book reviews

Constant Sister: a Sister Katherine medieval mystery by Gillian Bridge book cover

Local Author Book Review #14: Constant Sister: a Sister Katherine medieval mystery by Gillian Bridge

Despite the subtitle, this book is so much more than a whodunit in a medieval setting. Reading it is like watching the tiny, jewel-like pictures in an illuminated psalter come to life. It is a heartfelt story rooted in history, with a carefully structured plot and memorable characters. Readers familiar with London may recognize familiar place names with amazement at how different things were more than 800 years ago.

The story begins with the coronation of King Richard I (“the Lionheart”) and the riot and fire that followed attacks on Jewish people who attended the event. Sister Katherine nurses some of the victims of the fire in St. Bartholemew’s Hospital. Subsequent scenes introduce her brothers, Robert and William, and several other characters whose interactions create the central question of the story: who killed Master Simon?

As scenes unfold and interlock, leading to the answer to that question, the author’s knowledge of life in medieval England emerges and captivates. The characters represent a full range of social statuses and occupations, such as prosperous merchants, dutiful knights, busy clerks, dedicated religious, craftsmen, farmers and herders. Among them, Sister Katherine and her brothers (the elder a clerk, the younger a monk) play important roles in the final resolution. Women are not all subservient and uneducated, although their roles are more circumscribed than those of men. Details of architecture, clothing, food and drink, commerce, law, and agriculture are skillfully woven into the plot. A glossary at the end offers further information. I came away from the book with an increased knowledge of medieval life.

Parts of the book are set on the road between London and Colchester. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 8, in which one of the characters sets out on a ride to that town:

Robert rode carefully to avoid children who ran laughing after balls or willfully from the restraining arms of their mothers. As he entered the shadow of the ancient double gate with its raised portcullises, he was forced almost to a standstill by a flock of sheep on their last journey to the Shambles. Egged on by dogs and boys with sticks, they flowed around Sparrow’s legs, a moving sea of woolly foam. Then suddenly he was free. Ahead, crowded within the bars of Whitechapel were the workshops of glaziers and bell founders and, in the distance, the village of Whitechapel lay open to the fields. The rutted road was hard under Sparrow’s hooves; white clouds sailed overhead. He nodded to the gatekeeper as he passed the Bars and then smiled fiercely with pleasure as Sparrow tossed her head and snorted.

Aloud he remembered words from his childhood: “Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?” He shouted out his response, “Yes,” and Sparrow picked up speed.

By the end of the book, most of the human dramas are resolved in a plausible and satisfying way, although not without a few tantalizing loose ends which make me wonder if a sequel is to follow. I certainly hope so.

My rating: 9 out of 10 stars (in my own rating system: 1 = abysmal, 2 = barely readable, 3 = mediocre, 4 = not bad, 5 = OK but not great, 6 = good but unremarkable, 7 = pretty good, 8 = really good, 9 = remarkable, 10 = superlative).

Constant Sister is published by Quadra Books and available on Amazon.

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Book Review: The Writer’s Pen by K. Morris

Kevin Morris’s latest collection of poems is now available on pre-order at Amazon UK.

Here is my review of an advance copy…

This latest collection by Kevin Morris consists of 44 pithy reflections on life, death, and passing time. Some of the subjects and themes are the same as in Morris’s earlier collection, My Old Clock I Wind – nature, the seasons, clocks, sex, and mortality. A group of longer poems explores what might be called current affairs.

The tone of these works is darker and more serious than the earlier collection. I recognized no humorous poems, although a wry humor is present in some of them, such as “Libidinous,” in which the poet wonders about the activities of nymphs in a budding wood. “Summer” contains the delightful lines “Now ’tis the fashion / For short frocks / And tiny socks.”

I especially appreciated a sequence of several poems in which the poet strolls through a churchyard under light and shade, contemplating mortality in an almost cheerful way. In “To and Fro,” he says “Why should I care? / For I will not be there / To know.”

Several poems explore the poet’s ambivalence about politics and political correctness. “Legacy (a poem on the late Enoch Powell)” is one such. Morris expresses mixed feelings about Powell, while acknowledging that “An intelligent man / Frequently can / Do more harm / Than a stupid one.” “When a Monster Dies” and “The Monster’s Son” are particularly intriguing, pointing out in a few brief lines that every person is multi-dimensional and complex.

