Book Review: Doomed Romances – Strange Tales of Uncanny Love from The British Library

I am finally showing a paperback that I own!

Normally I only read on either my laptop or my phone – I have the Kindle app downloaded on both. Not only that, but I have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited and over the last few months when I’ve been a little poorly I have been reading my bodyweight in ebooks. I know that ebooks are technically without weight and I’m a large lass, but I’ve really racked up the page count – and very much enjoyed it.

However I indulged myself with a subscription to the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series. It’s a collection of the sort of stuff that I should be fossicking out for myself – strange and gothic tales that may have been forgotten. It costs £9.99 per month and you get a great book with selected classics delivered without having to hunt down the good stuff by yourself. Not only that, it’s part of supporting an amazing institution. Doomed Romances Strange Tales of Uncanny Love is my first delivery and it came with two pics and a bookmark.

If the pics are a regular thing, I may set up a feature wall of them!

The book is a collection of short stories edited by Joanne Ella Parsons who has dug out some wonderful gems. It starts with the eerie tale The Invisible Girl written by Mary Shelley and published in 1833. I associated Mary Shelley with Frankenstein but this is a dark tale of forbidden love and the heartbreak of an innocent maiden cast out into the cold by a tyrannical father – thoroughly enjoyable. It ends with Dancehall Devil by V Castro, a current writer with some well deserved awards for horror. Dancehall Devil is one of those uncanny, sweltering, steamy horror stories with passion and violence and a shiver of harsh, deserved justice. There are plenty of goodies in between.

I read it during a normal evening, but I feel that it ought to be read in strange, out of the way places during thunderstorms while drinking dark wine. I may have been in my usual jeans and slippers, but I almost felt that I was wearing velvet and lace.

It’s available on Amazon, and it’s even on Kindle Unlimited (though I’m keeping my subscription to the British Library) and I thoroughly recommend it.

Book Review: Unwritten by Elisabeth Bell. Book 1 of the Unreal Series

I have said before that I’m not keen on books written in the first person and the present tense. I’m even less keen on books written about an author writing a book – especially when the main plot is the author writing a book. I feel that there’s a real danger that it can get self-indulgent. This is a book written in the first person, present tense, about an author writing a book and I loved it.

The book is about Lily, a nurse, who started writing a book many years ago and then forgot about her work. When she is waylaid by a character from the story she had forgotten, it comes as something of a surprise and she needs a lot of convincing before she can take it seriously. It’s fun, complicated and well written and, as a nurse, Lily immediately books tests for brain injuries as she cannot believe that she has just had an encounter with an imaginary person.

This isn’t an adventure story. Without giving too much away, while there are exciting and action packed encounters with the characters from Lily’s book, at the heart this is a light and fun romance. Lily starts falling for Jake, a gorgeous businessman who is intrigued when as he sees her dealing with his uncle’s IV and preparation for surgery. The romance is lovely and sweet and very wholesome. There is nothing explicit in the story. The two main characters are honest and genuine with each other, which makes a refreshing change, and are generally nice people. As I settled into the book, I felt that it was very much a cozy read.

There is a slight drawback to this book. There is a sense that it’s written for writers, particularly romance writers. The chapter headings include The Info Dump, The Miscommunication Trope and The Falling in Love Montage. The writing is excellent, but there is a lot that is driven by the inside joke of this is a writer writing about a writer who is writing and it’s one of the problems that can come up in stories about writers.

I think this is a fun, cozy read even if you’re not a writer, but it’s only fair to let you know that it’s helpful if you know about the idea of Third Act Conflict, the name of one of the chapters and something that can be used when you construct a framework for a novel.

I very much enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to the planned next book. It may not have entirely won me over to ‘first person, present tense, writing about writing’ but it was a sweet, wholesome, enjoyable read and I am happy to recommend it.  

Book Review: Optimal Delusions by Amber Fisher

I didn’t actually mean to read this. I was actually looking for another title. However I got distracted (which is normal for me) and started reading this book. And I really enjoyed it.

This is a cosy paranormal mystery set in the small town of Haven’s End in New York State. The heroine, Temperance Swift, finds out that her husband has not been exactly truthful or faithful and has her whole world fall apart. As the character puts it – “I discovered that my husband was a cheating bastard, so I burned our house down. Allegedly.” She makes a plea deal and heads to rehab.

