For Letter or Worse – Vivian Conroy

for letter or worse cover

“‘Ahwawawawawa.'”

That’s… some way to open a book o.O

Things do improve significantly 😉 LOL! We’re back in the small, ex-mining town of Tundish, where Delta Douglas moved at the start of Last Pen Standing to follow her dream of running a craft store and designing her own stationary. It’s a sleepy kind of place – except when people turn up dead, of course! This time the murder is linked to one of the town’s wealthy residents, a former model and her interior designer husband.

The story ticks all of the cosy mystery ‘tropes’, but in a very well written and well balanced way compared to many. Yes, we have a hint of romance – but it feels nicely ‘real’ and down to earth. The police chief is of course unsympathetic, but it doesn’t come across as wilful negligence. And the characters are drawn into the mystery quite naturally.

For me the best bit is that the mystery was well formed. It’s not quite Agatha, but nor was it too obvious or too deus ex machina. The suspects and red herrings lined up nicely.

This was a really great example of a nice, gentle cosy mystery – ticked all the right boxes and was a lovely wee read. I’ll be back for the third installment!

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Stationary Shop mystery book 2
Read from 21st-30th September 2020

My rating: 8/10

Morning Star – Pierce Brown

morning star cover

“I rise into darkness, away from the garden they watered with the blood of my friends.”

Book 2 of the Red Rising trilogy, Golden Son, ended with our hero in a sticky position. Usual warning: just by mentioning characters who have survived to book 3 might be a spoiler, so back away now if needs be!

On the verge of a massive win in his campaign to bring down the Gold society, Darrow’s unmasking leaves everything in tatters. What’s to come is about as unpleasant as it could be: capture, torture, betrayal. Can the once-Golden Son rise again, from the deepest pit?

Having followed the political machinations over the past two books, there’s a lot of pressure to bring things to a satisfying conclusion here. And mostly, I think it succeeds admirably with this less than easy task. Which isn’t to say it’s perfect. There’s sometimes too little sense of real danger, of consequences to insanely risky plots. Terrible things do happen, but sometimes the crazy plans just seem to work a bit too easily.

Which is a minorish complaint, honestly. Overall I liked the way the story continued to a satisfying conclusion. It was a pleasure to read, although perhaps a little more variety in the onslaught of fighting and bad things and quite frankly horror – but, it gets to where it needs to be, and it does it in style.

The trilogy gets a 9/10 from me, although nothing has reached the heights of that first book. Still, I’m excited to see where the next book – picking up 10 years later – finds us.

Kindle: 544 pages / 65 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Red Rising book 3
Read from 24th August – 6th September 2020

My rating: 8.5/10

Fangs – Sarah Andersen

fangs cover

What happens when a 300-year-old vampire meets a charming werewolf in a bar? Well, in Fangs it’s the start of a beautiful – if odd – relationship.

example panel from Fangs

There’s a lot to like about this book. The humour is – sorry not sorry – ‘fangtastic’ (haha!). I loved the doggish behaviour from a big scary bloke who turns out to like having his tummy tickled on a full moon as much as any labrador. And the vampire doing her makeup in a mirror that shows nothing of what the makeup is being applied to.

And yet, it took me a while to get into this, and it was hard not to write ‘I wanted to love it more than I did’. I really really love Sarah Andersen’s Sarah’s Scribbles comics, and it was perhaps the very different artwork style here that threw me a bit. It’s a bit disjointed, too, less a story and more a series of humorous vignettes – although that’s maybe less surprising – and the humour is rather gentle, if a little dark.

But then… It wasn’t hard to keep reading and as I did I realised it was less about pithy one-liners and more revealing about relationships in general. The match here is rather sweet, all things considered. You don’t have to be undead or a shapeshifter to see the rather lovely way this portrays a … unique? … partnership, and what makes it work.

example panel 2 from Fangs

Take it for what it is rather than comparing it to the author’s other work, and actually this is a really nice, if slightly slim volume.

NetGalley eARC: 115 pages
First published: September 2020
Series: none
Read from 26th-29th August 2020

My rating: 7.5/10

Eight Detectives – Alex Pavesi

eight detectives cover

“The two suspects sat on mismatched furniture in the white and almost featureless lounge, waiting for something to happen.”

Thirty years ago Professor of Mathematics Grant McAllister worked out the set of ‘rules’ that make up a murder mystery. He then wrote a collection of short stories as examples of the various permutations. Now he’s been approached to have the work republished, and Julia Hart has turned up on his isolated little island. She wants to ask about the stories and the theory, of course, but then there’s the personal mystery. Why did he abruptly leave his life and seek out isolation? Why do the inconsistencies in the stories have a theme?

