Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

I have finished reading my eighth novel for 2022, When Did You See Her Last? The second book in the All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket. The premise of this series has the author writing himself as a kid detective, up against the baddie, Hangfire, both seeking a strange statue, the Bombinating Beast. Throw in a missing father and a missing girl, and you have the basic storyline of When Did you See Her Last?

A girl has gone missing, the Ink Inc. heiress and genius chemist Chloe Knight. Apprentice detective Lemony Snicket, and his incompetent chaperone S. Theodora Markson take on the case. The tale is set in a town that flourished because of ink, aptly named Stain’d-by-the-Sea. The town is becoming deserted because it has run out of squid. It is rumoured Chloe Knight has created a new type of ink that would reverse the fortunes of the dying town. Snicket has to find out more about a strange group called The Inhumane Society. He must piece together the clues surrounding Chloe’s disappearance and hopefully rescue the girl with a lot of hijinks along the way.
Snicket stories tend to cruise along the edge of the ridiculous, bringing to mind other such stars of the genre, like David Walliams and Anthony Horowitz. As always, in When Did you See Her Last? Snicket likes to have fun with words. “A laugh is harder to swallow whole than a honeydew melon. Her mouth twisted every which way, and her eyes flitted madly as she looked everywhere but at me…We waited until it was safe to open up the laugh, and then we shared it.”

It takes guts to do that.
I liked it when the author wove into the story references to classic books the Lemony Snicket character had read without giving us the actual title. However, this device relied on the reader having read all those children’s books. As an adult, I thought it was clever, but it occurred to me that all these finger-on-the-nose references would go over the head of the modern child reader.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the author speaking directly to the reader, yet, it’s a device Snicket uses a lot. The ‘breaking down of the fourth wall’ is a technique some people love. I read an interview with Neil Gaiman last week, in which Neil said the books he had read as a child wherein the author spoke directly to the reader made him feel all warm and cozy inside. So when he started writing his books, he used the same technique.

I find the author’s voice an intrusion. It breaks the spell holding me, which I find jarring. It does not add any warmth but provides a reminder of the puppeteer pulling the ropes.
“No matter how many slow and complicated mysteries I encounter in my life, I still hope that one day a slow and complicated mystery will be solved quickly and simply. An associate of mine calls this feeling “the triumph of hope over experience”, which simply means that it’s never going to happen, and that is what happened then.” ~ When Did you See Her Last?
I guess author intrusion comes down to a matter of personal taste. Snicket is a popular author so it obviously works for him.
Lemony Snicket is the pen name of American novelist Daniel Handler (February 28, 1970). The author of several children’s books, including A Series of Unfortunate Events. This series has sold over 60 million copies and was made into a film and TV series. Lemony Snicket serves as both the fictional narrator and a character in A Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as the main character in its prequel, the four-part book series titled All the Wrong Questions.

Ever wondered how Daniel chose that pen name? It originally came from research for Handler’s first book The Basic Eight. Handler told NPR that “the character of Lemony Snicket, this man who speaks directly to the reader and is tangentially involved in the stories that he’s telling is more of a character. We just thought it would be fun to publish the books under the name of this character.”
Essentially it works. Book sales speak volumes. I think the concept is cool, and the pen name is different. The panache is there. The idea of the pessimistic protagonist is an excellent twist. Snicket knows how to spin a web and layer in the questions, whether wrong or not, to keep the reader guessing the answers until the end.

Purely from the point of view of personal taste, When Did you See Her Last? is not my favourite kids’ book. But then it’s not my least. Farcical noir is not a genre I would seek to read for pleasure.

My rating: Two stars

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Yvette Carol
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“Being curious is the most important part of being a journalist. It might be the most important part of being anything.” ― Lemony Snicket, When Did You See Her Last?


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I have finished reading my seventh novel for 2022, The Secret Forest, by Enid Blyton. I have reviewed books by Enid Blyton before. She was a favourite author of mine from childhood. My jam used to be The Famous Five or The Secret Seven. As the great author wrote 800 books in her lifetime, there are always books of hers I have yet to discover. Recently, I bought a couple of novels in The Secret Stories series at a secondhand bookstore.

Though I was unfamiliar with the series, reading The Secret Forest, I immediately warmed to the Arnold children, Peggy, Mike, Nora, and Jack. Enid Blyton is such a straightforward, old-fashioned storyteller. Within the first pages, we have the setup when Prince Paul invites the Arnold children to the (made up) kingdom of Baronia for the holidays. It’s not just any old holiday. Prince Paul wants them to stay in his castle. Once the children are on holiday, we hear there are robbers abounding in the countryside, and we are alert that there is a mystery afoot. The Secret Forest is at the heart of the story, a completely inaccessible woodland in the depths of the Killimooin mountains. We meet Prince Paul’s family. Enid Blyton depicts the royal residences and lifestyle with simple vigour. She had a particular grip on understanding what children want to read. Beverly Cleary was the same and once described it as having the capacity to vividly recall being a child and write to the child she once was.

