Egyptian Enigma – LJM Owen

egyptian enigma cover

“Sipping a glass of hot apple tea, Dr Elizabeth Pimms watched dawn flow over the desert, blushing shades and grey shadows shifting and merging until they coalesced into the vast Pyramids of Giza.”

Tomb robbers and over-enthusiastic early archaeologists weren’t the only dangers to Egypt’s ancient mummies. Pharaohs rewrote history to remove their predecessors, and then stories of female pharaohs were discounted when it didn’t suit the prevailing social norms. Which only makes the mysteries that much harder to decipher.

I’ve missed a couple of books introducing Dr Elizabeth Pimms, the young Australian Egyptologist. That didn’t seem to matter too much – although I could tell when references to previous events were being made, without it impacting too much on the plot here – as it was easy enough to pick up with the story. Past events have led Elizabeth to a quieter-than-planned career as a librarian and tutor, so when she spots some strange markings on a papyrus during a trip to her beloved Egypt, she jumps at the chance to begin an investigation into the ‘Golden Tomb’ and the unidentified mummies that were discovered there.

Interspersed with Elizabeth’s modern archaeology – 3D printers are fabulous! – we get chapters told from the point of view of Tausret, the last pharaoh of the 19th dynasty – and a woman!

I do have a bit of a liking for ancient cultures such as Egypt, and a growing fondness for ‘cosy mysteries’, so I thought I’d give this NetGalley opportunity a go – and ended up gulping it down! The mix of real history – Tausret is real, the Golden Tomb is fictional – and a little insight into amateur archaeology in the technology age was a great mix.

The story is rounded out by various threads about Elizabeth’s friends and family – this is probably the bit most impacted by not reading the first two books, and indeed I’ve probably spoiled the plot to one of those by starting here. Still, the multicultural grandparentage was rather interesting, and I’m also a huge foodie so the descriptions of Chinese, French, and Welsh feasts was rather mouth watering!

Despite those bits, I would offer a warning over some of the ‘cosy’ status: I really shouldn’t have looked up ‘scaphism’ aka death by milk and honey before trying to sleep o_O

Overall: a fairly light yet involving read that moved at a good pace. I am deducting a mark, however, as the biggest non-Mummy mystery is left as a huge cliff-hanger – this isn’t  a stand-alone read, alas!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth book 3
Read from 9th-13th March 2018

My rating: 7/10


Places in the Darkness – Christopher Brookmyre

places in the darkness cover

“‘Consciousness Does Not Exist,’ says Mehmet.”

Ciudad de Cielo, the city in the sky, abbreviated to CdC and pronounced ‘Seedee’. And this is the story of the seedy underbelly of what is meant to be a shining beacon for humanity’s future in the stars.

We alternate chapters from the point of view of two characters: Nikki ‘Fixx’, an ex-LA cop now Seedee security and not adverse to a backhander or eight. And Alice Blake: the new head of everything, here to root out corruption, about to get her eyes opened to the true extent of the issue.

All of which would be hard enough on both women, without the skinned corpse floating in a research lab…

I have slightly mixed feelings about this book. It’s a little heavy on the exposition of the sci-fi stuff, I thought, perhaps showing the author’s relative inexperience with the genre over the mystery and crime elements of the plot. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Christopher Brookmyre’s earlier work, and sci-fi is my favourite genre, so it was a little disappointing that the two didn’t gel a little better.

That said, the world that is created here is well thought out and reasonably immersive, and the eventual plot twists weren’t what I was expecting – they were better! I did think the attempts at setting red herrings along the way were a little too obvious, but when the final reveal happened I was suitably impressed.

Hardback: 403 pages / 72 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 26th February – 6th March 2018

My rating: 7/10

The Dresden Files: Dog Men – Jim Butcher

dresden files dog men cover

“Get up, Dresden.”

(Story by Mark Powers, Art by Diego Galindo)

The Dresden Files is one of my all-time favourite series, but it’s been a long wait since the last novel. So, despite not being a huge fan of graphic novels, I absolutely jumped at the chance to nab a copy of this. I hadn’t even known that there was a canon-approved series of graphic novels, but you don’t need to have read the rest before this – or even the main series, really, but why wouldn’t you?

“I was ready. I was confident. Usually that means I was f-‘ed.”

Harry Dresden is asked by senior Council member, Listens-to-Winds, to accompany him on a case. Of course, it’s as much a ruse to get Harry away from his self-recrimination and nightmares, although it says a lot when a grisly murder scene and some non-human monsters are less bad than his nightmares!

