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! 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book review: Wychwood by George Mann

Title: Wychwood
Author: George Mann
Release date: 12 September 2017
Publisher: Titan
Genre: Crime
Source: Bought

Description: After losing her job and her partner in one fell swoop, journalist Elspeth Reeves is back in her mother's house in the sleepy village of Wilsby-Under-Wychwood, wondering where it all went wrong. Then a body is found in the neighbouring Wychwood: a woman ritually slaughtered, with cryptic symbols scattered around her corpse. 
Elspeth recognizes these from a local myth of the Carrion King, a Saxon magician who once held a malevolent court ddp in the forest. As more murders follow, Elspeth joins her childhood friend DS Peter Shaw to investigate, and the two discover sinister village secrets harking back decades. 

My thoughts: The story begins with Elspeth pulling up to her mum's house, come to stay for a while, only to find that police have blocked off the road. No one is allowed into the crime scene area, but Elspeth pops through her house and hops over the wall at the bottom of their garden. While sneaking around, she not only sees the body, but also bumps into her childhood friend Peter, now a police officer.

I really liked Elspeth as a character. She's warm and relatable, and determined to get back on her feet after the blow that sent her back to her mum's. She works hard, and her curiosity almost always gets the better of her. Wychwood is a fairly standard police investigation into a string of murders, with Elspeth accompanying Peter as he interviews several people who might be able to shed light on things.

It's a really good book, I was hooked early on, but I was disappointed by the lack of magic or fantasy elements in the book. I guess I went into it expecting something more like Ben Aaronovitch or Paul Cornell's books, where police discover that there's magic in the world, and the magical becomes a big part of the story. In Wychwood, the only reason the reader knows that magic is definitely involved is because of occasional short interludes from the killer's point of view. I'd also hoped that it might be the start of a series, but while there can easily be more cases for Elspeth and Peter, I'm not sure how believably anything magical could be tied to the town again, after the events of Wychwood.

All in all, I did enjoy Wychwood a lot, and have been recommending it to people, but it wasn't quite the book I was expecting when I started reading. A page-turning crime thriller set in a cosy English town, this book is a perfect autumn read, particularly with Halloween coming up. I'm giving it 7/10, but I'll be more cautious going into future books by George Mann.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Book review: Archangel's Viper by Nalini Singh

Title: Archangel's Viper
Author: Nalini Singh
Publication date: 28th September 2017
Publisher: Gollancz
Genre: Urban fantasy
Series: Guild Hunter
Source: Review copy from publisher

Description: Once a broken girl known as Sorrow, Holly Chang now prowls the shadowy gray underground of the city for the angels. But it’s not her winged allies who make her a wanted woman—it’s the unknown power coursing through her veins. Brutalized by an insane archangel, she was left with the bloodlust of a vampire, the ability to mesmerize her prey, and a poisonous bite.

Now, someone has put a bounty on her head…

Venom is one of the Seven, Archangel Raphael’s private guard, and he’s as infuriating as he is seductive. A centuries-old vampire, his fangs dispense a poison deadlier than Holly’s. But even if Venom can protect Holly from those hunting her, he might not be able to save himself—because the strange, violent power inside Holly is awakening…

No one is safe.

My thoughts: Long-time readers of the blog will know that I'm a big fan of Nalini Singh's books. Before I started the book, I wasn't sure how I felt about Venom as the hero: he's quite cold and scary in the other books, and has mostly had an 'off-stage' role so far. All of my doubts quickly vanished once he walked onto the page. Venom and Holly have a very prickly relationship. Venom has helped Holly through the most difficult time of her life, while she was adjusting to being a newly-made not-quite-vampire with powers that couldn't be anticipated. She trusts him, but she's very snarky and sarcastic with him. Of course, Venom gives as good as he gets, and I loved reading their bickering.

Venom has been away from New York City for the past two years. Now he's back, and Holly has to work with him again. But just after she's collected him from the airport, some (rather incompetent) mercenaries try to kidnap Holly. The two main arcs of the story are Holly & Venom investigating the reason for the attempted kidnapping, and trying to deal with Holly's growing, changing powers, which are developing quickly as the fragments of Uram's power left inside Holly begin to change.