In The Secret Forest, the story’s climax builds with a steady tension as the children and their minders tangle with the robbers. When Prince Paul’s handlers are taken prisoner by the robbers, the boys go on a dangerous rescue mission. They enter the mountain through a hidden passage leading to the Secret Forest. The boys rescue the men, but on the way back, a ferocious storm nearly catches them in the rising floodwaters.
I felt the book had a darker feel than The Secret Seven or Famous Five adventures of my youth. The obstacles seemed almost insurmountable, and the threat of mother nature was the scariest of all. I’m sure if I’d stumbled on this series as a child, I would have devoured the other three – The Secret of Spiggy Holes, The Secret of Moon Castle, and The Secret Island in the twinkling of an eye. It’s exciting stuff.

Enid Mary Blyton (1897 – 1968) was born in London. She published a volume of poetry called Child Whispers in 1922. In 1925, she released her first full-length novel, The Enid Blyton Book of Bunnies. Her vast catalogue of titles is still being republished for the digital generation of young readers. Although modern readers reject her descriptions of gender, race, and class (her Noddy books featured golliwogs until they updated the later editions), there is a general curiosity and a fascination with these old books. Stories like The Secret Forest belong to another era when such things as racism and casual sexism went unquestioned. It gives us insight into the morals and beliefs of those times, which is fascinating in itself, like a slice of our collective past, although we may not agree with it.

These days you would stir major controversy if you wrote a boy character saying, ‘you girls can’t go on the adventure you’d just get into trouble.’ A modern audience reads stories such as these by Enid Blyton with curiosity to see what outrageous thing the characters say or do next.
That being said, reading The Secret Forest was like stepping back to childhood when things were so much simpler. I enjoyed the ride. Enid Blyton clearly knew how to tell a story. According to the Index Translationum, ‘Blyton was the fifth most popular author in the world in 2007, coming after Lenin but ahead of Shakespeare.’ In the UK, Enid Blyton still sells over one book a minute. It’s the sort of success any writer hopes to achieve. The Secret Forest is another volume from her legacy.
My rating: Three stars

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Yvette Carol
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“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” ~ Albert Einstein


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I have finished reading my sixth novel for 2022, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Best of Friends. I came about ownership of a few Alfred Hitchcock books recently. In our neighbourhood, people put unwanted household items out on the grass verge in front of their houses for the folk passing to take away. On my walk one morning, I spied a box of books on the sidewalk. All the books were obscure but recognizing Alfred Hitchcock, I grabbed the three novels bearing his name. I wondered if he was an author as well as a filmmaker and figured it might be worth a look.

The first thing I discovered was that this was not a book written by Alfred Hitchcock. It was a collection of horror stories he had compiled. A delightfully devilish digest of death, by a student of the sinister. After my initial disappointment that Hitchcock had not written the content, nevertheless, I read the stories curious to see what he’d chosen.
The slim volume starts with an introduction written by Hitchcock, a mini horror story in itself. Then I read the novel with trepidation, hoping the stories would not scare me too much. There was no need to worry. The stories were not too spooky. They were cautionary tales about how things can go wrong in the high-octane, high-risk, daredevil world of crime.

The tagline for the book reads It’s always evil weather when Alfie and his pals get together! That pretty much says it all right there. The tone is old-fashioned and as quaint as two sticks rubbed together to make a fire. Its tagline shows its age by being light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek about the horror. Authors of that era (the late 1960s, early 1970s) did not need to shock us into infinity or hit us with gore and other questionable content. They produced storylines of high calibre, focused on dialogue and interaction. These authors rendered scenes in remarkable detail while adding slight turns of fortune, then the falling from grace, that has readers wincing for the characters and feeling doubly glad we are at home safe in our beds and not walking in their shoes.