I was totally intrigued by this book. The alternating chapters of detective story followed by discussion of the tale works well, especially after the opening story. It was fascinating, but quite stylised and yes, with those (plot point) inconsistencies, and not at first realising it was a tale-within-a-tale I wasn’t sure it was going to work. In a short story? More than fine! More so, even, when the discussion starts.

The short stories are good, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie – indeed, in-book the connections are mentioned. A few will therefore seem quite familiar, but they are kept very brief – the proposed in-book publication would have been very slender! Once you know about those ‘purposeful’ inconsistencies, too, it becomes a little puzzle: read a short story, spot the issue that’s going to be revealed straight away.

I also really liked this idea that there a … not formula, but set of rules that make a murder mystery. The mathematics aren’t dense or particularly important to fully follow, but have to say, set theory, Venn diagrams – right up my alley! 🙂

However, the thing that then raises the book is the mystery in the framing tale, which you sense very early on has a whole other layer. The combination was going to score very highly from me – I loved the read, and the explanations – but somehow the ending didn’t quite work for me. It’s not bad by any means, but there’s a convolution or two too many, and the lack of tightness or as much impact as it could have had feels like it lets the rest down just a little.

Still, I recommend, particularly for fans of old-school mysteries, and anyone with an interest in the building blocks of writing.

Note: this book was published as The Eighth Detective in the US.

NetGalley eARC: 352 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 18th-23rd August 2020

My rating: 8/10

Golden Son – Pierce Brown

golden son cover

“When the first colonists ventured forth from Earth to make their home on the moon, they created a hierarchy for labor. In time, they improved this hierarchy through genetic and surgical manipulation of their fellow man. The result was a color-coded Society of perfect efficiency, one dominated by a superior breed of humanity, the Golds.”

(Usual warning, merely mentioning characters who appear in book 2 might be considered spoilers for book 1 – so go read the wonderful Red Rising instead of this might-be-spoilery-for-it review ;))

We pick back up with Darrow following his graduation from the Institute that made him kill his peers to prove himself worthy of leading Gold society. But of course, Darrow isn’t really a Gold – he’s from the lowly Red caste, ‘carved’ to mimic his social superiors in every way to help bring down the civilisation that oppresses so many.

What follows is an action-packed roller coaster of political machinations. Darrow’s rise is not assured, his battles far from over. Then there’s all the emotional baggage to sort out – and that might prove more tricky than attempted assassinations. Trust is a rare commodity at the best of times, never mind when you’re lying to your friends about the most basic aspect of yourself.

I ended up not quite loving this book as much as its predecessor, but that’s not a big complaint! I think perhaps the claustrophobia, the more defined playing space, of the Institute worked in the story’s favour, whereas now we’re out in the big bad solar system and it makes things a little wilder. There were points when I found the action a little exhausting, then the politics a little heavy. And yet overall it works brilliantly.

What really lifts this is the author’s exquisite use of language. While wholly fitting with the themes of war and plotting and revenge, there are such poetically lifting turns of phrase. For example:

“Roses of a thousand shades fall from the trees as Golds fight beneath them. They’re all red in the end.”

Still, if I was inclined I could pick holes in things. Darrow is maybe a little too perfect. There’s a sense of inertia often found in such stories, where nothing has really changed for generations until this ‘special’ new characters comes along. And I found the introduction of a new character, a new sub-race, to feel quite sudden. Perhaps I just didn’t notice a mention in book one?

But, small complaints. The whole is still gripping. Absolutely no spoiler to say that the book ends on a cliffhanger, so thank goodness book 3 is already available – and next on my TBR to find out how this might possibly all resolve!

Kindle: 443 pages / 51 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Red Rising book 2
Read from 23rd July – 3rd August 2020

My rating: 8/10

The Boys (season 1)

The Boys poster

If there’s one thing I love more than a good superhero tale, it’s all the attempts these days to do something a bit different for the modern age, to find a new angle, or a more believable take. Step forward The Boys, which asks: what if the world had real superheros, celebrities with sponsorship deals – but behind the corporate facade, they’re actually a£$eholes? I mean, great powers doesn’t necessarily come with niceness or the goody-two-shoes-ness that makes some of the stalwarts a bit dull. So what if they were self-serving, totally devoid of moral codes?

The most famous of the ‘supes’ are The Seven, a handpicked group managed by the Vought Corporation. Superheroes are of course big business!

