Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Whiskey Kisses by Anna Martin

 


e-book

70 pages

 

Blurb

 

In a small town about an hours' drive outside Dublin, there’s a whiskey distillery.

Jim has worked in the distillery as its business manager since he returned to his home town after getting his degree. Whiskey is a slow business and rural life is quiet, but Jim takes it in his stride. That is, until the handsome and mysterious Mr Aiden Rooney moves into a room above the local pub and sets off a flurry of gossip.

Aiden’s an artist, and his devil-may-care attitude is a revelation to Jim. But he still lives in a small town in rural Ireland, and he’s not even sure if he wants to be out and proud. The choices they make could change everything, if only Jim dares to follow his heart.

 

Review                   

 

This is a charming little story with just the right amount of soul-searching vs. easy, simple, and beautiful love. There’s a spot of instant attraction, a not completely issue free coming out, and some small-town pettiness, but overall it’s an angst-free and delightful read. Of course, the fact that this tale is set in Ireland, was a huge added bonus.

Quite a few things made me smile. The spoken language that once or twice feared a little in the ‘begosh and begorrah’ direction. Or the fear of being outed because the town is small, rural, and conservative (the story was published in 2017, two years after the marriage equality referendum) but the same place providing food deliveries.

But, that’s me reading as someone who lives in a tiny, rural, Irish town. The descriptions and dialogue in this book would be perfect for any reader who has never been to Ireland. In fact, they were so good it made me think about how I describe things in my own stories, what my dialogue may or may not sound like to readers. I don’t rule out that my fear of stereotyping the Irish results in me making them bland metro-nationals (is that a thing?).

Long reflection short: Whiskey kisses is a wonderful read if you find yourself with an hour or two on your hands and feel like spending them in Ireland in the company of two interesting and sexy men.

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Normal People by Sally Rooney

 


266 pages

Blurb

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but the similarities end there. In school, Connell is popular and well liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation – something life-changing begins.

Normal People is a story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find they can’t.

 

My thoughts

I’m conflicted about this book. I liked it enough to read it over two days, and it kept my attention from start to finish. At the same time, the story, or rather, Marianne and Connell irritated me more or less from start to finish. I guess I expected more from a book that follows two young people over the course of four years. More growth, more self-awareness, and some sort of resolution. I prefer books where main characters develop and where my feelings about them are allowed to change along with that development. As it was, I felt there was probably a whole second book waiting for Connell and Marianne; one in which they finally reveal all of themselves to each other and come to some sort of real decision about who they are to and with each other.

On the other hand, the story and, more specifically, Marianne and Connell fascinated me, but in a car crash sorta way. Even after finishing the book, I can’t get away from the feeling that they were bad and good for each other in equal measure.

The style in this book bothered me. I’m not a fan of omitting quotation marks in dialogue. And while I have nothing against diving into characters’ heads and following their thought processes, this book felt heavy on introspection. Of course, the issues between Connell and Marianne can mostly be boiled down to lack of sufficient communication (which happens to be a pet-peeve of mine) and I guess that refusal to talk made the introspection essential to get their personalities on the page.

My biggest objection to this story is that while the blurb appears to hint at some sort of (happy) conclusion to Connell and Marianne’s ‘will they – won’t they’ relationship it is almost as if the book doesn’t conclude at all. In fact, while it is true that both of them have grown (should I say, ‘have come of age’?) over the course of the book, their relationship (such as it may be) hasn’t developed at all. This is most definitely not a romance, even if a lot of the story is about relationships. On a more detailed level I also had issues with how Marianne’s wish to submit was treated; as if it was something weird, something to be frowned upon, shameful even, be it that her realisation that submission didn’t have to involve pain went some way towards reducing my discomfort.

Overall, this was a captivating, although not always enjoyable, read. And I have to admit that I’m scratching my head about the fast number of literary prizes it was nominated for.

