Casterbridge - Book Reviews

Short reviews on recent reads that I try and keep spoiler free. I am quite selective about what I read so reviews are likely to be positive. Feedback and thoughts welcome. Oh, I am not just a critic/complainer. I have a go at telling stories too. On my other homepage, I regularly publish Flash Fiction.

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Currently Reading:

Dr Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick

Next Thing I Plan On Reading: Classic Crime

No Plot? No Problem! By Chris Baty

This is basically the origin story for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) plus some advice to get through it. It is a fun read. The edition I had seemed a little old technology wise but that didn't spoil it. It did get my enthusiasm up for taking part this year so I guess it worked? The key takeaway author encourages the writer to explore in that manic time of writing and not over think and just go down all those seemingly crazy avenues. Future drafts can fix things up. I wish it had more on how NaNoWriMo became a global event but maybe that's a story for another book.

The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick

I should start off by declaring I am a huge fan of the TV series of the same name. Obviously the TV series is very different from the book so I tried to put aside my preconceptions as I turned the pages. I read this in about a week which is fairly fast for me, which is a fairly positive sign.

Set in an alternate future where Germany won WWII, America is divided by the Japanese and German powers. Two books influence the population. The 'I Ching' oracle and an underground book 'The Grass Hopper Lies Heavy' is causing a stir.

The ending is rather sudden and I am not sure what I would have made of it all if I had read the book first. It crosses PKD's favourite topics of perception and reality. It's not as simple as book is better than the which is usually the case. It is much slower and thoughtful. I did have fun seeing which parts were used and expanded for the 4 season show. If you go in with the understanding it is going to be very different, I think you should enjoy it.

The Castles of Carpathia by Jules Verne

Definitely one of Verne’s lesser known works, this short adventure tale sent in the mountains was a fun read.

It features a journey and a pushes the technology of the time and so is a typical Verne tale. Maybe a little quaint in places but that didn't bother me.

Denouement by HexDSL

Again, full disclosure, this is a book by someone I 'know' online. Judge for yourself if that taints my critique.

First off, 'Denouement' has a funky cover and Amazon have printed a quality book. The paper is nice and the type is clear.

More importantly, this is a Scifi tale where the protagonist Jon wakes up with memory loss in a space faring age where he is well known and basically living the good life. Trying to avoid spoilers here and sum up a complex situation so take this description loosly... everyone in this reality is aware something is not right with the way things are and Jon soon finds his life in danger.

HexDSL's writing has definitely progressed since Hunters Garden and the chapters are a good length for dipping in and out of this book. Often when reading books from people I know, I power through them to get the review posted quickly. This one, I decided to take my time and enjoy it a bit more taking in a little more of the mystery each day. There is rich world building going on but it is not overwhelming and technology explanations don't outstay their welcome and the pace it good.

The story wraps up in a satisfying way and sets up the continuation/sequel. It's a good entry in the genre and I recommend it. Glad to hear that the follow-up is receiving its first edit. I'll be picking up a copy.

This book is Currently available on Amazon only though I believe it will be on itch.io in a couple of weeks.

Posted August 2022

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie

I am new to Agatha Christie but I am loving vintage/classic crime at the moment. Maybe it's the lack of forensics or phones and emails being plot points. This is a classic that introduces Hercule Poirot. In short, it's a who-dunnit set in the early 20th century. This audio book was a good reading. I think you know if you will like this kind of book. It hits the mark!

Posted May 2022

Terminal Velocity By Bob Shaw

This novel is the continuation of a short story and the edition I have includes the story as a preface. The book is set in the world where anti-gravity devices allow everyone to fly around. The main character is a police officer of the skies sent over to Canada to recuperate. His time there is not as peaceful as intended. He is drawn into the small town and the events surrounding an unfinished hotel in the sky.

This is quite a short read, and I'd recommend it. It takes the invention of one device and plays it out in a good narrative, unlike some scifi, which is full of unexplored implications of curious inventions. Imagine if everyone was Superman! The author is new to me too and I think I'll look up his other books.

Hunter's Garden by HexDSL

Full disclosure, another book by someone I 'know' online. I was keen to read this as I have not ventured into urban fantasy.

