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*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc The Ashes of London – Book 1 of the Marwood and Lovett series by Andrew Taylor

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I requested this one after being attracted by the eye-catching cover and reading the premise, which was very intriguing.

London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer, and reluctant government informer. In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated and his thumbs have been tied behind his back. Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters

So did this live up to my expectations? Oh yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it. As to be expected with a story that starts in the middle of the Great Fire of London, this one starts with a bang. James Marwood watches the destruction of St Pauls Cathedral, with a vivid description of the heat and violence as the fire ripped through the interior and then destroyed the quantities of stationery and books that was stored in the crypt, in the belief that they would be safe.

Taylor has clearly done his research – there is a wealth of historical detail here woven into the everyday lives of the people caught up in the drama and terror. I was interested to learn that the official version – that there was a surprisingly small loss of life, given the ferocity and speed of the flames – is contradicted in this book. As the fire storms across tenements at a speed faster than a man can run, there is a general acceptance that whole families and communities were immolated. The reason why there is no official recognition of this loss of life is simply that the destruction was so thorough, nothing is left of the poor souls caught up in the conflagration but ashes.

That said, most of the action takes place in the days, weeks and months after the fire. I really liked this. That single event has caused havoc in the capital, which is nicely reflected in the political turbulence that is still being played out after the Civil War. Once Charles II regains his throne, one of his missions is to track down the handful of people responsible for executing his father. The young protagonist is caught up in this business – as are a number of other people in the story, even though they were either children or not yet born when the execution occurred.

I am conscious that I have managed to make this book sound as if it is some sort of historical account of the aftermath of both the Civil War and the great Fire of London, when of course, it’s nothing of the sort – it is a murder mystery adventure. That said, after the initial drama, the pace necessarily slows down. We are not in an era of fast car chases, or fast anything for that matter. This mystery reflects the fact that most people walk everywhere and the majority of tasks are still done by hand. So this mystery spools out over a period of time, which gives the denouement an extra kick as it takes place among the shattered remains of St Paul’s Cathedral. There were a number of intriguing twists, with one in particular I certainly didn’t see coming. I am delighted that this is the start of a series featuring James Marwell and I shall certainly be getting hold of the next book. Recommended for fans of historical murder mysteries. While I obtained an arc of The Ashes of London from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10

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*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc The Blood Book 3 of the Jem Flockhart series by E.S. Thomson

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For once, it wasn’t the cover that caught my eye with this one – it was the premise. I recall reading about these hospital ships with horror and reading a murder mystery that was based on one of these floating hulks seemed quirkily original.

Summoned to the riverside by the desperate, scribbled note of an old friend, Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain find themselves on board the seamen’s floating hospital, an old hulk known only as The Blood, where prejudice, ambition and murder seethe beneath a veneer of medical respectability.

Thomson does a marvellous job of vividly recreating the grim and effluvia of this stinking corner of London. At this point, the poor old Thames is little more than an open cesspit and London is generally draped in sooty smoke, with far more mists and fogs than you’d normally expect, caused by the runaway air pollution. Unsurprisingly, there is a high rate of illness, though The Blood specialises in the ailments brought into London from sailors and passengers who have returned from the Empire with all sorts of nasty complaints.

Jem Flockhart is an interesting protagonist – he is a young apothecary, continuing his father’s business and producing herbal remedies and medicines for the physicians coping with the high rate of illnesses. The team working on The Blood are mostly young medical practitioners without any money or support behind them, seeking to make a reputation by either publishing a brilliant paper on one of these new diseases, or catching the eye of an established medical man. However, the likes of Dr Proudlove, a black doctor whose mother ran a brothel, is highly unlikely to gain the reputation he wishes, despite being both clever and hard-working.
Jem teams up Will Quartermain, a young architect, when investigating this entangled case that lays open the seamiest side of London life, after they discover the body of a young woman in a derelict boatyard. While it’s evident she was drowned, the water in her lungs is clear, whereas she was discovered floating in a vile-smelling thick soup that could scarcely be described as water…

I thoroughly enjoyed this. Jem is a wary character who despite his obvious youth, clearly knows his way around this lawless, blighted area – and has an almighty secret of his own. This means that he is relatively free of many of the prejudices of the time – which also rings true. While there is clearly a rich backstory to his and Will’s current relationship, I had no difficulty in working out exactly what was going on and this book works well as a standalone, despite being the third in the series.

