Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Book review: ‘A murder on the Appian Way’ by Steven Saylor

November 21, 2017

This book was ‘givers’. Indeed, I cannot even remember who gave it to me. It has had a hard life, which it began in Poole library. Lord knows where it has been since then to get so tatty, but I shall put it on the shelf of treasured fiction and search out more by Mr Saylor.

This is book #5 in Saylor’s ‘Gordianus the Finder’ series. There are maybe as many as nine in all. This one came out 20 years ago.

It is beautifully researched, entwining what is known about the events described with fiction. The Romans wrote a lot of stuff down, so there is a considerable factual basis for the book, upon which Saylor has embroidered a story which canters along a path richly strewn with action, interesting information about this Roman period (52BC – Marc Antony is a young man), and wit.

Tightly plotted and economically told.

Great stuff.

* * * * *

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Wonders will never cease

November 21, 2017

My new novel, coincidentally entitled Wonders will never cease, will be available on Kindle on 2 December. You may pre-order it from Friday 24 November.

Please share this information on all the social media sites you frequent.

The whereabouts of the paperback is currently a bit of a mystery. But it too should be available on or shortly after 2 December.

WWNC Front Cover November 02 (002)

Christmas Book Fayre

November 7, 2017

I hope my brand new book will be available to buy at the fayre!

Every sort of book you can think of will be available to browse and buy. There will be novels of all sorts. Local history is particularly well represented.

It’s being held in the Old Town Hall (opposite The Boot pub) on Sunday 3rd December 2017, 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.

Scrummy refreshments and coffee. Readings by authors.

Bring plenty of cash 🙂SHog_xmas book fayre 2017 (002)

New novel coming soon

November 7, 2017

My new novel – Wonders will never cease – will be published at the end of this month (November 2017). I am unreasonably excited …

Here’s a sneak preview of the cover:

WWNC Front Cover November 02 (002)

‘A different kind of urban’

October 24, 2017

Details are now available for the Open University choir’s upcoming world premiere of the above, on 23 November at 1p.m. in the Hub Theatre on the Open University campus. Lyrics are by yours truly, music by Liz Lane.

I am tremendously excited to be involved in this commission, which is part of the year long ‘MK50’ celebrations of the first plans for the new town of Milton Keynes in 1967. Do come if you’re in the neighbourhood . Tickets are free, but you do need a ticket.

There will be a Q & A about the development of the piece before the concert, which is optional (and for which you also need a ticket).

Click on the link below to be taken to Eventbrite where you can get tickets and more information about the concert.

The concert is likely to be a sellout, so book early, and come early on the day.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/open-university-choir-choral-premiere-a-different-kind-of-urban-tickets-38939268400

‘The Secret History of the Mongol Queens’ by Jack Weatherford

September 26, 2017

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by [Weatherford, Jack]

You have to persevere a bit with this. At the outset I thought the book was left-over research looking for a purpose, but it is not so. Weatherford’s first (very interesting) premise is that Genghis Khan married his daughters into various existing small khanates all over Mongolia (utilising the Mongolian custom of exogamy). As his empire grew he continued the practice over a lot of what is now China. The daughters were put in charge while the husbands were serving with Genghis Khan’s armies. Their administrative talents (learned from their dad) and the family connection meant not only that they administered ably, but also actively supported Genghis Khan and each other. After the great khan’s death his sons took to fighting among themselves, marginalising and murdering their sisters, and the empire collapsed.

Weatherford next looks into various other powerful women in the area, in the tradition of those early daughters of Genghis Khan. Finally he explores the life, rule and legacy of Manduhai Khatun – whom I had not come across before – but who proves to be a very clever woman indeed.

En passant he deals with how the later Mongol empire related to its neighbours and Europe.

He has had access to many more documents than the ‘Secret History of the Mongols’ (to which his title pays homage) and has chased his Mongolian queens through many primary sources. These sources become more plentiful as the centuries roll on, writing becomes more common and documents proliferate.

