Thursday, 15 December 2016

Manipulated Lives by H. A. Leuschel

Manipulated Lives by H. A. Leuschel is a collection of five short stories, each very different but linked by the theme of manipulation. Every one of the stories is unusual, intriguing and thought provoking in their own way.

Leuschel captured my attention from the onset with the dramatic and mysterious opening of the first story, The Narcissist. What is immediately apparent is that Leuschel is a skilled writer who delicately constructs her stories so that like onions they unfurl for the reader layer by layer.

Leuschel cleverly alternates her stories between first and third person narratives and both styles have their advantages. For example, The Narcissist is told from the perspective of first person which lends an air of mystery and allows Leuschel to demonstrate how the narcissist in question is blind to his own behaviour and therefore unable to make amends. In contrast, Runaway Girl is told from multiple viewpoints in third person which undermines the idea of a true version of events and leads us to question who is manipulating who.

The beauty of Leuschel’s collection of stories is how they highlight the way we, as humans, often blind ourselves to the truth which can make us both manipulators and victims. The stories are all character driven by realistic and flawed characters and this allows us to relate to the behaviour depicted no matter how extreme it may become.

The frightening reality is that, given the right set of circumstances we could all find ourselves falling victim to a manipulator. A lack of confidence or feelings of neediness means that the slightest show of kindness or flattery could have a profound effect on our emotional compass. The strength of Leuschel’s stories for me lies with the fact that her victims aren’t necessarily likeable and being a victim doesn’t preclude being a manipulator as well.

Leuschel presents a convincing argument that the power of the manipulator is a combination of psychological and physical coercion. Some of the manipulators are presented as dangerous psychopaths whilst others are propelled by a sense of their own importance and entitlement. Leuschel also explores the idea of whether manipulators are simply born that way or created.

The most sinister of the stories for me is My Perfect Child as it is one that resonates with our child-centric society. By creating a supreme sense of self worth in her son and never challenging his demands or destructive behaviour the mother creates a monster. She then colludes with her son by justifying his dysfunction to everyone around her. I think most of us probably know parents with similar attitudes to child rearing even if the outcome isn’t as extreme.

Manipulated Lives raised many questions for me but perhaps the most difficult one is whether there is any such thing as harmless manipulation. We all manipulate to some extent in order to get our own way, whether it’s like the lonely octogenarian Tess in Tess and Tattoos, who likes to pretend she’s dead to get her carers to spend a few more minutes with her or emotionally punishing people for not being who we want them to be. However, having read these stories and being shown the ugly side of manipulation, I for one will be more mindful in the future.

I really enjoyed these five stories and reading them reminded me of how I often overlook the form of short stories in favour of novels. Fortunately though Leuschel’s skills in creating distinct storylines and characters have made me realise what I’m missing out on. Especially during the busy Christmas period, when free time is often limited, I can’t recommend these stories highly enough. Plus they are the perfect antidote to all that festive sweetness.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Miami Morning by Mary Clark

Miami Morning by Mary Clark is the story of idealistic teacher Leila Payson. It’s a novel that affords the reader not only the opportunity to follow Leila on her journey through life but also offers a glimpse of what life is like working within the public schools’ system in Miami amid ever changing educational ideology and internal politics.

The novel begins on Leila’s 41st birthday, she is enjoying a comfortable existence having been a social studies’ teacher for fifteen years. However, her sense of peace is undermined as she begins to reflect back over her past. Clark uses Leila’s memories to draw the reader into her life as we are given an insight into key life changing events, such as the death of her mother.

A defining experience in Leila’s life is the two years she spends in South Africa.  It’s an experience that fundamentally changes her perspective as she works alongside an occupational therapist who believes in total social inclusion for people with disabilities. Her conviction for equal opportunities later causes her to become a champion for a young boy who is losing his hearing which in turn leads to resentment amongst other health professionals.

Although the novel is very much Leila’s story, there are other significant characters. She has an unsuccessful romance with a womanising journalist and long term friendships with Dov and Maria who are both committed to charitable endeavours and, like Leila spend most of their time looking out for others.

There are many things to like about this book, in particular Clark’s ability to convey the setting. She describes Miami in a vivid and colourful way, focusing on the natural habitat. As the story moves to South Africa Clark’s skill is in evidence again as she transports the reader to the changing landscape. Leila also enjoys a holiday to Spain which is equally brought alive by Clark’s writing. The reader is left with the impression that these are places that Clark knows extremely well.

Despite it being Leila’s story it very much feels like Clark uses her novel to convey her own views on society and education. She promotes a holistic style of education which is about more than academic needs and looks after students emotional and mental well being as well. We also get to understand the kind of red tape that constrains teachers when Leila faces a dilemma of whether to intervene in a potentially dangerous fight as it’s against school policy to do so. Clark also expounds the benefits of diversity in schools as a way of enriching all students’ lives.

The novel raises many philosophical issues through Leila’s experiences. She constantly ponders what it is that makes us human and struggles with the need to retain independence and a sense of identity whilst wanting to immerse herself into the community. Whilst in Africa she questions the validity of providing aid and fears that it may diminish people’s sense of power and control. In particular it raises questions about disability and whether disabled people’s quality of life and independence is hampered by misguided attempts to help them.

The novel has an effective shape to it in the way that Clark takes us from the present to different past experiences in Leila’s life. It allows her life to become fuller and fuller and so by the end we are delighted when she meets Mark Carollten, an occupational therapist who shares many of her life views and interests. We are left with the hope that the two of them will make it work at a time when Leila is looking for a relationship to complete her sense of purpose.

The only issue for me with this novel is that Clark has chosen to tell it in the 3rd person narrative. For me it would have lent itself beautifully to 1st person given that it is exclusively Leila’s story and she is a very introspective character. I think it would have helped the reader to get to know Leila on a deeper level as it would have removed the distance that 3rd person inevitably creates.