Two poems – “Rhodes” and “I Shower” – contain the phrase “feet of clay.” In the first, it’s used as a caution against facile judgmentalism, and in the second as a reminder that “the beast in man” is ever-present and not easily expunged.

The Writer’s Pen and Other Poems is one poet’s way of dealing with life’s complications and contradictions. The poems display a resigned acceptance that doesn’t quite cross the line into pessimism. I’m guessing Morris appreciates conversations with friends, in pubs or over dinner and drinks. Reading this collection of short, accessible verses is like sitting down with a thoughtful friend to talk about life, death, and the ways of the world. The poems are brief, but Morris’s skilful use of words makes them worth reading more than once, and contemplating their meanings in moments of quiet.

 

 

Reviews, Interview, and RAEW

The Friendship of Mortals is getting some good attention! Berthold Gambrel wrote an insightful review on his blog, as well as one on Amazon, followed by an interview in which I answer his questions about aspects of the novel. In both, he explores the relationship between my novel and the H.P. Lovecraft story on which it’s based, namely “Herbert West, Reanimator.”

raew 2018 - 2The Friendship of Mortals is widely available in various ebook formats, and in print. The other three books in the Herbert West Series will be discounted during Smashwords’ Read an Ebook Week sale, March 4th to 10th. Info and links here.

The Mystery of the Missing Mask

Another Almost Local Book Review: The Mystery of the Missing Mask by M.A. Wilson

Publisher’s description:

Ryan and Kendra have returned to Maple Harbour on the British Columbia coast to visit their cousins Claire and Nathan. But the sleepy little town has been rocked by the news that a valuable Indigenous mask has been stolen, only days after it arrived at the local museum! While museum officials and the police search for answers, the four children and their new friend Tyler stumble upon a series of exciting clues. As they enjoy their summer holidays, not everything is what it seems.

This is the second adventure story for children set in the coastal community of Maple Harbour. Brother and sister Ryan and Kendra arrive for another summer vacation with their cousins, Nathan and Claire.

The action begins at the local museum, which has acquired a unique piece of Native art – a grizzly bear mask. The kids attend a ceremony featuring the mask. That very night, the mask is stolen.

The theft recedes into the background while the children plunge into summer activities – sailing, swimming, and building a tree house from salvaged lumber. Their activities are punctuated by wonderful meals provided by Aunt Jennie. A windstorm damages Uncle William’s truck. The kids make a new friend, Tyler, who has a canoe and shows them how to harvest oysters and clams.

Subtle clues to the mask theft are scattered through the plot, and converge in a satisfying way in the last few chapters. A nighttime investigation and exciting pursuit form the climax of the story.

This is a good, solid adventure tale, which would entertain kids from 7 to 12 or so. The characters are fairly distinct in terms of maturity, interests and abilities. Information about the environment and how to do things is presented in an engaging way. A subplot featuring the mischievous Mitchell twins and Claire’s dilemma about a lucky find on the beach is a lesson about doing the right thing. Figuring out who stole the grizzly bear mask by picking up on the trail of clues would be a satisfying reader experience. The final action scenes involve a series of exciting twists and jolts, with a role for everyone and a positive resolution.

I enjoyed the wealth of detail provided by the author, giving readers a complete experience of summer activities enjoyed to the full by a group of kids who are able to figure things out and make decisions. The detailed and attractive illustrations are a good addition to the story.

A review copy of the book was provided by the author.

New Review of The Friendship of Mortals

I would like to share a lovely new review of The Friendship of Mortals, by Denzil the Book Owl, on his recently launched review site. Read it here, and the interview in which I answer several questions about the book and its writing.

fofmresized

While you’re there, have a look at some of Denzil’s other reviews. They are what book reviews should be, thoughtful and thorough.

Book Review: Of Patchwork Warriors by R.J. Llewellyn

“There came an era when the threat of incursion from the infernal other world realm of the Zerstorung was strong, placing the survival of entire unsettled Oakhostian Empire at risk and thus disparate forces began to marshal, to take up any cause or seize any opportunity.
There in the background The Ethereal, The Stommigheid or The Astatheia just a few names for the force which had arrived upon The World in Ages faded from record. Viewed either as a pernicious creature seeking to control, a power for good, an aspect of Nature to be treated with caution or a means to an end, it remained a constant. With an oft forgotten tendency to engage with the unwilling, the unassuming and the unruly from the ranks of lesser folk whose consequential and various struggles would unsettle many a careful plan.
This is the tale of three such, an innocent housemaid, a dutiful soldier and a self-appointed scourge of evil quite unaware the safety of an Empire would soon be resting on them.
They did not take uniformly or conventionally to the task, for that was the way of things, when involved with The Ethereal, The Stommigheid or The Astatheia.”

