Friday, November 24, 2017

Book review: Ramses the Damned by Anne and Christopher Rice

Title: Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra
Author: Anne Rice and Christopher Rice
Publication date: 21st November 2017
Publisher: Anchor Books
Genre: Fantasy
Source: ARC from publisher

Ramses the Great, former pharaoh of Egypt, is reawakened by the elixir of life in Edwardian England. Now immortal with his bride-to-be, he is swept up in a fierce and deadly battle of wills and psyches against the once-great Queen Cleopatra. Ramses has reawakened Cleopatra with the same perilous elixir whose unworldly force brings the dead back to life. But as these ancient rulers defy one another in their quest to understand the powers of the strange elixir, they are haunted by a mysterious presence even older and more powerful than they, a figure drawn forth from the mists of history who possesses spectacular magical potions and tonics eight millennia old. This is a figure who ruled over an ancient kingdom stretching from the once-fertile earth of the Sahara to the far corners of the world, a queen with a supreme knowledge of the deepest origins of the elixir of life. She may be the only one who can make known to Ramses and Cleopatra the key to their immortality--and the secrets of the miraculous, unknowable, endless expanse of the universe.

My thoughts: 
The book opens with a preface that sums up some key events that happen before the start of the story, and touches on some of the main characters. I found it very odd that some of the book reads like a sequel, while large portions of it don't, and nowhere on the proof did it suggest it was a sequel. Goodreads, however, says that it is book two of the series. I think it worked fine to read it without having read the first book, but it's something to keep in mind.

Ramses, former ruler of Egypt, is an immortal and has recently woken up in 1914 after hibernating for hundreds of years. He's heading to England with his fiance for an engagement party, but both of them are troubled by thoughts of Cleopatra. Ramses used the magical elixir that gave him immortality to resurrect her mummified body, but she ran away and now they fear she'll come after them and attack them. Added in to the mix are two other immortals who are far older, who have yet to meet Ramses but have heard rumours about a mummy coming to life and guess that he might be immortal.

I liked that none of the characters are 100% likeable - they're all flawed in some ways, and make dreadful assumptions about each other and the motives of other people. Ramses and his fiance Julia both presume that Cleopatra is mad and that she means them harm. Cleopatra thinks Ramses hates her and wants to kill her. It made me want to shake them sometimes and tell them they were being silly, but it also made the multiple points of view in the story more interesting to read, because you get to know the true motivations and also see how their actions are misinterpreted.

The writing style is quite old fashioned. In some ways this fit with the time: the way Julia and another character, Sibil, narrate their parts makes sense, as they're born into the early 1900s. At other times I felt like there was just too much description when I wanted to get on with the action of the story.

It's an interesting story that looks at some of the moral and philosophical problems of these immortal creatures, how characters may or may not change over time, and how both humans and immortals are affected and changed by their experiences. I enjoyed the story a lot, even though it wasn't as fast-paced as some books, and I'd definitely like to read the next book in the series to see what happens next. Although some plot threads are left unresolved, the book does have a satisfying conclusion. I'm giving Ramses the Damned 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Book review: King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Title: King of Thorns
Author: Mark Lawrence
Publication date: April 2013
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Free copy through previous job

Description: To reach greatness you must step on bodies. I’ll win this game of ours, though the cost of it may drown the world in blood…

A six nation army marches toward Jorg's gates, led by a shining hero determined to unite the empire and heal its wounds. Every omen says he will. Every good king knows to bend the knee in the face of overwhelming odds, if only to save their people and their lands. But King Jorg is not a good king.

Faced by an enemy many times his strength, Jorg knows that he cannot win a fair fight. But playing fair was never part of Jorg’s game plan...

My thoughts: I love a good epic fantasy, and all of Mark Lawrence's books are that promising door-stopper size that suggests a good adventure happens within the pages. King of Thorns is book two in the trilogy, and picks up about four years after the end of book one. I was a bit thrown off by this, as it seems like a lot has changed, and I wondered if I'd misremembered the ending of book one, but luckily the story splits into two timelines: one carrying on in the present day, and one that starts four years previously and gradually shows how Jorg got from where he was to where he is now.

It's a fairly grim series in a lot of ways. Jorg hasn't had an easy life and it doesn't get any better. But despite that, he fights his corner and has quite a lot of luck to help him out. I like that there's a strong 'characters move from city A to city B and encounter various stumbling blocks on the way' plotline to the book, and that Jorg's personality continues to evolve as he grows up and experiences more. It was a satisfying book, and once I got stuck in, I couldn't put it down. Luckily I already have book three, so I'll be starting that one soon! I'm giving King of Thorns 7 out of 10.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Book Review: Heart of Granite by James Barclay

Title: Heart of Granite
Author: James Barclay
Publication date: 18 May 2017 (paperback)
Publisher: Gollancz
Genre: Science-fiction/fantasy
Source: Review copy from publisher

Description: The world has become a battleground in a war which no side is winning. But for those determined to retain power, the prolonged stalemate cannot be tolerated so desperate measures must be taken.