 

 

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Cabin Fever by Roe Horvat




Also available in Kindle Unlimited

Blurb

Michael Bourgeon is a talented artist, young and gorgeous, a stinking rich heir from a well-connected family. He’s the infamous libertine behind the most extravagant parties in Manhattan, and his exploits often lead to juicy tabloid stories. Enjoying his wealth and freedom to the fullest, Michael has the world at his feet.

Until someone tries to kill him. Repeatedly. After a security breach among his own staff, he has run out of options where to hide while the FBI hunts the killer.

A high-profile private security expert, the gruff and controlling Vincent Nowak, is supposed to provide the miracle solution. And while Michael struggles with nightmares and anxiety due to the looming threat, Vincent becomes not only the ultimately reliable protector, but a wonderful distraction, too…

A small cabin in the woods, a cocky brat with a soft heart, his gruff, controlling bodyguard, and weeks of tension in a confined space.

Gay erotic romance, a boy and his bodyguard, hurt/comfort, rough sex, pain, punishment, and of course, sweet love…

Based on the original short story “Yes Daddy”.

Review

“By taking what I wanted, I gave him what he needed”

If you’ve been keeping an eye on my reviews, I could probably limit myself to stating “Roe Horvat went and did it again” and you’d know exactly what I meant. But that would be very lazy on my part, and not much fun for you, so I’ll expand just a little.

For starters, let me say that Roe Horvat went and did it again. 😊

Seriously though, I turn to Roe’s book for well written, sexy love stories featuring captivating characters and yes, Cabin Fever fits that description perfectly.

Michael (Mikey) and Victor are just about perfect for each other. And each man realizes that they could be exactly what the other needs, right from the start. All would have been perfect if it wasn’t for the fact that the only reason they are cooped up together is the threat on Michael’s life. Victor is there to keep him save and doesn’t need or want distractions, especially not of the sexual kind. Except…

Except that the body wants what the body wants and needs often speak louder than sense. Therefore, it isn’t long before Victor is all too aware that Michael needs a Daddy while with every passing day they spent hidden away in isolation, Victor’s urge to give Michael exactly what he needs becomes stronger.

When they do give in to their mutual attraction, sparks fly. Hot sparks. Kinky sparks. Brutal sparks and, eventually, tender sparks. What follows is nothing short of a sex-fest. Victor and Michael push boundaries, talk dirty, and enjoy each other’s body in every way imaginable. And yet, don’t make the mistake of assuming that this book is nothing but sex. Relationships grow in a variety of ways and between Victor and Michael, much of the growth is created during their sex scenes. Victor learns what Michael needs only to discover it matches exactly what he desires to give. At the same time Michael finds peace of mind, for the first time in months, in his surrender to Victor’s dominance. Not that Victor is always the stronger, more stable personality in this growing relationship. When push comes to shove and he might lose the one person he can’t imagine living without, Michael shows he’s strong enough to force Victor to admit that which he’s been trying to deny for too long.

I loved the hint of suspense that loomed over the story from the start and for once, I didn’t mind the tiny amount of angst. In fact, it worked so well for me I found myself cheering Michael on all the way.

If you like your engrossing stories with a liberal dose of kinky scenes, an enticing Daddy-boy dynamic, a hint of suspense, and an uplifting and sweet happy ever after, you really need to go and one-click Cabin Fever.

Friday, 5 June 2020

The Promise Witch (The Wild Magic Trilogy #3) by Celine Kiernan




224 pages
Publisher: Walker Books

Blurb

Witches Borough is dying, and no one knows how to save it. Into this scorched landscape, storms a raggedy witch named Magda, trailing ashes in her wake. She wants Mup. She wants Mup to fulfil a promise. And woe betide any who stand in her way.

Review

“In a situation like this, maybe all you can do is listen, and try to understand … and give everyone room to figure out the answers for themselves.” - Dad

Only a few days ago I finished The Little Grey Girl, the second title in this trilogy, and ended my review stating how much I was looking forward to the final story. I’m sorta glad I didn’t know quite how excellent the conclusion would turn out to be because even those few days would have been too much of a wait. I expected a wonderful story, what I got was a tale of breathtaking beauty.