I also think that 1st person narrative would have allowed Clark to promote her own views in a more subtle way. My worry is that if readers aren’t that interested in education or looking for a light read they may find Clark’s voice intrusive.

Having said that this is only my opinion and I really enjoyed Miami Morning. I think if you like character driven novels that are more thoughtful than action packed then you should give this one a try. 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Face Value by Ian Andrew

Face Value by Ian Andrew is a crime thriller which introduces readers to the Wright and Tran series. It’s an intriguing novel with lots of action, driven by strong, believable female characters.

Kara Wright and Tien Tran are partners in a private investigation agency. They are also best friends who met whilst serving as part of a special ops’ team within the military. They both have their own skill set, Kara is more outgoing and handles the client side of the business whereas Tien is a technological whizz. Both characters however are tough, intelligent and not the kind of women you would want to cross. In fact the novel opens with Kara making short work of a would-be rapist in a quite spectacular fashion, involving little more than a red stiletto heeled shoe.

I have to confess that Andrew had me at the shoe but he kept my interest throughout with his well crafted mystery. The story begins when the adult children of Chris and Brenda Sterling recruit Kara and Tien to track their parents’ whereabouts. The problem is, to all intents and purposes, the Sterlings have simply taken off on a holiday to Florida. As the plot unfolds, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not the case and Kara and Tien find themselves drawn into the murky world of a Russian criminal.

Andrew makes his novel even more exciting by structuring it so that Kara and Tien’s investigation is interspersed with the investigation of the police who are searching for the killer of the aforementioned would-be rapist. The two storylines collide dramatically towards the end in a very satisfying finale.

There is much to recommend this novel, not least the central characters themselves. Kara is no-nonsense and forthright with a sharp sense of humour and whilst Tien may be quieter and happy take a back seat, she is no less ballsy. We learn that her military career ended when she lost her hand during a daring rescue mission. A mission that saw her awarded the military cross for bravery.

The military is very much present in this book as Kara and Tien draw on the support of other former military personnel. They are presented as a tight network and Andrew captures the banter between them perfectly. The way the characters use jokes to counteract the danger make the relationships seem authentic.

My favourite thing about this novel is the way that Andrew allows women to shine in what is traditionally viewed as a man’s world. In addition to Kara and Tien there are lots of strong female characters making up both military and police roles. Even the toughest of the villains is a Russian woman called Emilia. It is telling that whilst interrogating her, Kara calls to mind a maxim from 1970s anti-terrorism training – “Kill the women fighters first for they are the most vicious, the most hard line, the least likely to surrender.”

The way in which Andrew chooses to conclude his novel places Kara and Tien in a position to move into a new and exciting direction in the future. He has set up his series very effectively with lots of likeable characters who I for one want to see more of. If you like action packed crime with a strong military flavour then you should give Face Value a try.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Triple Alliance (The Rise of the Aztecs Book 7) by Zoe Saadia

The Triple Alliance by Zoe Saadia is the bitter sweet finale of The Rise of the Aztecs’ series. Bitter because it almost broke my heart to say goodbye to my beloved fictional friends and sweet because Saadia gives her readers the perfect ending.

The story begins in 1439, eight years on from where The Sword finished. Saadia uses this time shift to pick up the story of Kuini’s children. This is particularly poignant for fans of the series as we have been following Kuini’s journey from when he was a pre-teen himself.

His children, Ocelotl, Coatl and Citlalli are eighteen years old and entering into adulthood. Their lives have taken divergent paths over the past eight years but they find themselves reunited in Tenochtitlan during a festival to celebrate the winter solstice. There are tensions between the three as they struggle to overcome the resentment that has developed as a result of Ocelotl living in the Highlands but they soon fall into their old roles as they become embroiled in a plot to kill the chief advisor Tlacaelel.

Saadia is, without a doubt, a historian who painstakingly researches the subject matter of her books. However, even if you are not a lover of historic fiction, the strength of Saadia’s writing for me is the way she encourages us to evaluate the human condition, her depiction of history highlights that nothing really changes. Our way of life may have developed but the human race is still making the mistakes that we’ve always made – most probably since time began.

The driving force for most of the characters within The Triple Alliance is the quest for power. Tlacaelel is the power behind the throne of the Emperor. He’s a visionary who is largely responsible for the rise of Mexica and the powerful alliance with Texcoco and Tlacopan that ensures their reign of supremacy. However, Tlacaelel has no understanding of people and his desire to unify everyone under one God and ruler is unrealistic. The populace of Tenochtitlan, despite Tlacaelel’s sophisticated projects to build waterways, bridges and other new impressive buildings, is a seething mass of anger and division. The different groups of people have been forcibly merged together and each group views the others as “foreigners”. We only have to look at the current mass migration taking place in Europe and the explosive levels of racism and xenophobia following in its wake to see that Saadia’s account of the past is still very relevant.

Even the women, who essentially belong to the noble men of the Empire, are jockeying for positions of power through their men. There is very little sisterhood in the palatial households where wives are often cast aside for younger and more appealing women. The exception to this is Tlalli, who as a commoner and concubine has very little social standing but has gained the respect of all who know her through her accomplishments and generous spirit.

The Triple Alliance reinforces the idea that women at that time had no power at all. Citalli, like her mother before her, is viewed as a valuable commodity and has been trained to be a wife from a young age. By the age of eighteen she has already been married off to the heir of Tlacopan. A marriage she had no say in whatsoever. Citalli is a strong character who is volatile and not afraid to speak her mind but her sense of power is misplaced as ultimately she is at the mercy of the men around her.

The relationship between the three siblings is presented by Saadia in a very real and interesting way. Both Ocelotl and Coatl feel the pressure of having to follow in their successful warlord father’s footsteps. Ocelotl in particular struggles to find his own identity as he has a disability and can’t complete with Coatl and his father physically. However, under his grandfather’s guidance, he learns to value his own strengths rather than comparing himself to others. Citalli has strong feelings of kinship with both brothers but her attachment to Ocelotl becomes so intense it creates an inappropriate sexual tension between the two of them. Saadia explores this dilemma in a sensitive and thoughtful way which elicits feelings of compassion for Citalli who has no idea about her true heritage.

