Messandrierre – a review

July 5th saw the launch of Angela Wren’s Merle, the second novel in the Jacques Forêt crime series, about which I will post about next.  So, I knew that I needed to re-visit Messandrierre where I first encountered Angela Wren’s intelligent investigator, Jacques Forêt. This release of Merle is a chance to expand on my initial review of Messandrierre.

Messandrierre

Messandrierre (Jacques Forêt #1)

by Angela Wren (Goodreads Author)

Sacrificing his job in investigation following an incident in Paris, Jacques Forêt has only a matter of weeks to solve a series of mysterious disappearances as a Gendarme in the rural French village of Messandrierre.

But, as the number of missing persons rises, his difficult and hectoring boss puts obstacles in his way. Steely and determined, Jacques won’t give up and, when a new Investigating Magistrate is appointed, he becomes the go-to local policeman for all the work on the case.

Will he find the perpetrators before his lover, Beth, becomes a victim?

Messandrierre – #1 in a new crime series featuring investigator, Jacques Forêt.

Also in the series:
Merle (#2)

Review 5 stars

I enjoyed every page of this mystery, so read the novel twice. The pace suited the setting that felt as real as the memorable characters. Messandrierre may not exist – or maybe it does. The Cevennes is my favourite region in France, and Angela Wren captures the nuances perfectly. The location came alive so much that I was convinced that I had been there.

The people felt real, from the principals of Jacques and Beth to all the secondary characters that made up the vibrant picture of a French community, and the wider area beyond. Each one had their idiosyncrasies, and some had secrets that added clever threads and red herrings to the mystery.

The plot developed steadily with the additional plotlines adding to the investigation. Jacques is not exactly alone in unravelling who is responsible for the disappearances that set the case simmering.

Messandrierre neatly built to a climax, that I guessed but not in the manner it happened. I was tricked into a bit of wrong thinking a few times – on the first reading. On the second, I saw how Wren had created her cunning red herrings – or should I say harengs rouges.

This novel is a mystery that I highly recommend for those that don’t need a fast-roller-coaster ride and want to savour the story. I also recommend Messandrierre for those that like indulging in exploring the France off the beaten track – but don’t expect a tame tourist guide.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

 

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Dragonoak: The Complete History of Kastelir – a review

As my writing begins to touch on diversity and minority rights issues, I knew that I should expand my reading. This novel is my first fantasy that I’ve read that is willing to move beyond the narrow taboos of modern society.

Dragonoak

Dragonoak: The Complete History of Kastelir (Dragonoak #1)

by Sam Farren

After being exiled to the farmland around her village, Rowan Northwood takes the only chance at freedom she might ever get: she runs away with a passing Knight and doesn’t look back. The woman cares nothing for Rowan’s company, but nor does she seem perturbed by the powers that burn within her.
Rowan soon learns that the scope of their journey is more than a desperate grasp at adventure. She breaks away from the weighty judgement of her village, but has no choice but to abandon her Kingdom altogether. Sir Ightham’s past leads them through Kastelir, a country draped in the shadow of its long-dead Queen—a woman who was all tusks and claws and great, spiralling horns.
Hiding her necromancy is no longer Rowan’s greatest challenge, and what leads them across Kingdoms and through mountains is a heavier burden than she ever could’ve imagined.

 

Review 3.5 stars

I was drawn to read this book as the blurb, and the reviews promised an engrossing fantasy novel where diversity was the norm. I found the opening intriguing with a fascinating backstory trickled out, not dumped on me. Rowan Northwood as a narrator is driven to leave her village by the attitude of the people that saw her as a healer until they discovered her hidden power.

Her journey is one of discovery, about the world that she only knows from her brother Michael’s stories and about other people. However, she is not the protagonist as that is Sir Ightham, a female knight that is well-portrayed as the norm. At first, Rowan is intrigued and inspired by Sir Ightham, but as she discovers more about the knight, a real attraction grows. Personally, I found it difficult to relate to such a distant protagonist, but I kept reading knowing that through Rowan, I should discover more.

Many of the characters are not the fantasy norm exactly. This aspect of the world-building delivered, as did the world beyond Michael’s books, and this element kept me wanting more. The third intriguing character was an asexual called Rán, whose race, the pane, were central to the story – I must avoid spoilers and say little more about that.

