The Frame-Up – a review

Today, I intended to review a book from my backlog – six are left from March-May – but I read faster than I write.

Rather than add another book to my backlog and forget its essence, here’s my thoughts fresh from my head.

The Frame-Up (The Golden Arrow #1)

by Meghan Scott Molin

By day she writes comic books. By night, she lives them.

MG Martin lives and breathes geek culture. She even works as a writer for the comic book company she idolized as a kid. But despite her love of hooded vigilantes, MG prefers her comics stay on the page.

But when someone in LA starts recreating crime scenes from her favorite comic book, MG is the LAPD’s best—and only—lead. She recognizes the golden arrow left at the scene as the calling card of her favorite comic book hero. The thing is…superheroes aren’t real. Are they?

When the too-handsome-for-his-own-good Detective Kildaire asks for her comic book expertise, MG is more than up for the adventure. Unfortunately, MG has a teeny little tendency to not follow rules. And her off-the-books sleuthing may land her in a world of trouble.

Because for every superhero, there is a supervillain. And the villain of her story may be closer than she thinks…

Review 4.4 stars

The blurb sparked my interest – even if my comic reading days are behind me; well, some months I gaze at one on my Kindle. I still find room for geek culture so in that respect I was not disappointed. In fact, I was nodding my head throughout, smiling at the references to superheroes and shows I knew.

Some I didn’t, but no matter as the plot kept me reading and wanting super-reveals. MG was amusingly quirky, and her detective distraction, the cute but tough Matteo Kildaire, was not the dumb policeman of too many cozy mysteries.

I’ve stopped reading cozies for that reason – reckless sleuths and stupid police. This was different – even though MG had a reckless streak to her sleuthing. But she made up in other aspects – and Matteo gave her the justification – as far as MG was concerned. The police need her to resolve a crime with possible comic connections – golden arrows.

However, MG can be irritating in her willingness to trust some people not others – when she has made specific observations. Avoiding a spoiler so just saying.

The supporting roles are a mix of fun characters, questionable colleagues, and shadowy suspects. Who will the real superhero prove to be? Who is the supervillain that could be one step ahead of MG and Matteo?

Someone that knows more about comics than Matteo?

Detective Kildaire has some amusing encounters with the Geekdom that MG inhabits, from a Sorting Hat to a Star Wars movie marathon – building a world around a culture that comes over as well-portrayed. Add in the wonderful drag queen who might or might not be The Golden Arrow and the plotline shimmers. That superhero/vigilante identity kept me wondering. Who can pull this off?

The Comic Con and costumes climax is neatly worked in – all the right seeds sown. Satisfying ending to a fun novel that earns four stars plus.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – four stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – four stars

I Am the Chosen King – a review

Over the next two or three weeks, I intend to review the seven books read in recent months. Some of these were on my list for my 2019 challenges, and all have counted towards my 2019 Goodreads Challenge.

First is a novel I won in a giveaway on the author’s website that I follow. As it is a thick book, I had some difficulty carrying it around in my old wheelchair. But over time, I found a solution and read the novel.

I Am the Chosen King

(Saxon #1)

by

Helen Hollick

Original Title when published in the UK: Harold the King

In this beautifully crafted tale, Harold Godwinesson, the last Saxon King of England, is a respected, quick-witted man both vulnerable and strong, honorable and loving-and yet, in the end, only human. After the political turmoil and battles leading up to 1066, we all know William the Conquerer takes England. But Helen Hollick will have readers at the edge of their seats, hoping that just this once, for Harold, the story will have a different ending.

Review 5 stars

This beautifully written novel was well worth spending time reading. In summary, I loved all the details and characters. Although I already opposed the Normans, Helen Hollick turned me into a fan of Harold Godwinesson. But I’ve never liked William the Conqueror – even when I discovered the Normans had Norse ancestors. The novel felt well-researched.

On a superficial level and the one I learnt at school decades ago, the story is straightforward. But the reality and the twists, intrigues and rivalry as it unfolds is complex. Helen Hollick captures all the nuances and fills in history’s gaps convincingly.

The settings in England and Normandy evoked a sense of what the 11th century was possibly like. Some of the places I glimpsed from my own travels. For instance, London and its environs were very different and yet the descriptions triggered images and memories in my imagination. I lived for a few years near Waltham Abbey, so could picture it as it was.