In giving the final novel over to the young characters, Saadia allows her series to come full circle. The youth of the characters inject the story with energy and fun regardless of the tense and serious backdrop. As with all her novels, Saadia assuredly offers her readers edge of your seat tension, leaving us desperate to learn the fates of our beloved characters.

The Triple Alliance is an exciting and satisfying read which works perfectly well as a standalone novel. However, I cannot recommend The Rise of the Aztecs’ series highly enough and guarantee that if you give it a try you will be hooked and fully invested in the rich lives of Saadia’s wonderful characters. Part of me is devastated to have come to the end of the road but the great news is that Zoe Saadia is such a prolific writer there’s a whole new series waiting for me.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Glossolalia : A Psychological Suspense Thriller by Tantra Bensko

Glossolalia by Tantra Bensko has the subtitle, a psychological suspense, but I’m not sure this reflects the true nature of the novel. It’s a story that is impossible to categorise and quite possibly the most unique book I’ve ever read.

It’s a complex and surreal story which highlights lots of modern dilemmas, chiefly by using irony and exaggeration. The imagery that Bensko creates is both visual and bizarre. The only way I can think of to explain it is – imagine staring at a Salvador Dali painting whilst on speed because the pace of the novel is almost neck breaking.

Bensko’s protagonist is a character called Nancy. It’s quite difficult to get a real sense of Nancy as, due to her fragmented mental state, she is a very unreliable narrator. She is being used as a pawn by a group called the Neverminds, who are basically running a mind control programme. Nancy has been split into compartments by the Neverminds so that she is three different personalities. They accomplished this by traumatising her as a young child and then keeping her medicated.

The novel works on the premise that the world is controlled by an alliance of the US government, church and big business, who use mind control to ensure that the world is run as they see fit. The glossolalia of the title is a language used by the powers that be to create a hypnotic effect. Hence once they hypnotise someone they use the secret language to control their behaviour. Bensko offers us a world where power corrupts. Nancy works for her Uncle Geoff, an agent of Nevermind and the owner of D-CIDE, an unscrupulous pesticide company. The chemical XXX which is used in the pesticide is known to have killed both humans and animals but the corruption within the establishment is such that Geoff is given the job of investigating chemicals that are harmful to the environment.

Geoff colludes with the charismatic Reverend Terry Crank who has incredible power within the church despite being a sexual deviant. He is also an agent of Nevermind and uses his position to control and eliminate any opponents of the status quo.

The levels of corruption run so deep it’s hard to know who is part of the Nevermind conspiracy and who is actually a genuine character. The main anti-Nevermind voice is an activist called Elias Brandon who runs an online blog exposing wrong doing. He is so shrouded in mystery and bizarre however, it just adds another layer of distrust and confusion.

Nancy also has an online friend called Jeff who, when he visits her turns out to be a sinister childhood associate with hands fashioned to look like flamingos, which he then uses to control her mind. There is a love interest called Julio who again seems like a shadowy character which makes us doubt his authenticity.

There is no doubt that Bensko is a talented, intelligent writer and she successfully gets us to question everything by making us doubt our own perceptions. She maintains control over her writing despite taking it to such surreal heights that her readers have no choice but to suspend all reality.

I suspect that Glossolalia will appeal to a niche audience who will absolutely love it. The problem I had is that I didn’t really get it and this was more to do with me than the actual novel. It’s a bit like some people love Terry Gilliam films whilst others are left feeling out of the loop. I’m not sure if my inability to connect was cultural because the book is very American or caused by the fact that I’m quite conventional and couldn’t immerse myself fully into the madness.

I would definitely recommend that you give Glossolalia a try. It’s a brave and unique story and Tantra Bensko is an assured writer. I’m willing to bet that if you connect with it this novel may well turn out to be one of your all time favourites. 

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Sword (The Rise of the Aztecs Book 6) by Zoe Saadia

The Sword by Zoe Saadia is the sixth book in The Rise of the Aztecs series. It had been a while since I read the last one (The Fall of the Empire) but the second I opened my kindle it was like meeting up with a beloved old friend.

All of Saadia’s novels can be enjoyed as standalones but there is nothing that can compare to the sheer joy of following this cast of characters from the beginning. We first met Kuini and Coyotl as children but in The Sword they are accomplished, successful men in their thirties. Along the way Saadia has added more characters for us to love such as Dehe, Iztac-Ayotl, Tlacaelel and more recently Tlalli.

This particular novel belongs to Tlalli and Kuini’s young son, Ocelotl. The novel is set in the city of Texcoco where Coyotl has finally claimed his rightful place as Emperor. Due to the recent battles and regional turmoil, lots of the characters are feeling like strangers in a strange land, particularly Tlalli, visiting the city with her lover, Tlacaelel, who as Mexica’s chief adviser is a dignitary at Coyotl’s ceremony.

When we first met Tlalli in The Fall of the Empire, she was a brave and resourceful market girl but, since being taken as Tlacaelel’s favourite concubine, she has come some way to realising her full potential. She has taught herself to read and write so much so that Tlacaelel is planning to use her as a scribe. However, Tlalli has lost none of her spirited independence and, whilst exploring the city at night she stumbles across information that essentially prevents Coyotl and Tlacaelel’s plans from being thwarted.

The plot centres on the eponymous sword which belongs to Kuini, the Chief Warlord. The sword has belonged to the Warlord since he was a young man and has taken on a symbolic meaning for a lot of people who associate it with the Warlord’s success. In fact, many people are convinced that the sword has magical powers. When the sword is stolen it threatens to destabilise everything Coyotl, Kuini and Tlacaelel have worked for and it becomes a race against time to find it and those responsible for the theft.

