Category Archives: Review

08Jun/18

Social Media Central by Kevin Klehr

Kevin Klehr came to visit us on WROTE recently! To listen to his episode and find links to his work, check out Episode 163: A Good Femme Fatale!

Considering how relevant the role social media plays in our lives, I’m surprised I haven’t come across a book that deals with the phenomenon before now.

Social Media Central deals with one lonely man who doesn’t buy into the whole world-wide obsession and god-like status of media celebrities, but he gradually gets sucked into it after meeting Madeline Q, a fashion blogger, and her glamorous colleagues. The story is set fifty or so years in the future but frankly, we’re seeing elements of Klehr’s vision now. Klehr’s future world has no books, empty offices, most ordinary people shut in their own rooms to work, preferring to “mirror meal” (a chilling phrase if ever there was one) with friends instead of meeting them face to face. The exceptions were the glamorous ones, the media stars, the celebrities famous for being famous, who set the trends and tell people how to eat, what to wear etc. Again, not that different from now in many aspects.

Tayler is a lonely geek with a dim view of the whole on-line celebrity thing. I found it difficult to get to know him at first. There was a dispassionate tone to the dialogue which meant I didn’t feel I had full access to the Social Media world, but was looking at it through smeared triple-glazing. Having said that, Tayler was the easiest character to identify and sympathise with. I couldn’t get to the heart of who Madeline was, which was frustrating.

As the story progresses, the plot thickens when a girl’s body is found in a nightclub. No spoilers, but what follows is a lot of smoke and mirrors, some of which I didn’t get at all. Madeline isn’t who she seems, and her actions seem incomprehensible at first. The pace of the story was uneven in places, but I did find myself compelled to read to the end. Before that, I did struggle a bit, mainly because the characters (apart from Tayler) aren’t people I would choose to spend time with in real life.

I’ve since read some parts of the  book again, and have enjoyed it a lot more, although “enjoyed” might not be the right word. The world of Social Media Central is bleak, very well-crafted, and ultimately rather depressing, but with a whodunnit thrown in, and a dash of glamour, it does make for a compelling read, and I had definitely warmed towards the characters by the end.

One final note: A couple of reviews mentioned the “lack of LGBT content.” I disagree. The characters were diverse and fluid, without a lot of rainbow flag waving. It was subtly done, and a worthy addition to the mainstream as well as LGBT+ sci-fi genres.

BLURB

In an age where everyone lives their lives through a screen, no one has more celebrity status than fashion blogger, Madeline Q. In a chance meeting, Tayler, loner and geek, is introduced to her world of parties, fan worship, and seduction.

But as his own star rises, Madeline Q is arrested for murder. There’s just one problem—there is no corpse. Tayler soon learns that fiction blurs reality on Social Media Central.

13May/18

Read by Strangers: Stories by Philip Dean Walker

We had the pleasure of interviewing Philip Dean Walker back in November 2016. To listen to his episode and get links to his work, check out Episode 084: Bars Are Where Our History Happened!

I was very much looking forward to this next collection of stories from Philip Dean Walker, after enjoying the superb At Danceteria and other Stories. Whilst that book concentrated on definitive moments in our history, and real people, this anthology has a mixed bag of stories and characters plucked from Walker’s imagination.

And what an imagination it is, from the woman who endangers her baby whilst engaging in an illicit affair to the man whose fantasies take a very dark turn. Despite the lurking horror, there is a playfulness to the writing, a chance for Walker to play with different styles from lilting to staccato, poetic to erotic. Perhaps because the stories were written over a few years, some being published elsewhere before now, the mix of styles could seem a little disjointed, although I enjoyed the unpredictability of it. In all cases though, the quality was outstanding.

Here we have a writer not afraid to experiment. A Cup of Fur was distinctly odd, and took it’s sweet time to get to the point. In various cases, there doesn’t seem to be a point per se. Each piece seems to be a cold, hard look at the human condition, and what some people are capable of.

I enjoyed the sense of experimentation, of testing himself with the viewpoints of people of various genders and sexuality. There is no doubt this is a literary collection, yet balancing the gravitas with a sense of mischievousness to stop the stories becoming dry and worthy. There is no consistency with the length of stories, so each one is a surprise.