The short stories are professional and convincing. The authors often hold out the “a-ha” moment until the last minute. However, given that modern readers expect thrills and spills on every page these days, this might be one of those books that belongs to our collective past and is only for those readers who can appreciate the difference.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock KBE, the iconic and influential film director and producer, was born in London in 1899. Following a successful career in Britain in silent films and talking pictures, he moved to Hollywood. He became an American citizen with dual nationality in 1956 and directed more than fifty feature films in a career that spanned six decades. For a complete list of his films, see Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography.
I found his compilation, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Best of Friends, entertaining and a charming window into a bygone age. It gets extra merit points for being low-key horror and not scarring me for life. I recommend it for nostalgia value alone.
My rating: Two stars

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Yvette Carol
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Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. ~ Neil Gaiman


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I have finished reading my fifth novel for 2022, Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan. This book was chosen as a last-minute rush-buy on my way out of a bookstore, and it was one of those times when you make a snap decision on one factor alone. In this case, I bought it because I recognized the author as the man who wrote Atonement.
Amsterdam is a contemporary adult novel, a short read at only about 200 pages long. When I started reading it, I was put off at first by the whiff of literary fiction. The pretension of literary fiction makes my toes curl. I thought, is this…? But then McEwan began to relax a bit, and I no longer had to re-read every sentence three times to understand it, so I began to enjoy the ride more.

The story begins with two friends meeting at a London crematorium where a service is underway for Molly Lane. Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday were both Molly’s lovers at different times in the past. Also at the funeral is Julian Garmony, the Foreign Secretary, a right-winger in line to be the next prime minister.
We hear the story from Clive and Vernon’s point of view as dual narrators. It is written in a linear style, apart from a few deviations. Clive is a highly successful composer, and Vernon is the editor for a local newspaper, The Judge. We meet both men when they are at the height of their careers and powers. However, they say pride comes before the fall. Amsterdam is a disturbing instructive tale to make anyone think twice. Alain de Botton, reviewer for The Independent on Sunday, called Amsterdam ‘a pitiless study of the darker aspects of male psychology.’ While I couldn’t comprehend the terrible choices the two characters made as the tragedy unfolded, I couldn’t look away.

Vernon sees compromising photos of Julian Garmony and makes the fateful decision to run an expose about the scandal in his newspaper. He aims to topple the Foreign Secretary from his pedestal while at the same time plumping up readership numbers for The Judge. Every moment of self-applause from Vernon anticipating the fall of his rival made me squirm.
Concurrently with Vernon setting up an editorial trap for Garmony, Clive is under pressure to deliver an orchestral score for an important social event. He is already late delivering the music and struggling to find the peaceful frame of mind necessary to create art. He is drinking too much. Then he takes himself away to the country to write. Unfortunately, the stress follows him, and Clive makes a terrible moral choice while there, of such epic poor judgment, that I blanched. I blanched and knew he was doomed. No spoilers though, sorry.

The dominoes start to fall. The political maestro, Garmony, turns the tables on Vernon. Clive and Vernon bicker and things spiral even further downhill from there until the book ends in catastrophe. It is a moral tale only for those with the stomach for it. Touted as a comedy, albeit a dark one, I failed to find anything comedic about Amsterdam. Perhaps the funny aspect was so high-brow it went over my head? I also failed to connect with the lead characters. Clive and Vernon were rendered too shallow for my liking. And yet, Amsterdam won the Booker Prize in 1998, so what do I know.

Some say this win paved the way for the rapturous response granted to Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement. Either way, his works have earned the author considerable acclaim. Born in the United Kingdom in 1948, McEwan studied at the University of Sussex. He received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970 and later received his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia. The recipient of numerous awards, McEwan was awarded a CBE in 2000. He is the well-regarded author of seventeen books.
My rating: Two and a half stars

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Yvette Carol
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“It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
— Robert Benchley


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I have finished reading my fourth novel for 2022, Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, and what a doozy. I have been looking forward to reviewing this book. It’s one of those books that gets inside you, haunts your thoughts, and creeps inside your dreams. You become so caught in the spell that you anticipate every opportunity to sit down and read more. When you have finished the novel, as I unfortunately have, you continue to think about it for a long time afterward. I love books like that. It is truly remarkable and potent fiction.

Piranesi was a Christmas present. The enigmatic cover image features a statue of Pan atop a carved pedestal and the author’s name, plus a few embellishments embossed with gold. The medallion on the cover of my copy tells me Piranesi won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. The blue cover displays soundbites from various movers and shakers, like The Sunday Times: ‘Full of wonders’ Erin Morgenstern: “Spellbinding” and The Guardian: “Utterly otherworldly.” All this before we even open the book. When we open the cover, we are treated to seven pages of gushing review snippets from everyone who has a voice in the media, from the New York Times, to Esquire and Observer, from BBC.com to Literary Review. It is almost overkill.
But does the content live up to the hype? In a word, yes.

