but that would mean lurching into spoiler territory which I refuse to do. But – oh my goodness! I will certainly be tracking down the first book and getting hold of the third one, too. Because I want to read more from an author capable of pulling off such an ending… While I obtained an arc of Immortal Creators from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10