BOOK REVIEWS... BOOK REVIEWS... BOOK REVIEWS
James Gault reviews The Shadows of Versailles by Cathie Dunn
Cathie Dunn’s new work is a historical mystery set in 17th century Paris, and is a triumph on all levels. The plot is exactly what is wanted in a mystery: engaging and maddeningly puzzling, with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns. Just as readers get to like or hate a character, the author throws in some information or plot development that makes them question their assessment. And the conclusion is suitably surprising and satisfying. The whole book is cleverly crafted.
As usual for this author, the historical research has been meticulous. This has resulted in not only an accurate background of the facts surrounding the central story, but also to a really credible sensation of the atmosphere of Louis the Fourteenth’s Paris. We experience the fawning and the intrigue of the court at Versailles; we wallow in the luxury of the aristocracy. And then we’re taken into the crowded back streets of the city and exposed to the deprivation, poverty and hopelessness of the lives of the underclasses, and of the criminal exploitation of these poor souls by the middle and religious classes. We are taken back into history in a convincing and not always entirely comfortable way.
This is a book that ends too soon, but do not despair. A sequel is planned. Watch out for it. www.amazon.co.uk/Shadows-Versailles-innocence-revenge-Poisons-ebook/dp/B08LHC27F7/
James Gault reviews The Haunted House by Daria Hsu
This is a poetry book that explores the mind of a new mother as she faces up to her new role. In a series of poems, or perhaps it can be considered as one long, epic poem, the author takes us through her thoughts and feelings brought on by her past and present family relationships. It’s an insightful but not an easy read. Bringing a new life into the world is both a joy and a responsibility, and it’s a challenge that the poet is not confident of meeting.
Relationships between people are never-ending wars, and everyone involved is a battlefield casualty. It’s an ambiguous journey of ups and downs, of love and hate, of good deeds and atrocities, of loyalty and betrayal, of self-interest and philanthropy. There are no goodies and baddies, just the often bad being good and the usually good being bad. And this what serves, for all of us, as the training course for educating and developing children. It’s frightening prospect and it frightens completely. But we cannot abandon the new generation because of the inadequacies of our past. The young have no one else; we have to make the best of it.
The poet pours out all the anguish of her past onto the page and explores it until she comes to terms with it. It would be comforting to say the book comes to a happy ending; that she puts her fears behind her; but such an outcome is impossible. The darkness is always there, but the book is a torch to help navigate the maze of life that faces the poet, and, ultimately, all of us.
The writing is superb. The explanation of feelings is graphically depicted and the reader feels the joy and pain of the writer. This is a high quality book that shines a bright light on the perennial problems of parenthood. It is a book not to be ignored.
James Gault reviews Problems in the Pyrenees by Ted Bun
Ted Bun is offering us the chance to meet the magnificent Melody. What a woman! This fun tale is dominated by her personality. Melody the Mischievous! Melody the Marvellous! I loved this story of the feisty, saucy middle-aged widow who divides her time between living her life to the full and benefitting others by her problem-solving skills and uncanny knack of finding the right advice for those whose life needs a bit of a lift up.
Ted is a well-known naturist fiction writer so the ample helpings of laughter are in contrast to the virtual absence of clothing. No dark violence and deep passion here, just a feel-good little book worth a read to make your day.
And the best news? There’s plenty more of Melody to enjoy. This is the third book in naughty but nice Melody’s adventures and I believe more are on the way.
James Gault reviews The Sudden Death of a Cucumber by Richard Savin
This is as good a political thriller as you’ll find anywhere. Like the author’s first outing, “A Right to Bear Arms’, it is set in the UK and USA. But unlike the earlier novel, the new one is set in a future: a bleak and desolate time when everything is going to pot and secret self-interest groups financed by dirty money are duggerying skulls behind the scenes. Much like the present time, you may think; and if you do, this novel will come over as biting satire. The cynical ironic style of the narration only adds to this impression.
In a fast-moving plot, the powers of evil in the highest echelons of the land scheme for their own ends, while the lowly man-in-the street (the hero Alex) trips over an obstacle and unsuspectingly falls into the whole mess. Always up for the challenge, he bravely battles against overwhelming odds, losing love and best friends to the maelstrom of murders that permeate the piece. But he finds replacements for them before the end; he is the best of the good guys and the author doesn’t let him go unrewarded.
Of course, Alec is more than an ordinary man. In a future where electronic surveillance keeps track of anyone that might threaten the good and great, he is endowed with the ultimate superpower; he can hack into any device almost at will. His computer skill is the Kryptonite that gets him out almost all of the many tight spots he finds himself in.
Every good thriller demands detestable evil characters and this book has a plethora of nasty, self-serving politicians and industrialists who have long since given up even the pretence of morality and service for the common good. Mr Savin serves up a cast of baddies you will love to hate.