The brushwork illustrations of Mongol queens in all their finery at the beginning of each section are a real delight (and quite different from the rather androgynous archer on the front cover)

There is a good bibliography and serviceable index.

First published 2010.

**** rating.

Review: ‘Thirty Three Cecils’ by Everett De Morier

August 17, 2017

**Originally written for “Big Al’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Description: This novel purports to be the found journals of two men; Walker Roe (a once prominent cartoonist who went to jail for swindling and counterfeiting) and Riley Dutcher (a functioning alcoholic who worked in a landfill site office). What happens when their paths cross, and they start recording their experiences, is what the story is about. It’s just a story about a couple of ordinary Joes, really. But what a story!

Author: Everett De Morier is a jobbing author, writing anything from articles about fishing to books about marriage. He is editor in chief of 543skills.com. He is also a playwright who has created seven original theatrical scripts, all produced by Cornerstone Drama of Dover, Delaware. This is his first novel. You can read more about him and the book here : https://www.amazon.com/Everett-De-Morier/e/B001K8J462.

Appraisal: This is an extraordinary book. It defies description. In a good way. It begins by telling you the end (and it doesn’t matter): it continues by telling you the same story from two different viewpoints (and it doesn’t matter): and within each of those viewpoints material is often revisited several times (and it doesn’t matter). Despite this the account is both complex and fantastical. The story is fake news. Or is it? Its two protagonists are, neither of them, proud of their lives to date. And it is far from clear that their final project is anything to be proud of either. Their escapades, severally and together, are bizarre. The events that occur are impossible (and – guess what? – it doesn’t matter). There is a sort of cosmic inevitability about the plot development. Coincidences abound. Indeed, serendipity is ‘the scary thing’ that drives the book. That and the deep desire of Roe and Dutcher to become different men, to make amends to themselves, each other, their families and everyone else who was touched adversely by their lives.

I couldn’t put it down. And I know very well it will repay rereading.

I have no idea what genre this belongs in. But if you like a slow burn of a novel (and I do mean burn), then definitely put this on your ‘to read’ list.

FYI: It’s a tad overwritten. De Morier does like to make the same point (usually) three times – and (being a fine, inventive writer) likes to make it in a different way each time. This does not lend itself to the wham-bam-thankyou-Ma’am style of novel which is currently fashionable. I occasionally felt I was disappearing over the hills and far away when following one of De Morier’s shaggy dog stories (are they called that in the States?). But I found resistance to be futile – this book is completely beguiling if you just go with the flow.

Approximate page count: 288 pp

Review: A World Apart by L J K Oliva

August 15, 2017

**Originally written for “Big Al’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Genre: Urban Fantasy/whodunit

Description: This pretty much sums the book up: “There are things that go bump in the night, Mr. MacMillian. It’s my job to bump back.” In these two sentences we learn that Powonia (Lena) Alan is a medium, helping stranded souls cross over, comfortable and competent in her work for ‘the other side’, fazed by very little, and certainly in much better control in such situations than PI Jesper MacMillian, who is coming at this particular case from the side of the living. Delightful encapsulation.

Author: LJK Oliva says she writes urban fantasy and paranormal romance. That is all I can find out about her, despite her presence on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, Pinterest etc. The book under review is #1 in her Shades Below series. As well as things that go bump in the night, the series includes forays into vampiric and Ancient Egyptian plotlines.

Appraisal: This novel is a lot of fun (if one can say that of a novel about dead people). The protagonists are drawn to the same crime – a dreadful death – by the unquiet soul of the deceased (which is the ambit of Lena and her brother Cyrus) and by his parents (who engage the aforementioned MacMillian, together with a cop ex-buddy called Mark Durbin: Durbin and MacMillian have baggage). The story flitters between the living and the more or less deceased, drawing on well-established tropes, but also investing them with original thinking.

