Catch-Up Quickies 11

First a quick explanation!

Due to some severe health issues over the last few years, and a lingering chronic condition, my planned review schedule went right out of the window and I have been scrabbling ever since to get it back on track.

In my latest attempt to try to regain some lost ground, I have been scrunching some of my (overdue) NetGalley reviews together into one or two posts each week: shorter reviews, but still covering all of the points I intended to.

That’s the plan anyway and so far, so good…!

Title: Raising Hell
Author:  Bryony Pearce
Publisher:  UCLan Publishing

Blurb:  Meet Ivy Elisabeth Mann – I know what you are thinking, but I’m not half faery, or demon, or angel or anything like that. Mum’s a Body Shop consultant living in a bungalow in Birmingham and Dad enters crosswords. Once upon a time, Ivy and her friends did a very stupid thing and now there’s a rift letting dark matter into the world. Dark matter that manifests as black magic which actually works. Now every teenager with access to the Internet is raising hell. Literally.

Ivy’s doing her best to stem the tide, but her new job working school security barely pays the bills and there’s only so much one girl with a machete (and a cat possessed by her own dead grandmother) can do against the forces of evil.

Now, she’s facing a teenage goth with an attitude, her ruthless but frustratingly handsome brother, a dark cabal with a terrifying agenda and a potential zombie apocalypse. Ivy losing her job might be the best thing to happen to the world …

Raising Hell is the first in a dark and funny urban fantasy series from award-winning YA author Bryony Pearce, whose novels include Angel’s Fury, The Weight of Souls and Savage Island.

Review: This starts by immediately hooking you in to the action, with a twist on the idea of school “checkpoints” scanning students for weapons/contraband.

The story then begins from the middle: in the past, Ivy and her teen friends, grieving, meddled with forces outside their understanding and brought magical forces into the world, which only teens have access too. Chaos ensued. In the present, Ivy has a job Buffy-ing magical security at the local high school in order to secretly make amends, and lives with her grandmother, who is… a little unusual. And that’s where this story begins.

Teens meddling, like teens will, manage to start a zombie near-apocalypse, and it is down to Ivy and her friends to try to right past wrongs and fix their mistakes before everyone dies… or worse!

There is loads of shock-horror here – heads lopped off and babies eaten – some humour, and even a little bit of a political commentary (the BRP). There are themes of guilt and blame, sacrifices and selfishness, and the dangers of acting on pure emotion without considering the consequences.

Not everything in the plot made sense, and the characters were not all as well-developed as I would have liked, but this was a really fun, action-packed read and I would definitely be happy to read more from both Ivy Mann and Bryony Pearce in future.

Purchase Link: Raising Hell on Amazon

Title: The Secret Detectives
Author:  Ella Risbridger
Publisher:  Nosy Crow

Blurb:  A gripping, beautifully written historical mystery, from an incredible new voice in children’s fiction.

The body seemed to fall for a long time. There was no splash, or if there was it was lost in the waves. Isobel was frozen to the spot for a moment – and then her common sense caught up with her, and she stepped back quickly into the shadows.

When Isobel Petty is orphaned, she finds herself being taken away from her home in India and sent to live with a distant uncle in England. On board the S.S. Marianna, she witnesses a shocking act – somebody being thrown overboard in the middle in the night. But when the ship’s captain insists that nobody is missing, Isobel and her two new reluctant friends must solve two mysteries – the identities of both the murderer and the victim – before they reach England and the culprit has the chance to escape.

Inspired by The Secret Garden and the golden age of crime writing, The Secret Detectives is perfect for fans of Robin Stevens and Katherine Rundell.

Review: This book is what you would get if you crossed The Secret Garden with Harriet the Spy, and then added a dollop of Agatha Christie. However, despite similar background and mannerisms, Isobel is instantly more likable than Mary Lennox! For one thing, she shows more capacity for considering the thoughts and feelings of others.

Actually, I love ALL of the characters in this story – Isobel, Sam, Letitia, Horace. The plot is a whodunnit and why mystery, and Isobel’s clear neurodiversity (which is consistent and authentic, without ever being spoken aloud or diagnosed) proves to be an asset in investigating, even if it makes social interactions very difficult for her.

In addition to neuro-differences, the story deals with racism, sexism, ageism and judging by appearances, with some very useful – but non-didactic – exploration of accepting individuals as they are and accommodating their strengths and weaknesses.

There were points where the main storyline stalled a little, but my interest in the characters kept me reading through the slower points and definitely hooked me into wanting more once the book had finished. I would love to see more from Petty & Khan, and associates!

Purchase Link: The Secret Detectives on Amazon

Title: Loch Down Abbey
Author:  Beth Cowan-Erskine
Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton

Blurb:  It’s the 1930s and a mysterious illness is spreading over Scotland. But the noble and ancient family of Inverkillen, residents of Loch Down Abbey, are much more concerned with dwindling toilet roll supplies and who will look after the children now that Nanny has regretfully (and most inconveniently) departed this life.

Then Lord Inverkillen, Earl and head of the family, is found dead in mysterious circumstances. The inspector declares it an accident but Mrs MacBain, the head housekeeper, isn’t so convinced. As no one is allowed in or out because of the illness, the residents of the house – both upstairs and downstairs – are the only suspects. With the Earl’s own family too busy doing what can only be described as nothing, she decides to do some digging – in between chores, of course – and in doing so uncovers a whole host of long-hidden secrets, lies and betrayals that will alter the dynamics of the household for ever.

Perfect for fans of Downton Abbey, Agatha Christie and Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, LOCH DOWN ABBEY is a playful, humorous mystery that will keep you glued to the page!

Review: This is billed as Downton Abbey meets Agatha Christie against a satirised pandemic backdrop, and that is exactly what you can expect to get.

