Posts Tagged With: review

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny

Title: The Book of Madness and Cures
Author: Regina O’Melveny
ISBN: 978-1780330464
Publisher: John Murray
First Published: 12 April 2012 (HB) / 11 October 2012 (PB)
No .of pages: 384

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis (from Amazon):
Gabriella Mondini is a rarity in 16th century Venice, she’s a woman who practices medicine. Her father, a renowned physician, has provided her entrée to this all-male profession, and inspired in her a shared mission to understand the secrets of the human body. Then her father disappears and Gabriella faces a crisis: without her father’s patronage, she is no longer permitted to treat her patients.

So she sets out across Europe to find her father. Following clues from his occasional enigmatic letters, Gabriella crosses Switzerland, Germany and France, entering strange and forbidding cities. She travels to Scotland, the Netherlands, and finally to Morocco. In each new land, she uncovers details of her father’s unexplained flight, and opens new mysteries of her own. Not just the mysteries of ailments and treatments, but the ultimate mysteries of mortality, love, and the timeless human spirit.

Review:
In recent months, I seem to have read several novels which have very similar features – 16th Century Venice; female doctors struggling to practice medicine under the bigoted rules of the time; traveling far from home – as a result, large parts of this debut novel felt familiar. There were aspects that set it apart, but it was, overall, much of a muchness with the others and although I enjoyed it, I got slightly less out of it than I might have done had I not read others first.

If anything, The Book of Madness and Cures felt a tad long-winded at times, and despite the excerpts of the titular book (actually The Book of Diseases) being part of the plot, I found their inclusion to be intrusive and disruptive to the flow of the story around them, so much so that I eventually found myself skimming over them to get back to the proper narrative.

It is a meandering tale that takes its time to unfold, so that it feels like the reader is keeping pace with the travelers as they spend months journeying through strange lands, facing hardship and persecution, on a voyage of self discovery and reunion that often feels like it will never come to a conclusion. When it finally does, it feels a little rushed. I felt that I cared for very few of the characters, least of all the absent father descending into madness as he tries to escape his own failings in foreign lands. Gabriella seemed emotionally stunted, and the only ones I really felt for were her companions, Olmina and Lorenzo, who were kind, loyal and understanding as Gabriella persisted in her quest.

The redeeming feature is the writing itself, which is warm and rich – O’Melveny has many a beautiful turn of phrase and her skill with words is to be commended. I will look forward to seeing what she next brings to the page.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

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A Brief Guide to Jane Austen: The Life and Times of the World’s Favourite Author by Charles Jennings

Title: A Brief Guide to Jane Austen: The Life and Times of the World’s Favourite Author
Author: Charles Jennings
ISBN: 978-1780330464
Publisher: Robinson
First Published: 5 February 2013 (paperback) / 15 November 2012 (Kindle)
No .of pages: 288

Rating: 5/5

Synopsis (from Amazon):
Jane Austen is a mystery. The first incontrovertibly great woman novelist, she is, among other things, one of the finest prose stylists in literature; the first truly modern writer, the Godmother of chick lit. She is also the greatest enigma (next to Shakespeare) in English literature. Soldiers in the First World War sat in the trenches and read them for the civilising comforts they provided. Hard-nut literary critics such as F. R. Leavis lauded their austere complexity. World Book Day, 2007, found that Pride and Prejudice was the one book ‘The nation can’t live without’. In this witty, accessible guide, Charles Jennings goes in search of this enigma through her words as well as her times, including a short biography, an overview of the novels, as well as the world that she inhabited. Finally, the book contains Jane’s very own words of advice for the modern life.

Review:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader with a complete lack of shelf space must still be in want of yet more books! It is also universally acknowledged that Jane Austen, after 200 years, still features on the top ten favourites lists of readers all around the world. She is an enduring icon, a woman whose writing has stood the test of time despite being very much of its time, and this brief guide examines some of the reasons behind that.

Set out in four distinct sections, the guide covers Jane’s life, her novels (in order of publication), the Regency period that her novels have come to so beautifully represent, and the after effects of her work on the world of literature.

Never before have I had so many people interested in the book I am reading – I read this in various public places and could barely finish a page without someone asking which Austen novel I was reading or if I was enjoying the book – even those who professed not to like her novels asked what it was I so loved.