Really, The Promise Witch is everything a good book should be. A gripping, tension-filled story that just begs you to keep on turning the pages. This is by far the most thrilling of the three stories. The sense of danger is there on the very first page and steadily increases until, just when everything appears lost, it culminates in a glorious finale, that brought tears to my eyes.

Mup is as lovely, inquisitive, adventurous and big-hearted as she was in the first book, but she has grown. She’s learned valuable lessons on her journey and it shows. Of course, she’s still the young, impulsive, and sometimes stubborn girl, but she has the biggest heart. Her actions may seem rash at times, but they always come from a place of love.

While Mup is without a doubt the star of these stories, she comes with a collection of colourful and vividly drawn friends and family. It’s impossible not to mutter ‘awww’ every time her little brother Tipper makes an appearance, be it as a little boy or as a lively dog. I adore Crow with his tough exterior and humongous heart, and sorta want to adopt him. I could go on, but I’ll limit myself to saying that all together, Mup and her family and friends portray the very best in life; a community, far from perfect but where ultimately everybody looks out for each other when push comes to shove.

Oh boy did I need to read this book today. In a world gone mad, this was exactly the tonic I needed. Who knew it would take a book aimed at 9-12-year olds to remind me there is such a thing as hope, that despite evidence to the contrary the world is filled with love, and that deep down, most people want to do what’s right? The book is a treasure trove of subtle pearls of wisdom, disguised as dialogue or a school lesson, and I took them to heart. In fact, there was one I loved so much, I turned it into a meme.



Long story short: I adore and highly recommend this fast-paced and magical adventure. I’m in awe of Celine Kiernan and her own personal magic of turning the meaningful into an adventure. Or maybe she fills adventures with meaning. I have no idea how she does it. I only know that she does it perfectly.




Thursday, 4 June 2020

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan


Pages 306
Book Club Selection

Blurb

Britain has lost the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. In a world not quite like this one, two lovers will be tested beyond their understanding.

Machines Like Me takes place in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in
love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans and — with Miranda’s help — he designs Adam’s personality. The near-perfect human that emerges is beautiful, strong and clever. It isn’t long before a love triangle forms, and these three beings confront a profound moral dilemma.

In his subversive new novel, Ian McEwan asks whether a machine can understand the human heart — or whether we are the ones who lack understanding.

Review

Honestly, I’m somewhat underwhelmed. After I read the blurb and before I opened the book, I expected…more? Something different from what I got for sure. What I thought (hoped) I would be reading was a book about humans coming to terms with a machine that is almost indistinguishable from them, how that might change their perception of what humanity is exactly. And, there was some of that in this book but, to me, it did not feel like the main theme of the story.

What I didn’t expect, and didn’t enjoy, where the long and overly-detailed descriptions of the alternative reality the story takes place in and the technological intricacies of machines like Adam. Why for example, do we get several pages of what reads like listing facts about the political landscape when Charlie states: To me, […] all this […] was a busy hum, dipping and swelling from day to day, a matter of interest and concern, but nothing to compare with the turbulence of my domestic life, […]. Because to me it read as if the story was about that political landscape at least as much as it was about the main characters. It is, of course, possible that I missed something and that there are parallels between that general state of the world and Charlie’s removal from it, but are those relevant if they are so vague that I can’t pick up on them?

I’ve taken the following from the Goodreads blurb: Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control.

While the last line of that quote does feel accurate, I can’t say I recognize the book in the earlier part. Charlie and Miranda felt rather underdeveloped as the human characters in this story. In fact, as a result of all the technical descriptions I felt I had a better idea about the workings of Adam’s mind by the end of the story than I had about what motivated Charlie and Miranda.