Okay. At first, I was all at sea. The novel is so divergent from anything I had ever read that I was thoroughly off-put. Instead of chapter numbers and so on, Clarke divides the story into seven parts. Then she heads the chapters with surreal titles. For example, the opening chapter starts with the heading:
When the Moon Rose in the Third Northern Hall, I went to the Ninth Vestibule
ENTRY FOR THE FIRST DAY OF THE FIFTH MONTH IN THE YEAR THE ALBATROSS CAME TO THE SOUTH-WESTERN HALLS

There is no dithering at the door or slow easing into this fantasy. We become transported via the confounding title into another place, another world. We then read the entries and, in that intimate way, dive into the life of a naive, wandering, fascinating man as he recounts his life living in the House. He is alone apart from visits twice a week from an impeccably-dressed man he calls ‘the Other’ – called such because he is the only other person alive in the world.

Piranesi and the Other are scientists. The latter needs help with his research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi tells us about the ’15 people who have ever lived.’ The 15 include himself, the Other, and the 13 bodies whose skeletal remains he visits to take gifts. Through these diary entries written in our protagonist’s journals, we discover that our narrator is a man in his thirties. The Other calls him Piranesi, although our protagonist is sure that this is not his real name. But he has no recollection of any other name so he adopts it.
The House is a riveting, unique fantasy landscape I had never encountered before, a world where ocean and architecture mix. There are thousands of classic halls, endless epic architecture, and statues half-filled by the sea and afflicted by king tides and floods.

The sense of being somewhere ‘completely other,’ of being slightly off-kilter persists without let-up from the first chapter, where our protagonist climbs a statue fifteen metres above the pavement to avoid the ‘joining of three Tides’ below. As we read, a few things start to make sense, but Susanna Clarke never lets up presenting more questions as the story goes on, and the mystery of where the House is and what is happening becomes deeper and more complex.
Clarke does not stop with intricate plot lines and compelling character development. She also plays hardball, boldly using the simple visual device of adding capitals liberally everywhere. For example, This Tide thundered up the Westernmost Staircase and hit the Eastern Wall with a great Clap, making all the Statues tremble.
We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Clarke teases and tests us every step of the way. Once I had adjusted to this crazy ride, I couldn’t wait to get back to reading it each time I had to stop. The austere august magnificence of the House entranced me and captured my imagination. It was depicted in marvellous detail until I was walking in that world.
As it went on I knew Susanna Clarke’s talent was next level because of how much I cared for Piranesi. I worried about him as I realized he was in danger. It was affecting. During the climactic scenes, I was stealing minutes to race back and read. I needed to know how it would turn out. It was with regret I finished this book. Since then, I have looked back with nostalgia upon my time moving through the hallowed halls of the House with its beloved child, Piranesi. It was so new and cool. It was everything.

Susanna Clarke was born in Nottingham, England, in 1959. Educated in towns across Northern England and Scotland, she worked in various areas of non-fiction publishing, including Gordon Fraser and Quarto. After a stint teaching English in Bilbao, Clarke returned to England in 1992. Living in County Durham, she began working on her first novel, the bestselling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In 2020, Clarke released Piranesi. She has also published seven short stories and novellas in US anthologies. One story, “Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower,” was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award in 2001. Clarke lives in Cambridge with her partner, the novelist and reviewer Colin Greenland.
I take my hat off to the author and her stellar work, Piranesi. This fresh story transcends genre, and we must call it what it is – Art.


Susanna Clarke has earned herself a rarely seen top rating from me.
My rating: Five stars and a Huzzah!

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Yvette Carol
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“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” — Aldous Huxley

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I have finished reading my third novel for 2022, Frankie B – Faerie Lights, by Andie Low. For sure, I am an impulsive shopper. I buy books in several ways: I read the cover blurb, I read the first page, and sometimes, I buy a book on pure impulse after reading the title. Faerie Lights was the latter. This book is a self-published Witch Cozy Mystery from the Marina Witches Mysteries series.

A couple of years ago, I met the author at an event for Indie authors. Andrene inspired me because she’s making a living as an author, creating her empire, writing a library of material with her women’s fiction: That Seventies Series, her paranormal cozies: Marina Witches Mysteries, The Blood Bond Agency, or her romance fiction under the pen name, Hope Malone: The Coogan’s Break Series. Andrene is a marketing ace and works assiduously to build her brand and promote her work.
I bought her book, Frankie B – Faerie Lights. The story follows Frankie B, the young redheaded witch with a spunky attitude. She gets invited to spend the winter solstice with the family of her good friend, Magda Zilonka. No matter that the Zilonkas are vampires or that they have a long-running feud with the Nautilus clan, the family of Frankie’s boyfriend, Zane, a merman. Frankie disguises Zane so he and Frankie can be together for the holidays. The risky part is that his discovery would be fatal. ‘Add to this a stolen relic, newly discovered powers, and a drop-dead gorgeous vampire, and for Frankie, this will be a Winter Solstice to remember. Or forget’ goes the blurb.

