Tuesday, September 2, 2014

This House is Haunted by John Boyne #review

Title: This House is Haunted
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Transworld Publishers, 2013

In This House is Haunted, a plain-Jane schoolteacher responds to an urgent advertisement to take up a post in Norfolk as a governess to two children from an obviously wealthy family. At first this career opportunity seems like the answers to Eliza Caine’s prayers, as she’s just lost her father and doesn’t have any other prospects.

For some reason, at the age of 21, she’s still unmarried, and whether this is due to a low self-image or whether she’s genuinely hideous, remains for the reader to decide. Personally, I prefer to think that Eliza’s sheltered upbringing has led to her introversion, and living with her elderly father has not helped her cause.

Of course once Eliza arrives at Gaudlin Hall, she is immediately thrust into a supernatural mystery (starting with a pair of ghostly hands trying to shove her under a train on the platform upon her arrival). Being the rational sort, this young woman is not immediately inclined to run screaming, nor does she at first believe that her problems are of a paranormal nature.

Eliza is chiefly concerned that her two charges – the young Isabella and Eustace Westerley – have absent parents, and are growing up isolated in the nearly derelict residence which conveniently has gargoyles on the roof to add to the Gothic mood.

It’s at this point that the story’s wheels come off for me. If you’ve grown up on a steady diet of period dramas and horror films (especially all those cheesy Hammer horrors from the previous century) you’ll quickly pick out nearly every single trope the genre can throw at readers, such as the crumbling mansion with the inexplicable events; suspicious villagers who’re all in on some dreadful secret they won’t share; peculiar children who see dead people; and of course the prerequisite, scary surly groundskeeper.

My feeling is that the author raided those old horror classics for all the scary bits we’ve come to know and expect, and that though these are suited eminently for horror on film, they are not particularly scary when employed in the written word. At least not in the same way that the likes of Stephen King gives me sleepless nights.

Eliza experiences phenomena, and I kept waiting to be scared, but our main character takes things in her stride, and I gained a growing sense, especially when it came to the behaviour of others “in the know” that the author had written other characters to be deliberately mysterious in order to heighten tension. So, to me, this aspect of the book feels contrived.

These things considered, I still enjoyed This House is Haunted, for the same reason that I’m entertained by old-school horror (and here I’m thinking specifically of Guillermo del Torro’s Mama and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, as well as The Woman in Black, a novel by Susan Hill that was made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe). None of these offerings are perfect, but they’re still enjoyable.

If you go into This House is Haunted with moments of tongue-in-cheek humour, references to Charles Dickens and typical Gothic novels in mind, then the story might provide perfectly adequate entertainment. Scary, however, it is not, and if you know your tropes well, you’ll see the final outcome arriving from miles away.

John Boyne drops piles of hints from early on that are simple to add together. This results in a story that is to a large extent formulaic, and made me think along the lines of Jane Eyre meets Paranormal Activity.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding My Own Way... to happy & gay by Barbara Castle-Farmer #review

Title: Finding My Own Way… to happy & gay
Author: Barbara Castle-Farmer, 2014

After many years of democracy in a country with possibly one of the most liberal constitution in the world, it can be argued that LGBTI people do not face the same challenges that they did during the apartheid years. Though there are, undeniably, many issues that need to be dealt with, such as corrective rape of black lesbians in townships, we can now walk down the road, hand in hand with our partners; we can adopt children; and we can commit to our loved ones in a legally recognised civil partnership. None of this had been previously possible, and we should never forget that we’ve worked hard to get there.

What is immediately apparent when one picks up a copy of Finding My Own Way… by Barbara Castle-Farmer, is that she writes from the heart, and has opened a book that is important to read, whether you are gay or straight.

She bravely tells her life story, warts and all, from her earliest days when she had her first inkling that she was somehow different, to her initial explorations in same-sex relationships.

Something to bear in mind is that during the mid-1900s, there were no helpful resources available to LGBT people, who often lived in great isolation. Homosexuality was misunderstood and reviled, and young gay people really had to flounder around in the dark, so to speak, with little or no guidance.