I did feel like it was a much less complex plot than some of them in this series; the focus is much less on 'what's going on here and how do we fix it' and more on the 'how do we fix it' element alone. However, the romance between the two characters balances that out. They already know each other quite well by the time the story starts, so the fact that it develops into more of a romantic relationship as events in the book nudge them into closer proximity to each other felt believable. They're both interesting characters, and Holly is still dealing with a lot of personal problems that have resulted from her change. Venom presents a hard exterior to the world, but Holly manages to soften him up eventually.

Archangel's Viper answers some questions that have built over previous books, and fills in some gaps of what was happening in New York during the time Archangel's Heart takes place. It's an exciting plot, and throws some more light on Michaela, who has been (and remains) a rather enigmatic character so far. The relationship between Holly and Venom really steals the show, though, and I know that this is one of Nalini's books which I'll read again and again for that sparky, fun relationship. Overall I'm giving Archangel's Viper 8 stars.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book review: The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli

Title: The Last Namsara
Author: Kristen Ciccarelli
Publication date: 12th October 2017
Publisher: Gollancz
Genre: Fantasy
Source: ARC from publisher

Description: There are some stories that are too dangerous to be told…
Asha is a dragon-slayer. Reviled by the very people she's sworn to protect, she kills to atone for the terrible deed she committed as a child; she told one of the forbidden stories, one of the stories that summon the deadly dragons and that killed her mother. In doing so she almost destroyed her city and was left her with a terrible scar.
Only the death of Kozu, the first Dragon, will bring Asha true redemption, unite her father's fractured kingdom and allow her to avoid a horrifying arranged marriage. But no matter how hard she tries, the temptation to tell forbidden stories is something she cannot resist.

My thoughts: Oh my goodness, what a book! There is so much wrapped up in this wonderful story it's hard to know where to start.

Telling a story out loud calls to dragons, and causes people to become ill. But since Asha needs to get close to dragons in order to kill them, she tells old stories when she's alone. It's worked well for her so far, and things seem set to carry on that way - except that Asha is due to be married very soon. It's quickly revealed that her fiancé Jarek is vile. He's abusive, physically harming Asha's cousin to manipulate Asha into doing things he wants. There were so many ways throughout the book that he controls Asha, and others. This was a bad guy who I could truly hate.

Knowing she doesn't want to marry this man, Asha's father promises that if she kills the oldest dragon, he'll break the engagement. Like the best traditional stories, she's got just a few days to achieve the impossible task, with new challenges and setbacks interfering all the time. Add in to the mix a slave who she's rescued from the vile Jarek and is now trying to keep secret, while he challenges her loyalties and ideas about the slave class, along with protecting her cousin and keeping her storytelling a secret, it's a lot to handle for one young woman.

What I love about this book is how stories are so intricately woven through it. Apart from the obvious aspect in the plot with stories being forbidden and their magical ability to summon dragons, sections of the book are broken up by short stories from the history of the city & its people, which provide a nice interlude, deepen the world-building, and, you gradually realise, add more clues about some of the plot twists. Then there's the feeling of the story itself - I mentioned an impossible task, and it feels like a very traditional, old-fashioned story in that way - something like the Thousand And One Nights, or a fable. The story has a strong emphasis on spoken storytelling; oral tradition. I think the book itself echoes this: I could definitely imagine sitting on the floor by the fire while someone tells this story.

It's such a rich book. The writing is incredible, I want to read it again, and get the audiobook so that I can have that experience of listening to it; it really really feels like it's intended to be spoken, like the interlude stories. It reminded me of what I love about The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss - there are many little episodes along the way which make a cohesive whole. There are so many twists in The Last Namsara. Part way through, when I could see the general structure of the story, I thought 'there's no way she can wrap everything up and do it justice in one book'... and yet, Kristen Ciccarelli does exactly that. The ending leaves it open for a sequel, but everything was wrapped up in The Last Namsara that I wanted to see. I could gush about this book all day, so let me stop there, and add only that it's a ten star read for me, and one of my top five books I've read this year. Just incredible storytelling.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Book review: Vigil by Angela Slatter

Title: Vigil
Author: Angela Slatter
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Publication date: July 2016
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Verity Fassbinder #1
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

Description: Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds.

The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength - and the ability to walk between us and the other - as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.

But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale - and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways - and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.

And Verity must investigate - or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

Vigil is the first book in award-winning author Angela Slatter's Verity Fassbinder series.