Something I hadn’t considered before starting the book but greatly appreciated in this story was what being almost human means to a machine who doesn’t, of course, have the same emotional impulses as humans. How do you deal when your algorithms don’t contain the information necessary to deal with the often irrational (as in emotionally driven rather than logical) human emotions and decisions? The answer to this question turned out to be rather heartbreaking.

But, I had more issues with this story. The relationship between Charlie and Miranda never felt real to me. At no point in the story did I feel they had anything in common apart from the pleasure they derived from sex and the input they had in Adam’s final creation. I have no idea what the purpose of the child, Mark, in this story was and can’t help feeling that leaving him out wouldn’t have changed anything about the eventual outcome, nor did it appear to add to the story’s progression.

In final analysis I have to admit that this was almost like reading two books at the same time. One book was a political, technical, and societal study of an alternative history. While some of those details were necessary to for world-building, I wouldn’t have missed anything if it had been reduced by something like 80 to 90%. The other story I read, the story about Adam and his fellow sentient machines and their struggle to learn to live and find a purpose among humans on the other hand, was fascinating and I could have done with a lot more depth there. All of which explains why I gave this book three stars.

As for the book club discussion of this title, goodness only knows if, when, or how it might take place. This book was our March selection by which stage the library had been closed in the national Corona Virus lockdown. Libraries will start to open their doors within days, but as of now, there’s no signs of groups like my book club being allowed to come together again. Which is a shame, because I would love to hear what the others members thought about this book.



Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Little Grey Girl (The Wild Magic Trilogy #2) by Celine Kiernan




Pages: 217
Publisher: Walker Books

Blurb

The old queen and her raggedy witches have fled Witches Borough, and Mup’s family has moved into the cold, newly empty castle. But the queen’s legacy lingers in the fear and mistrust of her former subjects and in the memories that live in the castle’s very walls. While Mup’s mam tries to restore balance to a formerly oppressed world, Mup herself tries to settle into her strange new home with her dad, Tipper, and Crow. When an enchanted snow blankets the castle, Mup’s family is cut off from the rest of the kingdom, and the painful memories of the old queen’s victims begin to take form, thanks to a ghost whose power may be too much for even Mup and Mam to handle. 

Review

I took my time before picking up The Little Grey Girl and I’m not sure why. The only thing I do know for sure that it didn’t have anything to do with any reluctance to read the story on my part. I adored Begone the Raggedy Witches and was very much looking forward to the rest of the story. But, given how ‘only’ reading the sequel now means I literally only have two days to wait before the third book releases, I think I may have accidentally (and subconsciously) made the right decision because I can’t wait to read The Promise Witch, the third and final story in this fabulous trilogy.

I loved reuniting with Mup, her parents, Tipper, her little (doggo) brother, and Crow. The mystery of who the little grey girl might be and what she’s up to or why had me on the edge of my seat. It was fascinating to watch Mup as she tries to figure out what is going on, who is causing it, and overcomes her fear to solve the situation. But most of all I adore Mup. She is one of the most engaging, well-rounded, and fabulous characters I’ve read in recent times because, despite her magical powers, she is a very real little girl trying to figure out life, adults, and herself. I’m so delighted she’s not perfect. She has her moments when she’s unreasonable and reacts or lashes out before thinking, but they are beautifully contrasted with instances when Mup realises what she’s done and learns from the experience.

Why do I love these stories so much, you ask? Well, the short answer, as illustrate above is: because they are captivating and thrilling reads. What’s not to love about a story filled with danger and mystery in which a charming and smart little girl with magical powers saves the day (and her family and friends). The longer answer goes something like this. These books blow me away because there is so much more in them than ‘just’ the compelling story (and trust me, I’d read and love them for the story alone). What makes these books truly magical (pun intended) for me is Celine Kiernan’s amazing skill when it comes to writing books, aimed at juvenile readers, without ever writing down to them. What’s more, she manages to introduce subjects such as friendship, loyalty, grief, fear, and bravery without ever preaching about them. They’re just there, an integral part of the story while at the same time conveying subtle messages to the readers, showing them that it’s okay to be afraid, that there’s no shame in anger, that it is possible to be upset with a friend without it meaning the end of the friendship. And, maybe the most valuable ‘lesson’ in this book, that it is important to try and understand what motivates others, that first impressions don’t always reveal the truth, and that often an act of kindness, understanding, and compassion may achieve what anger and violence can not.