The situation is made even more threatening because the Warlord’s young son, Ocelotl is also missing, caught up in the theft of the sword. In Ocelotl we see the mirror image of the boy Kuini who we first met in The Highlander. Ocelotl doesn’t fit in in Texcoco where he is constantly compared to his more conventionally accomplished twin. He is considered too wild and ill-disciplined but during the course of the novel proves himself to be his father’s son. The Warlord’s concern for and relationship with his son also serves to remind the reader of his human side despite his ruthlessness as a warrior.

My favourite character in the previous novels has been Dehe and she doesn’t disappoint. Tlalli is almost like a younger version of the now settled and respectable wife of the Warlord. We see Dehe mostly through Tlalli’s eyes and it’s gratifying that she has grown into a kind and wise woman. This is particularly in evidence in her treatment of the Warlord’s other wife and Coyotl’s sister, Iztac-Ayotl. Iztac makes a terrible mistake that Dehe helps her to cover up and, although I partly wanted Iztac to be exposed, it made me love Dehe even more for not doing so.

As with the other novels of the series, one of the themes of the story is the lasting effects of colonialism. Even though most of the battles are over and Tlacaelel is building a strong Mexica Empire, resentments are bubbling under the surface as the people feel the loss of their independence and cultural identity. Tlacaelel is a strategic politician and he has almost realised his vision of a cohesive empire under the rule of his own emperor, Itzcoatl and Coyotl. However, he naively believes that eradicating the Tepanecs from history and elevating one God to unite the people is the answer. He is surprised when Tlalli recounts events from her own Tepanec perspective and, although he advises Coyotl to get rid of dissenters, he fails to see that resentment will still remain waiting for the right moment to surface. It’s particularly interesting when we compare this time of 1431 to the present day and realise that most of the world’s problems stem from resentments and anger over land, religion and culture. It seems that we are still dealing with the consequences of colonialism.

One of the many things that make Saadia’s novels such a delight to read is the attention she pays to history which lends the stories enormous credibility. Her writing skills bring this period alive from the way she describes the busy market places to the intrigue that takes place around the palaces. Superstition plays a strong part in this story especially where the sword is concerned. Saadia manages to convey the power it represents in such a way that I got so caught up in her words I came to believe it was magical myself.

Saadia also imbues her story with heart-stopping tension especially surrounding Ocelotl. As he tries to escape from the hired killers who have stolen his father’s sword I genuinely feared for his safety. Likewise when his father embarks upon a spectacular sword fight with the leader of the thieves, my heart was in my mouth.

There are so many things to recommend about this book that I really don’t know where to start but one of the great things about Saadia is the way she allows females to shine in a very male dominated world. Her novels are always filled to brim with excitement but at the same time thoughtful and steeped in history. I can’t remember a series I have enjoyed more and am really looking forward to downloading the next instalment.

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Family Line by Laura Wilkinson

The Family Line by Laura Wilkinson is an unusual but gripping story set in the near future. Wilkinson cleverly uses her novel to construct a world that acts as a cautionary tale of what could become of us if we fail to mend our ways.

We are introduced to the main character, foreign correspondent Megan Evens, in a prologue where the independent, sparky thirty something is trying to escape a militarised Muslim area to return to London. The impression is immediately created that Megan is a tough, no-nonsense, driven woman.

These are qualities that serve her well when she finds herself a single mother and opts to return to her family home in Wales. Her life is turned upside down even further when she discovers that her young son has a hereditary condition called AMNA and without a bone marrow transplant he will not survive into adulthood. Megan determines that she will stop at nothing to find a genetic match for her child but in doing so uncovers life changing family secrets.

Wilkinson separates her novel into three parts: the present, the past and the future. During the first part (present) of the novel, we are given clues that the world has been dramatically altered, for example there is food and water rationing and restrictions on travelling. However, it is not until the second section (past) that we learn the truth. The ‘past’ is told from Megan’s mother, Elizabeth’s, point of view and she describes how in 2025 a plague wiped out 50% of the UK population which has unspeakable ramifications for both Elizabeth and the unwitting Megan. The final section (future) of the novel sees Megan travelling to Romania with her mentor, friend and fellow journalist, Jack North, in an attempt to unravel the past and find a bone marrow match for Megan’s child.

I found the novel to be extremely dark and in places truly disturbing. My favourite section of the novel is the ‘past’ and it is in this section that Wilkinson’s writing evokes terrifying imagery in the way she describes the onset of the plague. She presents us with a realistic scenario where infestations of rats, some as big as small dogs, act as the harbinger of the terror that is to come. The terrible suffering that the people endured is also made heartbreakingly real by Wilkinson’s vivid imagery.

What I particularly like about Wilkinson’s novel is the way in which she explores very relevant issues by taking them to their extreme potential trajectory. For example, the plague is a man-made one created for warfare that is somehow released. The rats are breeding because of the amount of waste people discard and they consequently spread the plague like wild fire.  There are also climate changes causing droughts and floods brought about by mankind’s selfish disregard for the environment. After the plague, people determine to be more mindful of the problems they are causing but, little more than thirty years later they are already neglecting the environment once more and the suggestion is the whole 2025 catastrophe could be repeated.

As a result of the plague, the population is massively depleted and a ‘breeding frenzy’ ensues. This leads to women who are past natural child bearing age or infertile seeking out donated eggs. As egg donation becomes big business, poor countries become exploited as young women and girls are offered money for their eggs. The consequences of this are dire as none of the donors are checked for any health implications. Wilkinson raises the question of whether it is a woman’s right to bear a child just because she wants one. The idea is taken to its extreme when we are presented with the grotesque image of a pregnant woman in her seventies.

Wilkinson also explores the guilt associated with hereditary conditions. AMNA is a disease where females are the carriers and males the sufferers. However, this is made even more complex because not every mother will pass it onto her sons; it’s a random condition that can skip a generation or strike just one boy in a family. If this were the case, would you risk having children and how would you live with yourself if you passed a life limiting, terrible disease onto your child. Wilkinson touches upon genetic engineering and the question of where it would stop. If we used it to eradicate potential illness is it not then human nature to become even more demanding in a quest for perfection?