One negative could be the portrayal of the original Britons – the Welsh. Were the Welsh worse than other peoples around that period? Ruling England is a tough job, but does it mean all one’s enemies are violent savages? Or is that my Welsh bias?

Anyways, the Godwinesson family take centre stage, led by Harold’s influential father, Earl Godwin. Early on there are indications that sibling rivalry is inevitable, and as the story unfolds it becomes more intense leading to the fatal actions of one brother, Tostig. How the role of other family members weaves into this is well-portrayed and justified.

Then there is royal intrigue. Again, inevitable given the characters, a reluctant King, his powerful mother – Emma, Queen and wife of the late Cnut the Great – and then Harold’s politically astute father. Emma, who is the protagonist of Hollick’s next book in the series, The Forever Queen – chronologically a prequel – is reluctant to let her son, Edward rule as if he’s weak. But this ‘confessor’ is distracted by spiritual matters – until he tastes power.

I’m not going to accuse the author of treating her characters as black and white as others have. They take sides and few of them waver. Even the despicable William has his moments of introspection. So, the characters felt realistic, reacting and creating events. Some lived dangerously, wanting what others had and failing – or in William’s case succeeding.

Emma must teach Harold’s ambitious sister Edith about her duties as Queen when she marries Edward, becoming the next Queen of England. And what does power do when petty sibling rivalry plays its role? Hollick weaves that rivalry into the historical facts, and the tale unfolds as it did in 1066. Fortunately, Harold’s hand-fast wife, Edith Swanneck rises above this rivalry, and their love endures even when he has to marry another in the eyes of the church – another relationship well-portrayed.

When Edward dies and Harold is chosen as the King of England, other claimants emerge inevitably. One is Duke William of Normandy. Historically he claimed both Edward and Harold had promised him the crown, but the records are questionable enough for the writer to expand on the facts and give Harold justification for accepting the crown himself.

Result – invasions north and south. The pace builds as the ending unfolds that most English know from school. So, we know what happens in this timeline. Tostig creates tension and trouble with his Norwegian allies. And as made clear in the scenes of him securing his dukedom, William never gives up. History can’t be changed.

Damn that Norman bastard.

The tension of those final days gripped me as I marched up and down England. Hollick had me praying for an English victory. ‘What if’ kept playing through her words. But this wasn’t the clever alternative history collection, 1066 Turned Upside Down which Hollick contributed to. This was the actual year 1066 but crafted brilliantly and enjoyably.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

The Pearl Thief – a review

When I was compiling my list for the 2019 Cloak and Dagger Challenge, I missed off a number of books including Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief. As Wein’s Code Name Verity was my top read in 2018, I was looking forward to reading this prequel. Well listening to what was my first Audible novel, though not my first audio book.

I’m now listening to another Elizabeth Wein novel – Black Dove, White Raven – but back to the review of my sixth read for the Challenge

The Pearl Thief

(Code Name Verity 0.5)

by

Elizabeth E. Wein

Before Verity . . . there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In the prequel to Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this exhilarating coming-of-age story returns to a beloved character just before she learned to fly.

Review 5 stars

After I was bowled over by the brilliance of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, I enjoyed re-connecting with the memorable Julia Beaufort-Stuart – albeit when she was fifteen.

This is a different genre – a mystery and coming-of-age story that my wife and I listened to engrossed. This was our first Audible book and the narration by actress Maggie Service was excellent, bringing to life the characters.

The mystery begins when Julia wakes up in hospital and realises that her injury might not have been an accident. Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to first-hand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences.

Wein artfully weaves pearl gathering in the river and a missing-person investigation into Julia’s evolving relationships. Facts are slipped into scenes in subtle ways, and the author even adds a useful addendum about Pearls and Travellers at the very end. Wein always strikes me as a writer that does her research and knows how to knit it into a tale – as she does here.

The characters were distinctive and grew over time, not just as their layers were unpeeled but also by their interactions. For instance, the complex relationship between Julia and Ellen grows from social divide to mutual understanding and deep friendship. Others grow from their shells or achieve deserved recognition in a similar way.

The Scottish setting echoed my own time there, especially along stretches of riverbank. And some of the prejudices were familiar from the class world I know.

By the end, the mysteries – yes, there I far more than one- have been solved in unexpected ways. For me, some seeds had been sown that foreshadowed Code Name Verity – subtle and poignant.