Long story short. I’m in awe of this author. I want to live in her imagination and, failing that, I can only be grateful that she shares her fabulous creative vision with us through stories which are, without fail, captivating page-turners. Only two more days before I’ll be able to get my hands on what will, without a doubt, be a grand finale. 

Bring. It. On.




Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff




280 pages
Publisher: Tinder Press

Blurb

LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE is the story of Orpen, a young woman who must walk on foot across a ravaged Ireland in the desperate hope of saving herself, and her guardian Maeve, from the zombie-like menace known as the skrake. Sarah Davis-Goff's strikingly original debut will appeal to readers of dystopian literary fiction such as STATION 11 or THE END WE START FROM.

Watch your six. Beware tall buildings. Always have your knives.

Growing up on a tiny island off the coast of a post-apocalyptic Ireland, Orpen's life has revolved around physical training and necessity. After Mam died, it's the only way she and her guardian Maeve have survived the ravenous skrake (zombies) who roam the wilds of the ravaged countryside, looking for prey.

When Maeve is bitten and infected, Orpen knows what she should do - sink a knife into her eye socket, and quickly. Instead, she tries to save Maeve, and following rumours of a distant city on the mainland, guarded by fierce banshees, she sets off, pushing Maeve in a wheelbarrow and accompanied by their little dog, Danger. It is a journey on which Orpen will need to fight repeatedly for her life, drawing on all of her training and instincts. In the course of it, she will learn more about the Emergency that destroyed her homeland, and the mythical Phoenix City - and discover a starting truth about her own identity.

Review

I finished The Last Ones Left Alive yesterday, and found I had to let it sit for a while before trying to write a review. I have many, many, thinky thoughts, but not all of them can be shared because they would spoil the story for those who haven’t read it yet. So, this review comes with a warning: it will at times be vague and I don’t rule out that it may leave you scratching your head ones or twice.

But, before I get to the confusing part, let me focus on the story as a whole.

As the blurb illustrates, The Last Ones Left Alive is set in a post-apocalyptic Ireland where, as far is Orpen is concerned while she’d growing up, she, her mother Muireann and Maeve might as well be the only ones still living. On their small island there are no other people, and while there are reminders of the world as it used to be, the disheveled state those are in, indicates that the island has been mostly uninhabited for quite some time. Yet, despite being on their own, Orpen spends her years growing up preparing for the worst as she trains to gain strength, learn how to fight and use her knives.

When the story starts, we find Orpen traveling through the deserted Irish countryside, travelling to the east where she hopes to find Phoenix City, a place she knows very little about except that it exists or used to exist and that there might be other survivors there. Orpen pushes a wheelbarrow which holds necessities as well as Maeve, who is obviously not well and potentially a danger to Orpen. The world Orpen finds herself in is filled with expected and unknown threats, and her journey is often tense, and danger-filled. But, despite Orpen’s desperate situation, she also discovers beauty in the countryside, and a form of joy as her horizons expand.

It was fascinating to watch Orpen as she adjusts her ideas and world view according to what she encounters. All she has to go by is the little Maeve and her mother have been willing, mostly reluctantly, to share with her in the past, but it has formed her expectations. When she meets three other, uninfected, humans, her perceptions slowly change. Especially since she no longer has Maeve with her to colour her views.

There are several deeply emotional scenes in this book which, given the setting, was only to be expected. What I really admired is how the author managed to portray Orpen dealing with devasting losses and shocking new experiences without falling apart. It was a necessary and brilliantly executed portrayal of Orpen coming to terms with what’s happening, without leaving her so broken that she’s no longer able to keep herself alive.