My thoughts: Thank you, Angela Slatter, for writing the urban fantasy book you wanted to when many people have said that 'trend' is over. I'm always looking for new urban fantasy novels, and Vigil is so well written and has a complex, multi-facted plot; I'll be buying the sequel very soon.

Verity is half-human, half-Weyrd. However, her father (the magical parent) was convicted of a horrific crime while she was a child, and many people still shun her. She seems to do odd jobs for Weyrd people who need help - a bit like a PI. She also regularly works for the local magical council, and her contact with them is a vampire, Bela, who you quickly learn she's had a relationship with in the past.

This is one of those stories that hits the ground running - Verity doesn't explain in her internal monologue how long ago she broke up with Bela, or the specifics of how she's badly injured her leg, or how she knows the man who frequently acts as her driver. She's quickly asked to investigate the problem of disappearing children, and we're off. I liked that there is a lot going on in this book. Verity is trying to balance several cases at once, and while I suspected that some of the strands might tie together later in the book, there are a lot of different things happening, which kept the pace swift; I couldn't stop turning the pages.

I felt like all the main characters had a lot of depth to them. Each major player is interesting enough that I'd like to read at least a short story of novella that just focuses on them, and I'm glad that some of my favourites will undoubtedly be regulars in the series as it develops. I really enjoyed having Verity as the narrator, too: she's a very likeable character, quite sarcastic, but working very hard to protect the people living in her city (Brisbane) whether she likes the individuals or not.

Vigil is a great new urban fantasy novel: crimes to be solved in a world of both humans and magic. The characters are intriguing and the plot has many layers. I'm giving the book 8/10, and I'll definitely be buying book two of the series!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book review: Freshers by Tom Ellen & Lucy Ivison

Title: Freshers
Author: Tom Ellen & Lucy Ivison
Release date: 3rd August 2017
Publisher: Chicken House
Genre: Contemporary
Source: Won

Description: Phoebe has been waiting all summer for uni to start and her life to finally begin. And knowing Luke Taylor is going to be there too makes the whole thing even more exciting...

But Luke's relationship is secretly falling apart and campus life isn't proving to be the escape he thought it would be. 

When the two collide in the madness of Freshers' Week, everything changes - and they both get sucked into each other's worlds in the most messy, intense and hilarious ways imaginable...

My thoughts: As soon as I heard that this book was set at university, and wasn't a 'new adult', insta-love, lots-of-sex-with-an-older-guy type story (as so many are with a university setting) I knew I had to read it. Since I went to uni, I've noticed the lack of good stories set there. I love this book for many reasons, and I'll try to cover a few here, but I think what it boils down to is that, all my life I had books to guide me through experiences, except at university. The YA genre provides so many coping strategies for different high school situations, and so many examples of people with different opinions, different hobbies, different attitudes, that I could always find something that fit with my experiences. And there are so many books aimed at adults that gave me an idea of what to expect for when I entered the 'real world'. But there's this big gap across university life. I desperately wish I'd had this book during my first year at uni; it would have helped me a lot.

Phoebe has come to a university far from her London friends, but in a happy coincidence, her high school crush is going there too. Their first meeting in Freshers' Week is predictably awkward, but by the end of the week they're friends. While their somewhat on-again-off-again romance that runs through the year has a big part in the story, I love that the book manages to cover so many situations and so many of the different ways people experience university in just one book. Phoebe makes some great friends almost straight away, a combination of people in her halls, at classes, and through societies. Luke has an easy in with the football crowd, but apart from that, he doesn't really make friends with people the way he'd hoped, and as the year goes on, football, which had been something he enjoyed & was good at in school, becomes less and less comfortable for him.

As the story is told alternately from Luke and Phoebe's perspectives, the book can cover a lot of ground with the people shown. There is the guy who always seems to be late to class, a bit of a mess, yet everyone loves; there are very studious people; there are groups of people who hang out almost exclusively with their coursemates & no one else seems to understand. Then some of the situations: first date, finding a part-time job, getting lost, a condom incident, a protest, dealing with cyber-bullying & slut-shaming.

I'd urge everyone who is starting uni, or already there, to read Freshers - it's practically a guide-book to things that could well happen, and how to (maybe) cope with them. I'm sure lots of people have made the comparison to Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, but I'm going to say it again; if you liked one, you should read the other. Freshers is a fantastically broad book with what it covers, without it ever feeling like they pushed to include unlikely situations; everything is very real and the characters are brilliant. I loved it - this is one of my 10/10 books this year.

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