“Frozen Sky 2: Betrayed” – by Jeff Carlson

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How do you maintain a truce with a harsh alien species with which you can barely communicate? And how much more fragile is that truce when all your decisions are made by a distant bureaucracy riddled with self-interest and political agendas? One betrayal could start an inter-species war.

Betrayed is the sequel to The Frozen Sky by Jeff Carlson, an author who has had a number of novels which seem to be a mixture of self-published and traditionally published works. The Frozen Sky was a terrific read, so I was quite eager to see what he did with the sequel. Both novels are set of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. It’s not the first time that I’ve seen this moon as a focus of first-encounter fiction. The story revolves around discovery of and interactions with a species of life-form on Europa known as the Sunfish. The environment in which the story takes place is rich, plausible and fascinating.

In this novel, the plot covers a crisis point in the ongoing truce between Humankind and Sunfish. It does not attempt to build up the situation over days or weeks, nor does the crisis endure over a long period. Instead the entire story fits within a matter of a day or so, and as such, is a tense, action-packed sequence. What develops, does so very quickly leaving the onus on the reader to keep pace with several intelligent scientists and engineers as they interpret the actions of the Sunfish and attempt to avert a war. It was a thrill ride that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Vonnie, the engineer and main character of the first novel returns in this novel as an ambassador for the Europa mission, working directly with the Sunfish. She has become a controversial celebrity back on earth and we see her developing some political smarts whilst trying to stay true to her mission of developing a truce with the Sunfish species. As a reader we essentially inhabit Vonnie over the course of the story and everything is related from her perspective. Her self-doubts and internal conflicts are exposed which allows us to see more than just a tough and determined heroine. I’m not one for too much romance, especially if it feels “bolted on”. However, romance is introduced through Vonnie in a way that added to my appreciation of her character. Her feelings towards Koebsch and Ben added nuance to the story without dominating it.

The writing matched the pace of the story well. I didn’t sense any awkwardness or gaffs in the prose and the atmosphere remained consistently tense and exciting throughout. The concepts presented seem well-researched from my inexpert perspective. I read this feeling like the Europa mission was a possibility in our future and the attempts to understand an alien discourse also felt plausible.

I would highly recommend both of Carlson’s novels The Frozen Sky and Betrayed. There’s plenty of action, an icy subterranean world to explore, artificial intelligence, a completely novel species to meet and the old favourites of politics, petty rivalries and deceit. What’s not to love?

Rating: 5/5

Price at the time of review: $3.22 US

Available: Amazon

Author site: http://www.jverse.com/
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23349445-frozen-sky-2

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“Sand (Omnibus)” – by Hugh Howey

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A dive in the sand for Palmer is not only a profitable venture, it’s also his passion. The sand is the only place he feels at home. However, after being commissioned by a band of mysterious rebels, a lucrative dive job may end up being his last and a secret is uncovered that can threaten all he knows.

Sand is a far future tale of an earth that has been buried. The sand dunes form the landscape and the scraps of a previous civilization form the major currency.

The world Howey has created is completely satisfying as a setting for a gripping story filled with mysteries, conspiracies and danger. One of the aspects I enjoyed is that there was no attempt to explain why our previous world has been buried in sand. We are stockpiling post-apocalyptic lectures on the kind of future to which our present may lead us, so it’s refreshing to bypass the lesson for a change and focus on the setting. The adaptation to a world of sand brings Frank Herbert’s Arrakis to mind with a focus on civilisation rather than religion and prophecy. I also sensed a hint of the Dust Bowl era, with its poverty and pervasive grit. I found it clever to introduce several new terms for sand in its various manifestations; for example: scoop – sand that collects in boots, matte – sand that collects in hair. The ever-present sand promotes an entirely new vocabulary.

However, the most impressive evolution in this sabulous environment is that of the sand diver. The mind-controlled technology behind the diving is only loosely explained which allows the reader to focus on transplanting a sub-aquatic experience to a subterranean context without getting bogged down in the technical details or possible implausibilities thereof.