Temperance finds herself on a farm instead of the fancy rehab place that she thought she would be sent to and sharing a farmhouse with Simon (who calls himself Cupid), Penny (a pathological liar and Oracle) and Colette (a completely forgotten goddess). Her arrival coincides with a murder and she is sucked into solving it.

The mystery is really well handled in my opinion. Everything is there in the run up to the solution but nothing is telegraphed. There are some lovely touches in the twists and turns of the story. The murder is solved during the book but there are still questions. Why is Temperance, an apparently ordinary mortal, able to find this Halfway House? I can see lots of little hints hidden around the story, but I can’t work anything out yet – I love it. There are also hints that there could be a budding romance with Simon, aka Cupid, but it isn’t over done and there is no insta- romance, just a tantalising possibility.

The story is told in the first person, but not in the present tense. The dialogue is crisp, the description is good, the characters are well drawn and individual and the plotting, as mentioned, is excellent. I desperately hope that there will be a sequel and I shall look forward to reading it. This is definitely a recommendation.

Book Review: Dust Off Your Magic by Claire Robyns

I signed up to the 52 books in one year on Goodreads and I’ve been failing epically, so there will be a few more reviews than normal. I write reviews because it encourages me to read out of my comfort zone, and hopefully there’ll be a good mix. I also hope that I can help a reader make an informed choice and perhaps encourage and support a writer, because I know how it feels to publish and expose yourself to the reading public. My choices may appear a little random, so I thought I would explain how I pick a book. Sometimes I get asked to write a review, and I will if I can. Most of the time I go onto Kindle Unlimited, look around fantasy or paranormal books and filter by ‘published in the last 30 days’. I try and look for the first in a series, as I’m easily confused. Then I read and share.

Dust off Your Magic by Claire Robyns is a relatively short book and a fun one. It’s a paranormal story as the heroine, Kristen O’Mead, has to go back to the magical village that she rejected and left ten years previously to deal with the problem of her ex husband’s ghost.

This was an odd read for me. It’s sort of like a taster book, or a part of a book, but it was also a complete story. Two more in the series are already cued up and it’s obvious that there’s more to learn. There are so many strands and hints that are hanging tantalisingly in the air. However the story begins with Kristen being framed for murder, and the murder is solved in this book so it’s sort of an incomplete complete story. There is also a slow burn romance going on, unless I miss my guess, and I think that will be interesting to read more of.

Technical details – it’s set in the modern day with witches and werewolves existing but unknown to the general population. It’s written in the first person, but not the present tense so it stays in my happy place zone. There is a lot of worldbuilding going on, but it’s tucked away in the background and not info dumped into the story. The pace is good, the description clear and the dialogue is crisp. I enjoyed the writing a great deal. For example: ‘Being a non-practicing witch was basically the equivalent of coloring your hair. Who cared what your natural color was? That wasn’t what defined you.’

If you want a longer and completely standalone book, this isn’t for you. It’s still a fun read, however, and later on it will be a wonderfully bingeable series. I definitely recommend this one.

Book Review – Death Caps for Dessert by Aggie Parris and Arielle Morisot

I’m determined to get back to book reviewing. For me, it’s the best way to broaden my reading habits, which are currently appalling with the exception of re-reading Essie Summers. So I went on to Amazon, where I have Kindle Unlimited and picked the first one that caught my eye. I sorted by cozy fantasy and newly published and found Death Caps for Dessert. I settled down, started reading and then I questioned whether I would make a good reviewer for this. On one hand I can’t give an amazingly wonderful glowing review and as an author I know how that will hurt. On the other hand, I feel there is an element of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’. There are a few little bits and pieces that have niggled at me and which could be put down to lack of research. I’m writing about research. I’m going to be honest, but that honesty can also include the good bits, and I’m glad to be able to include those.

Death Caps for Dessert is written in the first person present tense, which isn’t my happy place but it works. It’s helped by the changes in narrator, so that the reader can get different points of view and insights. I think that it’s a great way of conveying lots of information to a reader without an info dump, especially as there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. You have a fairy princess, currently living in the mortal world, having to share information with a Detective Chief Inspector and there’s a lot of specialist knowledge to share.

The action takes place in a small English village during the first round of a televised baking competition. There isn’t much description of the village, but the background feel was very much that of an English country village and I felt relaxed about it. I spotted a few places where it showed that it was written by an American, but I can’t really quibble. The American author was much better at writing about England than I would be at writing about America.

