Book Review – The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Thinking: a novel, by Timothy Balding

I need to make some apologies first. It has been a long time since I posted a book review, and I feel I have somewhat let my readers down – but hey, this blog isn’t called Flailing Through Life for no reason!

I also need to apologise to the author I am reviewing today, Timothy Balding, as I read this book some time ago – last October to be exact, and I am sure that I promised to write something about it, what can I say? I’m a slow reader and a lazy blogger! And, another person to apologise to – Emma Lombard author and ‘mother’ of the Twitter #WritingCommunity, who has probably been wondering when I was going to get around to this. So, without further ado, here’s my take on The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Thinking…

The Man Who Couldn't Stop Thinking: A Novel: Timothy Balding ...
The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Thinking
by Timothy Balding

Genre: Fiction, Satire
Pub Date: 2019
Publisher: Upper West Side Philosophers, Incorporated
Length: 274 pages
Kindle Edition: £7.91

Synopsis

Victor Andrews cannot decide whether thinking is a good thing or not. He has managed to escape it till now, too occupied with his career and the pursuit of his romantic and carnal ambitions. A heart operation and an inheritance suddenly change all that. He has time on his hands and new ambitions to invent for himself. If he starts thinking, will it take him forwards or backwards? he wonders. Will it lead him out of the confused labyrinth of his life and give it some new meaning before it’s too late? Or push him to join the company of the crazy people who chase endlessly the tails of their obsessions?

Firstly, I must tell you that I was bought this book by the writer Emma Lombard. On a Twitter post, she ran a competition asking the community which book they would most like to read at that moment. I responded, and was one of three individuals who received their chosen book. Also, I must add, that she bought me the paperback version AND had it posted to me! So many, many thanks to @LombardEmma.

Secondly, this is not the sort of book to read if you’re after action or huge dramatic scenes. It is very low key, with a few sections of dialogue, and mostly focuses on Victor’s day to day musings and concerns. But that isn’t to say it isn’t a good read, it is. In fact I found it to be one of the most interesting books I have read in a long while.

8 common mistakes people make when ordering whisky and how to ...
Wee dram of whisky, image courtesy of Scotsman Food and Drink

Victor has just had surgery again, and (this is only my take as a female of a certain age!) is possibly going through a mid-life crisis; I have to admit that the opening scene made me laugh a lot, still does when I re-read it, a good example of how to grab your audience’s attention! Instead of succumbing to mastering ‘the use of a boomerang’ or taking ‘up skateboarding’, he buys an African grey parrot which he decides to teach phrases such as Nietzsche’s “God is dead.”

The parrot becomes a kind of sounding board for Victor and his philosophising, beginning with questioning his own motives for buying the bird, “Was his act the realization of a tyrannical dream of power, he joked to himself?” and later questions his own motives for teaching the parrot the phrase “God is dead” and how humanity could possibly continue without hope and a deity. He also has a relationship with a woman called Helen, who I would say is Victor’s intellectual equal, but doesn’t give credence to some of his ideas; she comes across as somewhat acerbic and I quite honestly don’t see how Victor stays with her.

Balding’s writing style made me think of British authors from a bygone age. It strikes me as terribly British and a little old fashioned; this is not a criticism, far too many aspiring writers concern themselves with being unique and ‘modern’ instead of concentrating on producing good writing. It is deceptively easy to read – but not to be rushed! Victor’s self-questioning (and self-questing) had me pausing for long moments to give some thought to, well, Victor’s thoughts (but without the whisky). There is no superfluity in his writing, Balding has the skill that many of us budding authors so crave, the ability to write concisely and to the point.

Objectivity and subjectivity drive Victor through his post-op life – he asks, how can a person make decisions if one cannot see the world from the perspective of others? Who is responsible for one’s personal happiness? And “I know I’m egocentric…but I will try harder.” Though I cannot say that I fully understood every philosophical musing, nor every reference to research topics that Victor had undertaken, I was acutely aware that I was probably missing something due to my lack of acquired knowledge or intellect, but I still found the story fascinating. And although Victor seems to suffer minor existential crises internally, he never comes across as morose, or self-obsessed. I found the character to be less white-middle-aged-man-with-English-pomp, and more bemused-middle-aged-man-seeking-the-truth; I felt I could relate to him very much. Victor’s musings are funny and he has a much more positive and generous attitude toward his fellow human beings than many folk I know in real life.

He makes statements like “Women were as unpredictable as Belgians.” which made me laugh out loud, because it’s so English and so male, but, and it’s an important but, this never comes across as offensive, because Victor always quizzes his own opinions and offers us facts that he has dredged up from news articles or papers he has read. I found myself reading a paragraph and thinking, Yes, I think this or I have done that – spouting off my theories to a stranger then wondering why on earth I did that. When I tried to describe the book to friends, I found it really difficult, why would a woman want to read the musings of a middle aged man? one asked me. I can’t explain. To the uninitiated, I suppose Victor Andrews might epitomise all that is wrong with white men of a certain age, however, I found him to be lovely, thoughtful, witty, erudite and at least he’s trying! It also goes a bit Kafkaesque near the end when Victor is interrogated! Maybe I just find ‘male humour’, if it exists, to be funnier than female?