The plot is told from the point of view of three siblings within the same family. Palmer, the second-oldest kicks off the story by making a discovery from the past world which creates a threat to the current world. Conner, the younger brother makes a discovery from their family’s past that helps to uncover that threat. And Vic, the oldest sister, processes both discoveries to fight the danger facing them all. That is, in essence, the story structure. Unfortunately, in the construction of the plot there are a few implausibilities that rankle. A yearly camping trip allows the only real opening for a message to arrive from the family’s past and it feels both overly convenient and highly implausible. The motivation behind the threat posed to the cities of Low-Pub and Springston isn’t terribly logical and the nod to David Lynch’s movie Dune in the last scene of the book is downright silly. However, at the same time, the story remained exciting and totally worth the effort.

Of the three main characters, Vic and Conner are probably the most well-drawn. Conner has to give up a future as a sand diver in order to raise the youngest sibling Rob and plans to abandon Springston to journey to the east – from which no one has previously returned. The conflict between his need to escape and his ties to Springston along with his development throughout the story make him interesting reading. The reader also gets a strong feel about the connections within the family through Conner giving his character a very important role in how the reader responds to all family members. Vic is a resilient and tough sand diver with more than one chip on her shoulder. Her past has its share of darker experiences and this plays out quite logically in her current status. She dates the leader of a rebel group taking risks for glory. She is separate from her siblings and, in particular, her mother – a well known brothel owner in Springston. Her deep sand dives are a form of self-validation where none was received from her father, an almost mythical figure in the story.

The writing itself is exactly what I would expect from Howey after reading the magnificent Wool trilogy. He transitions smoothly between acclimatising the reader to a new environment and delivering a dramatic story. Revelations surface gradually with prose that is well-chosen and, thankfully, error free. I’ve written before about Howey that his writing gets out of the reader’s way, so that focus remains on the story and characters and Sand seems to follow this philosophy.

I would highly recommend this novel. The sand diving alone makes it worth the price, even if I have some issues with the plot. It does not look like this novel is going to form a trilogy or series, so for those who don’t like committing to multiple volumes, this makes a great “dive” into an imaginative and worthwhile reading experience.

Rating: 4.5/5

Price at the time of review: $5.99 US

Available: Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Google Play

Author site: http://www.hughhowey.com/
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20509356-sand-omnibus

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“Gunwitch: The Witch Hunts” – by David Michael

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Rose Bainbridge takes Janett Laxton across the Amerigon wilderness to Founsteeth on request of one of the pirate city’s Three Captains. A relatively simple task of negotiating the trade of a prisoner becomes a nightmare as a storm hits the city, accompanied by legions of the Ubasi. Rose is left with a hunt to rescue Janett from the walking corpses of the Ubasi and the dark shaman who has returned to claim his revenge.

Gunwitch: The Witch Hunts is the second of the Gunwitch novels, the first having been reviewed previously on this site (click here). It has been a while since I read the first novel, but I was immediately familiar with Rose, Janette and Major Ian Haley.

An incident prior to the initial arrival at Founsteeth hints that Janett is not likely to be merely an accessory – a girl that needs to be rescued. Her character develops as the story progresses and she has a few revelations for the reader which are likely to change her standing if there is to be another book in the series. We have not completely lost Margaret, her sister from the previous novel. She makes a few dream appearances, almost as an oracle, but the messages seem to relate to possible developments in a following novel as none felt resolved by the end of this book.

Rose is still the heroine of the story and she’s a character I rather like. She’s tough, intelligent, insightful and very resourceful. One of the aspects of the first novel I enjoyed was the parallel telling of Rose’s back-story. In this novel, more of her history is unveiled, triggered by her unlikely pairing with a Hexen, a male witch. Can Rose trust an unexpected comrade, who once fought with the German Emperor and elicits horrifying memories of death and destruction? We also see Rose’s feelings towards Major Haley attempt to grow through the many walls Rose has erected around herself. This development did not feel bolted on – it seemed to flow naturally from past experiences and fears, which I appreciated.

The plot was a strange mix of elements that worked very well and some baffling let-downs. The scene of the storm was well told and sufficiently exciting to keep the pages turning and the determined hunt into enemy territory worked well as a whole. I liked the mixture of voodoo and steam, and the play on zombies with the continued use of the ithambofis. However, the introduction of new character Sipho was problematic and, in my opinion, bungled. Once Sipho was properly introduced to the reader and his role became known, a quick reflection showed that the preceding chapters were merely for that purpose and not to tell a story that made any sense; his previous actions were completely unnecessary to arrive at the same destination. The Hexen, while an interesting addition to the story, existed to create a plot twist regardless of the damage to the story’s logic. His previous actions, when viewed in the light of revelation, made no sense at all.