Standouts for me were Unicorn, where lads trespassing in an abandoned house learn more about a family tragedy, A Goddess Lying Breathless In Carnage, beautiful and sinister, And Three-Sink Sink. I still don’t understand the title but the writing was pure, savage and totally compelling.

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Read by Strangers is a collection of sixteen stories exploring the complexities of the human experience. From weary men seeking a ride back from a club but find themselves trapped to a woman addicted to a virtual reality game who is neglecting her child to a man whose fantasies about of his neighbor’s wife have begun to take over his life, the characters in each of these stories are enveloped in their commitment to their own personal desires. 

17Apr/18

Seven-Sided Spy by Hannah Carmack

 

We recently had the pleasure of Hannah Carmack’s company at WROTE. To listen to her episode, check out Episode 150: I Guess What Changed Was Me!

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the story is told by seven different characters, who all have code names and mutations, giving you at least fourteen names to remember. If you liked the multi-character aspect of Game of Thrones, this book’s multiple points of view and complex, espionage plot is for you.

Most of the story takes place in the dense backwaters of North Carolina, which means that the Cold War element of the story is primarily told, rather than shown. I struggled to find a sense of history. Unless I had been informed that the book was set in this time period, I may well have not picked it up.

Having said that, the writing was intelligent and the dialogue sparky and crafted well. I sensed a real affection between the author and her characters, as well as a sense that she knew what was happening, even if I hadn’t pieced everything together yet.

Because of the back and forth styling, the switch between POV’s and the numerous changes of name, I struggled to engage with a character. I appreciate that others will love this challenge, and for a first novel, it is a wonderfully ambitious mix of spy novel and science fiction.

Finally, I do love the cover. It certainly captures the myriad of characters, some stronger than others, and the kaleidoscopic nature of the work.

__________________________________________

BLURB

In the midst of the cold war, the CIA’s finest and most fatal female agent, Diana Riley, vanishes. Kidnapped by the KGB and taken to the backcountry of North Carolina, she and her team of unsavory partners are forced to undergo illegal experimentation.

But, when the experiments leave them horribly deformed and unable to reenter society without someone crying monster, the previously glamorous and high-maintenance spies must escape KGB captivity and avoid recapture at the hands of Nikola, a ruthless KGB agent with an intense and well-justified grudge against her former flame.

29Mar/18

Closer by F.E. Feeley Jr.

Listen to F.E. Feeley Jr’s latest interview on Episode 155: A Fun Return to the Dark Side!

This book had a lot to live up to. After the sublime When Heaven Strikes, I put a lot of (rather unfair) expectations on this book. The author’s writing skill and storytelling ability isn’t in doubt, but would I feel the same about Closer as I did about Heaven?

The truth is, they cannot be compared, because they are intrinsically different. Yes, there is a new relationship at the heart of the novel, when Hayden moves into his new lakeside house and meets the gorgeous, straight-seeming Tommy, but then the mystery begins. At first, I thought it would be a straight-up ghost story, but the horrors begin to build, and Maplewood, the eponymous small town on a lake, is the centre of some very disturbing activity.

The action and tension builds very nicely. Tommy seems devoid of the angst that straight people can have when faced with unfamiliar feelings for a member of their own sex. It makes a refreshing change and as a result, doesn’t get in the way of the main story. The good people and bad people are established quickly and don’t really change. In the best tradition of horror novels, you kind of know who is going to get offed, yet there definitely some I didn’t expect. I liked the way the characters were drawn, reminiscent of Dean Koontz. (It’s a compliment. I LIKE Dean Koontz’s work. It seems more accessible and human than some of Stephen King’s…) There is a touch of religion without pulpit posturing, some vivid imagery, and an exciting denouement, leading on to another book whilst nicely rounding off this one. The author likes to leave things tidy, and so he does, with very satisfactory results.

