An Officer’s Vow by Penny Hampson

An Officer's Vow (Gentlemen Book 2) by [Penny Hampson]

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.

Tipping Point by Michelle Cook

Eighteen-year-old Essie Glass lives in not so distant future, only fifteen years from now, but it is a world transformed by ecological, political and societal breakdown. A couple of years ago her family were killed in a terrorist attack. Essie’s fresh-faced image and her grief were hijacked by right-wing propagandists blaming immigrants and liberals for the atrocity. Two years later, Essie regains control over her beliefs and her direction in life. She joins anti-establishment rebels going by the name Change Here. An environmentally-friendly energy-generating invention falls into their lap. It is an invention that could stall or even reverse the progress of climate change, but forces more powerful and influential than Change Here stand in the way of saving the planet. Short term commercial and political considerations seem to matter more that the survival of humanity. But Essie and her co-conspirators are not easily deterred. Cook has created an assembly of wonderful characters. I loved the way she mapped out Essie’s emotional growth in response to rapid plot developments. I enjoyed Essie’s feistiness and determination, and I rooted for her all the way.

The setting for the story is convincing and disturbingly plausible. Climate change creeps into everyday life and into the landscape. The rise of the authoritarian police state with its corruption, false propaganda and open disregard for basic human rights is shown without exaggeration or hysteria – it is what it is because we have made it possible. But there is also hope and redemption in this story. It is more of a warning than final reckoning.

Tipping Point (Project Renova Book 1) by Terry Tyler

Tipping Point (Project Renova Book 1) by [Terry Tyler]

I had to double-check the date this book was first published. It was in 2017. Already then, the author had the insight of what it may be like when a pandemic strikes: the origins of the virus, the so-called “Bat Fever”, the vaccinations, the quarantine, the panic, the unrest, the control measures, the lies, the whole world falling apart. Tyler’s projections in “Tipping Point” are spot-on! And they will send a cold chill down your spine.

I was swept in the currents of the unfolding catastrophe, following Vicky and Lottie’s escape from the quarantined town of Shipden, their precarious journey to the safe house and Vicky’s desperate search for her partner, Dex. He and other activists belonging to a group called Unicorn have uncovered a sinister plot underpinning the outbreak, thus putting themselves directly in harm’s way.

There are many interlinked threads and subplots in this story with both very personal and intimate themes as well as broader social and political observations. Those are deeply unsettling, firstly because of how probable and imminent they appear to be; and secondly, because of Tyler’s nuanced and realistic characterisation. Every character is astutely observed and so real that I found instant affinity with them. I could easily picture myself in their shoes, experience their fears and think their thoughts.

“Tipping Point” is a crushingly prophetic tale of societal degradation on the one hand and the power of human spirit on the other.

Plague by Julie Anderson

Plague by [Julie Anderson]

Cassandra Fortune (Cassie) is a civil servant moving in the high echelons of political elites. She carries about the burden of her previous, badly imploded, career and tries to rebuild it in her new role at the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. It is at this point that she uncovers a body of a young Polish man among the remains in one of London’s old “Plague pits”. Another body, this time of a young Spanish man, is found together with Cassie’s pass to the Palace of Westminster. Links begin to form between the deaths, Cassie, the Whitehall and commercial lobbies.

Cassie embarks on an investigation alongside Detective Inspector Andrew Rowland.

Plague is a tight, fast-moving and absorbing crime drama. The theme of the resurging plague is particularly relevant in today’s reality as is the exploration of political power and influence, corruption and dodgy dealings. Cassie’s romantic interest in Andrew Rowland (which doesn’t quite take off) adds that extra human touch to the story, which is both believable and nuanced. The plot picks up pace as it moves towards the dénouement and becomes quite impossible to put down.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

This book is about the First Contact, but not as we know it. I was fascinated by how this concept evolved in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. It starts with Kira, a xenobiologist exploring an uncolonized planet, discovering mysterious dust which soon envelops her in a form of an invasive exoskeleton. It is undeniably intelligent but it is also a parasite that uses Kira’s body to come into being and to transport itself. It is able to defend itself against any attempts to examine or destroy it. It can be lethal. In an apparent act of self-defence it kills Kira’s fiancé and her several friends. To start with, this organism appears violent and hostile, and Kira is trapped within it. It can even penetrate her mind and she, in turn, experiences its memories and emotions. Soon the relationship between them begins to transform into something more symbiotic. It isn’t just that Kira has to get used to the creature controlling her. It is also that the creature protects and guides her. This theme of a transforming and transformative relationship between a human and an alien is wonderfully conveyed through characterisation and plot developments.

Another great asset in this book is the prose: it can be fast and action-packed, pacey and dramatic, but it is also lyrical and introspective. A whole universe has been created outside and inside Kira’s fusion with Soft Blade (the alien’s name). This story is a space odyssey both on a macro- and micro scale. The science behind it seems wonderfully real and even though I didn’t follow all of it, it felt credible.

However, there are some disappointments. The story is way too long and too windy. Half of it would be equally effective. I must confess to skipping many sections in the middle as I found them tedious and superfluous. Although the book is classified as sci-fi for adults, I could not shake the impression that it was written with a young reader in mind. The description of Kira’s romantic relationship at the start of the book was too safe, too sugar-coated and too infantile for my liking. The Jellies (hostile aliens) were also a bit cartoonish and stereotypical in their appearance and disposition. Having said that, this is a sci-fi book and it fits well within its genre.

You will need a lot of time to truly be able to indulge in this book and immerse yourself in it, but it will be time well spent.