Don’t let the magisterial tone of this description fool you. Of Patchwork Warriors is an engaging, action-packed, and yet thoughtful fantasy adventure, featuring three really strong female characters. Fate throws them together, and once they realize they have to cooperate despite their differences, these ladies really kick butt.

It’s hard to say if the setting is a post-apocalyptic future or a parallel reality, and it really doesn’t matter. The Oakhostian Empire vaguely resembles Europe in geography and cultures. Technology is sort of medieval, with a few notable exceptions, the primary one being the force called, variously, The Ethereal, The Stommigheid or The Astatheia. Although poorly understood, it is monitored and made use of by different groups to further their interests — ecclesiatics, military, criminals, and assorted independent operators. This force is sort of like our internet, but much more powerful and dangerous. It can be used to cause time-jolts and move things around (whole buildings, for example), even into other dimensions. If messed with too much, it can open portals into a dread realm called the Zerstorung, where there are monsters. An imminent breach of this sort precipitates the events of this novel.

In contrast to the setting, the three main characters, their personalities, and their lively and colourful dialogue humanize the story and make it irresistible. Arketre Beritt is a medician in the elite LifeGuard. From her point of view, the reader is introduced to the military culture of this force, its practices and outlooks. Trelli (whose surname is never mentioned) is a maid in the household of a merchant family. A younger son of the family is a Jordisk (sort of like a hacker), who has built his own device to access the mysterious force called the Stommigheid. Unfortunately for Trelli, the force has an affinity for her, which throws her into situations beyond belief. And then there’s Karlyn Nahtinee, a zany individual with a nose for evil (and good) and a talent for incendiary devices. When a number of conflicting interests collide with disastrous consequences, these three must join forces to save each other, and maybe the world.

The supporting characters are varied and memorable. They include priests, soldiers, organized (and disorganized) criminals, pirates, noblemen, and one nasty evil-for-the-fun-of-it type. There are also monsters.

In fairness, I must note bumps in the form of typos and omissions, but the story is compelling enough to ride over them. For anyone who enjoys fantasy with a difference, I thoroughly recommend this idiosyncratic work. The author has provided a helpful glossary that explains invented terms and swear words. Those invented swear words are strangely apt; you may find yourself using some of them!

Of Patchwork Warriors is available at the usual Amazon outlets:

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.ca

Amazon.com.au

 

 

 

An Almost Local Author Book Review: Adventure on Whalebone Island by M. A. Wilson

A while ago I decided to write reviews of some of the books in the Emerging Local Authors Collection at my public library. There were strict geographical criteria as to what constituted “local.” Michael Wilson, the author of Adventure on Whalebone Island, lives outside of the defined area, but I think I can bend the rule (this is my blog, after all), to include a resident of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, where the book is set.

whalebone-island

The book is aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds. Here is a brief description:

Ryan and Kendra have come to Maple Harbour on the BC coast to spend their summer holidays with their aunt and uncle. They’re expecting a leisurely holiday swimming and playing on the beach with their cousins Claire and Nathan. Claire, however, has other ideas – exploring islands in her sailboat and searching for sunken treasure. But what’s hidden on mysterious Whalebone Island? Have the four of them come across a secret that others don’t want discovered? Join these four intrepid adventurers and their fearless dog Meg in the summer escapade of a lifetime!

The story is simple and straightforward, with the main focus being a series of adventures. The children get re-acquainted, go swimming, sailing and enjoying the natural world. In the course of these activities, each of them has to deal with challenges involving self-confidence, getting along with others and learning new things. The action intensifies when they start looking for a sunken boat and survive a storm at sea, seeking shelter on Whalebone Island. While camping on the island, they encounter unexpected hazards presented by a group of criminals. Each child must call upon their inner resources to extract themselves and each other from dangerous situations.

The characters are sufficiently distinct from one another to give most readers someone to identify with. The situations are realistic and plausible, but the world in which these kids live is essentially a safe and secure one. There is no family dysfunction, corrosive personal anxiety or urban grittiness. This is a sunny adventure, perfect for entertaining its intended audience, who may also vicariously enjoy a lot of good food while reading about the meals and treats partaken of by the four adventurers.

