Sunday 29 July 2012

Coming Soon - Champagne: The Farewell by Janet Hubbard

Champagne: The FarewellNYPD Detective Max Maguire is something of a disappointment to her French mother, due to her failure to fully embrace the French language and culture. As such she is delighted to help her prepare for a trip to France for friend Chloe's wedding on her family's grand estate in Champagne, near Paris. On her arrival she meets Olivier Chaumont, an examining magistrate who catches her eye as she overcomes the day old break up with her ex-boyfriend. The wedding is a beautiful, stylish affair but the fairytale is abruptly ended when the bride's aunt is found dead. Lea de Saint Pern was beautiful and successful, having taken over the reins of her late husband's champagne company. 

Max and Olivier's potential romance is halted in its tracks as they are jolted back into professional mode. Max is refused a formal role in the investigation into her murder but is determined to help, using skills inherited from her well-known detective father. Olivier is also hindered by colleagues with their own agenda and the two soon start collaborating. Max's approach starts unearthing numerous family secrets and the duo compile an ever lengthening list of people with a motive to kill Lea. Their route to finding the killer is punctuated with a Will they, Won't they? romance and fabulous scenery, food and drink.

There was a lot to like about this book. The side of me that likes to learn as I read enjoyed the details about champagne production and the French judicial system. I also loved the setting and the descriptions of food. I've visited France several times and the writing reminded me of places I'd been and I could well imagine the locations in my mind's eye.

There are a lot of characters, and suspects in particular, to keep track of but this was one of those books where I felt myself engaging with the story and trying to figure out whodunnit myself, unlike some books where I find myself feeling very passive about it, happy just to read and be told. The characters backgrounds were so different, from the German businessman hoping to buy Lea's company to the upper class French women. The little details about the mothers of the bride and groom seemed so precise and added greatly to my vision of these people.

Max is a character I warmed to from the start. She's got a hard to please mother, feels like she is living in her father's shadow and hasn't been lucky in love. However she is tough, has great instincts and is good at her job. Olivier, the apparently unflappable Gallic charmer is the perfect foil for Max and their potential romance provides another dimension to the story without taking away from the murder mystery element. My only criticism would be that I felt having learnt quite a lot about the two of them early on I didn't see a lot of character development while the investigation really ramped up. It felt like the characterisation was put to one side while the plot was moved along.

This is a stylish murder mystery with a hint of the sparkle of the Champagne that features so heavily. I'm hoping we'll see Max and Olivier again!

Format: Ebook, ARC, anticipated release 7th August 2012
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
My Rating: 4*

Friday 27 July 2012

On Dark Shores 2: The Other Nereia by J A Clement

 I read and reviewed the first book in this series The Lady just over a year ago so it was good to find time to see where the story was heading, as it had ended at a climactic moment. This novella picks up where the first left off, but to avoid creating a spoiler for anyone who plans to read the first book I'll keep it vague.
On Dark Shores 2: The Other Nereia
The mood in Scarlock is changing; fear now mingles with hope. Moneylender Copeland is showing signs of becoming ever more unpredictable and he is now turning on even those closest to him. However Nereia and sister Mary have given the town a tiny spark of hope and feeling against him is gathering momentum. Unfortunately the people now also have to contend with an army amassing in the town, on the tail of The Mother of Shantari, guard and guide to her people. When Nereia is offered the chance to help banish the darkness by her other self she has to consider at what cost?

This instalment reveals more of the forces at play in and around Scarlock, and reintroduces lots of the characters from the first book. Blakey receives a lot of attention in this book, which I appreciated as he is a character who is being pulled in different directions and is dealing with a lot of internal conflict. The mood remains dark and oppressive, and the story is as gritty as the first book. It does contain violence and details the effects of Copeland's deadly drug Angel Feathers, which we find out more about the production of. 

I wish I hadn't taken so long to get around to reading this, as I found myself spending a bit of time scratching my head trying to remember some of the finer details. I'm very glad to hear that the author is planning to release the novellas in one book in the future, as I think it will improve the reader's experience. My previous review was critical of the point as which the first book ended and this would address that issue.