City dweller Mike is quickly drawn into a world of vampires, hunters and other creatures. I liked how his arrival in this hidden world was treated as routine by the other characters and not 'oh wow an outsider!' like in similar scenarios. Mike learns about the world and is soon involved in the struggle with the dark forces. The 'Garden' which I won't describe (too spoiler-y) provides a refuge between missions.

The bulk of this book is made up of a long letter by the main character, Mike. It switches to the third person for the conclusion. This structure makes a lot of sense for the story. It made me realised I must have warmed to the central character as I was wanting to know what was Mike's personal take on the concluding events.

This book has sat propped up on my desk since I finished it and I left it like that because I like the cover illustration. True, covers aren't critical, but a good one can set the atmosphere for each reading session. This one is an original and not some stock photo.

If you enjoy a bit of mystery and monster hunting, I think you will enjoy this novel. I enjoyed the story and would like to spend more time in the curious world it set up. This debut book is self-published and available on Amazon for a very reasonable price. Looking forward to reading more from HexDSL.

Scotland Bay the Return: The Legacy — Cecly Ann Mitchell

Cecly has been an online friend for some time so it is crazy it has taken me so long to read one of her books! This is a first part of a series and is set mostly in Trinidad. A large inheritance is set to upturn the worlds of Astral's children. This book a family drama with romance plus some historical aspects.

Not my usual genre but I was 100% drawn into the world and definitely want to get onto the next book in the series. Recommended 🙂

Her Last Breath by Hilary Davidson

This book is a murder mystery/thriller set post Covid 19 in New York. The opening chapter set at the victim's funeral draws you in quickly and things get underway just as fast. The book is written in the first person and switches character viewpoints which works well.

Whilst I liked the contemporary settings and themes, it lost me along the way somewhere. I think it was me not connecting with the characters or maybe having issues with a few plot points. Nothing major there though. I think my biggest niggle would be characters using each other as therapy sessions to explain their feelings. This felt a little forced at times. Didn't ruin it for me though.

So a solid novel not a big hit with me but if you like this kind of murder and crime story you will probably enjoy it a good bit more than I did.

The Invisible Man by H G Wells

The Invisible Man is one of those well known characters that everyone knows but I don't think this book well read. It is quite short at 150 pages and Wells wastes no time. The titular character is already invisible when the book starts.

So it is an enjoyable adventure as the Invisible Man profits and suffers from his super power. Similar to some super hero stories but a bit more practical such as keeping warm and eating. He becomes an outcast more to do with his temper than his invisiblity. I shall say no more to avoid spoilers. What I will say is that the many stories that deal with an invisible hero or villian, no one ever seems to think to throw flour/paint/ink/something on them to mark them. I have trouble suspending my disbelief on that point sometimes!

The book is definitely of its time - there some language in there that would be updated for a modern edition. It feels about the right length and has a good conclusion. I would love to see an early edition with illustrations if such a thing exists. A good historical read.

Timeline by Michael Crichton

I picked up a paperback of this novel by the author of Jurassic Park without much foreknowledge of it other than an existance of a movie version of it which was poorly received. The book is always better, right?

So this is a time travel action adventure thriller with the expected elements (evil corporation, dashing young adventurous team, danger in the past and challenges on getting home). The book is a race against time journey to the Middle Ages so we enjoy knights, castles and all that. Crichton throws in some history and science info dumps which don't break the flow too much and sets the scene. The historic setting is clearly well researched.

It really does nothing novel (sic) with the time travel element other than keeping it grounded in something close to reality and hard science. I think I enjoyed 'State Of Fear' more than this one. It was fine enough and if you like Crichton, this adventure will while away the time. I did like the illustrations (small) which helped show the layout of the buildings and explain some of the quantum theory. I wish more books did that. Other than that the characters are unremarkable and the plot is a bit standard. Competent but not memorable.

How The World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini

Non-fiction for a change and this one proved rather interesting for a semi-impulse purchase. I bought this one as an audio book, and the author does a good job of reading the material. It felt very natural and better than a performance by a pro voice artist.

