Sherlock Holmes and the Nine-Dragon Sigil- Tim Symonds

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Firstly, I’m not a raving fan of the fictitious Sherlock Holmes, though I’m certainly an admirer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I read several Sherlock books in my younger years enjoying their adventure and appreciated their cleverly weaved plots, even if it was other works of Doyle that really grabbed me. Professor Challenger, who first appeared in ‘The Lost World’ has always been my favourite character. So a weak amateur fan of the original books though I am, I couldn’t but enjoy how genuine this read felt. I could have easily been fooled into thinking that this was the writing of the great man himself, even though this is as much historical fiction as the team once of Baker Street. Further, once embroiled in unmasking the sinister, even the plot was worthy of the Sherlock Holmes stamp.

This book is not only brilliantly written, it is exceedingly well researched. I enjoyed the detail in the history every bit as much as the story itself. The historical fiction is as clever as the stylistically accurate incorporation of by far the two most famous characters of Doyle’s huge imagination—two characters as famous as any in literary fiction.

I very much enjoyed the ‘glossary’ at the end of the book, which gave depth to so much of the period detail. This additional information doesn’t add to, or subtract from, the story itself, but certainly gives readers such as I, ignorant of Chinese history, a much needed and speedy education. All the detail is self-explanatory enough in the run of the story, however, the additional information rounds off this reading experience quite delightfully.

I recommend this book to fans of Sherlock Holmes, lovers of historical fiction and to all those that like a wide variety of well-written fiction. I will be looking to read further books from Tim Symonds’ pen.

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Anya and the Power Crystal- N. A. Cauldron

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This is a really good book for the ‘between years’ reader and younger adolescents. Well, so says I, from the distance of my 60s and many years from having even the connection of children of such ages. I enjoyed delving into Cauldron’s fantasy adventure, with its traditional fight between generally righteous good and the forces of evil. The writing is exuberant, pacey, entertaining; surely a reflection of the author’s own joy in the telling. The plot is moved along without delaying information dumps, telling us just enough to paint the required pictures. I genuinely felt that Cauldron easily puts herself in young shoes.

This is the second in series, and though I haven’t read the first book I had no difficulties with the story or the interesting range of mainly adolescent major characters. The fantasy elements were a nice mix of stock-in trade fantasy and material original to the author’s mind. There is loads of potential for at very least the completing of a trilogy, with plenty of unanswered plot twists, without over-treading too many familiar paths. I see no reason why this shouldn’t build into a well followed, long series. I would have loved reading about Anya’s world as a child, and perhaps especially having it read to me as my interest in fantasy worlds lagged some way behind my reading ability.

The emphasis on a strong female heroine, sorry I’m old enough that I still struggle with the use of a non-gender specific hero, is very much the trend. That is a clear reflection of the empowerment of women throughout all the major strands of modern society and culture. Cauldron’s writing is very much of the ‘Queendom’, with the female protagonist balancing the best of, with the worst of gender. That is something of a relief, running as it does against the grain of so much modern writing, even though the negatives of gender are mainly in the form of the traditional wicked witch. I am very pleased to say that some of the boys are written with real individuality as well. In short, there is balance enough that young males will find characters to dream through rather than simply of. This is definitely a ‘Hermione Granger’ rather than a ‘Harry Potter’ story, however, Cauldron keeps a Rowlingesk balance in her Queendom. I’m sure that the greatest part of Rowling’s success is her ability to make all children, um- and grown-up child, feel that given another time and space that they could be a character in her fictitious worlds.

One thing I like about my vision of Anya is that she is ‘actually’ a realistic role model, if that makes any sense at all in a fantasy book. I mean of course, that she isn’t either impossibly beautiful or talented. She is just Anya, from the next house down the street, with typical parents, and a mixed range of friends. Wand and a bit of intuition aside, she is just one in a crowd, like just about any of us in the real world. She sometimes fails to measure up, gets her hands dirty, makes a fool of herself, fails to fit in; just like everyone else.

