Book Review: From Waterloo to Water Street

Spoiler Alert

Anyone who has not read From Waterloo to Water Street by S.E. Morgan is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m going to be completely honest: as much as I find history fascinating in a casual sort of way, I am no historian beyond what I had to study at school (mostly Nazis and the Civil Rights movement) and what I studied in college (church history). And so, as much as I am interested in history, I often find I am hindered by my lack of knowledge whenever I come to read a piece of historical fiction. The world I’m reading about is often too alien for me to truly appreciate the significance of what’s going on, especially if the author focuses heavily on giving a history lecture rather than telling a story of human beings and the things they care about.

That was not my experience with From Waterloo to Water Street by S.E. Morgan: a frankly beautiful piece of writing which is set in 19th century Wales, where the Rebecca Riots are in full swing. In addition to the civil unrest which took place in Wales at that time, this book also draws heavily on the Napoleonic Wars, as one of the main characters (Gu) recounts his own personal memories of serving as a soldier for the British army in those conflicts.

For an entry-level historian such as myself, there is real potential to be bogged down by tedious details which I had little prior knowledge of in a story like this one; and while I am sure a little extra knowledge would have been a boon for me (isn’t it always?), this simply wasn’t the case with From Waterloo to Water Street. Morgan’s character driven writing immediately draws even the most uninitiated reader into the 19th century Welsh country, where desperate farmers are battling for their livelihoods. You really get a feel for the plight of the individual characters (e.g.: Gu’s struggle with PTSD or Will’s conflicting sense of estrangement and solidarity with his own people) as well as the battle that is being fought in the background between agricultural workers and the local authorities.

I have very little to say that is negative about this book. I will concede that the beginning was a little slow as we were introduced to a fair number of characters early on while still trying to understand what was at stake at that point in history but this had very little impact on my overall enjoyment of the novel. Once the story got underway, it was easy to get into the skin of all the main players; to hear their distinctive voices, to understand their motives and to care about what they hoped to accomplish. Gu, in particular, was a deeply complex and well rounded character, so expertly crafted and cooked to perfection that he almost felt like a real person. By the time we reached the climax both in Gu’s memories and in the events unfolding in Will’s own life, I was so deeply involved in the events described in this book that I could not put it down until it was finished.

If you’re wanting to read a piece of intelligent historical fiction with real character-driven substance and a plot which marches decisively towards a satisfying climax, you should read this book. There is no doubt in my mind that anyone who loves a rich story, both history buffs and laymen alike, will appreciate From Waterloo to Water Street for the masterpiece it is.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Click here to read my interview with S.E. Morgan, author of From Waterloo to Water Street.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth

First published: 16/09/2019
SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

This review reflects only my own personal opinions and impressions.

Well last week it was all about children’s books; this week I’m reviewing a book that is definitely not suitable for children. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is a hefty tome about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge in 12th century England. It’s full of lovable and deplorable characters, political intrigue, technical details about medieval construction and just a little bit more sex and sexual violence than was necessary.

One of my favourite things about this story was how well paced it was. Given that this is a story about building a cathedral and is set over a period of several decades, and also bearing in mind that thrillers are Ken Follett’s usual racket, there was a very real danger of this story either being an absolute drag or being inappropriately fast-paced. I needn’t have worried. The blend of fast scenes and slow scenes is beautiful and appropriate, making this lengthy novel a constant page-turner from start to finish.

Now let’s talk characters. I honestly can’t decide if the characters in this story are one of its best qualities or one of its worst. In some ways I liked them. They’re all quite distinctive with clearly defined personality traits and its also pretty clear that each character is driven by firmly established motives and goals. Very good indeed. If we know what drives a character, it’s easy to care about what happens to him, even if the subject matter is foreign or uninteresting to us. This makes The Pillars of the Earth a real page-turner when it could have just as easily been a bore.

When I first began to talk about the idea for Pillars, some people hated the idea. “Nobody cares about building a church in the Middle Ages,” they said. But readers will care about it if the characters care.

Ken Follett, Goodreads Notes and Highlights on The Pillars of the Earth

Having said that, there was also something a little bit tedious about some of the characters (with the major exception of Philip and, to a lesser extent, Jack). The female protagonists are strong and beautiful (oh and Aliena has huge breasts, we’re constantly reminded); the male protagonists are brave and noble and the antagonists are devious and brutal. William Hamleigh, the primary antagonist, is the worst for this. He’s devious, cowardly, violent, greedy and licentious with absolutely no redeeming qualities. But just in case we’re in any doubt that he’s the bad guy, he rapes way more people than is necessary for one story. Seriously, this guy does a lot of raping, pretty much whenever he’s not tormenting the poor or burning villages. The good guys in this story never rape of course, but they do have lots of consensual sex to the point of implausibility. While most of the sex scenes are not explicitly described (though a few are), some of the characters are portrayed as being at it on a several-times-a-day-every-day basis and still find time to build a cathedral, overcome one disaster after another and fight the bad guys. I dunno, maybe they’re just really good at organising their time, but between this and the manifold references to the size of Aliena’s breasts, it sometimes just felt a bit like the authors’ mind was wandering. That’s just my opinion though.