Another question raised by the novel is the impact of nurture over nature. Although nature dictates our physical attributes and weaknesses, nurture can be just as life limiting. Megan has been nurtured by a mother who is defined by secrets. This has had a disastrous effect on their relationship as Elizabeth has seemed emotionally absent to Megan. Megan herself is a cold, aloof character who, despite her passion for social justice, doesn’t give of herself emotionally. Her relationships with others seem functional rather than warm and caring.

I really liked The Family Line; I found it interesting and thought provoking. My only slight criticism is that because the book has such a dark and uncertain tone throughout, the ending, when it comes, seems a little bit neat and tidy. That being said, lots of readers do prefer books with a definitive conclusion.

The Family Line is not a light summer read but it is a thoughtful and well written story of where we could all potentially end up. If you like a novel that is unusual and makes you think, then this one is for you.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A History of Stone and Steel by Christopher Fisher

A History of Stone and Steel by Christopher Fisher is an unusual read that is both compelling and thought provoking. I was hooked from the first page and it is a credit to Fisher’s skill as a writer that he drew me in so effectively and made me care about a character who is not very likeable.

Paul Keppel is like a middle-aged Holden Caulfield – 43 years old and still going through life in a self-absorbed bubble with no idea who he really is. The story is told in first person narrative and the only thing that kept me from fully detesting Paul was his wry humour and the fact that he knows that he is a “ridiculous man.”

The novel begins in the present where Paul is married with one year old twin girls and another child on the way. He is a dissertation away from completing his PHD which will allow him to teach and take the financial pressure off his family. However, he is stuck in some kind of no man’s land unable to put pen to paper. Matters are compounded as he is suffering from debilitating headaches and insomnia caused by a recurring dream.

The dream takes on a life of its own and forms part of the structure of the story when Fisher takes us on a journey which alternates between the present and the summer of 1991 when Paul worked in a steel plant. As the novel unfolds the tension increases as Fisher hints that the incidents of 1991 have impacted massively on Paul’s present. By the time the time line meets up at the end of the novel the suspense is almost unbearable.

My favourite parts of the novel are the ones in the steel plant. Fisher creates a world that is vividly terrifying. He describes inside the plant as being like hell with the heat and physical labour and the reader is left with no doubt of the harsh conditions and danger that the men are working in every day. All this is offset though by the camaraderie of the men and the unique relationships that develop in such a tough environment.

One of Paul’s weaknesses is that he is unable to accept people as they are. He is easily disappointed when people can’t be who he wants them to be. His father is a hard working man, often working double shifts in the steel plant to provide for his family. He clearly loves his son, there is a tender scene where he makes Paul breakfast and he’s also given him his beloved old truck and paved his way into the steel plant. However, he’s not particularly demonstrative for which Paul can’t forgive him.

Paul’s sense of dislocation seems to stem from the fact that when he was just eight years old his ‘fire and brimstone’ grandfather, “the reverend”, declared him to be a prophet. Consequently Paul’s childhood was defined by his feelings of being special and his grandfather’s dream of him attending bible school and becoming a preacher. It is only as a young man that Paul is able to free himself from his grandfather’s dominating presence.

Maybe as a result of his grandfather’s overbearing personality, Paul becomes like a spectator in his own life. He loves his first girlfriend, Angela; because she wants him to and then goes on to marry Carrie because she makes it easy for him. At no time does he make an actual commitment. It’s ironic that his anger towards his own father stems from their lack of communication because his relationship with his own daughters seems very distant which is emphasised by his friend Gary’s ability to easily engage with them.

Fisher uses Gary as a direct contrast to Paul. A mature student working his way through college, Gary is an ex-Marine who perhaps has reason to feel sorry for himself. He walks with a limp due to a bizarre accident whilst in service and is troubled by his wartime experience. Paul has everything that Gary doesn’t and, maybe due to his loneliness, Gary quickly insinuates himself into Paul’s life and becomes his partner in crime. Paul and Gary’s antics provide much of the comedy in the novel. As Paul’s behaviour becomes increasingly out of control, Gary is like the voice of reason even though he clearly has a great many mental health issues of his own.

I’m not sure what to make of Paul’s long suffering wife, Carrie, or indeed why she puts up with his unreasonable, selfish behaviour. Despite being pregnant she is the one who keeps the family together, working in a bank, taking care of the twins and seemingly doing all of the household chores. She even collects Paul’s medication for him while he wallows in self pity and pretends to write his dissertation. Since marrying Paul she has found religion which perhaps explains why she stays with him or maybe she is simply a realistic portrayal of why people stay in marriages that to outsiders don’t seem worth the trouble.

The end of the book came as a massive surprise to me which, despite the escalating tension, I never saw coming. I think A History of Stone and Steel is an intelligent book which raises lots of questions. Religion runs through the entire novel and with it the idea that it is not religion but the way in which we interpret it that causes so many problems. It is very much a novel of our time and Paul is the perfect representative of our self obsessed society. He mirrors the way we all seem to spend our time looking inward and struggling with existential angst rather than just getting on with life and making the best of what we have.

I loved A History of Stone and Steel and as much as I wanted to slap Paul I was completely intrigued by his story. It’s a thoughtful and at times hilarious book which is extremely well written. If you like something that is a bit quirky and different then I can’t recommend this one highly enough. e He stems

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Changing Patterns by Judith Barrow

Changing Patterns by Judith Barrow is a nostalgic novel set in 1950 which succeeded in evoking lots of different emotional responses as I was reading it. It’s in turn, funny, sad and heart warming but also has a serious dose of tension thrown into the mix.