I will look out in the hope of reading a few reviews from the target audience, to see if Cauldron has hit the nail as well as I think she has. After all, it is children, not life-blunted old adults that are the best guide to the writing of young people’s fiction. This book perhaps needs a bit more editing in places, but yes, this is good storytelling of a fantasy kind.

What comes next out of the Cauldron?

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The Gatekeeper- Michael A. Sisti

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At first I thought my failure to keep a grip on the long cast of characters was going to sink me and at felt a few early point of view shifts were a little too sharp, however once I settled into this very fast paced book I really enjoyed it. Sisti has structured this story with very short chapters that add to the pacey feel. We are trotted through literally years in which a business grows from nothing into a large regional bank, and then collapses in the trauma field of the financial crisis started by the 2007 sub-prime mortgage collapse in the USA.

The gatekeeper in the male testosterone fired world is a woman, and not one modelled on a kick-arse beauty that can floor any man with a combination of looks, intelligence and gymnastic battle crafts, the likes of which have never yet actually been witnessed in real life. All the characters are just about believable, if in many cases rather clichéd. With so many actors to follow it was as well that many were solidly familiar, stock personalities.

This book makes business acquisitions and mergers seem like exciting stuff, and as if this isn’t enough there is an interesting bit of sexual intrigue as well. This is a fun read, one that once it had me hooked had no trouble keeping me so.

Sisti is a good pulp fiction writer. I mean that with the greatest of respect. He writes in a sharp entertaining, to the point, style, that draws unrepentantly on those characters that surround us all in real life. And all this is done without any demonstrable physical violence, murder, torture, or natural disasters. I’m sure I’ll read another Sisti before very long.

For the traveller, those short chapters make this book just right for reading on a crowded train.

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Falling in Death and Love- Magnus Stanke

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This is a good suspense thriller written with an easy read style and a good deal of wit. The 1970s setting in Mallorca works very well, as do the bunch of main characters. All of who are unique enough that one has little danger of confusion. We read into a holiday romance that promises to be so much more, and then for tragic reason proves to be life changing for one and life ending for the other.

This is a plot easily ruined by knowing too much, like so many popular films one sees a week too late. Try to avoid reading the plethora of spoiler reviews. Not easy I know. As to the question of converting this book for film medias, it would make a gift of a screen script.

I don’t usually manage to read books in a sitting, however good they are, and I didn’t quite manage with this one, but not through lack of trying. Young readers for who the ‘70s are ancient history, and older readers put off by early pages of period ‘hippiness’, read on, you won’t be disappointed. This really is a good adrenaline rush read, not just another middle-aged author dreaming up a regretfully missed life of dope, speed, and sex in the sun. And yes, Sushi chefs really were moving in on Europe right back when baby-boomers were still young, even though we associate Japanese style cuisine more with western city life in the new millennium.

The book is so well written, especially when one accounts for the fact that Stanke is German, and writing in a second language, English. Correct me if I’m wrong, someone, but I don’t think this book has versions in German, Spanish, or any other language, and it certainly hasn’t been translated by anyone other than the author. Stanke has both a feel for language and the skill to weave a good yarn.

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An Aching Kind of Growing- Brittany Rowland

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This is a really engaging piece of social drama that takes us deep into the life of a marginalised and abused teenaged girl. Most of the book appears as profoundly real as any dramatic fiction I’ve been privileged to read. Sadly, I know the story is an accurate reflection on too many young lives. Natalie comes from a theoretically ‘middle-class’ home, in a middle-class street, in a normal enough town, yet her young life is for the main part anything but comfortable.