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but hear the voice of Roger Allam, whose voice is very distinctive, very English. I adore Roger Allam and his voice, you might recognise him from the film ‘V for Vendetta’ and the TV show ‘The Thick of It’. And I would love, simply love this book to be made into a radio or TV drama with Mr. Allam in the lead, though what the author Mr.Balding would have to say about that I don’t know!

Roger Allam - IMDb
Roger Allam, English actor

If you’re after some good strong writing that is humorous as well as thought provoking, I can thoroughly recommend this book.

I’m giving The Man Who Could’t Stop Thinking 5 stars.

Book Review: The Bastard Legion #1 by Gavin G. Smith

The Bastard Legion: Book 1

Genre: Sci-fi
Pub Date: 2017
Publisher: Gollancz
Length: 336 pages
Kindle Edition: £2.99

Synopsis

Four hundred years in the future, the most dangerous criminals are kept in suspended animation aboard prison ships and “rehabilitated” in a shared virtual reality environment. But Miska Corbin, a thief and hacker with a background in black ops, has stolen one of these ships, the Hangman’s Daughter, and made it her own. Controlled by explosive collars and trained in virtual reality by the electronic ghost of a dead marine sergeant, the thieves, gangsters, murderers, and worse are transformed into Miska’s own private indentured army: the Bastard Legion. Are the mercenaries just for fun and profit, or does Miska have a hidden purpose connected to her covert past?

* SPOILERS*

This is book 1 in a trilogy, and the first novel, by Gavin Smith, that I have read. Will I be buying the rest? Read on…

But first, I want to tackle the ‘problem’ of men writing women. There has been much discussion across the media platforms about the, oft hilarious, but mostly irritating; to women, way that male writers portray female characters.

There seems to be some kind of gulf between male experience of how women behave and think, and what they lay down on the pages. Surely every single one of these men cannot be singletons, can they?

For as long as novels have existed, male authors have managed to write hilariously inaccurate descriptions of female characters. Indy100 – indy100.com

There have been occasional landslides of Tweets when another male writer is ‘revealed’ to have little working knowledge of how women perceive themselves.

the latest author to scale the whole mountain of male writers who get carried away when describing women, particularly their breasts. The Guardian: ‘A nice set of curves if I do say so myself’: a Twitter lesson in how not to write women‘ – theguardian.com

And the responses range from friendly micky-taking to total outrage. ‘Why can’t men write women?’ Goes the cry. Who are these men writing for? Not me.

‘She was 40 but could have passed for a year younger with soft lipstick and some gentle mascara. Her dress clung to the curves of her bosom which was cupped by her bra that was under it, but over the breasts that were naked inside her clothes. She had a personality and eyes.” The Guardian: All cleavage and clunkiness – why can’t male authors write women? – theguardian.com

Enter (into my sphere of reading), Gavin G. Smith. As I write this, I cannot recall a single moment in The Bastard Legion where Smith portrayed his MC in derogatory terms – I think she looked in a mirror once, and ran her hands through her short hair once or twice– that’s it. So what does Miska Corbin look like? Smith hasn’t given us an abundance of description. We know she has ‘dirty blonde hair’ with shaved undercut, she’s short, and she has ‘elfin’ features. He mentions her breasts once, and that’s only because one of her ‘crew’ is staring at them when he thinks she isn’t looking, and because he is a young man, a prisoner in a previously all male environment and probably hasn’t seen a female for a long time – unlucky him that he got Miska!

For me, Miska Corbin is an example of a female MC successfully written by a male. You see, women and men feel the same things, we all get emotional, and men don’t always express anger, and conversely, not all women cry. I felt that Smith had written a human being. Of course there has to be some physical description, we, the readers want to see what the writer sees, and he uses an economy of description that allows us to visualise her very nicely, thank you, without being a complete and total douche-bag slavering over his own creation.

Corbin comes from a military family, she was a marine; as was her father and her sister, and so trained in all kinds of weaponry and combat techniques. She’s also a hacker, a good one. And finally, she has a slightly unstable personality which means that she may, or may not, decide to blow a person’s head off – literally!- depending on her mood and what occurred prior to the current encounter.

I like her. I want to be her. She is Ripley for a new generation, with a sense of humour; if a little warped, and takes no shit from anyone. She is a great tactician and even in the direst situations, is capable of keeping her cool. So what’s her weakness? you may ask. Her dad.

Gunnery Sergeant Jonathan Corbin is dead and Miska, his youngest daughter, is determined to find out how/why/who. But Corbin senior’s death hasn’t prevented him from being a prime player in the story. He is a huge influence on our MC, and in Book 1 her raison d’etre. Her relationship with her father might be deemed unhealthy, but Miska Corbin seems to have unhealthy relationships with everyone she encounters.