In many respects, this is a story with several different layers to it. There are several protagonists whose stories we follow, each overlapping and interacting with one another while yet remaining distinctive. Tom wants nothing more than to build a cathedral but cares for his family. Jack is a boy who lived in the forest, now growing into a man who is consumed with questions about his deceased father. His very much a coming-of-age type story. Aliena is the daughter of a disgraced earl who has sworn to help her brother reclaim the earldom, and finds herself constantly pulled in all directions by her sense of duty to others. Prior Philip is driven by his zealous faith in God and his sense of righteousness. He tries earnestly to do what is right on earth and to glorify God by the building of the cathedral and yet is in constant conflict with his own sense of pride and self-doubt. These are just a selection of the main players in this story, all of whose individual story-lines overlap and diverge to create an intricate tapestry of skilfully executed fiction. It really is a thing of beauty.

All in all, The Pillars of the Earth is a great story. It’s got plenty of excitement, plenty of sentiment and Aliena has big breasts all of the characters are driven by goals and motives that we really care about. The many threads that comprise the plot are magnificently woven together to form a novel which is well constructed and handles potentially dry subject matter in a way which is enjoyable and entertaining. Worth a look, even if it’s not your usual preferred genre. Just don’t read it to your kids.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: Beyond

Spoiler Alert

Anyone who has not read Beyond by Georgia Springate is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Beyond by Georgia Springate follows the story of Alex Duncan: a fourteen year old boy who finds himself consumed with anxiety about what happens to us after we die when his sister is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Struggling to cope with the impact of his sister’s prognosis and feeling neglected by his family, Alex turns to the pastoral support teacher, Mrs Moss, who encourages him to research what lies beyond this life while he continues to face the added struggles of every day teenage life: bullies, friends, girls and school.

As always, good characters are what make a good story and Beyond is no exception. Most of the main players are teenagers or young adults and Springate captures the strange dynamics of the teenage social structures as well as the individual goals and motives of each character in a way which feels natural and believable.

The protagonist and POV character, Alex, is by far the best example of what I’m talking about. He is anxious about his sister’s eternal destiny and this motive provides him with a clear goal which he pursues diligently throughout the story; however he is also burdened by the things that all teenagers are concerned with. He learns that the rest of life will not stop for him while he deals with his sister’s prognosis, forcing him to juggle school work, budding romance and the treacherous waters of teenage social structures under inordinate pressure with little support from his parents. Springate has manifested this complex web of life in Alex in a way which is absolutely believable and relatable, creating a character we can really care about.

I can only imagine what a challenge this novel was to write thematically, not just because of the emotive subject matter (though that is also undeniable) but because the protagonist’s goal is so heavily focused on finding out, with reasonable certainty, what happens to us when we die. This inevitably puts the author in the position of having to either come up with a single decisive answer (this would create an instant ‘preachy’ novel which would annoy most readers) or else leave the question unanswered but teach the protagonist something even more valuable in the process. The author has, quite rightly, done the latter and has walked the line between a hard preachy epiphany and meaningless fluffy one as well as could be hoped for.

A story like this one runs the risk of having a meandering pace as the protagonist wanders from one inevitable hospital visit (with more bad news!) to another; one inevitable person with an opinion on death to another; one inevitable encounter with the school bully to another until Jenna inevitably dies and Alex has his inevitable epiphany. Beyond doesn’t feel like that. True, the protagonist does spend a lot of time visiting people with opinions on death and avoiding the school bully, but each scene moves the plot forward, creating a definite sense of anticipation which makes this book unputdownable. No small achievement when a discerning audience should realise from the outset that Jenna is almost certainly going to die and Alex is almost certainly not going to find a decisive answer to his question.

While the main plot is expertly paced and drawn to as satisfying a conclusion as is possible for a story of this type, some of the less central elements of the plot seem to fizzle out a little towards the end, particularly the business with the school bully, Duce. This altogether unpleasant little bully torments most of the other characters throughout the novel, culminating in him leaving a threatening note in Alex’s locker only to suddenly change his ways and become a nicer person in the final chapter. Personally, I think a more decisive resolution to the bullying subplot would have really tightened up the ending.