Until reading this book, I was unfamiliar with “cozy mysteries” and was unsure what to expect. I did a bit of research and discovered cozy mysteries, also referred to as “cozies,” ‘are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence occur off stage, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. The term “cozy” was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.’
The whole tone of Faerie Lights I would describe as light-hearted. It is fiction that never takes itself seriously, which is fitting considering the author, Andrene Low, used to work as a stand-up comic. The Winter Solstice is fast approaching, and Frankie Bonny is desperate to spend it with family. Unfortunately, she’s light on relatives, knowing only three and two of them are jerks. Sometimes humour in fiction is forced and doesn’t work, but humour from a comic is a cut above.

Andrene’s bio is a bit of faff that tells us sweet nothing, apart from the fact that Andie lives in the beautiful Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand with a tabby cat called Mia. However, it displays more of the trademark tongue-in-cheek. Andrene, or Andie as her cozy mystery readers know her, has a love of writing instilled in her by her mother. Although, if her mum were still alive, she’d be smacking Andrene across the back of the head given the direction some of her writing has taken.
Faerie Lights is not a genre I would usually read, yet at the same time, this sort of lightweight romantic fiction has a definite place. The same way television fills a need, chick-lit fiction is entertaining and relaxing because it does not overtax the brain. Any escapist entertainment is vital these days, and I don’t hate it.
My rating: Two and a half stars.

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Yvette Carol
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“In a time of destruction, create something. A poem. A parade. A community. A school. A vow. A moral principle. One peaceful moment.” ~ –MAXINE HONG KINGSTON


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I have finished reading my second novel for 2022, Fire & Shadow, by T.G. Ayer. Tee and I became friends through Facebook years five or six years ago. We both have kids who have undergone open-heart surgery and have Congenital Heart Disorder. We swap tales of our parental fears and woes. My niece is a big fan of T.G. Ayer’s books, and I knew Tee was successful as she is a ‘bestselling USA Today author.’ However, I had not read any of her work. In 2020, I attended an author event and shared a table with Tee. That was the first time we met face-to-face and we had such a fun day, chatting for hours. Tee is as beautiful and engaging as her considerable body of work. I bought the first volume in her Hand of Kali series, Fire & Shadow, and finally got around to reading it. So here we are.

Fire & Shadow is an urban fantasy for the YA market and is the first in a series of seven books. We meet Maya Rao. Our teen protagonist is an average Indian-American teen, balancing the cultural differences between the expectations of her parents and the need to fit in at high school. I found it insightful to the modern dilemma for children of traditional cultures. Maya juggles the beliefs of her Indian family with her modern ideas, and anyone can empathize. While her parents adhere to the old belief systems, Maya doesn’t believe in the Indian pantheon. She wants to forge her path in life. Having grown up in California with a lot of personal freedom, she largely views the tales her parents shared with her of Hindu folklore as nothing more than superstition.

Maya’s parents are relatively easy-going. The difference is that her father teaches martial arts and has taught her to fight. When a boy attacks Maya at a party, she accidentally incinerates him with a stream of fire. This act of self-defense brings her into the world of Indian Mythology and is when the story kicks into high gear. Maya starts to see and smell monsters, or rakshasas. After confessing the incident at home, her parents reveal that she is the reincarnation of a devoted follower of the goddess Kali. Maya is “The Hand of Kali” and can wield fire. It also brings others into her life. For example, Nik, the boy she has had a secret crush on, ‘the forbidden fruit,’ the goddesses Chayya, Kali, and Varuni, as well as the god of the underworld, Yama. The fabulous cast of characters includes Maya’s best friends, Joss and Ria, one a white American neglected by her parents and the other an Indian whose father rules her life with iron discipline.

I liked the heroine and her plausible rebellion against the constraints of her upbringing. I admired her feisty nature, the way Maya pushes the limits with her culture, and with what is expected of her once she discovers she is the Hand of Kali. I also liked the glimpse Fire & Shadow gives us of life inside an Indian household. Fascinating. Reading romance is not my preference. I appreciated that the romance between Maya and Nik only adds to the heroine’s journey, serving to enhance the narrative without ever being at the expense of the story development. The lovey-dovey stuff takes a back seat to the action and the plot. Thank you, Tee.