When Rán appears, Rowan calls her ‘she’ and for the rest of the book Rán is a ‘she’. But the pane are asexual or transgender, and the pronoun for them individually is ‘they’. However, once I had adapted my mindset to using this gender-neutral pronoun, confusion set in. Why was Rán ‘she’ but other single pane were almost all ‘they’? What about this sentence:

A handful of younger pane crept up on us. Their leader, a girl with the first signs of a right horn showing, inched her way to the steps. I raised a hand to wave and they shrieked, scattering like ants.

I kept reading engrossed in the story – but after researching ‘gender-neutral pronouns’. Other elements threw me, like the treatment of the horses that grated with everything I knew as a retired equestrian journalist.

The jigsaw remained complicated and unclear – well to Rowan as the narrator but not the protagonist – but eventually, after some unnecessary scenes of excessive world-building, the plotlines took shape through new arrivals, encounters and interruptions. The mysterious quest remained unclear.

More began to grate. Some reviews had mentioned there were “a few typos”, but those would have mortified me if my writing had so many. I had to keep re-reading sentences and amending them. Anyway, back to worrying about the horses – but the focus is now on the Queen. A new intrigue so I’m not giving up. I want to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Rowan is an observant narrator, even if it’s hard being an observer that senses so much. First-person POV is hard, but the reader gets to feel with the main character – although she’s not telepathic. So why the sentences that stray into the omniscient? Confusing and yet avoidable. But enough of that ‘writing style’ nonsense, there’s a mystery to resolve and here comes the next twist.

Finally, in the latter part of the novel, Rowan discovers more and events move faster. I began to find too many loose threads, and it was too late in the story to resolve many of them in time. At least, the central romance reached the next level – but romance is always ongoing.

Much better, according to the author it seems, to add other threads and keep the reader wanting more and let us forgive the cliff-hanger ending – Tolkien did that in Lord of the Rings, so it’s justified. Correction – not in the same way. Reading that trilogy in the 1970s, a glimmer of hope kept me questing, but this time I’m letting Rowan struggle on without me.

Dragonoak would be a good diversity fantasy if not for all the early draft failings like the pacing crisis, first-person omniscient POV, excessive typos and unnecessary scenes. At least, the author can edit the Kindle version one day. For now, I’m off to try a ‘diversity’ SF novel. Perhaps if there is a second edition, then I might join the journey and enjoy some of the inspiring prose.

But not looking at them wasn’t enough to banish them from my mind. Whatever they suffered seeped into the air, following me through busy streets, as though the shadow I’d felt last night had returned to claim me.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Structure – three stars

Readability – three stars

Editing – three stars

Style – three stars

 

The Navigators – a review

Time for another review and this time, a novel about time travel.

Navigators

The Navigators

by Dan Alatorre (Goodreads Author), Allison Maruska (Goodreads Author)(Editor)

A freak landslide at a remote mine site uncovers a strange machine to Barry’s group of palaeontology students. Wary of corrupt school officials, his team takes the machine home to study it in secret, reaching only one realistic – and unbelievable – conclusion: It was designed to bridge the time-space continuum. It’s a time machine.

Testing delivers disastrous results, sending one team member to the hospital and nearly killing another. When word leaks about the discovery, the ultimate power struggle ensues: the university wants it for funding, the power company wants its energy regenerating abilities kept under wraps, and a rival group wants to steal it for themselves. No one cares if Barry’s team comes out alive.

Fleeing for their lives, the students must fight the school, the police, and each other if they want to learn the truth about what they’ve discovered – a truth with more severe consequences than any of them can predict.

Review 5*

An intriguing opening chapter propelled me into the lives of Barry’s group of palaeontology students in Dan Alatorre’s The Navigators. The characterisation built my interest and quickly established the personalities and group conflicts – conflicts that cleverly fed the plot.

These conflicts emerged in such human ways, that I sensed that everyone should watch out – as the blurb implies. Everyone was creating situations that could have those ‘severe consequences’.  As the plotlines unravelled, I was telling the characters to watch out – to no avail. Would I have listened? Not when I was their age.

Their reactions were believable. Plus some good observations on the paradoxes of time and the tough choices it poses. In The Navigators’, time travel tests everyone and loyalties are stretched by the discovery of the machine. I kept asking questions – some of which the friends forgot to ask’

Who do you trust? What are other people’s motivations? What is the way out of this situation?