I’ll confess, I’m only partially a Janeite – I find Persuasion slow, Sense and Sensibility dull and Emma infuriating. However, I grew to love Mansfield Park, delight in Pride and Prejudice, and hold Northanger Abbey among my all time favourites. Her Juvenilia, I find, is hit and miss, underdeveloped and very much a product of a writer still trying to develop her craft, but all this is beside the point. The fact remains that people couldn’t resist quizzing me the moment they saw me holding a book bearing the name of Jane Austen – she truly is the world’s favourite author.

This brief guide to Austen and the world around her is absolutely fascinating. Janeites will devour it, but even those of us who have mixed reactions to her work will find themselves pulled into the genteel world of the lady who left us six of the best-loved books the world has ever known.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

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Royal Street (Sentinels #1) by Suzanne Johnson

Title: Royal Street (Sentinels #1)
Author: Suzanne Johnson
ISBN: 978-0755397655
Publisher: Headline
First Published: 27 September 2012
No .of pages: 432

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
As the junior wizard sentinel for New Orleans, Drusilla Jaco’s job involves a lot more potion-mixing than sniffing out supernatural bad guys. DJ’s mentor, Gerald St. Simon, is the wizard tasked with protecting the city from anyone or anything that slips over from the preternatural beyond. Then Hurricane Katrina hammers New Orleans’ fragile levees, unleashing more than just dangerous flood waters. Now the undead and the restless are roaming the Big Easy, and a serial killer with ties to voodoo is murdering soldiers sent to help the city recover. To make it worse, Gerry has gone missing, the wizards’ Elders have assigned a grenade-toting assassin as DJ’s new partner, and an undead pirate wants to make her walk his plank. DJ will learn the hard way that loyalty requires sacrifice… and duty mixed with love creates one bitter gumbo.

Review:
I tend to enjoy fiction with a paranormal / supernatural slant, but in recent years there seems to have been something of a glut of them, all of a very similar ilk.

This one’s different.

Royal Street, the first in the new Sentinels series, is set in New Orleans and focuses on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The big “What if?” here is “What if a natural disaster happens in a place where the veil between the worlds is already very thin and rips open the borders, leaving our world open to those from the Other Side?” In such a disaster, there is a tragic loss of life, but when you add a supernatural element to some of the deaths, you need someone who is trained in dealing with those from The Beyond and make sure the death toll doesn’t continue to rise.

Dru Jaco is a feisty character and her will they / wont they working relationship with her Enforcer partner and his cousin is a lot of fun. There’s also an unusual mix of the usual preternatural creatures (vampires, werewolves, wizards, fairies, etc) with the wonderful addition of the “Historic Dead” which can include anyone of note who has passed on. Let me lay it out for you. We get pirates! How cool is that? Never did I think I’d ever see the day when pirates, wizards and voodoo Gods would all be included in the same plot line.

It’s an exciting start to what promises to be a series that can proudly stand up beside the likes of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampires series and still stand out form the crowd.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

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The Venetian Contract by Marina Fiorato

Title: The Venetian Contract
Author: Marina Fioato
ISBN: 978-1848545670
Publisher: John Murray
First Published: 21 June 2012
No .of pages: 416

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
1576. Five years after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto, a ship steals unnoticed into Venice bearing a deadly cargo. A man more dead than alive, disembarks and staggers into Piazza San Marco. He brings a gift to Venice from Constantinople. Within days the city is infected with bubonic plague – and the Turkish Sultan has his revenge. But the ship also holds a secret stowaway – Feyra, a young and beautiful harem doctor fleeing a future as the Sultan’s concubine. Only her wits and medical knowledge keep her alive as the plague ravages Venice. In despair the Doge commissions the architect Andrea Palladio to build the greatest church of his career – an offering to God so magnificent that Venice will be saved. But Palladio’s own life is in danger too, and it will require all skills of medico Annibale Cason, the city’s finest plague doctor, to keep him alive. But what Annibale had not counted on was meeting Feyra, who is now under Palladio’s protection, a woman who can not only match his medical skills but can also teach him how to care.

Review:
It’s no secret that I adore historical fiction, but I’ve never been remotely attracted by any kind of medical drama. This novel may have changed that, as it blends the two perfectly. On one hand, we have the sumptuous sights and sounds of 16th Century Venice, complete with beautiful costuming, and on the other we have the tense atmosphere caused by an epidemic of a deadly disease that spreads like wildfire, and the lives of those whose life’s vocation is to contain and cure it, and it works incredibly well.