This author has a writing style that I enjoy, and in places her use of language and her descriptions really hit the mark. I'll definitely read the third book and  would just suggest that if the series appeals you try and read the separate parts close together to appreciate it more fully.

Format: Kindle, review copy
Publisher: Weasel Green Press
My Rating:3*

Saturday 21 July 2012

Before the Daisies Grow by Micki Street

Before the Daisies GrowFrom - "Toss the bloomers, get a bikini wax and slip into a thong: life begins at sixty-ish. Dotty, Wilma and Nora are going on holiday to the island of Brazzina. Unfortunately for them, their charming host Lucas is a drug baron who plans to use his silver beauties as opium mules.Enter Major Milestone, a yummy gentleman who has Dotty's heart beating to the tango. Although he's going to Brazzina too, he keeps resisting her amorous advances, and it's giving her the vapours. But after the Major (does something dramatic), Dotty realizes she and her friends have just been kidnapped, and it's up to her to engineer their escape. Dotty enacts a hare-brained scheme only to discover two things. One: she may be hot, but she's not so hot at fool-proof plans, and two: the Major was on a covert mission to capture Lucas and destroy the island's opium plantations. With the mission near-scuppered and Milestone now suspicious the ladies are in cahoots with Lucas, Dotty must find some way to win his heart back. If she doesn't, the soft Brazzina surf it going to be the only thing kissing her toes anytime soon!"

This sounded like a fun comedy romp, and indeed the plot had plenty of scope for much hilarity as the three British OWLs (or Old White Ladies as they have been dubbed) get themselves into a difficult situation they are blissfully unaware of. I could suspend my disbelief and accept that, as savvy as they could be, they would buy into such a trip and be conned in the way they were. However the plot line wasn't enough to hold this book together for me, and I didn't find any humour in it which was a real shame. Before I write my review I usually pop onto Amazon or Goodreads to check the blurb (so as to avoid revealing anything that hasn't already been let slip) When I started to prepare this review I was surprised at the 4 and 5* reviews and think I must have read a different book.

My biggest criticism would be how inconsistent the characters are. One minute the three ladies come over as old fashioned upper class ladies, speaking very formally, and the next they are effing and blinding like good 'uns. Some of the language they use had me absolutely cringing and I'm not particularly precious about that sort of thing. Some of the language felt forced and I have never met an American, let alone a Brit who actually uses the word "Shucks" other than jokingly. I also couldn't understand, when the oldest of the trio is only meant to be 65 (coincidentally the same age as my mum) and they are interested in getting waxed and tanned, avoiding wrinkles and getting their hair and nails done, why they were described as fossils and talked about as if they were in their 80s and heading towards decrepit. They came over a bit Jekyll and Hyde, like each of them had two very different and unconnected sides. I couldn't find them remotely believable which completely killed off any chance of finding the humour in their story.

I also found the dialogue for an Asian character, swapping Rs and Ls around to give an idea of his accented speech, uncomfortable reading. Maybe done briefly to give the reader the idea might not have been so bad but the fact that whole passages of his speech were written that way felt mocking. Combine that with some odd turns of phrase and it wasn't an easy, flowing read.

I don't like giving a single star rating but this is one of those books I almost didn't finish. The central idea was great but the execution wasn't.

Format: Kindle, review copy
My Rating: 1*

Friday 20 July 2012

Eligere (Seranfyll, Book 2) by Christina Daley

EligereI read the first book in this series last year and was totally charmed by Seranfyll. As such I was looking forward to finding out where Domrey, Rain and co would be come Book 2. Eligere picks up the story a few years later. Liberated slaves Rain and Snow are missing Domrey who is travelling the world in the service of the King. Rain in particular is unimpressed with the demands placed on them by their tutor and she is missing Coal, who is away at university studying law. She is delighted when the unusual little family are reunited and Domrey allows them all to travel to Amyrania with him, while he performs a favour for the King. Snow on the other hand is less keen, having heard stories of the Storm Siders of Amyrania being cannibals. The trip throws up a number of challenges and even Rain gets more than she bargained for.