The artwork here is pretty good, but given my previous attempts with the format were the gorgeously illustrated Sandman set, this was unlikely to compete. In fairness, some of the bigger ‘location’ panels are great, but I wasn’t desperately impressed with the depiction of Harry himself – limitations of any pictorial adaptation of a series, your readers have their own mental images!

The character still comes across exactly as he does in the main books, though – all pop culture and offbeat humour, offsetting the rage and fearsome power. The story is fairly slight, with rather two-dimensional supporting characters, and a little heavy on the lessons for our hero. Still, while we’re waiting impatiently for the next novel in the series, it was really nice to check back in again with the best wizard called Harry 😉

NetGalley eARC: 146 pages / 6 issues
First published: 2018
Series: Dresden Files graphic novels book 7 (collection of issues 1-6)
Read from 3rd-18th February 2018

My rating: 7/10

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

jumanji poster

This sequel to Jumanji (1995) shakes things up a bit: the game itself takes the dismissive “who plays board games anymore?” to heart and evolves into a video game. And instead of releasing its dangers into the world, this time it’s going to suck its unwitting players into the heart of the jungle itself. And, perhaps my favourite alteration, once inside the game the four teenage leads are transformed into their character avatars, meaning we get The Rock, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan playing ‘teenagers’ trapped in very different bodies.

The laughs are mainly around this body-swap idea, with the scrawny geek now a muscle-bound fighting machine, the self-absorbed selfie queen finding herself now a tubby, middle-aged man (as shown in trailers), etc etc. There’s a hefty dollop of self-discovery to be had along the way, of course, as our team face myriad dangers and amusing video game tropes, like the NPCs with limited dialogue capabilities.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this, especially as I hadn’t been a big fan of the original. Losing the younger cast helped a lot, for me, and the adult actors are all pretty spot on. Even Kevin Hart, who annoyed me greatly in his last collaboration with Dwayne Johnson, Central Intelligence (2016), fits really well.

It’s far from perfect – oh, what is?! – but I was pleasantly surprised and found this to be amusing and fun. Recommended for a Sunday afternoon, or when you need a daft pick-me-up.

Released: 20th December 2017
Viewed: 17th February 2018
Running time: 119 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

The End of the Day – Claire North

the end of the day cover

“At the end, he sat in the hotel room and counted out the pills.”

Sooner or later, Death visits everyone. Before that, they meet Charlie.

So goes the intriguing tagline for The End of the Day, the latest book by the author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Sudden Appearance of Hope, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. This is a little bit of a departure from her style to date, I would say, and if I’m honest it didn’t appeal quite as much to me. It is a very well-written, very very thought-provoking book, but a shade too ‘literary fiction’ for my tastes, perhaps.

Charlie is an affable, entirely normal young Englishman, who goes to a job interview to be the Harbinger of Death. His role is to precede the Grim Reaper, sometimes as a warning, sometimes as a courtesy. Death comes for ideologies and status quos as much as any individual, and Charlie soon learns that he is there to honour the living and also witness the passing of things.

And… that’s kind of it, plot-wise. Big concepts die. There is a LOT of political statementing, albeit done without much judgement (thankfully), but still. Some things do happen to Charlie, but I confess I was rather left by the end thinking, “And…?” As I said – literary fiction, where plot is not really the point. Hmm.

Still, as a thought-provoking exercise about society, about humankind, about perception, and of course about death – it’s definitely got a lot to offer. I was genuinely moved at several points. I read it in huge galloping gulps. I won’t not recommend it – but it does come with caveats: know what you’re getting in to.

Paperback: 432 pages / 110 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 27th November – 6th December 2017

My rating: 7/10

Ink and Bone – Rachel Caine

Ink and Bone cover

“‘Hold still and stop fighting me,’ his father said, and slapped him hard enough to leave a mark.”

Imagine a history in which the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria caused such an upheaval in the ancient world that it is knowledge, not religion, and the Library, not the church, that hold sway over humankind’s lives. In this environment, alchemy is pursued more rigorously, creating many marvels that are still used thousands of years later, and keeping the population in sway far more than any single holy book has yet managed. Still, maintaining rule is hard: the only way is ruthlessness.