I saw some review describing this as a ‘fiercely feminist novel’, but I’m not sure I can fully support that assessment. Sure, Maeve, Orpen, and her mum are strong, self-sufficient women, well able to take care of themselves. But the way Maeve opposes Phoenix City, to the point where she won’t tell Orpen anything about it or its location, indicates that this place, reportedly run by women, isn’t necessarily a fairer, safer, or more equal society than the world as ruled by men is/was. The glimpses we get later in the story, after Orpen runs into Cillian, Nic, and Aodh, indicate all is not harmonious in Phoenix City. A further encounter, near the end of the story, only enhanced that impression for me.

The story is told in alternating chapters, one taking place in the ‘present’ with Orpen on her fateful journey, and the next describing events that led up to her making that long track.  It was executed really well. The current storyline and the ‘flashbacks’ tie in closely, and illustrate each other, but… Most (if not all) chapters end on a mini cliffhanger. Don’t get me wrong, this is a recognized and popular fiction device. It is just that while reading this book I discovered that ending a chapter on a cliffhanger doesn’t work for me unless the next chapter immediately picks up the thread again. A chapter in between the conflict and the conclusion makes it easier for me to put a book down, to walk away. Which almost certainly isn’t what’s meant to happen, so maybe that’s just me being quirky.

The story left me with a few questions. Unfortunately, I can’t voice them here without resorting to spoilers. I just hope that the promised sequel will provide the answers I need. As a general statement, this post-apocalyptic world could do with a bit of building, more background as to how it ended up in the state we find it in, and what happened in the various other parts of the world/Ireland.

The synopsis ends with the following sentence:

“In the course of it, she will learn more about the Emergency that destroyed her homeland, and the mythical Phoenix City - and discover a starting truth about her own identity.”

As far as I’m concerned, that promise wasn’t (completely) fulfilled. I’m still not very clear at all about ‘the Emergency’, have only seen (not very enticing) hints about Phoenix City, and so far, only have suspicions about Orpen’s own identity. What is more, while I have my suspicions about Maeve and Muireann’s back story, I would love to see it confirmed (or refuted) and expanded.

I will always rejoice when I read a story in which a same-sex relationship just is, without the need for explanation, excuses, or a special ‘coming-out-like’ reveal. Maeve and Muireann’s relationship is just that, an established fact, right from the start. And while that lifted my heart, I don’t think it could have been written differently; not in this book. Since we read the story from Orpen’s perspective, and she has never known other people besides her mother and Maeve, there is no reason why the relationship would be remarkable. Prejudice is something we need to be taught (as Orpen’s distrust of men shows), not something we’re born with. Which doesn’t negate the fact that Orpen’s automatic acceptance of her mother’s relationship is a bright spark in an otherwise rather dark story.

I’m suddenly afraid the above makes it sound as if I didn’t like this book, which is not the impression I want to leave you with. In fact, The Last Ones Left Alive is fascinating, nail-biting, compulsive read. The story is well plotted and Orpen’s voice is clear, showing us exactly who she is and how she changes as life throws challenges her way. The book reminded me a bit of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, although it is decidedly less bleak. On one or two occasions I also flashed back to several of Margaret Atwood’s books. None of those (possibly perceived) similarities take anything away from The Last Ones Left Behind, though. This is an original, vividly written, tale featuring strong, proud, and independent women without ever falling into the trap of making them look too good to be true.

I listened to the first half of this book and read the last part. I made the change because I ran out of time, not because there’s anything wrong with the audio. Far from it. The audio was amazing. I feel the narrator captured Orpen’s voice brilliantly and voiced her various emotions with clarity. In fact, the narration was at times so tense that I now can confidently advice against listening to this story while talking a walk along mostly deserted Irish countryside roads. 😊

LOL. Before I started writing this review, I was curious about the sequel. Now that I’m done, I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I’m curious both because I want answers to my remaining questions and because I can’t wait to see what will happen next. Release date anyone?