Catch-Up Quickies 12

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) 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: A Smuggler’s Path
Author:  I.L. Cruz
Publisher:  Bosky Flame Press

Blurb:  In Canto, magic is a commodity, outlawed by the elites after losing a devastating war and brokered by smugglers on the hidden market. But some know it’s more–a weapon for change.

Inez Garza moves through two worlds. She’s a member of the noble class who works as a magical arms dealer—a fact either group would gladly use against her. Neither know her true purpose—funding Birthright, an underground group determined to return magic to all at any cost.

But the discovery of a powerful relic from before the Rending threatens her delicate balance.
Inez’s inherent magic, which lies dormant in all the Canti, has been awakened. Now the Duchess’s daughter, radical and smuggler must assume another forbidden title—mage, a capital crime. This will bring her to the attention of factions at home—fanatical rebels bent on revolution, a royal family determined to avoid another magical war, her mercenary colleagues at the hidden market willing to sell her abilities to the highest bidder—and in Mythos, victors of the war and architects of the Rending.

Evasion has become Inez’s specialty, but even she isn’t skilled enough to hide from everyone—and deny the powers drawing her down a new path.

Review: This first book in the new YA Enchanted Isles series, is a ‘Chosen One’ fantasy adventure, with some romance and mystery in the mix.

Part seek-the-object quest and part murder-mystery, but all of it a coming-of-age tale, we follow Latina hero Inez as she develops forbidden magic, smuggles magical artefacts, and investigates a suspicious death that turns out to be linked to her own, rather murky, family history.

The nursery rhyme references are subtly woven into the narrative, and there is a clever inversion which places the female characters in positions of power and the male characters as the love interests, or prizes to be squabbled over.

There is some interesting worldbuilding in the backstory of the three types of magic, and three realms, with their three rulers, but this is not explored in much detail here and most of the issues raised in the plot are left unresolved, as the ending leads on to the sequel.

I would have like to see a little more From some of the side characters – Toman, Zavier, Meiri, Jacque, Rowley – as they, and Inez, were all very believable and engaging, and I would have liked more information about the world they live in and how the magic systems work, but other than that slight lack of detail, this was a great fantasy series starter and I look forward to seeing where Inez’s path leads her.

Purchase Link: A Smuggler’s Path on Amazon

Title: The Big Smoke
Author:  Nathan Srith
Publisher:  Independently published

Blurb:  The Big Smoke is set in a modern day dystopian London, after years of mistreatment towards those who work hard to keep the country afloat the country slowly descends into chaos after the 2011 London Riots, when a revolution takes over the city and other major cities around the country.

Throughout this time of anarchy and uncertainty one woman, who refers to herself as THE BOSS, rises up from angry YouTube vlogger to the Prime Minister of Britain who eventually isolates the city of London from the rest of the country with a giant fence. After years of promising to make the country a better place for all, corruption and power take over and she loses track of her original intentions, gang warfare breaks out in the city and London becomes divided between supporters of The Boss and those who resist her. With nobody able to escape, the city is left in a constant state of civil war with no end in sight. NICK KING, the second in command to The Boss, who has been with her since humble beginnings, can no longer sit and do nothing as The Boss continues to destroy the city she swore to save. He goes on a daring mission with his sister in tow to escape the city and bring The Boss down once and for all.

Review: The Big Smoke is a dystopian, political crime thriller with a secret that goes right to the heart of the central character, his motivations and actions.

The plot follows Nick as he rescues his sister, Emily, and flees from his previous employer, The Boss, who has risen (with Nick’s cooperation and support) to be Prime Minister of England and then immediately abused her popularity to fence off London and declare it an independent state (the Independent State of England), leaving it effectively under gang rule.

As Nick and Emily run, hide and fight, we get critical commentary from above in the form of ‘The Eye in the Sky’ – an independent news helicopter, updating the masses on the state of affairs in the nation’s capital.

Interspersed with the modern day (2016) narrative, are flashbacks to The Boss’ rise to fame as a SJW YouTuber, then a popular political figure, then a mob-rule dictator.