Bother Feyra and Anibale have an air of mystery about them – both have unusual histories they are unwilling to share with others if they can help it; both are reserved and secretive; both have a passion for medicine; but there the similarities end. Annibale keeps his distance and has trouble feeling any particular connection with his patients, whereas Feyra is in danger of feeling too much.

Behind it all is the intrigue of espionage and suspicion as Feyra attempts to avert a terrible war, whilst hiding all along that she, herself, is actually from the enemy camp. It’s a complex, tangled web and our characters have to tread carefully, not only to continue their work, but to ensure their own survival.

If you like historical fiction and/or medical dramas, you should really give this a try. Fiorato writes with a deft hand and creates a whirlwind world that is excitingly beautiful and uncertain.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwait

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Fate by L R Fredericks

Title: Fate (Time and Light #2)
Author: L R Fredericks
ISBN: 978-1848543317
Publisher: John Murray
First Published: 5 July 2012
No .of pages: 528

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis (from dust jacket flap):
What am I?

Not a ghost, though that is what most people believe. I am, and it looks like I shall forever be, Lord Francis Peter George St John Damory. I was born more than two hundred years ago and although I am not strictly speaking alive, I am obviously not dead. My appearance is as I choose, though usually I resemble my old self. I was a handsome man; I enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now. I am not beyond vanity, nor any other trick or trap od earthly existence. My body is a simulacrum, as is my study, my fire, brandy, pen, paper.

I am an artist of the æther.

Review:
If you enjoy elegant characters in an eloquently told tale of mystery, magic and timelessness, then this is the novel for you!

The pace is necessarily slow and reflective, yet the plot unfurls in a deceptively swift manner, so that one never feels bogged down or sluggish. The characters are at once mysterious, complex and simple, which helps ground this fantastic tale with a sense of realism, and the blend of magic and science in the setting of the 1700s makes for a sensationally engrossing read that never dumbs down for the readers’ benefit, but assumes a certain level of intelligence on our behalf without becoming lofty and grand in approach.

This is actually the sequel to the earlier novel, Farundel, but I never once felt lost or confused whilst reading Fate, and might never have guessed it was anything other than a stand-alone novel if I hadn’t already known that, so even if you have never read the first book in the Time and Light series, don’t let it put you off picking up this sublimely enjoyable book that will leave you filled with wonder and thinking about it long after you have closed the cover.

Review by Kell Smurthwaite

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666 Park Avenue by Gabriella Pierce

Title: 666 Park Avenue
Author: Gabriella Pierce
ISBN: 978-0061434778
Publisher: Avon Books
First Published: February 2011
No .of pages: 320

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
What if your mother-in-law turned out to be an evil, cold-blooded witch . . . literally?

Ever since fabulously wealthy Malcolm Doran walked into her life and swept her off her feet, fledgling architect Jane Boyle has been living a fairy tale. When he proposes with a stunning diamond to seal the deal, Jane can’t believe her incredible luck and decides to leave her Paris-based job to make a new start with Malcolm in New York.

But when Malcolm introduces Jane to the esteemed Doran clan, one of Manhattan’s most feared and revered families, Jane’s fairy tale takes a darker turn. Soon everything she thought she knew about the world – and herself – is upended. Now Jane must struggle with newfound magical abilities and the threat of those who will stop at nothing to get them.

Review:
If you like paranormal romances that aren’t too gushy and still have a bit of kick to them, then you’re going to love the first book in the new 666 Park Avenue series!

Seriously, I love paranormal stuff, but usually can’t stand the romance side of things, however this more than stands up to even the biggest haters of romantic fiction by having enough paranormal activity and believable characters to carry it off easily. Jane is a very likeable and flawed character; Malcolm is suitably suave and mysterious; and his mother is the perfect socialite matriarch. the settings are lush, the pace is fast, and the story is incredibly entertaining. Honestly, I had great difficulty putting it down and actually missed my bus stop because I couldn’t tear my eyes from the page!

I am now eagerly awaiting the publication of the sequel because I can hardly wait to see what the future holds for Jane!

ETA: A new Warner Bros/Alloy Entertainment TV show loosely based on this novel will air on 30th September 2012. It will star Vanessa Williams, Terry O’Quinn, Rachael Taylor and Dave Annable. See 666 Park Avenue at IMDb.

