Masking an Iceberg

Jane Davis is the author of nine novels to date, of which I have read six so far. This latest example was published in 2015 and the following year was lauded by Writing Magazine as the ‘Self-Published Book of the Year’. Indeed, “An Unknown Woman” exemplifies much of what I enjoy about Ms Davis storytelling. The themes are broad, the female characters especially are fascinating and the situations confronting them incite in the reader a deep-seated empathy.

The premise of this novel is that each of us is akin to an iceberg, with only a small proportion of ourselves showing above the surface. Even those closest to us may project a persona that avoids the exposure of unflattering traits and inner compromises, in the face of life’s changing demands. However, crises sometimes have the capacity to ‘out’ submerged feelings and secrets, enabling them to bob unexpectedly to the surface,no longer private, no longer hidden.

A fire, which destroys the home of Anita and Ed and with it the possessions gathered over their fifteen years together, is such a catalyst. It is a stress test of their cohabiting relationship. Without the trappings built up over time, are their foundations strong enough to withstand the necessary rebuild and attendant doubt? “Something of herself or of Ed had been invented in each object.” The wrecked house is perhaps a metaphor for the decisions required. Whether to replicate their former home, or take the opportunity to remodel a more ambitious project, maybe just cash in their chips and go their separate ways. For Anita in particular, her job as a curator at a famous historical site provides an interesting perspective around the relationship between past and present, but the reader also gets a glimpse of the influence of nature and nurture in Anita’s upbringing and the source of the bond with her father.

A parallel and contrasting strand to the story, though equally absorbing, concerns Anita’s parents. Patti and Ron have a longstanding marriage shaped by the traditions of a different generation, a very different time, but they have their own secrets. As the two couples work through their respective challenges, learning anew about each other and recalibrating their attachments, the novel alludes not so much to a radical ‘reset’, as to an ongoing evolution that the reader can’t help but find familiar.

Notwithstanding the delicious language and attention to descriptive detail that makes Ms Davis writing stand out, for this reader, it is also the underlying scope for reflection and food for thought that offers genuine depth. It may be reassuring to note that as we float along the currents of life, the ice from which we are formed will be sculpted. Still, worth also remembering the mask one chooses to wear may be simply a protective covering.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Wilt Wields, Others Yield…

5 December 2021 (13:35)

In “The Blood Within the Stone (Book 1 of the Wraith Cycle)”, published in 2017, T.R.Thompson seeks to establish an impressive cast of characters and introduce, in particular, professional thief, Wilt and his street urchin friend, Higgs. The accompanying world-building also takes in their home environment – ‘Greystone’, where Wilt modestly aspires to join the ‘Grey Guild of Thieves, but the growth of his precocious mental talents brings Wilt to the attention of more powerful forces that draw the friends to the mountain fortress of ‘Redmondis’. In this rarefied atmosphere, overseen by the sinister ‘Nine Sisters’, the skilled are nurtured (crafting, healing, apothecary, etc), while for potential ‘wielders’(those who can read and eventually control minds), a chance to train among the elite ‘Black Robes’ and develop their prodigious gifts.

The proverb, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’, is an underlying theme for the plot, denoted by the ruthless exercise of the collective might of the Sisters and their company of guards. However, Wilt and Higgs are able to rely on allies operating outside of Redmondis, able to offer some protection and insight into the seeping evil threatening to subsume and suppress the population. It’s a risky strategy, to place the youngsters at the heart of such a nest of vipers, but Wilt and Higgs must also develop their skills quickly, if they are not to be overwhelmed.

Of course, the ability to shape-shift is a useful skill to have, in the circumstances, but the awe-inspiring power of the mind and Wilt’s struggle to master his inner strength, for the good of others, without compromising his humility or jeopardising his spirit, is an interesting challenge. The book also emphasises the value of friendship and it is the circle of strong characters around Wilt who realise his potential, yet also keep him grounded.