And so we have a superman (Homelander) with a “I get to do whatever the f- I want” attitude. An invisible man (Translucent) who’s unsurprisingly a peeping tom, and a speedster (A-Train) who is far, far more interested in his celebrity endorsements and staying at the top of the pack than anything as mundane as regular people and their woes.

Ooh, it’s dark. And twisted and sweary and *drenched* in blood. And I loved it!

We start proceedings as we mean to go on, with a shocking and quite frankly rather disgusting death. This sets our ‘hero’, Hughie, into the path of Billy Butcher (Karl Urban, mangling a British/Kiwi mashup of an accent, but otherwise on form). Butcher has a grudge with the supes, which we will get the full details of as the series progresses.

I thoroughly enjoyed this show, which sets its world and characters up perfectly and then teases out the various mysteries over the course of 8 episodes. What’s Vought’s real agenda? Will these self-centred supes turn, or implode? Will Butcher get his revenge on an impervious man? Will Hughie ever recover from watching… yeah, no, I’ll leave that one as an early viewer surprise 😉

It didn’t quite hit the same levels of joy that I found in The Umbrella Academy, but it was still a lot of gory fun. Looking forward to the next season in a few months, and more to follow!

First broadcast: July 2019
Series: 1 broadcast so far, second due soon, and a third already announced
Episodes: 8 @ ~55 mins each

My rating: 8.5/10

Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders – Aliette de Bodard

of dragons cover

“‘Tet is a feast that’s a bit like Christmas.'”

For some reason I haven’t yet read the Dominion of the Fallen series, starting with The House of Shattered Wings, despite it having been on my TBR for some time. I mean, Fallen angels and a post-apocalyptic war in Paris between great Houses led by said angels? Sign me up!

Having read and enjoyed the earlier short story, Children of Thorns, Children of Water (also from NetGalley, thanks!), I jumped at the chance to read this latest short, despite being set after book three. It can be read as a standalone, although I imagine there would be huge amounts more to understand if you were keeping up with the series. For instance, where the Dragons came into it all…!

Ooh, but they were great! We’re not talking Game of Thrones-style beasts, but more the Chinese kind of dragons, who can shape-shift into human form. And, indeed, form relationships with Fallen angels…!

Of Dragons… takes place when Thuan takes his husband, Asmodeus, back home to the underwater kingdom of the Seine for the Lunar New Year. It isn’t long before a corpse kicks off an investigation into … well, I suppose I should leave the rest to the reader 😉

Despite having little context, I didn’t struggle to understand the story – although it does act as a teaser into what must be a much, much bigger story and world. I’m not sure if we’ve seen much of the Dragon kingdom(s?) prior to this, but it was such a gorgeously created world, even in under a hundred pages. It feels alien and magical, and steeped in rich history. The mystery of the story is wrapped up well, but the world-building is the real joy.

Now, excuse me while I bump book one much, much higher up the TBR mountain! 😉

NetGalley eARC: 80 pages
First published: 2020
Series: Dominion of the Fallen book 3.5
Read from 7th-10th July 2020

My rating: 8/10

Clone Wars (season 2)

clone wars s2 cover

Following straight on from the first season of this animation that bridges the gap between episodes II and III of the Star Wars saga, I found the second series to be a little more sure of itself. It’s also pretty dark for a ‘cartoon’, with scenes of torture and brain parasites taking over characters, just as for-instance. But, this is a war – clue’s in the name – and if nothing else it sets the whole thing up as a far more serious affair, and not just something for the kiddies.

I’ve never disliked Star Wars, but nor am I a rabid fan. It’s grown on me over the years, though – hence watching this, I suppose. Still, coming at it all from that kind of basis doesn’t make for the best viewing, as there’s just so much to miss. A revenge plot is based on a death I had to go look up – and, it’s in one of the first two movies. Oops, so much for paying attention! So if I’d ‘complain’ about anything it is that getting the most out of this series involves just that – paying attention. Not something I’m always known for with TV 😉

But, it does pay off. The depth of the overarching story is what, I start to gleam, gets some fans so enthralled with the whole thing – and for once it’s nice to take a peek behind that curtain. I’m impressed with how various things are pulled together – and annoyed that the main movies failed with so much of it.

We’re also seeing more of familiar faces like Anakin and Obi-Wan, making them into more rounded characters than the movies managed. Of course, the sense of danger is diminished knowing they go on to further films, but there are other, novel characters to fill that gap – and towards the end of the series, a bit of an origin story developing for a name even I recognised!