At the start, I was curious to see how a friend writes, and happily, I was impressed. A natural storyteller, who has a way with words, Tee strikes a balance between the dark content and humour, which had me seesawing from horror to guffaws.
‘I’m so dead when I get home. Maya’s dad had the nostrils of a shark – he could smell lies, fear, and alcohol within a five-mile radius. So dead.’
The book had a solid plot, a sense of steadily building tension. Fire & Shadow is pure entertainment. The descriptions of characters and setting are on point, and you can picture everything. At times genuinely scary, it kept me on the edge of my seat. I learned urban fantasy romance can be a riveting read. Now I understand why my niece is a fan. I admit I found a number of errors that were missed by the editor. I can’t complain though, as a few mistakes slipped through the editing with my trilogy, The Chronicles of Aden Weaver, too. When you are self-published these things happen. No biggie.

According to her bio, T.G. Ayer was born in Durban, South Africa. Having sat and conversed with her, I know that the red tint in her dark hair comes from Irish blood also in her ancestry. Tee started by penning poetry before she moved on to writing fiction. The lightness of touch which comes through Fire & Shadow continues in her bio. Tee tells us her heart is torn in two between her homeland of Africa and New Zealand, so she ‘shall forever remain crosseyed.’ LOL. She lives in Auckland, is an active member and speaker with the Romance Writers of New Zealand, and has two grown-up daughters.
My rating: Four out of five stars.

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Yvette Carol
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Maya drew her fire again. This time it came smoothly, like a silky liquid, summoned with her mind, and conducted through her body. ~ T.G. Ayer, Fire & Shadow


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I have finished reading my first novel for 2022, Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman. It felt exciting to reach a tally of nineteen books read in 2021, compared to thirteen in 2020. We’ll see if I can do better this year. And what a way to begin! After seeing British author, Neil Gaiman interviewed live last year, as part of the New Zealand Readers & Writer’s Festival, I bought his book, Norse Mythology. A big fan of myths and legends, the title drew me in.

Norse mythology refers to the Scandinavian mythological worldview that was commonplace during the time of the Viking Age (c. 790- c. 1100 CE). In 2017, Neil Gaiman released his version in a collection of short stories. Though neither original nor new to most of us, Neil reimagines the time-honoured tales in a way that recaptures our attention all over again. In reality, the old Viking myths are gory, tragic, and sometimes incomprehensible. You need a strong stomach. Even so, Gaiman makes them approachable to a new generation. He presents these raw, brutal, bloody tales and makes them cool.
The novel way the author gets around the oral tradition of Scandanavian storytelling is by presenting most of the stories from the point of view of an unnamed narrator. Through frequent addresses to the audience, the narration evokes that feeling of listening. Clever stuff.
In the “Introduction,” Neil Gaiman explains three things: the cultural and literary significance of Norse mythology; the difference between the traditional representations of these gods and the way they have been reinterpreted in popular culture; and the sources used. He also explains how he fell in love with the legends and his passion for the subject matter comes through loud and clear. “The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place,” concludes Gaiman, “with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them.”

Gaiman explains that long before the Middle Ages, the Germanic people believed in two types of Gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. Complete with a creation myth that has the early gods killing a giant and turning his body parts into the world, arrayed beneath the World Tree Yggdrasil, and the eventual end of the known world in the Ragnarök, the Nordic mythological world is complex and mysterious.
Given the timeless quality of Gaiman’s writing, he seems to be the perfect fit for a book of Norse mythology. With its influence on Marvel’s movies, heavy metal music, and J.R.R. Tolkien, the references to the mighty Gods of Asgard, who came complete with their doomsday, have become a part of daily life. It’s instructive and fascinating to have a popular author unpack the mythology for a modern audience, already familiar with the main players.

“Many gods and goddesses are named in Norse mythology,” Gaiman informs us at the beginning of his book. “Most of the stories we have, however, concern two gods, Odin and his son Thor, and Odin’s blood brother, a giant’s son called Loki, who lives with the Aesir in Asgard.”
The author fashions these ancient stories into an overall story arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. It is a truly unique worldview and an alternative perspective to modern religions. Okay, you could learn all the same information through reading it on Wikipedia but where’s the fun in that? You’d miss Gaiman’s deft turn of phrase and fairytale flair.

Neil Richard MacKinnon Gaiman is an author of novels, short stories, graphic novels, comic books, and films. The first author to win the Newbery and Carnegie medals for the same work – The Graveyard Book – Gaiman has so far authored classics in almost each of the genres he’s interested in, primarily being fantasy, horror, and science fiction. For example, the comic book series The Sandman was one of the first graphic novels ever to be on the New York Times Best Seller list. In addition, several of Gaiman’s novels – such as Stardust, American Gods, and Coraline – have been adapted into successful movies or TV series. How many books has Neil Gaiman written in his illustrious career? A fan had stacked them up, and apparently, the pile reached over 7 feet. In other words, his output has been prodigious. Long may he write!
This book, dare I say it, is deserving of becoming yet another Neil Gaiman classic.
My rating: Four out of five stars.

