Thursday, 12 January 2017

My Books of 2016

2016 was a great year for the books I read; I was rarely disappointed with the quality particularly of electronic publishing which is definitely getting stronger. My actual reading time was severely squeezes though so I didn't get through as many books as I would have liked.

As usual it was hard to whittle the ones I read down to a final shortlist but here it is. All of these got 5 star reviews by me on Goodreads but they are very different books, hopefully this list will inspire someone to pick one (or more!) of these up and give them a go. As usual my reviews are spoiler free so feel free to look at those for more details on any of the books.

A Certain Threat by Roger Burnage

The age of sea battles with mighty sailing ships is always a stirring one and it's a great era to set a novel in. This is the first of a series of stories about James Merriman, an officer in the Royal Navy who is given command of a ship to investigate smuggling off the coast of North Wales and the disappearance of a coast guard cutter.

The action takes place on land as well as at sea as Merriman's family live nearby and are able to provide assistance with his enquiries. But being ashore does not equate to safety for either Merriman or his crew. As they get closer to solving the mystery of the missing cutter and apprehend the smugglers, the stakes are raised ever higher.

Burnage does a fabulous job with this work with the history and details meticulously researched lending every word a certain weight and authenticity that is hard to establish. This book has it all, from a central mystery that needs to be solved, historical descriptions and terrific action scenes.

See my review here

Asbury Park by Rob Scott

Sailor Doyle is a police detective recovering from his previous case which took its toll on him both physically and mentally. Despite being a national hero he is disgraced within the force and with his wife. In an attempt to rebuild his health and his life he moves with his family to the New Jersey shore.

But something or someone doesn't want him to rest easy. A dead body spoils an early morning breakfast. He has to thwart a gunman at a local school. And he is haunted by strange marks and the song Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd.

Is something going on? Is there a rational explanation for the events Doyle witnesses or must he rely on the supernatural for answers? Or has his mind finally tipped over the edge into madness?

This is a tricky book to categorise, and that is one of the reasons I absolutely loved it. It is not a true detective story, although there is a lot of detection in it. Neither is it a simple ghost story. It is neither one nor the other and is one of those books that if you read it expecting it to be pigeonholed then you will miss the point of it. It is neither one thing nor the other, which is a great thing because this story could not have been told any other way. A joy to read, if a dark joy. And Wish You Were Here still sends shivers down my spine when I hear it.

See my review here

Bells On Her Toes by Diana J Febry

Asbury Park might not fit into the detective fiction mould but this book certainly does, and fits very nicely indeed. Set within the insular and suspicious world of horse racing, Detectives Peter Hatherall and Fiona Williams  must investigate a murder faced with often open hostility from those in the sport.

There are suspects and red herrings galore, and the deeper Hatherall and Williams dig the more connections they find and the more dead ends and closed doors they encounter trying to pursue them.

They story is as twisted and complex as the premise of the book is pleasingly simple. This is a classic 'whodunnit' complete with suspicious characters and shady dealings creating plenty of distractions. The characters are also good, with the detectives themselves being very human, with their own failings and frustrations evident as they fail to find the culprit and time ticks by.

See my review here

Felix Noonan, Sheffield Poet by Chris Connolly

Felix Noonan, a poet from Sheffield who was to 20th Century poetry what William McGonagle was to the 19th. Felix Noonan, Britian's official Second World War Poet. Felix Noonan, who rubbed shoulders with many of the most important figures of the time but seems to have been subtly removed from any official histories. If he didn't exist you'd have to invent him.

Starting from the exploits of his famous boxing grandmother, through his hard kocks upbringing in industrial Sheffield to international fame if not actually fortune, the biography tells the tale of one of Sheffield's forgotten sons. A slight volume, its 95 pages still manage to capture the essence of the man and his poetry.

This book is subtly satirical and very amusing, managing to avoid any temptation to push any of the jokes and references too far, remaining by and large just about on the side of plausibility whilst still being wildy absurd. Every page is perfectly pitched, guaranteeing a chuckle at his childhood diseases or his irrational spats with Hollywood stars. If you want a book guaranteed to put a smile on your face this is the one for you.

See my review here

Guns Of The Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky is most associated with his Shadows of the Apt epic series but this is a  stand alone novel which showcases his talents as a writer.

Denland and Lascanne, former allied countries, are now at war following the overthrow of Denland's monarchy. Lascanne is desperate for troops. Having already conscripted all the able bodied men, now whole swathes of women are being drafted. Emily Marshwic is from a noble family and volunteers for service. First hand she experiences the terror, waste of war and the randomness of those who are killed and those who live. She soon discovers that not all enemies are in front of her and not all friends are behind her.