The two leads were very personable and believable. Hayden’s grief over losing his partner was raw and handled brilliantly. Tommy’s love for Hayden, being devoid of the gay-for-you angst I mentioned earlier, was very touching without being sugar-sweet. Yes, a leap of believability was needed at the end in regards to both Hayden and Tommy’s incipient powers (no spoilers,) but I was beguiled by the author’s storytelling. If the reader goes with it, they will be well-rewarded.

Finally, there is an alluring ‘To be continued…’ at the end, but this book can easily be read as a standalone. However, this couple are shaping up to be an interesting team, and I’m curious to know what else the author has in store for them!

BLURB

Maplewood, Vermont is a picturesque town filled with unique shops, unique homes, and a quaint familiarity all centered around a lake with an unusual history.

Legends, old as well as Urban, float around like the mist that hovers above the lake at break of dawn.

But they’re just stories, right?

Hayden Moore’s life was destroyed when his husband, Malcolm, was murdered. Giving up his job as an assistant district attorney in Boston, Hayden moved to the little burg of Maplewood to recover.

A new life.

A fresh start.

However, something underneath the water is stirring. Something rotten. A deadly secret wakes underneath the black waters of Lake Veronica so disturbing it haunts the nightmares of the local residents.

It’s coming closer…

23Feb/18

A World Apart by Mel Gough

I read this in two days as despite the subject, it was an easy, compelling read. Without adding any spoilers, it does deal with some kicker subjects, and it deals with them sensitively and realistically. What I thought was a “wrong side of the tracks” love story is actually something a lot deeper and darker than that, and I enjoyed it all the more for it.

Ben seemed something of a saint. He was endlessly patient and unassuming, and as a result, people did things for him that raised a sardonic eyebrow on my part. (If I was his newly estranged wife, I’m not sure I would have been as understanding.) Also, Ben’s voice was somewhat passive at times. We weren’t let into his world enough to really feel for him. It was as if one of my oldest friends had suddenly turned around and said, “by the way, I’ve bought you a house.’ Wait, what? When did this happen? There were a few instances where Ben did things “off-camera,” which were as much of a surprise to me as to Donnie. Again, no spoilers, but it’s obvious when it happens.

Donnie was a sweetheart, not the aggressive thug he first appears. I thought he and Ben were perfect together, once their differences had been dealt with. He did seem to have rotten luck, though, namely in the guise of his drugged-up brother, Floyd, with whom her had an uncomfortable, I would say abusive, relationship, and a history of drug misuse.

As I said at the start, there are some tough themes here. Drugs, abuse, long-term illness, homophobia. Having said all that, a few things fell into place almost too easily. Ben’s reaction to his newly-discovered gayness was almost a shrug of the shoulders, the only worry being what his best mate would think. Jason (his best friend, although he seemed a bit of a toss-pot to me) didn’t take it well…. And the ending had all the feels, possibly too many for cynical bitch like me. As for the sex, this isn’t a one-handed read. I thought it was dealt with very well, considering the circumstances. It felt awkward, poignant, a little desperate. Not easy to read but it needed to be there.

In all, I enjoyed the book, despite the dark undertones, and would definitely read more by this author. I like their easy-to-read style and character development. The plot was paced just right. Apart from a few niggles (see above) I thought it was a great read.

BLURB

Ben Griers is the darling of Corinth Georgia’s Police Department—intelligent, handsome, and hardworking. Thanks to his beautiful wife and clever daughter, Ben’s family is the envy of the town. Yet desperate unhappiness is hiding just below the surface.

When Donnie Saunders, a deadbeat redneck with a temper, is brought to the Corinth PD as a suspect in a hit-and-run, Ben finds himself surprisingly intrigued by the man. He quickly establishes Donnie’s innocence but can’t shake the feeling that Donnie is hiding something. When they unexpectedly encounter each other again at an AA meeting in Atlanta, sparks begin to fly.

With his marriage on the verge of collapse, Ben is grateful for the other man’s affection. But he is soon struggling to help an increasingly vulnerable Donnie, while at the same time having to deal with the upheaval in his own life. Ben eventually realizes that they cannot achieve happiness together unless they confront their darkest secrets.