An excellent listen – and another memorable character.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – five stars

Narration – five stars

Editing – five stars

Ten Minutes Past Teatime – a review


This is the first post written with my new ‘one-handed’ keyboard – well, smaller than my UK-bought one so easier to use when my left-hand cramps and claws. Just need to adapt to its idiosyncrasies.

On to my review of a short story that a writer I follow sent her subscribers.

Ten Minutes Past Teatime

by

Elizabeth Chatsworth (Goodreads Author)

Please note, this is a short story/novelette.

A Victorian spinster-scientist and a Viking shield-maiden find passion and danger in dark-age Ireland.

1896: Forty-three-year-old scientist Miss Minerva Minett is determined to become the first female member of an exclusive inventor’s club. To win their annual membership competition, she invents a time-traveling submersible, and launches her vessel into the Irish sea for a quick trip to the dark ages. But when she sinks a Viking longship, accidentally joins a monastery raid, and falls into the arms of a grizzled shield-maiden, she discovers that time may not be on her side.

Review 4.3 stars

This entertaining steampunk short story had me amused and entertained as forty-three-year-old Victorian scientist Miss Minerva Minett attempted to become the first female member of an exclusive inventor’s club, by launching her time-traveling submersible into the Irish sea for a quick trip to the dark ages.

From the amusing opening through her encounter with the grizzled shield-maiden, Alfhild to the twist at the end, I chuckled at the inventive mind of Minerva and her creator.

The experiments and inventions were as memorable as the characters, including the one that delivered the twist at the end. Being steampunk, I expected alternative history, so I won’t over-judge the authenticity beyond wondering about some oddities such as a misplaced dragon-head.   

The romance between Alfhild and Minerva is a bonus with neat contrasts across cultures and time. And with a name like Minerva, there had to be goddess references.

Alfhild was the true goddess, not she. Or maybe they both were?

It was a thesis she would have to explore in more detail. For the sake of science.

But the humour is always there.

Minerva cocked her head. Surely, she didn’t hear the word goldfish in the chorus? “ . . . Minerva’s Magic Goldfish. Answers every sailor’s wish . . .” Oh, dear.

A fun read, although short.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – three stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – four stars

Ninth Step Station – a review

My third ‘cloak and dagger’ read of 2019 was a new approach for me – serialized fiction released in episodes week after week. The publishers, Serial Box offered me an ARC as I had read and reviewed a novel by one of the four writers, back in September 2017: Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi. I am grateful and glad I agreed to read the ARC for Season 1 of Ninth Step Station.

Ninth Step Station: The Complete Season 1

(Ninth Step Station Series #1.1-1.10)

by

Malka Ann Older (Goodreads Author), Fran Wilde (Goodreads Author), Jacqueline Koyanagi (Goodreads Author), Curtis C. Chen (Goodreads Author)

A local cop. A US Peacekeeper. A divided Tokyo.

Years of disaster and conflict have left Tokyo split between great powers. 

In the city of drone-enforced borders, body-mod black markets, and desperate resistance movements, US peacekeeper Emma Higashi is assigned to partner with Tokyo Metropolitan Police Detective Miyako Koreda.

Together, they must race to solve a series of murders that test their relationship and threaten to overturn the balance of global power. And amid the chaos, they each need to decide what they are willing to do for peace.

Review 4.4 stars

I was pleased to receive this serialised fiction as an ARC from Serial Box Publishing as it was an exciting read.

This police procedural set in a near future Tokyo consists of ten engrossing episodes written by different authors, including at least one, Jacqueline Koyanagi whose debut novel I’ve read and reviewed.

The style is reminiscent of US crime series, but with its own interesting approach as the sense of an imminent future pervades but doesn’t take over the plots. This could be ‘tomorrow’ with China occupying part of Japan and a sector of Tokyo, and with the US playing what is meant to be peacekeeper. Ninth Step Station has some fascinating characters, interesting plots, futuristic tech and very real political intrigue.

US peacekeeper Emma Higashi (Japanese-American) is assigned to partner with Tokyo Metropolitan Police Detective Miyako Koreda at Nine Step Station, one of the key TMP stations. The cases they are tasked with solving are standalone, but there are overarching events that carry through the novel/series with the usual TV-style cliff-hanger to lead into Series 2.

