Happy Hour and Other Philadelphia Cruelties – Tony Knighton [Books]

happy houtHappy Hour and Other Philadelphia Cruelties is a collection of short crime fiction by author Tony Knighton, with the title story being the first and longest, verging almost towards novella length.

This could just be a personal preference, but I struggled to get through the collection. I found the writing to be dry, and there was barely a likeable character to be found in the whole lot. It’s a sparse style, which might fit better with fans of noir, but for the most part, the stories read as a list of events that happened, rather than an actual story.

This is especially true of the title story, which felt like the same thing happening, again and again, in slightly different locations. Not to mention the women in this collection are so flat, with so little agency it really did feel like I’d gone back to the height of noir.

There was one story that really stood out – one that slipped more into sci-fi, set in a world where oxygen is a precious commodity, and rain must be avoided. It’s the one story where we actually root for the main character, and with the focus on him and his son, it was hard not to get attached.

For the most part, however, the stark style and flat characters really didn’t gel with me. I like characters I can root for, in some way, characters I can actually connect with, even if they’re not the best of people.

This book didn’t hit that note for me, but I can definitely see how others might enjoy this style and sense of bleakness.

Poison – Sarah Pinborough [Books]

poisonPoison is a slightly darker, twisted version of the Snow White story, adding in a little adult content and ensuring things aren’t as clear-cut as the story we’re used to. I won’t do my usual synopsis style introduction here, because I’d be surprised if anyone doesn’t know the story of Snow White, but I will say some of the additions Pinborough has made here are really interesting.

Firsty, and this is similar to other Snow White retellings, we get more depth to the queen. Here, however, the whole story has more worldbuilding involved, creating a fantasy world rather than just having a generic fairy tale setting. This is a world where kingdoms are at war with one another, and we see the impact on the people left behind. We understand the queen’s marriage, we see the reasons she dislikes Snow, we, in general, feel more sympathy for her.

The worldbuilding plays a bigger part here than you’d expect, too. The various wars impact the kingdom, including the dwarves, and play into the prince’s character, too. We see more of the dwarves, get to understand some of the politics of this world, and far from being a damsel in distress, Snow shows herself to be more down to earth, carefree and kind, as well as strong-willed.

And rather than Snow simply stumbling upon the dwarves when she is forced away from her home, she grows up with them. They are her friends, and she turns to them in her time of need, trusting them to protect and keep her safe.

The differences between the fairy tale and this version are what make this really interesting. It reads as a more fully-fleshed fantasy story, rather than a fairy tale retelling. Although key elements remain the same, there are additions and links to other fairy tales, reminding me a little of Once Upon a Time, one of my favourite TV shows (until the last season. Let’s not talk about that).

There are references here to Hansel & Gretel, to Aladdin, and even Cinderella, through a pair of enchanted slippers. This isn’t just Snow White’s world; this is a deeply, well thought out place where all the fairy tale characters live, and interact.

The Huntsman stumbles into the situation, not really knowing what he’s getting himself involved in when he meets the queen. The Prince falls in love with an idealised version of the sleeping princess, and his whole character was a fantastic twist on fairy tale princes in general, and the habit of putting people – especially women – on pedestals, demanding they be something they’re not.

And the ending – the last third of the book – is where the contrasts really come out, where things twist and turn to give us something different from the original fairytale. There isn’t really a happy ending here, but it’s one that leaves the reader wanting more, and considering there are two more books in this series, that’s definitely not a bad thing.

Into the Drowning Deep – Mira Grant [Books]

into the drowning deepI’m still relatively new to audiobooks. During February, I tried to only start books written by women. I picked up Into the Drowning Deep as I was looking specifically for horror titles, and this seemed a good choice on Audible.

I was not wrong.

Into the Drowning Deep tells the story of a group of scientists, searching for mermaids. Prior to the events of this book, another ship had searched for the same, mysterious creatures, only for the ship to disappear along with everyone on board. All that remains is footage of what looks like a mermaid, attacking those involved.

Victoria Stewart’s sister was on board the ship, and she searches for some way to make sense of what happened. When she’s approached and offered a chance to join the new voyage, she takes the chance.

Christine Lakin, the narrator for this, did an absolutely fantastic job. Audiobooks are not something I’m used to, but Lakin really did well to bring every character to life in the dialogue.

The atmosphere builds up really well, and it becomes easy to imagine the main setting of the novel, the huge cruise ship full of scientists and models-dressed-as-security. The real nature of the company behind both ventures is clear, but the individual characters all have their own motives and desires, threaded throughout the story and driving them forward.

Whether it’s searching for answers, validating their life’s work, or just being part of something amazing, each character is fully realised, drawing the reader in and allowing them to understand even the most minor characters.

The book really shines in the second half. Like most good horror, after we’ve met the characters and formed a relationship with them, the fun really begins, and Grant doesn’t hold back, teasing us with her use of tension and buildup of suspense.

I’m really glad I listened to the audiobook for this one, as Lakin really adds that extra punch to the story, and was easy to get absolutely lost in the story. If you’re looking for creepy, sea-based horror – with an interesting, diverse cast of characters – this is definitely one to check out.

Generation X – Scott Lobdell [Graphic Novels]

generation xWhen it comes to graphic novels, I have a tendency to pick up random ones at cons or second-hand ones in bookshops, depending where I am. Often they’re related in some way to characters I already know in certain franchises, or there’s at least some link, something that draws me to them, if I don’t pick up something unseen for a bargain, anyway.

This was one of those random purchases, picked up thanks to a longstanding love of X-Men, ensuring if I spot any sort of X-Men graphic novel on the cheap, I won’t waste a second before I purchase it.

These characters are not the same X-Men fans of the cartoons or films will be familiar with. There’s no Jean Grey, Wolverine or even Professor X on these pages. However, Jubilee is a familiar face, and though I haven’t read the X-Men storyline leading up to Generation X, it was still easy to dip in and follow what’s happening.

This volume introduces the new characters fairly seamlessly, with their various arrivals to Xavier’s School, including one interrupted by a dark, dangerous presence at the airport. The gang, of course, tackle this threat head on, but it takes more than fighting spirit for their next adventure.

Although these are introductory comics, they work really well, keeping the plot and action moving forward as we get to know each character. Small tidbits are revealed, and it makes a great starting point for the series.

It’s a shame this iteration of the X-Men has been overlooked, as there are some interesting powers at play here and possibly rich characters who could have been more fully explored. If I come across the next volume in the series, I’ll definitely check it out, but as with many of these random graphic novels, it doesn’t seem that easy to come by, or to work out what actually is the next volume.

For me though, this was definitely a fun and interesting read, and it was enjoyable to read about different characters in this familiar setting.

 

A Touch of Death – Rebecca Crunden [Books]

a touch of deathCatherine is content in the world she lives in. The daughter of the King’s Hangman, she lives in comfort and safety, oblivious to the real dangers lurking outside her home. She is in love with Thom, but when his brother Nate returns one night, Catherine finds herself accompanying him on a short overnight journey which ends in disaster.

Discovering they are both infected, Catherine and Nate face two options: stay and face whatever awaits them in the hands of the king’s men, or flee.

A Touch of Death is a different take on the dystopian subgenre, with this world so far removed from ours it’s hard to really pinpoint it as our world, but with plenty of hints to show how we could get from this point to there. It’s a world ravaged by disease and pollution, where those in power care more about clinging onto that power than protecting anyone around them.

There are aspects in here familiar to those who have read dystopian novels before – corrupt government, unhappy population ruled by fear, a decaying world – but Crunden really uses these to her advantage, and her characters sparkle with life.

The story is gripping, taking the reader on an adventure across this strange world, leaving them trying to work out who to trust as much as Catherine and Nate do. And through it all, we’re left wondering how things will end, whether the pair will be saved by any miracles.

Crunden has created a dystopia that feels different to those I’ve read before, one where the dangers aren’t as obvious as they first seem, while using some familiar elements to show the stark contrast in those who have grown up with privilege, and those who haven’t.

This was a really interesting dystopian book, tackling a variety of themes and having, at its centre, really engaging characters who change and progress throughout the novel. For me, this is a strong recommendation if you’re looking for something a little different.

February 2020 Reading Wrap Up [Books]

February 2020 Reading Wrap UpAs with my January Wrap Up, I’m a little behind with this. Since the start of the year, I feel like I’ve been playing a little catch-up with reviews. But I’ve had a bit more time this week, so I’m able to get this up now, and hopefully start really catching up with reviews for books I’ve read in March so far.

Happy Writing – Jenny Alexander

happy writingA book about working through the various blocks that might be stopping you from writing, I found this book to be a little simplistic for me. It might, however, be excellent for those starting to write, or who haven’t put time into studying the craft previously.

My Review

The Cult Called Freedom House – Stephanie Evelyn

cult called freedom houseI’d heard great things about this book, so when it appeared as an ebook on Amazon for free, I grabbed it. It was, however, a bit of a disappointment for me. It was too fast-paced, rushing from one scene to the next, and the actual appeal of the cult wasn’t clear to me. See, I can see how some people could enjoy this first installment in the Sophia Rey series, and it hasn’t put me off checking out the next one.

Review Coming Soon on Dead Head Reviews

Bottled – Stephanie Ellis

bottledBottled is a really interesting take on the haunted house subgenre, and follows the main character as he tries to spend a single night in his deceased grandfather’s home, the setting for his childhood abuse. Definitely one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Review Coming Soon on Dead Head Reviews

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume Two – Alan Moore, Kevil O’Neill

league vol 2The second volume for Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen takes on War of the Worlds, with a familiar cast of characters back to lead the charge. I enjoyed this one, except for the novel inserted at the back, and if you’ve read and enjoyed the first volume, I can’t think of a reason not to continue with it.

My Review

We Hunt the Flame – Hafsah Faizal

we hunt the flameIf you haven’t yet checked out this YA Fantasy, the debut novel from Hafsah Faizal, you really should change that. It’s a fantastic book with utterly engaging characters and a setting most readers won’t be used to. I cannot wait for the second installment in the series.

My Review

Straight on Till Morning – Liz Braswell

straight on till morningThe latest in the Twisted Tales series, Straight on Till Morning follows Wendy at age 16, when she gets fed up of waiting for Peter and arranges her own passage to Neverland. This has quickly become my second favourite of the series (Reflection, the Mulan story, still tops the list for me) and it’s a fantastic tale, sprinkling in some good messages about stories, growing up, and women looking for their place in a male-dominated world. Definitely recommend this one.

My Review

I only managed to read six books this month, but any I started during February were all written by women, which I’m quite happy with. This post will be coming out after the reviews for We Hunt the Flame and Straight on Till Morning have been posted, but I’m writing it on 15/03/20, and so far in March I’ve already finished four books. Though I expect a lot of people might have higher read counts for this month and next!

How did your February go for reading? How does March compare so far? And how are you doing with those pesky Goodreads goals?

Straight on Till Morning – Liz Braswell [Books]

straight on till morningAnyone who has been following this blog for a while knows of my love for the Twisted Tales series, by Disney. There are currently three authors involved – Liz Braswell, Elizabeth Lim, and Jen Calonita. These books involve taking the stories we know and love, and adding a single twist that can affect everything. So far, there have been books based on Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Mulan (my favourite), Snow White, Frozen, and now Peter Pan.

While Reflection remains my favourite of the series, Straight on Till Morning has without a doubt nabbed the second place spot. In this version, Wendy doesn’t go to Neverland with Peter Pan. Instead, she is left behind to grow up, taking care of the house and her brothers, forced to watch them attend school while she can do nothing but learn to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Everyone around her dismisses her stories of Peter Pan as rubbish childish fantasies, and if it wasn’t for the strange shadow she keeps in the old nursery, Wendy might believe them.

Desperate not to be sent to Ireland by her parents, Wendy makes a deal with Captain Hook: she will give him Peter’s shadow, in exchange for passage to Neverland.

This is a book about stories and their power, about facing the responsibilities of growing up and realising it doesn’t always mean putting everything childish away, but accepting there are bigger things in the world to take note of than just what’s happening in your own house.

The focus once Wendy gets to Neverland is not on Peter, but on Wendy and Tinkerbell, and the friendship between the pair. They don’t start on good terms, but soon grow fond of one another, working together to find Peter and save Neverland. One aspect done well is how Wendy is aged up. While Peter remains his boyish self, never growing up after all, Wendy is sixteen in this story, facing more of the pressures of adulthood, and able to view Neverland and its dangers with more mature eyes.

The setting might be familiar, but with Hook planning something big, it’s hard not to feel the tension as Wendy goes from place to place, trying to rally the people of Neverland. As the story progresses, Wendy’s understanding deepens, and she begins to question whether never growing up is a good idea after all.

I really enjoyed this book, and I loved the focus on Wendy and Tinkerbell over Peter and the Lost Boys. There’s a strong message here, reinforced when Tinkerbell gets a little jealous of Wendy, as she is prone to doing. But the pair work really well together, and it was great seeing them get this chance to shine.

Braswell is fantastic at deepening these characters we already love, and presenting them in different situations that allow their strengths to really come to light. She’s done it with many of the previous Twisted Tales books, and this is no exception.

One thing about this series: if you’re looking to dip your toe in, you don’t have to read them in order. I’ve read every one so far, and some I’ve loved more than others, but responses on all of them are varied, which is great. Each book offers something different. And with each book the authors produce, they seem to get that much better. Braswell was the first involved in Twisted Tales, and she continues to produce fantastic stories. I would definitely recommend picking up Straight on Till Morning, whether you’ve read the rest of the Twisted Tales series or not.

We Hunt The Flame – Hafsah Faizal [Books]

we hunt the flameZafira is The Hunter. Disguised as a man, she enters the dark, dangerous, cursed forest, to feed her people. If she is exposed, it will all be for nothing, her actions rejected no matter what good they have gone. Nasir is The Prince of Death. The heir to the throne, and an assassin, killing by order of the sultan.

Zafira is tasked with a quest: to go to a cursed island, and restore magic to the land. Nasir is issued with an order: to kill the Hunter, and steal whatever is required to restore magic.

We Hunt the Flame is the debut novel for author Hafsah Faizal. This is something I’ve said about other novels before, but it also applies to this one – it doesn’t feel like a debut. The worldbuilding is tight and we’re introduced to this land in a really fluid way. Everything feels natural, rather than events stopping to explain to the reader exactly what one thing or the other is.

Faizal skillfully weaves together this world and characters, making them feel completely and utterly part of one another. And the relationships built up between the various characters, whether it’s the relationship between the two protagonists or between them and the ‘side characters’, are an absolute delight to read.

The danger hangs over the heads of the characters throughout their journey, and Faizal effectively increases the tension and mystery with every page, keeping the reader absolutely hooked. I found myself completely caught up in the characters’ quests, eager to see how they would cope with the next obstacle thrown in their way.

There are familiar tropes buried within these pages, but given a fresh breath of life at Faizal’s skillful hand. The characters and this world are fun to read, the events that transpire are absolutely gripping, and I can already see this being one of my top books read this year.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume Two – Alan Moore [Books]

league vol 2It took me a long time to get around to reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and now I’m two volumes in I feel deeply invested in this mash of classic genre characters. For those who aren’t aware, the first volume introduces us to the core group of characters, pulled from works like Dracula, The Invisible Man, and Jekyll & Hyde.

If you’ve seen the 2003 film, you might have some idea of the characters encountered, but honestly from what I can remember of that film, it’s really not a great adaptation. If you want something a touch closer to the tone, style, and characterisation found within the graphic novel, Penny Dreadful is a much better choice.

The group is made up of Mina Murray, Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, and Henry Jekyll. Other characters from classic genre fiction are pulled in to serve various purposes, and the second volume follows the core characters as they battle against an invasion force from Mars.

This volume feels a bit darker than the first. From the moment we meet Griffin in the first volume, we know he’s a POS, a fact which is emphasised and really comes to play in this volume. From what I can remember of the first, the plot mainly revolves around gathering the League, and a plot against London. In this volume, the threat feels larger.

Not only that, but we get to see more of the characters, good and bad sides, as they are separated in order to find a way to end the war. Mina isn’t perhaps as formidable and powerful as she feels in the first volume, but the events that transpire almost push her to breaking point – and, fair warning, there are some graphic scenes regarding this. Not to mention each character feels as if their death is waiting, very close with the Martians seemingly unstoppable attacks.

This feels like a fitting sequel to the first volume, and pushes the events along nicely, leaving the reader with the sense of time passing as the century comes to a close.

There was one element I wasn’t too fussed on. At the end of the first volume is a story, giving the reader an idea of what Quartermain had been up to, prior to the events of the graphic novel. It was entertaining and interesting. At the back of this volume is a sort of traveller’s guide to interesting places around the world, mixed in with some glimpses as to what the League members might have got up to, both before and after the events in both volume one and volume two.

And it dragged. There are some interesting nods there to other classical works – such as a group going down a rabbit hole after a young girl disappeared, only to reappear sprouting nonsense about a strange land. The guide is worldwide, but it felt like it was too much information relayed in a really dry way.

The best parts of the guide were, without a doubt, the moments we dropped back in with Murray and Quartermain. Where we got to witness what happened to them after leaving London, and I suspect these were designed to plant the seed for the next volume in the series.

Overall, I think if you’re already read and enjoyed Volume One, Volume Two is worth picking up. It adds to the characters, and it has some brilliant references to other works that’ll make readers smile, as well as the interesting take on War of the Worlds.

 

 

 

Venators: Magic Unleashed – Devri Walls [WriteReads Ultimate Blog Tour]

venatorsBlurb

From Goodreads:

Six years ago, Grey Malteer was attacked by creatures he thought couldn’t possibly exist. They repeated a word, calling him a name he’d never heard before…Venator. Since then, his life has been a hellhole of secrecy—hiding old pain alongside strange new abilities.

Rune Jenkins has an itch, as she calls it, but it’s more than that. It’s an anger that builds up like the inside of a boiler whenever she’s around anything remotely supernatural. The pressure is growing steadily worse and she can’t understand why. All she knows is—her control is slipping.

By order of an unknown council Grey and Rune are pulled through a portal in the St. Louis arch, landing them in an alternate dimension where creatures of myth and legend exist. A realm that calls them, Venators.

Made up of centuries old fae, vampires, werewolves, elves and succubi the council’s corrupt nature becomes obvious as they seek to wield the newly returned Venators as weapons. Wedged in an impossible position, Grey and Rune must decide their fate—do they go against the council’s wishes and help the innocents of this unforgiving land, or face the possibility of execution by the council.

Review

I was absolutely delighted with this book. I have to admit, I am a complete sucker for fantasies which use a variety of different creatures, and that is something Magic Unleashed does really well, introducing us to a world where vampires, werewolves, succubi and others live side by side, and where Venators were once revered, Venators being humans powerful enough to withstand most the effects from the other types of beings.

The opening introduces us to the two main characters. Rune, desperately trying to take care of her twin brother, putting him first and herself second, and Grey, who brushed against the supernatural years before, and has been training himself and studying up on it ever since.

Through the eyes of these two characters, taken from their world into the world of the supernatural, we get introduced to the various other inhabitants, and witness the dangers threatening the Venators. They work their way through a fae forest and a pack of werewolves to reach the Council. All Grey wants is to be a hero, to save the innocent and protect those around him, while Rune just wants to be reunited with her brother.

I really liked the main characters. There’s an instant connection between them and the reader, giving us plenty of reasons to cheer them on and want to see them succeed. The idea of Venators is explained really well, without the story slowing down or stopping completely to convey exactly what it means to us. Instead it feels natural, just as the world Walls has created does.

And they don’t feel overpowered, despite their abilities. When they do come up against the supernatural creatures, they feel all too human and vulnerable, unsure and with no idea how to actually fight in the various situations they’re put in.

The novel is fast-paced and tightly packed, especially once the set-up is over and Grey and Rune leave our world. From there, we’re taken on a rollercoaster ride, leaving us to wonder what exactly will happen next to our two heroes.

The only thing I didn’t really like was the way it ended. It felt too unresolved. Of course, if a book is part of a series there has to be questions left unanswered, but for the first book in a series it felt like there was too much missing. The ending felt a little abrupt.

Despite this, Magic Unleashed is a really good introduction to this world and characters, and feels unique in the setting and the way various supernatural creatures are used. It’s definitely a series I can really see myself really getting into.

Devri Walls

devriDevri Walls is an international best selling author. She lives in Meridian, Idaho with her husband, two children and one adorable little mutt. Writing in all things fantasy, she would do just about anything for a working magic wand.

Mostly because she’s a walking disaster and a wand would be of enormous help…although she’d probably trip and break it. So, there’s that.

She graduated with a degree in theater and has studied vocal performance most of her life. She now teaches voice lessons when she’s not writing novels, cooking dinner, playing taxi, spending time with her amazingly supportive husband or trying to read.”

My question for Devri Walls: What’s your favourite part of the writing process?

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