Eligere introduces a number of new characters, some of whom I am guessing will feature in further books in the series. There is even a little romance for members of the Seranfyll clan, although as a book mooted as suitable for ages 10+ it is all very subtle and cleanly done. As in the first book the author tackles important themes in an accessible way for younger readers. The ills of slavery are touched on again but the more dominant theme relates to the divisions between the two sides of Amyrania and the need to overcome the past for the common good.

While there were some lovely pieces of prose and I still enjoyed the quirky magic; Domrey's knitted spells and new character Phin's illustrations that come to life, this installment didn't hit the mark with me in the same way. Domrey didn't feature as strongly, which was a shame as I took a shine to him, and Rain came over as a bit of a petulant child. As the central character in this book my irritations with her distanced me. Also I found several typos and there was some really clumsy writing that seriously detracted from the stronger parts. As an example "...that allowed Domrey to take them out on real holiday kinds of things, like to the theatre, museums, the market, or as was their most favourite past time, on rides." 

Overall this book felt like it was written for the bottom end of the 10 yr + audience, where the first had a more universal appeal. I think unfortunately it falls short of the success that is Seranfyll and wonder where the next book in the series will go, as the door is left wide open for the tale to continue.

Format: Kindle, review copy
My Rating: 2*

Thursday 12 July 2012

The Flathunter by Dan Trelfer

The FlathunterMoving is always going to be stressful but when you're in a big city looking for a flat share and facing interviews from a panel of current tenants who all have very different ideas about a new sharer it can only be more difficult. In this book the Flathunter nobly decides to undertake an experiment to come up with guaranteed techniques for successful flat share hunting. To start with it all goes well, but he becomes gradually more random and less focused as strange experiments and personal anecdotes begin to take over.

I had anticipated a non-fiction comedic guide and while it started off quite light and humorous the Flathunter's behaviour became distinctly odd. I found a bit of a disconnect between what I was expecting and what I was getting, which was more of a slightly dark novel. It wasn't so much a comedy guide to finding a new home as a descent into depression as the narrator sees his project veer off track and his personal life start to crumble. Although the narrator reveals a bit about his life and relationship I never felt like I got a proper feel for him and to me this was very much plot driven.

It was well written, there were definite moments that rang bells in relation to stories I've heard from friends, and it raised a few grins. All good stuff. However finding something different to my expectations affected my view of it and as the focus shifted the humour wasn't really the sort that had me laughing along. It was a bit too dark to be madcap, but not black enough to fall into that category. My rating is probably more a matter of taste than a reflection of the quality of the writing or the plot. 

Format: Kindle, review copy
My Rating:  2*

Friday 6 July 2012

Guest Post - Why I Became a Crime Writer by John Barlow

Why I became a crime writer.

At the beginning of my writing career I was labelled a ‘literary’ writer. That was fine, and I tried to live up to it. About three years ago I had an idea for a cycle of stories based on the Grimm’s fairy tales, but modern, grown-up versions. Literary ones. I wrote several of these stories. In one of them a snowy-white Hollywood starlet gets poisoned on LSD at an orgy of seven midgets. I did it as an American noir, and I showed it to my agent. Do it as a full-length novel! she said.

The novel, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO JERRY PICCO?, was shown to half a dozen big publishers in New York. But there were no takers for my porno-noir about a drugged-up fifteen year-old virgin and her well-hung midget lover. Strange. The crime publisher Mulholland very nearly bought it, then shied away. The novel was quickly forgotten, and I moved on.

However, last year I brought the novel out as an ebook, using the pseudonym Joe Florez. I did it as a way of testing the emerging ebook market, and I quite enjoyed the process. At about the same time I made an unusual discovery: my uncle John had been an arms dealer. He was also suspected of stealing munitions from the British army, and when he boarded a flight home from Amsterdam in 1984, British police were waiting for him at Heathrow. It was too late; he was found dead on the plane, his throat cut.

There are all sorts of theories as to what Uncle John had been doing. Apparently he’d made a lot of trips to Libya, and there was also rumours that he was supplying para-military groups in Ireland. His widow claimed publically that he’d been in contact with an organisation (which she wouldn’t name) that wanted him to work for them under cover. She vowed to fight for the truth, but nothing ever came of it. John was quickly forgotten.