This is quite a short book, and I felt that it suffered for that. There’s a lot of story there, and some interesting characters waiting to come out if they have enough space. I felt that there wasn’t enough time to know and sympathise with the murder victim. I’d like to know more about the set up and more about the backgrounds. It felt very pared down on the detail. This can be good, though, as it means you concentrate on the story, but I felt that it needed a little more around it.

It felt a little rushed at times. There were parts which I felt could have been explored more, including the actual murder. And here’s a big quibble of mine – I think that there was a lack of research. As you can tell from the title, the instrument of murder was poisonous mushrooms – deathcaps or death caps. The poisoning symptoms in the story weren’t the same as reported in places like Wikipedia (which can be wrong) and WebMD (which can be wrong). The authors gave a good and reasonable explanation why there should be a difference, and I’m a great believer in ‘this is fiction and includes fairies so why quibble’ but it niggled a little. I feel that there were lost opportunities with the poison.

The whole issue with the poisoning sums up my problems with the book. It felt like the scene had been shortened and compressed, just like the book. When I finished, I felt that I had read the first third of a book. It didn’t feel like I had the first book in a trilogy, but like I had read the first few chapters. The murder is resolved in the book, but it felt like there was a lot more to the story, just like I felt that there were more to the characters. What we saw of the characters was excellent, but it wasn’t much.

So much for my quibbles. There was a lot of good in the story. I thought it was an interesting plot and had a lot of potential. I was very happy to see another author agreeing with me about the nature of fairies and I very much enjoyed that aspect of the book. Surely the nature of the plots in the fairy courts need to be explored further. I need to also mention the excellent writing when it came to description. There was some really beautiful language in there, and there were moments when I just paused to enjoy it. For example, when Godive touches John, there is a connection: ‘Maybe, I think, it’s the physical contact between us that’s reminded him of the reality amid this hauntingly fantastical situation.’

Overall, it’s not a bad read. I think I will keep it on my ‘watch out’ list and dip back in for further stories. I think it will be best read as part of the series, and I very much intend to indulge when more of the promised series are out.

All Authors Should Read This Book – The Essie Summers Story

This is the autobiography of Essie Summers, a New Zealand writer of wholesome romances and the wife of a hard working minister who wrote over fifty novels that were published between 1957 and 1997. She also wrote poetry, short stories, articles and a newspaper column. The volume of her published work is immense. For that alone, Essie Summers deserves respect. It’s also important to remember that she was writing while at the same time bringing up a family, working as a minister’s wife (which is not an easy position) and often working in a shop or office as well. Those stories caught the imagination of readers so much that there are still die hard fans republishing her work on Kindle twenty five years after she died in 1998. From that point of view alone, any writer should be interested in her work and how she achieved such consistently excellent stories.

This autobiography isn’t a book about ‘how to write’. It is, on the surface, a straightforward, chatty account of the author’s life. Essie Summers writes about her childhood, the challenges that she faced and how she grew and lived. She talks about a trip from her home in New Zealand over to the UK and Europe, her family life and the wonderful people she met. I have never read an autobiography with such little ego in it. It is a joyous account of life, filled and brimming over with an appreciation of words, people and the world around her. There is so much about Essie Summers finding the good in people – and all in a natural, honest way. It is perhaps the most unaffected account of life I’ve come across. She had some tough times and difficult moments, but rather than wallowing, she looks outward and onward and carries on.

This book isn’t a structured, carefully curated account. You can settle down with this book and feel like you are listening to an informal conversation. The punctuation is idiosyncratic, the style is informally cosy and it is so easy to relax and watch Essie Summers’ life unfold, knowing that you are listening to a kind and generous woman. She is welcoming you into her memories with all of her highs and lows.

All authors and those who want to be authors should read this book and read it carefully. In between the stories about struggles with stoves and worries about her children are swathes of great writing advice. Next to, and part of, the stories of the minor triumphs and disasters of everyday life there are accounts of jotting things down in notebooks, recording details, scheduling time to write, approaching publishers, research, editing and writing even more. She wrote about the discipline and demands. Essie Summers didn’t put time aside to be a writer. She was a writer all the time and it is woven through all her life. She was always ready to make a note when inspiration struck or when she needed to remember a fact. She was always aware of the world. If you read any of her stories, you are struck by the detailed and glorious description and the crisp, natural dialogue. You can only get those by doing as Essie Summers did – pay attention to what is around you and look at things as a writer. And when you are looking – make the darned notes! This book shows the way Essie Summers lived as a writer and it is a wonderful example for us trying to follow that path.