This isn’t really the kind of book I normally like to read. While I generally reject any advice about avoiding certain subjects while writing a novel, a lot of books of this type are either clumsy and insensitive or else are so overloaded with sentiment that it dilutes the substance of the theme. Not so with Beyond. It is sensitively written, drives the protagonist towards a reasonably satisfying resolution and takes the audience on a coming-of-age odyssey of the full tapestry of teenage life. A strong debut from a promising new author.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: Chino & The Boy Scouts by Nancet Marques

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not read Chino & The Boy Scouts by Nancet Marques is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’ve written many a book review here on Penstricken before, but this is a first for me. Most books I review here are written by authors whom I have little or no prior relationship with but I consider Nancet Marques, author of Chino & the Boy Scouts, to be a personal friend, as well as my colleague. I see him every day in life and I know exactly how much work has gone into this novel and how excited he is to finally have it completed. I’ve promised him an honest review and that’s what I intend to deliver but I don’t mind telling you I feel a both delighted and burdened by the responsibility of writing this review, so I do hope you’ll bear with me as I share some of my thoughts and impressions on this debut novel. So here we go.

In preparing for this review, I’ve spent quite a bit of time considering which audience Chino & The Boy Scouts is best suited to, as I always do whenever reviewing a book. I’ll be honest and say it is difficult to pin down an obvious target audience. For the most part, it reads like a YA fantasy, vaguely reminiscent of Harry Potter: the main characters are all teenagers and the action largely concerns school, scouting and the hunt for a legendary artefact, all of which suggests a novel ideally suited to young adults or older children. As such, there is a lot of ‘coming of age’ material where the teenagers go on a quest, endure hardship, suffer loss, and come out the other end a little more mature for it. That being said, I have a small note of caution for any parents out there: this story does include a small smattering of words you might not want to teach your children and a few scenes which may be a little too dark for children.

The plot itself tells the fun and occasionally dark tale of a group of boy scouts and a secret quest to find the fabled Golden Whistle. Digging a little deeper, we find there are also more profound themes at play such as friendship, family and ambition. If you like a story with a goodly helping of both heart and adventure with a surprising twist at the end, you will definitely like Chino & The Boy Scouts. I don’t want to give too much away about what happens, but suffice to say it is revealed that there are darker forces at work than was previously imagined, leaving me eager to read the next instalment in the series while the coming-of-age themes are handled with a delicacy and je ne sais quoi which made it easy to care for the characters and their goals.

The characters are, for the most part, reasonably well developed, some more so than others. All of the key players, at least, have reasonably well defined goals and motives, distinctive personalities and simple but well structured character arcs which make for a well rounded and satisfying conclusion. The minor characters could have perhaps done with a little bit more development to make it easier for the reader to keep track of who was who. They were okay, they just weren’t quite distinctive enough for my taste given the sheer number of them.

I believe this novel is a significant accomplishment for the author, not only because he has written an enjoyable story, but also because he has written it entirely in English, despite the fact English is not the author’s first language. While it could have benefited from one more re-edit, I nevertheless believe this is an achievement not to be sniffed at.

All in all, a very entertaining read. I enjoyed this novel. It was a good story with all the mystery, excitement and emotion a story of this kind needs and I, for one, am chomping at the bit to find out what happens next in this promising saga.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

6 Excellent Book Reviews

It’s that time again where I step aside to share the limelight with some of my fellow fiction bloggers from across the internet.

This time, the posts I’ve listed here share a unifying theme: they are all excellent book reviews. As ever, I have listed these in no particular order. So without further ado:

‘COLLEEN’S 2020 #BOOK #REVIEWS – “Marriage Unarranged,” BY AUTHOR, Ritu Bhathal, @RituBhathal’ by Colleen M. Chesebro

‘Smorgasbord Book Review by Sally Cronin- #Fantasy – The Hat by C.S. Boyack’ by Sally Cronin

‘Review by LITERARY TITAN for TALON, COME FLY WITH ME’ by Literary Titan

‘Book Review: Eventide by Mae Clair’ by Jay

‘Book Review Tuesday: Dark Hollows @stevefrech’ by Mae Clair

‘#Book Review #The Absolution by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’ by happytonic


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

My Thoughts on Kindle Paperwhite

After a whopping ten years of blissful happiness, my trusty old third generation Kindle Keyboard was finally starting to show its age and so I decided it was time for an upgrade. New decade, new Kindle and all that, and so I asked Santa Karen and she very kindly obliged by leaving a shiny new Kindle Paperwhite under my tree.

