“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

Posted in 3, Fantasy, Novel, Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

“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

“Snow Burn” – by Joel Arnold

Cover ImageTwo boys decide to have a mini-adventure, camping overnight in the nearby woods. But when an unexpected blizzard hampers them and they find something in the woods, this might be an adventure that ends in disaster.

Snow Burn is a short to-the-point thriller for young adults. It is written by Joel Arnold, who wrote the decidedly more adult horror, Northwoods Deep, which I reviewed favourably in 2012 (review here).

The adventurous Vince convinces his friend Tommy to accompany him on a small camping excursion in the snow. What was intended to be an opportunity for a standard boyish lark becomes complicated by the onset of blizzard conditions. But the boys’ troubles are not over as they uncover a body in the snow, an unknown body, a body that is still alive.

A harmless adventure becomes a struggle to make it through the night, fighting weather conditions and a dangerous stranger. Tommy’s white lie to his protective parents about his whereabouts becomes a potentially fatal mistake and when the confident Vince becomes incapacitated, Tommy’s chances for survival start to look slim.

There is quite a bit of tension in this novel/novella but I don’t think it broaches the adults-only territory. I think young readers will appreciate the initial adventure of camping out in an igloo in the woods and will get a thrill out of the predicament the boys find themselves in.

I was also impressed that the boys read very much like boys of that age. I didn’t feel like the author was writing about two adults that he was creating in the shape of adolescents; the behaviours and reactions felt pretty genuine to me.

Being a fairly small story, there isn’t much in the way of character development. However, you still get a pretty good sense of who these boys are – to each other and to themselves.

Tommy is a bit sheltered and lacks some confidence, possibly due to his over-protective parents. Vince, however, is sporty and outgoing. The friendship of the two possibly grows from their differences – and their mutual love of horror films. They compliment each other nicely, with Vince pushing Tommy out of his comfort zone and Tommy being comfortable with Vince’s leadership. Therefore, the decision of the author to incapacitate the stronger of the two allows us to view Tommy in an extreme and dangerous position without his usual crutch.

The writing is good. The language used fits the target audience and the prose is error free, which is always a bonus. It’s straight-forward without being overly simplistic and descriptive without being unnecessarily so.

Overall, the story is satisfying as a short situational thriller. Because the main characters are boys, it will possibly appeal more to a young male audience. The situation itself might be a little far-fetched, but a younger imagination running wild could get some mileage out of two boys trapped in an igloo overnight in the middle of a blizzard.

I’m happy to recommend Snow Burn to the younger thrill-seeker.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $2.99 US

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

Author site: http://authorjoelarnold.blogspot.com.au/
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9257559-snow-burn

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“Head of Words” – by Chris Ward

Cover ImageWith thirteen in a single bedroom apartment things can get a little cozy, especially when each resident has a decidedly singular character. But this suits Dan just fine – that is, until a crisis leaves him bewildered and alone.

Head of Words is a novel of two fairly distinct parts. First, is the “before” or “leading up to” half and the second is the “after” or “fall-out” half.

Dan lives in a one bedroom apartment with a total of thirteen residents – twelve people and one dog. This bizarre living arrangement is broken down by the author into a series of small vignettes describing the arrival of each into these cramped quarters. In parallel, the time-line inches forward in the present, with rising tensions an omen of impending crisis within the apartment.

The co-tenants consist of such a diverse group of personalities and each of their entrances into Dan’s life and apartment are recounted, sometimes to hilarious effect. I was happily trapped within the cacophony, but wondered what form the coming crisis would take. I was delivered – an event.

After this event, Dan finds himself alone, having lost his friends; his apartment no longer a haven. It is at this point that Dan’s mystery begins as he searches for his friends and tries to avoid a mysterious and threatening stranger.

I really enjoyed the plot for this novel, and I appreciated the rather drastic change in mood in the second half. The laugh-out-loud scenes in the book, help give the jagged transition into darkness more impact. I admit that I was enjoying the vignettes so much that I failed to notice the significance underlying the story, which made the journey all the more fascinating for me.