This is a long book but it's just brilliant. The setting is a sort of pseudo-Napoleonic era with magic thrown in. The descriptions are really evocative, especially of the confusing mayhem of the battles or the relentless filth and grime of the swampy front lines. War is hell, and the depiction here shows that is not only in terms of death and injury but also on the damage caused to societies as a result.

See my review here

Kings Or Pawns by JJ Sherwood

The first of a series, this book takes the usual fantasy staples and gives them a good shaking up. Elves are the main focus here but rather than being wise and caring they have become corrupt. The main Elven city rules by way of a council which has removed all real power from the king and instead only seek to line their own pockets, making all decisions to the benefit of their own (often illegal) business interests.

When the king dies, his son is determined to take the council on, but at every turn their devious and manipulative behaviour leaves him just as impotent as his father. Meanwhile a civil war has broken out and the elves' top general, Jikun, is frustrated not only with his enemies tactics but with the council's unwillingness to help him.

I was expecting a fairly straightforward fantasy story from this but the reality is of something much greater; the political intrigue is as gripping as the battle scenes and the new king Hairem is in a fight every bit as real as Jikun's. The characters are so well described as well, Jikun in particular having some serious flaws made up for by being a brilliant general.

See my review here

Liberator by Nick Bailey and Darren Bullock

Liberator aims to do one thing and it does it extremely well: Be a huge amount of fun to read. It's loud, it's violent and it's darkly funny.

Set in a future of big corporations spanning multiple worlds, one company kidnaps the daughter of the owner of another for leverage. However she was once a member of the Liberators, a mercenary force who have essentially disbanded and are no longer a threat to anybody. With nobody else available, the remnants of the Liberators must get themselves back into action.

With a diverse cast of characters this is a real ensemble piece and as the first of a series it's easy to see how the actual members of the squad can change between books to provide just the right mix of mayhem and banter for each adventure.

The story is told well, in a fast and furious style with flashbacks to explain who the various members of the team are and how they interact with each other. This is a summer blockbuster of a novel.

See my review here

Old Friends and New Enemies by Owen Mullen

When an old friend of Glasgow private detective Charlie Cameron is found dead and he decides to investigate he is soon drawn into the dark and murky world of organised crime. And when an old flame also appears he is in real danger of losing perspective - and that means he is in real danger of losing his life.

This is a punchy crime thriller that turns over Glasgow to show its underbelly, and it's not a pretty sight. Cameron is an engaging lead and the characters he meets are at turns amusing, businesslike or just plan dangerous. As a reader he can be very frustrating as he gets sidetracked by the personal nature of the case but this just makes the moment when cold realisation hits him of how much trouble he is in so much more realistic.

Gritty and with a touch of noir this will keep you guessing if the old friends or the new enemies are the biggest threat.

See my review here

Stop The World by Sherry Mayes

One of the powerful features of books is their ability to put you into someone else's mind, into their life. Sometimes these are heroes, or villains. This book puts you in the place of someone who has lost all hope.

Jody has it all, popular at school, a beauty queen, a perfect family. Then one car accident removes all certainties from her life and plunges her into a pit of misery.

This doesn't sound like a bundle of joy to read but it is exactly that. Yes there are dark passages when Jody realises she can no longer be the person she was but the point of this book is the slow climb upwards that takes place and the personal insights she makes, which anyone can relate to even without being such extreme circumstances. When she is at her most self pitying you want to slap her. When she is reaching out you want to hug her.

The writing is excellent and Jody makes for an insightful and amusing self-documenting narrator. The cast of characters in her orbit are very real. This is a book I will remember for a very very long time.

See my review here

Unknown Reality by Kurt Chambers

There are plenty of books that pose the question: is what we think of as the 'real world' really real or is it a Matrix-like construct that we inhabit? For any other author the idea itself would be enough for a whole story but Chambers uses this simple and trusted plot device as a jumping off point for a tale that very much goes beyond it.

Once again he uses a girl as his main character, following his aim to get teenage girls reading quality fantasy and science fiction, in the shape of 11 year old Chloe. The reader follows her through shocking revelations at the start of the book and then her subsequent adventures as she tries to make sense of what is real and what is not, all when she just wants to go home.

As usual Chambers takes something that is a fairly standard story template and weaves it into something modern and interesting.

See my review here

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

'Tis the season - for rhymes

The Christmas season is full upon us, but why on earth does everything suddenly have to rhyme? Adverts are the worst culprits, forcing all their wording into tortuous rhymes and half rhymes without any real attempt to make it scan - or even make sense.

I blame Clement Clarke Moore, the author of Twas the Night Before Christmas which in itself is pleasing enough but hardly the the most poetic piece of writing. This seems to have given any advertising agency free licence to do their own version of this for their Christmas offerings.