This was an immense challenge that Castle-Farmer faced, especially here in South Africa, where there were so many restrictive laws. Yet this did not stop her from entering into relationships or building a career – and she forged ahead, which is inspiring to read.

Yet this book is more than a memoir. Castle-Farmer dispels many myths, and also serves to impart fascinating and relevant snippets of information at the start of every chapter – drawing one’s attention to important historical details that should not be lost in the mists of time.

Perhaps the only criticism that can be levelled against this book is the fact that there are numerous typographical errors throughout, which should have been picked up by a diligent proofreader. That being said, Castle-Farmer’s writing is thoroughly engaging, and I found that I could not put down this book until it was done. Thank you, lady, for sharing your story, and here’s hoping that it will light the way for others on this path.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Featured author: J Hamlet – The Chaos Theology #1

Today I'm playing host to author J Hamlet, author of The Chaos Theology. So, take a look, and check out the Rafflecopter giveaway at the end of this post.

Title: Hand of Chaos
Series: The Chaos Theology #1
Author: J Hamlet
Publication Date: September 4, 2013
Genre: Dark Urban Fantasy

Exhausted, cynical, and confused, Anna is always there to report for duty. She's part of a clandestine government team that defends the nation against supernatural terrorism—a job that understandably leaves her life in shambles and drives her to drink a little more than she should. Toss in a fear of intimacy with a desire to have friends and lovers like a normal person and, well, Anna is a troubled soul wrapped in a special agent with arcane, magical powers. Waking up hungover at five–­thirty in the morning with a zombie­–infested apartment building in the heart of DC to deal with, she knows she's got the makings of the worst morning possible.

Her team is its own challenge. A battle­–scarred Nigerian shaman, a bookish shape­shifter, an inept summoner, and a brilliant but cantankerous wizard round it all out. Her partner, an immortal and cursed Paladin, is the only person she knows more jaded than herself. Getting them all to work together is never easy, with Anna often caught in the cross fire.

Their target, Ethan Morgan, is one pissed off necromancer. His brother was KIA by his own government, the victim of an experimental magical weapon they decided to test on the battlefield. Now bent on revenge and sponsored by one of hell's most powerful demons, Ethan has a plan of his own to make us all pay. Anna and her team are fighting against the wake of destruction, but Ethan is always one step ahead. With the number of bodies he leaves and reanimates growing exponentially, Anna's wondering if they'll stop him before he engulfs everyone in an undead horde.

Buy Links
Amazon  |  Goodreads

Author Bio
Everyone needs a hobby. And, like most people, I hope one day that my hobby will liberate me from my mind–­numbing day job. I chose writing. Not one of the easier ones. I chose it at the tender age of 14, churning out terrible science fiction novels that heaped on the cliches and barely hidden tropes of all space operas. Thankfully, those creations reside in the prison of an old Commodore 64 hard drive and several 3.5" disks (kids, ask your parents) in a landfill somewhere. And, let me be clear, the world is better for it.

Along the way, I kept writing. Through college. Through grad school. Through the beginning of my career, such as it is. I like to believe I picked up skills. I wanted to write novels that had things I wanted to see. Hand of Chaos, my debut novel, brings together elements of a spy thriller and a police procedural with dark and urban fantasy. I followed that with Scarred Earth, a serial alien invasion novel I'm releasing entirely through tumblr. I'm probably going about this all wrong, but I don't know any other way.

Social Media Links
Website  |  Facebook  |  Twitter  |  Goodreads  |  Pinterest  |  Tumblr

Giveaway: There is a giveaway for this tour. A $50 Amazon/B&N Giftcard or a Book Depository shopping spree of the same value.