As for the mystery itself, it is one of those very twisty affairs, where one apparently solitary murder triggers a string of other incidents so that more people die, pulling in a wider circle of potential suspects. I thoroughly enjoyed the puzzle and the vivid world unflinchingly on display – though I’m humbly grateful that I don’t live in that time and place. I’ve thought about this one a lot since I finished reading it and will be looking out for the other books in this series. Recommended for fans of vividly depicted historical fiction, especially Victorian noir.
9/10

 

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc School for Psychics – Book 1 of the School for Psychics series by K.C. Archer

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And yes – true to form, it was the cover that sold this one. I loved that gold on black effect, which worked really well. And after reading Kristen’s review on her blog, Metaphor and Moonlight, I went ahead and requested it…

Teddy Cannon isn’t your typical twenty-something woman. She’s resourceful. She’s bright. She’s scrappy. She can also read people with uncanny precision. What she doesn’t realize: she’s actually psychic. When a series of bad decisions leads Teddy to a run-in with the police, a mysterious stranger intervenes. He invites her to apply to the School for Psychics, a facility hidden off the coast of San Francisco where students are trained like Delta Force operatives: it’s competitive, cutthroat, and highly secretive. They’ll learn telepathy, telekinesis, investigative skills, and SWAT tactics. And if students survive their training, they go on to serve at the highest levels of government, using their skills to protect America, and the world.

This is part of the rather chatty blurb, but gives you a good idea of Teddy at the start of the story. She is definitely rather scattered, but what you don’t immediately appreciate at the beginning of the book, is the fear underlying her bolshie attitude. She could immediately sense when anyone was lying, right from when she was a small child – and that terrified her. I liked the flaws and her apparent flakiness, which we discover has a solid cause. As a result, the book does take some time before the story gathers momentum and really hits its stride.

While the story is told from first person viewpoint via Teddy’s character, we also get to know a number of the other students, though because she has a tendency to hold them at arm’s length, we don’t perhaps know them quite as well as we would like. But it also means that when the twists come, it is a surprise.

Himself, being the paranoid sort, immediately worried about who would be monitoring such a potentially powerful tool as an establishment where people with psychic powers can be trained and moulded into law enforcement officers. I was pleased to see this aspect is addressed as the book progresses and this bodes well for the second book in the series, which should give us more of the political landscape and open up the whole issue of psychic warfare as a wider subject.

This is an enjoyable start to a series that promises to continue gaining traction as it progresses and I look forward to the next book. Recommended for fans of mental powers and school-based stories. While I obtained an arc of School for Psychics from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of INDIE Ebook The Green Man’s Heir by Juliet McKenna

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I’m a solid fan of this author’s work – see my review of The Hadrumal Crisis – and have always enjoyed the politically aware worldbuilding and sharp characterisation of her epic fantasy novels, all set in the same world. This one, however, is a complete break from her former body of work. This is, in effect, a very Brit take on the urban fantasy sub-genre, where the supernatural world interacts with the human version in trying to get to the bottom of a crime. But instead of grimy city streets, the setting is an English stately home and instead of the usual fare of vampires and werewolves, we have dryads, boggats and wyrms…

A hundred years ago, a man with a secret could travel a few hundred miles and give himself a new name and life story. No one would be any the wiser, as long as he didn’t give anyone a reason to start asking questions. These days, that’s not so easy, with everyone on social media, and CCTV on every street corner. So Daniel Mackmain keeps his head down and keeps himself to himself. But now a girl has been murdered and the Derbyshire police are taking a closer look at a loner who travels from place to place, picking up work as he goes. Worse, Dan realises the murder involves the hidden world he was born into. When no one else can see the truth, who will see justice done?

A modern fantasy rooted in the ancient myths and folklore of the British Isles.

And she has absolutely nailed it. This is a complete and utter joy. I loved the character of Daniel, part-dryad, who is desperate to meet up with others in his situation and when he finally tracks down someone who can help – it doesn’t end well… He is a sympathetic protagonist with a few chips on his shoulder – not surprising given his heritage and how it has caused him problems. He is tall, well-built and innately attracts women. While that might sound like dream attributes, in reality it has caused him a lot of problems with annoyed boyfriends and brought unwelcome attention from the police, when such incidents turn into brawls.

I love the setting of a country district – McKenna has got the social faultlines running through modern England spot on. While the beautiful setting, juxtaposed with the grim threat reaching back into history and now posing a possibility of creating havoc all over again, works beautifully. This one grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go until I put it down in the wee small hours, drained and slightly giddy.

The book hangover I’ve had since has been painful, because despite reading perfectly enjoyable, well written adventures, they haven’t been this world, with these characters. I want them back. I want more. And I’m hoping, fervently, that McKenna has plans to make this a series, because I’m already addicted.

