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HM On Writing

New Reviews

JG MacLeod, Abalone

Domestic Violence with a Vengeance

Liz is a reticent and shy girl who manages to be a good student regardless of her difficult home life.  James is an older boy with apparent learning difficulties. Possibly, his problems are down to a lack of interest in getting an education as he seems reckless rather than stupid. Liz’s English teacher suggests that she should help James to graduate. These are the premises for JG MacLeod’s cautionary tale. What strikes me as strange is that a teacher is the one who, albeit unintentionally, pushes Liz into the arms of her abuser. It is hard to envisage that a teacher would have so little insight into a troubled youngster. Nevertheless, Liz, who already has a young girl crush on James agrees to help him. They soon become sweethearts and from there the story develops into a nightmare for Liz. She gives up school to follow James to the south, but they stop over in a small town and settle there for an unspecified period.

MacLeod is an accomplished author and brings her message across in vivid scenes between Liz and James. There is a large cast of supporting actors, from Liz’ hapless father and James’ abusive mother to school friends, notably Liz’ best friend Jan, and Liz’ would-be sweetheart, named Cortyn. Add to the mix James’ brother Peter who suffers from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. Later a prospective saviour turns up, a cowboy clad entrepreneur, Martyn.

MacLeod shows a deep insight into the mechanisms that instigates Domestic Violence. She shows the danger signs and points out how easy it is for a young and insecure girl to get inveigled into an abusive relationship. She shows that without a safety net in the shape of a loving family, this type of girl may have little chance of avoiding her fate.

David W Thompson, Sister Witch: The Life of Moll Dyer

Human Spite and Violence Bring Madness.

Moll Dyer and her family leave for England, hoping to prosper. There they face hardship and intolerance, as Irish nationals and Catholics. Things get worse for Moll, as she gets raped – and defends herself. Left pregnant, her family gives her the choice of going back to Ireland to live with an aunt, or to follow her uncle Sean to Maryland. Both she and Uncle Sean have become outcasts but leaving for the colony gives them hope to forge a new life. Sea travel is no pleasure trip in the 17th Century, and the travellers experience both stormy and becalmed seas. A newlywed couple befriends Moll, and she helps the young woman, Beth, with her troublesome pregnancy. Still, the journey ends disastrously for Beth and through her, for her husband Gideon.

On the arrival in the virginal world of Maryland, it looks like Sean and Moll will create a better existence for themselves. Society accepts them, and they settle down to farm the land. They get to know and love several indigenes. This idyll doesn’t last long and rumours about Moll’s presumed witchcraft.

Written in the first person – Moll’s voice – Sister Witch touches many themes from slavery to witchcraft, and from fear of outsiders, to hate and spite. This is a masterly executed piece of historical fiction. Thompson studies the living circumstances, intolerance, religion (aboriginal as well as Christian). He points out how easily people become a mob and how love and tolerance can be found only with open eyes and hearts. Thompson explores women’s situation, early medicine and how easily that could be misunderstood in a society that fears the supernatural. The characters, especially Moll, are vivid and convincing. It springs to mind that the ultimate sacrifice is a motivating theme for the entire novel.

Eric Wilder, Sisters of the Mist

Paranormal Crime Thriller

Wyatt wakes in the middle of the night. Taking a breath of air on his balcony, he observes the New Orleans mist enveloping the streets. There he has a vision of his lost love at a ghostly parade of limousines trailing a hearse. That beginning sets the scene for a quest to seek and save her. Halloween is coming and monsters abound on his way to his goal. Along with Wyatt’s quest to save his beloved is a subplot that pivots around a racehorse, a mob boss, his beautiful daughter, and the two PIs who pursue the stolen horse.

Sisters of the Mist is slick, professionally written, full of mist and Spanish moss. There are visions and ogres and swamp monsters – beautiful women, vampires, prostitutes, and stalwart men. The numerous characters are painted in vivid colours. The Honey Island Swamp plays a huge role in the plot, also as a highway to a parallel world. It was a pleasure to see how the witch’s hut located in the swamp, as well as the ghostly castle that appeared later, established Wilder’s penchant for description.  Finally, I’d like to add that it proves an author’s merit to read a random part of a series and find that you can follow the plot and ‘organize’ the cast without trouble. Also, there was no obvious hook at the end – and that makes or breaks a story for me.

Parris Afton Bonds, The Brigands

The Texan/Texican Uprising – a Historical Romance

Old Mexico is in uproar. Many factions want to create new states, and the upheaval attracts fortune hunters en masse. Among them are two men, an English lord (Alex Paladin), and an Irish traveller (Niall Gorman). Both are involved in the ‘Texican’ movement for independence. Two women also arrive on the scene, Rafaela is to marry the English lord, as her rich father wants a title. In other words, Rafaela is a bartered bride, and it isn’t something to please her. Fiona is a feisty Irish girl, who hopes to gain land where she can live and prosper.

This is the premise for a romantic and dramatic tale that mixes up every cast member’s ideas of what they want to do with their lives.

What struck me was the shamrock locket that turned into a four-leaf clover locket.

Page 35: ‘Unconsciously, her fingers clutched her necklace’s shamrock locket that she considered, if somewhat foolishly, her good luck charm.’

Afton Bonds, Parris. The Brigands (The Texicans Book 1) (pp. 35-36). Lagan Press. Kindle Edition.

Page 40, 68, 112, 209, the same locket is described as a four-leaf-clover. EG: ‘That shade was probably as fake a color as her four-leaf clover locket was cheap.’

Afton Bonds, Parris. The Brigands (The Texicans Book 1) (p. 40). Lagan Press. Kindle Edition.

Also, that Fiona could see Rafaela’s narrow hips through an 1835 garment struck me as extraordinary. I can believe the wide shoulders – provided she wore mutton sleeves, which would fit the period. Even without hoops, the skirts were voluminous, and corsets did their part in reshaping the female figure. By the way, the bustle didn’t become fashionable until the early 1870s. Last, another detail in Rafaela’s outfit doesn’t gel. She wears a man’s hat. A beaver hat is a top hat worn by men – in 1835, women wore bonnets. 

‘The girl was inordinately tall, wide of shoulder, and narrow of hip, so long as one ignored her jutting bustle. Her light brown hair whipped free of her fashionable beaver hat and momentarily veiled her pale features.’

Afton Bonds, Parris. The Brigands (The Texicans Book 1) (p. 22). Lagan Press. Kindle Edition.

That aside, this was an engaging and absorbing read. The vivid descriptions plant the reader in the middle of the action. There are twists and turns to surprise even the most inexhaustible reader. The male arch-villain turns out to have some human qualities and becomes likeable in due course. It is refreshing that Fiona and Rafaela aren’t conventional beauties. Both seek independence, and that is another unusual trait in a historical romance. Ms Bonds delivers an insightful and (partly – see above) well-researched historical novel, with engaging and believable characters.

Michelle Kidd, Timeless Moments

Time Travel, 1917 – 1967 – 2014

Three plots, three periods, three separate fates — or are they? Several mysteries surround Jack, Jewel, Jane Doe (Janie), and Hunsdon. Letters can help or betray the writers and settle the doom or rescue of one protagonist. There are secrets to unveil and pain to suffer for every character in this time travel cosmos, which is our normal world in three epochs. For me, it was somewhat difficult to recognize the various periods. There were no distinct features to latch onto. In my opinion, it would have helped to be confronted with more historical detail, but I recognise that there is a difficulty in fitting in much of this in a book that concentrates on the inner qualities and the circumstances pertaining to each character. Alternatively, one might have added more details regarding clothing or speech.

That aside, Timeless Moments is an absorbing read, with clear-cut characters and a fantasy-driven story. 

Beth Hildenbrand, The Path of Temptation

Poetry of Innocence, Temptation, Fall, and Resurgence

Short poems can say a lot. There is a Haiku-like singularity and a daring in Beth Hildenbrand’s poems. They are stark and painful, but still uplifting. Each section is illustrated with a picture, female in form, except the last that portrays the Phoenix rising. Beth Hildenbrand’s message is simple but profound. We are all innocent until we fall – and it is up to us to rise again.

Minette Meador, The Centurion and the Queen

A Sword and Sandals, 60 AD British-Roman Episode

Delia is the sister of the Celtic King Conall, but still a queen in her own right. Marius is a Centurion, in British exile because of his suspected involvement in the assassination of Caligula. His second, Leonius, evolves into an adversary to handle with care. We are in the period when Queen Boudicca rose and almost defeated the Roman power.