23Feb/18

Beneath The Surface (The Outsider Book 1) by Rebecca Langham

The beauty of science fiction is there no real rules other than the science has to stand up, and it has to sound plausible, even if it isn’t. I’ve read more varied books under the “science fiction” label over the last few months than I ever have with romance, which is why I love it.

Beneath The Surface is a meaty read, an involved novel with a plethora of secondary characters surrounding the two main protagonists, privileged Lydia and sharp Alessia, her Outsider counterpart.

This story could have been written in a simpler style, and it still would have been a good read, possibly a little easier to get through. There seems to be quite a bit of set-up, when really, the story just needed to get on with it. Having said that, the author has done a great job in lovingly creating the world inhabited by the humans and Outsiders, and whilst doing so, keeping relevant with various issues troubling the world today. The refugee crisis and alienation of races seem horribly familiar, with the aliens being almost too human so at times. It didn’t seem too preachy, but if you’re looking for escapism rather than realism, this may not be the book for you.

There is a lot to pick over, and it would take me a couple of readings to pick up all the subtleties. Like I said at the start, it is a substantial read. At times I felt it seemed longer than it should have been, and it took me a while to warm to the characters but the last third of the book was definitely worth waiting for.

Finally, I thought the book was well-written, a serious sci-fi novel for far less frivolous readers than myself. I stand in awe of the world the author has built and the gravitas of the overall book. It will be very interesting to see where the series goes from here.

BLURB

When a change in collective conscious sends the Outsiders, a group of aliens, to the shadows below the city, humans reason that the demonization of their peers is simply more “humane.” There’s no question, nor doubt. Just acceptance.

Lydia had embraced that sense of “truth” for as long as she can remember. The daughter of a powerful governor, she has been able to live her life with more comforts than most. Comforts can be suffocating, though, and when the opportunity to teach Outsider children in their private, “humane” community becomes available, she takes it.

What she finds beneath the city is far from the truth she had grown to know. There she meets Alessia, an Outsider with the knowledge and will to shake the foundation of all those who walk above ground. The two find a new and unexpected connection despite a complete disconnect from the technological world. Or perhaps in spite of it.

Still, it takes a lot more than an immutable connection to change the world. Lydia, Alessia, and a small group of Outsiders must navigate a system of corruption, falsehoods, and twists none of them ever saw coming, all while holding on to the hope to come out alive in the end. But it’s a risk worth taking, and a future worth fighting for.

16Feb/18

Lander by J. Scott Coatsworth

The scene was set in Book 1: Skythane, and the danger with second books is that the plot can fall a little flat, but that is not the case here. Wisely, the author has created another world out of the old one, with the occupants of Oberon and Titania having to get used to their new reality.

Not everyone is happy with this new world order, and conflicts from the last book rear their ugly heads. The good news is that Quince makes a discovery laced with tragedy, and Xander and Jameson’s fledging relationship suffers a knock when an old flame arrives on the scene. Amidst all the fantasy elements, there is a good old human story of love, of struggle and torn loyalties.

I loved how human these characters are. Having got to know them in the first book, I really cared about their various predicaments. There is an element of fairy tale as well as sci-fi, which stops the plot from being too tech-heavy, with panoramic scenes to enable the characters to spread their wings. And it had a very welcome dash of corporate intrigue which was a great foil to the fantasy element. It is a very visual book, as the last one was, and painted in vivid colours. I could definitely see the climax being directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) It had that kind of cinematic feel.

The story lagged slightly in the middle of the book, but soon picked up again when Jessa, Jameson’s former fiancee, is thrown into the mix. She could have been given a bigger role, as she was a strong character, but I loved her kick-ass feistiness. The big message of this novel seems to be “seize the day” although it never actually says that. It was done beautifully and it’s hard to say which book I enjoyed more, the first one or this one. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

BLURB

Sometimes the world needs saving twice.

Xander and Jameson thought they’d fulfilled their destiny when they brought the worlds of Oberon and Titania back together, but their short-lived moment of triumph is over.