Another strength is probably how much is focused on the clones, the Stormtroopers. For the first time, this series finally gives them a sense of individuality and it’s all the better for it. Heck, there’s even a possible clue as to why they are such rubbish shots in later movies 😉

I’m very happy to push on with this. From Saturday morning telly-level fluff that the first series had hints of, this is heading for full-blown cinematic, deep delve story telling. I hope I can keep up! 🙂

First broadcast: 2009
Series: 2 (of 7)
Episodes: 23 @ ~22 mins each

My rating: 8/10

Chosen Ones – Veronica Roth

chosen ones cover

“The Drain looked the same every time, with all the people screaming as they ran away from the giant dark cloud of chaos but never running fast enough.”

Ten years ago, a group of teenagers saved the world from The Dark One, a shadowy figure wielding terrible magical powers. The discovery that magic was real had started to shake the world, but it still looks a lot like ours. More shaken were the lives of these five teens, drawn together by a shady government department willing to believe a prophecy. They might have succeeded in their task, but at what personal cost?

Our main character is Sloane, perhaps the most overly damaged by her experiences. She’s prickly and unfriendly and I can see why some might not warm to her as a lead. However, I liked her antisocial attitude, it felt refreshingly likely. The hints at darkness in her past are perhaps a little drawn out, but don’t disappoint in the reveal, and do make her subsequent actions make a lot more sense.

The first part of the book deals with everyday lives for these half-unwilling celebrities (one at least is a full-on ‘influencer’ on the back of her fame!), continuing to deal with the aftermath. It wasn’t the most action-packed section, but I’ve always been a fan of world building. However, part two – still heavy on the world-building – takes a swerve I didn’t see coming. This is not quite the story part one seems to be taking you down!

The action levels do pick up as the book progresses, and the larger divergences from ‘our’ reality are done very well – out there, but logical progressions from a point where magic seemed to be released into the world. The big denouement didn’t feel particularly well set up, it sort of arrived from next to nowhere with a detached flashback, but it didn’t ‘ruin’ the rest of the story, so fine.

Chapters are interspersed with memos and newspaper articles, and I know at least one person who hated these – I quite liked the ‘verity’. Well, apart from the opening one: it’s done in the style of a hugely sexist reporter, and had I picked this up for a browse in a shop I probably would have put it straight back down – I get that it was a character speaking, but the tone was just icky and beyond.

Overall, I think it’s a shame so many people are taking a dislike to this for not being Divergent. I enjoyed that series, but I far prefer the non-YA tone here (although there are bits where it leaks in ;)) and the darker story. It’s not perfect, but I hope Ms Roth continues to write for adults – in fact, I believe there are supposed to be sequels to this, which intrigues me. The story is pretty complete, but yes, I can see there is a new world to explore…

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 45 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: The Chosen Ones book 1
Read from 4th-15th June 2020

My rating: 8/10

Plan Your Novel Like a Pro – Beth and Ezra Barany

plan your novel cover

“It’s your dream to be a novelist, to touch readers’ hearts and minds, to excite and wow them, to transport them.”

As lock-down rumbles on, are you revisiting a long-held dream of writing a novel – but, not quite sure where or how to start? Perhaps this book will indeed ‘get you excited to plan your novel’. Broken down into topics and designed as a four-week course, it has the huge benefit of not demanding hours and hours of time you don’t really have. Easy to dip in and out of, a single exercise could take as little as 15 minutes. Personally, I find that far more manageable than needing to carve out a couple of hours each evening – and thus, I’m more likely to give it a go!

The book is organised into four sections, with topics including creating your elevator pitch and synopsis, characters, plot points, and storyboarding.

My favourite section was getting to know your characters. It’s not ‘new’ information, per se, but it’s very well presented and very usable. In fact, I used it to sketch out my first ever D&D character – a new lock-down hobby 😉 – and it worked brilliantly. It really helps that everything is kept light and easy, so you can spend five minutes doing a rough sketch, or half an hour fleshing out more details, whatever suits your needs at the time.

The writing style is very chatty – perhaps a little too much at times, as the co-authors ‘handover’ chapters as if it were a powerpoint presentation, which felt a little odd in print! But still, I liked the laid-back, friendly approach. The ethos seems to be: have fun! Writing should be enjoyable!

Overall, then, I was pretty impressed and would recommend this especially for beginners. It’s quite a short volume, but there are plenty of recommended further readings, and an online workbook to further the exercises.

NetGalley eARC: 128 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: none
Read from 9th April – 30th May 2020

My rating: 8/10