Wednesday, 24 February 2016

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

It was only February last year when I read and reviewed the first book in V.E. Schwab’s epic fantasy series, A Darker Shade of Magic and that seems like a lifetime ago. However it only took a few pages for me to remember the different colours of London, the magic between worlds and the memorable characters that stand out in the story. 

The second instalment, A Gathering of Shadows, picks up four months on from the last book, where magician Kell is feeling trapped in his role at the palace, as well as guilty after the events that cost so many lives.  He is also missing Lila Bard, who has forged a new life for herself as a thief at sea. 

But they are soon to be reunited when an epic tournament between three major empires is being held in Red London and competitors are drawn to the city to compete. However it is not only competitors and spectators that attend the festivities and a dark power emerging from Black London could threaten to endanger Red London once again. 

All the different Londons are so well defined, I feel like I already know each one intimately. A Darker Shade of Magic spent a lot of time setting the scene for each of the Londons – Red, White, Grey and Black – and even though most of the action happens in Red London for this story, the other versions still have their unique parts to play in the story. 

Apart from being reunited with some interesting and familiar characters; surly Kell, headstrong Lila and dashing Prince Rhy, there are also some fabulous new ones to meet. I loved the privateer Alucard Emery, the charming captain of the Night Spire (the ship Lila finds work) and also a competitor himself with ties to the royal family. He has a unique relationship with Lila, Rhy and Kell individually and I enjoyed the elegance, charm and wit he brought to the tale. 

Another epic literary feat in this novel is the Essen Tasch – the magic tournament where competitors fight by wielding elements against each other. It kind of put me in mind of a simpler yet more adult version of the Triwizard Tournament from Harry Potter; a riot of colours and emblems, parties and celebrations and all the epic magic! 

Just when I thought things couldn’t improve much from the first book, this one really kicks the action up a gear and leaves you seriously craving more. I don’t think I can wait a whole year for the next book! 

With pirates and princes, thieves and magicians, I wholeheartedly recommend both books to all readers for an action-packed, dark and dangerous, magic-fuelled fantasy adventure. 

Watch out for my spot on the AGOS blog tour on the 3rd of March where I have a guest post from the author and a giveaway! 

Monday, 22 February 2016

Winter by Dan Grace

I tend to read full size novels the majority of the time, and although I like books of all shapes and sizes, it was quite refreshing to read a novella for a change. 

Sci-fi, fantasy and horror publishers Unsung Stories are launching a new digital line called Unsung Signals which focuses on mid-length fiction generally considered too long for a short story but too short for traditional publication. 

Unsung Signals kicks off with Winter by Dan Grace where the reader is thrown straight in to the aftermath of an anarchic uprising and a band of survivors travel north to make a new life for themselves, just as winter settles in. Suffering the loss of past companions, dealing with illness and a back-to-basics way of life, each group member deals with their own struggles. 

Leader Adam is suspicious and untrusting of outsiders, quiet Leila retreats into herself while May does her best to hold things together. They end up joining up with brash Ingold and the mysterious Mikhail. Calm and collected with potentials powers beyond rational comprehension, Mikhail may not be everything he appears to be. 

Despite the reduced length of the tale, you really get to know the small cast of characters in such a small space of time. Their personalities really come through in the book which is important when the story focuses on their hardships, as it makes you care about them more. I didn’t really notice anything strange about Mikhail until a fair way in. There is something pagan about him and what he does, and I really enjoyed the mystic element he brings to the story, as well as the mystery that surround him. 

The story jumps back and forth in time – hinting at violent encounters with revolutionary groups in the past and showing present daily routines in hiding in Scotland – like two strands of a literary braid that gradually weave together. It ended a little abruptly for me, but I think that’s because I wanted to stay with the characters and see how their story continued. But I guess that’s part of the thrill of a shorter story. 

The wintery forests of Scotland are a great atmospheric setting for this dystopian story and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. Intriguing and original, Winter is a great little-ish read and I’m excited about future tales from Unsung Signals.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Down Station by Simon Morden

On a seemingly ordinary day, Underground operatives Mary, Dilip and Stanislav are amongst a number of workers making their way onto the tracks for their shift. Troubled teen Mary is part of a cleaning crew and is hoping a steady job will keep her on the straight and narrow. Burly European Stanislav is part of a maintenance crew and has taken young Dilip under his wing to show him the ropes of the job. 

A terrifying, mystery occurrence sees people from both teams perish suddenly and a small band of survivors run for their lives through the tunnels. They find a hidden door and go through it. Leaving a London in flames they find themselves in unknown territory where a wolf man stalks the forests and beaches, a geomancer enslaves people for their knowledge and magic can be made if you need it. 