I found the prose to be well-constructed and flowed well. There were a few more typos than I would have liked, but the errors never became too distracting. Whether dealing with Janett’s journey in the clutches of walking horrors or exploring Rose’s reluctance to fully commit to Major Haley, the writing promoted immersion and I quite often had a strong picture of the scenes presented, especially the action scenes.

Gunwitch: The With Hunts leaves a couple of story arcs incomplete and enough territory unexplored for at least one more novel in the series. Despite my disappointment with some of the story construction in this episode, I am interested in the story’s direction and am enjoying the character of Rose Bainbridge enough to partake of the next episode when it arrives.

Rating: 3/5

Price at the time of review: $6.99 US

Available: Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Diesel

Author site: http://www.gunsandmagic.com/
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17300192-gunwitch

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“Mandragora” – by H. D. Greaves

Cover ImageWhat schemes are hatched when a young and wealthy dandy is tempted by his mischievous servant with the possibility of a lecherous conquest in Florence? A barren wife, flea-bitten partners in crime and the eventual culmination in a drink of the Mandragora brew; that cures as well as kills.

Mandragora is inspired by the Renaissance comedy, The Mandragora, penned by Niccolò Machiavelli and is apparently the only novel written based on that play.

The novel is set in the Renaissance, mainly in Florence, and involves the machinations of a servant, Siro, and his master, Callimaco Cagliostro. Together, they hatch a plan to bed the young, and apparently barren, wife of an aging Florentine lawyer, Nicia Calfucci.

I have not had much exposure to ribald fiction, and the lack was my main incentive to read Mandragora. Along with my equally missing experience with the play on which it is based, this possibly leaves me without some of the foundation required to critique it in depth. However, I shall try to couch it in terms with which I am familiar.

To me, the plot and the characters somewhat resembled Blackadder, the television series written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton for the comedy genius of Rowan Atkinson. I loved the series and reading this novel was like reliving the antics anew. The plot to bed the young and beautiful Lucrezia under the very nose of her husband is bound to become convoluted. The debauched accomplices who join our Casanova hero in his lecherous scheme provide a filthy and humourous sideshow.

The doddering and impotent Calfucci, the imperious Sostrata and the innocent but canny Lucrezia provide the obstacle course through which our ill-matched gaggle of conspirators must navigate. And when the Mandragora poison/cure is introduced and Lucrezia acquiesces the twist is revealed and lust becomes love which becomes lust.

Our cast is, in general, a set of caricatures, required to elicit the appropriate raised-eyebrow response as their exaggerated exploits are related.

Calimacco, our Casanova, is handsome, used to getting any woman that he desires, and easily corrupted by his devious servant. Siro, the silver-tongued, lives for intrigue and the service of his master. It is around him that the story pivots to an extent, as he is the instigator. In the story, we discover whether his naughty scheming is to be rewarded or punished. The other key character, in my mind, is the beautiful Lucrezia. Pure and religious, a virgin perceived as barren, whose awakening to desire parallels smutty adolescent jokes about Catholic girls gaining sexual independence. She is the trophy, but she’s also the judge and jury of both Calimacco and Siro.

The supporting cast of scoundrels and dupes add to the spectacle. In particular, Ligurio’s pervasive mis-speakings often coaxed a giggle from me.

The writing attempts a flourish of allusion and wit and largely succeeds. The phrases circle the meanings rather than issuing clear statements and the more filthy topics are often implied rather than described. It’s a style that probably coaxes the dirtier parts of the reader’s mind, to meet the narrative half-way and elaborate in privacy on what is unwritten – the reader now an accomplice in the nudge-nudge, wink-wink of the prose.

I liked Mandragora. It isn’t politically correct in any sense and you can’t help feeling a little dirty after reading it. However, it’s a guilty pleasure that has intelligence behind it; an homage to a style of ribald story-telling, written with flair and a more sophisticated turn of phrase. I enjoyed my little detour into literary lechery and I think others that don’t mind indulging that secret desire for a little snigger and sass will enjoy it too.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $5.99 US

Available: Amazon

Author site: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/HDGreaves
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18521587-mandragora

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“Killers” – by Shaun Jeffrey

Cover ImageA serial killer on the loose, a government agency covering-up the murders and Propser Snow’s dark secret isn’t so secret anymore. Only a deal with the devil will reveal the truth.