This book is hard to summarise without simply restating the title! We are taken on a tour of philosophies around the world. A good deal of time is spent in the Indian and Chinese traditions so we escape ancient Greece (something other books fail to do). It is done in an solid style that does not every get bogged down in technical arguments. It ventures into the religious and political realm showing how philosophy impacts everyday life.

I would say this book is very accessible for anyone with a passing interest in the topic or just interested in different cultures. It has made me even more curious about the Far East and other philosophies. So definitely a recommended listen/read.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndam

I remember reading this as part of high school English, though I am not sure we ever finished it. The first part of the book seemed very familiar and the rest seemed new. Anyway, I devoured this in a couple of days.

Set years after a nuclear war (not explicitly said as we see it through the eyes of the later generations who have lost a lot of history), where there is some areas law order backed up by a strict anti-mutation religion. We follow David who lives on a farm in a district from childhood to adulthood. He and some distant children develop telepathic communication. This makes it easier to conceal but when the authorities begin to suspect, makes their reaction all the more brutal and desperate.

The story is written in the first person but Wyndam skill makes the other characters feel as close as the protagonist. It is easy to read and quite compelling as the world is built up. It did leave me wanting more in a good way. Another chapter would have been good on the conclusion though. Maybe the author was planning a sequel? It feels rather timeless too though it was undoubtably influenced by 1950s nuclear fears. A good read.

The Elven by Bernard Hennen

800 pages. This is a long book and I have taken years (literally) to finish it. That's been my problem though. This is a good fantasy book which ticks all the boxes.

I don't read much fantasy at all so this is from someone inexperienced in the genre. The plot resolves around the release of a demon who causes chaos in the Elven and normal worlds. There's a few main characters but most readers will relate to Mandred an axe wielding human who gets caught up in events. So this has long journerys, queens, battles at sea, reunions and an epic final battle. The axe is put to good use and the two worlds concept keeps things interesting. This is the start of a series too though this volume is very complete in itself.

So it was good despite the elongated reading time. I hadn't forgotten too much (I think) and Mandred seemed like an old friend I was catching up with. If fantasy is your thing it is worth a look.

F**k Yeah Video Games By Daniel Hardcastle

This is the first book by YouTuber NerdCubed. It was published by Unbound and I was a backer so I received a lovely hardbacked copy and my name is in it. I like it already. Yay! Apparently this is most successful book crowdfunder in the UK ever. Cool.

This is a chaotic (in a good way) and humourous look at video games. Part-reviews, part-reflections and a few personal stories thrown into the mix then shaken up and down. There’s cute and fun illustrations by Rebecca Maughan too.

Only minor criticism is that some games don't get a great description before the author dives into a fun story about it or related to it. Then again the intended readership probably already knows or you can find a video of Daniel playing it on YouTube so no biggie. So if you like games from the past three decades or so and want a fun bundle of silliness, you will probably enjoy this one.

1984 by George Orwell

I have put off reading this classic for too long, so I tried to shake off any preconceptions and just read it as a novel on its own. Not easy. So many other books and films have borrowed from this book, it undeniably influencial, important and well worth reading. If only to understand people making references to it - sometimes inaccurately.

I found it a tough read. Of course, it is bleak. There's no plucky band of rebels about to overthrow Big Brother with a bow and arrow. The tribal nature of politics breeds an irrationality in all true devotees of a cause, makes it feel very plausible. It is satire and exagerated but not too much.

There is a lot of time describing the world and the mechanics up front. I did wonder if I was reading a political essay rather than a novel at times. The story element is spread out so much but the ending is good and suitably dark. I nearly stopped reading it but then the character Julia appeared giving the story a much needed-nudge forward. I would have preferred a more human story and a few less pages on political machinery.

So I would suggest reading it. Important societal ideas, if not easy ones. A good story is there but its secondary to a cautionary message.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This was a random charity shop purchase and definitely brought something different.

The entire book is in a form of letters to the Chinese premier written by Balram, an Indian man from a poor background who ends up working for a corrupt rich family as a driver.

No spoilers but things change dramatically for Balram by the last letter. I am still unclear why he was writing to the premier. Maybe I missed something.

The book does grab you very quickly and I read it very quickly. I did feel the final third of the book was overly long and it should have kept events going at a faster pace.