When we meet her, she has turned pirate. She has stolen a maximum security prison barge – think of those great 19th century hulks in the Thames, then imagine it four hundred, or so, years in the future, and in space, with weapons, now you got it. There are six-thousand prisoners on board, from car thieves to gang leaders, rapists and murderers, some so dangerous that they are kept in some sort of suspended animation. How does one small female maintain control over this motley crew? Explosive collars! How frackin’ cool is that?! Smith sticks our heroine (is she though? Really?) in this high-risk situation, but needs a way to force all those men to do her bidding. Threat of instant death is a great inducement to do as one’s told. And if one’s head pops off, well then, one less mouth to feed. With the aid of her fathers hologram, mechanoid guards and VR environments, Miska begins to train her own personal army.

I find it a really interesting premise – take a bunch of violent criminals and make them into a formidable fighting force. There is potential danger from the men she now lives on board with, there is threat from the Corporation that hires her to do a dirty clean-up job, and from the unknown killer, or killers, of her father. Miska Corbin is a walking magnet for endangerment. You’re never sure who might turn on whom, how far will a bunch of mercenaries go to ensure their own heads remain firmly fixed to their necks?!

It is action packed. And I mean, all the time, action, (maybe a little too much?) even the moments when she is netrunning with her enhanced abilities. This area of the story I found less easy to follow – but I have the same problem playing Cyberpunk TTRPG. She meets a human shaped virus, has her skin flayed by gritty sand, and when Smith writes, ‘she dropped a number of heavily occulted hacks,’ I couldn’t honestly swear that I totally understood what that means.

I’ve read reviews of books that compare them to TV shows or films. I’m not sure I like this habit. Some reviews of The Bastard Legion claim it was like Suicide Squad or Killjoys crossed with The Expanse. I hated Suicide Squad, thought it was poorly written, clichéd, weak. Loved the other two. The Bastard Legion is the first ‘military in space’ story I have ever read; I’d not heard of this sub genre before. It is not poorly written, clichéd or weak. Smith’s writing is strong, it has the feel of a chunky, persistent force, prodding and driving you forwards. The prisoners aren’t just faceless men, they are nuanced; some more than others, not all bad – sort of, and in a couple of instances come across as more sane and less violent than Miska.

It’s a pretty unique idea; stealing a prison and all the prisoners in it, and turning them into a well-oiled fighting machine, and I think that’s getting harder in sci-fi writing as technology in our world continues to advance, the writers have to up their game. Smith has a great premise and compelling main character; even though she ought to be locked up herself, who has some complicated relationships going on. Not just with her dead father – she and her sister really don’t get on, why does she give more slack to the prisoner Torricone? And what’s with the angelic, technologically enhanced Ultra?

There’s a lot going for The Bastard Legion – the mercenaries as well as the book – and I will definitely be purchasing # 2.

I’m giving The Bastard Legion

4 stars

Book Review: The Spherical Trust by Mjke Wood

Image result for the spherical trust by Mjke Wood
The Sphere of Influence, Book III. The Spherical Trust

Genre: Sci-fi
Pub Date: 2018
Publisher: Copperbird Press
Length: 421
pages
Kindle Edition:
£2.99

Synopsis

Bob Slicker is back, with stature. But being King of the Sphere of Influence isn’t everything he imagined. He’s convinced someone’s out to get him.
Elton D Philpotts has never been away, and he also has new-found status. But being a Finance Director isn’t everything he imagined. Is someone out to get Elton, too?
Only one man has an ego big enough to carry two such massive grudges, but Martin Levison is gone, lost in deep space with no route home. So who else wants Philpotts and Slicker dead?
The threat is bigger than one man. This time there’s more to save than a lost planet or a ragtag band of mercenaries. This time the future of the whole Sphere of Influence is in play.

The final chapter in the Sphere of Influence trilogy, feels like it’s been a long time coming; but worth the wait!

In Deep Space Accountant, the hero came in the unlikely form of Elton D Philpotts; the titular accountant, who has little confidence and an obsession with numbers bordering on OCD.

With The Lollipop of Influence, the previously odious, and sweaty, Bob Slicker had to team up with navigation officer, Florence McConnachie, to escape the planet they had been abandoned on.

The Spherical Trust brings the whole cast together – including the re-emergence of arch enemy, Martin Levison. We get to meet Elton’s parents; albeit briefly in his father’s case, but Polina Philpotts is a woman to be reckoned with, I really liked her. She is one of those practical, common-sense women who knows politics, isn’t intimidated by it and will chain herself to a rock to save a beauty spot – we could do with more like her in the real world. (And this is where the title comes from – think National Trust!)

This third book ties together the previous two in directions I had not imagined would be the case. It has nearly all of the characters racing across known and unknown space; bouncing from planet to planet in the Sphere of Influence, in a dizzying race that accelerates not in a machine-gun blazing, cinematic, all-American heroic manner, but in that bumbling British style that has many comic moments.

There’s a lot about how we, as a species, take our environment for granted; without being preachy – if there’s one thing Mjke Wood does not do, it’s preach. Like when Elton discovers where all the waste goes:

Elton pondered on it. He looked at the size of the pipe, vibrating with the onrushing surge of excrement. He thought of the volumes he’d seen gushing in from all corners. He thought about the time frame, one hundred and sixty years. Out there, somewhere in space, was a place where you would not want to crack open your spacesuit helmet for a nanosecond, because there was one mighty bad smell.