The plot concentrates on two parts, the love story between would-be foes, and the uprising of, and fight against the Celts. Marius and Celia can’t suppress their attraction – and in that this plot reminds me of Bellini’s opera, Norma, as well as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon Series, notably The Forests of Avalon. All in all, the plot works for me, there is drama, insurrection, humour, blood and gore, heart-wrenching romance, and pain.

Meador’s research is meticulous, and that’s why one issue sticks out like a sore thumb. What possessed her to use the title ‘sir’? The correct title to assign Marius would be Primus Pilus, probably Primus addressing him. After all, ‘Sir’ wasn’t used until the thirteenth Century (around 1294). Otherwise, an engaging and captivating read. Raw and violent, dark, but romantic.

Jennie Ensor, Not Having it All

Satirical Comedy – Marital Frustration – Friendships in Various Guises.

Bea and Kurt have it all, or have they? Both have demanding jobs. Their love life has retained its spark. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Fran, who misbehaves without being able to explain why – and an au-pair, Katie. She develops a strong animosity against the child in her charge.

Bea’s friend, Maddie, has exceedingly little. She is a would-be junk artist with two cats and a longing to get a child. Colin faces redundancy and takes unusual measures to deal with it. His search for love has never brought him much good.

Jennie Ensor takes these components and creates a vaudeville, a laugh-out-loud but serious take on today’s society. Misunderstandings, communication failures, secret surveillance, and hidden cameras bring everybody close to despair. Everybody mistrusts everybody with hilarious results. Ensor handles the multiple point of view through secret dairies, email conversations, the assessment of Maddie by her psychologist, and the au-pair’s candid comments written in her pidgin-English hand.

For Ensor, this is a deviation from her usual writing style, and she handles it with aplomb.

©HMH, 2021

Categories
HM On Writing

A Good review?

What is a good review? It is helpful. It is fair. It is honest. It isn’t venomous, or destructive.

All authors experience negative reviews, and that is all right. We can’t expect to please everybody. Naturally, there are various approaches to reviewing, and that leaves us with a few questions. What is a ‘bad’ assessment? And what is a ‘good’ appraisal?

All authors and readers probably have their own ideas of what should go into a review. Some think that so-called spoilers will ruin a book, but to me that depends on the book. If it is a crime thriller, obviously, it would be wrong to reveal the killer or the perpetrator. On the other hand, in literary and or speculative fiction it matters less – especially if the plot is less in focus than the characters.

In my reviews, I aim to give an idea of what the readers can expect, not necessarily giving a plot outline but, maybe mentioning elements that struck me as important. To me, it also seems important to give an impression of the atmosphere and use of language that the author applies to bring the book to life. I find it interesting to analyse the characters and how they develop through the plot or their circumstances.

Reviews don’t need to be long, but it is fine to mention issues that stuck the reviewer as especially apt, or especially unlucky. If we aren’t honest in our analysis, our description of the experience, reading a book – why write about it at all? If there are some mistakes in research or some issues with grammar or typos, the reviewer must be careful about how to approach these problems. In my opinion it isn’t all right to say that a book needs editing without stating why. Use examples – or don’t mention the issue at all. This isn’t about anything but fairness. If one writes a review in which one throws about negativity without underlining it with examples, it stops being fair.

Is it better to contact the author privately with critique? Some reviewers think so, but that would stop their review activity if they don’t know the author personally.

So, should we refrain from pointing out mistakes in a review? No. We can do it – but be gentle about it. If a book appears too ineptly written, it may be better to drop it, and leave the author in ignorant bliss. . .

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© HMH, 2021

Categories
HM On Writing

My First Reviews 2021

SS Bazinet, Dying Takes it out of You

A deadly Virus

A deathly disease that turns its victims into monsters. Two brothers, single-cell twins that are in a way mirror images of one another. One is a scientist the other an artist. Their names are aptly chosen, Milton and Dory, which name gave me associations to Gustave Doré, the artist that brought Milton’s Paradise Lost to life.

Dory has contracted the illness that turns people into a mixture of vampire and rabies victims. Milton fights to find a cure. Their history is fraught with conflict, not the usual sibling rivalry, but a conflict between Dory and their father, who saw the younger twin (Dory) as a head case. Add to the mixture a mysterious character, Thomas, who might be an angel. That was my immediate reaction.

This triad of archetypes combines in a mind-reading feat that takes the reader through lucid dreams and swivelling nightmares, in a setting that shows us our deepest fears and highest hopes. This is dystopian fantasy on a high level, as one would expect from SS Bazinet. Seen through the times of the Coronavirus, there is something visionary about the scenario – the deathly virus and the insanity that grabs people in a frenzy when confronted with a plague. Bazinet has created a dance macabre – a memento mori – for her readers.

Two Brothers, Dory, and Milton

John Milton Paradise lost – of Satan, and the host of fallen angels warring the righteous angels, of Adam and Eve.

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SL Baron, Blood Ties

Vampires Mourn

Militancy is at the core of this daunting Vampire Tale that follows Vanilla Blood. SL Baron keeps up the hedonistic aspect of vampirism, notably the various blood tastes, but the odds are harder. Bridget, an elder vampire must deal with the loss of her beloved Sébastien who gets shot in a terrorist attack in Paris.

As a result, the united vampires stand up together to fight against terrorism. All of them come together and, although they must face old foes, they join their efforts to prevent further unnecessary and tragic deaths.

We meet The Children of the Night, Livia, her lover Lucian, and her daughter Cassie Lynn in this stirring novel that tackles a difficult reality that concerns every human being. It is impressive that SL Baron manages to keep her writing light and entertaining without losing sight of the hard facts of modern life.  

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Uvi Poznansky, Apart from War

Three in One

The Music of Us/Dancing with Air/Marriage before Death

It wasn’t difficult to step into the third part of Still Life with Memories – in fact – it didn’t occur to me that this wasn’t the first book of a series. Apart from War can be read as a coherent trilogy. That speaks loudly about Uvi Poznansky’s writing acumen.

The love story between the two protagonists, Lenny and Natasha is heart-breaking and profound, although Natasha’s proverbial Jewish Mama brings in comic relief and sometimes some darker notes.

What stroke me most in these books – apart from the flowing prose and immaculate historical research were the strange music choices. I asked myself if they might be a symbol of the innate trouble in the relationship between Natasha and Lenny? Could it be a symbol of Natasha’s oncoming Alzheimer’s? Or was it a matter of little musical knowledge?  One thing is clear, all or several song lyrics have been changed. Sometimes the change is subtle, like in The White Cliffs of Dover. In others, it is blatant, like changing the nightingale in Berkeley Square from singing to silence. In another song, what sprang to mind was that Vera Lynn never doubted that we’d meet again. I could go on, Night and Day, changed to Dark and Light. So, in Make it one for my Baby and One more for the Road, the baby suddenly became heartbreak and the long road – love. That is not all.

In Natasha’s first concert appearance in these books, she is part of a camp event – a musical entertainment for the troupes. She is scheduled to play Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto – without an orchestra? Wisely, she changes her mind and plays God Bless America. By the way, that is a major shift. Her second concert, which takes place in Carnegie Hall is dedicated to Mozart’s Requiem. I can understand the symbolic value of using a requiem (which involves an orchestra, a choir, and four soloists) as Natasha’s program. She certainly explains that her father transcribed it for four-hand piano. While there is a four-hand transcription by Carl Czerny, I find it hard to imagine that feat boiled down to two hands – without losing some substance. Why doesn’t Natasha play anything that is written for piano? In my mind, it must be a choice, deliberately made. Would I have done this? Perhaps – and then again perhaps not.

All that aside, Apart from War presented an absorbing world to dive into for any thoughtful reader.

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Susan Finlay The Secret Town (Project Chameleon)

Chilling Instalment in Project Chameleon

Claire and Steve have barely made it out of France after the kidnapping of their youngest child. They are in Holland – and have no idea where to go next. A friend seems to have the solution: a secret town in the US.

At first, everything seems idyllic, but impressions can deceive. After a few weeks, the nightmare starts again. The family pulls together and finds friends in unexpected places.

Ms Finlay works her suspense and makes the reader doubt everybody. Her writing flows, and the characters are lifelike – showing their fear and doubt and – eventually – disgust with their situation. Through twists and turns, Ms Finlay pulls her readers into the story and make them share the angst of her protagonists. In this part of Project Chameleon, we are on the edge between a cosy mystery and a thriller. Any fan of mysteries will enjoy The Secret Town.

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Penny Hampson, An Officer’s Vow

Regency Drama with a Plucky Heroine

Lottie flees her obnoxious cousin. Nate Crawford is on his way home after being wounded in battle. Lottie is on the run, from an unwanted suitor. Nate believes that his life is at an end because of his crippling injury. They meet – and their tale begins.