Maybe not the answers that Dan Alatorre came up with, but they worked and I had to keep reading. I expected some comeuppance but I was ready to be surprised as the intentions came unravelled. That’s life. As with the best books, there were some good morals in the story, such as – lying is never the best answer; shortcuts rarely work (even with a time machine); beauty is more than looks. The latter prompted me to highlight the following dialogue:

“… ‘A beautiful woman’s breasts will eventually sag and her hair will turn gray. What will you be married to then? If you choose wisely, you will be married to a beautiful personality and a curious mind that loves your children and who would do anything for you.’ That is true beauty.”

And where better to put the punchline – at the very end. Now that makes me grin and recommend this novel.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

Style – five stars

The Cowgirl Jumped Over the Moon – a review

Engrossed in promoting my equestrian thriller, escaping to read about another horse world was strange and yet satisfying. This is my review:

Cowgirl_25613310

The Cowgirl Jumped Over the Moon

by Linda Ballou (Goodreads Author)

Gemcie and her Irish Hunter, Marshal, are about to capture the World Cup when a nasty fall dashes their chances. While she is mending, her arch rival seizes this opportunity to catch a ride on Marshal, and to seduce her young husband. Confused and dazed by her new circumstances, Gemcie heads for the high Sierras hoping the majestic spires that captured the heart of the father she never met will provide the answers she seeks. She finds strength and solace riding solo on the John Muir Trail, but a bear attack ends her time of introspection and places her in the care of a solitary cowboy manning a fire lookout. Brady, who seems to love animals more than people, shows her love and gives her the courage to get back in the saddle. Haunted by images of Marshal being abused by his owners, Gemcie returns to rescue him and fly high with him once more. Ballou’s prose gallops ahead at breakneck speed as she takes you along on this wild ride.

Review 5*

From the opening hook, Linda Ballou’s The Cowgirl Jumped Over the Moon paints a rich picture of not just the show jumping world that Gemcie had earned her place in through hard work and dedication. The accident that dashes the ambitions of Gemcie and her Irish Hunter, Marshal, leads to other events that unravel her life, create new sub plots and take Gemcie into another world dominated by the high Sierras and a different style of riding – western.

The language continues to evoke images and sensations, whether in the actions or the descriptions. We meet new characters, including horses, and, in the mountains, we meet Brady. His portrayal triggers questions for Gemcie and, for this reader, but the challenge is a crucial peak in the novel, handled well. She might baulk at the challenges in the high Sierras, at first, but she is drawn on as the reader is by the plotlines.

However, although I liked how the story unfolded and the descriptive richness, two elements threw me from my ride-read. In Ballou’s defence, these are style issues, I suspect. First, I had problems with the transitions in scenes that changed from one paragraph to another – I am used to a scene break. The other area was Point of View – POVs. At first, I thought the story was head-hopping too much from one character to another then back. But I began to sense that this was ‘limited omniscient POV’ which I am less familiar with, but I accepted it and read on absorbed by the story.

Through the author’s extensive expertise, the novel resonates with accuracy, from descriptions of the wilderness to the various riding elements. Ballou works even vaulting into Gemcie’s recovery, as well as trekking and jumping, and in the ‘author’s note,’ we discover why this feels so right.

Ballou also neatly weaves the various characters and themes into the satisfying ending. Most of the characters feed into the climax as does the power of love and nature. The natural world is described with words that unleash all the senses, and this reader kept nodding at the importance of respecting nature as Brady does – a respect that Gemcie learns, marking her growth.

A satisfying and enjoyable read that I recommend. I await the sequel hinted at in the author’s final comments.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

Style – four ½ stars

 

Traitor’s Knot – a review

As anyone knows that has read my guest post ‘From Ostler to Eventer’ on Cryssa Bazos’s website, I found a strong connection to this book through horses. But there was so much more, so, read on for my review.

Traitor's Knot

Traitor’s Knot

by Cryssa Bazos (Goodreads Author)

England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Review 5*

When I first read the reviews, I added Traitor’s Knot to my Must-Read list. However, I was lucky enough to win a copy in a Giveaway – so many thanks, Cryssa Bazos.