I could not see how Wood was going to tie everything together; especially when he incorporated the Teddy’s – child-minding teddy bears, introduced killer bees and a whole section of a planet devoted to Norwegians who loved to sing at all hours of the day. I could not envision how certain events could be addressed in a single book; such as how to save a planet, how the bad guy gets his comeuppance (if he does), and what do all those numbers mean?!

But he does it. And he does it well.

There is a quintessential Britishness to Wood’s writing, like Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, Wood has lovingly crafted characters who are appealing; for the most part, silly; a lot of the time, and prone to making mistakes like the rest of us. We follow the multiple viewpoints through interstellar blunderings, cringing board meetings, ripped pants, assassination attempts, and waste management. Wood has a, seemingly, effortless style that can be deceptive, his work is very easy to read, but it is not light on the science in science-fiction. He does not shy away from dealing with scientific terms, there’s mathematical problems he has evidently had to solve, such as the time differentiation between planetary travel and enough technicalities to keep readers of hard sci-fi happy.

If there was a criticism I would make, it would be that I think it could have been longer. There was a lot of information to compact into a novel this size – though I can understand the author wanting to keep all books in a trilogy of similar length. I would, for instance, have liked more about Russ Kurosov the muscle-bound Commando who had a special ‘Jim’. A the end of the trilogy, a note from the author reads, I have ideas for stand-alone novels set in the Sphere, with new characters, new problems and new insanity. I can only hope that Kurosov is one of those selected for further investigation!

Oh, a little addendum – there’s an Easter Egg throughout the story. I had one of those hang on a minute moments. Copperbird, the huge corporation that runs all sorts from prisons to heated boots, is the imprint the books are published under!

I’m giving The Spherical Trust

4 Stars

Book Review: The Magician’s Sin by Alexander Thomas

The Magician’s Sin by Alexander Thomas

Genre: Fantasy Noir
Pub First Date: 4th April 2019
Publisher:Kyanite Publishing
Length: 350 pages
Paperback: ARC copy from author for review purposes

Titan City, 1933

The wizard Anson Walker’s cynical retirement is thrown into chaos when the daughter of his ex-wife hires him to rescue her mother. Her kidnapping is only days before the Aberration, a cosmic event every century when the rules of magic don’t apply. As Anson dives into the criminal underworld of Titan City, he uncovers an ancient conspiracy, the return of a decades-old nemesis, and dredges up feelings he thought long gone. Will he rescue his old flame, or succumb to the sinister forces arrayed against him?

Some readers may not have heard of the Fantasy Noir genre before. It is one of those sub-sub-genres that is becoming popular; like Diesel, Stitch and Elf have emerged from the genre of Steampunk. From Fantasy has emerged Alternative, Dying Earth and Futuristic. Also Dark, or Noir, and if you are familiar with the term from cinema, then you will have an idea where Alexander Thomas is coming from.

The Magician’s Sin has, as it’s lead, Anson Walker; ‘Exterminator’, who shares more than a few characteristics of the hard-boiled PI about him – though he does, in one scene, make protestations to the contrary. He’s mature (don’t know how old), intelligent to a degree, cynical and has a smart mouth. He swears and spits and smokes, I like him. I have a weakness for Marlowesque characters with snappy lines and a quick delivery – Anson Walker has a few snappy lines, I would have liked more.

He is ’employed’ – I use the term loosly as she doesn’t pay him, by Caroline Dupree, a young woman not only growing and finding herself, but along the way finds what or who she is and what she is capable of. She develops very nicely as a character, though some of her early growth happens a wee bit too quickly for my liking; she seems to accept the remarkable with remarkable ease.

I really enjoyed the opening scenes, where we are introduced to Walker – and his skills as a wizard. I became quite attached to the Dupree family in their little domestic, after work setting. There are some pretty neat descriptions of characters and places – of the MC: ‘Anson was lanky like a shadow at sunset.’ Of a group of Russian gangster types: ‘Their grim, flat faces were slate tiles.’

I found some of the dialogue stilted, in that it did not flow in a manner conducive to helping move the scene forwards, or it felt unnatural, or innappropriate for the scene. I can’t, for example, imagine discussing much at all whilst in the middle of a three-way fight with an Amazon.

Yes, I did say Amazon, as in mighty female warriors. This was another sticking point for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy, I love noir, I love horror, and superheroes, and mythology – you see where I’m going with this? Thomas has included all, and more, of these beings into one story, and for me, the scene outside the nightclub lost all psychological realism – simply too many varieties of beast; vampires, werewolves, Japanese demons, medusa-like women and ogres. This nightclub also has the strange ability, I don’t understand how, it’s not explained, to have people from different eras in the one place – from Roman Legionnaires to Mark Twain. Again, my suspension of disbelief was suspended a little too high.