Barrow has created this novel as the second in her Shadows’ trilogy. As with all series, you can’t beat reading them in the order that they were intended; however, this is a story that works perfectly well as a standalone. Five years have passed since Pattern of Shadows and Barrow does a great job of providing her readers with just enough back story.

Mary and Peter, the seemingly star-crossed lovers, have been reunited and are living in idyllic surroundings in a coastal village in Wales. Sadly though, tragedy never seems to be far away from this couple and, just as it feels like they may get their happy ever after, Mary is pulled into a family drama that threatens to rip her relationship with Peter apart.

One of Barrow’s many strengths is the amount of historic research she has done and the attention to detail which brings her story alive. As someone who was brought up in a Northern industrial city as part of a working class community, lots of Barrow’s descriptions brought a smile to my face as memories of my grandparents’ back to back houses, complete with outside toilets and front rooms that were rarely used, came flooding back. It is a credit to Barrow’s writing that her settings are not only realistic but become a central part of the story. At times, it reminded me of the setting for a drama and I could well envisage the whole thing being played out on our TV screens.

I like so many things about this novel but not least the dynamics of the Howarth family. As the oldest girl, Mary has been conditioned to put other people’s needs before her own and she does this time and time again at the expense of her own happiness. Her younger sister Ellen is almost childlike due to her reliance on Mary to take control every time life becomes difficult. No matter that everyone around them can see that their relationship isn’t healthy, they seem destined to carry on playing their predetermined roles.

Barrow gives us a warts and all glimpse of life in a close knit community. The back to back housing means that there is no space for privacy or individuality and that can be oppressive and limiting. However, it also has its positives, for example when a child goes missing everyone in the community immediately pulls together as part of the search. Likewise, it’s easy to idealise the idea of strong women and a matriarchal society but Barrow reminds us that women can be just as bullying and aggressive as men. Ellen’s mother in law is the epitome of a spiteful, angry woman dominating her family’s life in such a way that she is making everyone unhappy.

Strangely my favourite character is Mary’s brother, Patrick, who on the surface is an unpleasant bully. He has been brought up in a home where domestic abuse is the norm. His only male role model was a man who expressed his anger and frustrations by lashing out. Patrick has seen his mother’s suffering as a victim of domestic abuse and has vowed to himself he will never be like his father. However, he struggles with his own anger and does in fact strike his wife. He’s also a womaniser who measures his self-worth by his attractiveness to women. There is no doubt though that at heart he is a good man and Barrow allows us to see his journey to become a better husband, father and human being. By the end of the novel, I was really rooting for him to rise above his upbringing.

Barrow also explores racial prejudice in the novel through the difficulties that Peter endures. It’s hardly surprising that, during the years following the war, communities who had suffered devastating losses refused to welcome a German into their midst. However, the story expresses hope for humanity as gradually tensions ease and it becomes clear that Peter is no different to anyone else. Parts of the story felt very relevant to modern day Britain where we are becoming increasingly wary of outsiders. There is poignancy in the way Peter insists that his children have English names because he doesn’t want them to be singled out. This sadly reminded me of my own new Hungarian neighbours who have anglicised their names to try and fit in.

From beginning to end the novel is threaded with tension. The Howarth family are burdened with secrets that they are each trying to keep in order to protect the ones they love. It’s clear though that the secrets are destined to come out as the longer they are kept the more potentially toxic they become. In George Shuttleworth, Barrow has created a villain who is always lurking in the shadows threatening to cause heartache for the Howarth family, which ultimately he does. Cleverly though, Barrow doesn’t make George a one dimensional baddie. He is odious and repulsive but he is also a victim of violence and anger and is deeply unhappy.

I can’t recommend Changing Patterns enough; it is a top notch read that kept me glued to my kindle well into the wee hours. If you love a series then I suggest you opt for Pattern of Shadows first. If not then dive straight into this one – you won’t regret it.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Blue Ridge Project by Neil Rochford

The Blue Ridge Project by Neil Rochford is a beguiling mix of crime thriller and sci-fi. I found myself enthralled from the very first page and the break neck pace didn’t let up until the last.

Rochford’s success lies in the way he shrouds his story in mystery, leaving his readers compelled to read on in order to find out what might happen next. The story is based in Beacon City which is controlled by the rich and very sordid Hamilton family. From the onset, the mysterious and strangely deserted Regent Hotel seems to be at the centre of much of the action but we don’t find out to what extent until the very end.

Likewise, Rochford throws lots of characters at us in the beginning, almost playing with us as they jockey for centre stage before being discarded and creating yet another layer of mystery. Finally two protagonists emerge from the crowd, in the form of homicide detective, Andrea Nox and freelance investigative journalist, Robert Duncan.

Rochford further demonstrates his hold over both his writing skills and his readers by employing an extremely complex structure. The novel opens with a prologue which is actually set two days before the start of the novel. We are allowed to catch up before Rochford cleverly uses his characters’ memories to take us into the past, thereby providing us with some of the answers to the many questions buzzing around our heads. In parallel running chapters, Andrea relives her past via a conversation with a therapist while Robert unburdens himself in a drunken conversation with a recent acquaintance. For the final section of the novel, we are brought back to the present day in time for the denouement.

I really like the way Rochford presents his characters. There are no perfect heroes just flawed, damaged, not necessarily likeable people, getting by the best they can. Rochford has an excellent eye for detail and brings his characters alive with unusual observations. For example, he describes a lawyer in the book as someone who, “looked like a man who would die in his office rather than retire.”

Andrea Nox is my favourite character, a hard drinking, angry woman who is not averse to drunken one night stands. Her counterpart in the novel, Robert Duncan, is a heavy drinking idealist whose reputation is in tatters as a result of trying to expose a powerful politician as a brutal deviant. Both characters experienced traumatic childhoods which have had far reaching effects on their adult lives.