Max Halloran has no idea. He's living the brief and glorious life of a hunter-killer pilot. He's an ace in the air, on his way up through the ranks, in love, and with his family's every need provided for in thanks for his service, Max has everything . . .

. . . right up until he hears something he shouldn't have, and refuses to let it go. Suddenly he's risking his life and the lives of all those he cares about for a secret which could expose corruption at the highest levels, and change the course of the war.

My thoughts: I wasn't sure what to think of this book going in to it: the cover said sci-fi, kind of, and the description puts it on future earth. But my boyfriend insisted I would like it, so eventually I listened... and I really enjoyed it! The set up for the story is that at some point, humans obtained some alien DNA samples from an asteroid or something like that, and reverse engineered it to end up with various giant lizards which can be controlled. There is some debate over where these things are machines, or have some kind of sentience. Max and his fellow pilots live on a giant ship, except the ship is actually an enormous reptile engineered to be filled with human living quarters, storage areas... everything they need. Max is a fighter pilot, but rather than a small aeroplane, he flies a dragon, by sitting inside a pouch on the front of the animal and linking in to its brain.

All this is fed out to the reader in little moments. It took me a bit of time to get used to that and to have a clear picture of what was going on, but it gets better. I think James Barclay was trying to be intriguing at the start and create a sense of 'ooh, what cool thing is happening here?' but for me it didn't work. Thankfully, the politics of the war and their role in it, and the smaller ship-board politics, soon becomes the focus of the story. Max is not a sit-down-quietly sort of guy. He's arrogant and short-tempered, which quickly gets him in trouble, but he cares deeply for his squad and works hard to protect them.

It's a gripping, intense story, with dragons done in a new way. I really can't go in to many more details without spoiling things, but I loved Max's character growth over the story. Many parts of the book made me think of it being Top Gun but with dragons, which was a lot of fun to read! I highly recommend this book - 8 out of 10!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Short review: When Breath Become Air by Paul Kalanithi

Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Publication date: January 2016
Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Memoir
Source: Borrowed

Description: At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

My thoughts: I was intrigued to read about the experience of a man who had been a successful surgeon becoming a patient with a serious illness. I wasn't expecting the book to be as philosophical as it was. Paul writes about how, in his university life, he was very interested in why people do certain things, what motivates people, etc. From there he moved to looking at, medically, how the brain works. He discusses why he himself was compelled to push on with his work as a surgeon despite it being an incredibly intense profession.

He also talks a fair bit about how people adjust to the news that they have a serious illness, maybe a terminal one, and how being in that position himself gave him a new perspective on many things.

Personally, I didn't enjoy the book as much as I had hoped. It was all very reflective, thoughtful, and philosophical... so quite boring from my point of view! I think I had been hoping for more about the doctor/patient relationship, and how that was affected. I've read better books this year about working in the healthcare industry. While When Breath Becomes Air was an interesting book, and I'm glad I had the chance to read it, it didn't blow me away and I don't think it stands out on a shelf as being overly special. I'm giving it 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Book review: Beyond Forever by Kit Rocha

Title: Beyond Forever
Author: Kit Rocha
Publication date: 24th October 2017
Genre: Dystopian/Romance
Source: Review copy
Series: Beyond (bonus novella)

Blurb: Before they were the King and Queen…
Six years before the Beyond series started, an ambitious bootlegger named Dallas O’Kane caught a very pretty thief named Lex with her hand in his safe.
The rest is very sexy history.
In Beyond Forever, follow Dallas and Lex through the turning points in their relationship, from the night he caught her trying to rob him, through his rise to successful bootlegger, to legend, to Sector Leader--with Lex always there, willing to give him the push he needs.

Beyond Forever is a prequel novella that jumps through time to tell the story of the biggest moments in the formation of the O’Kanes and their King and Queen. It will be far more enjoyable if you’ve already read Beyond Control, and contains spoilers for the entire Beyond series.

My thoughts: Beyond Forever begins with the reopening of the Broken Circle after the events at the end of the Beyond series. It then jumps back to the very beginning of Dallas O'Kane's journey in the Sectors, and his first meeting with Lex, and hops forward to critical moments in the founding of the O'Kane gang & business and Dallas's relationship with Lex, finishing a little bit before Beyond Shame begins.

As a big fan of the series, I loved this novella. It's my favourite sort of extra: when we first meet Dallas & Lex, it's obvious they've already got quite a history together, so to go back and see some of that history was great. Partly that's because they're characters who bash up against each others' personalities a lot, which is always fun to read about, especially when you know that they're going to end up very much together in the future.

There isn't a particularly strong plot line as such; instead it's a series of little glimpses at crucial moments. Each chapter looks at one critical moment, and gives enough information, context and conflict for that little bit. And it was so much fun to see Lex upsetting Dallas's world, from his personal opinions to how the business was going to run to how the gang was running. Through the little snippets you get a really good picture of how Dallas and Lex each became who they are at the beginning of the Beyond series.