The elements of this book — pre-teen children on a summer holiday, small sailboats, camping on an island, a quest for treasure, unexpected hazards — necessarily reminded me of Arthur Ransome’s books. Adventure on Whalebone Island may be favourably compared with those classics, incorporating the key elements in a present-day setting on the coast of British Columbia. One difference is these children inhabit the same world as the adult characters. There is no attempt on their part to create an alternate reality like the kids in the “Swallows and Amazons” stories. This is not a fault, but having made the comparison, I thought it worth mentioning.

The illustrations, by Vadym Prokhorenko, are notable for their elegant simplicity.

Further information, including purchase links, may be found at the website of Rainy Bay Press.

This review is based on a review copy of the ebook version.

The New Gatekeepers

I guess it had to happen. Technology opened the gate to all those writers who couldn’t get published the traditional way. Huzzah! But there are so many of us, cranking out books by the millions, that readers are overwhelmed. Most indie-published books join the blur and go unnoticed.

Except maybe the ones that get lots of reviews. Trouble is, it’s hard to get reviews, or at least the right kinds of reviews. No friends or family members. No “I’ll review yours if you review mine” arrangements. Brief comments by readers are fine; but thoughtful, thorough reviews by “official” reviewers are best of all — and almost impossible to get. Reviewers are the new gatekeepers. (As are a few advertisers, notably BookBub, which is pretty selective about which books it will promote. You need to pay them a non-trivial sum — but first you need a non-trivial number of good reviews).

You don’t have to look hard to find lists of rules and other admonishments directed at hopeful review-seeking authors. They look a lot like the submission guidelines and how-to-approach-publishers advice of the trad pub years. Some of these lists are lengthy and detailed, and a few verge on the offensive. Reading them conjures up a caricature of a desperate author approaching the enthroned reviewer, crawling on hands and knees while pushing a copy of their book along the floor with their nose. (And if your book is taken up by the reviewer, don’t even think about emailing to ask when the review might appear. Just. Don’t. Do it. Ever).

This is part of a bigger phenomenon associated with the self-pub revolution — the author as pest. It seems we’re a pretty annoying bunch: spewing out books full of typos and grammar no-nos, issuing endless “Check out my book!” tweets, approaching acquaintances with book in hand and big salesman’s grin on face, and bothering beleaguered book bloggers just like we did the beleaguered acquisitions editors of days gone by. (Remember all those tales of mail rooms crammed with unsolicited mss?) Maybe creativity generates a ferocious hunger for attention that overrides good manners. Book bloggers and reviewers have reacted predictably to the deluge of review requests by hedging themselves about with rules, just like publishers did.

But hey — at least now we writers are free to throw our books into the public arena. That’s way better than slinking back to our writing rooms to entomb the rejected manuscript in a cardboard box that once held dog food. The toughest gate has been breached. So what if there’s no sure-fire path to success? (There never was, actually). And a few of us have managed to get our books noticed, clearing the gates like so many hurdlers.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dancing in a Minefield: Writers Reviewing Each Other

Book reviews have been on my mind lately — more than usual, that is, because book reviews are always a preoccupation of us indie authors. I’ve been thinking about reviews and reviewing because most of the books at the top of my TBR pile are actually TBR&R, meaning “to be read and reviewed.” I’ve decided this year to give priority to books by authors from my local area, which narrows the field considerably. Even so, the pile keeps growing.

It occurred to me a while ago that I rarely read books just for fun, with no intention to review or even rate them. I think that’s an occupational hazard for us authors, now more than ever.

In the Olden Days (the previous millennium), books were reviewed by special people called literary critics. Back then, writers wrote and readers read. They might talk about books with friends and recommend ones they thought particularly good, but that was just talk.

Then came ebooks, self-publishing and social media. Now everyone can be a critic of sorts. For indie authors, this has created a perilous situation. First, of course, there are Too Many Books. Then there’s the fact that some of them are by fellow writers — people we know from critique groups, writing courses, writers’ conferences or the blogosphere. People we trade jokes with, whose posts we “like” and comment on. How many of us have obtained books from these online colleagues in exchange for “an honest review?”

So what do you do when you read one of these books and can’t write an honestly positive review?

Many just don’t write the review. Some contact the writer privately to express their concerns. Others grit their teeth and try to walk the tightrope, carefully making a case for their less-than-positive comments. Critical remarks may not be too damaging, but throwing a three-or-fewer-stars rating onto a pile of four and five stars, thus lowering a book’s overall score, is guaranteed to make its author unhappy.