So, I hear you cry, what has it got that the old Kindle Keyboard hasn’t got?

Well the hardware itself is certainly easier on the eye. As well as being smaller, the Kindle Paperwhite has no physical keyboard, page turn buttons or any buttons of any kind save a titchy little power button and despite being smaller and thinner, it also feels a lot sturdier than the Kindle Keyboard. It is, apparently, waterproof and although I have no interest in personally testing that claim, I could certainly believe it to be so. There are no obvious cracks in the hardware for water to seep into when compared with its 3rd Gen progenitor. According to Amazon, ‘Paperwhite is IPX8 rated to protect against accidental immersion in up to two metres of fresh water for up to 60 minutes.’ How you could accidentally leave your Kindle under two meters of water for as long as 60 minutes is a mystery to me, but it’s reassuring to know if that does happen, I still won’t have to fork out for a new one.

So, let’s turn it on. At first glance, the home screen appears a lot busier than the Kindle Keyboard, which essentially just gave us a list of all the books we owned. The home screen on the Paperwhite, on the other hand, displays both your own library and reading lists as well as key lists from the Kindle Store, such as book recommendations. The menu bar along the top of the screen provides links to everything you’ll need to start reading right away, while everything else is tucked away neatly in the side menu. You can link into your GoodReads account, listen to your Audible books and even browse the internet on the ‘experimental browser.’ Book covers and other images are also beautifully rendered in crystal clear high-resolution.

The front-lighting is very nice indeed. One of the things I liked about my old Kindle Keyboard was how easy it was to read the screen for hours on end without hurting your eyes, even in brilliant sunshine, thanks to its unlit anti-glare screen. I was a little bit concerned that by introducing illumination, it might become a little less kind to my eyes (as someone who wears glasses and suffers from frequent headaches, this was not something I wanted). I needn’t have worried. I don’t know exactly what sorcery they’ve used to illuminate the screen, but the illumination is soft, milky and even, giving it just enough of a glow to make it visible in the dark without any harsh glare. When reading in a well lit room, the screen appears just slightly more luminescent than would be natural if you were reading on white paper (hence the name, I guess) and when reading in the dark, it does not flood the rest of the room with light, meaning I can read in bed even while the wife is trying to sleep. Of course, if you find the front-lighting a little too brilliant, you can adjust it to just the right level for your own needs (though it took me ages to figure out how to do).

The complete lack of any physical buttons means everything is controlled by touch screen. If you are familiar with using touch screen on your phone, you’ll already know the basic principles: tapping, swiping, long pressing and so forth. It all works the same as on your phone and I personally find it a lot smoother to use than physical buttons, especially when it comes to typing notes. The majority of books that I read on Kindle are books that authors have gifted me for author interviews or book reviews, and so I often want to add notes to what I’m reading. You could do this with the Kindle Keyboard, but the tiny little buttons were just so fiddly and awkward that I often resorted to a crude form of short hand and wilfully ignored all my typos because it just wasn’t worth the fuss. Not so with the Kindle Paperwhite! The on screen keyboard is a breeze to use and I can write long winded notes to myself until the cows come home.

If I was being hypercritical, I would say the touch screen takes a little bit of getting used to while reading. It’s not overly fiddly, just takes a bit more practice than its predecessors. For instance, you need to tap just the right point on the screen to bring up the menu bar and if you tap anywhere else by mistake, it turns to the next page. In a similar way, you turn the page back by swiping left but if your swipe isn’t quite swipey enough, you’ll find yourself turning forwards instead of back. It is possible to temporarily display touch screen while reading so all controls are locked save the ability to turn to the next page, however this is probably more trouble than its worth since you have to lock the Kindle and then unlock it again to turn this feature off. You can’t even turn the power off without first turning touch screen back on, so it’s not really worth the trouble. Hardly a deal breaker though.

All in all, a fantastic piece of kit. I fully expect it to provide me with another decade or so of reading pleasure (and audio-book listening pleasure, if that’s your bag) and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a snazzy new e-book reader that won’t burn your eyes out.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: From Men and Angels by H.L. Walsh

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read From Men and Angels by H.L. Walsh is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Imagine a world where Angels and Demons are not just spiritual beings but physical beings we can see an interact with. How would that change our world? If humans fought alongside with and also against these titans; what kind of world would that be?

H.L. Walsh, author of From Men and Angels

Debut author H.L. Walsh answers his own question in his new book, From Men and Angels, chronicling the adventures of Malach, a hunter and son of an angel and Amara, an exiled thief living in a world of fully corporeal angels and demons. These two protagonists, despite their very disparate origins, come together in the city of Newaught where they are quickly caught up in an ancient war which has been silently raging between angels and demons for over two thousand years.