Natalie is a bright girl who is blighted by having a physically abusive father, and an emotional detached mother. She is the constant scapegoat for every wrong, for every misfortune, for every failure in her family, while being personally deprived of all but the necessities for life. No wonder then, that she ends up on the streets and as the victim of further abuses. Thankfully the author stood clear of introducing sexual abuse as well. Perhaps that on top of everything else wouldn’t have only detracted from credibility. The main thrust of the story is that Natalie is let down by the care system as much as by those close to her. That is a woefully familiar story, as cash strapped social programmes fail in almost every corner of the world.

The story is very well written from a technical point of view, and very well crafted as a story. This appears to be this author’s first real leap into fiction writing, from a non-fiction writing background. I hope there is far more of her penetrating fiction to come. This is the sort of book that encourages all right-minded people to be generous towards those that are struggling; especially the young, routinely down on their luck and short of consistent support. Natalies exist in every towns’ shadows, marginalised by systems that just about support the luckiest, but which seem only to make the lives of the emotionally and physically deprived comparatively and inexcusably more intolerable.

I recommend this book to all those with less than solidly frozen hearts, as a reminder that most street kids, usually driven by desperation to petty crime, or worse, don’t volunteer for their roles; even when that sometimes appears to be the case. This is powerful writing that, as others have said, makes this book hard to put down.

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The Secret Sex Life of Angels- I.J. Weinstock

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The book deserves five stars, for being well written and entertaining. For those that need plot, this one is weak. The underlying reason for writing seems to be, at least partially, to do with selling a life-style, but one that isn’t close to any I can appreciate. I’m not a natural enthusiast for belief systems that put sexual love at the centre of life. So that you understand my own narrow views, to then be free to dismiss my words, I believe Freud was a fraud. Certainly, sex can be an obsession but it’s not ‘the fundamental’ building block of fulfilment and happiness and success. But sex is the essential, I hear you say. Well, yes, in a way, a vital ingredient. So, read the book.

Sex is certainly a more than significant line in some recent American presidential administrations. That is difficult to deny, when at least two modern presidents have been defined as much by their sexual antics as their policies. But could a tantric witch-doctor get so close to the president without them, or something, seeping out into the public domain?

I read of no angels, either mythical, spiritual, or even in the widest interpretation of the word. The title is certainly misleading. I was misled, expecting at least a dusting of an angelic rather than just tantric reading. The sex was as slow, and mentally dominating, as tantric implies, which was certainly a key point of the book—so, cleverly demonstrated. One aspect that the story did get so very correct, was the devastating effect of rape, the very antithesis of sexual love. And yes, a deep understanding of mental damage that it can do, and the psychological ways out, are very important. It is bad sex, not good, which really affects the course of the world.

As I said, plot is not the strength of this book, though there is fantastic potential in the ideas that the ‘mystics’ suddenly see no future. Why wasn’t the theme developed?

We hardly get any useful ideas about what makes the world tick. But, the book does tell a few home truths about sexual consciousness, which will entertain most adult minds. Cerebral content, as expected from this author, but rather more about the brain in the human phallus than the sexual lives of angels. And precious little is said about the possible real lives of earthbound movers and shakers in high political office, even though the main character is a new president of the United States.

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Dark Web Rising- Eugene T Schurter

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I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book, about young adults set in a world of internet espionage, hacking and quasi-legal government institutions. The young computer wizard that out hacks a ‘governmental’ hacker and then gets chased across the United States, only to be hidden by big business good guys, sounds a little trite. In fact, the story works well, and is very entertaining. I’m sure the author wrote this with younger readers in mind, but this sixty-year-old thoroughly enjoyed it. This would work well as a family entertainment film script.
The story is well written, though because I had slightly negative expectations it did take me a few chapters to get into it. Once I was on-board, I was hooked, and only too keen to find out how the story would be resolved. The plot is stretched beyond the credible in parts, rather overblowing both the ability of the young to be truly independent, and of the ability of even a young computer savant to be quite so talented. But then this is entertainment, in the best traditions of YA writing. This plot, about the youth that outwits the power of out of control secret forces within the state, is well written, and because of that, almost believable. There were rather too many typos in the Kindle version I read, but I’m sure they will be corrected at some stage. The subject matter is a little nerdy, but the adventure certainly isn’t. Being interested in coding and computer technologies certainly isn’t a requirement, especially as the plot is set a little in the future, looking at technological capabilities that are not yet quite here.
www.amazon.com/Dark-Web-Rising-Eugene-Schurter-ebook/dp/B01DGW15P2

