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The Mystery of the Wailing Woods by Diane Klein and Tim Knight (8-10 yrs)

The Mystery of the Wailing Woods: An Allegheny National Forest Adventure by [Diane Klein, Tim Knight, Korie Klein]

“The Mystery of the Wailing Woods” is a story of two friends, Griffin and Caleigh, stumbling across a weeping mystical creature in the deep wood. At first there is a discord between them as to how to deal with their discovery – whether to keep it secret or reveal it to the world. The children are enthralled and fascinated, but there are flashes of warning of what’s to come thrown into Griffin’s dreams. Talking to his Grandad and researching mythical creatures, Griffin establishes that the creature may be a Squonk. Caleigh is eager to make friends with him. She embarks on a perilous journey into the woods. I won’t reveal any more other than the ending is enchanting and heart-warming.
I loved the sense of place. The woods are vividly drawn. The sense of mystery and magic is woven into them. The prose is lyrical and atmospheric. The descriptions are dreamy and full of suspense. The writers’ love for nature shines through.
The relationship between Griffin and Caleigh is beautifully presented. Their friendship is tested and their values seem to collide at some point, and that makes them both credible as characters.
A wonderful tale of adventure and communion with the wonders of nature. Recommended for children aged 8-10.

The Black Coast by Mike Brooks

The Black Coast: The God-King Chronicles, Book 1 by [Mike Brooks]

“The Black Coast” is a classic specimen of heroic fantasy in the best tradition of David Gemmell’s “Legend”.

I devoured Gemmell’s books in my twenties. I think I read them all. “The Black Coast” brought back the spirit and the flavour of those old fantasy masterpieces.

In this story Mike Brooks introduces us to several richly-drawn characters. My favourites are Saana (the chief of the Brown Eagle clan – Viking-like sea raiders of Tjarokorsha) and Daimon (the adopted son of the thane of Black Keep, a southern province of the kingdom of Narida). The worlds of these two leaders collide – and converge – when Saana leads her people to the shores of Narida as they flee from the bloodthirsty agents of The Golden (a demonic draug). I really appreciated the author’s novel take on gender identity in this book and loved the way Saana referred to herself as “this man” based on her interpretation of Naridan hierarchy. Saana is pure power and compassion – an ideal leader. Daimon has to make heart-wrenching choices between his kin and the survival of his people on the whole. His dilemmas are agonising, and utterly believable. There are huge depths to Daimon’s character.

The worlds/societies/cultures that clash in this book are perfectly realised: the Black Keep setting with its sars-warriors with their strict code of honour on the one hand and its relaxed and tolerant society on the other; the degenerate court of the God-King Natan and his sister’s Talia wicked manoeuvres to destroy her enemies; the hordes of raiders led by Rikkut and so on.

Apart from this being a grand and engrossing epic, it also has a wonderful message of diverse people coming together for their greater collective good.   

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

How much magic, peril and adventure, how many wizards, heroes, dragons and trolls, how much wit and laughter is it possible to squeeze onto a disc carried by just four elephants standing on a single, albeit giant, turtle? The sky is the limit, but only if your name is Terry Pratchett.

The Colour of Magic will take you out of the grim reality of the year of the pandemic and into multiple fantasy worlds where everything is completely other-worldly and belly-laughingly hilarious.

Twoflower, a tourist who arrives in the city of Ankh-Morpork (on its rougher side) acquires special protection from a (failed) wizard Rincewind, primarily because of his Luggage which is filled with riches the criminal fraternity of the city has never seen before. Like a caterpillar, The Luggage travels of its own accord, using its many busy feet, and that’s not even the most puzzling thing about it . Rincewind and Twoflower meet villains, dragons, trolls and all matter of characters who either assist or obstruct them on their travels. And then they come to the edge of the disc. I can’t say anymore but the story doesn’t end there – not quite, not once, and not in the conventional sense of the word.

I reached for The Colour of Magic to shake off the blues of last year. I remembered reading I Shall Wear Midnight many years ago with my daughter, and I wanted to recapture that old magic. I definitely achieved that.

Going Green by Nick Spalding

Going Green by [Nick Spalding]

I have read a couple of books by Nick Spalding, notably my favourite “Bricking It”, and have come to expect lots of anecdotal humour, wild slapstick comedy and tongue-in-cheek observations of the crazy modern world we live in. Spalding always delivers, and “Going Green” is no exception.
At the heart of the story is Ellie Cooke who jumps out of her skin to save her job, inadvertently ending up in the ‘saving the planet’ camp. Her antics at trying to impress her new eco-friendly (and quite dishy) boss Nolan Reece are at times hilarious. The scenes at the protest march in front of the shopping centre had me in stitches. Ellie may be desperate but she is also out of her depth and all her efforts come across as utter non-starters (at least in the eyes of her colleagues). Yet, she gets her point across to her boss and it looks like she has saved her job. But that’s not quite the end of the story. Expect quite a twist at the end!
“Going Green” has a topical storyline, a hapless but in her special way principled heroine and a motley crew of minor characters.
The story is told from Ellie’s point of view and is narrated by her. Spalding makes her believable by reducing her language to colloquial with some curses thrown in to spice things up. Perhaps a touch too many for me, but hey, that’s how most of us would speak if our job was on the line.