A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

A Divided Inheritance : Epic historical fiction by [Deborah Swift]

This is a powerful and emotionally captivating story which crossed the boundaries of genre: historical, adventure, romance, tragedy. It is literature with a heart.

I reached for it on recommendation and my expectations were high. The book surpassed them. I found it intriguing to start with and as I went deeper into it I could not put it down.

The story is set in Spain’s Golden Age under Philip the Pious when the country was firmly in the grip of Holy Inquisition and religious intolerance aimed at its Arab population. Moors, once the conquerors, are now persecuted, divested of their rights and property and deported to Northern Africa. In parallel to that, Protestantism has superseded Catholicism in England, and Catholics are forced underground to practise their faith. The persecutors in one country are the persecuted in another, and that irony is not lost on the author. She shows the plight of Moriscos (Arab converts to Christianity) with great empathy. Their rounding up for transportation on ships to Morocco and their futile resistance resonate and bring to mind other similar tragedies in more recent history. The setting of the story in time and place is masterfully delivered.

As are the characters and their personal stories. Swift demolishes stereotypes as her characters develop and leave the comfort zone of what’s familiar and are thrown into the mill of history, misadventure and hardship. I loved the way Elspet transformed from a little English lady into a true heroine. Zachary too underwent his character-building transformation. Two people from two socially irreconcilable backgrounds were ultimately reduced – or rather elevated – to their common denominator, that of just being human.

A wonderful tale.

The Cry of the Lake by Charlie Tyler

The Cry of the Lake by [Charlie Tyler]

This is one of those edge-of-your-seat psychological thrillers. Once you start reading, you find yourself instantly immersed in a tale of intense – almost insane – vengeance, distorted truths and deeply buried, traumatic past. You have to keep going deeper and deeper, until you’re totally absorbed by the story.

The narrative is powered by three different perspectives: Grace, Lilly and Flo. Grace and Lilly are sisters, but for reason which are revealed later in the story they pass themselves off as mother and daughter. It is primarily Grace who adopts this new, alien to her psyche personality to ensnare Tom, a man the two sisters seem to have an unfinished business with. He is the father of Flo, the third narrator.

At the outset, you cannot comprehend why anyone would want to destroy such a nice, kind man as Tom. You instinctively loathe the sinister, duplicitous – and murderous – impostors who have snaked their way into his and Flo’s perfect family life. Lilly is the weaker of the two, more likely to crumble under pressure. Grace seems unstoppable in her mission of hatred. Slowly, people from their past enter the scene and revelations are made to shed some light on her motives. At times, it makes for a disturbing reading: abuse, self-harm feature among other difficult themes. A great read.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Firstly, you will come to adore the octogenarian Club members. They are something else! And they thrive on murder. Elizabeth, a female version of James Bond, in retirement. Ron, a geriatric activist and tireless instigator; quite an orator, when pushed. Joyce, quiet as a mouse, a once-upon-a-time nurse. Ibrahim, a psychotherapist with a sharp eye for detail (so sharp that it borders on compulsive-obsessive). This quartet of amateur detectives gathers once a week to solve cold cases. Until, one day, a brand-new murder lands in their collective lap; and another one a few days later. Not to mention the discovery of human bones in an old convent graveyard, which would be perfectly normal had said bones been found inside a coffin. And so the scene is set for a thorough and methodical investigation, which the actual police detectives, Donna and Chris Hudson, can hardly keep up with.

Osman builds the case skillfully, adding layer upon layer of wider social and personal background. The network of current and past events is smoothly woven together. As the unraveling of the two murders progresses, the characters develop and flourish. I particularly enjoyed the character of the Polish builder, Bogdan who started as a stereotype only to surprise me as I got to know him better (well, as Elizabeth and her husband, Stephen, got to know him better).

This is a classic cosy mystery: funny, full of observational humour, presenting the reader with a deliciously twisty and unpredictable case to get your teeth into.

How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman

I must confess I haven’t read Neverwhere and, at first, I was a bit lost in this short story. But I quickly found my way by simply following the Marquis de Carabas who in his turn was following the scent of his extraordinary coat stolen from him in mysterious circumstances. We have traversed most puzzling worlds of Below London where tube stations come to life to become characters in the story. Thus we have the Elephant, Victoria and the frightening Shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush. I found that world bewitching.

The Marquis de Carabas’s quest brought to mind another short story, “Overcoat” by Gogol. There too an owner unlawfully deprived of his precious coat moves heaven and earth to retrieve it, and not even death seems to be able to stop him. The coat represents his life. Here too, the coat has given the Marquis his name, his identity and his direction in life. Without it, he is incomplete. His older brother, Peregrine, is his guardian angel in the (many) hours of need.

I have reached for this story because I loved Good Omens and I wanted to discover a bit more about Neil Gaiman. I am hooked.

Revelation by Jo Fenton

This dark and pacey crime drama hits a nerve. It’s 1989. Becky, who is a law student, is confronted with the death of another student. Rick is killed in his room in the hall of residents.His body is found by Dan, his very close friend. Becky embarks on an investigation, keen to get to the bottom of this tragic death especially because she cares about Dan who is deeply traumatised by Rick’s death. Strange forces seemed to play part in this death and a later disappearance, including a suspect Kabbalistic group.

This book appealed to me personally on many levels. I too studied law in the late eighties and lived in a hall of residents, surrounded by people who became close friends. Those were very different times. Fenton reflects those times really well: the overall ambience of the eighties, the trends, the music, the raging AIDS and early prejudice against gays, the lecherous professors. I was transported back in time.

The characters are vivid and the background behind the killer’s motives complex. The denouement comes as a surprise. It is a very satisfying crime mystery.