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*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Murder in the Dark – Book 6 of the Ishmael Jones series by Simon R. Green #Brainfluffbookreview #MurderintheDarkbookreview

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This book cover looks creepy and rather horrific, but while there are murders and poor old Ishmael Jones is taking it all very seriously, this book has its tongue firmly in its cheek…

“The past is England’s dreaming, and not all of it sleeps soundly…”
Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny have been despatched to assist a group of scientists who are investigating a mysterious black hole which has appeared on a Somerset hillside. Could it really be a doorway to another dimension, an opening into another world? When one of the scientists disappears into the hole — with fatal consequences — Ishmael must prove whether it was an accident — or murder. But with no clues, no witnesses and no apparent motive, he has little to go on. Is there an alien predator at large, or is an all-too-human killer responsible? Only one thing is certain: if Ishmael does not uncover the truth in time, more deaths will follow…

I’m not sure at what point I began to see the funny side of this adventure, but when I did, there was a fair amount that set me quietly chuckling. Green’s dark humour is more apparent and gory in his Deathstalker series, but I found this version more enjoyable.

If you are looking for foot-to-the-floor action adventure, then you’ll be disappointed. Apart from the body count, which rises alongside the tension as Ishmael tries to work out exactly who or what is annihilating the wretched team of scientists stuck on the hill on a dark, dark night, there isn’t a lot that actually happens. Think of a locked room mystery in the middle of the English countryside. However, there are plenty of possible suspects – including what may or may not be emerging from that creepy hole – and lots of enjoyable character clashes and conflicts, which Green writes very well. The bonus for those who have followed the series, is that during this investigation we get to know a bit more about Jones’ shadowy past and hints that it might be catching up with him.

One of the joys of this series is his relationship with Penny, his girlfriend and dauntless sidekick – it’s rare to find a truly happy couple in these sorts of adventures and I hope it stays that way. Their snarky exchanges and domestic bickering about Penny’s driving and lack of cooking skills somehow helps to highlight just how weird it’s all got – and won’t it be nice to get back to normality…

Highly recommended if you like a bit of humour thrown in with the paranormal shenanigans – and the bonus is that this is the sort of series that you can jump in anywhere without losing too much of the context. While I obtained an arc of Murder in the Dark from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10

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*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook The Consuming Fire – Book 2 of The Interdependency series by John Scalzi #Brainfluffbookreview #TheConsumingFirebookreview

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I am linking this post up for Sci-Fi Month, hence the fabulous banner designed by Imyril. I was thrilled that I’d been immediately approved to receive a review copy of this one, given I’d really enjoyed the first book, The Collapsing Empire, and getting hold of sequels on Netgalley has proved to be increasingly difficult. When it arrived, I realised I only had the first six chapters… I’m not quite sure what to do with those, given I cannot possibly post an honest review of a book based on the opening chapters. So I decided to get hold of the rest of the book so I could at least read the rest of the story…

The Interdependency, humanity’s interstellar empire, is on the verge of collapse. The Flow, the extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible, is disappearing, leaving entire star systems stranded. When it goes, human civilization may go with it—unless desperate measures can be taken. Emperox Grayland II, the leader of the Interdependency, is ready to take those measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But nothing is ever that easy. Arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth—or at the very least, an opportunity that can allow them to ascend to power.

This is an interesting series for a variety of reasons. Dystopian sci fi where corporate greed is rampant and unchecked is a familiar trope in epic science fiction – but the Interdependency was stitched together to try and smooth out the destructive cycles of boom and bust that afflict a capitalist system. Now the Flow, a sort of super-highway of extra-dimensionality that allows far-flung star systems to trade with each other, is beginning to fail, the scrabble for power is intensifying. The corporate wheeler-dealers are magnificently cynical and greedy and everyone has plenty of snark, with the exception of Grayland II, who seems genuinely sweet.

Like many epic science fiction stories, Scalzi has passages of semi-omniscience where he tells the reader what is going on, rather than depicting the whole situation from the viewpoint of one of his cast of characters. This keeps the pace going and allows the reader to know some of the finer points that Scalzi thinks is important – and he makes this info-dumps enjoyable by the dry tongue-in-cheek tone he adopts. His characters are vivid, with some almost parodies in their desperation for more power, more leverage, more anything-they-can-get. I am intrigued by others, like Kiva, who I haven’t yet worked out is on the side of the angels, or simply out for what she can get. But be warned, she swears up a storm so if extensive use of the f-word offends you, then this is one to avoid.