I think Thomas has come up with an interesting idea, with a great main character and supporting cast – one called Chevron grew on me, and Thomas piqued my curiosity with this guy. The Aberration is a great concept about when the magical energies will be weaker, or at least in flux and it has an exciting finale.

It’s a crazy mix of 1930s detective noir, comic novel, superheroes and mythology, that I’m not 100% convinced Thomas has pulled off. I feel he could have had one story thread, a single arc and one or two fantastical beasts, and it would have been just as good. Sometimes it feels as though the author got over-excited and wanted to fit in as much as possible, and in parts, smacks a little of a D and D game – the amazing devices, shining orbs and jewels, and very powerful magic. I don’t believe I am the target audience for this novel – though I do like all the elements, it’s too ‘noisy’ for my tastes, but if you like your fantasy stuffed with humanoids, feisty women and a snarky lead, then this will be just your thing.

But despite my reservations…

I am curious to know what happens with the two characters in the end scene…will they be back for a second outing? We’ll have to wait and see!

The Magician’s Sin is Coming to E-book, Paperback, and Hardcover 04/04/2019, courtesy of Kyanite Publishing.

I’m giving The Magician’s Sin

3 Stars

Book Review – Hot Lead, Cold Iron by Ari Marmell

Image result for hot lead, cold iron book
Hot Lead, Cold Iron Book Cover

Genre: Crime Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, Dark fantasy, Urban fantasy
Pub First Date: 2014
Publisher: Titan Books
Length: 305 pages
Paperback : Bookdonors on Amazon (£3.72)

” Mick Oberon may look like just another 1930s private detective, but beneath the fedora and the overcoat, he’s got pointy ears and he’s packing a wand. Among the last in a line of aristocratic Fae, Mick turned his back on his kind and their Court a long time ago. But when he’s hired to find a gangster’s daughter sixteen years after she was replaced with a changeling, the trail leads Mick from Chicago’s criminal underworld to the hidden Otherworld, where he’ll have to wade through Fae politics and mob power struggles to find the kidnapper and solve the case.”

Hot Lead, Cold Iron (Back-book cover blurb)

First off, I have a confession to make – I’m one of those people who rolls their eyes when others mention certain themes of TV/Film/Book whatever, that I deem ‘stupid’ or ‘unbelievable’, you know what I mean? Conspiracy theorists, fantastical creatures roaming modern cities, and so on – except, I do read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, so where do I draw the line? Hard to say.

So, when I read that Ari Marmell‘s book was about a Private Investigator who is a Fae, I almost turned tail.

I discovered this book through entering the world of Dieselpunk/Decopunk writing, researching some titles. I read the opening 5 pages and… ordered it!

I think I have mentioned before that I enjoy crime writing, all kinds and in all forms (I have a huge collection of magazines about serial killers – yeah, publishers, you might want to bear that in mind next time you refuse my submissions!!) And this, I would say, is first and foremost a detective story. The protagonist, Mick Oberon is, as I mentioned, a Fae, living and working in 1930s Chicago. But the thing that hooked me is Marmell’s use of language, particularly the language of America, in that time period. The lingo is not only relevant to the time period, but has the humorous yet threatening quality of such well-known characters as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade –

One, I don’t chisel my clients, Archie. Ain’t good for business…And two, get your hand off me before I make you eat it.”. M.O.

This isn’t just a detective story, it’s Noir, one of my favourite film genres.

Mick Oberon explains that he is obliged to speak in this manner in order to function in his present day. I love this style of speech. Watching the old Humphrey Bogart films I didn’t always understand what was being said, but I sure as hell got the inference. Gangster speak is used throughout ‘Hot Lead, Cold Iron’, but not so as you don’t know what characters are talking about.

The story is written in first person – Mick Oberon’s – and so we get a pretty thorough explanation of Fae. Marmell has actually given some thought to magic and how it is used; Oberon’s magic is not the same as another type of Fae’s magic for instance. The world of the Fae – the Seelie Court (and it’s darker counter-side, the Unseelie Court) are almost copies of the real world, brilliantly explained by Marmell, as a result of Fae lacking creativity but being excellent mimics.

No matter how unusual some of the plot-line or characters or environs may seem, Marmell has written with psychological realism, thereby ensuring the story does not fall apart due to some random shit he wants in there. Though I did struggle somewhat to visualise some of the setting of the Seelie Court in Elphame, my impression of size kept shifting, so I was unable to get a clear understanding of the size of structures or beings. And I did enjoy the time spent in our world more than in Oberon’s home world.

Oberon is a likeable, milk-drinking, wand-toting good guy with a hard-boiled attitude that he wears like his coat. We don’t, in all honesty, know too much about his background – he’d tell you to mind your own business. And this is another aspect of the writing I enjoyed, Oberon often directly speaks to the reader, he gives you enough to understand the world you are entering, but also enough to pique the interest for further reading – “My name is Mick Oberon, or at least it is now.” He says things like – “You Joe’s.” Referring to humans and the reader alike, he doesn’t always reveal the whys and wherefores of his actions, you are being introduced a bit at a time to his way of living – “And if you think it all went easy for me, you ain’t been paying attention.”

