Dracul – Dacre Stoker

dracul cover

“I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight.”

“The prequel and continuation of the classic work “Dracula” by Bram Stoker written by his descendant Dacre Stoker”.

What if the classic Dracula (1897) was based on the real life of the author? Indeed, Bram Stoker was a sickly child before making a rather miraculous recovery – an infusion of vampiric blood? And so this book affects to be written by his descendant, who has ‘discovered’ notebooks and such telling the ‘real’ story.

I must confess, I’m no wiser as to whether Dacre Stoker is real or a vaguely elaborate creation, nor do I think it matters – the conceit of the ‘reality’ of it all impresses me not one jot. If the story is good, then that’s all that matters.

And indeed, it starts out well enough. There’s a subtlety to the first part, dealing with the life of young Bram and his siblings, as they first encounter what may or may not be a vampire. However, as the author reaches adulthood, the tale felt like a ‘retelling’ of the classic, using historical figures to stand in for the known cast: Mina, Lucy, Van Helsing, et al.

To be honest, I found it a bit dull, perhaps supposed to have an extra chill from being ‘real’ (I can’t help but scoff, I’m sorry!). I felt we hit quite a few cliches, particularly the ‘friendly vampire’. It also seems to lift heavily from the visuals and perhaps even the motifs of Frances Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

So, overall something here just didn’t work for me, at least after that first section. The story feels derivative and unsatisfying, adding nothing new to the sub-genre. Worse, I think it actually cheapens the original book by suggesting it’s a journal and not a well-written piece of excellent imagination.

Ack. It’s not an awful read by any stretch, but it just didn’t click for me at all.

NetGalley eARC: 512 pages
First published: 2019
Series: Stoker’s Dracula book 1
Read from 12th-31st August 2019

My rating: 5/10

The Allingham Minibus – Margery Allingham

allingham minibus cover

“Dornford killed Fellowes somewhere in Australia.”

I’ve written before about being a fan of Campion and the period-gentle kind of mystery. Here we have a collection of short stories, some with the famous detective, others a little more random. All in all, a rather good mix!

We open with a foreword from Agatha Christie – what better stamp of approval can another mystery writer of the time get, really?

The first story surprised me, as I didn’t know the author dabbled in horror. This is a perfect mystery-come-terror story, which I can wholly imagine being told around a campfire. And, despite the age (so much is reused, and loses something from the familiarity) still gave me a fun little chill. The rest of the stories mix this kind of ‘ghost story’ with mysteries, and a large dose of whimsy.

The strength of the writing is clear. There’s a lovely mix of cosy period elements, throwbacks to more genteel times, but with mysteries that genuinely kept me wondering where it was going next, whether they involved ageing, publicity-hunger actors, or church men who aren’t very godly, haunted parrot cages (!), or a more domestic tale of a couple’s last evening before an agreed divorce.

The Campion stories are scattered between, few of them and one I’d read before (in Campion at Christmas), but always a pleasure to imagine the character as portrayed in the TV series I loved.

Overall: an old-fashioned but nicely so collection of mysteries and light chills, perfect for the season – and beyond!

NetGalley eARC: 269 pages / 18 short stories
First published: 1973 and most recently rereleased October 2019
Series: Campion and other non-series stories
Read from 7th-27th October 2019

My rating: 7.5/10

The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E Harrow

ten thousand doors of january cover

“When I was seven, I found a door.”

January Scaller lives as the ward of Mr Locke, a wealthy collector of fantastic items from other cultures, while her father roams the world in search of these objects. She’s not unhappy, exactly, but on the other hand her life is as restricted as one of the items in Locke’s collection: she is a singular oddity, reddish skinned, out of place wherever she goes.

One day, January finds a book entitled The Ten Thousand Doors. Instantly appealing to her huge imagination, it’s not long before she starts to wonder… what if this isn’t fiction?

Usually when a book comes with as much hype as this, I’d tend to shy away thinking it could only disappoint. But, the lure of the portal fantasy is strong, and I am so glad I went for this!

First, the few things I didn’t like: given the period setting (turn of the previous century), the treatment of women and those of colour is not good. I know it’s a big part of the plot, but I was actually tempted to abandon everything at the point where January’s autonomy is so utterly removed from her – apparently a bit of a trigger for me. But, stick with it.

And now the good: absolutely everything else! First the language: it’s got a poetry, but without being flowerly. I wanted to capture so many little quotes, just perfect turns of phrases and lovely descriptions. The period is captured very well, alongside all the more fantastical elements. The world building is excellent – who wouldn’t want to live in a world with Doors, all those possibilities and wonders and magic? And the story itself is enthralling: believably nasty baddies, a fierce heroine, strong supporting characters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a rare beast: a book for adults that’s full of the wonder usually reserved for children, which catches you up in a whirl of story and possibility. All in all, a sheer joy to read – and very recommended!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 14 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 7th-26th September 2019

My rating: 9/10

The Lure of the Ring – Alan James Strachan

lure of the ring cover

“Tom Bombadil is the prevailing mystery in Tolkien’s work.”

This is an odd little book. It’s basically a treatise on spirituality, using The Lord of the Rings as an example. Not entirely what I thought I was getting, and probably not going to find a wide audience – Tolkien fans will be disappointed that it’s not really about LotR, and if you’re looking for the spiritual stuff the fantasy-source might seem flippant.

Still, I started off rather enjoying it – someone talking about LotR can’t be all bad, after all! But, after a while, the tone really started to grate on me. I would have preferred an approach of “I think”, “my translation is”, “to me, this suggests…” rather than the quasi-academic sense of certainty. Writers rarely ‘mean’ what future studies try to pin on their stories; indeed, at the end of this the author even admits that Tolkien’s letters reveal the multi-layers of allegory and meaning didn’t appear until years later.