Killers is Shaun Jeffrey’s second Prosper Snow thriller. The first, The Kult, was reviewed by me back in April, 2012. (Review: here)

The story starts with a serial killer much like the last novel, but this time Snow is being kept from the investigation by an arm of MI5. As the body count rises, Snow becomes more intent on finding out why these murders are being buried. Soon enough, he is dabbling in unlawful behaviour again, until he figuratively sells his soul to find the answers.

With shady intelligence organisations and cover-ups, it’s no surprise that a conspiracy or two is uncovered along the way. However, what was finally revealed was a little over-the-top for me. It wasn’t uninteresting, just a bit silly.

Now part of the MI5 task force, Prosper continues to search for the killer, but when he finds him, everything is turned upside-down and Snow finds himself in a desperate fight for survival. The twists and turns create the right impact, but the implausibility of the underlying concept becomes a dance into absurdity, only salvaged by some impressive thriller-style chases.

Unfortunately, the conclusion is a bit of a fizzle with little in the way of satisfying resolution. Everyone wins, or loses, depending on your perspective.

It’s all Prosper Snow in this novel, which is a good thing. This character is the highlight of the book and what drew me to the sequel. In the first book, we were exposed to how far Snow could go when his loyalty was demanded, but in this book I think we see a darker side coming out.

Prosper touches and teases that inner animal, that do-what-it-takes-for-survival instinct, and warps it with a growing desire – an exhilaration that’s beginning to scare him, but to intrigue me. I always like to explore that dark edge in people’s personalities, that element kept hidden even from themselves. In this novel, Snow’s containment has been breached and what seeps out threatens to overpower him.

Other than the fact that I love this character’s name – who wouldn’t like the name Prosper Snow? – this character provides a vehicle for some interesting questions. How far would we go for friendship and loyalty? How far would we go to protect our families, or ourselves? And would we start to relish our actions in the process?

Prosper’s only surviving friend, Wolfe, also makes a reappearance, but he’s a little less interesting in the sequel. He’s bullied into assisting Prosper with his shenanigans and becomes more of a sidekick in Killers. He lacks a certain independence that made him interesting in the first novel.

The prose used by the author is solid. I only spotted a few small errors, but otherwise, the story flowed well. The shorter chapters kept the pace moving and although several scenes needed to be gruesome, the author was relatively restrained with the descriptives without eliminating the impact.

Unfortunately, I can’t really rave about Killers. It had some strong elements, and Prosper Snow is certainly one of the more interesting characters I’ve encountered in this genre. However, the story was just too much and then, at the end, not quite enough.

Rating: 3/5

Price at the time of review: $3.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, iTunes and more…

Author site: http://www.shaunjeffrey.com
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12835602-killers

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“Wall of a Thousand Tears” – by Julian Mok

Cover ImageDale Marshall is a US senator who receives top secret information about his government. Hunted by assassins, he flees to Cuba where he discovers the world he thought he knew was a lie. His life, declared forfeit, and his eyes opened by an unexpected revelation, Marshall finds himself drawn into escalating hostilities that can only lead to one thing – global conflict.

Wall of a Thousand Tears is the first book of a series, The Apocalypse Chronicles, that documents the lead-up to global warfare. This is Earth in the distant future, having suffered from two cataclysmic events: one called the Catalyst, the second called the Burning. This is an amazingly ambitious work, especially considering the author was only 13 years old when he started to write it.

The book begins in what is supposed to be the known world: the former US, Cuba and Mexico as one united country after multiple apocalyptic-style natural disasters. It’s not evident what these disasters are in the first part of the novel. The information is conveyed via an info dump or two at a later stage of the book.

The world is a pretty interesting one and the author has certainly been imaginative in its creation. However, it wasn’t terribly well painted. For example, I can’t recall now what the events were that jeopardised life on earth. I think there might have been something about a solar flare at one point, but the details are hazy. Additionally, I never felt that I inhabited any specific place throughout the novel. I have to draw the conclusion that immersion in any environment was not a priority of the author. I believe the only real interest of the author was in creating battle scenes – which brings me to the plot.

The scale of the story in Wall of a Thousand Tears is immense. However, the plot itself barely existed. This isn’t because there wasn’t a story to be told, but because the author didn’t seem particularly interested in telling it. There is no real progress from one point to the next. The story doesn’t develop, it jumps. To what? Well, to the action scenes. Unfortunately, action scenes by themselves don’t make a plot and, without a strong context, they are usually quite messy. In fact, it’s extremely difficult to write an action scene well, and there must have been 30 or 40 very large and messy action scenes in this book.