There are A LOT of characters and, even with a character list in the book to keep referring back to, I ended up having to create my own Inverkillen family tree with character notes, so that I could keep straight who was who and how they were related! Occasionally the narrative point of view jumps to a different character, with no marker when it happened, so that all got quite confusing in places.

The author draws clever and witty parallels between the lockdown / Loch Down aspects of the book – mask-wearing issues and toilet paper shortages – which I found very entertaining, and adds in some romance, mystery and family drama too, so there is plenty going on and lots to enjoy here.

I did find that with so much packed in, the plot felt a little directionless shifting between class politics, family intrigue, murder, sickness, and back again, with no clear focus on any particular thread. And the ending was pretty far-fetched, in my opinion!

However, I loved the updated, where-are-they-now, character list at the end – ALL books should do this! – and found the whole book an entertaining experience when taken with a large pinch of (unrationed) salt.

Purchase Link: Loch Down Abbey on Amazon

Title: One Ordinary Day at a Time
Author:  Sarah J. Harris
Publisher:  HarperCollins UK

Blurb:  Behind every ordinary day, behind every ordinary story, there’s an extraordinary one just waiting to happen…

Two people.

Simon Sparks hides in plain sight – his astonishing gifts locked deep inside himself, as he dreams of lost potential and extraordinary tomorrows.

Jodie Brook hides behind what you think of her – a single mum who can barely make ends meet. But her dreams are filled with the education she always wanted and discovering a better life for her and her son.

One life.

When Simon and Jodie’s lonely worlds collide, it upends everything. But as it becomes clear they have so much to learn from each other – Jodie can show Simon how to rejoin the world, and Simon can help Jodie prepare for her greatest challenge yet – they begin to realise that life could be so much more.

One ordinary day at a time…

Review: I enjoyed Sarah J. Harris’ previous story, The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder, but I absolutely LOVED this one!

We follow Simon – socially stunted by his upbringing and unusual thought patterns – and Jodie, who has been fighting against neglect and abuse all her life, as they slowly get to know one another and find that they can affect each other’s lives, both in positive and in negative ways.

This is a story all about finding a balance in life, the give and take of friendship, and the dangers of repressing feelings and not communicating and/or keeping secrets. The plot does go to some very dark places, but the final impression is one of light, warmth and hope, and Sarah J. Harris avoids the obvious, romantic finale by keeping the focus firmly on friendship and family.

I was completely hooked and totally immersed!

I lived and breathed this book. I cried; I smiled; I gasped and, more than once, I hissed audibly with rage.

If you enjoy incredibly emotional and uplifting stories about accepting each other’s differences, overcoming our inner and outer struggles in life, and the creating of a family from love and understanding instead of blood, then you will adore Simon, Jodie, Zak, and the Prince Burger crew!

Purchase Link: One Ordinary Day at a Time on Amazon

Title: Questland
Author:  Carrie Vaughn
Publisher:  Mariner Books (formerly HMH Books)

Literature professor Dr. Addie Cox is living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, offers her an unusual job. He wants her to guide a mercenary strike team sent to infiltrate his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Addie is puzzled by her role on the mission until she understands what Lang has built:  Insula Mirabilis, an isolated resort where tourists will one day pay big bucks for a convincing, high-tech-powered fantasy-world experience, complete with dragons, unicorns, and, yes, magic.
Unfortunately, one of the island’s employees has gone rogue and activated an invisible force shield that has cut off all outside communication. A Coast Guard cutter attempting to pass through the shield has been destroyed. Suspicion rests on Dominic Brand, the project’s head designer— and Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. Lang has tasked Addie and the mercenary team with taking back control of the island at any cost.
But Addie is wrestling demons of her own—and not the fantastical kind. Now, she must navigate the deadly traps of Insula Mirabilis as well as her own past trauma. And no d20, however lucky, can help Addie make this saving throw.

Review:  Somewhere between a LitRPG and Jurassic Park, and yet not really like either of those… Questland wasn’t quite what I expected from the cover and blurb.

The fantasy world in which most of the plot plays out, is given firm roots of realism and a glossy coat of geek-lore: the ‘magic’ and mythological creatures/races that our main character, Addie, encounters are manmade using advanced technology, so are both ‘real’ (people can actually get hurt, actions have actual consequences) but also gamified, as they are intended to form an entertainment experience (think Jurassic Park theme park).

And, of course, similar to its dino-themed predecessor, Questland’s employees have gone rogue and the whole park is out of control and out of contact with the rest of the world, until Addie and the team are parachuted in to troubleshoot the project, but with real guns.

Addie’s narrative is first-person and her PTSD as a school-shooting survivor is handled sensitively and not treated as something that can be easily cured or cheat-coded away; we see it really affect her ability to function when weapons are involved.

A lot of the story is a strike squad thriller, infused with so many geek-culture references that I lost count. The tributes cover games, films, comics, chi-fi, fantasy, dragons, unicorns, wargs, sphinxes, giant spiders… you get the idea!

This is an action-packed, easy read, which leads neatly into a potential sequel at the end, but it feels more of a tribute to the genres it encompasses, rather than a new addition to them.

Purchase Link: Questland on Amazon

I only just noticed, as I began putting this post together, that this batch are all female authors – not a deliberate choice on my part… I just read what I fancy!

That small accident of authorhood is also one of the only similarities between them, as we explored a YA urban fantasy/horror, a middle-grade historical mystery, a pandemic-spoof historical mystery, a contemporary family comi-drama and a sci-fi LitRPG thriller.

All very different in tone, intended audience and content, but I enjoyed them all and have enjoyed sharing them with you too. Let me know if anything caught your eye – I would love to hear your thoughts!

Happy reading and keep shining!


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