It is a compelling read with some good moments but the universal mistreatment of the poor is hammmered home again and again in a modern-day Indian setting. Was this the character talking or the author self-inserting? I didn't like Balram very much and the other characters were a bit predictable.

The novel reminds me of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting - a lot of interesting situations and bits but the whole isn't particularly satisfying or a great story.

So it brought surprise and the unknown so delivered as random book choice. The copy I have is plastered with glowing reviews so maybe I just didn't get it. It is definitely brash, bold, not boring and it is an interesting setting.

The Green Ray by Jules Verne

It has been way too long since I read some Verne! My brother gave me this book for Christmas and I was delighted to find another of Verne’s books set in Scotland, and as a bonus, set in places I have visited.

This is a new translation by Karen Loukes published by Luath Press and it is a well laid out book with numerous period illustrations (from the 1882 edition of the book) and an afterword which discusses this book amongst Verne’s other works. This is largely a romance and a dose of travel writing woven in. This indeed was a journey Verne took himself in his steam yacht.

There’s no advanced technology or space travel here as Miss Campbell and her two uncles head out in search of titular green ray which may rarely be glimpsed at sunset. Two suitors are met along the way. More like other novels by the same author, the events of the book take place on water as they explore the west coast of Scotland and the islands. The ending heads more into adventure territory where Verne excels. I shall avoid saying any more to avoid spoilers.

I really enjoyed this book – certainly a little lighter than some other of Verne’s works but not shallow. The romance drives the story in a natural fashion and the ‘travel writing’ forms a great backdrop. This novel is certainly of its time in some ways, but this is a tale modern readers will enjoy too. Already starting to think which Verne book to read next – barely touched the 60+ novels he wrote.

The Hobbit - Abridged - Read by Martin Shaw

Tolkien's classic was one of my first purchases on Audible and it is great. Shaw reads it well. However it is an abridged version (I suspect it was to fit on tape/CD's) and from a quick glance there are other recordings with the full text. So it is good but unless you have a specific need for a shorter version or are a big fan of Martin Shaw, pick up another version.

This Sceptred Isle - Various Volumes

This Sceptred Isle is a radio program that was broadcast for 15 minutes daily on Radio 4 which I used to listen to on long wave. The programs have been joined together in various audio 'books'. They tell of the history of Britain from pre-Roman Empire times to the year 2000 approx.

Anna Massey is a fantastic narrator and other voices add variety in a somewhat rapid tour of thousands of years of history. As the title suggests this focuses on the leadership from royalty to politicians in the later years. Given the scope and original format, it moves fairly fast so it cannot cover everything.

Even for the non-history buff, this is essential listening and particularly if you are a resident of Great Britain to get something of an overview of how history influences us today. I enjoyed the early volumes most, simply because it it tells of a more different time.

Looking forward to relistening. You can listen to it on the BBC's site here.

Stars and Stripes Triumphant by Harry Harrison

This is the third book in Harrison's alternate history trilogy which follows a 'what if'. In the first book a real life diplomatic incident is not resolved in a face-saving manner (as it was in history), and the Queen leads Great Britain into war. In Victorian Britain, the consequences of the American's success are played out leading to a satisfying conclusion.

I shall avoid spoilers but the title is a bit of a giveaway! This volume is less full on war than the previous books though plenty of action on water. The theme of war driving technology and technology being the deciding factor continues. Good to see Scotland have more than a passing mention, Ireland is featured too but Wales was entirely overlooked (apologies to the author if I missed it). My only real criticism of this book is there is no clear continous British viewpoint throughout. There are enough British characters but it jumps around. More Disraeli would have improved it. Only a minor point.

I read through the trilogy in paperback books and it was more fun than ebooks. Tracking them down, unwrapping envelopes. Enjoying the physical artwork, getting sad when the cover gets a little creature in it and now having them on the shelf as little trophies. For books I may revisit, it seems the superior format.

Spellmaker by Charlie N. Holmberg

Spellmaker is the second part of a duology with Spellbreaker. Once again not my typical read, stepping into the world of magic. Elsie Cambden is a young unregistered spellbreaker caught up in a series of events. The book picks up soon after the first and provides a good conclusion that wraps up the mystery and the murders. Definitely not dragged out.