The crimes in the ten episodes vary from suspected suicide and domestic violence to assassination and terrorism with differing levels of technological involvement such as body-mods, drones, data mining, and data sleeves – all realistic evolutions of existing tech. The data sleeves especially play a key role in enabling people to instantly communicate and interface – although this is also a city troubled by regular power-cuts/blackouts. However, the war and the gangs/Yakuza make solving crimes challenging with some data irretrievable and some information obscured by human evasiveness.

Each of the writers gives an individual feel to each episode, yet together they create a seamless story with consistent and evolving characters, a realistic-feeling Tokyo post-occupation and those building overarching events. The TV-style structure means the episodes are formula to some degree, but they are enjoyable – although not as complex as some mysteries I read.

Both the two main characters and the supporting players are distinctly portrayed, and there are developing attributes and discoveries as the episodes unfold. The misunderstanding and conflicts arising between the two protagonists due to cultural differences, personal secrets and political agendas create a more complex relationship than an instant crime-fighting partnership and that relationship has room to grow. I was also pleased to see that the issues of gender bias and sexuality were addressed – although not as suspected.

Not knowing Tokyo, I assume that the world-building does build on the present city, although I realise that the format only allows the setting to receive less attention than the stand-out characters who are what will pull me back here.

I look forward to the sequel as there is plenty to build on in Ninth Step Station.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Authenticity – four stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – a review

As intended, my reading in 2019 is leaning towards mysteries and crime – although there will be a few other genres to break the pattern a little. This mystery read is one of the stranger entries, but still highly enjoyable.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

by

Stuart Turton (Goodreads Author)

The Rules of Blackheath

Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. 

There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit. 

We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer. 

Understood? Then let’s begin…


Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others…

The most inventive debut of the year twists together a mystery of such unexpected creativity it will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

            Review 4.7 stars

This was a ‘must buy’ from the blurb and from reviewers I follow – and I was not disappointed to bump this ahead of other books.

Lost in a forest and unsure who he is, not recognising his body or exactly what’s going on, is where the protagonist and the reader find themselves. An opening that enticed me in as I discovered where ‘I’ was and why – well, not exactly. At first, we meet the first host body for the first-person protagonist that needs to identify the killer of Evelyn Hardcastle to break a cycle that he has become trapped in.

This is Groundhog Day meets Cluedo with Agatha Christie pulling the strings of a cast that echoes the Golden Age of Mystery. Except this world feels darker with death not limited to one-time only. Although the mystery elements are classic and the basic plot may seem easily solved by some readers, it is not the mystery that makes this novel, but the intricacies caused by a repeating day with the hosts and other players evolving with the unravelling of the secrets.  

This is the mysterious world that is Blackheath, a crumbling country house with characters hiding as many secrets as the plot. Everyone seems to be guilty of something or hiding their past. The faded grandeur was evocatively described in a language smeared with decay and dread. A mystery convention twisted by the theme. This was a house of layers that Aiden had to uncover with his host bodies.

Host bodies that added their own idiosyncrasies to the investigation. He must work with their limitations such as ageing bodies or their own agendas. This is no simple body-hopping as he must pull their minds to his task – or in some cases use their own intelligence. And as he hops there are dangers from shadowy antagonists to losing his mind to his host’s.

Each character is distinct especially the hosts, whom the reader gets to experience from their perspective and Aiden’s – in a clever way…without spoiling the gameplay. Full marks to the author for painting such amazing portraits and evolving their behaviour as the day repeats. Some seem to be tortured by their own actions – their consciences perhaps.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers so I’m sounding as devious as the author. There are clever twists to catch out everyone – even readers, even if some are ahead of the game. But I was surprised although I had my suspects. With a sprinkling of clues – and red herrings – to mystify hosts and readers, I enjoyed the ingenious plotting that must have taken a wall of sticky notes. The author’s notes clarify the process and added to my admiration.

My only minor quibbles were ‘shooting’ described as ‘hunting’ – I come from a shooting-hunting country house background – and a few unnecessary dialogue tags where the speaker was obvious.

The ending was unexpectedly artful with even ‘the puppet master’ stunned. After reading this novel, I’d recommend this to mystery readers looking for something different from the norm and open to other genre elements sneaking in. Or are you afraid of getting trapped re-reading this tome?

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – four stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – four stars

Editing – five stars