There is romance in the mix. MacMillian and Lena have chemistry from the off. But then she meets and quickly begins to date the absurdly gorgeous Durbin, giving opportunities for introspection and angst within that triangle.

As well as romance we have Romani characters (MacMillian is one) bringing their hierarchies, prejudices and empathies to play in the story.

Minor characters such as Emil and Puzzle are well fleshed-out too (and carry their own stories later in the Shades Below series). The idea that there are people in the world who have the surname ‘Zarubabbel’ on their driving licences pleases me immensely.

In Lena, Oliva draws a character who feels completely real, apart from her ability to see dead people. I, too, felt I would finally be a grownup when I bought my first new cooker. (I turned out to be wrong. So is Lena.) Lena runs a tea shop. She is an expert on tea, treating each infusion as a little ritual. Lena’s inner monologue (through which much of the book is unfolded) is consistently believable and interesting.

However, one doesn’t read the book for the tea infusion recipes. This is a fast-paced whodunit incorporating the spirit world. The interactions between the characters (living and not so much) keep the pace going lickety-split throughout. The episode of Jimmy-as-poltergeist was particularly delightful.

Format/Typo Issues: there was a slightly irritating tic involving short hyphens and missing spaces in the copy I read. Then there are the occasional malapropisms: ‘caliper’ for ‘calibre’; ‘tram’ for ‘pram’, ‘banquets’ for ‘banquettes’. There are some other odd word choices which provide a momentary puzzlement before one decides it doesn’t matter and plunges back into the story. For example, I have no idea what ‘in the Veil’ refers to, nor how Powonia belongs ‘in hospice’.

I became a little irked by the number of men in the book whose names began with D. (Especially when I needed to refer back when I came to write the review.) Durbin, Darius and Daniel is two Ds too many: there are 25 other letters in the alphabet…

But these are minor grumbles compared to the pleasure the book gave.

Rating: ****

Approximate page count: 308 pp

Review: ‘A Company of Roses’ by Megan Goodenough

August 13, 2017

**Originally written for “Big Al’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Genre:   Thriller, mystery

Description:   

This is a treasure hunt in the ‘history and mystery’ genre. Cas is sidekick to charismatic, beautiful Lacey. Lacey goes missing, leaving behind a trail of destruction and a set of enigmatic clues to an Elizabethan treasure. Cas will have to find a courage and resourcefulness she’s never known before if she’s going to find the treasure and, with it, save her friend.

Cas races across Brighton, London and some stunning English landscape (you could follow her progress on a map) searching for and solving Lacey’s clues. The clues include appearances from Mary Shelley, Ada Lovelace, Queen Elizabeth I and other strong women from British history with whom you may be less familiar.

The end of the journey is more personal than Cas could have imagined as she finally unearths the British Government’s most well-kept secret, and faces the organisation sworn to protect it.

Author:   

Megan Goodenough is a British author, a graduate of York University with a degree in archaeology. She’s been short-listed for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, long-listed for the TS Eliot Award and won competitions with BBC Writers Room. This is her first novel.

Appraisal:   

I enjoyed this a lot – to the point where I couldn’t put it down. If you like historical mysteries this will appeal to you. If you enjoy Dan Brown’s clever clues (especially if you find the violent deaths and severed body parts in his books a tad superfluous) you will enjoy this. As you can see above, Goodenough’s expertise is in areas which feed the creation of this sort of novel. Readers familiar with the British Tudor dynasty will be aware that Tudor works of art were chockful of symbols. Her research (even – or perhaps particularly – if it has led to imaginary artefacts) is first class yet her learning is placed lightly on the page. Goodenough draws strong, engaging female characters. She leavens the book’s action with wit and humour, and even permits her characters some introspection when time serves. The result is a real page-turner.

The book is set in the present. The two female protagonists are young, talented artists. Cas is drifting through her life, intending to get a grip on it soon. Or maybe not. Then suddenly she has to shape up much more quickly than she intended. So the book is as much a rite of passage as it is a thriller.