Let's be honest, the original is pretty twee in itself. Doing a substandard version of it (and they invariably are) really isn't going sound pretty and indeed they don't, typically involving a few words with their pronunciation tortured to breaking point to make them fit, or grammar or sense abandoned just to get the required word at the end of the line.

I'm guessing that between Twas the Night and the rhyming couplets that abound in Christmas cards, this kind of thing is seen as acceptable and in some way part of the spirit of Chrismas. But as with most things, if you can't do it properly don't bother to do it at all.

There are any number of excellent poets out there who I'm sure would be happy to have a commission for something that is actually poetic and captures the Christmas spirit far more effectively. But they have an annoying habit of actually producing poetry not just forced rhyming doggerel.

There's no wonder that people say things like "I don't like poetry." This time of year is ideal to get some quality poetry heard but instead they get this instead.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Book Review: Felix Noonan, Sheffield Poet

Felix Noonan, Sheffield Poet (ISBN 978-0-9570526-1-1) is a self-published work avaiable from The Besotted Wretch bookshop in Sheffield. And what a terrific book it is.

Telling the life story of 'forgotten' local poet Felix Noonan, a poet who wrote his verse in a thick Sheffield dialect (there is a quick foreward explaining word usage and pronunciation), hoping to do for the distinctive South Yorkshire accent what Robbie Burns did for the Scottish one.

Telling the story of his forebears sets the scene, starting with his boxing champion grandmother Kitty and his mother Henry (named when the rather punch drunk and confused Kitty was convinced she was having a boy) and their adventures which ultimately resulted in the production of young Felix. The story then follows his life from gruelling hardship of industrial Sheffield until his rise to fame as Britain's nominated poet for the Second World War. Now a perons with a reputation he manages to get involved with many of the great people and events of the 20th Century.

Reading this book is an absolute blast. It's one of those that you can just pick up and read more of with a big grin and the occasional chuckle (if not out loud laughter, followed by a rather embarrassed check to see if anyone else in the room noticed). The style of writing is confident and tells the story as straight biography without a trace of irony, no mean feat. We are told for instance that as a child Felix suffered from poor health, in particular "mumps, cholera, flu, scarlet fever, a bad back, polio, consumption, Athlete’s Foot, measles and chilblains".

Excerpts from his poetry abound and are well worth reading (possibly including a quick refresher from the foreward). The excepts from Noonan's Poetic Places, a sort of thumbnail sketch of a tour of Britain in poem form are particularly fine. For example for Weston-super-Mare:



If da likes a sunneh beach else visitin a fair
Da could doo a damn sight wess dan Weston-super-Mare


Or my personal favourite, the terrific Anglesey rhyming couplet:



If yoo should cross ooer t’Menai Bridge get readeh for a shock
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwndrobwllllanitisiliogogoch


There are also quotes from other famous literary people of the time who apparently met or mentioned Felix but strangely the passages were edited out of their works before final publishing. There are tales of his hounding by the FBI and the McCarthy anti-communists in America and of his search for his routes in Ireland. There are a veritable Who's Whom of cameos such as Brendan Behan, George Orwell and Alan Ginsberg.

All of it is terrific stuff, told with a lot of brio and tongue firmly in cheek. This is a firm favourite of mine and will be a book I will be re-reading from time to time. It might be said that if there hadn't been a Felix Noonan, someone would have to invent him.

Felix Noonan, Sheffield Poet is available from The Besotted Wretch bookshop, 329 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield S7 1FS and if any trip to Sheffield was not already a great day out, why not make it even better than popping in and buying a copy and browsing the other books they have for sale?


Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The 'The X Y' thriller book titles

Looking through my list of books on Goodreads and thinking about some of the other books I have seen and read there is a clear trend in thriller books to have titles along the lines of The X Y where X is usually a name, proper noun or (for the more adventurous) a greek letter and Y is a regular noun.

Examples off the top of my head: The Rembrandt Secret by Alex Connor, The Roswell Conspiracy by Boyd Morrison and of course all the Bourne and Jansen books by Robet Ludlum (and Eric von Lustbader).

At first glance this looks like a fairly lazy way of choosing book titles - you could (and I'm sure someone has) write a computer generator to create endless titles in this format. This leads to a certain perception of sameness between all of these books - both in quality and content - that might me misleading.

But the other side of that is that essentially you know what you are getting. These books are not going to win any literature awards but the reader immediately knows they will get a plot where there is a perceiptible threat and the chisel jawed hero (for it is invariably a male lead) must then use the skills and integuity he has learnt either from some sort of military, special forces or espionage training to overcome the odds to win through, saving the day.