Recommended for fans of urban fantasy and murder stories with a very cool paranormal twist.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Meet Me in the Strange by Leander Watts

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I took one look at this amazing cover and fell in love with it, so immediately requested the book.

Davi tries to help a new friend, Anna Z, escape a cruel and controlling brother, and the teens end up running away to follow the tour of their rock idol, the otherworldly Django Conn. The story is set in a weird and wonderful retro-futuristic city of glam-girls and glister-boys and a strange phenomenon that Anna Z calls the “Alien Drift.”

This is a really intriguing read. Firstly, I am clearly not the target audience. While I enjoy my music and at times lock onto new artists and play an album to a standstill – I no longer have the intense, self-defining relationship with music that I recall needing during my teenage years. This book is targeted at those youngsters and those not so young, whose relationship with their music is mind-altering and profound.

Davi, the protagonist, is deliberately left ungendered, but is clearly male – although that doesn’t matter as much as you might think in this futuristic world where gender fluidity clearly prevails. The language is a delight – Watts uses a form of slang of his own devising, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I get a tad tired of sci fi authors using sayings that originated from our nautical past with the assumption they would still prevail in an era where we are no longer in an environment where the sea matters, so I thoroughly enjoyed the way Watts plays with language.

The same imagination and inventiveness is bestowed upon the world building and details of Davi’s everyday life as the son of a hotel owner whose relationship with his children is fleeting. Davi and his older sister live an odd, unstructured life with far too many resources, far too much time and scarily little interaction with anyone they can turn to for guidance or advice – other than a few kindly members of staff who do their best to look out for the teenagers. By contrast, the actual storyline suffers. It seems that so much imaginative energy has been expended on the world building and cool characterisation depicted through the inventive language that the actual plot is rather simple.

However, I’m not sure the target audience will really mind. What this book offers is a glimpse into the daily life of an imagined teenager in the future, including his love of music and his attempt to help Anna get free from her brother. Indeed, since I completed this book it keeps popping back into my head – the world and the feel of it, right down to the musty splendour of the hotel, which has seen better days. Recommended for readers who also enjoy music as well as inventive and futuristic world building. While I obtained an arc of Meet Me in the Strange from the publisher, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.

8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Burn Bright – Book 5 of the Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs

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Himself is a real fan of Patricia Briggs and pounced on this latest instalment of her werewolf urban fantasy series with glee. I idly opened it up, read the first couple of the pages – and was caught…

They are the wild and the broken. The werewolves too damaged to live safely among their own kind. For their own good, they have been exiled to the outskirts of Aspen Creek, Montana. Close enough to the Marrok’s pack to have its support; far enough away to not cause any harm. With their Alpha out of the country, Charles and Anna are on call when an SOS comes in from the fae mate of one such wildling. Heading into the mountainous wilderness, they interrupt the abduction of the wolf–but can’t stop blood from being shed. Now Charles and Anna must use their skills–his as enforcer, hers as peacemaker–to track down the attackers, reopening a painful chapter in the past that springs from the darkest magic of the witchborn…

I make a habit of crashing into series out of order as anyone who has spent any time reading my reviews knows. Mostly, I manage to work out what is happening without too much difficulty, but I can’t deny that it sometimes causes a bit of confusion at the beginning of the book. Not this time, though. Immediately Briggs pulled me into the action so at no stage was I floundering, which demonstrates a great deal of skill, given this is the fifth book in the series. Of course, I was aware there was a hefty backstory and some of the previous events were mentioned, which has certainly whetted my appetite to read more about these engaging characters.

And it is all about the characters. I loved both Charles and Anna, so very different and yet so suited. I also enjoyed reading about the jockeying for position and the pinsharp awareness of their ranking within the pack and how that balances with the human side of their character. I’ve read one or three werewolf stories in my time, each with its own take on how the blend of wolf and human works, and this was a dynamic I particularly enjoyed. I also liked the fact that despite this is a world where lives are invariably lost – they matter. Near the beginning one of the deaths really winded me – I had expected that it was going to be alright and this particular character, whom I’d really liked, would prevail. It was a shock when it didn’t.

Another of Briggs’ skills is her ability to write broken, desperate characters with compassion and empathy. Some of the oldest fae and werewolves are overwhelmed by the weight of years and bloody experiences they have endured and are too dangerous to live in the socially supercharged atmosphere of the Pack. Briggs doesn’t just tell us how dangerous and unpredictable they are – her demonstrations of their lethal oddness had me reading waaay later into the night than I should have done.