Murder Served Cold by Paula Williams

Murder Served Cold (The Much Winchmoor Mysteries Book 1) by [Paula Williams]

Much Winchmoor is a colourful West Country village populated by an assortment of lively characters. They tend to gather for a spot of gossip and some general busy-bodying at such distinguished local landmarks as the hairdressers and Winchmoor Arms public house. Much Winchmoor is full of life and good-natured hustle and bustle, until of course Marjorie is killed. Promptly followed by Doreen.
Kat Latcham is to become a self-appointed village sleuth, as assisted by Will. Just as she thought she’d escaped from the clutches of parochial country living, Kat is dumped (and robbed) by her unworthy boyfriend in London. That misfortune forces her to return to the village, penniless and dismayed. She tries her hand at various menial jobs, but she is really destined for greater challenges such as inadvertently becoming an amateur private investigator. It is Kat who narrates the story and I really enjoyed hearing about her exploits first-hand from her. She is well-fleshed out and likeable young lady.
Williams throws into the mix a few red herrings and there is yet another twist right at the end. I won’t go into any spoilers so will stop here.
I am delighted to have discovered the Much Winchmoor Mysteries. I looking forward to reading the next one.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library series Book 1) by [Genevieve Cogman]

The Invisible Library is a mystery of a missing book, an extraordinary edition of The Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. The book, which is a unique collector’s item, has been stolen and its owner murdered. Irene (a librarian-cum-spy) and her assistant, Kai, travel to Victorian London to search for the book.
Until this point, a potential reader would be justified in thinking this was yet another historical mystery. But Victorian London is only one of many versions of itself. Cogman’s world consists of many such alternatives. Each universe features an array of beings other than humans: vampires, fairies, shape-shifting dragons, to name just a few. Zeppelins fly overhead. Robotic caterpillars, remotely operated alligators, silverfish and all manner of bizarre creatures get in the way of the investigation. However, finding the book is a matter of life and death, and the librarian’s nemesis, Alberich will not hesitate to resort to trickery, murder and corruption to get his hands on the book. Ancient Language and magic are used, alongside more conventional methods, by all sides to defeat the competition. Alliances are formed slowly and mistrust has to be overcome in action.
I enjoyed the quest aspect of The Invisible Library and found the concepts of the many alternatives of real places and times very intriguing. The idea of magic being a by-product of destructive chaos is original and curious.
I would have liked Cogman to have perhaps fewer magical creatures, but to develop each of them in greater detail and give them more distinguishable features. As it is the vampires are not that different from the fairies, or indeed the dragons.
Overall, a pleasant fantasy read.

Bitter Sky by Tim Stretton

There is something distinctive and distinguished about Tim Stretton’s books. It isn’t just the elegant and precise prose that instantly takes you out of your present location and throws you into something rich, luxurious and intriguing. It is also the setting in time. You open the book and instantly find yourself in an alternative universe and living through alternative history – alternative but very real and believable.

“Bitter Sky” is a steampunk fantasy, but again the setting feels as if it is a snapshot from history – it feels authentic though you can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment in time where it comes from. Despite that, you have this distinct impression that you read about it or studied that period in school. You find yourself somewhere in Germany, perhaps at the turn of the twentieth century. There are hydrogen-powered airships and steam trains/carriages. They would have been experimental in those days, but in “Bitter Sky” they are fully-functional, tried and tested weapons. There is the strife of a small territory to secede from the powerful and dominant empire, to reject tradition and monarchy, and establish its own identity. The small territory, Lauchenland led by its revolutionary elite called Volksbund, has ambitions beyond mere independence: it declares war on the Beruz Empire. The Empire strikes back. I was fascinated with how the author built that world from fragments of history. I delighted in detecting nuanced references to the unification of German states under imperialistic Prussia’s rule, or the degradation of  the lofty principles of freedom and equality of people in the reign of terror and bureaucracy that followed the French and Russian revolutions. “Bitter Sky” is full of historical analogies cleverly dressed as fantasy and presented in a vibrant, action-packed fashion.

“Bitter Sky” is a pacey and dramatic war romp, complete with air battles, morally questionable bombings, tragic casualties and grand victories. But there is more to it. There is the human factor. The von Eck siblings, Erich and Saskia are torn between their aristocratic loyalties to the Empire and their citizen duty to fight for their country, Lauchenland. Erich joins the fusiliers on the side of the Empire and Saskia becomes an airship navigator with Lauchenland Air Corp. Again, historical references spring to mind where nations divided by borders found their people fighting – and killing – each other on the opposite sides in the Great War and WWII. Stretton captures that torturous dilemma between duty and loyalty, between following and questioning orders and between glorifying and dehumanising war. He doesn’t idealise or side with anyone. The Empire has its faults as does the belligerent republic of Lauchenland. There is a thin line between good and evil, victory and defeat.