Andrea and Robert find themselves thrown together as a result of “the project,” a mysterious experiment with mind control. As the two of them get drawn further and further into the murky world surrounding the experimentation, they find themselves questioning their own sanity. Rochford raises the philosophical question of what is real and how do we know our perceptions of events are valid? After all, do people who are insane know they are insane and what is to say that they are?

I really liked The Blue Ridge Project; it is an exciting page turner that also provides the reader with food for thought. The novel ends on a cliff-hanger ready to continue into a sequel and, I for one will definitely be coming back for seconds. 

Thursday, 30 June 2016

To Swim Beneath the Earth by Ginger Bensman

To Swim Beneath the Earth by Ginger Bensman is both an original and compelling novel that cleverly combines 1970’s US culture with that of South America in the 1500s. Not only is the story impeccably written, it also displays an impressive historical knowledge.

The book begins in Colorado in 1973 when the protagonist Megan Kimsey has just lost her father. Megan has always been regarded by her family as highly strung due to her random spates of clairvoyance and an inexplicable knowledge of the Inca Empire and its people. Only Megan’s father understands her and before his death purchased a ticket for her to travel to South America in a quest for answers about her troubling mental state.

Megan is a great character and I loved Bensman’s depiction of her family life. Her mother is a cold, unloving woman and her relationship with Megan is toxic and damaging. Bensman presents us with the dynamics of the dysfunctional Kimsey family in a way that is both heart rending and darkly funny.

The structure of the novel is complex and extremely effective which is indicative of Bensman’s strong writing skills. Once Megan travels to South America, she increasingly becomes connected to the past. We are given flashbacks to the time of the Incas where Megan takes on the identity of a man called Illapa. As Megan becomes consumed by the past and starts to resent the intrusion of the present, Bensman cleverly recreates that sense of tension for her readers. At crucial points in the narrative, she drags us back to 1973 as Megan’s consciousness returns to her, piquing our curiosity and leaving us desperate to find out what is going to happen.

Bensman’s particular strength, in my opinion, is her characterisation. Megan is a wonderfully prickly character who disappears at the first sign of conflict. She describes herself as a “social coward”. Bensman also creates excellent potential villains such as the obnoxious therapist, Dr Vickers, who Megan’s mother engages to work with Megan. He is constantly looming in the wings ready to perform an intervention which provides both humour and horror in equal measure.

There is also a really strong sense of place particularly once Megan travels to South America. Even in the 1974 sections, Bensman conveys a society that is steeped in ancient ways and wisdoms as personified by Megan’s friend Koyam, a medicine woman. Bensman’s knowledge of the Inca civilisation is such that it brings the period alive for the reader and makes us feel as though we are actually there.

There are so many heart breaking events in the story which are genuinely moving. As a child, Megan babysits for a little girl who suffers a misfortune that almost brought me to tears. Likewise Megan’s relationship with her young son when she is in the role of Illapa is emotionally charged and poignant.

I really loved this novel and found it entertaining, intelligent and thought provoking. It raises questions of reincarnation and a spirit world which I enjoyed exploring. Ultimately Megan is unable to find her place in the world until she has lain the past to rest.

This is not a novel that fits easily into any one genre but I believe there is something to captivate everyone. If you’re looking for a new read and fancy something a little bit different then I wholeheartedly recommend To Swim Beneath the Earth.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Shore Lights (Paradise Point NJ book 1) by Barbara Bretton

Shore Lights by Barbara Bretton is the first novel in the Paradise Point NJ series. It’s a warm hearted romance that I really enjoyed immersing myself into.

From the onset, it’s pretty clear where the story is going to end up but that doesn’t matter a jot as it’s the journey to get there that’s the fun part. Maddy Bainbridge is a thirty something single mother, who returns to her home town of Paradise Point after fifteen years. In doing so she finds not only herself but a handsome, single father called Aidan O’Malley.

Bretton’s skill lies in the way she has created a world within a world in Paradise Point. It’s a small community where everyone knows and cares about each other. The main characters of the novel and within the town are the DiFalcos (Maddy’s family) and the O’Malleys. Conflicts are explored and resolved within the story but a strong sense of family is never far from the surface.

I really like Maddy; she is just the right combination of gutsy and vulnerable. She’s struggling not only to find her way with her own daughter but with her estranged mother as well. The miscommunications that are tearing Maddy and her mother apart are probably something that we can all relate to.

Aidan is the perfect romantic hero, he’s endured lots of heartache but manages to be an excellent father and retain his decency and kindness. I really like the way Bretton doesn’t put obstacles in the couple’s way but rather allows them to support each other through the difficulties that occur.

Bretton also does a great job of making the novel seem contemporary and relevant. The characters and dialogue is realistic, punchy and at times hilarious. She also begins Maddy and Aidan’s romance via email, where they open up to each other before they realise their true identities.

The novel is made even cosier by the fact that it is set in the run up to Christmas and Paradise Point is in the grip of a snow blizzard. That said Christmas is not such a major theme that the story can’t be enjoyed at any time of the year. Although I’m sure it would be the perfect read for the festive season.

Despite the novel being essentially a feel good read, Bretton does touch on serious issues and handles them sensitively and realistically. There is the impact that broken families have on children, how people deal with serious illness and bereavement. Most poignantly there is also old age and dealing with the realisation at the end of your life that it may not have been well lived. The only slight criticism that I have is that 70% into the story it takes a supernatural turn that didn’t really work for me. However, I know that lots of other readers will enjoy the paranormal twist.

Shore Lights is the kind of novel that you can really lose yourself in and if you like romance I think you will love this one. By the end of the story I found myself wanting to get the next ticket to Paradise Point and I will definitely be catching up with DiFalcos and O’Malleys in the rest of their series.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Dark Web by T. J. Brearton

Dark Web is a chilling crime thriller that takes the reader into a dark world that most of us probably didn’t even know existed. It is a story with lots of twists and turns and each one is more disturbing than the last.