In this regency drama, Ms Hampson pulls all stops and throws in Lottie’s friend Harriet Spencer, French spies, a duke, his friend and secretary, the leader of a bawdy house, as well as various people serving the main characters as maids, innkeepers etc.

An Officer’s Vow throws a different light on the regency period than the books by Jane Austen that concentrate on character development. Here the reader will find tumult and erotic entanglements, all presented in pleasant prose that is easily read. All in all, this escapist confection that is ripe with romance and imbroglios will delight lovers of Regency romance.

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Eva Pasco, Underlying Notes

Perfume and Music Play on All Your Senses

Landing inside Carla Matteo’s head as she is in the throes of night sweats, the reader immediately enters the action in Underlying Notes. What kind of life is it? On the surface, it’s a simple life. Carla is married to Joe and has been his true helpmate for years. Underneath there are all sorts of disturbing factors, which is mostly the case for married people. Is it fair to speak of a midlife crisis? Perhaps even mention a marital crisis?

Joe may or may not have extramarital activities, and Carla has made career choices that she may or may not regret. Add to that a cast of Italian family members – possible mob connections – former and current friends, Italian food, and music, spanning from the 1812 Overture, over The Hollies and The Beetles, to Andrea Bocelli and Italian schmalz. In this way, Ms Pasco confronts her readers with a many-faceted, fragrance rich environment.

On top of it all, resides Carla’s love for perfume. It is her refuge and passion, as well as something she has investigated for years, notably on a website for fragrance aficionados. Thus, a new career opportunity surfaces but dwindles as fast, due to a stuck Amtrak train and a long taxi ride.

Below and above there is food, fragrance, unbridled marital lovemaking, and music to heighten the senses. In Ms Pasco’s flowing prose, and through her insight into human nature, this becomes a mesmerizing tale about humanity.

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Debi Ennis Binder, Dragon Rings

Epic Saga Taking Place in the Fantasy Realm Nesht

The kingdom of Nesht is ripe for attack. Blue humans of a vile disposition have subdued dragons and enticed slavering beasts to assist their assault. In Nesht, the attack comes unexpectedly. Will the king and his retainers, including high witches and warlords succeed in defending the vulnerable kingdom?

Ms Binder has chosen to write her saga in third person omniscient and that gives her the option of moving between the character viewpoint at will. It fits the genre; Binder has a tale to tell. It is dramatic and there are plenty of twists to keep the readers’ interest.

My only objection to her writing style is the use of the word ‘f**king’, which seems an uneasy fit. This word only appears in speeches when the characters are in heightened emotional situations. My problem with the usage is that it doesn’t work. Why? It sticks out like a sore thumb because the dialogue is otherwise polished. Also, it seems unlikely that the characters using this word wouldn’t as they have an inherent connection to their sexuality. In my opinion, it might have worked better either to leave this word out as being redundant or to coin a forceful expression to convey the character’s distress or anger.

Dragon Rings is an epic tale with gruesome monsters, humane dragons, formidable witches, notably the high witch, Mayra ara’Ferren. She gets assistance from likely as well as unlikely corners. Still, betrayal, treason, and selfishness endanger everybody. Ms Binder creates gruesome war scenes, romance, and (unlikely) friendships. She builds a world of magnificent landscapes, castles, gardens, and wonderful libraries. All in all, this is an entertaining and exhilarating read that will attract lovers of fantasy. There are philosophical aspects for literary connoisseurs, but first and foremost, this is a sprawling fantasy, which has a clear-cut ending but also the potential for a continuation.

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Kevin Ansbro, Kinnara

Modern Time Fantasy

A chilling start. Three strains twisted around one another although taking place in three distinct corners of the world. Norwich, Kaiserslautern, Phuket. Hannah and Callum who are schoolfriends fated to fall in love, a quirky parental quartet, The Kinnara – part human and part swan – who is condemned to spend his life immobile in the Andaman Sea. An insane serial killer. Oriental heat and fragrance. Murky Germany. Upright – or downright Norwich. These are the elements of Ansbro’s Time bending fantasy in which the multiple points of view take the reader effortlessly from character to character and from country to country.

It is hard to say where Ansbro’s writing excels more – in the violence of the killer or in the fabulous ocean images that he presents. One thing is clear – this is a master at his art. The characters are vivid – from the young lovers to the Thai guy who befriends Callum – and from the serial killer (who will chill the reader to his or her bones) to the Kinnara, around whom the entire plot pivots.

Ansbro has a penchant for describing anything, from the Boxing day tsunami over the featureless Kaiserslautern area to the quirky Norwich family life, in a way that captures the readers’ imagination and takes her or him on the magic carpet flight of his inspiration.

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©HMH, 2021

Categories
HM On Writing

My Last Reviews of 2020

Lesley Eames, The Runaway Women (Silver Ladies) in London

A Sweet Diversion Set in the Early Nineteen-Twenties

Four young women, Ruth, Jenny, Lydia, and Grace work together in a household in a small town. Their employer is a wealthy woman with a temper to reckon with. As a necklace disappears – stolen – she accuses her employees of the theft and dismisses them without references.

The four women, disgraced, and therefore unemployable must think of other options for making a living. In this gloomy setting, there is one spark of light. Ruth has inherited some money together with a carriage house in London. It transpires that there is a bonus in the carriage house – a Silver Ghost Rolls Royce. The four friends have the talents necessary to start a business, a car hire service that they dub the Silver Ladies.

Ms Eames is a dab hand at narrating and bringing her characters to life. The women meet unexpected trials and tribulations, their secrets and weaknesses help to keep the interest of the reader. There is a cast of lovers, villains, families, and friends to match the four protagonists, brave souls, who confront a male-dominated world to find a place in life. All in all, this is a charming confection of escapist delights.

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Mary Deal, Dead to Life

MIA, A Missing Key, and Mayhem

A key and a bunch of letters. That is all that Sara Mason and Huxley Keane possess to help them in their search for Huxley’s MIA brother Rocky. The key was found in Vietnam, but Rocky’s fiancée Emma Ellis has a matching key. During their search for Emma, they find out that her sister Evelyn committed suicide. The search takes Sara and Huxley from California to Hawaii and back in a perilous escapade that threatens their lives.

Ms Deal writes an efficient mystery with local colours and intriguing questions. Her dialogues are lifelike and her characters believable – whether agreeable or the contrary. There are many twists and turns before Sara and her friend find the truth.

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Katie Mettner, Granted Redemption

Poignant Love Story

Can two people who are scarred on their soul as well as on their bodies find love together? Carla and Grant both carry heavy burdens from their past, as they chance to meet at her coffee shop.

With the mellow fragrance of good coffee running through this romance, Ms Mettner creates a warm a fuzzy feeling inside her readers. Still, her writing doesn’t avoid the darker aspects in the lives of her protagonists, neither is the book without drama. There is a good balance between anguish and hope, and Ms Mettner’s writing is sufficiently powerful to make her characters stand out.

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JS Frankel, The Return of Master Fantastic

Montague is Gone and Mayhem Erupts

Paul and Myrna spend time on the watery world they visited in Master Fantastic. They need time to deal with all that has happened, but they can’t stay. Winged creatures are destroying the earth. Paul’s hearing has deteriorated, but Myrna goes through a transformation – she can hear and seems to have inherited her father’s magic.

JS Frankel takes us on another journey between the worlds. The fantasy returns and mayhem erupts as wild, weird, and wonderful happenings abound. Mr Frankel lets his imagination out to play in the sequel to Mr Fantastic. It is a fast-paced and sometimes extremely violent tale, but that is to be expected with evil creatures that want to destroy the world.

My only question to this is whether it was necessary to return to this fantasy. It appears to me as if there isn’t much scope for developing the characters, but that doesn’t stop it from being an entertaining and astute read.

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Carol Marrs Phips, Then

The Sequel to Wham.

When Wham ends nothing is resolved – and the same situation is true of its sequel Then. As I’ve already broadcasted my reflections on the use of hooks to sell books, it is only fair that I don’t reissue this now. There are many developments in this sequel, but the stakes are even higher as they were. The dystopia still reigns in a world that is already half destroyed by an underground sorceress, aptly named Pandora. At her beck and call, we find kidnapped Nia, still alive but placed in a dependent position to her kidnapper. Tess still fights to rectify the wrongs that mar the entire world, although the elf realm still is green and pleasant. Trolls, elves, humans, fairies, and the Greenwood family combine to fight Pandora, but the outcome stays uncertain.

In a multifaceted storyline with multiple points of views, a reader could lose the thread, if it weren’t for the Phipps’s firm control of the contrasting worlds and characters. This is admirable as is the world-building and character development in this second issue of Tess’s world.