Image from Unsplash, taken by Glenn Carstens-Peters

In this Kindle edition, Ken Pierce has gathered together a wonderful selection of extra material with the help and blessing of Essie Summers’ family and friends. It takes up almost half of the book and is well worth dipping into. There are some reminiscences, a short story from the start of Essie Summers’ career and a chapter entitled ‘A Few Practical Hints on Preparing a Novel’. Many of the hints apply to the days when books were either handwritten or typed on a manual typewriter, and they make me utterly grateful for the privilege of access to a word processor. I am old enough to have fought with carbon paper, and I always came second. It is only a small part of the work it can seem dated, especially the parts about presenting the typed manuscript.

Don’t skip these paragraphs! In them you have a wonderful example of professionalism and efficiency. Essie Summers, in the brief note written to her daughter, clearly explained that you gave your manuscript the best chance of reaching the publisher and laid out the work to make it as easy for the publisher as possible. An author may no longer use manila envelopes or take carbon copies of a piece of writing. It’s no longer expected to double tap after a period or full stop. However it’s still vital that you approach a publisher professionally and send your writing to the address stated, whether it’s to an email address, a submission form or even via the postal service. It is equally vital that you send your submission using the layout requested, whether using Shunn format, double spacing, single spacing, or whatever is requested in a call for submissions. Essie Summers understood that these details were important and while the tech may have changed from fountain pen to email, the need for a professional approach is still vital.

Above all, for a writer, this is the best, most perfect, most exact example of someone doing ‘show don’t tell’. Essie Summers shows what it means to be a successful, widely published, much loved author and all the work involved. I will be reading and re-reading this so many times to keep myself on the writing straight-and-narrow. It’s also a lovely, warming, wholesome read which I fully recommend.

Disclosure – I helped with the proof reading, although Ken Pierce had it pretty nailed down, as he is awesome and so are the other wonderful people who are involved with the Essie Summers Project. The reason I got involved was because of my love of Essie Summers’ books and my respect for her as an author. I wish that I was more like her.

Book Review: Gobbelino London and a Scourge of Pleasantries by Kim M Watt

It’s been a while since I reviewed a book, so I thought I would share a book that I have just read and thoroughly enjoyed but that wasn’t recently published. I picked up Gobbelino London and a Scourge of Pleasantries on a whim, because I love cats and the book is set in Leeds, my home town.

I’m really glad that I did. It’s so much fun. The story is told by Gobbelino London, a cat based in Leeds, who is one of the best fictional cats that I have enjoyed. He’s argumentative, opinionated and has his own views on the world and his place in it. I especially love his quirky take on the human language. And, as a refreshing change, he is a much more vivid character than his side kick, Callum, the Private Investigator. Both are well written, and both are solidly grounded in a way that hints at a life before the story – I’m always a sucker for that.

I found myself sinking into the story as, no matter how surreal and magical things became, the writing kept you engaged and involved. I never found myself jarred out of the story. I loved the unexpected twists and turns. It kept me curious all the way through.

I found the action well paced, the characters were fun and I’m looking forward to dipping in to other stories to find out more about the background. I seriously recommend it.

Gobbelino London and a Scourge of Pleasantries

Book Review: A Kiss for Luck by Isa McLaren

This is a scandalously sensuous book which I thoroughly enjoyed.

It starts with the heroine receiving an inheritance that takes her away from small town USA to the richly historic streets of Italy and on to the luxurious South of France.

Luxurious is the key word, I think. The author has a wonderful way of bringing in details of luxury furnishings, exquisite art, elegant designer gowns and the finest cuisine, and all in a way that supports the story. It’s like reading while being wrapped in a stole of the finest cashmere while resting on silk and velvet cushions.

These details are a constant in the background, and a support to a story which is well paced, well plotted and full of twists and turns. The characters are believable, intresting and complex and their dialogue is sharp and true to life.

The story takes you on a journey full of bluffs, double crosses, subterfuge, and chicanery and I enjoyed every minute. I can’t share too many details as that would spoil the plot, but it’s just so much fun. I really hope that there will be a sequel.

I very much recommend it.