Epic sci fi isn’t my favourite sub-genre – too much telling me what I should think… too much earnestness from the protagonists… too many powerful, entitled male characters… And I’m loving the fact that Scalzi has upended every single one of those peeves. His politically dynamic and feisty female characters are a pleasant change. His snarky tone and trick of understating the terrible consequences if the Interdependency fractures at the same time the Flow fails gives this book an almost urban fantasy feel. Will I be getting the next book? Oh yes.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Muse of Nightmares – Book 2 of the Strange the Dreamer series by Laini Taylor #Brainfluffbookreview #MuseofNightmaresbookreview

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I recently completed Strange the Dreamer, the first book in this amazing series and immediately went ahead and bought the second book – I had to know what would happen next…

Sarai has lived and breathed nightmares since she was six years old. She believed she knew every horror and was beyond surprise. She was wrong.
In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.

That’s as much of the blurb I’m happy to share with you, given that if you have picked up this book without reading the first book, then put it back down and track down Strange the Dreamer. Muse of Nightmares immediately picks up the tale from where Strange the Dreamer left off, so you’ll be floundering without appreciating the full awesome specialness of either Sarai or Lazlo if you try to plunge straight into the middle of this duology.

In this book, we also are introduced to two sisters, Kora and Nova. While Sarai and Lazlo are battling with Minya, we also learn of the hard-scrabbled existence endured by Kora and Nova as their mother was taken by the blue-skinned gods. They are both convinced they are also worthy to serve – that when the time comes, they, too, will be taken away from their cruel step-mother and uncaring father before they end up being married to men old enough to pay for them. And then the silver skyship comes… I particularly love this story arc and would have enjoyed more of it and a little less of the romantic scenes between Lazlo and Sarai. But it is supposedly a YA read, so I’m aware that I’m not the target audience. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, more of an observation.

What I particularly enjoyed was the way the story morphed from being a magical fantasy tale into a science fiction story – and then was linked with the Daughter of Smoke and Bone universe – nicely done! However, I was interested to note that most of the characters – at least the ones we cared about and even some of the ones we didn’t – had their story arcs completed in a more positive manner than I’d been expecting. While I knew that Taylor wasn’t writing grimdark or anything close to it, – I had rather assumed that there would be more losers, given the stakes were so very high and I’m not sure that I was completely convinced by some of the character transformations.

That said, I couldn’t put this one down until I’d finished it and if it didn’t contain quite the same atmosphere and magic of Strange the Dreamer as far as I’m concerned, it is still an amazing read and one I very highly recommend.
9½/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Soulbinder Book 4 in the Spellslinger series by Sebastien de Castell #Brainfluffbookreview #Soulbinderbookreview

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The fourth book in the page-turning SPELLSLINGER fantasy series. Perfect for fans of The Dark Tower, Firefly, Guardians of the Galaxy, Terry Pratchett, Ben Aaronovitch and Jim Butcher.

And that’s the blurb – well, you can’t fault the publisher for giving away any crucial plotpoints here, can you? I’m interested in the line-up of authors that are compared to de Castell, because they all have initially humorous, often quite bouncy stories that steadily get darker and grimmer as the series wears on. Up to this point, the Spellsinger series kept the humour going, mostly provided by that pesky squirrel cat. But while Kellen’s caustic comments still are evident during Soulbinder – this is the book where the stakes are upped even further, there is even more mayhem, bloodshed and emotion. And yet, right at the end, back comes the humour, which I often loathe in TV series, but this time around, breathless and a tad hollowed out by all the excitement and the loss of characters I’ve grown fond of – something de Castell regularly does – it was a huge relief.

In this slice of the adventure, we learn more about the shadowblack – the disease that has marked Kellen and forced him to be outcast as the black markings around his eye will eventually cause him to be possessed by a terrible demon and start killing all those around him. The magical society he is born into, the Jan’Tep, abhor and fear all those with shadowblack, regarding them as monsters and mages can earn respect by tracking and killing those with a bounty on their head. I appreciated learning more about exactly what others infected by shadowblack feel about their affliction as Kellen encounters those like himself.

The action builds to a really exciting climax and the pages flipped past far too quickly as I couldn’t put this one down – de Castell has a knack of leading us from one engrossing adventure to another, without losing any depth in the characterisation or allowing the pacing to become too repetitive, which is harder to do than he makes it look.

