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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Ten books: Mini-reviews by Lee

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

Wherein I cannot manage to write in-depth reviews for all the fabulous books on my device, or on my nightstand, but I want to feed as many authors as I possibly can, so I cobble together a selection books I have enjoyed recently and put up some quick-fire reviews that I hope will somehow translate into the sales equivalent of a cup of coffee for the authors concerned.

The Con Artist’s Takeover: The Mystery of the Unco-Nerdo School Teacher by Karen Cossey.

Middle grade, print version. A fabulous my-first-mystery read for kids from one of my local Tauranga Writers colleagues, The Con Artist’s Takeover is a wonderful dual reading experience, the narrative working on both levels—for parents and kids—always the sign of a good middle grade read, in my humble opinion. While there is a lot of dialogue in this one, the sections are short, usually only a few pages, and the plot romps along, making it a good choice for supported bedtime reading. The story’s characters are a bunch of child sleuths, all with distinct personalities and who offer different perspectives on the problem at hand, which in this case is rescuing their kidnapped friend, Nate. These characters read like real kids, complete with food allergies Author Karen Cossey has not only nailed their voices, it’s clear she has uncovered the secret formula for engaging reluctant boy readers too, by adding exactly the words their parents admonish them for! Here’s an example from the text:

“Let’s follow him,” Poet said.

“Like spies,” Meeka said.

“Yeah,” Poet said. “I’ve always wondered if security guards picked their noses while they’re out security-ing by themselves.”

“Or fart really loudly.”

“Or burp in time to the music,” Poet said…

Makes you want to go back and read the first book in the series, doesn’t it? Like The Con Artist’s Takeover, The Trespasser’s Unexpected Adventure is available in print and digital versions.

Unidentified by Michael McBride

Kindle version. I admit to being a huge fan of McBride’s stories, so it was a bit of a surprise to discover this novella published a few years ago and which I had somehow missed. With two complementary narrative threads, one set forty years in the past and the other in the present, readers of Unidentified always know what’s coming, and yet the suspense is palpable, McBride a master of engaging the senses, so you can almost smell the rot, hear the click of approaching death. This is how you write scary. With just 90 pages, that’s an hour of suck-in-your-breath nail-biting tension, right there. The blurb is here:

Four teenagers awaken in a scorched cornfield with no memory of how they got there. All they know is that there were five of them when they found the carcass of the mutilated cow.

Forty years later, Eric Devlin sends a cryptic email to the other three survivors: I remember everything.

Karl Doering has spent the majority of his life trying to understand what happened that night and learn the fate of his missing friend. He responds to the mysterious message and finds that Eric has killed himself in a decrepit barn, behind which is a cornfield filled with mutilated cattle.

When a local girl goes missing, Karl realizes that he and the other two survivors are her only hope. To find her they must confront repressed memories so traumatic they’d driven Eric to take his own life…and creatures straight out of their worst nightmares.

Caveat: Do not read the research notes! It's possible they are even scarier than the story.

Eve of Eridu by Alanah Andrews

Print version, YA, speculative. She's a Rotorua native now living in Australia, yet I hadn’t come across Alanah Andrew’s work until she attended New Zealand’s national convention GeyserCon. I picked up this book with a view to rectifying that. Eve of Eridu is a chilling teen speculative story of oppression in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale. In a subterranean post-World War III world where resources are scarce and hate is scorned, students battle quietly to improve their rankings, their best chance to avoid the culling as the Harvest approaches. The book’s narrator, Eve, a teen who has previously lost her brother to the culling, is surprisingly likeable, given the fact that the story is told in the first person and the character must stifle her emotions to survive in this slow-burn dystopian thriller. In Eridu, the nature of that survival is unclear. Andrews’ writing is uncomplicated but engaging, with euphemisms used to good effect to convey the societal constructs: Eridu is populated by prime-caregivers, guardians, overseers, and architects, for example, and its future full of cullings, harvestings, and transfers. The phrase, “Praise Alexa” positively terrified me. A great modern alternative to classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Chrysalis. Recommended.

Prophecy by AJ Ponder

In this, the second book in the Sylvalla Prophecies, our feisty heroine princess must head off an unfortunate war (King Phetero is still annoyed about that accidental kidnapping) and there is the little matter of her betrothal to Francis the-stable boy-turned-prince. A wonderfully rich high fantasy spoof with side-splitting footnotes and a foreword by lecturer on recent history, cryptic prophecy and the translation of ancient text, Frederick Fraderghast, Prophecy is tale within a tale. A complex story, Prophecy could fail to deliver is less skilled hands, instead, Ponder’s tightly-woven farce romps along, enthralling the reader with twisted plot events and unexpected vocabulary. It also has serious feminist underpinnings, sufficient to give Sylvalla’s parents the vapours. This one will appeal to Potter fans, especially those who secretly rooted for Hermoine, and to RPG enthusiasts. With gorgeous print production and stunning Craig Phillip’s artwork, Prophecy is highly recommended for family reading.