There is the obvious theme of ‘power corrupts’, but this is also a clear satire on modern politics thinly disguised under an action thriller veneer – I could see it translating really well to the big screen!

It took me a little time to settle into the characters and backstory, but once I did, I was drawn in to Nick’s moral (and physical) battle, and fascinated by The Boss and her own morality spiral.

Both action-packed and thought-provoking, The Big Smoke will appeal to those who like their thrillers grounded in politico-social commentary.

Purchase Link: The Big Smoke on Amazon

Title: As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder
Author:  Martha Kennedy
Publisher:  Free Magic Show Publications

Blurb:  As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder is a love story…. My position as a Foreign Expert in English was my first real teaching job in a career that spanned more than thirty years. I could never have imagined China would be a destination in my life, but it was. And at such a moment in history! Chairman Mao had been dead only six years. The evil Gang of Four had been “tried” only the year before. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution were still close in everyone’s memory, and people feared that the post-Mao moment of comparative freedom was a random blip. Deng Xiao Ping was determined that China would modernize and enter the world as a competitor. Every single penny of foreign exchange that came to China was used to buy technology to further China’s modernization. I was one of those “bits of technology,” too.

Propelled by a consuming wanderlust, I took my ignorance and inexperience with me, and ended up receiving some of life’s great gifts. My students’ diligence, curiosity and courage inspired me, and, in turn, I inspired them. The bridge between our cultures was a shared love of poetry and beautiful language. As for China? China was the great love of my life.

Review: This memoir, of Martha Kennedy’s time as an English teacher in China, has rightly been described as a love letter to China – the place, the culture, the people.

Martha is the epitome of an innocent abroad, living her dreams and almost naively oblivious to the political concerns and dangers that surround, but luckily never seem to touch, her. Her insight into such things is provided by her older (and wiser) narrative voice, as she shares her memories – complete with letter extracts and photo slides – and puts them into retrospective context for the reader. Any discomforts or inconveniences that Martha does recollect are therefore now viewed through meihua-tinted glasses, and were brushed off at the time with the enthusiasm of a woman keen to embrace every aspect of the experiences offered.

There is no chronological story here – the anecdotes jump around the timeline as fancy (and photo prompts) take the author, and the author also carefully restricts herself to only discussing events and situations within her own personal experiences, which does leave some anecdotes unfinished and some questions unanswered, but gives the reader total confidence that she refrains from straying into speculation for the sake of tidying the story… real life is messy and we don’t always find out what happens next!

Fondly affectionate and spanning almost every aspect of China at the time – language, learning styles, history, religion, poetry, food, chores, housing, tourism – this book gives a wonderful snapshot of a moment in time-and-place, through the eyes of an amateur but extremely enthusiastic sinophile.

Purchase Link: As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder on Amazon

Title: Devon’s Island
Author:  Si Clarke
Publisher:  White Hart Fiction

Blurb:  This is a work of neurodiverse, culturally diverse, gender-bendy, socio-politico-economic, drunken-arguments-in-the-pub science fiction – not bang-bang-pew-pew science fiction.

Other stories will take you to Mars. This one will take you inside the boardroom, the pub, and the bedroom with the people planning the mission.

Gurdeep is an engineer and a soldier. Georgie’s a food scientist. One is pragmatic with a tough outer shell; the other’s an optimist, a person of ideas and compassion. In the span of a single afternoon, the couple find themselves in charge of planning a self-sustaining colony on Mars. Together, they’re humanity’s last hope for survival.

They have 160 slots to fill with experts from all over the world as they set about designing an all-new society with its own government, economy, and culture – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Among those chosen for the mission is Devon, an autistic scientist with a unique skill set who finds life on Earth strange and alienating. Maybe a whole new planet is exactly what’s needed.

With 1,114 days until the launch, excitement and tensions run high. Earth’s second chance hangs in the balance. Between strict genetic requirements and the dangers of the dystopian almost-present, will everyone make it to the final countdown?

Review: Despite the title, this story is more about Gurdeep and Georgie than Devon, although it does touch on various characters as the story unfolds.