There are probably two ways I can describe the story and both are fairly accurate to how the plot is constructed:

Anyone familiar with big action computer games is probably aware that there is a token plot, delivered in periodic cut scenes, strung between game play sequences. These sequences often involve a character moving forward a small distance before being beset by foes. Once the enemies are vanquished, the character progresses to the next battle. The story is there in the cut scenes and occasional moments of clarity during the game play, but the details are seldom obvious and the majority of the game is spent in button-mashing chaos. This is one way I could describe the plot of this novel.

The second is a reference to a simpler time, when two kids would lock themselves in a room to play with plastic soldiers. Imagine that along with the soldiers, the kids have He-Man and Skeletor, a number of Transformers, Star Wars characters, plastic demons, X-Men and dinosaurs along with some creatures that go bump in the night. Now imagine the kids inventing a totally outrageous story involving non-stop ‘battle royales’. Soldiers are trampled by dinosaurs, which are pulled apart by Transformers, which are cut into metal chunks by the awesome power sword of He-Man, whose brain is melted by the mind-bending dark arts of a demon, who is disintegrated by the sacred rosary beads of the Pope, who is a holy warrior of such incredible capability that several paragraphs of hyperbole are required to adequately describe his attributes.

Unfortunately, any attention to a coherent plot is brought undone by a barrage of inconsistencies. A senator rolls out of bed as his door is broken down by assassins but manages to get away wearing the $900 suit that he obviously wore to bed. He marches into the airport with nothing but his suit and a gun which is apparently check-in luggage. He flies to Cuba to a conference where people are waiting to lift the lid on a conspiracy perpetrated by his government. However, the trip itself was an event presumably planned by the same government. He is taken to a UN-style organisation that places him as a combatant into a number of highly dangerous battles, even once being criticised for cowardice, before an attempt is made to retrieve the precious information he managed to intercept. Later, we find out there is a need for him to return home to collect the remainder of this vital intelligence after involvement in several other dangerous missions.

Despite there being quite a bit of focus on senator Dale Marshall, he really doesn’t feel like the protagonist of the story. It’s hard to stand out in a crowd and this book is certainly crowded. I was introduced to hundreds of characters in the course of the book with new names still being thrown at me in the last 10% of the story. Admittedly, some of the characters only last a couple of pages, but the noise actually prevents any characters from establishing themselves. Characters were referred to by first name, or last name, or sometimes by either – but at different times, which maximised the confusion. In the end, although I encountered Senator Marshall frequently, I knew very little about him.

The writing is somewhat as expected for a high school student; it is overwritten. It was probably the slowest I’ve read a book in the last two or three years. At around 370 pages, it felt like well over 1000 pages. There were too many adjectives and adverbs, not enough clarity and an abundance of misused words and expressions. There was no sense of how time actually passed throughout the story. At times I thought perhaps we had jumped several months, but it wasn’t terribly clear and the frequent shift to different locations, often without any visual cues, became tiring. It was a tough slog, but at the same time, I think it could have been a lot worse and the author should be commended for the effort, which I think brings us to my conclusion.

I informed the author in advance that if I were to write a review of this book, then it had to be an honest opinion of the work. As such, I thought the novel was far too ambitious in scope and it lacked anything with which the reader could make a connection. It needed to be drastically simplified. I watched a presentation from the author where he hinted at the amount of research that went into the story, but in my opinion, the research did not actualise into any conveyed message. If there was supposed to be an undercurrent, it was obscured by the chaos and it didn’t help that the novel ended without any resolution. However, in a way, this is all far less interesting than what makes this book a triumph – that it exists at all.

I don’t know how many people slave away for two or so years between the ages of 13 and 16 on an epic novel. Perhaps there are figures out there somewhere, but I’m assuming that the number is quite low. The achievement itself puts this author ahead of the curve in my opinion. The imagination is there and the drive and enthusiasm is obvious. The craft of writing can be learned and improved upon over time. Drive? Not so much.

Although I would not agree that this book is a success in its own right, once it’s contextualised appropriately it becomes a promise that Julian Mok is making – that he is going to be a writer. And I hope that my critiques and my rating are less important to him than the fact that I believe him.