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CA Asbrey, In All Innocence

Perfect Crime Thriller

I haven’t read all the parts of the Innocents series. When reading the third volume, I had no difficulty in catching up with the past. That doesn’t mean, I’m not tempted to read all there is about these innocents, although it would mean letting other books wait. Now, confronted with the fourth instalment, my appetite is growing.

Nat and Abigail move to Canada in the hope that it will give Nat a clean start. Not so, on a train heading across the mountains, a rock-fall stops them in their tracks. Worse, there is a murder committed on the train. This murder may stem from the theft of a moonstone, no doubt a homage to the first (nineteenth century) crime author, Wilkie Collins.

It is no surprise that Asbrey writes with her usual wit and expertise. Her characters develop convincingly, and Asbrey offers all the twists and turns an avid crime reader can wish for. A murder victim, a large group of English butlers, another victim, a nefarious business scheme, a kangaroo, and a cliff-hanger ending – combined with Asbrey’s excellent writing – make for a captivating read.

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CW Hawes, The Medusa Ritual

Works for Me

Special Agent Pierce Mostyn attempts to locate a rare book, which is forbidden for the good reason that it can unleash unthinkable terror on the world. He also works to rescue his partner Dr Dotty Kemper and so he is double engaged in solving this case.

A mysterious and mask-wearing man is part of the mystery, and Mostyn must confront him to find important clues. Not only that, but this old man is also the key to the mystery and the only link to Mostyn’s partner.

Mostyn fights against time and paranormal creatures through the seedy parts of La as well as deep in the crumbling tunnels beneath the city.

How come that I always start in the middle of a series? Not that it matters when the author knows what he or she is doing. The Medusa Ritual presents such a case.

The monster that confronts the people, who take part in the Medusa Ritual as it unfolds, combines Medusa’s snakelike tentacles (her hair) with some of the properties that are usually alleged to the basilisk. It possesses eyes that kill. All this helps to add to the horror that is worthy of the Cthulhu Mythos.

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Barbara Best, The Lincoln Penny

Time-Travel: Between Now and Savanna During the Civil War

An antique casket, a mysterious key, and a modern penny are part of this time-travel extravaganza. Jane Peterson is a normal girl in normal 2012. She is also a history geek and as a friend invites her to a Civil War re-enacting for her birthday, she happily prepares by making a costume. She takes her father’s birthday present, an antique jewellery box with her. In this box, she finds a key and carries it with her to the evening re-enactment party. Late in the evening, she opens a door and somehow gets transported back in time and into a raging battle.

It is beyond question that Ms Best did her research. She fills her narrative with detail that will interest a historically interested audience. What one might question is her narrative style. Why? One reason is the third person present tense and omniscient point of view. Sometimes Ms Best forgets in which tense she writes and that is unlucky. Other than that, she presents an interesting and captivating period, her characters are pleasant, but my greatest bugbear is the set up for another book in the series. It would be reassuring if authors like Ms Best would feel certain that they’ve engendered enough interest in their characters and ideas to sell volume two without leaving an obvious hook.

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Toya Richardson, The Festive Love Coach

Romantic Comedy

The Festive Love Coach opens with a bang. At a surprise visit to her boyfriend, Maya finds him entangled with his female business partner. She leaves him, and the flat, never to look back. The only difficulty is that it is close to Christmas and she has nowhere to go. The planned trip with her boyfriend is a smoking ruin and all the ‘interesting’ journey destinations are booked. What to do? Maya decides on a coach trip to Eastbourne.

Onboard there are quirky characters enough to satisfy any taste but worse, there is a young man who Maya already met – in unlucky circumstances. Honestly, the meet-cute between Maya and Carter is everything but cute. It gives Ms Richardson amble opportunity to exploit the antipathy that could lead to romance.

This is a festive romp that is both well-written and entertaining. A hotel in Eastbourne, loads or elderly but exceedingly alive characters, misunderstandings, mishaps, and rich food to die for – and fight to get rid of for the rest of the year. It was a quick but fun read – something to indulge in while enjoying a cream tea or with mulled wine and mince pies.

***

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David W Thompson, Possum Stew

Dark Poignant Short Stories with Holiday Themes.

Ten Stories, Ten Holidays

New Year, Miriam – a vampire’s honour code

Valentine’s Day, Eternal – a happy marriage or a ghost story

Easter, Possum Stew – don’t visit the shadow woods unless you’re prepared to withstand the test.

Mother’s Day, It’s Never Too Late – a mother’s love knows no boundaries

Father’s Day, The Phone Call – don’t be afraid to admit your love

Fourth of July, Let Freedom Ring – as love heals a broken heart so death renews the faerie kingdom

Happy Indigenous People’s Day (Columbus Day), The Saga of Running Deer – Little Fox the victim of schooling children at the tip of a bayonet. One way or another, Running Deer gives his life to save the children.

All Hallows’ Eve, When Dawn Breaks – Liam and Lola. The curse of life eternal, only to be ended through sunshine

Thanksgiving, Thank You, Edgar Allan Poe – older cousins, and a brother’s Dracula prank gone wrong

Christmas, Yuletide Spirits – Spirits come back to visit and comfort

A year may not last long, but the happenings in it determine how it touches the individual. David W Thompson shows humanity through the prism of monsters. Vampires, Ghosts, Faeries, Demons, Watchers of the Underworld, a Wendigo (a Native American avenging spirit) live in his ten short stories and help to show the deepest longings and pains as well as the horror, love, and redemption we humans share and live through. This is a tour de force of narrative mastery and leaves the reader thoughtful.

***

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Tia Fanning, Twelve Spankings from a Secret Santa

Folie à Trois?

Can Martha come back to the love of her life? What will be the consequences for her and for him? Nicholas accepts the ‘Christmas miracle’ but also works towards accepting that his business partner Peter takes an interest in Martha. The problem being that Martha also fancies Peter. Martha’s dawning feelings for Peter was what prompted her to leave. Now, she has lost her fight to deny her love for both men – and that is the reason she has returned. This is a dilemma that involves all three. Their solution is unique in many ways. Nicholas and Peter are long term friends, and they decide on the course to follow with regards to their mutual beloved. It is important for the understanding of the three to know that Martha expects discipline, administered by Nicholas. Peter is a Dominant and wants Martha for his Submissive. Hence the twelve presents: Martha must choose between one from each of her lovers during the twelve days of Christmas to get through her punishment for desertion.

This is a light-hearted tale looking at the ways people might enjoy sexual relationships. Ms Fanning does this with aplomb – showing the mutual respect between these three partners. Domination and spanking can’t take place without consent and it takes mature people to deal with the intricacies of this situation. It is admirable to portray this in such a wise and understanding manner. It isn’t always a smooth ride, but the characters live up to their mutual expectations and find a way of life that works for them. Twelve Spankings from a Secret Santa is an interesting and amusing tale about people with a difference.

***

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© HMH, 2020

Categories
HM On Writing

Reading at Speed Reviews

LC Conn, Carling

Coming of Age Can be a Hurtful Process

Since the end of the first volume of The One True Child series, the Romans are stationary in Britain. Romans kill Carling’s parents and brother get killed in a raid. On the way to their camp, Carling witnesses the Roman commander killing her grandmother. At the settlement, she becomes a slave but finds unexpected friends.

It is no wonder that Carling grows up full of hate against her oppressors. That doesn’t change the fact that she must learn to accept her situation to survive. For this, she gets help through learning the Roman language. Her hardest task is to avoid the unwanted attention, given to her by her granny’s killer. As she nears maturity, her powers slowly emerge.

Ms Conn develops her fantasy sage with polished prose and great imagination. It is a delight to follow Carling’s development and the intricacies of the plot. Throughout this fantasy series, with elements of Celtic and Roman mythology, Ms Conn puts in her word for humanity.

***

G Lawrence, Treason in Trust

Rich in Detail

Trying years in Elizabeth’s life. Drake develops into a trusted alley. Mary of Scots has been deposed and becomes a prisoner in England. The trial begins but doesn’t end. Dudley remains the love of her life, even if they don’t share intimate relations. The night of Bartholomew puts an end to this part of her saga.

Lawrence focuses on two things in this, the fifth part of her Elizabethan series. Elizabeth’s love for her country and her subjects that she sees as her children, and her relationship to Mary. She must fight on both fronts, a woman in a patriarchal world will be met with an incessant admonition to wed and bed and give birth. Her troubled relationship with her cousin Mary is well documented and ended in disaster for Mary. In a way, these strong women were caught in religious strife as well as being unable to find common ground. All this Lawrence brings to life, seen through Elizabeth’s eyes.

The cast of beautifully developed characters, Lawrence’s fluid prose, and her immaculate research unfold the drama and pageant of a long-gone period.