The story begins with the relocation of a family from Florida to a small town called New Brighton in upstate New York. Mike and Callie Simpkins and their three children have only been in their new home for a couple of months when an unthinkable tragedy befalls them. The family implodes and the rest of the novel is both the resolution of the mystery that has engulfed them and a depiction of the kind of personal hell that every family dreads.

T. J. Brearton is an assured story teller who keeps us guessing right until the very end. He somehow manages to cast a shadow over every character and I found myself suspecting everyone as I raced through the novel to find out what had really happened. The ending, when it comes, is both clever and unexpected.

The story is told in the 3rd person from several points of view and consequently there are a few main characters. My favourite is Jack Swift, a seasoned detective who is at odds with the modern world and its dependence on technology. Mike and Callie Simpkins start off as ‘every couple’ but over the course of the novel we realise that they may not be what they first seem. I particularly like the way Brearton has lots of great strong female characters such as the pathologist, Janine Poehler and Brittney Silas the CSI.

Brearton uses the setting of New Brighton to great advantage. The Simpkins arrive in winter and the small town is blanketed in heavy snow which hampers the investigation and creates a feeling of tense isolation. As Brearton describes the icy cold conditions, it matches the chilling incidents taking place within the story.

Much of the investigation involves the dark web of which I had no knowledge until I read this book. It’s a dangerous, murky world and its tentacles reach far and wide. Brearton creates a believable scenario which would terrify even the stoutest of hearts. What this novel highlights is the chasm between the old and new. Jack Swift represents the older, pre-technology generation whilst the younger characters are able to manipulate events from a place that he doesn’t understand.

I really enjoyed this book and it kept me reading well into the wee hours as I just could not put it down. If you like crime thrillers then I think you will love this one. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Dark Room by Mary Maddox

I enjoyed Dark Room by Mary Maddox on so many levels. On the one hand, it’s an exciting mystery but it is also underpinned by Maddox’s obvious love of art and in particular photography which enriches the story enormously.

The novel begins with a prologue describing four black and white photographs and Maddox goes on to cleverly structure the action around these images. They basically tell the story of a murder and Maddox uses her narrative to give the photographs meaning.

The person who captured the photographs is Day Randall, a free spirit who is dealing, not very successfully, with a bipolar disorder. Day disappears early on in the novel but her presence remains compelling throughout. Right from the title, it’s obvious that photography is going to be a significant aspect of the novel but it becomes an almost extended metaphor. One of the ways in which Maddox uses photography is in the idea of light and dark. It’s no coincidence that Day’s photographs are black and white with a raw, grittiness and Maddox proceeds to employ this idea in the depiction of her characters.

If Day is darkness then her friend Kelly Durrell is light. She is conventional to Day’s unconventional. Like Day though, her life is defined by art as she is the assistant curator of a museum. Kelly is probably the character most of us relate to, she is a kind, decent woman who always tries to do the right thing. Day has been living in her spare room for only 8 months but their bond is strong. Maddox gives us the information about Kelly, such as the fact that she is alienated from her family and lost her sister, but allows us to draw our own conclusions about her motives in creating a sense of family with Day. The light and dark motif also extends to other characters such as Gregory Tyson, a shadowy, dark figure or Cash Peterson the blonde, outdoorsy natural type.

Maddox’s love of photography is evident in all of her descriptions but particularly with buildings and locations. This creates a very visual novel so that at times it’s almost like watching a film. Likewise with her characters, particularly the minor ones who exist in the underbelly of society, her descriptions are vivid and almost documentary like. Interestingly, Larry Clarke is mentioned in the novel and Maddox recreates his style of photography with words.

The story is told to us in 3rd person but we get lots of the different characters’ viewpoints. This is very effective because it allows us to understand the motivations of the characters but it also adds to the suspense. Maddox feeds us new pieces of information via the different voices until, jigsaw style; the big picture starts to emerge.

I loved this novel for so many reasons. I think it can be enjoyed as a straight forward thriller but it’s also so much more than this. Maddox’s photographic way of creating a story is both ingenious and unusual. She has attempted to put a different spin on the crime genre and, in my opinion, has pulled it off with aplomb.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Sacrifice by Peg Brantley

The Sacrifice by Peg Brantley is an edge of your seat crime thriller which captured my attention from the very beginning. It’s the kind of book that, had I had the time, I would have loved to devour in one sitting.

The main protagonist is Mex Anderson, a complex character so called because he is half Mexican. He was a law enforcement officer who refused to be bought off by drug cartels and paid the ultimate price when his family was murdered. The story begins when he is approached by Vincent Vega, the leader of a cartel and a man who Mex suspects could have played a role in the slaying of his family. Vega convinces Mex to try and locate his missing daughter.

What follows is an exciting journey full of twists and turns that takes us from Mexico to New Orleans. One of the things I really like about this book is the way Brantley brings the settings alive. She creates places of vivid colour and culture but steeped in danger.

The conflict within the story comes from the explosive combination of Mexican criminals and a religious cult. Brantley describes the cult of Santeria in such a way as to make it seem totally believable. As the plot develops, the cult becomes more and more chilling until the tension is almost unbearable.

I really like the characters in the book and the relationships they have with each other. Mex is a flawed hero, crippled by debilitating depression whilst trying to do the right thing. His friend Darius is almost his mirror image, symbolising what Mex has lost with his own perfect family. Vincent Vega, the villain of the piece, pays for his sins through his dysfunctional relationships with his own children.

My favourite character however is Cade Le Blanc, a native of New Orleans who can hold her own in any situation. Having lost her sister as a result of her involvement in a religious cult, Cade devotes her life to rescuing and deprogramming cult members. She is the driving force in helping Mex and Darius to launch a plan to retrieve Vega’s daughter. Both Cade and Mex are damaged by their pasts but they are clearly attracted to each other and Brantley cleverly leaves the reader with the hope that their relationship might develop.

The Sacrifice is a page turner that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who likes crime thrillers with lots of action. It would be the perfect holiday read as I guarantee once you pick it up you won’t want to put it down.