Growing up in England, it was hard not to take sides over the English Civil War so this excellent novel stirred all the right passions and unleashed memories. As a child, I was a Royalist but then switched my loyalties to Parliament as I read more. Then I saw yet another side and wavered again. Therefore, I can feel how many of the characters in Traitor’s Knot struggled with their consciences, although through the author’s words the emotional and physical strife comes vividly alive.

From the first page, I was swept into the past, drawn in by the characters and the action. The setting of the Civil War era felt real and the characters’ behaviour seemed appropriate for the time. I am not a historical expert but nothing jarred and, in fact, there were moments where I nodded my head thinking, ‘That sounds right’. I am convinced that Cryssa Bazos did a great deal of intense research. As a retired equestrian journalist, everything horse-related was accurate and one horse was a character in himself.

The plot was cleverly crafted, with the characters being carefully drawn together as events weaved fate. This was never going to be a smooth ride for James Hart and Elizabeth Seton, and the author made sure of that at every stage. No surprise that I wrote, ‘Beware those Roundheads and their twisted ways’, especially after the opening. One stirred my old animosities and I was ready to make him suffer – that takes great writing.

But knots have ways too. The novel’s title is clever, and knots tie things up in so many ways -I even wanted a ‘knot garden’ and the author delivered. Throughout, there was clever plot development and world building – constructing fiction that felt historical. As a mystery writer, I enjoyed the twists and turns as the plot wove around and away from the obvious. Although I knew my English Civil War, so expected one inevitable outcome – no spoilers, there were unexpected turns of events and I could easily ignore what I knew from school. This was on another more realistic level than dry history text books.

The crafting of the climax was exceptional, building on the strands of the plot, weaving them together in an intricate knot. And the final denouement was so devious and edge of the seat thrilling that I was unable to put the book down even to get some work done.

I look forward to the next novel from Cryssa Bazos.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

 

Followers of Writing Wings will know that over the last month I have been fortunate to connect with Cryssa Bazos through the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog, and subsequently promoting my novel. Therefore, we have chatted and I may have an idea about what her next novel might be about. But I leave that for her to say.

Cryssa’s website, where there is more about her novel, highwaymen, and the 17th Century, is: https://cryssabazos.com

 

The Secret Garden – a review

I have joined the Insecure Writers Support Group Bookclub on Goodreads and for June/July, we are reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s book The Secret Garden.  The Club says, “This book was chosen to demonstrate characterization, which was voted #1 for what you would like to learn to do better. Even if you’ve read this book in the past, reread it with fresh eyes, keeping a look out for characterization examples.” So, this is my review.

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

by Frances Hodgson Burnett

When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.

The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?

 

Review *****

I never read ‘The Secret Garden’ as a child, nor any of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books. Now in my second childhood, this was, therefore, my first encounter and I enjoyed the read even if there are failings from a writer’s perspective in the 21st century.

However, as I started reading I found the descriptions and characterisations were pulling me into a secret world. The author had a way of using short phrases to capture a sense of the characters and settings. Maybe the technique would be hard to replicate today, but it worked in the context of the novel and the period in which it is set. This was a time before the First World War for both characters and author. This may explain a certain innocence that two world wars dispelled.

Locked into the words and images, I was drawn deeper into Mary’s world and her explorations. Robin was a cute character that felt almost human in his mannerisms. Some might say anthropomorphic – Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities – but for me, the characteristics fitted the bird I knew from growing up in England. He becomes the character that ‘unlocks’ the secret garden and the healing that Mary and others need.

When she was in the garden, I could see it and sense it. Some might feel that Dickon is unreal and yet he came alive for me, first in what his sister Martha said about him and then when Mary met him. I’ve been lucky that I have known a few special people like him and the character echoed memories of those that have a rapport with wild animals.

When Mary found the source of the crying, the book added another character and another level. Damaged characters and healing is a theme from the start of the novel, but it’s the secret garden that’s the catalyst. I liked all the interactions between the characters, and the use of mirror images that Mary and others must face to grow.

When Spring arrived, there was magic is in the air. That is what makes this book work for me and why I suspect that it still survives alongside other children’s classics. Frances Hodgson Burnett captures that feeling of magic that in many ways exist in the natural world around us. There are elements that felt wrong to me reading in 2017, but omniscient POV, idealised social situations, and outdated attitudes were, unfortunately, the norm when the novel was written so they didn’t spoil my enjoyment – just deducted one star as a writer with a conscience. But that star magically re-appeared.