This first book in the ‘The Wraith Cycle’ series, is necessarily required to familiarise the reader with this fantasy world, the nature of the key characters and their evolving relationships. Certainly, the author has seeded the reader’s curiosity around the onward adventures of Wilt, Higgs and their diverse crew. The description of something as intangible as the wielders’ ‘gift’, is an unusual challenge for the writer, to formulate images of coloured ‘welds’ connecting minds, but not in a reciprocal fashion, but rather at the bidding of a frighteningly powerful minority. It is an uncomfortable proposition for the reader! Still, T.R.Thompson has forged a gripping tale and I look forward to reading Book 2, “The Forked Path” and in the knowledge that Book 3, “A Flame of Song” is due to be released on 17.12.21. Happy holidays fantasy fans!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Salted Crowe

“A Kind of Drowning” was my introduction to the work of Irish, indie author Robert Craven and in Garda Inspector Pius John Crowe, the author has created a fascinating character, worthy of that most popular genre – crime fiction. This is a short novel and consequently the story is quite tightly written, but the pace of the action is engaging and the author has a good eye, which draws the reader into life in the sleepy coastal town of Rosscarrig, complete with its incongruous hotspot. “If Rosscarrig was slowly checking out on the gurney, The Boogie Woogie Cafe was the last bright pulse on the monitor.”

However, in an unusual departure, Detective Crowe is lying low following his suspension from duties. With his marriage recently flat-lined and his police career also hanging in the balance, Crowe is thrown the lifeline of somewhere to stay by a retired colleague and slinks away from Dublin to lick his wounds. Though three months without pay will be a stretch, the examination of Crowe, very much a fish out of water, is interesting and his befriending of local inhabitants belies the gruff, hard-baked exterior, though he’s not ready for hearth and slippers just yet.

The island of Inishcarrig lies off the coast, privately-owned by a Canadian billionaire, but comings and goings by helicopter and the unexplained death of a newfound, vulnerable friend triggers Crowe’s professional instincts. Despite his ‘civilian’ status, some sniffing around discovers that Crowe isn’t the only one flushed out from the smoke.

The deliciously nicknamed ‘Teflon D’ is a major drug dealer, but has also been experiencing some difficulties in Dublin and is rumoured to have moved to the seaside town, where Crowe has the invigorating salty oxygen of a busman’s holiday.

What I liked most about this book was getting to know the main character. ‘Podge’ Crowe is seriously flawed, yet the peeling back of some of the layers of his awkward complexity was a highlight. Moreover, removing the detective from the streets of Dublin also enabled the author to showcase a contrasting community, in which it is possible to simply bask in their ordinariness.

I was delighted to read on Twitter that Mr Craven, @cravenrobert, is working on further tasks for Crowe and I shall watch for the next instalment with interest.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Death is but a Door…

11 July 2021 (14:30)

I am indebted to indie author, Megan Shunmugam for the opportunity to read an ARC copy of her debut novel, “Phoenix”, in return for an honest review and for fans of YA fantasy, this book is something of a treat.

The story begins with the ending of the mortal life of main character, Alexia Solenia. Of itself this is an unusual gambit, yet it is through the demise of the key character that the author is able to construct a platform for Alexia’s onward journey to an ‘afterlife’ and the other-worldly adventures that await her.

There’s perhaps an inherent curiosity about that which we can’t know. Still, the author’s imagining of the ‘City of Lost Souls’, as a “sorting chamber for those who have died and are not claimed by the ether”, is a further compelling kickstart to the book and enables Alexia to be identified as an elite silver ‘Helper’, with powers to be discovered and nurtured. The city, though, is but a waystation en route to the heroine’s assignment. Received in a comfortingly familiar manila envelope the instructions orientate Alexia and the reader to our shared destination, the kingdom of Arianon and the young, recently-crowned king, Fenix Arbora, the intended recipient of Alexia’s ‘help’.

Thus the reader is transported seamlessly from Earth, to the ethereal dimension, onward via portal, to the world of Vessus. In fact, I found the author’s deft explanation for the next life, as a means of connecting the universe, quite ingenious. The plot also offers the prospect of a second chance for Alexia, if she can complete her mission and keep her soul intact, though the prospect of failure and the accompanying jeopardy are never far away.