Talk to you later.
Keep reading!
Yvette Carol
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Before the beginning, there was nothing – no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning. ~ Norse Mythology


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I have finished reading my nineteenth novel for 2021, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. Friend, fellow blogger, and poet Susan Baury Rouchard sent me this book, one of her all-time favourites. I had never heard of it or the author, so this was a terrific opportunity. Now that I have finished The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I can see why it came so highly recommended. Thanks, Susan.

Historical fiction is a rich, rewarding genre. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a young adult novel set in the late 1600s in New England in a society of Puritans. There are so many ways it could have gone wrong, yet Speare never wavers, never falters for a minute. She weaves the depictions of Connecticut and the traditions, the daily chores of the people into the story fabric in a way that makes everything seem real. Fascinating stuff. I almost wondered if the author was born in that era. But no, she published the book in 1958. No wonder this book won the Newbery Medal (1959) and was a Vermont Golden Dome Book Award Nominee (1960).

The story starts, and we are on board the boat, The Dolphin. Kit is fleeing her past in Barbados. She meets two young men: Nathaniel “Nat” Eaton, son of the vessel’s captain, and John Holbrook, a clergyman headed to study with a reverend. Kit’s unexpected arrival in the fictional New England town of Wethersfield and the home of her Aunt Rachel truly upsets the applecart. Kit has only known the free-spirited way of living that she has always embraced in Barbados. She comes from wealth and all the associated privileges of having slaves and owning the finest wardrobe, part of which has traveled with her to virtual poverty in seven trunks. The clash of cultures and lifestyles which follows is powerful, yet never rushed.
Kit knows nothing of the customs that guide New England. She flaps painfully, a fish out of water. As the pampered granddaughter of the most wealthy man in Barbados, she has no idea how to work or do the basic, daily things. We feel sorry for her innocence and yet see her flaws: her sense of entitlement, her lack of stamina for working. We empathize with the pain Kit goes through.
Her grandfather raised Kit with a lot of freedom. He taught her how to read and write, how to swim. All of these things are enough to cast suspicion on the naive girl from Barbados from the start.
‘She feels like a tropical bird that has flown to the wrong part of the world, a bird that is now caged and lonely.’

Used to doing as she pleases each day, Kit soon learns her new family expects her to work every day, all day, and to attend Sabbath Meetings which last nearly an entire day. Kit despairs at the boring services but gains the attention of staid William Ashby, a wealthy young suitor, the most eligible bachelor in town. He is her only possible hope of leaving the house of her severe Uncle Matthew.
We follow poor Kit’s painful adjustment process to the constrictions, the rules of the puritan community, and her uncle’s hard-working household. We see that William Ashby is patently unsuited as a husband. We feel bad that all three girls in the house have their hearts set on the wrong men.
Kit, sore, suffering, lonely, one day discovers the meadow.
‘As they came out from the shelter of the trees and the Great Meadows stretched before them, Kit caught her breath. She had not expected anything like this. From the first moment, in a way she could never explain, the Meadows claimed her and made her their own.’
You feel the healing balm of the moment because Kit has suffered so believably up to this point. It is a piece of prose I read and reread a few times.

In the meadow, Kit meets and is comforted by Hannah Tupper. She learns that the woman is no witch. She is a Quaker, a widow, persecuted in Massachusetts for her religious beliefs. Kit and Hannah become friends with Kit finding ways to visit often, sometimes running into Nat Eaton, who also happens to be a friend to Hannah Tupper.
When a terrible sickness grips Weathersfield, the finger gets pointed at Kit. She gets accused of witchcraft. Who do you think swoops in to save her?
People might call this sort of storytelling “old school,” but I found myself magnetized from the first page, and I couldn’t wait to pick it up and keep reading every time I had to walk away. That’s all you need to know, right there. The ultimate litmus test.

The backdrop of the tension between the English colonists and the New England Men’s fight for independence makes for a dramatic setting. I admired Speare’s tight storytelling. The political drama mirrors and therefore deepens the struggle for Kit between her free rebellious spirit and conforming to what society expects of her. Similarly, the seasons each take their turn. Each season corresponds and mirrors the turbulent journey of Kit’s first year in Connecticut, ending with the dramatic climax when they accuse Kit of witchcraft in the deep, bitter heart of winter. But the book finishes with the return of spring, which I loved. It’s such a clever, complex tale about the conflict between freedom and responsibility, between individual and family/community. A book about the search for identity versus belonging, conforming, and then breaking social rules. Tough, soft, affecting, resonant.
All in all, a cracking read.