Cas and Lacey are delightfully believable. I have had a relationship like that. I have had that revelation about it. Cas’s vacillation about Reuben (the single major male character) also rings true. How Cas handles a gun made me think the author picked one up for the first time as research for this book and put the experience accurately on the page. Cas’s dead gran is beautifully drawn: a character from beyond the grave, but none the less potent for that.

Up until the end I thought that the prologue was an unnecessary give away. It isn’t, it’s a clue. The motivation for finding that which is lost changes two-thirds of the way through. At first I thought it was wobbly plotting. It isn’t, it’s a change of motivation which shows the heroine (for she is more than a protagonist) becoming a finer human being.

Readers in the US: brace yourselves for British spellings. But as a trade-off you get descriptions of famous British places that only a Briton in love with them could provide. The Great Court at the British Museum is the standout example (it is stunning and she does it justice). There are a number of others.

If the book has a flaw, it is that some of the information fed to the reader at the beginning of the book isn’t very helpful until one reaches the end. Which could also be a good reason to read it again.

Approximate page count:  300 pp

Rating: *****

Review: ‘Treading Softly, Breaking Shells’ by Kim Balett

August 12, 2017

**Originally written for “Big Al’s Books and Pals” book blog.
May have received a free review copy.**

Genre: Historical romance

Description: in 1878 Louisa travels to Seychelles to live with her brother. She finds it difficult to get used to life on the islands in general and on her brother’s plantation in particular. The climate, culture and amenities are very different from what she’s used to. This is a land where the memory of slavery is still recent and colonialism still present. Relationships between the old French families, the ex-slave population and the English incomers are complex. The veneer of civilisation is sometimes very thin.

Author: Kim Balette is an Australian writer living and teaching in Seychelles. Her love of travel and History led her to research the colonial past of Seychelles and the result is this, her debut novel.

Appraisal: the book follows Louisa through her first eight months on Seychelles, as she tries to acclimatise to the climate and the people. Quite often the reader is shown Louisa through the eyes of others.

The Seychellois setting is unusual and a big part of the book’s appeal. (Certainly it was a major reason this reader chose the book.) Balette draws delightful descriptive pictures of the islands, as here: ‘… the seaweed patches made pictures in the water. Louisa wondered if one could read the future from these swirls as gypsies did from tealeaves (sic) in a cup.’

Three languages are in use on the islands: French (Seychelles had been a French colony for a time in the eighteenth century), English and Creole which the former slaves developed from French. A smattering of these three languages adds savour to the book.

As well as talking about the land, Balette also describes meticulously how people lived there at this time. Descriptions of making soap, salting fish and meat, harvesting pods from the vanilla orchid, pruning breadfruit trees and many other quotidian occupations also add interest.

Various small mysteries are set running; there is romance; there are suspicious deaths; there is sickness; there are financial worries; and there are several sexual episodes which are described elegantly but graphically. But at bottom this is a book about people getting along with each other, or (in several cases) not.

For this reader the descriptions of place and the daily doings of the inhabitants (delightful as they were in themselves) began, after a while, to get in the way of the story. Or perhaps the problem was that there wasn’t really enough story to prevent the pace of the book from flagging.

Several salient pieces of information that the reader could have done with early on were withheld until it was too late for them to matter much. In the absence of authorial clarity, you can make up your own mind as to what the hints dropped may mean. The major romance followed that pattern where each party misunderstands the other for lengthy periods of time and much unnecessary angst results. You may be a fan of this approach: it is certainly a tried and tested romantic formula.

At the end this reader considered the experience and could only conclude that it had all been something of a storm in a rather beautiful teacup.

FYI: Some ‘literary’ but fairly explicit sexual content.

Format/Typo Issues: some typographical and some syntactical errors. One persistent tendency was to insert commas where they simply got in the way of understanding the sentence, another was a vagueness with pronouns which on occasion made it impossible to work out who was doing what to whom.

Rating: ***

Approximate page count: 180 pp


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