In a brand new world, where normality does not seem to apply, the party must learn the ways of their new environment if they have any chance of survival. 

The transition from modern day London into the fantasy world of Down is a quick one, and the reader gets to share the experience with the survivors as they come to terms with their predicament. When the group becomes separated, you get to see Down and it’s mysterious terrain through the different characters’ eyes. 

The concept of Down is an interesting one; a magical world where things that are needed or things that need to occur, come into existence seemingly by the power of thought. Castles grow from the ground, shadows can be manipulated to make a person invisible and some people can change into beasts, although not always for the better. 

It’s such a journey that the characters go on; each has a unique past and individual battles to face in their new situation, and Down has something in store for each personally. There are some strong personalities in the group and original, multi-cultural characters that really stick in your mind as you follow their journeys of identity and self-discovery. I loved the concept of portals that have opened and transported people from different time periods and versions of London which adds to the mix of people to be encountered. 

Down Station is a radiantly original fantasy story full of memorable characters, magic and adventure that will thrill and captivate readers willing to open their minds to an unknown and interesting world. 

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Gunner Girls and Fighter Boys by Mary Gibson

As London is bombarded during the Blitz we are introduced to the Lloyd family, in particular two sisters who quickly find their lives turned upside down. 

Peggy is trapped in a stifling marriage to a small time crook and even the little luxuries provided by her husband’s dodging dealings do little to fill the emptiness in her life. In the chaos of war she finds a forbidden love, but will her heart be the ruin of her? 

Baby sister May, affectionately known by her family as their homing pigeon, is sensible and innocent. But with the destruction of war around her she feels like she isn’t doing enough to help in the war effort and bravely enlists in the ATS, much to the shock of her friends and family. 

She becomes a gunner girl, and throughout her training and active service on the guns, she forges important friendships that are the making of her. Separated by war and their new lives, the two sisters experience new love, new-found courage and bravery in the face of devastation, as World War Two rages around them. 

The story is centred on the Lloyd family and then extends to their friends both old and new. As the war progresses, the lead characters face so much change, adversity and tragedy and as the events are so detailed, you come to know them all so well and really care about how things work out for them. 

I really enjoyed May’s journey. Being the baby, she is so underestimated by her nearest and dearest, but she sticks to her guns (no pun intended) and really comes into her own as she resolutely follows her own agenda. Although there are a few romances throughout the story, there is a big love story with May and one of her old workmates and throughout the whole novel I was pleading that she would get her happy ending. Whether she does or’ll have to find out for yourself. 

Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and in terms of World War Two stories, it is the role of women in the war which is a topic that really fascinates me. My own great grandmother worked in an armaments factory during the war, and when I read these novels, it’s almost like I’m seeing the war through her eyes. 

This novel encompasses pretty much the whole war, and in that time, so much is destroyed and yet with new friendships and relationships made, there is also plenty gained. It’s a sweeping saga fraught with a whole spectrum of emotions and I enjoyed every well written moment of it. With memorable characters in a story that will stay with you, Gunner Girls and Fighter Boys is a heart-warming tale of hardship, hope and history. 

Friday, 12 February 2016

13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough

I’m a bit late to the Sarah Pinborough party – I’ve only read one of her novels so far (The Death House) although her backlist is on my to-do list – but a year on from my last experience of one of her books, I’m pleased to have read her latest novel.  

Natasha is the prettiest, most popular girl in school, and when her body is pulled from a river and she narrowly escapes death, everyone in the small town struggles to work out how and why it happened. Natasha, leader of ‘the Barbies’, has a lucky escape and only suffers memory loss surrounding the events of the night where she died for 13 minutes. 

She rekindles an old friendship with her former bestie Becca and when Natasha becomes suspicious of the other Barbies as having something to do with her accident; they set to investigating their so called friends. 

The story explores Natasha’s accident and the following consequences through life at the school and all the drama that comes with being a teenager. The story is also told from police notes, psychiatry sessions and text messages. 

The use of smartphones and social media in the storyline highlights the relevance of such technology in today’s society. Coupled with the fact that this novel is inspired by the true story of the murder of teenager Skylar Nesee by her two best friends, and you end up with a story steeped in realism. 

Selected and rejected character Becca is the most identifiable I thought, even if she is a bit too impulsive at times when she lets her emotions get the better of her. I also liked the adult characters in the book, primarily the leading detective and the dog-walking musician who found Natasha in the river; I found their roles added sense and reason to the teen drama that unfolds. All the different ways (as mentioned above) that the story is told is unique and makes for compulsive reading as your brain turns over new information as you read. 