Christiana of Chibok- David Damey

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I enjoyed this high adrenalin short story, and yes there is no crime in that, but don’t ever forget to reflect on the truths told by fiction. That the subject matter uses the backdrop of the real story of the 276 abducted, imprisoned and abused girls, taken from their secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria, makes it deeply poignant.
I have no idea if any of the story is based on detailed fact, but am sure that all of it has been experienced in individual realities. That it represents well enough the actual conditions faced by the girls is evident enough from the reports that have seeped out. A number of these women, for that is what cruel life quickly made them, have got back to their homes, each, hopefully, to eventually find the strength to report their own harrowing experiences. However, as I write in October 2016 we hear that about 200 of the original group are still missing, as they have been for the last two and a half years.
I would like to think that this well written, powerful, drama, helps to raise the conscious of the world, though little seems too move governments to action unless there’s some promise of gaining political or economic influence. As a reader I assume that this Christiana is a fiction, though at least one girl of that name was taken. I hope all readers use the story as a spring-board towards finding out more, and then helping spread the word. Too few are doing enough to end the victims’ nightmare.
The writing is very exciting, and should be a disturbing, read for all of us that sleep comfortably at night. The action is centred on the bravery in one girl’s struggle to survive. Let all the screams be heard.
www.amazon.com/Christiana-Chibok-David-Damey-ebook/dp/B01LXTOQXF/

 

These Thy Gifts- Vincent Panettiere

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This is a very well written book in which the author uses a fictional story to emphasise the real need for serious cultural changes, and ideally doctrinal ones, in the Catholic Church. These may or may not be genuinely in progress, but we can’t doubt that many ordinary Catholics are doing their level best to see that the good practices prevail. Other religions and institutions of many sorts have been exposed for similar evils, but the unnatural sexual denial demanded of the Catholic priests actually makes that church a particularly easy hunting ground for the paedophile, misogynist, and cruel manipulator of the weak. The churches should be the greatest bastions against evil, but they actually only shield these crimes and far too often. The secrecy of the hierarchy and lack of accountability in that church have also made it vulnerable to penetration by big crime operations, especially financial ones. The historic evils of the ‘European Churches’ are well documented and, as that history recedes into the mists of time, they can be easily forgiven. But that so many of these practices endure to this very day, can’t.
Panettiere looks beyond the sacrament, the alter rails, the impenetrable walls of the established Catholic Church. It is undeniable that the Church, worldwide, has continued to act as a law unto itself, rather than before God; and worse, as a corrupt hierarchical institution that protects its own while claiming to be protecting the trust of the congregation, It habitually glosses over problems rather than cures them. Panettiere looks at the Catholic Church in the United States, though actually the setting could be almost anywhere that the Pope has significant flocks.
We follow the story of an American priest of Italian descent who is everything a priest should be. One that despite not being truly chaste, so having to live with his own crippling ‘sins’, eventually exposes some rotten apples. Actually, it is the propaganda that any but the most unusual of individuals can be entirely inactive sexually that has got the church into such hideous problems. But enough of that, that is my bias declared, a bias that greatly oversimplifies Panettiere’s generally well-measured ‘observations’ in this story.
Names, places, characters, and details vary immensely in real life, but the fictional characters’ behaviours have all been commonplace. Paedophilia, alcoholism, aggrandisement, and financial and ‘political’ corruptions are certainly far from unique sins of the Catholic church, but they are made all the worse by the fact that the Church pretends to be sitting closer to God, high above the sins of ordinary men.
The majority of honest men, and still only men, in the high places in that church, are silenced by the control exercised on their careers, by lies and deceit, and even in the extreme through fear for their very survival. Even the worst depiction of man in this fiction, the coward at war, the priest that enjoys the ministry of prostitutes, the filth that seeks his own advancement at every opportunity, all aspects of the ghastly Dykes, is all protected by the hierarchy, which he in turn becomes a key part of. He may be an extreme, but his parallel is far from unknown in real life. This fictional deviant was only too happy to help hide the legions of paedophilic priests, so helping obscure his own sins. But that is enough for plot giveaways. For more, buy and read this really necessary, psychologically revealing, fiction.
At times some of the support characters rather melted together in my mind. Perhaps, because I was unable to sustain much continuity in my reading. I enjoyed the book immensely despite that. In truth, only half a dozen characters needed to be clearly distinguished for the book to be fully appreciated. It isn’t necessary to follow every path and absorb all the chronology to fully enjoy reading ‘These Thy Gifts’. This isn’t some corny crime write that depends on some ridiculous clue buried deep on page two hundred and thirty-two.
Sometimes good fiction can be used to explore sensitive issues in a far deeper psychological way than can cold hard reality. Voices in the real world are so often blurred and rendered weak by lies, deception, obfuscation, deception and fear of legal challenge. Fiction is free to penetrate deep into the ‘engineering’ of observed truths. Panettiere outlines this terrible modern history, quite brilliantly. He lays bare the cracks in a one thousand, if not truly two thousand, year old system of unaccountable leadership. Unaccountable to either distant God or downtrodden people, so to most men and nearly all women. Perhaps someone should write a fiction in which the Catholic Church is saved by the nun that becomes a pope. Man, as the Church, may not like that, but I’m happy to risk my soul by saying that God would be delighted.
www.amazon.com/These-Thy-Gifts-Vincent-Panettiere-ebook/dp/B01L0CQTJ2