This kind of story, with these kinds of fantasy elements, could easily have fallen flat – or worse. It’s success rests on the main character’s voice; as much as the plot and setting need a certain amount of historical accuracy, it is how Marmell has written Oberon’s voice that makes it work well. And it’s not just (if you like this kind of language) the gangster speak, Oberon is an intriguing character and charismatic too.

If you get gangster speak and understand a little about the world of faeries, you get the title – Lead as in bullets – Iron as in faeries hate it.

Hot Lead, Cold Iron is action-packed fun, well-written with wisecracks enough to satisfy Raymond Chandler fans, it is the first in a new series by Ari Marmell – ‘A Mick Oberon Job’ or Mick Oberon #1.

And I will be purchasing the second book – Hallow Point.

I’m giving Hot Lead, Cold Iron

4 Stars

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Book Review – The City and The City by China Miéville

Image from  https://locativeliterature.wordpress.com/sections/section-1/

 
Genre: Science Fantasy/Crime
Pub First Date: 2009
Publisher: Pan Books
Length: 373 pages
Paperback : Local Library (£7.39)

 

When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.

The City and The City, (back-book cover blurb)

The City and The City by China Mieville
The City and The City by China Mieville

 

China Miéville is perhaps best known as a writer of ‘weird fiction’ [self termed], of science fiction, fantasy, urban fiction – a number of genre terms have been applied to this English writer who has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award three times and the British Fantasy Award twice.

Years ago, I dipped into a story by Miéville and was confounded by the twisting, corrugated way he wrote. I don’t think I reached the end. What the hell was that all about?! I wondered.

Then I tried again – ‘Looking For Jake and Other Stories’, and the same thing happened. Was I stupid? Is my command of the English language so infantile and undeveloped? Most recently, I read ‘Embassytown‘, I say read, I got half-way through and abandoned it.

So why, you may ask, did I bother to continue?

There is something about Miéville’s work that keeps drawing me back. I’m not sure what this elusive thing is that draws me, but I can’t leave it alone. Am I ashamed to have not reach the end of previous novels? Hm, maybe. But ‘The City and The City‘ is different. For one thing, I finished it, secondly, it’s crime, and I’m a sucker for crime stories, and this writing I found more accessible than any of the previous I had read.

The world it is set in is familiar, though the prime cities of the title do not exist. To me, it smacks of East and West Berlin, divided by a wall – in Berlin an actual, concrete structure – in the novel, by ‘unseeing’ and and it is this ‘unseeing’ that gives the story it’s flavour.

In the city of Beszel, where our protagonist; Inspector Tyador Borlú lives and works, the people are living in a grey, sort of post Soviet state. In Ul Qoma, it’s neighbour, the economy thrives; more or less, it’s a chic modern place with better transport, better clothing and so forth. Parts of the two cities overlap, some buildings are even shared by both – BUT – the citizens of neither place are allowed to notice the other.

Trained from childhood, and enforced by both countries’ governments and populaces, the citizens pass each other in the streets without looking or ‘unseeing’ each other.

It’s a bizarre concept. But this is more than a straightforward crime story – of course it is, it’s Miéville! It’s about how we do this ‘unseeing’ ourselves, in real life. We ‘unsee’ what we don’t want to know about – the homeless, we ‘unsee’ what doesn’t affect us directly – an attack on another’s person, we ‘unsee’ what goes on in other countries politically.

Added to this bizarre brew is Breach. To breach an area of one city to another is a crime, the details of how to and how not to are as convoluted as Cold War politics. To breach is punishable. But Breach is also a shadowy, secret and invisible, till it wants to be seen, power. When a citizen has breached the boundary in any way, these dark figures emerge at unnatural speed to ‘clear up’ the situation. When Breach takes someone, they may be extradited – or never seen again.

This is intelligent and original writing. Miéville offers us a Ballardian type world where the rules are both clear, yet unclear, it looks like reality but smells like fantasy, it’s both a murder investigation and a metaphor for our times, and Inspector Borlú is as dogged a policeman as you will ever meet.

 

I’m giving The City and The City

4 Stars

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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Genre: Fiction, Humour
Pub Date: 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 400 pages (PB)
Paperback: £8.99

Synopsis

Eleanor Oliphant has worked in the same office for nine years. Believing she has ‘met’ the love of her life; musician Johnnie Lomond, she resolves to make a project out of winning him over, before ever meeting him.

Eleanor forms a kind of friendship with the office’s IT guy; Raymond via an accident they both observe. Eleanor reveals a little about her past relationships, boyfriend and mother, during their now regular lunchtime meetings.

After a potentially disastrous event, Raymond ends up taking care of Eleanor, thus setting her on the road to recovery.

Eleanor Oliphant struggles with social skills and appropriate responses to pretty much everything and everyone she encounters. She has never, for example, bought a women’s magazine before, but, “I’d worked out that they were the most reliable and accessible source of the information that I needed.” Her life is carefully timetabled, from the Wednesday phone calls from Mummy, to the food she eats for her evening meal. She drinks a large amount of vodka at weekends and has visits from a Social Worker.