So although the title may seem like it's an easy cop-out, it is a very good way of indicating what you will get. It is however no guarantee of quality, but that's true of any title.


 

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Book Review Star Ratings

The star rating for books (as with much else) is ubiquitous; it gives a good indication of whether the book was liked or not at a glance, which given the sheer volume of books out there can only be a good thing. Across Amazon, Goodreads and Smashwords (my major reviewing platforms) the 5 star rating rules. No half stars, just 1 to 5 stars.

But what do the star ratings mean? I saw a recent comment posted on Goodread's anniversary that the reviews on there were useless because most of the ratings given to books were 4 and 5 stars, implying that the system was flawed because if the vast majority of ratings are that high then all books look good.

This got me thinking about my reviews, how I choose the star rating and what that means to me and if I should maybe modify how I rate books.

I definitely give more 4 and 5 star ratings than I do other ratings but I do give 3 stars relative frequently. I very rarely give 1 or 2 stars as for me the book would have to be very poor and show no promise at all, and even with the boom in self publishing most authors are very much capable of producing a good book.

I would suspect that the casual reader (rather than someone like me who reviews on request) they tend to read books they like, and often from authors they already know they like. This means that for any given book they are more than likely to give a higher review. I suspect this is the reason for the high ratings at Goodreads - most people are reviewing books they know they will like beforehand, and very rarely encounter something that disappoints. There is also the consideration that they may be reviewing books they have read in the past, and books that were enjoyed are far more likely to be remembered than those that were disliked or were simply unengaging. This inevitably skews any reviews towards the higher ratings.

There is also pressure to produce 1 star ratings, which I think is especially true of Amazon, where readers who were very disappointed in a book will take the time to register a low rating and a ppor review. Some of time they genuinely didn't enjoy the book (which is fine) but sometimes there is a poor rating for something outside the author's control - the book arrived late when ordered, or was damaged etc - in which case the author suffers for something that is not their fault.

So what do I mean when I give my star ratings? I will say right here that I am not over critical of books. I know some reviewers go through them with a fine toothed comb and take lots of notes when reading, but my reviews are more about how I reacted to the book on an emotional level. Sometimes it takes a few days after I have finished a book to work out how I felt about it. Sometimes I know by the end of the first chapter that this is going to be 5 stars. I can ignore a few spelling errors or mis-words here and there as long as they don't distract from the narrative, for example, but lazy plotting or lack of character is a serious flaw.

5 stars
If I award 5 stars then I really enjoyed the book and looked forward to each reading session. This could have been because the plot was superb or because the language and prose itself was just enjoyable to read. I know some reviews reserve this for only books that are truly outstanding. That is fine but really not for me. I will sort out some sort of ordering when I do my top ten books of the year and a lot of that is influenced by how some books live with me for longer than others.

4 stars
4 stars are used for those books that I generally enjoyed but I felt could perhaps have been improved in some way or didn't quite engage me as much other works. It's still a good book and worth a read and I would recommend it to others without hesitation (I retweet my 4 and 5 star reviews regularly). I try to make it clear in the review why I felt it didn't quite deserve the final star.

3 star
The middle of the star range and does indeed indicate a middling book; this usually means that I enjoyed some parts of the book but that others just didn't work for me (others may disagree). Sometimes I have to force myself to finish a book; this will probably mean a 3 star rating if the overall plot or some of the ideas are still worthy of attention. I will also use it for books where it could just have been that the author was struggling to express what they meant and I will give them the benefit of the doubt because there is promise in the premise (if you will).

2 stars
I really really don't want to give a 2 star rating and will try to talk myself out of it and find reasons to bump the book up to 3 stars. It will generally mean that the author has got something really fundamental wrong with the book; it is either devoid of any interest, just plain dull or the plot is so flawed it ruins anything of merit. To date I think I've only ever given one 2 star review, for The Long Utopia by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett. It hurt to do but I really couldn't justify a higher mark.

1 star
Simply put: I couldn't dinish it. And I will grimly read a lot of uninspiring pages just to get to the end of a book. If I can't see any redeeming features then it's going to get 1 star. That has happened with precisely one book, Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire which I know a lot of people rate very highly but I really didn't think it offered anything new in the fantasy world (people had been doing more 'realistic' and darker fantasy for a long time beforehand) and wasn't in fact very well written (in my opinion).

Sometimes I sort of wish there were half stars I could use but that actually makes the job harder rather than easier. At least the divisions above are reasonably clear cut; what's the difference between 3 stars and 3.5 stars? No idea so although some books fall on the borderline between whole stars, on balance I'd rather have to decide to move them up or down rather than have a wider range to choose from.