Jess Brightwell is the son of a book smuggler. While any title can be read on a ‘blank’ (an e-reader, basically, powered by alchemy rather than technology – it took me a worrying long time to realise this!), possessing copies of actual books is strictly forbidden. For, if the Library isn’t the source of all knowledge, how can they curtail what thoughts people have?

I absolutely adored the premise of this book – well, books about books, and libraries are always appealing! Add in a society still heavily influenced by the Egyptian roots of the ruling organisation, and intriguing glimpses of how the development we know happened in our reality over 2000 years is either quashed or fitted in, and I’m giving high marks for the world building.

However, this is a YA (young adult) novel, and alas very quickly starts to follow a very well-worn path: hero is a bit of an outsider, cast into hostile territory and forced to undergo varying challenges highlighting the evils of the controlling system, setting up an inevitable future clash. Throw in the is he/isn’t he a baddy mentor, some diverse(ish) companions to form close bonds in times of high stress, knowing all might not survive – yup, fairly sure I’ve read this plot already!

Which is a bit of a shame, because I really did love the setting and the atmosphere created. I will continue with the series – it’s perfectly well-written – but with quite reduced expectations on the storyline, to be honest.

Kindle: 368 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: The Great Library book 1
Read from 16th-22nd October 2017

My rating: 7.5/10 – excellent premise, rather familiar YA plot

The Dragon Keeper – Robin Hobb

dragon keeper cover

“They had come so far, yet now that she was here, the years of journeying were already fading in her mind, giving way to the desperate needs of the present.”

Ask me what my favourite (fantasy) series of all time is, and odds on I’ll go with Robin Hobb’s Farseer (or Assassin) trilogy. I can’t remember a book that so caught me up, that even on a re-read I was walking along that odd black stone path towards such revelations, and the ending hitting me right in the gut even a second time. Thankfully, there are two further series with Fitz (The Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool trilogies), but between each, Hobb explores a different part of the world she has created.

To be honest, I found it hard to appreciate the Liveship Traders trilogy after falling so in love with the first books. It’s always a wrench when things are different, I suppose – although other readers apparently have exactly the opposite preference between the two strands! Still, as well as doing my usual spreading out of the books I most want to read, I was also not as keen to dive into the Rain Wild Chronicles, knowing they went back to the world of the Liveships and Rain Wilds. And, as much as I appreciate the wider picture of the ‘Realms of the Elderlings’, I’m not sure this was the book to sway me.

Before you read on, know that mentioning anything about the plot of this is likely to spoil some of the twists in the first (Liveship) series – you have been warned!

Dragons have returned to the world, following the events of the Liveship Traders, but for spoiler-heavy reasons, the first of the new clutch are not the majestic creatures they should be. Deformed physically and mentally, neither of the broods’ initial carers – the dragon Tintaglia, and the Traders she struck a bargain with – have much of a continued interest in looking after these weaklings. Seeing possibilities of discovering one of the Elderlings lost cities, plus ridding themselves of the least desirable, most-disfigured (as Rain Wilders are from their toxic environment) youngsters of their small society, the Traders send a party to accompany the dragons as they try to find a better, freer life for themselves in fabled Kelsingra.

The bulk of the initial story only half-deals with setting up the above, rather more concerning itself with the life of a Trader’s daughter, Alise. Hers is not a happy lot, and to be honest I was for grinding my teeth reading some of the casual sexism of her young life – I know, it’s fiction, but generally I’d like to read to escape from this kind of nonsense! So, from the get-go, I wasn’t wholly warming to this side of the story.

As things progress, the rather glacial pace of the whole thing becomes rather apparent. Part of the appeal of Hobb’s writing is, I suppose, the detail and how much she draws you into the lives of the characters. Still, that nothing much actually really happens is just a little bit of a draw back. I was forced to abandon reading this for quite some time due to external events, and picking it back up again I was at no point left struggling to remember what had happened – because nothing really had. Eeep!

Still, the whole thing is rather gorgeously written. I adore the world building, and while the story itself is slow, there is no sense that the rich, immersive descriptions are what’s holding things up – they’re a plus, not a negative, all the way.

There are another three books and 1500 pages in this series, which is plenty of room for more to happen – so, onwards!

Paperback: 553 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 2009
Series: Rain Wild Chronicles book 1 (of 4) / Realms of the Elderlings book 10 (of 16)
Read from 6th August – 22nd October 2017 (with a massive gap in the middle cos life)

My rating: 7/10 –  love Hobb’s writing, but story-wise this is just a bit too slight and slow