I found myself right from the outset, trying to work out if Eleanor had suffered from a past trauma, or if she was a high functioning Autistic. Her attitude to colleagues and people in general is akin to how some people with Autism maintain a distance from others; reluctance to engage in office banter, avoidance of touching other people and such-like. She always has her shopper with her and wears the same clothes to work daily, she even has just two pairs of shoes; practical, comfortable; Velcroed.

Writers, when starting out in the craft, are often advised to open the first chapter with a bang, to create a hook for the reader, grab the publishers interest – but – I didn’t feel any of this when I read the introductory paragraphs. Even the fact that she had her interview with a black eye did not intrigue me. Only after pages 4 to 6, when Eleanor explains her weekly routine; “I usually have pasta with pesto and salad – one pan and one plate.” and a tiny glimpse into her childhood, did I think that there was something more to this than meets the eye.

I’m glad I stuck with it. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine gives the reader an outsiders view of the world – haven’t we all felt a little like ignoring those around us? It is both funny and touching. The reason and mystery Eleanor is alone is made clear very gradually, drop by drop, and poses the question, how vital is human interaction? When she thanks the hairdresser for making her ‘shiny’, I had a lump in my throat. 

Is Eleanor Oliphant Completely Fine? Do read it and decide for yourself!

This is Gail Honeyman’s début novel, for which she won the Costa First Novel Award 2017, it feels like the work of a more experienced writer.

I’m giving Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine 4 stars

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Book Review: The Improbable Wonders Of Moojie Littleman by Robin Gregory

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The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman. Robin Gregory

Genre: Fiction. YA. Historical.
Pub Date: 1 November 2015
Publisher: Price World Publishing
Length: 294 pages
Paperback : £11.00

Synopsis

Early 1900s, Western America. A lonely, disabled boy with a nasty temper and uncontrolled mystical powers, Moojie is taken by his father to his grandfather’s wilderness farm. There, Moojie meets an otherworldly clan of outcasts that he wants to join. Following a series of misadventures–magical and mystical–he is summoned by the call to a great destiny … if only he can survive one last terrifying trial.

https://www.amazon.com/Improbable-Wonders-Moojie-Littleman/dp/1942545002

 

I was surprised to learn that this book was published over 2 years ago; it seems to be suddenly everywhere I look online.

Although touted as Y.A, I found it to be an engaging and beautiful story – Set in late 19th early 20th century. Moojie Littleman is a foundling who is adopted by childless couple; Henry and Kate Littleman. Moojie is written across the babes forehead, and so the name sticks.

The name is an interesting choice, it is no accident that the name Moojie (and its variant spellings) can mean – an ethnic slur in India, particularly about a Muslim. For Kabbalists it is about optimism, being friendly and likeable, other sources say it means ‘gift from God’. Knowing just this gives a foothold into this world created by Robin Gregory. A world of hard men; of Scottish, Irish and European origins, who live hard lives in the dust-blown, western edge of the earthquake riddled coastal town of San Miguel de las Gaviotas.

As Moojie grows to an age when certain stages in development should be met, it becomes clear that he is not like other children. For starters he is disabled. This physical disability is not named, but reads like cerebral palsy. Moojie does not, or cannot, speak; until much later. He has tantrums that create havoc and can be said to be spoilt by his doting mother; Kate. An interesting character herself, his mother introduces Moojie to the magical world of books – science, history, Odysseus. She sees in Moojie something no-one else can, a special quality that she attempts to nurture.

Then tragedy strikes. Moojie’s world falls apart after his beloved mother’s death and he is packed off to live with a cranky grandfather. He has to toughen up, the threat of being sent away to a boys home hangs over him for years. He is alone, feels unloved and without a sense of belonging.

Enter the Light-Eaters. A strange ‘tribe’ or ‘clan’ of people who live in the hills beyond grandfather’s goat farm. They are not like the locals, they are dark-skinned, dark-haired and viewed with suspicion by the townsfolk, who call them ‘Hostiles’. We are not told if they are Native American, they can speak any language they want, and there is a heavy emphasis on Eastern philosophy and spirituality. A curious group who each have lessons for Moojie; even painful ones, who reveal a little about themselves drop by drop; where are they from exactly? How old, actually, is Babylonia, the ‘girl’ whom Moojie falls for?

Moojie’s desperate desire to belong; to find a family, leads him on a journey of self-development. It is, in essence, a story of self-discovery and spirituality. Moojie’s disability is no excuse or reason for self-limitation, Moojie must learn how to give, how to forgive and how to accept.

This is a curious story, I was quite entranced from the start with the magical elements entwined in amongst the mundane – and isn’t that the point? Gregory has a light touch, poetic adjectives fill the spaces between the daily activities, is an easy read and has a positive message without being cloying. It can be read by the young as a tale of wonder and magic, and by adults as a tale of the human condition, for after all, aren’t we all Moojie Littleman?