Reunification has thrown the world into chaos. A great storm ravaged Xander’s kingdom of Gaelan, leaving the winged skythane people struggling to survive. Their old enemy, Obercorp, is biding its time, waiting to strike. And to the north, a dangerous new adversary gathers strength, while an unexpected ally awaits them.

In the midst of it all, Xander’s ex Alix returns, and Xander and Jameson discover that their love for each other may have been drug-induced.

Are they truly destined for each other, or is what they feel artificial? And can they face an even greater challenge when their world needs them most.

08Feb/18

Skythane by J. Scott Coatsworth

Having read The Stark Divide, I was already confident in this author’s world-building technique and ability to tell a rip-roaring tale. Skythane is the story of Xander and Jameson, ostensibly on a mission to find supplies of pith (a mind-altering drug) but they find themselves at the centre of a race to save the planet from destruction.

First of all, a quibble, albeit a small one. As ever, the essential and comprehensive glossary is at the back of the book, where I only discovered it at the end, where it would have been useful at the beginning.  Also, some of the names could be confusing for some. Xander is a skythane (winged being) and Jameson is a Lander (without wings.) Tander is a mining colony where Jameson used to work, and Slander refers to a city slum area.

Having said that, most of those names only appear a few times, and the important ones are Xander and his Lander companion, Jameson, who are both ADORABLE, and have such chemistry, I was willing them to get together. Also high on my love list was Quince, the capable skythane who hides the pain of a lost love behind a brusque exterior as she tries to keep the boys on track to focus on what truly matters, the prevention of Armageddon.

There are a lot of characters to get one’s head around, but whether you will enjoy this is purely down to how much you trust the author to keep everyone in check and give them enough to do. And the author does. He makes sure they all have stories of their own to tell in future books, keeps them all in check and steers the reader safely through a complex and alien environment.

I loved the way the way every creature, every fruit, plant, the technology, the weather,  food cooking methods, the weaponry, the transport, the cities, religious structure, every little thing has been carefully crafted and molded into a truly believable, fantastical, terrifying world, full of conflict but at the same time, alien and beautiful. Add in divided loyalties, a burgeoning romance and peril from sinister pursuers, and you have science fiction in its purest sense. I loved it.

BLURB

Jameson Havercamp, a psych from a conservative religious colony, has come to Oberon—unique among the Common Worlds—in search of a rare substance called pith. He’s guided through the wilds on his quest by Xander Kinnson, a handsome, cocky skythane with a troubled past.
Neither knows that Oberon is facing imminent destruction. Even as the world starts to fall apart around them, they have no idea what’s coming—or the bond that will develop between them as they race to avert a cataclysm.

Together, they will journey to uncover the secrets of this strange and singular world, even as it takes them beyond the bounds of reality itself to discover what truly binds them together.

08Feb/18

The Calling by M.D. Neu

This is an elegant vampire novel, with cleverly interwoven plot arcs that are challenging and intriguing at the same time. It begins with main character Duncan being lured (or “Called”) to meet a beautiful and mysterious woman, along with other disparate individuals. He doesn’t know that he is being tested, and once he passes the test, whether he wants to take advantage of the riches he is promised.

Duncan was slightly irritating at first, as he seemed not to be able to commit himself to anything, both in thought or deed. Always second-guessing himself (is he or is he not a nobody?), there was not enough for me to really identify with his dilemma and I found it difficult to relate to him as a human being thrown into a glamorous, Immortal world. However, as his relationship with Juliet and her assistant develops, he becomes a more rounded character. There is an undercurrent of menace, as he is treated like a human dress-up doll by the two women, whilst being subtly manipulated into the Immortal lifestyle and having strange, disturbing dreams.

I wouldn’t say it was a particularly dark read. There is a bit of gore in places, and sexy undercurrent which streams throughout the book but I’m not sure the warning of “graphic sex and violence” at the beginning was really warranted. There are a couple of sexy, explicit scenes, but I’ve read much stronger stuff in so-called romantic fiction.

The important thing is the story, the Eighties-esque glamour, the fashion amidst almost corporate intrigue. If Judith Krantz had written paranormal/vampire novels, they may have been very much like this.