The lecturing tone can be a little patronising, I found – or, perhaps that’s the increasing density of the subject. From easy-to-grasp concepts – what Galadriel’s refusal of the Ring says about her character, for example – by the end he’s quoting quasi-religious texts, talking about the Self that is no-Self, and at times my head was just spinning!

If this is your cup of tea, by all means give it a go. Personally, I don’t think I was fully expecting the build up to full-on ‘nondual spirituality’ and self-actualisation, and while it might have been interesting getting there I didn’t wholly appreciate the feeling of being preached at, even if the author does back away from that by the end again.

The message, though, is nice enough, and it is interesting seeing ‘just a fantasy story for kids’ (hah!) providing such rich source material.

NetGalley eARC: 87 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 23rd-28th September 2019

My rating: 5/10

Last Pen Standing – Vivian Conroy

last pen standing cover

“Even though the sign of her destination was already in sight, calling out a warm welcome to Tundish, Montana, “the town with a heart of gold,” Delta Douglas couldn’t resist the temptation to stop her car, reach for the sketchbook in the passenger seat, and draw the orange and gold trees covering a mountain flank all the way to where the snow-peaked top began.”

My foray into the cosy mystery genre has so far centred around books set in bookshops or libraries. This new series is set in the world of craft supplies and notebooks, another topic that appeals to me greatly.

Delta Douglas has been lucky enough to come into enough money to leave her stressful graphic design job in the city and pursue her dream: to own a stationery shop. But her move to a picturesque tourist town quickly goes from glitter to murder. Worse, her best friend and business partner is implicated in the case. Can Delta enlist the help of the ‘Paper Posse’ crafting group, find the real murderer, and save her friend – or will poking her nose into the crime put her in more danger?

This book ticks all the boxes for a cosy mystery: dream job, move to a small town, helpful locals, possible love-interest, hobbies, cake, and dogs. It’s also well written, with plenty of mystery to keep me guessing. The big reveal doesn’t quite pack a (craft) punch, but that’s as expected from the genre, I think.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the writing voice, the story and descriptions, and will definitely be looking out for the sequel. I’m also feeling quite inspired on the crafty front – bonus! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 18 chapters
First published: September 2019
Series: Stationery Shop Mystery book 1
Read from 21st-10th September 2019

My rating: 7/10

Elements of Fiction – Walter Mosley

elements of fiction cover

“This monograph is concerned with the hope of writing a novel that transcends story in such a way as to allow the writer to plumb the depths of meaning while, at the same time, telling a good yarn.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a ‘monograph’, but this is a rather lovely, personal meander through the ‘feeling’ of writing a book. It’s not a how-to, it’s not got a set of directives, but it gets into some of the deeper, wider arching thoughts behind writing a book. It’s like a conversation with a subject matter expert, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Walter Mosley previously published This Year You Write Your Novel, so I suppose this is a companion piece. Not having reader the former, I can’t comment. But having read plenty of writing advice (if not taken so much of it ;)) I very much liked the approach here. You are a writer, you are writing, but this is the sort of thing that is/should be/might be going on at a deeper level.

Sections have titles such as ‘Revelation’, ‘The Novel is Bigger than Your Head’, as well as the more obvious Structure, Character, Narrative Voice, etc.

What I particularly liked was the way the author almost starts telling stories, little ‘what if’ beginnings of ideas, that he then picks apart or spins around, or in one case backs off and says ‘or I’d go this completely other way’ – but, he’s learned something about his story and his characters along the way.

“The purpose of this book has been to show by example and intention how deeply you can go into your mind, excavating a world worth the struggle, the man thousands of hours, and just the right words.”

Lovely, thought-provoking little book. Recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages
First published: 2019
Series: could be seen as a follow up to This Year You Write Your Novel
Read from 2rd-11th September 2019

My rating: 8/10

Lost and Found – Orson Scott Card

lost and found cover

“Ezekiel Blast liked to walk to school alone.”

Ezekiel Bliss has an unusual ‘gift’: he is aware of lost objects around him, and has an urge to return them to their owners. Sounds useful, right? But who wants a stranger approaching them with a muddy scrunchie? And if someone approaches you with a valuable, lost item, how else could they have known it was yours unless they’d been the one to take it, right?

Shunned and mistrustful, Ezekiel plods through life as best he can, until the day a girl decides she’s going to walk to school with him. Soon they pair are caught up in a kidnapping case, and part of a research group looking into ‘micropowers’ – things like Ezekiel’s finding ability.

I’ll start by saying this: Lost and Found has nothing in common with OSC’s most famous work, Ender’s Game. The sci-fi element is as low-key as the micropowers being used and investigated, with the plot being centred more around the group – Ezekiel, Beth, FBI Agent Shank, and Mr Bliss – being pulled into the search for a missing child. However, the story is probably more about relationships and loss, and navigating life when you’re a bit too different.

I didn’t really know what to expect, and overall I wasn’t entirely blown away by the mystery or world-building – micropowers are interesting, but they aren’t really explained or deeply explored beyond being the central plot device. But I was sucked into the story almost from the get-go, mainly by the dialogue-driven character interactions. I liked that the grown ups are pulled into the quest, it’s not just the kids. And those kids are smart and self-deprecating, very not-annoying!

Overall, a decent read – nothing earth-shattering, but held my interest despite feeling vaguely familiar, either plot-wise or maybe just in tone – I couldn’t put my finger on it. But while I’m not branding it a ‘must-read’, it won’t disappoint if you do find yourself picking it up.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 21 chapters
First published: 10th September 2019
Series: none
Read from 27th-31st August 2019

My rating: 7/10