It’s hard to really give the space required to illuminate the eccentric characters that make up this story, but in the centre is Dan. It’s his apartment and he tends to keep the different personalities around him in line. He comes across as an affable, submissive and broke adult who is failing his way through life. A dramatic scene has estranged him from his parents and the only real support he has (although not really financial) is from his friends.

It’s hard to really like Dan. He’s a bit of a nothing character who’s only real interest to the reader is the company he keeps. But, I believe this is the point of his portrayal. He is the most lifeless and yet most vital part of the group. As he’s falling, the reader feels an overwhelming sense of inevitability with rock bottom being the only possible destination.

I have previously read The Tube Riders by this author and reviewed it favourably (review here). This book is decidedly different, but equally enjoyable.

If you like the idea of lively series of vignettes with eccentric characters devolving into a personal descent into darkness, I can definitely recommend this novel. I know it’s a fairly unusual construction, but I believe that it works well.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $3.99 US

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

Author site: http://amillionmilesfromanywhere.blogspot.jp/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17792976-head-of-words

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“The Takers” – by R. W. Ridley

Cover ImageThe secret is not to let them know you’re aware of them. Keep quiet. Keep moving. And whatever you do, don’t speak their name. 

The Takers is set in a contemporary Earth which has somehow been invaded by creatures that have devoured nearly all the population. It has a post-apocalyptic feel, a landscape with empty houses and abandoned cars strewn along highways. The atmosphere is heavy with silence and the dread of these marauding creatures, who appear when acknowledged to consume any in their path.

Oz Griffin wakes up after a week in the delirium of illness, to find his house empty with no sign of his parents. As he searches his neighbourhood for people and answers, he stumbles across several terrifying creatures prowling the area, alerting him to an immediate danger and providing the dreadful clues to what might have happened to his local community.

He decides to mount an expedition to his uncle’s home in another district. With his German Shepherd and a car he doesn’t know how to drive, he sets off on a journey that evolves over the course of the book into an epic mission to defeat these predatory creatures and restore his world.

I liked the idea of this story. It remained dark, while not presenting any material that I felt unsuitable for younger adults. It delivers plenty of adventure, action and suspense. I was intrigued by the author’s use of the disabled in the story, in particular those with Down Syndrome. I think challenging the perceptions of the reader, by presenting these characters in an unexpected role, can be a powerful tool to refocus awareness. This is not to imply that this story takes a particularly heavy-handed or didactic approach, just that playing with perceptions can sometimes elicit a consideration from the reader that may not have otherwise been triggered.

With a German Shepherd, a small gang of survivors, a particularly wise gorilla, a comic book and hordes of enemies, as mysterious as they are vicious, this is a vividly imagined adventure in a dark world. The only thing I didn’t really appreciate was the plot mechanism used to end the story. It left me a little deflated after enjoying the majority of the novel.

Griffin is an interesting character for a young adult fantasy in the sense that he is an anti-hero. Nothing could alienate the reader from Oz more than the opening sentences of the book:

We killed the retarded boy. He took his own life, but we killed him just the same.

It’s a bold move by the author to cast such a dark shadow on the character with which the reader is going to take this journey. The approach seems vaguely reminiscent of Stephen Donaldson’s portrayal of Thomas Covenant – one of the most infamous anti-heroes in the fantasy genre, but translated into a form that a younger reader can appreciate: bullying, the antagonism of children with disabilities and the potential result.

The book focuses on Griffin’s redemption and the continued influence of Stevie Dayton almost as a manifestation of his guilt. We experience the character’s growth over the course of the story and the qualities within him, previously used to inflict pain on Dayton, are gradually transformed into a positive force.

I had no issues with the prose in this novel. It was very readable, managed to generate the right atmosphere and was dark without being too dark given its target audience. There were no noticeable errors in the text, nor did I stumble across clunky expressions or word misuse.

The Takers is the first book of a series of novels called The Oz Chronicles. As of this review, there are six books, so if you like the first, there’s quite a bit of material to move on with.

The Takers was the recipient of the 2006 IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards) for Horror, with the second instalment, Délon City, taking a bronze IPPY in the subsequent year.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $1.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Author site: http://rwridley.com/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/201819.The_Takers

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