Rating: 2.5/5

Price at the time of review: $3.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, iTunes and more…

Author site: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6615534.Julian_Mok
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16230199-the-apocalypse-chronicles

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“Noah’s Ark” – by Andrew J. Morgan

Cover ImageAlex Latham is hiding – from what, he doesn’t understand. Why – he doesn’t know. The streets are empty, but still dangerous and time seems to be running out, for him and for the Ark.

The world of Noah’s Ark is a multi-layered one, but it takes a while for the author to start peeling the onion. The reader is presented with an environment as familiar as the suburbs but with an eerie stillness, where one man tries to make sense of the empty houses, gangs of strangely vacant marauders and a menacing military presence.

I liked how the author let me inhabit the space without really understanding its significance. I knew that a revelation was coming, and when it did, I was introduced to the Ark.

I think it’s probably unreasonable to delve too deeply into the details of the plot in this review, as part of the enjoyment is to experience the unveiling, but I can discuss how effective it was for me.

I found the storyline to be clever and an interesting blend of a few science fiction sub-genres. It may not be totally original, but I think the author provided it with enough individuality for it to stand on its own.

The mood of the first part of the story was both uneasy and confused which I thought put the reader in the perfect state to enjoy the story – off-balance. As the pieces start to fall into place, the revelations lead to more questions. The uneasiness makes way for an adrenalin rush once the two main characters meet, and from there it’s a non-stop thrill ride.

The story closes with a scene worthy of rendering on the big screen and a twist reminiscent of one of my favourites (I won’t name it here).

So with all of that good stuff, were there any issues? Well, yes. Because this story played out through two separate points of view, there was some necessary back and forth, at least until their paths converged. The combination of very short chapters and an almost religious swapping of points of view every chapter made the progress particularly frustrating in the early part of the book. I felt like I wasn’t getting enough time with each character, which ended up not only making the characters feel less developed to me (rightly or wrongly), but the pace also felt a bit stop/start as a consequence.

There are two main characters: Alex, who prowls a relatively deserted suburban wasteland and Michael, a patient or subject in an undisclosed facility.

Because of the nature of the story, the reader doesn’t really become intimately knowledgeable of either character. However, we experience what they experience and we witness the Ark through either or both pairs of eyes. I didn’t really have a problem with this approach as I thought the plot was paramount in this novel, with the characters being disposable assets. I wasn’t unsympathetic towards either, but I was quite happy with any eventuality that provided me with a interesting story.

Potentially, the novel itself might have had a greater impact if a stronger connection was established with one or both of the characters, but the missed opportunity wasn’t heckling from the sidelines in my reading. Perhaps others felt differently.

Other than some early pacing issues that I’ve already referred to in this review, there really wasn’t much to complain about with the writing in this novel. It was clear, seemed to generate the right atmosphere and was relatively error free.

In the end, I was left with a very entertaining sci-fi post-apocalyptic thriller, with a touch of cyberpunk and a dose of zombies (of all things), conspiracy on a grand scale and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s a movie I would want to go and see at the cinema.

Interestingly, the author has started work on a second (unrelated) novel which he is posting in instalments on his website. So look him up and have a bit of a read. Regardless, you could do a lot worse than lining up Noah’s Ark on your e-reader of choice. I certainly have no regrets.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $0.99 US

Available: Amazon

Author site: http://andrewjamesmorgan.com/
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17270652-noah-s-ark

Posted in 4, Novel, Reviews, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“Bitter Orange” – by Marshall Moore

Cover ImageWhat would you do if you found out that you could be invisible to the people around you, but only when performing morally questionable acts? Would you exercise this ability?

Bitter Orange attempts to explore this rather fascinating situation through the eyes of our hero, Seth Harrington. Harrington discovers, quite by chance, that he has the ability to remain undetected when shoplifting, an event that may have gone unnoticed if not underlined by additional incidents in the local movie theatre. As the story evolves, the protagonist progresses from accident, to experiment, to intent. As his actions become more brazen, he confronts some more unsavoury aspects of his personality hiding under the surface.

The plot itself transforms in a less cohesive way, for me, than the personality of the main character. At first, the story seems like it is going to use invisibility literally. However, as the book progresses, the author seems so invested in the main character’s past, personality and internal dialogue that I started to think of the story as a metaphor. Just as I had become comfortable with this direction, however, the plot quite suddenly becomes decidedly literal – only in very last part of the narrative. Not only is this transition bumpy, but the story ends abruptly in a question mark – leaving me feeling like I had read a unnecessarily long short story written for effect, rather than a complete novel.