ETA: The TV show is absolutely NOTHING LIKE the book. It is a completely different story and all that remains is that a few of the character names are the same. Seriously – that’s it!

Review by Kell Smurthwaite

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The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

Title: The Secret Life of William Shakespeare
Author: Jude Morgan
ISBN: 978-0755358236
Publisher: Headline Review
First Published: April 2012
No .of pages: 400

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
The greatest writer of them all, brought to glorious life. How well do you know the man you love? How much do you think you know about Shakespeare? What if they were one and the same? He is an ordinary man: unwilling craftsman, ambitious actor, resentful son, almost good-enough husband. And he is also a genius. The story of how a glove-maker from Warwickshire became the greatest writer of them all is vaguely known to most of us, but it would take an exceptional modern novelist to bring him to life. And now at last Jude Morgan, acclaimed author of Passion and The Taste of Sorrow, has taken Shakespeare’s life, and created a masterpiece.

Review:
I’m a big ol’ fan of Shakespeare’s many beautiful works, so when this novel exploring his early life and his start in the world of theatres and writing, I was over the moon!

Living up to the most famous writer in the world was always going to be a tall order, but Jude Morgan takes up the challenge with great aplomb and does a sterling job of showcasing The Bard’s works while presenting him as a real and very believable character in his own story  – a fallible man striking out in the world on his own, trying to support a wife and family from a great distance whilst living out his dream

This is a beautifully written exploration into the not-so-glamourous world of Elizabethan theatre, where fickle audiences and the whim of Queen Elizabeth could make or break a play, or even a writer’s whole career.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, theatre, or Elizabethan historical fiction, give this one a try, and be transported to another time and place, where a young man struggles to prove his words are art and find his place in history.

Review by Kell Smurthwaite

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Insurrection by Robyn Young

Title: Insurrection (Insurrection Trilogy Book 1)
Author: Robyn Young
ISBN: 978-0-340-96366-1
Publisher: Hodder
First Published: October 2010
No .of pages: 672

Rating: 2/5

Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
The year is 1286 and Scotland is in the grip of one of the worst winters in living memory. Some believe the Day of Judgement has come. The King of Scotland is murdered by one of his squires, a deed pre-meditated by his own brother-in-law, the King of England, a thousand miles away in France. The Prophecy of Merlin has decreed that only when the four relics of Britain have been gathered will one man rule a united kingdom, and Edward I is determined to fulfil it. The murder of Scotland’s king is thus just the first in a chain of events that will alter the face of Britain forever. But all is not destined to go Edward’s way. Out of the ashes of war, through blood feuds and divided loyalties, a young squire will rise to defy England’s greatest king. His name is Robert the Bruce. And his story begins in INSURRECTION.

Review:

I adore historical fiction, so I jumped at the chance to read something set in Scotland and covering an exciting period in its history – Scotland’s political wranglings with the English date back centuries and are fraught with battles, both of words and combat. I was champing at the bit to get started and waded in.

I was right about the setting being spectacular and the story intense, but the realisation of it was pretty dry in places and such slow going I felt like I was wading through sticky Scottish porridge, trying to get to the end. Unusually for me, this book took an absolute age to finish and when I did finally get to the end, I felt like my brain had been stuffed full of stodge.

All this is not to say it’s a bad book – there are some really thrilling battle scenes and some fascinating glimpses of the life of Robert the Bruce as he slowly rose in position, both in Scotland and England, but there’s a lot to get through in between that slows the pace considerably, and at close to 700 pages, this felt even lengthier.

Recommended only for big fans of Scottish history who enjoy wrestling with hefty novels. There’s some really good stuff in there, but you have to persevere to find it.