The conclusion of this book was ingenious – tense and ultimately, very satisfying. It tied together all the loose ends, linked to the opening chapters and neatly encased the story. Tragedy and fatalism, black magic and characters caught up in events beyond their control bring to mind the dark fairy tales of yesteryear. If Hans Christian Andersen was to write a tale for adults, he could well have written “Bitter Sky”.

The Sadeiest by Austrian Spencer

This book is not for the faint-hearted. It will hit you like a train. You will have to comand huge strength and willpower to pick yourself up from the tracks and keep reading. And keep reading you must for this is a tour de force of a book. It is unique. It has a powerful message. It will stay with you.

The Sadeiest is about death and redemption but not in the tired conventional sense. It is a totally new take on the philosophy of dying, of sin and redemption. Williams, guided by his child-mentor Henreich, is the title character, the Sadeiest. His is the macabre task of entering corpses to “relive” their deaths in order to release the souls trapped within them. “Relive deaths” does not even begin to describe his job. Spencer showcases those multiple deaths in all their gory details. The deaths are so vividly presented that you will find yourself gasping for air and tasting bile in your mouth. You will wonder why anyone would ever agree to take on this grotesquely grim role, but this isn’t about choices or free will. It is about penance and redemption.

A lapse catholic, I consider myself well conversant with the concepts of sin, penitence, sacrifice and dying for others to save their souls, but Spencer turns these ideas upside down and inside out, and constructs a whole new philosophy of natural justice beyond grave. I was appalled, mortified and fascinated by this approach, all in equal measure.

As I said, Spencer takes no prisoners. This book is graphically horrifying and you have to have nerves of steel to get through it without feeling sick to the pit of your stomach. But this book isn’t about gratuitous thrills. There are metaphysical depths to it you could only find in some of Stephen King’s works. Reading this book is like looking at a surrealist painting, full of grotesque distortions, bizarre images, fragments of limbs and torn trees, floating objects and screaming faces. Gradually, you will begin to put the pieces together and it will make perfect – though petrifying – sense.   

Contacts by Mark Watson

Contacts: From the award-winning comedian, the most heartwarming, touching and funny fiction book of 2020 by [Mark Watson]

The premise of this story is intriguing: a young man sends a text message to all his contacts, informing them that he is about to commit suicide. And then he puts his phone on fight mode thus blocking people from replying. This isn’t a typical cry for help, and he certainly isn’t craving attention. He is not interested in the world’s reaction to his news. He is factual. He boards a sleeper train to his truly “final” destination.
This book isn’t just about about the main character’s emotional state and his motives; it is also about all those contacts who receive his message and have to do something about it. The title of this book is very deliberate indeed. James’s phone contacts are the collective title character of this book. The moment the message is received and at least partially digested, a flurry of activity follows. A flatmate begins to mount a coordinated rapid response. The sister in the far away Australia starts organising a rescue operation. An ex-best friend changes course and heads for Edinburgh. An ex-girlfriend stops to think and atone. All of the people who once may have hurt James, used or abused his feelings, are united in the effort of saving him.
Contacts is a beautifully written moralistic tale about empathy, second chances, redemption and the value of people simply being there for each other. It isn’t a book about suicide. Quite the opposite.
I quite liked it that Watson brought the topic up to date, straight into the twenty-first century to show that human interaction may have become seriously digitised but that doesn’t mean that technology dehumanised us and left us lonely and hopeless.
I enjoyed Watson’s clear prose. It isn’t emotive. It doesn’t take centre stage and it doesn’t take away from the story and the characters. It treats about emotions by it doesn’t allow itself to get carried away. I also enjoyed the wry humour. A poignant tale about a man and his network of support full of holes but also very many best intentions.

The Chalet by Catherine Cooper

The Chalet: the most exciting new debut crime thriller of 2020 - with a twist you won’t see coming by [Catherine Cooper]

In January 1998 two skiers separate from their guides and go missing during a blizzard in the French Alps. Only one of them is found. Twenty-two years later, at the same ski resort, Hugo and Ria entertain a potential investor in Hugo’s struggling business and his young wife. They are staying at a luxurious chalet, waited on by a chalet girl, Millie. The scene for a perilous slalom through this thrilling mystery is set. It will ultimately lead to the finish line where the events of the past merge with the present and culminate in chilling disclosures.

Cooper’s narrative is gripping and her characterisation flawless. The story is told in the first person from the point of view of individual characters. The reader gains first-hand insights into their memories and feelings, which may be fragmented at times and biased, but that’s what makes them credible. Although there are many characters taking over the narration in turns, Cooper doesn’t lose her overall control over the plot which powers forward unhindered by too much baggage. New POVs are introduced into the story gradually and are layered in such a way that each person remains constant but the story acquires different new dimensions.

The Chalet is a tightly plotted and expertly delivered psychological thriller with a punchy conclusion.