Open Internationally. Ends 9/15.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence #review

Title: Emperor of Thorns (#3 of The Broken Empire)
Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher: Ace, 2013

Finally I got to finish this trilogy, and it’s a lovely feeling of completion for someone like me who rarely manages to follow through with a challenge of this nature. Jorg as a character is fascinating. When we meet him in book one, he’s impulsive and prone to perpetrate horrendous acts of violence. Not much has changed by book three, and he still very much possesses the ability to act before he thinks, but his motivations (in his mind) are clearer. Here is a man who cares deeply about two things: his family (latent guilt toward his brother’s death) and also claiming the emperor’s throne. He proves again and again, that he’s not afraid to sacrifice anything and anyone to get what he wants. This might upset some. [Okay, that was totally an understatement but jawellnofine] ← **more laughter**

While at the start of his journey, he primarily wants the throne simply for the sake of having it (that’s how I see it, at least) his motivations have shifted somewhat near the end. Now Jorg wants that throne because he knows he’s the only one with the will and the knowledge to save the world from certain fiery destruction (possibly also motivated by the fact that he wants to leave some sort of legacy for his son).

As always, Mark Lawrence treads a tricky path with his narrative running on different timelines, with multiple story arcs that cross reference each other. The jumping between past and present will no doubt infuriate readers who like linear stories. At times I felt there was a little withholding of key information, but the pace is so fast, and Jorg is such an unreliable narrator, that I was happy to cling on for the ride.

Jorg is ever the ladies’ man [says the reviewer amid sick laughter], and his relationship with three vastly different (and dangerous) women is complex. Katherine’s fate is still inextricably twined with Jorg’s, bitter as their past grievances are, and Miana is anything but the shy, retiring damsel. As the mother of Jorg’s son, she proves to be every bit as ruthless as the father when it comes to protect family, and as such perfectly complements Jorg. Chella the necromancer is introduced as a viewpoint character, which is a little jarring at first for those of us accustomed to Jorg’s first-person narrative. Her observations are nonetheless key to the story, and offer valuable insight.

As can be expected in one of Lawrence’s novels, bloodshed, carnage and large-scale destruction is never far away. I am also glad that he decided to irrevocably stamp this story with “the end”, and resist the temptation of a drawn-out multi-book series prone to the exhaustion of ever-escalating “too much awesome”.

The resolution of The Broken Empire trilogy is apt. To be honest, I hadn’t been quite sure where Lawrence was going with it, but when it happened, I sat back with a small smile. Jorg is the kind of guy who likes solutions. The only problem is his solutions aren’t always to the liking of the affected parties.

Dear Mark, thank you for showing us Jorg’s world, and I look forward to reading more of your books in the future.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Coercion by Lux Zakari #review

Title: Coercion
Author: Lux Zakari, 2014

Valerie Mercer has undergone a transformation. No longer labelled as the overweight ugly duckling, she has followed her aunt’s advice and has shed kilos. The only problem is that she’s lost none of her insecurities.

Michael Vartanian doesn’t know what he wants. And his on again, off again relationship with his girlfriend Breeze is a source of great discontent to both of them. Even though he can’t seem to stay away from her, he still has a wandering eye. Also, the thing that I picked up from him is that he purposefully avoids facing up to his own shortcomings. I don’t blame Breeze for treating him the way she does. The boy needs a serious wake-up call.

If you’re looking for a new adult-type romance with a HEA then this is not going to be the story for you. As always, Zakari writes authentic characters who make poor decisions and have to deal with the fallout from their mistakes.

The bottom line is that Valerie’s insecurities mean that Michael basically walks all over her. His blatant callous attitude would send any girl with a shred of self-worth running. Not so with Valerie, who spends months moping after this fiend. A sexy fiend, but a fiend nonetheless. She has no rational explanation as to why she allows him to use her, and she keeps going back for more.

I can understand that this might be a turn-off to some readers who want a gallant badboy type with a good heart. Michael is most emphatically not the man you are looking for.