As for the climax and solution – the risk is when I’m so thoroughly invested in a story so early on, I’ll find that the ending doesn’t quite live up to my expectations. This wasn’t an issue here – there was another surprising twist near the end that certainly changed everything once again. And then again, when another twist superseded that one… The conclusion tied up most of the plot points, leaving a major one dangling in the breeze, ready for the sixth book in the series. I’ll definitely be reading that one – and before that – I’ll also be backtracking and reading more about these charismatic, engaging characters in the meantime.

Highly recommended for fans of quality urban fantasy.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Novella Escaping Firgo by Jason Whittle

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I picked up this book at Forbidden Planet on my jaunt up to London to support the Grimbold Publishing team, so to that extent I am declaring an interest. That said, I don’t know Jason personally and my opinions of the book are entirely my own.

When a bank worker takes a wrong turn in life and on the road, he finds himself trapped in a remote village hiding from the police. Before he can find his freedom, he has to find himself, and it’s not just about escaping, it’s about settling up. Because everybody settles up in the end.

This intriguing story could be characterised as Psycho (the opening sequence, anyway – this isn’t horror) meets Groundhog Day. The protagonist, tired of trudging through life where he constantly sees others more dishonest and less deserving achieve their aims, decides to rob the bank where he has worked his way up to Assistant Manager over a number of years. On the way to the airport, however, his car breaks down and he finds himself rushing to the nearest village to try and find someone who can help him so he can catch his flight.

Things don’t quite work out that way… While he finds a village handily close, trying to find someone who can fix the car so he can be on his way again, proves to be unexpectedly difficult. And then the car disappears… I really enjoyed this story. It’s quirky, otherworldly feel is perfectly realised. Whittle does a good job of balancing the characterisation, pacing and narrative tension so that this novella works really well. I often find novellas unsatisfactory because just as I am getting into the swing of the story, they abruptly come to an end.

This isn’t the case with Escaping Firgo, as I was well aware of the approaching climax and found the ending appropriate and satisfying. Since I have finished reading it, I find myself thinking about it, and wondering what I’d do if I found myself in the same situation.

This little gem is recommended for anyone who enjoys reading, well told, quirky stories.
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Reclaiming Shilo Snow – Book 2 of The Evaporation of Sofi Snow series by Mary Weber

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Being the shallow sort, once more I was led into this one by the scrummy cover – I do love a gorgeous purple cover – and the fact it was a YA science fiction adventure…

Trapped on the ice-planet of Delon, gamer girl Sofi and Ambassador Miguel have discovered that nothing is what it seems, including their friends. On a quest to rescue her brother, Shilo, a boy everyone believes is dead, they must now escape and warn Earth of Delon’s designs on humanity. Except the more they unearth of the planet and Sofi’s past, the more they feel themselves unraveling, as each new revelation has Sofi questioning the very existence of reality. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Sofi’s mom, Inola, is battling a different kind of unraveling: a political one that could cost lives, positions, and a barely-rebuilt society, should they discover the deal made with the Delonese. But there’s a secret deeper than all that. One locked away inside Sofi and ticking away with the beginnings, endings, and answers to everything. Including how to save humanity.

Of course, the snag with being swept away by a gorgeous cover is that I tend to crash midway into a series. Sometimes I get away with it and other times, because the action seamlessly continues from one book to the other, I flounder. This second book in the series falls into the latter category and it took me a while to work out who was doing what to whom. Once I sorted that out, however, I became invested in the characters and caught up in the very difficult situation facing humanity.

Sofi and Miguel are appealing protagonists and while romance isn’t generally my go-to genre, Weber writes this relationship with lyricism and conviction that swept me along. The Delonese aliens are suitably imperturbable and smugly superior with their intimidating technical superiority and the character I most empathised with was poor Inola, who is trying to hold this political situation together. The action was gripping throughout and there were a couple of deaths that winded me with their unexpectedness, while keeping me on my toes.

Any quibbles? While the climactic action scene was engrossing and convincing, the aftermath did seem to wrap things up just a tad too tidily. But this is really a very minor issue, and certainly didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying this one – though my firm advice would be to go and track down the first book in this duology, The Evaporation of Sofi Snow, before tucking into this one. While I obtained an arc of Reclaiming Shilo Snow from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc The Bitter Twins – Book 2 of The Winnowing Flame Trilogy by Jen Williams

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There has been much excitement amongst the book-blogging community about this one, as Jen Williams has become a solid favourite among epic fantasy fans with her unique blend of clever pacing, vivid characters and the sheer energy of her writing. But what had everyone waiting for this one was that twist at the end of The Ninth Rain – see my review here – that turned this into a genre mash-up.