Book Review: Kolkata Noir by Tom Vater

I wanted to review books as a way of pushing myself out of the comfort zone and out into the amazing world of unknown books. Tom Vater approached me for an honest review of Kolkata Noir and I happily accepted. I am glad I did as this novel is very different from my usual reading habits. It may be different to my usual choices, but I greatly enjoyed it.

The novel’s name is perfect. It is set in a city called variously Calcutta, Kolkata and Killkata and combines the steamy atmosphere of West Bengal with the clipped, dark pessimism of noir literature. It is a heady combination.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is called Calcutta and is set in 1999. An English traveller, Becker, meets a newly created police inspector, Madhurima, and the two characters find themselves working together to solve a seedy plot involving the Indian upper classes and a British interloper. I love the way the noir themes of money and corruption intertwine with the feverish heat of Bengal. There is tension between the two characters but they are pulled apart by their separate life paths.

The second section is called Kolkata and is set in 2019. It’s the same city (the name changed in 2001) and once again Becker and Madhurima meet to solve a problem. This time it is British incomers inciting trouble among the dispossessed and lost of the Kolkata slums and rubbish heaps. Once again the tension is felt between the two characters as they work together to solve the deaths and destruction caused by the hunt for the fabled Mother Teresa’s treasure. Once again the characters are pulled apart by their life paths.

The third and final section is called Killkata as the city once again changes her name and is set in 2039. The city is drowning as global warming raises the sea levels. Corruption and lawlessness now rule instead of any government and the people left behind struggle frantically for survival. Madhurima reaches out to her old contact, Becker, in a desperate attempt to help someone she loves and he, of course, responds. This is by far the darkest section as the two companions struggle through the shadows as the world is falling around them.

There are two distinct strands to the book. One is the dark shadows of the noir genre. There are the seedy secrets, the grotesque underclass, the morally bankrupt high society and the dark deals that define noir. The contrast between the fantastically rich and the desperately poor is well drawn and stark. People make difficult decisions in impossible circumstances and the intangible link between Becker and Madhurima is very much part of the noir tradition. People make difficult choices, heroic decisions and unlucky calls. The stories are full of shadows that grow darker as the book progresses. As ever, there is a glimmer of hope in the end as people make hard choices and still decide to do the right thing regardless of personal cost.

The other strand is the city itself. Tom Vater talks so eloquently about the Indian culture and the relics of British rule. You can almost feel the sultry air as he shows the city and her former riches. I admit that there were times when I had to turn to the internet to understand some of the references, but for me that was a plus as it broadened my knowledge. The constant intrusion of the old British Raj still pushing into current Indian life is a recurring theme. History is still casting shadows.

Quibbles – the three sections are quite short. I personally think that each could have been expanded. There could have been more about the characters and further depth as the stories were expanded. I suspect that I am just being greedy. The book works. I just wanted more.

You can find Kolkata Noir by Tom Vater as an ebook, audio book, hardback or paperback at Amazon.co.uk.

Book Review: The Crow Journal by Finn Cullen

The Crow Journal by Finn Cullen is a wonderfully evocative, meticulously researched, intricately woven tale that slots in impeccable references to mid Victorian London and joins them seamlessly to a chilling tale of faerie, enchantment, adventure and treachery.

The story is told in a style that would have been familiar to Dickens or Conan Doyle. Here’s an excerpt to give some flavour:

The carriage ride was not a long one, and my companion was not inclined to conversation. I was thoughtful myself after my encounter in the court of Green Jack. I had not gained the answers I sought, but I had taken a first step into the realm of Faerie. More importantly I hadn’t lost my life in the taking of that step. There in the safety of the cab’s compartment it began to dawn on me how perilous that encounter had been. Thorn’s ruthlessness had been clear, the memory of those cold killer’s eyes would not soon leave me, and the sense of power that came when I recalled the vast landscape face of Green Jack himself was daunting.

Barnaby Silver, having finished the first part of his magical training with his kindly mentor, Doctor Moran, journeys from a remote village in Yorkshire to London. He is searching for news of his father, who he never knew. His mother, a magus or magician, had fled London when he was a baby. Now he needed to find out about his father.

His quest takes him through the darkest streets of mid Victorian London and the dangerous lands of faerie. Interlaced with the search for his father is the intrigue and scheming of the magi, the magicians that are now based in London after moving from Glastonbury.

The story has plenty of great action scenes and lots of plot twists, although only a hint of romance. As a story, it stands alone but there are a few strands left that suggest further great stories may come.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.