 

I am giving The Improbable Wonders Of Moojie Littleman

5 Stars

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Book Review: Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

Genre: Crime, Thriller, Mystery
Pub Date: 9 Nov. 2017
Publisher: Hutchinson
Length: 288 pages
Hardback: £12.99

Synopsis

Abby Williams returns to the small town where she grew up. Now working as a successful environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has been tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town’s economic heart. Abby begins to find strange connections to a decade-old scandal involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her friends—just before Kaycee disappeared for good.

As Abby attempts to find out what happened to Kaycee, troubling memories begin to resurface and she begins to doubt her own observations.”

Krysten Ritter, star of American TV shows such as Jessica Jones and Don’t Trust The B**** in Apartment 23, has published her début novel, Bonfire. I have to admit I had mixed emotions; unsure whether this actor, who I have been a fan of for some years, would be skilled enough to pull off a novel ( I think it was J G Ballard who said one shouldn’t not write a full length novel for a first outing). Bonfire has been described as being ‘dark, disturbing and compulsively readable’ amongst the blurb.


I found the writing to be mature, I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. Ritter keeps the writing tight and moving along at a fair pace. The protagonist, Abby Williams, is deftly portrayed, she has a strong voice and reminded me a little of a cross between the two characters Ritter has played in the aforementioned shows; intelligent, forthright and possibly a little bit sexy. Other characters are portrayed well with sparse use of adjectives, yet we get to see them clearly.

Abby has tried hard to move away from the memories of her home-town. Memories dominated by the popular girl Kaycee Mitchell, memories of her bullying, of becoming her friend, of Kaycee’s clique of hangers on, like the appalling Misha, and ultimately the illness that gripped Kaycee and the others. To Abby, there is a connection between the illnesses and Optimal Plastics and she sets out to prove it.

Bonfire is dark and compulsive reading, but the disturbing not so much for me. I found myself thinking of The Virgin Suicides (1993), Mean Girls and a little Twin Peaks. So, not hugely original or with a shocking or surprising outcome. Maybe because I am British, but I found it quite difficult to relate to many of the characters; do high school students really behave like that in USA?! And I simply could not get my head around the idea that school-age Abby wanted to be friends with such a bitch! But maybe I’m not the target audience.

Although there are a couple of close moments between the protagonist and other character, there is no reason why this cannot be read by those aged 16 years.

I’m giving Bonfire 3 stars

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Book Review – The Sleeping Doll by Jeffery Deaver

The Sleeping Doll by Jeffery Deaver

Published : 2007, Hodder & Stoughton.
Genre: Thriller

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The Sleeping Doll by Jeffery Deaver

 

 

YOU CAN TELL A LIAR BY HIS EYES.

Special Agent Kathryn Dance reads people the way other investigators read crime scenes.
But she’s never seen eyes like Daniel Pell’s.
Back cover blurb.

 

I have been a fan of crime fiction; and non-fiction, since my late teens. My habit was to read a book and if I enjoyed it I would then acquire and devour everything published by this author. My only surprise, to myself, is that I have neglected my crime reading in recent years, returning to it this year with Jeffery Deaver’s The Empty Chair. Also, I realised I had never written a review of a crime novel. So here goes.

Even if you have never read one of Deaver’s books, you may be familiar with his work as many have been turned into films:
Dead Silence (1997) starring James Garner.
The Bone Collector (1999) starring Denzil Washington and Angelina Jolie.
The Devils Teardrop (2010) starring Tom Everett Scott and Natasha Henstridge.

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Movie poster for The Bone Collector

The Sleeping Doll introduces a new detective; Agent Kathryn Dance, a widow with two young children who works for the Californian Bureau of Investigation, “Like an FBI for the state.” Dance is a specialist in interrogation and reading body language, so we get, not only her analysis of a criminal but of some of those around her in her working and private life. In this way, Deaver uses this as a tool for the reader to have a window onto the minds of other characters without having to head hop and it works really well, as not only do we get this inkling into another characters possible feelings, but we spend over half the book in the mind of Kathryn Dance – and considering the line of work she does, it is not an unpleasant place to be. For the rest of it, we enter the thoughts of Daniel Pell…

The Sleeping Doll of the title refers to a little girl (who is a teenager when the story begins), who survived a murderous assault on her family because she was asleep amongst her toys; hidden. The perpetrator of the crime, Daniel Pell, is currently serving time in a Correctional Facility. Dance has come to interview Pell regarding a newly uncovered crime. Pell has never spoken about his involvement in the ‘sleeping doll’ murders, and neither has the surviving child.

Dance recognises a Svengali type personality in Pell, who’s chilling blue eyes are equally taking the measure of Agent Dance as she does his.
Dance is smart, capable and strong, she is going to need to be on peak form when Pell escapes, leaving a bloody trail in his wake.

Deaver is a great storyteller who engages his readers without any superfluous text. He gets straight down to business; much in the manner of Kathryn Dance, and keeps us hoping and guessing all the way through. He nearly always adds a twist in the end of his tales, and The Sleeping Doll is no exception. I’m a great one for trying to second guess who did what, to whom and many times I’m pretty close.

Not this time.