The first book introduced an interesting magical world - Victorian times (19th century) with magic being a normal (but highly controlled) part of life. Magic is used to prop up the class system. The second moves along at a good pace and deepens the world. Showing rather than telling.

I have a couple of tiny niggles. Two characters are a little too convenient for the plot. The finale is in a bit of a mundane location. My expectation was something more, um, magical. That said just little niggles.

So if you are looking for a fun light read with a bit of adventure, romance and mystery, this pair of books is worth a read. Potter fans will probably enjoy. I think it is marketed as 'young adult'. (I've danced around including spoilers for both books so apologies for any gaps in this write up.)

Bloodline by Jess Lourey

This ebook definitely ticked the box of something I don't normally read and overall I enjoyed it.

Set in the USA during the time of the Vietnam war, a city dweller journalist heads to out to start life in a small town where her boyfriend grew up. She finds the community a little too close knit for comfort and digs into the town's history...

So we have a mystery thriller here so I'll avoid spoilers. What I found acutely off-putting was that it was from the first day in the town and every aspect of the community made the heroine freak out. A little more 'that was different but okay this is not the city' would have aided the suspension of my disbelief. I found myself trying to treat it like a far-fetched horror movie to go along with it..

That said I read this pretty quickly, there's some good surprises and the pace makes sure it is never boring. If it sounds like your type of book, then you probably will really enjoy it. It was good to read a novel after reading anthologies lately.

Posted June 2021

Sea of Rust By C. Robert Cargill

I sped through this audio book faster than any I can remember! I picked it almost entirely based on the cool cover I was hooked from the opening chapter.

Set in the near future, the world now belongs to robots some of which are beginning to wear out and come to terms with their mortality. We are introduced to Brittle, once a domestic robot now a scavanger in the titular Sea of Rust which is the large robot junkyard. The story is told in a mix of flashbacks (the jumping round never got annoying for me) to before the robot uprising, the war and the robots' struggle afterwards. I would write more but I don't want to give any spoilers. The author makes you care about flawed rusty robots, worry about AI's and face the inevitibility of the demand for sex-bots.

If you like scifi and robots, you will definitely enjoy. The Audible recording is good and has some good audio effects (nicely under done).

Posted June 2021

The Martian Chronicles By Ray Bradbury

This is a collection of Mars based short stories, initially unrelated, that were revised and woven together into a single volume. Bradbury comes out of that classic era of sci-fi but comes out with a unique take. Many of the stories have been dramatised in radio programmes in the 50s which I have recently listened to. I think I watched the TV series but that was so long ago I don't remember.

Bradbury's Mars is fantastical and mysterious. It's not anything like Weir's The Martian. Mars is habitable, families take a rocket to the planet and there are Martians. It reflects America of Bradbury's day. Atomic warfare and race are all there. Like many of his short stories there is underlying melancholy tone and a sense of loss. Not to say there is no humour. If you like Bradbury I would recommend this but if you are new to his work, I would suggest starting with another of his short story selections such as 'Golden Apples of the Sun' or 'Long After Midnight'.

I listened to this on Audible - the recording was good. Time for me to take a break from short-stories and get through a novel.

Posted June 2021

Lovecraft's Monsters - Short story Anthology

I picked up this audio book whilst looking for short story collections. I am not very familiar with HP Lovecraft's mythos but the inclusion of of familiar authors (Neil Gaiman for one) encouraged me to dive in with my only expectation being many tentacles. The final chapter of the book is a 'Monster Index' which gives a brief background to the creatures and their history in Lovecraft's work. I left this to the end but you may wish to preload this information.

The stories vary greatly in length covering a range of the creatures and the ordering of the stories works well. As with most collections, one story stands out from the rest. For me it was "Black is the Pit From Pole to Pole" by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley which features Frankenstein's monster in Lovecraft's universe plus even more literary appearances from Edgar-Rice Burroughs to Moby Dick.

The Audible audio book is well read by a single narrator. I believe the print copy is illustrated - tempting to pick up a copy for re-reading after diving into some HP Lovecraft first hand. I certainly recommend it to fans of the genre though I would be curious to hear a HPL fan's take on this collection.

Posted June 2021