I absolutely loved this gentle story about preparing for the colonisation of Mars – all about the planning, people and psychology involved. The pace is slow and thoughtful, and the whole concept makes for an utterly fascinating sci-fi read, standing out as unique among other space-based stories.

In addition to the fresh plot, another big draw here is the diversity of the characters involved and the different perspectives in the moral debates they engage in. And the real-life science section at the end adds a whole raft of background data to the worldbuilding, for those interested in what makes it all work.

I was so immersed in the potential colony and the challenges they faced and problem-solved, so absolutely NEED to find out what happens next. Luckily, the sequel, Livid Skies, is already available, so you – and I – can get an immediate fix of neurodiverse, LGBTQIA+ science fiction and find out whether humanity can survive on Mars after destroying itself on Earth.

Purchase Link: Devon’s Island on Amazon

Title: The Ones That Stare
Author:  Michael Stephenson
Publisher:  Independently published

Blurb:  Sometimes, silence is dangerous.

Black and Native American. Chocolate and peanut butter. Darien and Sayen blended together like a perfect match. The charming, always smiling film junkie and the always optimistic, coquettish altruist. The quaint suburban couple surrounded by quaint suburban neighbors. Perfect neighbors, though occasionally assuming. They all partied together, shared the latest community gossip, and sometimes… stared into each other’s windows. A tight-knit community that should have served to protect one another. But one fateful night changed everything.

Now, Darien’s wife is GONE, and he’s going crazy trying to figure out what happened to his love. Somebody knows. Somebody has the answer to this mystery. But why haven’t they said something? Why did they leave him to suffer in quiet? Do they know that something sinister has happened? Has… a murder occurred? And if so, who knows the killer’s identity? Darien has but one hope: solve the mystery of the silent, spying eyes, for he knows someone awaits in a dark villainy. Someone plots another’s demise. Someone awaits to plunge the knife. Someone saw something. Someone had to have!

A heart-pounding psychological thrill ride for fans of Domestic Thrillers, each new chapter will keep you guessing. At the end… don’t forget to breathe!

Review: The Ones That Stare takes us into a typical suburban neighbourhood, where everyone has secrets and there always seems to be someone watching – at least, that’s how main character, Darien feels. And he has more than his fair share of secrets to keep from prying eyes, after all, he’s just killed his wife.

From the very beginning, I found myself completely exasperated with Darien, who must be just about the most incompetent criminal ever – he leaves evidence lying around in full view, lets his neighbours nosy around, and seems to get blood and hairs everywhere, in plain sight! However, Darien is a self-confessed liar – graduated from Novice, to Competent, then Expert Liar by the time we meet him – and so the reader has to wonder whether he is telling us the truth, or whether one or more of his neighbours is expertly toying with him.

The premise of knowing who the murderer is from the beginning and trying to solve the mystery of the witness is a clever one, as is the way the author is able to tie up all of the inconsistencies and errors by the end of the narrative, and slowly build up some sympathy and understanding for a man who murdered his beloved wife in cold blood, after abusing and controlling her for years.

These clever hooks also bring their own problems though, as the author explains in his afterword that the story was deliberately frustrating and difficult, in order to put the reader in the right frame of mind to understand the characters more fully. This works very effectively, but perhaps too effectively, as not all readers may persevere long enough to realise the story is leading somewhere and many may just give up early on because they can’t make sense of what is going on.

This is a claustrophobic domestic mystery-thriller which utilises some very clever and unique – but also very risky – narrative strategies. Anyone looking for something very different, requiring more engagement and application for the reader, should give this a go. Keep reading through the ‘errors’ and I promise you it will all make sense in the end… the author knows what he is doing here!

Purchase Link: The Ones That Stare on Amazon

Fantasy, dystopia, travel memoir, sci-fi, psychological thriller: I really do read it all on Bookshine and Readbows – no book left behind!

I hope you find something new and exciting from this latest round-up, but if not stay tuned, as my next batch is a little more fantasy-heavy and there are plenty more fantastic books where these came from (my teetering TBR pile).

Keep reading and keep shining! 🙂


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