Notwithstanding its tolerance of magical creatures, Arianon, it transpires, is under pressure from multiple existential threats, while its young ruler attempts to stabilise things through a shrewd alliance with the powerful Sur family from the kingdom of Pneros. The lengthy history of Vessus has been relatively peaceful for a thousand years, since the end of the ‘First Wars’, but there are troubling signs that the infrastructure that has ensured the citizens’ safety is eroding. Helpfully, the author intersperses the contemporary action with some of the historical context to aid the reader’s grasp of the impending conflict and the deepening shadow of further potential war.

Fenix’ right hand is his cousin Flynn, who has misgivings about the cost of allying with the tyrannical Surs, but can be relied upon to remain loyal to his king. Inevitably perhaps, both are attracted to the visiting Helper and their shared danger develops their bonds of friendship, but there is more to come from that romantic triangle. As indeed there is from this ongoing adventure. In “Phoenix”, Megan Shunmugam has established an interesting cast of characters with lots of road yet to be travelled. The author has confirmed that the sequel will follow and it is testament to the success of her storytelling in this first volume, that such a prospect is rather exciting! The novel is consistent in its appeal towards the YA readership, though, except perhaps for an overuse of the ‘eye roll’ by multiple characters, the story may well appeal to a wider readership of fantasy fiction. I congratulate Ms Shunmugam on an absorbing debut and I shall watch for the sequel to ensure it is added to my tbr list. Remember the name!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Girl Power!

2 May 2021 (23:30)

During ‘Indie April’ this year, I alighted on this debut novel by P.J.Sky, published in 2020. The book is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, which was a bold choice and chimed absolutely with the story that unfolds, though in some respects the author has clearly intended the book for a ‘YA’ readership. Of course, such genre labels are merely a guide and the presence of a main character capable of extreme violence (necessary for the plot) is only partially offset by the absence of ‘bad language’. In fact, I found the reliance on “Dag it” as the expletive of choice for the youthful characters rather euphemistic, but ironically this quaint touch may equally find favour with an older reader resentful of more colourful, but accurate language. In any event, I believe the book might be best described as an ‘adventure / thriller’. Certainly the presence of complex themes such as identity; loyalty; power; betrayal; revenge; and social order command broad appeal, whatever the age of the reader.

The novel centres on two female characters from very contrasting situations. Starla Corinth is the daughter of the political leader of the sole walled city. The elite population within the enclave enjoy high living standards, derived from monopolised resources and a culture ‘protected’ from those unfortunate enough to find themselves existing in the surrounding wastelands. Moreover, for the city dwellers, “ The ultimate penalty and punishment was exile,” from which there was no return. Such is the destiny of Ari, once a child of the city, but ejected with her parents for reasons unknown and now alone but well-versed in the ways of survival in the wilderness.

Still, when Starla finds herself mysteriously removed from her gilded cage, but hopelessly equipped for ‘freedom’ in the wastelands, Ari just might be her only ticket home. Of course the malevolent forces that conspired to make the leader’s only daughter disappear in the first place  cannot afford to see their skulduggery uncovered and thus the stage is set for the chronicling of the attempted ‘home run’.

Within the the plot I enjoyed very much the development of the titular character particularly . Ari has endured a tough life, which has conferred resilience, self-sufficiency and ruthlessness. She is a young woman of action, able to look after herself. Yet, her solitary existence has also created a hard shell through which Ari finds it difficult to trust anyone. By contrast, in the wastelands, Starla is immediately confronted by her vulnerability in such an alien environment, but she does have skills to bring, not least the ability to reach out, on a human level, to her companion.