Their sexual encounters are steamy and illicit, but they are tainted by Michael’s casual cruelty. Valerie makes the prime error of mistaking lust for love, and my heart ached for her even as I wanted to deliver a swift slap to the side of her head.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. Valerie’s pain is a crucible for her, and although she goes through a difficult time – don’t we all at that age? – she is stronger for it, and I enjoyed seeing her learn to stand her ground.

This isn’t my favourite of Zakari’s writing, but it’s nonetheless still good. There’s a wry, barbed undercurrent that’s present in all her works I’ve read so far, and she weaves an eminently readable slice of life, love and passion.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Legionnaire by James Gawley #review

Title: Exiles of Arcadia: Legionnaire
Author: James Gawley, 2013

One might be forgiven for initially suspecting this novel to be historical fiction set during the Roman era, but it’s definitely a work of fantasy. We find ourselves in the empire of Arcadia, where a renegade general has established his forces in a far-flung outpost.

Legionnaire is chiefly a coming-of-age story for the young Primus Seneca, whose father is a general of the exiled forces. Military life is all Primus knows – he grew up essentially abandoned by both parents – and we later discover General Marcus Seneca pushed his son away primarily because he reminded him too much of his estranged wife.

This abandonment does not prevent Primus from trying for personal excellence, though he is inexperienced and his idealism is great. He battles through difficult choices – guilt over a fellow soldier’s death, his friend’s desertion, and an obvious cover-up and framing – which have their repercussions later. Primus works out in his mind what it is to be honourable, and to do what is right, even when faced by overwhelming odds and the very real threat of death.

This is a short novel, which appears to be part of a series. If military fiction with great attention to detail is your thing, then this may well appeal to you. I liked the fact that this was a fantasy setting without overt magic. That being said, if the author had wanted to opt for straight historical fiction, he’d probably prove to be a dab hand at it as well. The setting has a nice ring of authenticity to it.

Some may find Gawley’s style a little spare – I didn’t feel any great emotional range in the writing, but I still enjoyed the unfolding story very much. The world-building is vivid, and tactile, which offered me a precise glimpse into the physicality of the milieu. This one may well be worth pursuing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins #review

Title: Catching Fire (book #2 of The Hunger Games)
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic, 2009

It’s always tricky to review a novel that has had so much hype surrounding it, and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins is no exception. We continue from where things were left off in book one for our plucky heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who discovers that her reward as victor of the Hunger Games is not all it’s cracked up to be.

She’d hoped to enjoy a life of quiet comfort with her family, and perhaps pursue her intended love interest, Gale, but there’s the not-so-small matter of her much-televised engagement to Peeta. And, of course, the rather dastardly President Snow, who’s coercing her to get married.

In surviving the Hunger Games, Katniss has unwittingly become the figurehead of a rebellion and the districts are on the verge of open revolt. She has no choice but to go along with Snow’s plans, because he has threatened her loved ones.

While the first half of the story leads you to believe that Katniss will begin to get actively involved in overthrowing the Capitol, she and all the victors from the past 25 years find themselves swept up in a Reaping again – this time as unwilling participants in the Quarter Quell games.

In this sense, Catching Fire is doomed to repeat the theme of The Hunger Games and doesn’t cover much in the way of new ground. It lacks some of the uncertainty and tension that we faced in the first book.

Once again, and perhaps regrettably so, Katniss is robbed of the opportunity to explore the moral issues surrounding the act of having to kill others to survive while providing entertainment for the masses. This time it is thanks to a hostile arena that conveniently does the killing on players’ behalf – verging on deus ex machina to a degree. When she does kill, the act hardly seems to make a dent on her emotionally or intellectually and the victim is reduced to a mere name.

As a character, Katniss doesn’t grow much; she is still as self-absorbed as she was in The Hunger Games and I was often left wondering about what redeeming qualities (beyond her propensity for self-sacrifice to save others) she possessed. Her childish outbursts at key moments didn’t make me warm to her either. I suspect she appeals to readers in her blandness, as a sort of everywoman.

Catching Fire is still an engaging read despite pacing issues of the first half, touching on many issues that make dystopian settings so fascinating.