To round up, although I didn’t really connect with Duncan’s character, I had a lot of respect for this book’s ability to immerse the reader in the Immortal world. It was well-written and carefully balanced, with alluring background characters and fabulous set-pieces. I didn’t find it an easy read, as I don’t normally gravitate towards paranormal novels, but for those who want their vampire novels a little different, not twinkly yet not too dark, it’s definitely worth checking out.

BLURB

Being nobody isn’t necessarily Duncan Alexander’s life goal, but it’s worked for him. He has a nondescript job, a few good friends, and overall he’s content. That’s until one fateful trip to San Jose, California, where he is ‘Called’ to meet the mysterious Juliet de Exter.  Juliet is a beautiful, wealthy, powerful Immortal who is undertaking ‘The Calling’ – a search for a human to join her world of Immortals.  Inexplicably, Duncan’s calling is more dangerous than any of the Immortals, even Juliet, ever thought it would be.

There is more to this nobody, this only child of long deceased parents, than anyone thought. When Duncan begins experiencing uncontrollable dreams of people and places he doesn’t know and hasn’t been, Juliet and the other Immortals worry. Soon, his visions point to a coven of long dead witches. The dreams also lead Duncan to his one true love. How will Duncan navigate a forbidden romance with an outcast Immortal.  Will he and the others keep the balance between the Light and Dark, survive vicious attacks, and prevent the humans from learning who they truly are? More importantly, who is this implacable foe Duncan keeps seeing in his dreams?

02Jan/18

Waiting for Walker by Robin Reardon

This novel takes a lot on. Without giving too much away, there are some big issues at  play here, amongst them coming out to parents, the processing of grief, learning to trust, racism and dealing with all the questions arising from Walker being intersex. It could be a murky mix of navel-gazing and histrionics, but it isn’t. Instead, there is a delicately-balanced story of young love, set against the misunderstandings of two families, one of which have their own devastating loss to deal with as well.

The story, intricate and compelling, is told through the eyes of Micah, a young gay man who falls totally in love with Walker. Even as he learns more about Walker’s gender, and the inevitable questions it poses about his own sexuality, his emotions are incredibly tender and real. At the same time, he is dealing with his mother’s grief over his lost brother, and the fact that his father has moved on and found happiness with another woman. It’s a huge burden for any teenager to bear, and Micah reacts in a totally convincing manner; switching from surly to affectionate to sullen again. He was written very well, never losing my interest for a moment, and remained appealing even when he was in one of his moods, and the author has a knack of drawing their secondary characters so well, they almost share top billing with the two leads.

The descriptions of Long Island Sound, sailing for the first time and the burgeoning emotions are exquisite. You can almost smell the sea air and feel that flutter of anticipation as Micah falls inexorably in love with Walker. The story is atmospheric, almost dreamy at times, but not in a way that gets in the way of the plot, which moves along at just the right pace. For an easy read, it packs a big emotional punch.

I believe this book has a wide appeal, from young teenagers just exploring who they are as people, to anyone interested to know more about intersex relations and love. It certainly educated me without being preachy, and the ending was immensely satisfying (no spoilers.) This is definitely a book I will read again in the future.

BLURB

“Maybe, when you trust completely, you leave yourself open to the pain of someone else.”

Micah Jaeger’s life is a mess. His folks have split, and his mother is seeing a medium to communicate with Micah’s older brother, killed in Afghanistan. He had to change schools for his junior year, and he retreats further into himself, hiding behind his camera—and hiding that he’s gay.

One sunny day in June, as he’s shooting a dead seagull on the shore of Long Island Sound, a mysterious guy appears in a beautiful sailboat. At first, the guy’s boat shoes are the image that stays with Micah. But soon it’s the person himself, Walker Donnell, who haunts Micah’s dreams.

Walker’s life looks perfect to Micah. His wealthy parents adore him. He has everything he could want. He’s gorgeous and generous. And he falls hard for Micah. But he has a secret: Walker is intersex.

The closer Walker and Micah grow, the more Walker feels the need to be sure of himself in ways he hasn’t fully faced before, and now it’s his turn to retreat. Micah knows Walker is worth waiting for, so he waits. And waits.