There’s a subtle supernatural edge to the story that is an element that Sarah Pinborough is great at balancing with gripping mystery storylines. I forgot I was reading YA at times and found this psychological thriller to be dark and tense and exciting especially in the second half as the truth begins to come to light. 

This is an all-involving YA thriller that is perfect for fans of Louise O’Neill and Tanya Byrne, and another sure-fire hit for loyal Pinborough readers. 

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Too Soon Dead by Michael Kurland

Starting a new series is always an exciting prospect for any reader. New characters to meet, a new setting to explore, and with crime fiction, a new mystery to get your brain working! 

Too Soon Dead by Michael Kurland is the first Alexander Brass Mystery set in 1930s New York starring Alexander Brass as a celebrity newsman who becomes enveloped in a scandalous mystery when he is given a set of compromising photographs featuring some of the city’s most elite citizens. 

Working with the police, but still very much his own person, Brass and his team begin their own investigation into the photographs, and things become all the more risky when one of their own is brutally murdered, followed by the original tipster himself. 

With powerful people involved and a sadistic killer at work, Brass and his colleagues must use all their wits and knowledge to solve the puzzle before danger comes knocking at their own door. 

Brass is assisted by his trusty assistant Morgan DeWitt and the reader sees the story from his perspective. There is also ice-queen receptionist Gloria on the case, as well as new friends and colleagues that get roped into the story. 

Brass and DeWitt have a kind of Holmes/Watson style relationship; although I found Brass to be more of a cool, character and much more likeable than the often smug, patronising portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. Although clever, honest and charismatic, DeWitt is not as worldly as he would like, and seeing the story through his eyes makes the reader feel closer to the story and experiencing the events with DeWitt rather than being a complete outsider removed from the action makes for a better telling. 

The 1930s setting in New York with a cast of the rich and famous adds glamour and substance to the story, whilst the crime adds the grit and interest; which for me was a winning combination. There is sex and violence, neither overdone which works well in the overall storyline and fits the time and setting. With blackmailing Nazis, sultry nymphomaniacs and powerful political players, the plot that is uncovered goes far beyond a few naughty photos and the crime/history combo was again, another winner for me. 

Well-paced and consistently intriguing, Too Soon Dead is an easy to read crime thriller/mystery that fans of this genre will devour and be eager for more. I was interested in all the leading characters and I’m looking forward to seeing where their next mystery takes them. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Lonely Hearts Travel Club – Destination Thailand by Katy Colins

Twenty-something Georgia Green leads a comfortable life. She has a loving family, a steady job and nice boyfriend who she is preparing to get married to. Then just weeks before the big day, her beau calls off the wedding, leaving Georgia in bits. 

On what would have been her wedding day, she goes on holiday with her best friend and takes some time to re-evaluate her life which has drastically changed in such a short space of time. 

She makes a bucket list of sorts and after a few stops and starts; she finally takes the plunge to go travelling. She is booked onto a tour to Thailand and bravely heads off on her first time alone to pastures unknown, and finds that even when things don’t go to plan, there are still plenty of experiences to be had. 

I was drawn to this novel for two reasons. One, its grey and cold outside and I wanted a literary escape to somewhere hot and exotic. Secondly, it’s been almost a year since my own solo backpacking adventure and as I didn't get to see as much of Thailand as I had originally planned while I was away, I wanted to see it through this new character’s eyes. 

I really enjoyed this book because it bought back so many memories of travelling for me. As this novel is based on author Katy Colin’s real-life experiences, the picture of backpacking and travelling is authentic. This story highlights some of the good and bad sides of travelling. 

The good includes meeting some amazing people from all walks of life, getting to try new foods and experiences that would normally be out of your comfort zone, being immersed in a culture so different from your own, the beautiful sights of exotic lands far from home and the freedom and confidence you gain when travelling. The bad bits can include some of the not-so-nice people that you end up crossing paths with, the physical strains of travelling (how I miss you, giant backpack) and the scams that naïve travellers can fall prey to.  

Georgia is easy to identify with as a character which makes you care about her story all the more and as a reader, I felt many of her emotions as she went through all her experiences; happiness, sadness, trepidation and more. Through her trials and tribulations you get a great idea of Thailand and life on the road. 

Travelling aside, her story is warm and funny, with splashes of romance and adventure that help keep you turning pages. Even if you've never been travelling before, and/or have no intention of backpacking, this is a great story about friendship, gaining courage and second chances that is easily enjoyable. A great escapist read, I'm looking forward to the future destinations for the Lonely Hearts Travel Club.