In this exciting and compelling debut, P.J.Sky has created an interesting dystopian world, with contemporary echoes and two strong female characters with lots of mileage for further exploration. I look forward to the sequel (“Ari Goes to War”) with some relish.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Fury and the Fae

21:45 PM, 21 November 2020

This was my first book by indie author Will O’Shire and Book 1 of the ‘Fae Awakening’ series seemed like a logical start point. The author especially enjoys writing in the urban fantasy genre and in this novella the narrative explains how the Fae and human worlds co-exist, side by side. Ordinarily the permeable interface, which enables each to carry on oblivious to the other, is  marshalled by the likes of the main character, investigator Hunter Braydenbach (human) and the Fae ‘Guardians of the Realms’. Tasked by a treaty between the different spheres with ensuring ‘never the twain shall meet’, their clandestine activities are perilous and thankless, but crucial to maintaining peace, albeit no one would choose to be a hunter or a guardian.

This short book also introduces a host of characters and mythical creatures. Troll and goblin, giant and gargoyle. Some working together, to solve the mystery of the flaming black unicorn that has set light to buildings and killed a human, whilst seeking to preserve the anonymity of the Fae. Others, like untrustworthy leprechaun, Damian Hurst, just trying to get ahead. An added complication in this story are the two unsuspecting human teenagers unwittingly drawn into the Fae world, where they need to be protected and preferably prevented from getting themselves killed!

It’s a thrilling mix and for the reader an important foundation for future books in the series. I’m especially keen to read more about the intriguing and illusive forest-dweller and ‘bigfoot’, ‘Kawa’, who helps Hunter’s team and I’m sure there’s more to come from guardian ‘Frank’ too.

The book seems to be pitched at a YA readership and though in my paperback copy the author pays tribute to the cover design by Ivan Cakic, the animated version shared by @willoshire on Twitter is also excellent. https://twitter.com/i/status/1310761213639319555 In any event an interest in the Fae has certainly been awakened in me!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Contrasting Fortunes

4:12 PM 26 JUNE 2020

One of the things I adore about Kevin Ansbro’s writing is the assured way in which he reconciles the seemingly incompatible. Few authors can so effortlessly weave together the incongruity of a European serial killer with a SE Asian mythical being, trapped in a two thousand year purgatory at the bottom of the Andaman Sea. Yet, the remarkable journey on which the author takes the reader also enmeshes very familiar human themes of attachment and loss, romantic love and platonic friendship, alongside Buddhist notions of karma. It makes for a heady mix!

This blending of perceived contrasts, the exotic and mundane, is exemplified perhaps in the main locations for the tale. With all due respect to the inhabitants of East Anglia, Norwich (UK) and Phuket (Thailand) are, on the face of it, very different! Still, through the travails of the main characters, the author suggests that human experience is not entirely shaped by location, or culture. If not ‘fate’, sometimes things are just ‘meant to be’.

Take the British couple, Calum and Hannah, they are close friends at school, but then are separated by the vagaries of family moves, but it is Calum’s solo visit to Thailand that proves the catalyst for a potential reunion with his ‘true love’. As well as developing an immediate affinity for this unfamiliar territory, Calum befriends a young local man, Sawat Leelapun, with a shared interest in martial arts, but a very different trajectory in life. As a boy, Sawat has survived the 2004 tsunami, but experienced the attendant tragedy and challenges that followed. He too has a significant other (‘Nok’), but more central is the bond formed between the two men and the influence of Sawat’s humble nature on his hot-headed British friend. As well as helping Calum reflect on his own approach to life, like the knock-on effect of dominoes, Sawat also confides in his friend an incredible secret he has harboured since childhood and introduces the reader to the mythical Kinnara.

This diversion into supernatural elements is not new for the author, but offers a very helpful vehicle for expressing the clear affection with which Mr Ansbro regards the people and culture of Thailand. ‘Klahan Kinnara’ is a prince among the mythical swan people, cast into the sea, spellbound and destined to be alone for eternity. Klahan is also separated from his beloved and like his human counterparts shares a profound sense of loss. The question posed by the story is whether the three couples can all rely on fate/karma/good fortune, or perhaps the invincible nature of their collective love, to generate similarly happy outcomes?