No one wants to be a party-pooper, but I, for one, refuse to modify my honest opinion of a piece of writing just because the writer is known to me. That kind of thing perpetuates the negative views some people still have about self-published books and their authors. It may also be why Amazon has decided to remove reviews that appear to be written by people who know the author. This is a rather crude approach, but behind it is the principle that reviews should reflect readers’ true impressions of a piece of writing, unmodified by considerations such as, “Well, it’s not the best, but hey, the author is a nice guy and writes those funny blog posts, so how about 4 stars instead of 3.”

There is a huge difference between a thoughtful critical review and a mean-spirited condemnation of a book accompanied by a one-star rating. We writers can be of help to one another by carefully reading each other’s books and writing sincere (honest) reviews, both positive and negative.

One thing that’s hard to avoid (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) is to slip into the role of editor-after-the-fact, suggesting that the author should have deleted this scene or that character, or written more description, or less. I think this kind of thing comes from participating in critique groups or being a beta reader. In those situations we are dealing with works in progress, where such suggestions are welcomed. Reviews, on the other hand, must deal with a book as published and complete.

We writers owe it to one another to hold ourselves to a high standard when we write reviews. We know both sides of the page, as it were: we both create and consume writing. We are insiders and as such must play the reviewer’s role consciously and with care.

The Elusive Review

Book reviews help both readers and writers. Readers are more likely to buy a book with many reviews, even when they’re not 100% favourable. Writers consequently are always trying to encourage their readers to post reviews online. Many bloggers write reviews, and thus are courted by review-seeking writers.

Read a book, write a review. If nothing else, it’s a way of sharing your thoughts about the books you read, helping other readers find good books.

But…

People who have no problems articulating their experiences with a lawnmower or a pair of pants become constricted when it comes to writing a Book Review. The very fact that this term exists makes it seem like a big deal. After all, no one talks about Pants Reviews. But the thought of writing a book review may bring back memories of the dreaded Book Report from school days.

So what is a book review, exactly?

One thing it isn’t is a critique. Readers who are also writers may confuse the two, because they belong to writers’ critique groups or serve as beta readers. In such situations one reads a manuscript and compiles suggestions as to how the author may improve the work — remove a character, change a scene or rewrite the whole thing in first person. I sometimes see “reviews” of this sort, most likely produced by writers or would-be writers.

A review should convey a reader’s experience of the book as written, the thoughts and impressions that arose while they were reading and after they finished. It’s not advice to the writer (too late for that), but a response from one who has partaken of the written offering.

Reviews may be formal or informal. Most of the reviews posted to the internet are short and informal, but those written for magazines, newspapers or book review blogs are longer and include certain elements: a brief (really brief) plot summary or description, followed by the reader’s impressions of the characters, the writing style and story arc. Formal reviews may provide comparisons with the author’s other works or with similar works by different authors. It’s common as well to see the reviewer’s idea as to what kinds of readers might appreciate the book — mystery lovers, aficionados of literary tomes, or people who like thrillers with nonstop action.

Informal reviews, purists would say, are not “reviews” at all, merely impressions or comments. In many cases that’s true, but brief comments are certainly better than none at all. The best time for a reader to post their impressions of a book is right after they finish reading it. Writers may take advantage of this by inserting suggestions to this effect right after “The End.” In ebooks, a link to the book’s page on Amazon, Goodreads or similar sites would be especially helpful.

Readers intimidated by the idea of Writing A Book Review may be encouraged by the idea that all they have to do is say whether they liked the book or not, and why. No plot summary is needed (in fact, reviews that consist largely of clunky rehashes of the plot are pretty much useless).

Here is a really short “review” I posted on Goodreads recently, of Smile Now, Cry Later by Paul MacDonald: “A bit of a different twist on the private-eye-by-accident theme, spiced up with lots of cynical humour about corporate culture. Definitely kept me reading to the end.” Most authors would be happy with a bunch of these.

Finally, a word about the negative review. Some readers refuse to write them, which is the safe course of (in)action. A thoughtful negative review is perfectly responsible, in my opinion. The crucial point is to say why you didn’t like the book. Silly plot? Flat characters? Too many flashbacks? “This book is a piece of crap,” is not a review, by any standard.

Thing is, reviews are 100% voluntary. Authors cannot compel their readers to write them. Sincere reviews — even negative ones — are freely given expressions of appreciation, and should be valued accordingly.