***

Tina-Marie Miller, The Curious Miss Fortune

Women’s Fiction at Its Best

There’s romance, there is wit, there are sorrows, there are lies and secrets, there are victims, and perpetrators in The Curious Miss Fortune. Also, there is a play, which gets rehearsed during most of the novel and perhaps, unnecessarily, features as an appendix. At the beginning of the rehearsals, its director tells the cast that there’s scope for improvisation. That’s certainly true, there are only the bare bones of a play to read.
That aside, the main part of the book is entertaining, witty, and convincing. You suffer with Tiggy, who must face the demise of her father and lay her inner demons to rest. You rejoice with Bridget, who finds her feet as an author of theatre plays, albeit hampered by her eccentric husband. You worry with Bridget, whose son, Aster wants money to secure his success as a surgeon. Harry, a contractor, engaged to rebuild Tiggy’s family home, quickly discovers his romantic interest in Tiggy. The life in the Hamptons village runs parallel with the theatre piece’s plot in weird and wonderful ways, and Tina-Marie Miller weaves the strains together into a wonderful piece of women’s fiction.

***

Lesley Hayes, Written In Water, Book One, Exits And Entrances

In Our Time We Play Many Parts

Rosalind, Beatrice, and Cordelia are childhood and school friends. Rosalind is ‘a defiant heathen with a stain of catholic guilt’, Cordelia ‘believes in an infinite power’, and Beatrice claims that ‘religion is a torture chamber’. Will they be able to remain friends for life as they want to, or will life and their different beliefs tear them apart?

These are the questions that make up the weft of this, the first part of the trilogy Written in Water. Rosalind, Beatrice, and Cordelia face differing challenges, but they keep their relationship intact during the sixties.

The Cuba Crisis, sexual liberation, the gay movement, and political questions are brought to life through Ms Hayes’ excellent writing. Her characters are lifelike and substantial. They fight their way through exits and entrances. A great book that takes isolation as its main theme. The isolation that every human being must deal with. The three girls, our protagonists, are outcasts. One, Cordelia, has rich parents but is a starry-eyed romantic whose dreams get shattered by a violent husband she has met in India. The other one, Beatrice, has lost her suicidal father and must care for her nerve-wracked and depressed mother. She, Beatrice, is a lesbian in times when it was prohibited to be gay. The third protagonist, Rosalind, is successful in her career but insecure in her private life. Then there’s Paddy, who lost his beloved and found Rosalind’s gay brother.

Everybody must suffer losses to have a chance to find themselves. The three young women stick together, regardless of their different approach to life. They don’t intrude and aren’t always available for one another, but in the big crises that come to every man or woman, they stand together. Intrinsic in the plot lies the separateness and inability to reach out that mars most lives. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. The characters are strong and authentic. Compelling and empathic, Ms Hayes writes with a deep understanding of human individuality.

***

Martha Perez, Broken Pieces

Abuse Breaks Lives

A family of drunkards, an evil stepmother, and a gallery of characters, spanning from nasty girls to loving boys, and from a weak father to a stern granny. Only Abby’ sister has backbone, but she disappears out of Abby’s life too early to be helpful.

When reading Broken Pieces, I couldn’t help wondering if Ms Perez had made the daring choice to ignore all grammar rules to give the protagonist her true voice. Certainly, the device is powerful. Abby cannot be portrayed in any other way. If she’d told her story in polished sentences, her suffering wouldn’t be easy to believe. As it is, the abuse she endures throughout the book, the characters around her, and her strange choices come to life. It takes getting used to though, and I found myself rethinking many sentences.

What strikes you is that Abby never grows up. She is the ideal victim, and it gets so bad that she can’t see her plight. This is a disturbing read and shows how easily a human being can go under.

***

Alex Baily, Once Upon a Romance

Christmassy Disney World Romance

In this sweet and sour, beautifully written, romance, suffused with gentle humour, we meet Ariel, an eight-year-old who has lost her mother. We meet her aunt, Sophie who, in a family of Disney lovers, is the odd one out. We meet her boyfriend, Darren, the up-and-coming businessman. Finally, the cast is complete with a Disney expert – a blogger – whom the fates present to Sophie. As her dead sister cannot take Ariel, Sophie invites her niece to Disneyland at Christmas.

The plot puts Sophie’s convictions to the test and analyses her lack of enthusiasm with regards to the Disney enterprise. Ms Baily uses the two males in Sophie’s life as a device to show the rigid businessperson, Darren up against the creative and life confirming blogger, Ray AKA Professor Disney. Everything comes together during the Christmas fireworks in this feelgood piece of charming escapism.

***

Mary R Woldering, Voices in Crystal

World Mythos Fantasy

We are in ancient Egypt, in the period of the Old Kingdom. Amerei is a simple shepherd who seeks his goddess. In songs and dreams, he beseeches her to come to him. When a star falls, Amerei sets out to discover if his beloved deity, Ashera – Queen of Heaven – has finally come to him.

Aboard the Goddess Boat, he finds the Children of the Stone who send him on a mission to bring a bag of crystals to Djedi, son of Sneferu, founding pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty.

With him he brings three women, fallen sisters who, like Amerei, have been healed and endowed with magical powers aboard the Goddess Boat. The three women function as a triad, representing three aspects of the goddess. Amerei worships them as such and develops a strong as well as sexual relationship to them all.

Their quest is fraught with drama and violence.

Ms Woldering mixes Ancient myth and Sci-Fi visions into a colourful if slow-moving narrative that touches on spirit walking priests, singing stars, as well as human desire and violence. She evokes pictures of gleaming pyramids but puts emphasis on her characters’ uncertainties and doubts. There is no space for rational thought in a realm and time where intuition rules the day. In that, she puts up a mirror of today’s world where authority isn’t always trustworthy and trusty people have little or no authority.

It is a pity that her writing style tends to repetition – especially of songs and prayers – something that will put off some readers. All in all, there is food for thought in this mythical and historical fantasy. My only regret is that Ms Woldering ends the story with a cliff hanger. The idea that people will only continue reading a series if every volume ends with a significant hook never appealed to me.  

***

Fernando Trujillo Sanz, Get out of my Dreams

Dreams and Reality Meet

Strange happenings occur as vicious twins haunt the dreams of the protagonist in this extraordinary tale. In it, a teenage boy talks about his life, which is full of contradiction. Regardless of his parents’ economic situation, he goes to a public school. Why? Partly because it seems embarrassing to him to be an upper-class kid, partly to stay in touch with his best friend.

FT Sanz let the readers gain insight into the turbulence that often mars adolescent life. As the protagonist loses his grab on reality, his dreams seem to break the laws of humanity and show him his family in a new light.

The twins become the excuse and the catalyst that fills his life with suspense and intrigue.

The translation from the original Spanish seems to captivate FT Sanz’ prose and renders a tale that will haunt your thoughts.

***

© HMH, 2020

Categories
HM On Writing

Spoiler Alert!!!

Have you ever experienced that, after writing a review, somebody shouted spoiler alert?

I have, and that made me think. Yes, in that review, I mentioned things that emerge within the story but, in my opinion, it wasn’t the plot that moved the book forward. It was the characters and their inner lives.

Honestly, I’ve never understood why it should be necessary to keep the plot of a psychological novel a secret.  It made me ask myself if we only read to be surprised.

In that case, I’d give up many books – because the plot is too obvious. I’ve seldom been surprised but, since my childhood, my reason for reading was never to find out about the storyline. If anything, my reason for reading is to see how the author uses the plot to develop characters or vice versa. Perhaps my main reason for reading is to enjoy the language – if the author is worth his or her mettle.

Merely reading for a plot would mean that nobody could enjoy a fairy tale. This has something to do with the idea that there are only a certain set of plots to choose from. To me, it is obvious that certain plots get plenty of repeat performances. Those are: boy meets girl (romance), crime capers, fantasy, vampire stories, and even horror ditto. The Westerns also have their set course, and that goes for any genre fiction.

Does that stop us from reading? No. What keeps us reading is those little and significant differences in the way an author, any author, presents the story. It’s colours and flavours if you like. What interests a reader cannot be the plot. Perhaps the only themes that avoid that are fantasy and Sci-Fi. If the narrative includes world building it isn’t unlikely that this stands in the foreground. All the same, it is the relationships between the characters, their way to cope – or not – that captivate a reader. Isn’t it?

Why do we read? In my opinion, it is to find out what it is to be a human being. We are that close to Narcissus.  We like to hold a mirror up and see that we all are alike deep down. We may shudder to think that we could commit murder. We may get carried away into a blossoming romance. We may root for the hero – or for the charming villain.