The fly in the ointment, of course, is the serial murderer I mentioned, but whilst the author has a penchant for a dash of the macabre, it is never arbitrary. Rather the latent threat is a further development of the contrast between good and evil. Just as the reader might hope for good things to happen to good people, the reverse can also be quite satisfying. With ‘Kinnara’ , the author has skilfully delivered another exhilarating and emotional ride for the reader and has secured another spot on my favourites shelf.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Bastard Rebellion

3:39 PM 24 JUNE 2020

One of the benefits of building a world unfamiliar to the reader and characters that can live for hundreds of years, is the size of canvas, on which the author can construct his story. Certainly, in ‘Shadowless’, Randall McNally has developed a book exploiting those epic proportions, ranging across the ‘Northern Realms’, with a large cast of characters that perhaps befits such an ambitious undertaking. The fact that this is also a debut novel merely emphasises the congratulations due to the author, for such an absorbing read.

Amid echoes of Greek and Roman mythology, the Northern Realms is a world that cultivates curiosity and discomfort, wonder and horror in equal measure. The book also rather morphs into a novel, as the first half comprises a series of chapters, which read almost like short stories, or vignettes, introducing the respective ‘heroes’, with their inherited power and explaining how their differing local environments are formulated.

The malevolent ‘villains’ in the region are undoubtedly the cohort of powerful gods, who have survived a civil war among themselves, but in the process killed all of the goddesses. As a consequence, this exclusively macho group, using their ability to assume any form, satisfy their carnal desires among mortal women, the resulting offspring being born with supernatural traits, but without shadows. The ‘shadowless’ are thus born with innate advantage and yet are destined to be marked out and damned, neither mortal, nor god. The power bequeathed by their respective fathers may grow, if they can survive, but it can also be ‘harvested’ by the relevant god, in a cynical cull of their illegitimate children. Moreover, the Northern Realms are in the thrall of temples and mortal worshippers, who seek to enthusiastically appease the gods, by deploying a militia of ‘Shadow Watchers’, to identify and sacrifice the shadowless. Survival depends often on staying hidden from public view, in aristocratic isolation, forest, dungeon, or underground community. Only the mysterious Brother Amrodan, priest within a sole religious order committed to finding and helping the shadowless, appears to be on their side. Moreover, Amrodan is the lynchpin, mapping the whereabouts of the disparate individuals over centuries and devising the plan by which the gods might eventually be challenged. For me, he was a fleeting reminder of Nick Fury, meticulously assembling the ‘Avengers’, only Amrodan’s use of the dark arts involved a primeval pool and his kickass firepower came in the shape of a black dragon!

In a sense, the fact that these fascinating shadowless individuals seemed to struggle to gel as a group was hardly surprising. However, as prophesied, within the group is an especially powerful ‘shadowmancer’ who didn’t really fulfil his potential in this first outing. Coming up against a 25 feet tall monster with destruction on his mind may test the mettle of any leader, but it has left me with the impression that this book is the foundation of an ongoing story, the opening battle in a war, which I hope the author will continue. Interesting as they are, I did wonder at the sheer number of characters and the juggling required to keep them all in play, but if this does indeed culminate in further volumes, then returning to the canvas analogy, the author has acres of material to work with. Certainly the polish in some of those discrete early chapters bore the hallmarks of a talented wordsmith and I hope to return for Mr McNally’s next instalment soon. Incidentally, whilst the reader should rarely judge a book by its cover, the cover art, which did well in an online competition, on this occasion, is rather a good guide to the quality within.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Accomplished Debut Novel

12:56 PM 24 MAY 2020

“Killing a Dead Man” is rightly billed as a ‘supernatural thriller’ and though the author, Siobhian R. Hodges is a new talent, I thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel. Ostensibly targeted at the YA readership, it can be tricky when shedding light on some challenging themes not to oversteer, but in her subtle use of light and shade, the author successfully navigates a course, which balances the best and worst of human traits.