The plot is fast moving and enthralling. It twists and turns, leads the reader up and down false paths, resolves tricky situations only to throw us back into despair a few lines later. It’s a masterpiece of plot construction. The writing style is prefect too: great characters, plenty of tension, all underpinned with just the right amount of wry humour.
In short, I loved this book. Five stars and an Oscar nomination – it would make a great movie.
James Gault reviews The Last Day of June by Ted Yeoman
I love war stories. They take me back to my childhood, growing up in the aftermath of Wold War 2 and reading those famous little Combat comics with their exciting tales of the Battle of Britain, the D. Day invasion and the Burma jungle. As I have grown older, my literary tastes have grown a little more sophisticated, and my ideal war story now requires both adventure and strong believable characters. I found both of these in Ted Yeoman’s new novel.
The book recounts the three separate biographies of a French soldier, a German soldier and a British airman. All three meet momentarily in one action-packed incident in France early in the Second World War, before going on to survive the hostilities and forge different post-war lives and careers. Yet their business activities are interlinked by their connection to wine and we are led to suppose that this chance meeting in the heat of battle may have unexpected consequences towards the end of their lives.
The book has an interesting structure. At certain periods over the years, episodes from the lives of each of the characters are recounted. As the years pass, we begin to feel that the national differences that kept the three main characters apart during the war are slowly being eroded, and that their stories are evolving more and more in similar directions. For me, the book embodies the spirit of the European project and confirms that what joins us all together is far greater than what divides us. The way the author has achieved this is a masterpiece of innovative storytelling.
The author, under his other name of Ted Bun, is known for creating feel-good stories with sympathetic characters that readers want to love and support. This book is no different in that respect. Although the themes in this book are a step away from his usual field, all his existing readers as well as his new ones will love this book. A recommend five star read that engrosses the reader from start to finish.
Darlene Raminez reviews Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vandepool
Having recently moved to a town named for the depot stop it represents, I was drawn to Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but it was the cover that prompted me to read further. A tomboy balancing herself on the train tracks felt like a metaphor for my new life in the Pacific Northwest at the end of train stop 109o. Despite it being a young adult book I found an intricate story that would move me and warm my heart. Vanderpool crafts a detailed story with involved tales of real historical events. Within every chapter is a hidden history lesson creating an exciting hint of what to expect as the personal stories of each character unfold. Every character has their rightful place in the little town of Manifest and toward the end, I no longer saw them as individuals but as a collective group pulling together for the success of their town. The parallels of the book and the town I currently live in are just a coincidence but the word quarantine is no causal connection. Like Manifest, Tenino is doing it’s best in hard times and this book was a pleasant reminder of the good that can happen when people collaborate to help one another. Although we may face adversity in modern-day this book written over a decade ago, is a coming of age story we call all learn from. It is clear why it is a Newberry winner.
James Gault reviews Dark London Volume Two by various authors, published by Darkstroke Books.
This is an anthology of dark stories about London, gathered together and published in aid of London charities. There is a Volume One as well, but being of an iconoclastic and rebellious nature, I started with book two.
Books of short stories don’t get the approbation and acclaim they deserve, and this one is no exception. Ideal to dip into when you have a window of free time, this collection of nine short stories has something for everyone. It’s a diverse collection, united only by the geographical location and the overall mood of darkness.
In these stories you can travel in London through the ages, from prehistoric in Moon Dagger, to modern times in The Night Bus. You will visit all the great city’s districts, from the East End in the fifties in A tale from Ball’s Pond Road, to posh upmarket Dulwich and its inferior counterpart West Norwood in Wickedness in West Norwood. You will find stories based on real history, The Ghosts of Whitechapel, and others of the most imaginative surrealism, The Eye and Finding Victoria. Dark murders are done, and sometimes the perpetrators are brought to book, as in Treading, and sometimes justice is not done. You will also find a wealth of writing styles, from the realistic reportage through the poetic to the mysterious magic tone in the story Forty Three.
As a reader, I am sending a big thank you to all the authors who contributed to this project. And now for Book One.
James Gault reviews The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This best-selling world-famous masterpiece, studied all over the world in literature courses, hardly needs another review. But no matter what has been said before, I can always find something new to add. No matter how erudite and thorough past critics have been, I am able to find new insights. There is no end to my arrogance, I’m afraid.
I won’t be saying anything controversial when I assert this is a great book by a great author. But will you, the new prospective reader, like it? Now there’s a question.
Do you read criticism of the real world into fictional works about dystopian societies? Are you sympathetic to protests over the exploitation of women? Does the misuse of power disgust you? Do class distinctions appal you? If yes, you’ll find a lot here to get your indignation juices to flow freely.