The seven basic plots are ‘overcoming the monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage (and return), rebirth, comedy, and tragedy. In those categories, there are already similarities though. Overcoming a monster – even if it is innate in the protagonist – is similar to a quest. So is a voyage and a rebirth. All of the above can be written or told as comedy or tragedy. Rags to riches is another form of a journey and so would the opposite (riches to rags) be.

Apparently, a British economist, Francis Isidro Edgeworth was the first to use the so-called hedonometer, a method to measure happiness in writing. Later, Kurt Vonnegut used this idea to measure the fluctuations between good and evil in simple tales.

At the bottom line, it is important to remember that even if there are only seven stories, or three, or six, or whatever researchers suggest next – it doesn’t mean you don’t have a worthwhile story to tell. From a framework perspective, it may all have been done before – but only the most cynical could use that as a reason not to write. So, could only the most cynical use this as a reason not to read.

What comes to the front of this analysing lark is that we aren’t so taken with the plot as we are with exploring our humanity. So, where does a review come into the scheme of things? If all stories follow a narrow pattern, the review must be about delving into what inspired the reviewer to think. If anything did. Maybe my thought here is that a spoiler can’t spoil an excellent book – one that has more to offer than merely a plot. A book that lets the reader delve into what it might be that makes humans tick offers far more.

Hence, I dare to suggest that there’s no point in reading books that get spoiled through a ‘spoiler’.

© HMH, 2020

Categories
HM On Writing

My Newest Reviews

Suzy Henderson, The Beauty Shop

World War II Romance

Archie McIndoe, John (Mac) Mackenzie and Stella Charlton are the main protagonists in Suzy Henderson’s WWII novel. The ‘beauty shop’ refers to the Guinea Pig Club and gives its readers a different viewpoint of the horrors happening during the Second World War, presenting the pilots who become casualties, with horrific burns, often permanent damage to their appearance, and, in many cases, their mental well-being. A New Zealand plastic surgeon, Archibald (the Maestro) McIndoe does wonders in restorative surgery at East Grinstead, the home of the 91st Bomb Group. 

From the start, Stella is torn between her proposed fiancé and the American pilot she meets, doing service at close to the airfield. Mac falls for her the moment he sets eyes on her. He admires her integrity but can help to pursue her regardless of her prior ties. Stella’s doubts about her fiancé become pressing, especially because Mac shows her admiration as well as understanding.

The Beauty Shop is not only a romance, but it gives insight into the horror of war. Ms Henderson describes war action in all its aspects when the crew can return after a successful drop, and the anguish they live though when things go wrong. This is a realistic but touching read that leaves the reader wondering about human folly. Highly recommended.

***

Pearl Tate, Bren’s Blessing

Erotic Sci-Fi Novella

Hannah is a high-ranking scientist on a solitary mission to Mars. Bren is a commander of one of many spaceships that circle the universe. Bren’s world is stagnating, due to infertility. This is a female-led world where the males must share married life with several other males. Procreation can only be achieved by insemination. These are the premises for an outer space romp that involves numerous erotic scenes and an exploding spaceship, Hannah’s.

Conquered by the aliens and taken aboard their ship, she realizes that she has become a slave. At the same time, she feels exceedingly attracted to the seven feet tall Bren, who claims ownership over her. In a mindbogglingly fast courtship, the two come together – and it becomes clear that Bren has dreamed of his human mistress for a long time. Their bonding is instant – and politically incorrect.

Pearl Tate pulls all erotic stops.

***

Mary Anne Yarde, The Du Lac Chronicles

Medieval Fantasy with a Dash of Mythology.

We are in post-Arthurian times, the Roman influence is still to be found, but the Saxon impact is strengthening. Alden, Eighteen-year-old king of Cerwin and a younger son of Lancelot Du Lac, was defeated and captured by Cerdic of Wessex. Alden has been lashed to within an inch of his life. He will be executed on the morning – but Annis of Wessex, daughter of Cerdic, has other ideas. She rescues Alden – and this is where the narrative begins.

Mary Anne Yarde weaves a tale of intrigue and violence, romance, and myth. There are vivid characters to love or hate – beautiful descriptions and excellent dialogue. All in all, there is everything that befits a historical fantasy. We are in safe hands, Ms Yarde knows how to create a believable web and hold a reader’s attention. The only thing that mars the reading experience, in my opinion, might be a moot point, but it needs a mention. So many series leave the story with an obvious hook. That means the novel has no true ending, which may fit other genres, but in this case, I at least long for closure. At 317 pages, the book isn’t too long to bring this chronicle to a more satisfying end.

***

Ellie Midwood, The Lyon Affair

French Resistance WWII Drama

A resistance-conspirator’s life is never simple. In The Lyon Affair, Ellie Midwood shows many aspects of the drama, the uncertainty, and the crises that can mar or make their existence. To survive, it is necessary to leave behind name and identity. It doesn’t end there; the resistance operator must learn to stay silent and detached. That is what becomes an issue for Blanche, newly arrived from the north of France. She enters the resistance out of conviction, but her character may not be suitable for the work. Other people in the Lyon Group are suspicious of her, but they still accept her for simple duties, like delivering a banned newspaper. The focus doesn’t stay on Blanche, and that’s what makes this such a compelling read. The gallery of strong characters is complex and convincing. There is Jules, or Marcel, which is his real name. He is young and fervent but also gets into trouble. The group leader is a strong man and manages the group carefully. When it breaks up, as all such groups may do, most of the members survive and move on to other work.

The German characters, especially Standardführer Sieves and Karl Wünsche, are vivid. They show the right mixture of humanity and nihilism to send chills down the readers’ spine.

While reading The Lyon Affair, it never occurred to me that this was the second part of a trilogy. That says a lot for Ellie Midwood’s writing acumen. Highly recommended.

***

Susanne Leist, The Dead Game

A Haunted House with a Vengeance

Vampires live disguised in a small town in Florida, mixing with the population. Newcomer Linda opens a bookshop and befriends Shana, who has an esoteric shop. There are young men and a blonde bimbo to go out with – and everything is fine until they get an invitation to a party at End House.

In Ms Leist’s village, there are several unexpected species. The hybrids, half human, and half-vampire, are difficult to single out. Then there are two groups of vampires, one of them working to protect humans and hybrids. The other group, the DEAD, wants to take over the world and rid it of human beings. Of course, the humans just want to live normal lives. Also, the village, and especially, End house, is full of illusions, some resembling the scary house in a fairground, except for the fact that they are armed with real predators and flying saws just to mention a few. The horror isn’t absent, but it is accompanied by not a few winks. It was an entertaining read that gave an insight into the antics of humans – let alone the vampires.

***

Elliott Baker, The Sun God’s Heir

The Ultimate Swashbuckler

The Sun God’s Heir has everything – ladies in distress, pirates, a proverbial wonder-woman, evil villains, heroes, comrades, magic, Egyptian mysteries, Pharaohs – and sailing ships (Windjammers). A case of less is more.

All in all, there were positive passages and well-developed characters. I’m in no doubt that Mr Baker had a whale of a time putting this tale together, and he has managed to give it some basis in the fifteenth-century reality. The sea fights are superb. The educational sword fights between the protagonist René Gilbert and his master, the Maestro are interesting and reminded me of certain passages in books by Rafael Sabatini. On the other hand, the use of metaphysical lucid dreams came across as a bit heavy-handed.

In my opinion, the use of French phrases like ‘S’il Vous plaît’ and ‘merci’ became repetitive. The triangle between René and the two heroines established the need for more books in the series, as did the reincarnated supervillain. The use of a hook at the end of the book always leaves me with a feeling of being cheated, but it seems to be the trend these days. No doubt, Mr Baker knows his metier.

***

M Ainihi, Rise

YA Fantasy

A girl, Amanda, and her father live a comfortable life together. They make weekend trips, and on one of these, Amanda finds an artefact. It turns out to be the prison, holding a jinni, Erol. Erol must serve her for the rest of her life. Amanda has no idea of the dangers surrounding her, but she soon loses her father and gets confronted with an evil Sorcerer and his creature a twisted Genie. The sorcerer sends Amanda on a quest and, unable to resist, she complies. This opens new worlds to her and forces her to change her opinion of a world where mythologies clash.

Sending a youth on a quest, a common YA fantasy idea that may seem inept, but Ainihi’s writing brings the different realms to life. This is as much a coming of age tale as a fantasy and that’s what makes it worthwhile.  The characters are solid, and all, maybe except the evil sorcerer, have a share of humanity. A fast-paced novella that serves as an introduction to the four-part series of which it’s the first part. Recommended.