To me, Bitter Orange is a book with two stories merged together – not quite successfully. Firstly, there is a short story about someone who develops an “ability” that leads him to a particular and interesting outcome that would leave a reader with a satisfied raised eyebrow. This is a short story I would have enjoyed. Secondly, there is a more involved narrative about a burnt-out corporate high-flier who retreats from life after his partner dies in New York’s September 11 attacks. An appearance of invisibility is manifested by his dwindling investment in life and, as a reader, we follow his journey on the outskirts, wondering if he can find his way back to significance and complete visibility. Could it be found through the resolution of his feelings towards his roommate?

The prose itself is satisfying – I certainly couldn’t raise any complaints. The author can clearly write, and write well. There is a tendency to be completely unvarnished in his handling of thoughts and behaviours. If the expectation is that the characters are going to quietly contemplate existence in a rather sterilised way fit for general consumption, the reader will possibly be shocked and even offended. I don’t really have a problem with the grittier viewpoints, but I thought perhaps that some of the more sexual content encountered didn’t really enhance the story significantly.

Overall, I seem to be somewhere in the middle when it comes to my appreciation of Bitter Orange. It was either an interesting short story that dragged on for too long, or it was a fascinating metaphor that wasn’t explored deeply enough. It was an unsuccessful fusion of two potentials. That stated, I didn’t dislike reading it. The writing was very good, if a little over-played when it came to shock value, and the exploration of Seth Harrington still managed to leave its mark on me.

Rating: 3/5

Price at the time of review: $4.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, iTunes and more…

Author site: http://www.marshallmoore.com/
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18216617-bitter-orange

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“Cruel Justice” – by M. A. Comley

Cover ImageA headless body, a follow-up murder that appears unrelated until grisly evidence arrives in the mail. A serial killer is on the loose and as the body count rises, DI Lorne Simpkins finds that she is short of clues and time is running out.

Cruel Justice is the first book (chronologically) of a series of crime mysteries featuring DI Lorne Simpkins. I have to say up-front that I did not like this novel at all, but before I launch into a list of things I didn’t like I thought I’d cover the one aspect that I thought was admirable – the prose itself.

Not only was the book I read completely error free, but although I might have had an issue or two with the effectiveness of the writing in certain scenes, there was nothing amateur-ish about the sentence construction. I thought, overall, it was effective and of publishable quality. It might seem like an insignificant aspect of the novel to praise, but for me, it’s worthy of mention.

That stated, not much else about the novel delighted me. I had noticed that this book was labelled by some as a police procedural. It was a terribly unfair label for this novel and I wish I hadn’t seen it before reading. I would have lost all faith in any police force that had operatives functioning the way DI Simpkins did in this novel. The most noticeable aspect of her investigative procedures were that they did not exist – at all. She was a muddle of impulses and gut feelings to the point where she would simply ignore or refuse to investigate the most obvious leads – not even to ensure that they were logically eliminated.

She could not have come across less like a real DI if she had followed leads from a psychic. Oh wait – she did! Not only that, but when the psychic’s visions were actually concrete, there was no questioning of said psychic as a suspect. Our intrepid investigator instead decided to try and get her added as an ancillary resource to the case. I’m serious.

If the detective’s lack of credibility wasn’t bad enough, the book also felt a bit like an impostor. It is pushed by the author as a gritty thriller. Although there is an obvious effort to make the story dark and disturbing, it seems a little bolted on. The first scene, in particular, tries to take the reader to a dark place, but it felt totally lifeless to me. I felt no atmosphere, none of the fear or horror I should have felt with such a scene. It read like an express train to disgusting in an effort to quickly guarantee the classification of the novel.

So if I didn’t think it was a gritty thriller, or a police procedural, what did I think it was? In my opinion, this novel felt like a romance that attempted to cross genre boundaries. Simpkins seems to play the part of a “woe is me” woman whose husband is selfish because he doesn’t continue to shut up and support her regardless of the impact on his own life. Her marriage is threatened because of his selfishness and completely beyond her control – hmmmm. At this time, she suddenly develops a strong attraction to a work colleague. Apparently, she had nothing but distaste for him, but is now all aquiver; his handsome appearance and his French accent turning becalmed waters into a choppy sea of confusion – and hormones. To top it off, her superior retires to be replaced by a man with whom she had a “past”. Complications abound in Simpkins’ life. How is she going to cope with all these men? How is she going to save her marriage? How is she going to solve this crime?