 

The Lives and the Times- Amit Verma

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First, please don’t be put off by some rather dubious reviews. Authors have no say over who reviews their work, whether they wish to flatter with stars or trash with their absence. I took the trouble to make contact and ask the author about what had happened. He had a book signing event on his own academic institutions campus. We can’t control our popularity. I admire Verma’s honesty, especially in this world where the honest authors have to compete against an overwhelming pile of deceit in the book marketing business. Some or all of these over egging reviews may not be on other popular reviewing sites, in which case this opening paragraph is of only obscure relevance. (I read on Amazon.com)
This book is written with a very Indian voice, with a common rhythm of English spoken on the sub-continent. That style is exactly right for the book, however, a good edit to internationalise the sentence structure, and improve some word choices, is needed. There are also grammatical errors that distract from the flow.
I would have preferred a title along the lines of ‘June’s Dream’. The prologue to the book seems to be misplaced. In my opinion, it adds nothing to the later folds of the story.
I actually loved reading this book, feeling drawn to look at a class-based mind-set, a detachment from the less fortunate masses that pervades on the Indian sub-continent. I felt the harshness, the magic, the dust, the rural backwardness and the strange mix of modern and ancient that I associate with India. The bizarre dream of June allows for the development of so many elements of life, for some penetration satire, and for the surrealism that invades some many of our dreams. I sensed the deep frustrations that pervades those attempting to turn India into the truly modern country it should already be, but for the failures to unlock its potential. The story, the dream, breaths the rhythms of a billion people from a host of interlocking, connected but independently acting cultures, that generally put their own needs before those of the greater society. The biggest democracy in the world needs to be what on paper it should have rapidly become after 1947, a date which is already a long-lifetime in the past. Verma is an accomplished writer with a great story, but one rather let down by poor execution. I don’t know who edited the book, but I do know that they’ve done the author less than justice. Verma’s satirical humour is deserving of much better presentation.
www.amazon.com/Lives-Times-Amit-Verma-ebook/dp/B007PSPUPU