***

Daniel Kemp, Once I Was a Soldier

The Key is in the Prologue

Melissa Iverson, newly orphaned and rich, plays lightly with her power and may live to regret it. Francesca Clark-Bartlett, socialite, and power-hungry is married to a man who wants to become the president of the US. Terry Jeffries is a British intelligence officer and a womanizer. These are the pro- and antagonists of Daniel Kemp’s intriguing thriller Once I Was a Soldier.

The (triangular) power game and the underlying sexual tension is one of the elements in this work, and Daniel Kemp uses it with skill. There are several levels of deception and that causes unexpected twists and turns. There is also a rampant maniac, who threatens Melissa’s life. The questions posed, span from ‘who is who’, and ‘who plays with whom’, to ‘who serves whom’, and why. Also, the identity of the maniac and his motivation comes as a shock to the unwary reader.

This is a complex and ambitious work with many characters and strong prose.

***

© HMH,2020

Categories
HM On Writing Stray Toughts

About Men-watching Women and Women-Watching Men and Everything In Between

People watch people. There’s nothing new in this, but the trend may have intensified over the last few decades. May I add that I’ve chosen the terms ‘woman’ and ‘man’, ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ for clarity? With the gender diversification that is an important part of our world, it would be difficult to give everybody his or her due.

Every second cover of a romance novel presents broad chests and a six-pack, preferably naked. Throw in a few tattoos and the heartthrob of the twenty-first century appears. Opening such books, it is no surprise that the content matches the cover. The heroine is obsessed with the hero’s physique and sometimes it seems that his appearance is her only criterium for falling in love. The reader wades through broad chests, strong arms, and hefty built creatures, who often haven’t got much to say for themselves. If the heroine is only interested in a man’s appearance, no wonder that she gets into trouble.

Broad chests and rippling muscles are all very well, but other aspects may help to enlighten the reader to a character’s personality.

No doubt, this mirrors the situation in the world at present. At least, in the corporate world. Nobody who isn’t groomed to within an inch of his or her life should bother to seek an interview. It is good for the beauty industry of course. It is good for the nail salons and the beauticians, and all the other well-educated people who work in clothing design or peddle the newest diet. It is good for all the gyms that sprout all over the place. People get healthier through exercising and eating healthy food.

That is all good. All the same, many people can’t afford to follow the trendy diets or get the perfect haircuts. Some of these, especially the most vulnerable, get depressed and fat through being confronted with endless youth and beauty. They may be as worthy and as intelligent as those high-flying lookers. Don’t forget, some people just can’t or may not want to follow the trends. On that note, how can we forgo mentioning the surgeons that enhance or diminish body parts according to their clients’ wishes? Botched operations can ruin lives too. Is it worth it?

To return to the romance novels and their part in this. One could add Hollywood and – Bollywood films to the offenders. Don’t get me started on the advertising world. I digress. Is there anything as endearing as the floppy male with wit? What about people with eyes to die for? What happened to intimate talks and banter? A protagonist with pumped-up biceps can never cut it compared to a man or woman capable of a well-turned sentence. Am I wide off the mark here?

I agree that there is something restful in watching a beautiful person, regardless of sex. For me, that is something different from the current trend. Long and lean muscles seem more attractive to me, compared with the gym fabrications. Tell me what is wrong with a small pot-belly – if it’s combined with a soul? At the end of the day, how many men – or women – have ‘perfect’ bodies joined with an enjoyable mind? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with natural beauty, but it isn’t the beginning or end of the world.

Free us from heroines that can’t see a soul for a display of muscles. Free us from the hero who is attached to a mirror. Free us from heroines who spend their time shopping and believe that looks alone will engender happiness.

© HMH, 2020

Categories
HM On Writing

Reading at speed — New Reviews

JT Atkinson, Beneath an Indigo Moon

Thought Provoking and Bold

It is difficult to write about this book, but it must be done. Honestly, it wasn’t an easy read, because of the challenging subject. Still, it is an important book if one wants to understand the hardship, people of another sexual observation suffered and still suffer. In my experience, gay people are just that – people – and it would be wrong to ignore a book that was written to open our eyes to bigotry and intolerance. We can’t close our eyes to the witch hunts that took place in various forms throughout our collective history.

One might discuss if there’s too strong a focus on sex and blatant violence, but there’s no doubt that the time leading up to Stonewall was this violent. My only complaint in this connection is that both the sex and the violence became somewhat repetitive in Atkinson’s writing. His characters are believable, all the same.

It seems only right to quote JTAT’s afterword here, as it puts the theme into perspective: “BAIM is a work of fiction. It is, however, inspired by real-life events. In the early days of queer politics, the pervasive mood was one of fear, anger, and desperation. Twenty-five years after Stonewall, things had changed. The law had changed. People’s rights had changed. But attitudes hadn’t changed. There was a general feeling that twenty-five years of advancement had amounted to very little and a more active approach was required. It was during these times that the most extreme forms of queer politics came into being. Small groups, frustrated by the lack of direct action from the authorities, took it upon themselves to redress what they saw as an imbalance in society. Their thinking was simple. They would do to others what others had done to them. The events in BAIM are inspired by the activities of just such a group. The story may be fiction. The thinking behind it, however, was very real.”

I recommend anybody who wants to understand a group of people who have been persecuted too often for their situation to read this book.

***

Val Penny, Hunter’s Chase

Murder Most Foul, and Cocaine

Hunter Wilson is up against it. His former boss gets robbed, and there’s a large supply of cocaine knocking about. Things get complicated when the murderer doesn’t stop at one victim, Hunter is witness to the second – but only partly catches the runaway car’s registration plate number. It doesn’t stop there, but underneath is a tangled family affair that must be unravelled to close the case.

Val Penny presents her characters in depth, often with the use of multiple points of view. Penny has done her research, which can be seen in a realistic post-mortem scene. Her writing is complex and the story compelling.

***

Mari Collier, Twisted Tales from the Desert

Paranormal Stories from the American Mainland

In Twisted Tales from the Desert, Mari Collier lets her fantasy out to play. There are all manners of ghosts, active Stone Lizards, murderers, infantile and grown-up, just to mention a few. Certainly, there are twists and turns and surprises at every corner. The reader feels comfortable in her deft hands – except when the stories go to the bare bones of humanity. That’s when cold shivers run down your back. There is mythology and subconscious horrors to enjoy in this collection of short stories that I can recommend to those readers who dare.

***

Malcolm, Hollindrake, Threadbare

An Extraordinary Detective Story

Starting with DCI Bennet Book 9 throws you right into the water at the deep end. For me, the beginning was confusing, a marriage between Cyril and his beloved didn’t make much sense. No matter, as the story unfolded, it was easy to get to know the characters.

Snake bites, a shooting, a man with the brain of a seven-year-old child, a wish for revenge, a retired gentleman with a penchant for spiders, also, dead sheep, a biblical snake, and old photos form a puzzle that puts the young officer (Owen), who takes over from Cyril while he is on honeymoon, through the hoops. On his return, Cyril must help to disentangle the threads. The search for the murderer becomes increasingly urgent, and one of the clues to solving the crime lies buried in the Book of Genesis.

This is an unusual detective story, especially because of the many references to art and music.

***

LM Lacee, Dragon’s Gap

A Parallel Modern-Day World

They use cars outside Dragon’s gap. Inside Dragon’s gap, there are swords and magic. LM Lacee is a storyteller but struggles with writing. No doubt, thorough editing of her work would help the author to reach a potential that momentarily is hidden under uncertain writing and grammar.

Shapeshifters (half- and full-bloods), dragons, a goddess, elementals, witches, as well as magic, treason, love, and hate abound in Dragon’s Gap.

Once I got used to the strange use of the full stop, and the run-on sentences, it became easier to get a grip on the storyline. LM Lacee has good ideas and builds a believable world – it would be wonderful indeed if her potential could be unlocked through some editorial emergency treatment.

***

Lynne Fischer, After Black

Does Life Begin After Widowhood?

In some cases, this is true. Janet blossoms after a cowed existence, but all isn’t well. Her memories of Frank, her husband, dying can be pushed aside, but there is an upstart in her workplace. Marian is driven and wants the same promotion that would make Janet’s life at Masons Retail Store complete. Hence, Janet pulls all stops and wins. Does this change her life for the better? Not for a while. Janet must confront her demons and face her past.

In After Black, Lynne Fisher challenges the reader with a protagonist it is difficult to like. That it doesn’t stay that way is down to a masterly plot. Not only that, but all the characters must also learn and grow through unwanted and – for the reader as for the dramatis personae – unexpected developments. Ms Fisher kept me at the edge of my chair throughout this brilliantly written novel that explores love and loss, abusive and painful relationships, as well as the possibility of redemption. Anybody reading this will gain insight into the machinations that can mar or make humanity.

