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.
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 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
I have never been to Shetland but this book took me there as if through a wardrobe and straight into “islandic” Narnia. Marsali Taylor captures the landscape, the people and the spirit of Shetland so wonderfully and with such attention to every idiosyncratic detail that I felt instantly transported there. The place came to life through the characters, the dialect and their unique way of life. It was my first book by Marsali Taylor, but it won’t be the last (I already have one of the earlier ones on my kindle). The protagonist, Cass seems to be your everyday, ordinary lass in her early thirties, not afraid of hard work, quite personable, a happy cat owner, well-rounded, dating Gavin who is a police detective. But on the other hand, she is also far from stereotypical: a second mate on a Norwegian ship, a passionate sailor who lives on her boat, and of course, an astute sleuth. This mystery, revolves around Tamar, a fantastically drawn character of an elderly lady who is as feisty, as sharp-minded and as independent as anyone half her age. After a fall, she is back to her croft which seems to have been burgled in her absence. Distant family members suddenly take interest in her and flock to her house, allegedly to offer support, but evidently to also search through her papers. There seems to be a family connection to a wealthy laird, and potentially a juicy inheritance. A body of a man is found. The plot develops and weaves in and out of plausible causes of his death and his links to Tamar. The conclusion was not quite what I expected, but it is nonetheless believable and interesting.
I felt compelled to revisit Vonnegut’s iconic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, for two reasons. Firstly, because from time to time (and our times are no exception) we all have to remind ourselves of the macabre of wars.
Vonnegut shows us the true colours of war. He dismantles all the naively romantic notions anyone may have about war, the unrealistic heroism and the false premise of winners and losers. I didn’t enjoy reading Slaughterhouse Five, but then it wasn’t written for anyone’s entertainment. It is stark, cruel and unforgiving. It is a warning. People die – good people, bad people, losers as well as conquerors, soldiers and civilians, youngsters and the elderly, dogs, horses, allies and enemies. No one is exempt. No one is immune. No one is above it. And so it goes. Vonnegut shows it in raw, ugly detail, and that detail is no fiction.
War and death equalise everyone. No nation is idealised and no nation is condemned in its collective totality. Faults and failings befall all. It is a brave concept not to idealise the winners. In fact, Vonnegut shows quite effectively that war destroys everyone and everything. Every construct of what’s right and wrong, good and bad, justifiable and inexcusable is absolutely false. The “victorious” Americans are bombed on par with German civilians in an “open” city of Dresden. The bombs don’t discriminate between “them” and “us”. It is all “us”. And this is the irony of it – wars are started because of divisions, but as they rage everyone pays the same price, feels the same pain and has only one life to lose.
My second reason was to explore the time-travel idea in the book. It is harrowing for Billy Pilgrim to go over and over again through his terrifying war experience. Time doesn’t work chronologically in this tale. The war never really ends. It remains present throughout Billy’s entire life. Events from his birth, childhood, wartime and his post-war civilian life are mingled together. The trauma he has lived through can never be consigned to the past. There is no past. There is no future. Time is not linear. Everything is happening simultaneously, all the time, and Billy jumps in and out of events while they carry on unfolding on an endless loop. Billy’s sojourn into the alien world of Tralfamadore is his brain’s way of coping with the scars left by the war on his psyche. Those who lived through war will never put it behind them. That message really hits home when you think of all those child refugees physically leaving war-affected areas but having to spend the rest of their lives trapped back there forever.
It is such a powerful idea. War is timeless. Once you have unleashed it, it will not end. Slaughterhouse Five should be a compulsory read for young people to digest before they enter adulthood in order to dispel their childhood “jolly-war” myths and shield them against glorification of war.
Tired of all the doom and gloom around me, I decided to reach for something that would cheer me and draw me into a different world. I have certainly found it in An Officer’s Vow. It is a classic Regency romance with a pinch of adventure and good dose of genteel humour. In this book you will find everything you would expect from Regency romance: an endearing and feisty damsel in distress, a handsome but somewhat insecure around the opposite sex veteran of Napoleonic wars, greedy and unscrupulous fortune hunters, cold-blooded spies and an array of unforgettable characters. You will hurtle from one misadventure into another at a gallop, with little time to catch your breath. Hampson is clearly on a first-name basis with the era. She conveys the setting details and the linguistic style of that century with ease. You feel like the book was written two hundred years ago by the likes of Jane Austin. All in all, I relished every minute of this delectable story.