But novels aren’t just about social issues, are they? Will you like this subjected heroine, enslaved as a surrogate mother to the aged infertile ruling classes? Will you admire her, or will shout at the pages, telling her to stop being so docile and do something about it. Will you find her sexual involvement with the other hired help uplifting or sleazy? Offred, the heroine of this tale, is a hard woman to sympathise with.
Then there is the tone of the novel. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer, so you’re not going to be able to gloss over it. Life in the dystopian regime of Gilead is dark, dangerous and most of the time monotonous. The novel is the story of a woman whose life consists of programmed humiliating sexual encounters at the service of the rulers of society, interspersed with long boring periods which she has to fill up with... something. An action-packed fast-moving story it is not. Atwood will make you feel exactly like the girl feels, and it will not be a good. Will the lessons you learn be valuable enough to compensate for the pain?
This is a brilliant well-written book about serious issues which matter. A worthy work, but are you a worthy enough reader to take it on?
James Gault reviews Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
This book is published in the Vintage Modern Classics series. I’m not convinced it’s a classic, but it is a cult novel. Reading it, it feels like a celebration of the eighties and nineties in the UK in the same way that Kerouac’s On the Road celebrates the fifties in the US, or Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer celebrates the thirties in Paris.
It’s a first person novel with a distinctive diction that evokes the time, the social status and the ‘edge of civilisation’ location. The narrative voice is uncompromising in this refusal to make allowances for readers who are unfamiliar with the times, the people and the places of the setting. If the amoral behaviour of the main character doesn’t distance us enough from her, the inclusion of long playlists of long-forgotten minor hits puts the uninitiated reader firmly on the outside looking in on the life of this weird and strange woman.
Structurally and philosophically, I was reminded of Camus’s L’Etranger (The Outsider). For the first part of the book, Morvern, like Mersault, wanders through life in an unconventional, amoral and hedonisitic orgy, a lost soul in an absurd world floundering with no real purpose. Then, in the second, she gets fleeting impressions of a reason for living, as she flirts with religion and comes to terms with the responsibilities heralded by pregnancy. A philosophical resolution similar to that experienced by Mersault in his trial and impending execution.
All in all, though, I thought the philosophical messages and social and psychological lessons were mere undercurrents to the main flow of the book. It was essentially a depiction of life for certain people at a certain time. I’m too old and too distant for it to be familiar for me, and I felt a lot went over my head. But if you are a child of these times, I would suggest this book is for you.
Ted Bun reviews The Real Story Of The Boat That Rocked by Ray Clarke
The story of Radio Caroline, written by someone who was there, for part of it. A well written book sprinkled with dozens of amusing, scary and totally mundane anecdotes collected from former DJs, the Owners, office workers and supporters of Britain’s first commercial radio station.
The book covers the heady early days of the Station in the 1960s, through the low times, the shipwrecks, being impounded, to the modern day.
Radio Caroline still transmits to the East of England, 24 hours a day- everyday, on the medium wave and to the rest of the world via DAB and the Internet. They use the Radio Caroline ship, the Ross Revenge (a record breaking trawler before she became a broadcast ship) for a monthly broadcast under the guise of Radio Caroline North.
The book is illustrated with a selection of photographs, many of which unless you are a transmitter-mast nerd, look much the same.
I found it to be an interesting read.
Ted Bun reviews A Friend in Need by Elizabeth M. Hurst
A second story set in the same village and involving characters we met in Siren Spirit.
Once again we have a well written and engaging story of spirits trapped in a place beyond their time, while people try to deal with the issues in their own lives.
The representation of Selena’s depressive illness and behaviour is one of the best I have encountered in fiction.
A likeable story, a good fireside read for a cold winter’s evening … or maybe on a sun lounger by the pool.
James Gault reviews The Chain by Adrian McKinty
The writer has done everything right in this tense thriller about kidnapping in the high-tech twenty-first century USA. Yet it took me a long time to get involved in the story.
The plot involves a series of child abductions where the ransom is not only money, but the requirement to kidnap another child in order to get your own back, creating a terrifying chain which proves a real challenge to break. It’s an intriguing puzzle that has the reader guessing at every turn – just as it should.
The story runs along at break-neck speed, the tension is ramped up from the first sentence, the plots twists and turns at every revelation, everything a good thriller needs to grab and hold the reader’s attention.
In this genre, character development tends to be less important than the action, and this is the case here too. Nevertheless, the characters are interesting. As well as with the kidnapping, they each have to deal with their own personal problems: cancer, drug addiction, for example.
The cover of the book is splashed with accolades from other top thriller writers, and yet I found the novel slow to start with. I can’t even really say why; for some reason I just didn’t engage with the characters at first. However, once I got over that initial barrier, it was a true page turning story and I raced thought it right to the end.