What struck me as curious, when I saw the press cuttings and learned something about the case, was that I’d never heard about it before. He was actually a half-uncle on my father’s side, but nobody had ever mentioned the nature of his death or the job he’d been doing. After getting used to the idea that he might have been involved in some pretty awful things, what amazed me is how family life went on regardless, presumably as it had done while he was flying off to Tripoli back when Gaddafi was at the height of his terrorist-supporting powers. Uncle John had two young daughters and lived in a pleasant suburb of Leeds. He had a normal life.

Hope RoadI decided to write a crime novel about this contradiction. HOPE ROAD is not about Uncle John himself, although it is set in Leeds. It’s about a criminal family, and specifically about a ‘non-criminal’ son in that family. I was interested to explore what it might be like to grow up with a career criminal for a father, yet to reject that background and ‘go straight’. That’s what my family must have been doing all those years, tactfully rejecting one of their own, not only the manner of his death, but also what he did.

As I developed my main character, John Ray, I began to think about structure. I wanted him to be an amateur sleuth, using his family’s connections to solve a crime. But I also wanted to bring out the tensions inherent in this situation, and to do this I decided to give him a girlfriend: a police detective. As the novel grew, it drew more and more on the dynamics of this relationship. The detective is called Denise Danson, and I reckon she might get her own plot in a future novel.

Finally, as I was writing the book, two more things happened. Firstly, HOPE ROAD involves a subplot revolving around fake money, and quite by chance I got the opportunity to meet a real money counterfeiter. I learned a lot of details about the ‘funny money’ trade from him, especially about what it’s like to ‘pass off’ counterfeit banknotes in large numbers. Initially it was nerve-wracking to meet a professional criminal. But then I thought back to my own family! Secondly, the West Yorkshire Police were kind enough to offer me access to Leeds CID. I was assigned a detective, and I consulted with him on matters of police procedure and other plot details. Since I was writing about the very same Special Crimes department in Leeds, I considered this a sign: I’d made the right decision to turn to crime.

You can buy HOPE ROAD from, or from various other vendors (see John’s website).

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Hope Road by John Barlow

Hope RoadJohn Ray has spent years trying to escape the connotations of his family name. He's known in Leeds as the son of Tony Ray, notorious crime boss. After almost making a clean break he comes back to take on his Dad's garage, and make it legit. He even has a police officer girlfriend completing the veneer of respectability. That is until a dead girl is found in the boot of a vehicle that traces back to the garage. His employee and friend Freddy looks set to be charged with the murder, and initially disappearing then refusing to talk only makes him look more guilty. The police though are equally interested in the counterfeit money hidden in the boot, and John is under pressure from them and another local bad boy who wants to know who killed the girl. He finds himself doing some sleuthing to try and save himself and Freddy. 

This book is the first in the John Ray LS9 series and our early encounters with John set him up as a man who has done well despite the early influences in his life. The story is told from his viewpoint and we find a man who's winning awards and living in a place he loves, with plans to retire early on a yacht somewhere. As the story unfolds the author gradually reveals more and more about him and he turns out to be a very complex character. It was like peeling away the layers on an onion and he became a well defined character with real depth to him. I really liked his assistant Connie, a distant relative who is a source of constant bemusement to John and would love to see more of her in future books. I enjoyed the feeling of dabbling in the underworld and felt the author portrayed a number of characters who might have been reprehensible almost sympathetically.

The plot wasn't overly complicated and I did spot a stand-out clue to where one of the threads was going, but with so many turns taken before the end it didn't feel predictable as I feared it might be. The pacing was good, taking enough time to paint a full picture of what was going on without being too ponderous, and it built to a satisfying finale. I also learnt a whole lot about counterfeiting and other scams, and it's always good to find a new crime series that doesn't feel too glossy and is set in good old Blighty for a change.

I really enjoyed this read and am pleased to share a guest post by the author in the next few days that gives some insight into the inspiration for the book, so if this sounds of interest keep an eye out for that!

Format: Kindle, review copy
Publisher: Storm Books
My Rating: 4*