And despite reading two books in this series within a week of each other – see my review of Charmcaster – I didn’t find the experience diminished my enjoyment of Soulbinder, which is a real testament to the writing skill of de Castell, who goes on delivering humour, shocks and plot-twists throughout this engrossing series. Highly recommended for fans of adventure fantasy featuring cool magical systems.
9/10

*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 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

*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

*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

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Kindred Spirits – Book 5 of the Gabriel Ash and Hazel Best series by Jo Bannister #Brainfluffbookreview #KindredSpiritbookreview

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I wanted a break from my usual diet of SFF reads and this cover caught my eye. I requested it, as I generally like the output from Severn House Publishing, who release a steady stream of well written and well edited crime and adventure fiction.

A kidnap attempt outside the school gates in broad daylight convinces Gabriel Ash that his renegade wife is trying to steal their sons from him. Only the intervention of his friend Constable Hazel Best kept them safe. It’s a simple if alarming explanation, but is it the truth? Hazel uncovers disturbing information about another crime, the repercussions of which are still threatening innocent lives seventeen years later.

That is half the blurb, but it gives you a good idea of what is going on. And no… I haven’t read any of the previous four books in the series – I did my usual trick of crashing midway into this series and once again, got away with it. Bannister drops in any details about the protagonists’ backstory that impacts on the action and characterisation without resorting to any info dumps. It helps that both characters are good people striving to do their best under tricky conditions. Gabriel Ash has clearly had a torrid time of it in previous books and is busy putting his life together as a single father running a book shop. Clever, sensitive and rather battered, he also has a dog who communicates telepathically with him… he thinks.

Hazel Best is a bright, determined woman whose police career has been compromised by previous shenanigans earlier in the series. One of the few people who now give her the time of day, other than a rather busy Gabriel, is Dave Gorman, her superior. When she gets a bee in her bonnet about exactly who was the target in the attempted kidnapping outside the school, events take off.

This well-written police procedural rolls forward at a reasonable clip, with a good mix of possible suspects. My one grizzle is the dog’s role in unravelling the mystery – given that everything else is so very much set in the world of fact, the dog chatting to Gabriel didn’t convince me. I would have preferred it if this had been left more open so that while Gabriel thinks it’s down to the dog, the rest of us could see another option – and if Bannister intended it to read like that, she didn’t quite succeed.

However, that isn’t a dealbreaker. I would happily pick up another book in this series and it is recommended for fans of cosy crime, particularly dog lovers. While I obtained an arc of Kindred Spirit from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY Arc Like Never and Always by Anne Aguirre #Brainfluffbookreview #LikeNeverandAlwaysbookreview

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I was looking for something just a bit different, when I read of this premise during Can’t-Wait Wednesday (thank you who recommended it – and sorry for not name-checking you, but I simply cannot remember). So I was delighted when I was approved for the Netgalley arc.

On a hot summer night, a screech of brakes and shattering glass changes two lives forever. Liv wakes in the hospital, confused when they call her Morgan. She assumes it’s a case of mistaken identity, yet when the bandages come off, it’s not her face in the mirror anymore. It’s her best friend Morgan’s. Morgan always seemed to have the perfect life, yet Liv must navigate endlessly disturbing secrets of the criminal and murderous variety—and a romance that feels like a betrayal. Torn between the boy she loved as Liv and the boy she’s grown to love as Morgan, Liv still has to survive Morgan’s last request.

It’s an interesting premise – and that intriguing title comes from a Pablo Neruda poem. So does this YA thriller live up to the promise of a cracking read? Oh yes. I enjoy Aguirre’s writing, particularly her excellent space opera adventure featuring adrenaline-junkie pilot Sirantha Jax – see my review of Grimspace. The dramatic beginning hooked me in and I slummucked in bed, reading this offering in one greedy gulp. Liv’s first-person narrative is well realised. Although she suffers serious physical injuries and keeps encountering nasty discoveries of the knee-buckling sort, Aguirre manages to avoid her becoming some put-upon victim. Given the nature of some of the secrets that float to the surface, as she continues investigating Morgan’s life, that is harder to pull off than you might think.

I found myself rooting for Liv throughout and was even able to endure the dreaded love triangle. In fact, it actually made sense within the story’s premise. The character progression also works well and I was also pleased to see that while Liv initially dreads getting any kind of professional counselling, when it becomes crucial she does avail herself of it. I would have liked to see her make more use of it – and have her still attending some ongoing counselling sessions for the foreseeable future.

Other than that quibble, I thoroughly enjoyed this YA adventure, which had me turning the pages to find out what happens next. It’s an entertaining thriller that delivers plenty of surprises featuring a well-realised, sympathetic protagonist. Recommended for fans of family-based mystery thrillers. While I obtained an arc of Like Never and Always from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10