Review by Kell Smurthwaite

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The Drought by Steven Scaffardi

Title: The Drought
Author: Steven Scaffardi
ISBN: 978-1780031927
Publisher: Pen Press
First Published: September 2011
No .of pages: 298

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis (from Amazon):
Dan Hilles is a pretty regular kind of guy – regular job, regular bunch of mates, regular male aversion to shopping. But following his break-up with long-term girlfriend, Stacey, he finds himself single again. He’s been out of the game for a while and is a little out of practice. Soon, the very irregular and increasingly worrying issue in Dan’s life is the extended drought he finds himself suffering. And we’re not talking the climate change, scorched earth, God I’m parched variety. You’ve got to hand it to Dan though – it certainly isn’t from a lack of trying. With stalwart mates Ollie, Jack and Rob on hand to lend their collective pearls of male wisdom and arrange the odd road trip, you’d think Dan’s days of languishing in a sexual wilderness would be numbered. Even best friends can’t help prevent the kind of surreal holes Dan just can’t seem to help digging himself into. And with each failed attempt, his self-esteem plummets to the point where he wonders if ‘little Dan’ will ever work again. Good job he has Kelly, his reliable and sympathetic colleague, to confide in. As a woman, she can perhaps shed some female light on why he’s failing so miserably with the opposite sex, balancing out the testosterone-fuelled ‘advice’ from the lads. Surely Dan can’t go wrong with Kelly teaching him the various intricacies of a woman’s mind. Steven Scaffardi’s first novel will have every guy laughing out loud in recognition and every girl secretly worrying – is this how men really think? A new talent to watch out for on the ‘lad-lit’ scene.

Review:
WARNING – This book will make you cry… with laughter!

I’m a big fan of lad-lit (I read a hell of a lot more of it than I do chick-lit, and I’m a chick!), and Scaffardi has packed everything you could possibly want into this voyage of self- and sexual discovery. Dan is a tragically comic character – let’s face it, we all know a guy who isn’t so successful with the ladies and tries just a little too hard with hilarious outcomes – and his mates are just as daft. All are present and correct – the smooth cheater who thinks he can bag any woman he fancies (and usually does), the big bruiser who is a bit soft in the head, but his heart is in the right place (and he’s there to pick up the leftovers from the others – all those not-so-pretty friends who are left over when the smoothie has had his pick), and the brains of the outfit who isn’t always quite as sharp as he’d like to think, but usually comes good.

And then there are the women. You know the types – all those scary first dates that ever went wrong and made you the joke of the week with your buddies, all the bunny boilers in the making and clinging vines and whining jealous types, march in and out of poor Dan’s love life without him getting even a sniff of a chance of getting them into bed.

The plot follows a tried and tested path, and you always know where Dan is going to end up come the end of the book, but the journey to get to that point is so funny you don’t care that you know what’s going to happen because you genuinely want it to happen that way.

This has a broad appeal and would be the perfect gift for the lad in your life, or even the chick with a knowing sense of humour who will recognise her man-mates on the pages, and there are sex gags and innuendos galore which will have you giggling from start to finish, while you cheer Dan and his mates along the way.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

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Dead Reckoning (Soouthern Vampires 11) by Charlaine Harris

Title: Dead Reckoning (Southern Vampires 11)
Author: Charlaine Harris
ASIN: 978-0575096523
Publisher: Gollancz
First Published: May 2011
No .of pages: 336

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis (from Amazon):
There’s a reckoning on the way . . .  and Sookie has a knack for being in trouble’s way; not least when she witnesses the firebombing of Merlotte’s, the bar where she works. Since Sam Merlotte is known to be two-natured, suspicion immediately falls on the anti-shifters in the area. Sookie suspects otherwise, but before she can investigate something else – something even more dangerous – comes up. Sookie’s lover Eric Northman and his ‘child’ Pam are plotting something in secret. Whatever it is, they seem determined to keep Sookie out of it; almost as determined as Sookie is to find out what’s going on. She can’t sit on the sidelines when both her work and her love life under threat – but as she’s gradually drawn into their plans Sookie finds the situation is deadlier than she could ever have imagined.

Review:
After the last two books, I was afraid the series was going a little off the boil, but Dead Reckoning seems to be bringing things right back on track. There’s still a little too much “fairy stuff” for my taste, but this one focuses mostly on vampire business, which is exactly where I want things to be.

To my great surprise, I find myself liking Bill an awful lot more than I have previously (from the very start, I wasn’t all that keen on him). Conversely, Alcide really annoyed me in this episode, when I’d liked him before – he just seemed to act completely out of character, especially for one who is now Pack Alpha. Eric, well he’s Eric and I’ve always liked him; and Sookie is just as fresh as a daisy and the ultimate girl-next-door with a spark of something extra that sets her apart from the rest. Ideally, I would have liked to see a little more of Sam (he’s always been a favourite of mine) and his complex friendship with Sookie, but perhaps that will crop up in Deadlocked.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

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