Elizabeth George Speare, 1908 – 1994, was born in Melrose, Massachusetts. As well as earning the Newbery Medal for The Witch of Blackbird Pond, she also received the 1962 Newbery Medal for The Bronze Bow. Speare received a Newbery Honor Award in 1983, and in 1989 she was presented with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her substantial and enduring contribution to children’s literature.
My rating: Four and a half out of five stars.

Talk to you later.
Keep reading!
Yvette Carol
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“Though I had my first historical novel almost by accident it soon proved to be an absorbing hobby.” ~ Elizabeth George Speare


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I have finished reading my eighteenth novel for 2021, Fifteen Postcards by Kirsten McKenzie. When I attended an author event for self-published authors last year, I met several authors. Drawn by Kirsten’s display, we started talking. She had her bestselling trilogy, The Old Curiosity Shop series, on display. But there was a line of books at the front which had the same titles on plain blue covers. Squabbling Sparrows Press, she told me, was a small imprint through which she and a few friends could produce their titles in a smaller, plain format that made them more affordable for readers. What a great idea, I thought, and promptly bought a blue version of her first book, Fifteen Postcards.

Kirsten is a terrific writer, and as many others have said before me, I was surprised that this was her debut novel.
What grabbed me first was the solid premise. I should be fair and say this was my first foray into reading time travel. Perhaps others have handled the subject matter just as seamlessly, but for me, I felt swept away into the world instantly, and that is just the way good fantasy fiction should be. We should forget everything except what happens next in the story – that’s called ‘suspension of disbelief,’ a goal every author strives for the holy grail, you might say – and absolutely critical in the fantasy genre.
In Fifteen Postcards, our heroine, Sarah, is running the family antique shop, The Old Curiosity Shop, as her parents are missing. When she discovers a set of postcards belonging to a recently deceased widow, Sarah finds herself transported back in time in the guise of female figures connected to the widow’s family every time she touches the cards. Woo. Cool.

To travel effortlessly between the modern-day and yesteryear several times in a story it would be easy to lose the reader. But somehow, McKenzie steers us through this epic journey through space and time like a professional. It was smoothly done. Impressed, I was.
The story takes Sarah back to her modern life in the shop between bouts of time travel to Victorian London, the goldrush in early New Zealand, and into the India of the Raj. As a deeper mystery starts to unfold through each journey, we watch and empathize with Sarah who struggles believably to fit her twenty-first-century mind to the manners and mores of the time. It is the story idea that keeps on giving because the conflict created by this ‘girl out of time’ scenario creates tension and drama aplenty. Add the mystery element, and it makes a wonderful cocktail.

The years the author, Kirsten McKenzie, spent working behind the counter in her parents’ antique shop have served her well in this book. The flavour of authenticity permeates every scene inside The Old Curiosity Shop and sets Sarah up as an intelligent, informed, likable protagonist. I loved all the insider details, which gave us a glimpse behind the scenes of antique shops.
When Sarah starts to make classic blunders, like falling in love and bringing objects from the past back to the present, I worried about the repercussions. I was involved! That’s a good sign. Unfortunately, I never got to find out about the repercussions. My beef with Fifteen Postcards is the ending. At a dramatic part of the novel, it just stops. It is more than a cliffhanger. It is a cliff. You topple over the edge into the ditch, going, wait a minute, what happened?
The sudden pitch to a stop felt like a cheap shot after such a quality ride.

I’ve banged on about this before. But every book should have its arc and closure, even when the novel is couched within a series.

That aside, Fifteen Postcards is a thrill ride through history. I love the title. It is an accomplished, mystery drama that can hold its own against others in the genre. Author, Kirsten McKenzie, is a former Customs Officer in both England and New Zealand, who took up work famously in the family antique store. Now a full-time author of time travel trilogies and thrillers, she lives in New Zealand with her husband, her daughters, and two rescue cats.
Fifteen Postcards won five-star reviews and a lot of nice noise after release. The standard of writing is world-class, and the premise kicks butt. I especially enjoyed the sequences set in the gold rush era in New Zealand. It felt like being transported back in time. Kirsten, pat yourself on the back. If it were not for the cliff at the end, this debut novel would have earned a coveted four stars.
My rating: Three stars.

Talk to you later.
Keep reading!
Yvette Carol
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Change your thoughts and you change the world. ~ Norman Vincent Peale


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