The Ninth Rain has fallen, the Jure’lia have returned, and with Ebora a shadow of its former self, the old enemy are closer to conquering Sarn than ever. Tormalin the Oathless and the Fell-Witch Noon have their hands full dealing with the first war-beasts to be born in Ebora for nearly three hundred years. But these are not the great mythological warriors of old; hatched too early and with no link to their past lives, the war-beasts have no memory of the many battles they have fought and won, and no concept of how they can possibly do it again. The key to uniting them, according to the scholar Vintage, may lie in a part of Sarn no one really believes exists, but finding it will mean a dangerous journey at a time of war…

For starters, if you’ve picked this one up without having first read The Ninth Rain, then put it right back down again and rush off to get hold of the aforesaid first book in the series. It took me a while to get into this one, because I don’t reread books and as The Bitter Twins picks up more or less where The Ninth Rain left off, I was frankly floundering. If I hadn’t read the first book in this series, I think it would have taken me far too long to sort out who was doing what to whom to fully appreciate the writing and the story.

However, once I was back in the groove – this one was a joy. The characters are nuanced and three-dimensional, so that our gutsy heroes and heroines have flaws and weaknesses, and even characters we have written off as wrong ‘uns are capable of selfless acts. I loved the storyline regarding the origins of the Eborans, which worked really well and nicely mirrored what is happening on the Corpse Moon where unsettling transformations are taking place.

One of the recurrent themes within the epic fantasy genre is the role of history and how it defines people’s own identity within their culture and race. Williams treatment of this theme in this series is an interesting one, overlaid as it is by the insertion of another genre and how that both plays with and subverts the idea of cultural identity, particularly by the Eborans, who are teetering on the verge of extinction. As the inferior race, the human protagonists within the story have their own baggage and, in some cases, scores to settle. My favourite character is Vintage, the delightful human scholar whose insatiable curiosity has hauled her right into the middle of the current mess.

I don’t want you to go away with the idea, however, that this book spends pages discussing or worrying about the above, as it’s all about the adventure and such considerations are fully embedded within the plot. Events are moving fast, threats abound, and our intrepid band of protagonists are constantly having to react to yet another sticky situation. The pages flew by as I found it hard to break off and get on with the growing stack of chores – so I didn’t. After all, this was a Jen Williams read – which means it’s something special. While I obtained an arc of The Bitter Twins from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Into the Thinnest of Air Book 5 of the Ishmael Jones series by Simon R. Green

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I have read two of the previous four books in this entertaining series by prolific author, Simon R. Green – read my review of Death Shall Come – and thoroughly enjoyed them. So I immediately jumped at the opportunity to read this latest offering.

Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny are attending the re-opening of Tyrone’s Castle, an ancient Cornish inn originally built by smugglers. Over dinner that night, the guests entertain one another with ghost stories inspired by local legends and superstitions. But it would appear that the curse of Tyrone’s Castle has struck for real when one of their number disappears into thin air. And then another . . .

This entertaining locked-room mystery takes place in a creepy Cornish Castle with a long-standing curse hanging over it. After winning a substantial sum on the lottery, the couple hosting this particular evening have transformed it into an inn with a fine-dining restaurant and Penny, Ishmael’s partner, has been sent an invitation. They seem particularly keen for her to attend, although they were really friends of her father. So she feels obligated to go along and is sure that Ishmael will be equally welcome. However as he walks through the door, he realises that not only were they not expecting anyone to accompany Penny, they are not remotely pleased to see him.

Ishmael’s enhanced senses tell him there is something not quite right about this evening, so instead of a weekend getaway where they could pretend to be an ordinary couple, they find themselves pitchforked into the middle of yet another bloody adventure. Once again, Green’s snappy writing and effective scene setting swept me up into the story and had me turning the pages until it was all over. I really enjoy Ishmael as a character. While he is supposedly on the side of the angels, there is a darker side to him and I liked the fact that at one point in this story, he simply lost his temper and took it out on his surroundings.

One of Green’s strengths is his ability to give us plenty of back story and motive for all of the suspects that Ishmael and Penny, who are an interesting mix of characters and I enjoyed the fact that Green doesn’t necessarily play them to type – for instance, the vicar is far weaker than his wife. As for the denouement, while I didn’t see it coming, it had crossed my mind before I dismissed it a couple of times during the book. However, in this story, it is as much about the why, as it is the how, which I found reasonably convincing.

This one certainly managed to make a train journey to London and back far more entertaining and is recommended for fans of murder mysteries with a paranormal twist. While I obtained an arc of The Thinnest of Air from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
8/10