In fairness to the author, I’m exaggerating the romantic melodrama for effect. For a romance suspense cross-over it could well be that these elements were on point. Unfortunately, it came across to me as a romance in a clumsy costume, which brings me to my conclusion.

Grain of salt time. This was, quite clearly, not a book for me. I don’t have much exposure to romance suspense cross-overs and usually avoid them. It was perhaps an error of judgement on my part to choose this book for review and I can’t guarantee that I’m giving it the most appropriate perspective. Additionally, it seems that this series is quite popular, with plenty of fans who are obviously getting something out of it that I am not. However, if you happen to be more aligned with my tastes when it comes to crime mysteries and gritty thrillers, perhaps this review is useful.

Rating: 2.5/5

Price at the time of review: $0.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo and iTunes

Author site: http://melcomley.blogspot.com.au/
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12758464-cruel-justice

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“Sleight Malice” – by Vicki Tyley

Cover ImageThe morning after a girl’s night in, Desley discovers that the home her friend returned to was burned down overnight. Where is her friend and whose is the unidentified body found in the ruins?

Sleight Malice is Vicki Tyley’s second crime/mystery novel. I reviewed her first novel, Thin Blood in 2012 (review here).

This is a whodunnit that seems to have extended into a whosthatwherearetheyandwhodunnit? The author has decided to make the sleuth an ordinary woman with her own web design business and her client, a newly established ex-detective private-eye. The choice to focus on an amateur rather than a professional usually allows the author to focus a bit more on character development as the protagonist is dropped into a situation that’s bound to provide multiple challenges and conflicts. However, it does come with its own set of issues. I believe it’s harder to make such a story believable as the reader will ask: is it realistic that she could succeed where the professionals would fail? In this case, it helps that Desley is assisted by an ex-detective, but I still don’t think the question is comfortably answered in the affirmative in this story.

Leaving plausibility aside, the story itself is a good one. The story has side-plots, misdirection and sufficient twists to make it an intriguing read and I received the additional benefit of following a story set in the environs of Melbourne and country Victoria, which always adds interest for me. So the plot ends up with a nice tick from me. Definitely worth the read.

There are two main characters: Desley, our inadvertent sleuth, and Fergus Coleman – and ex-detective employing Desley to build the website for his new private-eye business.

OK, let’s get it out of the way immediately. There is sexual tension between the two characters. I’ll let readers find out whether that tension actualises in any meaningful way, but its existence affects how they relate to each other throughout the story.

Desley is a fairly strong-willed and independent character. She has an ex, who has a pretty strong role in the story, but is an impediment rather than a support. I liked the character but could find her annoyingly stubborn and closed to people. It wasn’t an unrealistic state given the obvious hazards of allowing her ex any benefit of the doubt. However, what frustrated me more was that I found her dialogue to be rather clunky and unnatural at times.

Fergus provided a less satisfactory point of view for me as a reader. His character suffered from a couple of things I find particularly frustrating. Firstly, I become quickly uninterested in a character whose observations of another character revolve almost entirely around his/her appearance. Secondly, he has an almost stereotypical view of women which he’s happy to share with the reader at any opportunity. I feel like an alien when I encounter characters like this and I’m not sure if it reflects the author’s lack of understanding of the male psyche or, even more disturbingly, an absolutely accurate view of the male psyche. Either way, it tends to disconnect me from the character and affects my enjoyment of the story.

Other than some issues I had with dialogue, the writing is spot-on and error free. The author is clearly a good writer and I can’t imagine anyone submitting any claims to the contrary.

I liked Sleight Malice. I think some of the choices the author made in characterisation might mean I’m not the ideal target audience. I guess I’m not really a “women are like this”, “men are like that” kind of reader and I’ve never understood every interaction spawning parallel threads of admiration for someone’s appearance.

However, the plot itself is a really good one and definitely worth the effort.

Rating: 3.5/5

Price at the time of review: $3.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, iTunes and more…

Author site: http://www.vickityley.com/
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7721799-sleight-malice

Posted in 3.5, Mystery, Novel, Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment