Mike Finn
Review
5 Stars
"The Black God's Drums" by P. Djèli Clark - Highly Recommended
The Black God's Drums - P. Djeli Clark

 

"The Black God's Drums" is one of those rare books where all I really want to say it: "READ THIS: IT'S WONDERFUL" and then add as a postscript:

 @HBO please spend a few million making this into an award-winning piece of television.
 
 
 

"The Black God's Drums" is a novella of only 112 pages yet in terms of world-building, character-building and plot twists, it stands up against novel two or three times its length.

 
 
 

Djèli Clark pulls off a first-person narrative that delivers a clear view of a complex alternative history and sustains a level of tension and excitement. The dialogue is perfect, especially the use of dialect, which brightens the storytelling and deepens the characters.

 
 

This a sparkling little novella is set in an original and uplifting alternative history in which, in the late nineteenth century, New Orleans and Haiti are independent nation-states and the Civil War has a different ending.

 

The story involves a wicked plot that could bring great destruction, a swashbuckling Haitian airship captain who is strong on technology but refuses to give ground to the old African Gods who call to her, innovative steampunk-ish science that has a dash of magic in it, two black nuns who seem closer to voodoo than Christianity, fanatical soldiers with a scary leader and, at the centre of it all, an engaging, fourteen-years-old goddess-possessed black street child who calls herself Creeper.

 
 
 

Creeper made the book for me. We see the world through her eyes and she is full of fire. At one point, Creeper manages to rescue a key character in the plot. They have never met before and the person being rescued expresses surprise it's just Creeper affecting the rescue.

 
 

“Wi. It is just . . . you?”

 
 

Creeper's response tells you a lot about he:

 
 

I scowl up at her. I happen to think I’m plenty.

 
 

One of the things that I liked about this story was that all the good guys are women or girls, all but one of them is black and all of them kickass in their own ways.

 
 

I'm now a P. Djèli Clark fan. I've bought another of his novella, "A Dead Djinn in Cairo"  and I'm hoping that he will go on to write some full-length novels.

 
 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 4%. - I think this is going to be gruesome
Twilight - William Gay

 

This tale of grave robbing and revenge is perfect for this square. I think it would work for Southern Gothic as well.

 

So far, it's all spooky atmosphere and implied gruesomeness. I think that's going to move into full technicolour splatter gore very soon.

Reading progress update: I've read 7%.
Breaking the Lore (Inspector Paris Mystery #1) - Andy Redsmith

 

This one is a bit of a punt. It's meant to be funny. It's about a demon war... in Manchester.

 

I'm encouraged by the first two sentences. They're up there at the top of my "set the bar high" quotes for starting a book:

 

Discovering fairies at the bottom of the garden is supposed to be good luck. Except when the fairy has been crucified.

Reading progress update: I've read 34%.
The Black God's Drums - P. Djeli Clark

 

Yay, I think I've found a new author to read.

 

This is a sparkling little novella with an alternative history late nineteenth century independent New Orleans that mixes swashbuckling Haitian airship captains and old African Gods with crazy science and an engaging, fourteen-years-old goddess-possessed black street child who calls herself Creeper and is full of fire.

Review
2 Stars
"The Cold" by Rich Hawkins
The Cold - Rich Hawkins

 

You know how they say that you can't judge a book by its cover? Well "The Cold" has a GREAT cover. Which just shows how true the saying is.

 

I felt like I was stuck in one of those shoot 'em up games where I can never level up because I can't see that anything is actually happening except a whole bunch of things trying to kill me.

 

The fault is probably with me but it's not one I can fix. I just didn't get this book.

 

It reminded me of one of those huge canvasses you see in the Tate where the whole thing is painted densely in red oils. I look at it and go, "It's red. Why?" Better educated souls look at it and go, "It's red and it's art, great Art."

 

"The Cold" is a canvas painted with blood, more blood and even more blood.

True, there is a lot of white snow to make it easier to see and there are a lot of crushed skulls, decapitations, dismemberments and disembowelments to add variety but I still felt I was wading through blood.

 

So it's either art or it's a lot of blood. All I saw was blood.

 

The plot follows a very ordinary twenty-something Englishman (the only odd thing about him is his name - Seth Murphy - not typical for someone born and raised in rural Somerset) on a hellish journey. Seth is on a train in the middle of summer, on his way home from an unsuccessful job interview, when H P Lovecraft-style monsters fall out of the sky, bringing with them the onset of an Ice Age.

 

The monsters are everywhere and kill everyone.

 

Seth knows this because he's survived having his train peeled open while in motion and is now trekking home through the snow, surrounded by damage and death and big monsters keep turning up and trying to eat him and the people he's travelling with. 

 

Mostly by luck and the actions of others, Seth manages to journey on without getting killed. Almost everyone around him, especially those who carry weapons and try to organise a rescue, ends up being ripped apart. Seth is so scared he can't think or sleep or do anything other than react and try to survive.

 

Even by the end of the book, I knew very little about Seth or the people he's travelling with. They're all in shock. If they do talk, it's about how big monsters keep trying to kill them and how this can't be happening but it is.

 

It's very realistic.

 

It's not very interesting.

 

When I was about sixty per cent through the book and Seth has survived yet another attack that left most of his companions in pieces, Seth's one remaining companion, a strong-willed man who is handy with a weapon says:

 

“So, that’s it, isn’t it?” said Mack. “The end of it all.”

 

Seth stared off into the white fog beyond them, a part of him hoping that some immense terror would emerge to finally claim them, release them from this state of Purgatory

I shared Seth's reaction. I just wanted it to end too. It didn't. It went on until a whole lot more people were killed by increasingly horrifying creatures.

 

The prose style is clear and confident. It keeps captures the real horror and shock of extreme violence, unremitting threat, total helplessness and survivor guilt perfectly.

 

The point of the story seemed to be that, if big monsters dropped out of another dimension, caught us all by surprise, destroyed the weather, were very hard to kill and ate everyone they met, we'd lose and that any ordinary person caught up in the conflict will die or be traumatised or be traumatised and then die.

 

That's not really a surprise.

 

So what was the point of this story?

 

Well, why are some big canvases painted only in red?

 

No, I don't know the answer to that either.

 

I do know that, despite the well-described gore, the regular violence, the huge body-count and the wide variety of deeply repulsive monsters eating mankind, I got bored by this book.

 

I had no reason to care about Seth. Seth had no reason to care about himself.

 

Perhaps that makes this book art but it's not my kind of art.

Review
3 Stars
"How To Save An Undead Life - The Beginner's Guide To Necromancy #1" by Hailey Edwards
How to Save an Undead Life (The Beginner's Guide to Necromancy Book 1) - Hailey Edwards

 

The pilot for a promising Young Adult Urban Fantasy series.

Crammed with original and intriguing ideas about necromancy.

Featuring a broken-but-not-quite-destroyed young heroine with huge potential-

 
 

"How To Save An Undead Life" is an entertaining start to a Young Adult Urban Fantasy series that is strong on building a dark, complex and unforgiving magical world and has a central character, Grier Woolworth, who, since she was sixteen, has been punished almost to the point of extinction in hell hole prison called Atramentous (it means black as ink- I had to look it up).

 
 

The story, which is told entirely from Grier's point of view, begins with Grier trying to rebuild her life after having unexpectedly being released from prison.

 
 

This has the advantage of letting the world-building trickle through as Grier has to cope with different aspects of the magical and non-magical world and re-establish friendships that were interrupted and perhaps broken when she was imprisoned.

 
 

The damage done to Grier is handled with skill. We get only enough details to help us understand how close she came to losing herself in a prison designed to extinguish hope and erode personal strength, without pushing things to the point where this would no longer be a Young Adult novel.

 
 

There's a lot of wit and humour in the book, both in terms of Grier's banter with her friends and with the job she does - guiding Savannah ghost tours for Haint Misbehaving while dressed as a Southern Belle.

 
 

The main focus of the plot is Grier trying to understand why she was reprieved and why she is now currently being threatened and courted by powerful people in the magical world. The main focus of the book is Grier trying to rebuild her friendships and regain her strength. I liked the fact that Grier recognises early on that she is the only person who can really get her out of the mess she's in.

 
 

The magical world is original and filled with possibilities. It's dominated by the Society ForPost-Life Management which has a heavily enforced hierarchy places necromancers at the top and the undead that they create, including various forms of vampire, beneath them.

 
 

The plot is action-packed and hard to predict. The story is self-contained but its main purpose is to lay the foundation for the series.

 
 

I consumed "How To Save An Undead Life" in a day. It was fun, surprising, a little light on character development but full of promise.

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 28%. - you know those paintings that are big canvasses painted entirely in red?
The Cold - Rich Hawkins

 

Well "The Cold" is like those paintings.

 

There is blood and more blood and more blood.

 

True, there is a lot of white snow to make it easier to see but still, at the 28% point, most of what I've done is wade through blood.

 

So it's either art or it's a lot of blood.

 

I haven't made my mind up yet.

 

The plot is so far is Mr Ordinary - Seth Murphy - is on a train in the middle of summer, when H P Lovecraft-style monsters fall out of the sky, bringing with them deep winter.

 

The monsters are everywhere and kill everyone.

 

Seth knows this because he's survived having his train peeled open while in motion and is now trekking home through the snow, surrounded by damage and death and big monsters keep turning up and trying to eat him and the people he's travelling with. 

 

So far, they haven't killed Seth. They've made him so scared he can't think or sleep or do anything other than react and try to survive.

 

I know very little about Seth or the people he's travelling with. They're all in shock. If they do talk, it's about how big monsters keep trying to kill them and how this can't be happening but it is.

 

It's very realistic.

 

It's not very interesting.

 

Yep, if big monsters dropped out of another dimension, caught us all by surprise, destroyed the weather, were very hard to kill and ate everyone they met, we'd lose.

 

I know that.

 

So what is the point of this story?

 

Well, why are some big canvases painted only in red?

 

No, I don't know the answer to that either.

 

I'll keep reading Maybe the author will find another colour somewhere along the way. Maybe I'll get to the end and go - "I hope Lovecraft was wrong". 

 

I'll keep you posted

Halloween Bingo Update 2

 

In the first twelve days, I've had six squares called and I've read six books - but not all for those squares - this game just couldn't be that easy :-)

 

So now I have:

 

three squares read and called

three squares read but not called

and I'm reading three squares, all of which have been called.

 

 

The most fun I had this week was with "Gaudy Night" which turned out to be even better than I expected - not so much a murder mystery as an exploration of the choices and constraints of intellectually gifted woman or rank in the 1930s and the viability of marriage between two strong-willed, intelligent, driven people of very different rank.

 

I started "Burnt Offerings" but I've set it aside for a few days. I'm on holiday in Croatia at the moment and it wasn't matching my mood.

 

I snacked on "How To Save An Undead Life" which was gone in a day and kept me entertained.

 

I'll get to the reviews later. Meanwhile, I'm spending time with Cinder the cyborg and a new spooky tale of death and destruction called "The Cold".

 

I love Halloween Bingo.

 

 

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 25%. I love the slow-burn tension
Burnt Offerings: Valancourt 20th Century Classics - Robert Marasco, R.C. Bray

Love the slow-burn tension in this book. It gives a sense of threat masked, like tainted meat beneath a spicy sauce.

Saying that the house will be rented to "The right people' feels like a doom or a curse, marking "the right people" the same way that barely-there but bound to get worse lameness marks one of the herd as prey.

I'm asking myself if the rightness based on need or on something else, something that makes the prey sweeter?

The house itself is a twist on the gingerbread house - a lure and a trap.


The Alerdices , brother and sister , seem at first to be the wicked witch, yet something speaks to priest or acolyte rather than witch, in which case, is it the mother, she who must be offered a tray three times a day, who is being worshipped or the house?

 

Is there a link between the boys cut knee and the revitalisation of the apparently dead plant?

And is the fact that the husband senses but cannot find the taint and will say yes to the house anyway something worthy of blame or something that shows that fate cannot be avoided?

I love being able to close the book at the end of the chapter that brings me a quarter of the way through the novel and ponder these things rather than being rushed to the splatter and gore.

OFF TOPIC POST: Do you remember when the English were famous for the sensible compromise?

As I watch Boris Johnson try goosestep Britain off the Brexit cliff in the name of nationalism, powered by faith in British (by which he means English) exceptionalism, I have to remind myself that Johnson's behaviour is not that of a true Englishman from the ruling classes. His tactics are borrowed from Hitler rather than from any British political tradition.

 
 
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I found reinforcement of this in an unexpected source today.

 
 

I was reading "Gaudy Night" by Dorothy Sayers. This is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, published in 1935.

 
 

Wimsey is the epitome of what a well-informed aristo with his country's interest at heart should be.

 
 

At one point, in conversation with Harriet Vine, Wimsey commented on compromise as being in an Englishman's blood.

 
 

Here's what they said to each other.

 
 
 
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 It made me wonder what Wimsey would make of Johnson.
 
 

I doubt he would be a supporter.

 
 

Three years ago, most of Europe saw the British as the masters of the pragmatic compromise, able to find solutions that allowed multiple parties to gain from cooperation with sacrificing the things that were most important to them.

 
 
 

Now, most of Europe sees us a being in the grip of an identity crisis where we can't even compromise with each other.

 
 

How very un-English we have become.

 
 

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 6%.
Burnt Offerings: Valancourt 20th Century Classics - Robert Marasco, R.C. Bray

 

I've been meaning to read this haunted house story for some time and the opening hasn't disappointed me.

 

It's read by R.C Bray, who I always think of as having a "Joe Friday" voice although his range is much broader than that. He's the perfect choice for this very late seventies early eighties kind of horror. 

 

If this were being done today, I think there would be a rush to get the young family to the haunted house so bad things could start to happen before people lose interest. Marasco goes a different route. He makes the oppression of living in a crowded, noisy apartment block in Queens in the heat and the humidity come alive and he gives us time to look at wife and husband and how they are alone and apart. It's an encouraging start,

 

 

Review
3 Stars
Black Cat Crossing - Bad Luck Cat #1" by Kay Finch
Black Cat Crossing (A Bad Luck Cat Mystery #1) - Kay Finch, Amy Rubinate

 

 

Light Cosy Mystery, set in a small Texas hill country town, with a she's-just-like-us heroine, a preternaturally intelligent black cat and a not very challenging murder to solve.

 
 
 

"Black Cat Crossing" is a smile of a book. The kind of thing that you listen to when you want an amusing, unchallenging distraction as you get on with unavoidable chores.

 
 

This book is fundamentally nice.

 
 

Sabrina Tate, our heroine, (late thirties, divorced, no kids) is a nice, likeable everywoman, who in the wake of her divorce, has left her paralegal job in the big city to come back the small town of Lavender, where she spent her childhood summers with her Aunt Rowena. Her ambition is to become a published mystery author but rea life keeps distracting her, initially in helping her Aunt run her vacation cottage rental business and then in trying to solve a murder in which her aunt is the prime suspect.

 
 
 

Sabrina has nice friends (one of whom is a bookseller who introduces her to a well-known literary agent) and mostly nice neighbours.

 
 

The only really not nice person quickly becomes the murder victim, which Sabrina wouldn't have minded if her aunt hadn't been the one most likely to have killed him.

 
 

The most mysterious thing in this mystery is The Bad Luck Cat, a large black cat that local superstition holds brings bad luck to anyone whose path he crosses. The cat, for reasons of his own, adopts Sabrina and then pops up whenever she needs her attention drawn to a critical clue or needs her life saving.

 
 

The writing is clean, clear and amusing. The pace is slow and easy without actually dragging. Tension is just high enough to stop you losing interest but not high enough to cause any real worry.

 
 

I think this was well done but it's the kind of thing, like salted caramel ice cream, that I can only take in small amounts.

 
Review
4 Stars
"Out Of The Deep I Cry - The Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries #3" by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Out of the Deep I Cry - Julia Spencer-Fleming

"Out Of The Deep I Cry" links Clare, our modern-day ex-army helicopter pilot turned Episcopalian Priest and Russ our local boy returned to be sheriff after a little too long in the army, more closely to the past of the small town of Miller's Kill, New York.

 

As with the previous books, "Out Of The Deep I Cry" manages to link the investigation of a crime to a topical issue, in this case, the inoculation of children. It then goes a step further and links the fates of the current Miller's Kill generation with the trials faced by their grandparents, when diphtheria was killing children, when inoculation was new and not widely accepted and when rural New York was the main route for smuggling illegal alcohol to New York City.

 

While I enjoyed the cleverness of the mysteries in the plot and how they were resolved, what struck me most was how the actions of previous generations can seem so long ago yet still have impacts and echoes in the daily lives of their descendants. I was impressed that the story of the previous generation was told with the same clarity and authenticity as the modern-day story.

 

Julia Spencer-Fleming managed to weave the two timelines together in ways that were easy to follow and which made both stories stronger. In the process, she set out the dilemmas faced by parents trying to do the best by their children, without being judgemental.pencer

 

There is a lot of grief in this book, some of which has been carried for a long time. I admired the way that grief was respected and understood rather than being exploited. It kept the book human and it kept the emotions high.

 

The relationship between Clare and Russ continues to grow and to cause both of them pleasure and guilt. This too is handled with empathy and without ducking the moral issues involved.

 

It seems to me that this series is getting stronger as it goes along. I'm looking forward to reading the next book.

First Halloween Bingo Update - It's been fun so far - mostly

 

I've read three Bingo books so far, one of which has been called. I have two underway, one of which has been called, and one called square that I haven't started to read for yet.

 

My best read was "The Murder At The Vicarage".  My worst was "The Black Cat Of The Holt" which I abandoned.

 

Now I'm reading "Gaudy Night", which is even better than I thought and I'm listening to "Black Cat Crossing", an easy-on-the-ear cosy mystery set in a small town in Texas and featuring a black cat. 

 

I'm also enjoying seeing what other people are reading. I've already added a few things to my TBR pile.

 

I'm on vacation next week, but I'm hoping that will just allow me time to read in a warmer climate.

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 3%. - wonderful
Gaudy Night (Lord Peter Wimsey #12) - Dorothy L. Sayers

 

 

I'd been told, repeatedly, that this was a wonderful book.

 

I took it on faith, as I had abandoned the first Peter Wimsey book.

 

Now I'm 3% into "Gaudy Night" and already I'm in love.

 

Dorothy Sayers does so much with so few words. I've never met Harriet Vane. I'm entering this series at the eleventh book. Yet, within a few pages, I've learned a lot about this woman: her history, her character, her mode of thought. She is already real to me.

 

What caught me by surprise is the emotional impact. 

 

I left my university thirty years ago. I've never been back. I never will go back. I'm not who I was then and he wouldn't recognise who I am now.

 

Sayer's captures this sense of visiting a previous self, one untested and less well-formed than the self you currently inhabit and the anxiety it produces, perfectly.

 

Harriet Vane thinks:

 

It was all so long ago; so closely encompassed and complete; so cut off as by swords from the bitter years that lay between. Could one face it now?

 

"Closely encompassed and complete." I like that. It's an illusion in one way of course but it's a sentiment that strongly persists for me.

 

Even on her way to Oxford, her anxiety persists. She's glad to be driving to Oxford in her own little car rather than entering by train as her undergraduate self always had and she's glad that:

 

For a few hours longer she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and a sojourner, a well-to-do woman with a position in the world.

 

This seems real to me, this telling ourselves stories of who we are and who we've been so that we can cope with what's to come.

 

I also like the moments where, as the reader, I'm left to draw my own conclusions. When Harriet opens a long-closed chest in the attic and retrieves her academic gown, she finds it in good order:

 

Only the flat cap showed a little touch of the moth’s tooth. As she beat the loose fluff from it, a tortoise-shell butterfly, disturbed from its hibernation beneath the flap of the trunk-lid, fluttered out into the brightness of the window, where it was caught and held by a cobweb.

 

That's a wonderfully gentle way to introduce foreboding that shows her lightness of touch and clarity of imagination.

 

I'm also surprised that this book was written in 1935.  Based on the handed-down version of period dramas and television stereotypes, Harriet Vine seems a remarkably strong and independent character, especially when written by a woman of a similar background. Clearly my perceptions need to be adjusted if this was contemporary popular literature.

 

I know I'm going on at length when I've only read a few pages but I'm excited to find someone I know I will enjoy reading, probably multiple times. I may also just be relieved to find a good book after having waded through one long, over-padded novel and abandoned one under-written novella.

 

 

 

 

Review
3 Stars
"Parasite - Parasitology #1" by Mira Grant
Parasite - Mira Grant

 

"Parasite" is built on an intriguing, well thought through idea but not enough to sustain 504 pages.

 

If "Parasite" had been 300 pages, I would have been on the edge of my seat. It was 504 pages and I was waiting for it to end.

 

Actually, it didn't end. It just stopped on a big reveal that fell flat because I'd worked it out 400 pages earlier. "Parasite" is the first book of a trilogy. It's not really a stand-alone novel. It's more an extended pilot for the series. If reading the first five hundred pages piques your interest then you have the opportunity to find out how things work out by reading the next two books (1,100 pages between them).

 

I'll be stopping here. I'm all parasited out.

 

I really liked the idea that the novel was built on. It's original, disturbing and has been made to sound as if it's based on plausible science. It does a good job at looking at how corporate greed and personal ego can over-ride public safety, how history changes depending on who writes it, how weak the US government can be when confronting serious money and how much personal identity depends on memory.

 

There were some interesting characters: one narcissist scientist, one so-obsessed-she'll-do-ANYTHING-for-the science scientist and one Army Colonel who has no idea what a control freak he is. My favourite character was Tansy, a remarkable creation: scary, unpredictable, often funny, sometimes even intentionally, always at least two cards short of a full deck. She is also the most honest, grounded and well-informed character in the book.

 

Sadly, the book isn't about Tansy, it's about Sally or Sal.

 

I was interested in Sal at first. Although she's in her twenties, she can only remember the six years of her life since the car accident that left her in a vegetative state, from which, at the start of the book, she recovers from just in time to stop her life support being switched off and her organs donated.

 

The longer I spent with Sal, the less interested I became. She seemed weak, erratic, unable to put the big picture together despite having all the data. I kept wanting to shout at her to stop feeling sorry for herself and work it out already. Well before the last page of the book, with its big reveal that would have been a shock to nobody except the stubbornly obtuse Sal, I lost all sympathy with her.

 

I think the book would have benefited from editing. Each scene was fine but not every scene was necessary. Cutting a few out would have improved the pace and increased the tension. Some of the text was also lazy or redundant. The worst example was this description from Sal:

"...my hair was a matted mass of tangles and knots that gave way with an audible ripping sound"

Can you imagine a ripping sound that isn't audible?

currently reading

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