Ferocious by Jeff Strand

Kindle version, horror comedy. I read this one on a trip to the US. Luckily, I had no plans for excursions to the forest, or I might have been tempted to get back in a plane and come straight home. Jeff Strand never fails to deliver on thrills, gasps, and the absurd, and Ferocious fits right in the stable. In this story, Rusty and his niece Mia (who he’s adopted) live in an isolated cabin in the woods (naturally), where Rusty makes his living handcrafting furniture. Rusty has a no-phone policy, which isn’t too much of a problem when the zombie squirrel turns up, but the zombie bear is another matter. Graphic, frantic, and laugh out loud funny. (Caveat: May include inappropriate black humour). Great dialogue, heaps of action, and includes a chainsaw. Recommended.

Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand by George Gibbs

Print version. I picked up this book in a second-hand store (while looking for treasures with horror writer Kaaron Warren). An essential reference, which I cannot imagine how I previously did without, Ghosts of Gondwana is a remarkable history of how and why life evolved in New Zealand. It gives some answers to enigmas like why the kakapo is the only parrot in the world which doesn’t fly, and the kiwi doesn’t exist anywhere else. It tells of the extinct crocodile fossil discovered in central Otago, and the many woody divaricating plant species (50!) that can be found here, and how our scree wētā can be frozen solid and still survive. Some great fodder for speculative fiction writers, since we can hardly consider the future without some understanding of where we have come from. From Craig Potton Publishing with stunning photographic plates, well explained terminology, and a comprehensive glossary, Ghosts of Gondwana is readily accessible to lay readers.

Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature. Vol 19, 2018. A Special Double Issue on Phillip Mann

Print version. This tribute volume includes an essay on Mann and Aliens by Michael Trolley, critical reviews of Mann’s novels, as well as examples of his fiction—Maestro (a novella in four parts), The Gospel According to Mickey Mouse, and two stories from the Out of Time Café: The Hero and The Trumpet. There is no doubt that Mann is an evocative writer of meaningful science fiction set against epic worldbuilding backdrops, which is no doubt the reason his writing career has endured for more than three decades. I like Mann’s work—perhaps because we both share an interest in Chinese and French culture, the now-defunct Wellington Public Library, and a passion for ‘what if’. Mann also has a penchant for ‘related’ stories, those told through scientific reports, letters, and other documents, and often by unreliable narrators—a form he has mastered and which he employs to present complex, and often provocative, environmental and socio-political themes in story. Philosophy through story, which is how we learn everything in the end, isn’t it? The personal interview is interesting, because although much admired in his adopted country, Mann doesn’t see himself as a New Zealand writer, more of an ‘exile’ which might explain why we see little of this country in his work, and perhaps why he also struggles to cite any of New Zealand’s wonderful speculative writing community. Overall, this volume is fabulous tribute to a science fiction icon.

The Molenstraat Music Festival by Sean Monaghan

Another title I picked up at the bookstall at GeyserCon, but when I opened it and started reading, I realised the story was a former Sir Julius Vogel Award finalist, so I had read it before. NO matter! It was just a good the second time. Told in prose that is both subtle and sharp, The Molenstraat Music Festival is a touching and highly human story. Set off-world, on a planet aligned to Earth, a gifted young cellist who has had an accident eschews a neural implant, instead imploring 87-year-old former music teacher Clancy Jonah to train her for an upcoming festival. But Clancy has health issues too, and his physician, Symonds, thinks implants are the answer. A poignant universal story about connection and importance of creativity to our wellbeing. Exquisite. An uplifting coffee-break read for a tiny price.

A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman

1988 print version that a friend gave me because the cultural and mythological aspects reminded him of my novels. In the tradition of Longmire, A Thief of Time tells of 50-year-old Joe Leaphorn, who’s about to retire from the Navajo Tribal Police to head home and grieve his deceased wife. But a ceramics researcher goes missing, and Joe’s last investigation leads to thousand-year-old Anasazi ruins on the reservation land, a series of murders, and an unexpected outcome. I loved this work for its juxtaposition of cultural perspectives, stunning landscape, and steady pacing. Keenly researched, the narrative offers a myriad of recognisable and yet distinct voices and perspectives. Great read! This is Hillerman’s eighth novel—I’m on the lookout for the others.

Boomtown by James A Moore

James A Moore returns with the fifth installment in his Jonathan Crowley series, and it is violent, bleak, and supernaturally charged. With Moore you're always guaranteed hours of entertaining escapism, but Boomtown isn’t simply a fast-paced thriller with zombies, although it offers both. In this book, Moore delivers powerful underpinnings with your high action pulp, giving new meaning to the adage ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’. The story is set in snowy Carson Point, Colorado, where the dead won’t stay dead and a bevy of evils has descended on the town, each with its own agenda. Crowley isn’t interested in getting involved, just settling a personal score. Of course, things don’t work out exactly as planned. (Don’t panic if you haven’t read the other titles, Boomtown works perfectly well as a stand-alone.)

Disclaimer: I have meet, or conversed online, with all but two of the authors whose works are reviewed here, so you should really take my comments with a pinch of salt. The only way you can be sure if I am spot on with my reflections is to purchase a copy of these books and find out for yourself.

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