Written in the first person, the book adopts the perspective of Jordan, now aged fifteen, but weighed down by the loss of his twin brother, Danny, brutally murdered five years earlier. It was a defining moment in Jordan’s young life, steeped in guilt that he hadn’t prevented it and anger that the perpetrator had not been caught. The only consolation for Jordan is that Danny’s spirit had not moved on, but intermittently communicates with his brother. Jordan can feel Danny’s presence, rather than see him and though comforting, the connection was not without consequences. The boys’ bewildered parents had finally sought psychiatric help for their surviving son, meanwhile Jordan’s talking to an invisible brother was seized upon by teenage school bullies. The central character is isolated amid the struggles of his adolescent life, but not alone. Still, when Danny divulges he knows the identity of his killer, Jordan is compelled to launch across the country in search of revenge.

Whilst the premise of the subsequent adventure may play differently, depending on the reader’s beliefs concerning the afterlife, I found the author’s description of the twins’ ongoing relationship and the permeable nature of the boundary between this world and the next, both convincing and warming. Jordan and Danny are each held in a glutinous state of torment, which must surely be excised if they are to move on with their respective journeys, but it will take active forces in both realms if Jordan is to survive the ordeal.

Along the way, the reader is introduced to some intriguing characters, in particular, long-suffering taxi driver, Mr Butch, who is unwittingly drawn into Jordan’s odyssey and just as Danny attends the edge of the living world, so Jordan’s companion is a welcome escort for his foray into a murky, sometimes hostile adult environment.

The book teems with suspense, yet delivers the reader a very satisfying denouement. I look forward to placing my copy in the hands of a teenager, for whom I think the novel was intended, but with a hearty recommendation that it is well worth reading. So too perhaps for those young of heart!

Unusual praise too for the quality of the binding. I am not ordinarily moved to comment on such aesthetics, however, the paperback, apparently “printed in Great Britain by Amazon”, has a deliciously waxy feel to the touch, which simply made the book a genuine pleasure to hold. Ms Hodges is to be congratulated on such a rounded debut and I look forward with interest to her future titles.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

#IndieApril choice

10:14 AM 5 MAY 2019

In solidarity with the Twitter campaign #IndieApril, I alighted on this book by independent author, H.C.Elliston over the Easter weekend. This was my first dip into the work of Ms Elliston and the first book from the ‘romantic/thriller’ genre to make it onto my ‘Booklikes’ virtual shelf. Ordinarily, not what I would describe as ‘my thing’, it can sometimes be good to mix it up a little and I came to “Think Fast, Die Last” with an open mind.

After years in an abusive, controlling marriage, the main character (Jenna) is making a break for a happier life with Dylan. The first step in the transformation is a weekend retreat, but the pair find their idyllic hideaway has been double-booked and their privacy invaded by another equally unimpressed couple (John and Kerry). Though the couples have different agendas, they find themselves bound together for mutual advantage and to survive the crossfire between competing criminal gangs, who appear to have violent designs on their respective well-being.

Naturally Jenna’s husband (Alan) is confirmed as a waste of space, but unbeknown to Jenna his criminal activities have attracted the attention of more serious thugs and by association placed his estranged wife in danger. In contrast, Dylan is the antithesis of Alan and through his behaviour under the trials of a life-threatening situation, he and Jenna may have a future, if they can both just survive.

In summary, this book is a light holiday read. The scenario is mildly improbable, the threatening villains wannabe sopranos, but far too hapless and incompetent to suggest genuinely organized criminals and the love interest is consistent with a vulnerable woman warily extricating herself from a disastrous marriage. The various dramatic flashpoints felt more like swells than crescendos, but the storyline moved along without shredding emotions and sometimes that’s just fine.

In a sense there was a tension in the alloying of genres, in that the book didn’t feel like an out-and-out romance, but nor was it especially thrilling. Still, there was enough for me to think that I may check out one of the author’s other novels.

Just one observation on the ‘pov’ layout of this novel. Thirty four chapters and all bar a few written from Jenna’s perspective, so in various parts many successive chapters entitled ‘Jenna’. There seemed to be different thoughts on this within the #WritingCommunity twitterati, but as a personal view it seemed unnecessary and a bit irritating. If the perspective hasn’t changed, as the reader, I may only need to be signposted when is does, but I accept there are differing views and this hardly counts as a blemish, on an otherwise enjoyable book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.