As an extra to read after you're done with the series, Beyond Forever is a real treat, and I'm sure all Kit Rocha fans will love it. It's intended as a happy bonus, and it definitely delivers as that. I loved getting to know some more secrets about the founding of the O'Kane legacy, and particularly the peaks of Nessa, one of my favourite characters, when she was younger. I'm giving Beyond Forever 7 stars.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Book review: Coming Home to the Comfort Food Cafe by Debbie Johnson

Title: Coming Home to the Comfort Food Cafe
Author: Debbie Johnson
Publication date: October 8th 2017
Publisher: HarperImpulse
Genre: Contemporary
Source: Review copy from publisher, through NetGalley

Description: Welcome to the cosy Comfort Food Café, where there's kindness in every cup of hot chocolate and the menu is sprinkled with love and happiness…

Moving to the little village of Budbury, Zoe hopes the crisp Dorset sea breeze and gentle pace of life will be a fresh start for her and her goddaughter, Martha.

Luckily for them both, the friendly community at the café provide listening ears, sage advice, shoulders to cry on, and some truly excellent carrot cake. And when Martha's enigmatic, absent father suddenly turns up, confusing not only Martha but Zoe too, the love and support of their new-found friends is the best present they could ask for.

Have Zoe and Martha truly found their home at the Comfort Food Café?

My thoughts: I've read a couple of the Comfort Food Cafe books before, and really enjoyed them, and I'm happy to say that Coming Home... is another excellent book from Debbie Johnson.

Zoe is our narrator for this book, a new character who hasn't been in the previous ones. The story starts in the summer of the year Zoe's best friend (and Martha's mum) has died. Following Kate's wishes, Zoe has become Martha's guardian, and they now live together, but unsurprisingly they're both struggling a lot. For 16-year-old Martha, that's taking form in her sneaking out the house, sneaking into clubs, and drinking too much. Zoe is worried for both of them, so uses her savings to quit work for a few months and take them down to the Dorset coast to stay in a picturesque holiday village.

One of the things I like about Debbie Johnson's writing is that she does a 'tragic backstory' very well. It's not overdone, it doesn't feel forced - she writes grief very well, and that comes through in all the Comfort Food Cafe books. I'm reluctant to call the book 'contemporary romance' - there is a slight romantic element to the book, but predominantly it's about dealing with tragedy, making fresh starts, and raising a teenager. I really enjoyed the focus on those elements, and how the importance of friendship shines through in the books. The village of Budbury, with its social focus being the Comfort Food Cafe, has a really strong little community, and gradually Zoe and Martha both start to engage with it, and discover some incredibly supportive friends.

Coming Home to the Comfort Food Cafe is a beautifully heartwarming story that will have you crying both sad and happy tears! It's about the ups and downs of starting over, the importance of friendship, and about being a parent. Cosy autumn reading, with a lovely Christmassy finish. I'm giving it 7/10.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Book review: The Bastard Legion by Gavin Smith

Title: The Bastard Legion
Author: Gavin Smith
Release date: 5th October 2017
Publisher: Gollancz 
Genre: Science Fiction 
Series: The Bastard Legion #1
Source: Review copy from the publisher

Description: Four hundred years in the future, the most dangerous criminals are kept in suspended animation aboard prison ships and "rehabilitated" in a shared virtual reality environment. But Miska Corbin, a thief and hacker with a background in black ops, has stolen one of these ships, the Hangman's Daughter, and made it her own. Controlled by explosive collars and trained in virtual reality by the electronic ghost of a dead marine sergeant, the thieves, gangsters, murderers, and worse are transformed into Miska's own private indentured army: the Bastard Legion. Are the mercenaries just for fun and profit, or does Miska have a hidden purpose connected to her covert past?

My thoughts: I loved the concept of the book as soon as I heard it, and since I'd heard good things about Gavin Smith's writing, I thought it would be a good book to start with. The story starts as Miska is about to take a small group of the prisoners she has been trying up onto an asteroid to take back control of it from a rebel group. It quickly becomes apparent when they arrive that Miska has not been given the full story about the rebels, their capabilities, and any reasons they might have to rebell. The bulk of the story focuses on the campaign to take over the asteroid, with occasional flashbacks to Miska's past: partly as she was securing the job and beginning to train the prisoners and partly looking at the events that led her to steal the prison ship in the first place and the bigger reasons for her taking it.

There aren't too many scientific terms or explanations in the book, but there are a lot of sci-fi weapons, equipment and body modifications. The fights between Miska's team and the rebels, and a few other people, are described in great detail. Personally I didn't need to know the names of each weapon being used at any time, but as Miska has been a marine, I think it makes sense that she (as the narrator) would call things by their proper names, so I adjusted to it after a while.

I liked the characters, particularly Miska who we get to know best. Some of the others are very intriguing as well, and I'll be interested to see how they develop over the trilogy and to learn more about their backgrounds. Overall I enjoyed the book - it's a fun read with a lot of mouthy mercenaries and vivid gunfights, as well as some interesting imaginings of technology and society in the future. I'm giving The Bastard Legion  by Gavin Smith 7/10. And I'm glad to hear that book 2 is also out this month, on ebook! 

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