***

Nina Romano, The Secret Language of Women

Historical Fiction of Beauty and Refinement.

Lian meets Giacomo and sweet music emerges. The young Italian man and the part Chinese girl, who assists her physician-father can’t resist a love that binds them together until death. The secret language of women holds a large part of the story together. It’s an old language, written and spoken, that Chinese women have nurtured throughout the imperial period. We are at the end of this period and the Boxer insurgency accompanies the love story, separating Lian and Giacomo almost as soon as they meet. Their longing and love help them find one another, but not before Lian has been married to a peasant and born her daughter sired by Giacomo.

Nina Romano writes this story with confidence and knowledge. Still, to me, it seemed that she had a better grasp of Lian’s character, maybe through the first-person point of view. Giacomo comes across as slightly remote, and his part of the story is heavy with historical detail. This shows Ms Romano’s immaculate research and does her honour. All in all, I enjoyed reading The Secret Language of Women and can recommend it to everyone with an interest in the beauty and intrigue of imperial China in troubled times.

Sayara St Clair, Kiss Me, Bite Me

Amusing and endearing Love Story with Bite

Kayana Castello Branco literally bumps into Greg Morgan but must forget him as he’s already affianced to an ‘ice princess’. Later she meets him again and they hit it off, but there is trouble on the horizon.
This vampire tale is a boy-meets-girl story with a difference. When Kayana and Greg meet again, he is free but has a condition that makes their love-life daunting in some respects. They strive to ignore it, but Greg must eventually tell his Kayana about his craving. Not that it stops their love-affair. In some ways, it deepens their bond.

There isn’t much left of the brooding and angst that haunts you in Interview with a Vampire, there isn’t as much bloodshed, but there are unforgettable characters, humour, intrigue, and not forgetting sensuality.

In Sayara St Clair’s competent hands the reader goes from belly laugh to horror, and back. More than that, Ms Clair knows how to write erotic scenes that are steamy and convincing. Don’t wonder if your heart rate goes up at certain points in this fable. Highly recommended

***

© HMH, 2020

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Reviews

Kathryn Gauci, The Embroiderer

Unfolding an Enigmatic World

A prophecy haunts Greek-born and Turkish raised Dimitra Lamartine to such a degree that she can’t love her grandchild, Maria. Her red hair and unruly character become the Ariadne thread that leads through the maze of this tapestry of paintings, couturiers, embroideries, and priceless jewels. In the darker parts, war and violence takes over, as well as fire, murder, and secrets. On her deathbed, Maria reveals her past to Eleni, her half-sister.

The luxury and dizzying elegance that encompasses the first chapters is set off with the brutality of the war.

Gauci’s debut is historical fiction, where history vies to take over. At the same time, it is a family saga with four generations of women – living, longing, and hating. The historical backdrop is necessary but threatens to become a mere history lesson. In my opinion, this is a problem with the debut novel that reveals a female world during the end of the Ottoman empire and beyond. Without a doubt, Gauci has learned to balance history and fiction in her later books. Recommended.

***

Paul Cude, A Right Royal RumpAss

Loveable and Impish Dragons

Prehistoric creatures, aka dragons, live and learn just like everyday children.

Paul Cude weaves a tale around two friends, a newcomer to the ‘nursery ring’ – and the school bully. Among dragons, an education encompasses several more years than is usual among humans. Other than that, the parallels between their world and ours are recognisable. This is a hilarious and witty take on schools, children in the guise of dragons, and the problems their teachers face when dragons (or children) get up to mischief.

***

Paul Cude, Frozen to the Core

Evil versus good

Can Man save his innocence? Can the naga survive? Will Man’s father take over the world? Will Man’s brother survive, and will Man’s mother?

Frozen to the Core is advertised as a book where evil wins. What occurred to me is that it’s all a question of viewpoint. Dragon/men or men/dragons are oppressed and kept on an icy world. There is one prisoner, who is the scapegoat for the race. The leader oppresses his people and tortures the scapegoat. His sons suffer under his maliciousness too and at this hangs a tale. Man (the eloquent name of the older son) is a thoughtful creature, but not only that, he discovers that he has a spark of the magic that is denied the captives on this icy world. Enter another magical creature, a naga, who recognizes Man’s potential. Evil and good are poised for another fight, but it is unclear who is evil and who is good in this match. Are the oppressors outside this world – or is the leader and father figure the incarnation of evil? Who will win, who is the oppressor oppressed? Is the captive dragon the culprit and is that the reason for the torture he suffers under the leader’s reign? Is the naga the real persecutor or are the outside forces evil incarnated? These are pertinent questions. Who can judge? What strikes me is that the father/leader is proud of his eldest son. There is hate between the two, but there is also – surprisingly – love. That discrepancy is what makes this such a compelling read. Cude manages to pose existential questions in this prequel to his White Dragon Saga. As one reads on the enigma grows. Who is malevolent and what is evil? This way any reader will be kept at the edge of his or her chair, trying to judge between good and evil.

***

Cindy J Smith, Voices In My Hea

Thoughts from A Gentle Nature

In this poetry collection, Cindy J Smith reveals her sensitivity, her religion, and her longings.

It’s heartfelt and honest but, in my opinion, the rhyming schemes and metres could be improved. Poetry is a demanding taskmaster and more variations, as well as bolder word choices, might enhance her output. Her poem ‘Opinion’ makes me hope that she won’t take my suggestions amiss.

It is admirable that Ms Smith lays her soul bare and isn’t afraid of sharing hurtful parts of her life. In that, she shows her poetic and gentle soul.

***

Rosalind Minett, Uncommon Relations

A Psychologic Rollercoaster

In the prelude, Minett leaves a clue to the conflict in the core part of the book. Her psychological analysis centres on the possible trouble infertility and adoption can pose.

Terry lives a humdrum life with his wife Gudrun. His career at a pharmaceutical firm isn’t inspiring, and his mate, Leon sees him as a ‘yesterday’s man’. He, like so many, nurses unattainable dreams of excitement and wealth.

The accidental meeting with his physical double pivots Terry into a whirlpool of expectations, dreams, and jealousy. He pursuits the unknown man, who turns out to be his twin, Gerry. Gerry, who has everything that Terry dreams of, doesn’t want to investigate their background. Terry goes ahead and stumbles on a hornet’s nest.

Minett unfolds the story with remarkable insight into the depths of human nature. Her prose is satirical and – sometimes – disquieting. Highly recommended.

***

Joel Schueler, Jim and Martha

Jim and Martha leave their normal and unexciting life to take up residence in an eco-village. In reality, this village was a squatters’ paradise with little pretension at farming etc. The characters on display are typified exponents of people you’d expect to find in a commune. Jim is a bit of a cad and Martha struggles with a mind that won’t shut down. Both are tragicomic, but it’s unclear what brought them together in the first place.

All in all, I didn’t enjoy this book. The prose was ornate and gave me the impression that Mr Schueler concentrated on displaying uncommon words. Some might call it stream of consciousness, but the stream often leapt from one character to another, without rhyme or reason. Could it be that this author is influenced by authors such as Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie?

***

Marcee Corn, Always Thaddeus

A Beautiful and Profound Thriller

Beth mourns the death of her son to a degree where she denies it.
Sandy mourns the loss of a beloved husband – and blames her younger self for her sister’s death.
Andrew can’t forget his dead son and has withdrawn to a small island near the Maine coast.

The three main characters’ fates intertwine, and all converge in the Owl’s Nest, where Andrew has set up his abode.

The coastal landscape and weather play a large part in the ensuing tragedy.

There are deep insights into the ravaging influence of childhood abuse in the unfolding of the drama that centres around Beth. At the same time, Marcee Corn portrays the romance that blossoms between Sandy and Andrew, college friends that lose contact and meet again as mature adults.

This book unfolds in waves of troubled beauty.

***

Scott Finlay, Epoch

Postapocalyptic Thriller

How do people cope when they all suffer from amnesia? How can a society function without the simplest footing?

The epoch begins after an apocalyptic event that wipes out memories as well as rendering all electronics useless. The one saving grace is that people have or develop a physical remembrance of their former skills. Not that it makes life simpler. The struggle for survival brings out the best in some characters but the worst in others.

The main protagonist whose skill turns out to be writing and drawing (was he a reporter or an author?), a doctor, a ruthless businessman, a policeman, a murderer (a serial killer on the loose), power-drunk individuals, gangs, and an endearing nitwit, all come together in a small town and work – or fight against one another – to build a new civilization.

Finlay poses valid questions about our humanity, but he never preaches.

***

© HMH, 2020