The world-building in this novel is excellent. The blending together of fantasy with real-world religious elements can be a tricky business but Walsh accomplishes this masterfully, creating a world which is vividly imagined, inspired by certain aspects of Christian theology without creating obvious allegories to patronise the reader or crude caricatures to offend the believer. Indeed, where most authors writing this type of story might be tempted to create allegorical ‘God figures’ and ‘Satan figures’ with different names, Walsh has taken the bold step to make specific references to God and Satan, as well as one more indirect reference to Christ. A risky move in some ways, but one which I feel has paid off.

Many fantasy authors create detailed and vivid fantasy worlds only to be let down by presenting them in a way which bogs the reader down with tedious descriptions of the world’s political, historical and geographical landscape and forcing the reader to constantly refer back to the map(s) on at the front of the book. From Men and Angels does not have this problem. Thanks to Walsh’s clear and direct writing style, the reader is fed a gentle and steady diet of everything they need to know about Walsh’s fantasy world in a way which feels natural and enjoyable to read without info dumping.

The characters in this story are, for the most part, all reasonably well rounded with clear motives driving their actions. Malach is a hunter with of unusual physical strength, owing to his angelic ancestry. All he wants is a quiet life of hunting in his home village, but his life is quickly turned upside down when it is revealed that his parents are alive in a demon prison and that he personally has a crucial role to play (for some reason?) in the coming conflict between the Angels and Demons. In some ways, he’s a little bit typical for a fantasy hero: strong, solitary, plagued by demons and reluctant to follow the call of his destiny. He is accompanied throughout the story by his friend, Daziar and his wolf, Skie.

As much as I liked Malach, I liked the Amara character just a little bit more. She seemed just a shade or two more complex than Malach, more driven by her own needs rather than having other characters popping out of the woodwork and telling her about her destiny. My only real criticism of this character was how she responded to Malach. Given the life she has lived until this point, it struck me as more than a little odd that, in her darkest hour, a streetwise thief like Amara would turn to a relative stranger (not to mention a natural enemy) simply because she finds him attractive and perhaps a little mysterious.

There’s one more character I’d like to mention: Malach’s sword, Reckoning. It’s an angel blade: a living weapon Malach liberates from a demon early in the story, with a personality all of its own, which is a fascinating concept in and of itself. When Malach first acquires this weapon, he is cautious, fearful of its ability to read his thoughts. In spite of this, he quickly comes to trust Reckoning and the reader is left wondering if Reckoning really is to be trusted. Having now finished the book, the short answer seems to be: yes, Reckoning is exactly who he claimed to be. In some respects, that was a bit of an anticlimax. There’s nothing wrong with Reckoning being a good guy as such, but it might have been nice to find a few darker shades to Reckoning’s character or even just to learn that he does have a few secrets or agendas of his own. Having said that, I’m also conscious that this is only the first book in the series so you never know what’s still to come!

I don’t have many seriously bad things to say about this book. If I was being hypercritical, I would say the romantic subplot is this story’s biggest let-down. There’s nothing wrong with the idea behind it or the basic path it follows but the execution felt a bit rushed and sloppy. The two characters don’t meet until fairly near the end of the book, which is fine, however the circumstances of their meeting don’t naturally lend themselves to the kind of relationship which develops between them. Amara, having just lost everything and having no where else to go, decides to go looking for this guard (Malach) whom she barely knows and who has every reason to arrest her. When she finds his house (through educated guesswork, I might add) she breaks in and after a rather tense encounter, the two quickly become as a thick as thieves to the extent that she goes out hunting with him and joins him on a dangerous quest to liberate his father from a demon prison. That just didn’t seem natural or believable to me, especially not while both characters were pre-occupied with their own issues.

All in all, From Men and Angels is a strong debut and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the series. The premise of a world with flesh and blood angelic forces is simple but fascinating and I was chomping at the bit to read it from the moment I heard about it. I was not disappointed. Well imagined, well written and with plenty of excitement; its few and minor let-downs were not nearly enough to stop this being a great read and a real page turner. If high fantasy with respectful and non-preachy religious elements is your thing, be sure to grab a copy of this book with my fullest blessing. It’s great.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Keep an eye out for my author interview with H.L. Walsh — coming soon!


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: Mark of the Raven

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who has not read Mark of the Raven by Morgan L. Busse is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I love a good old fashioned high fantasy set in faintly medieval inspired magical worlds and Christian fantasy Mark of the Raven by Morgan L. Busse promised to be exactly that. The protagonist, Lady Selene of House Ravenwood, has the ability to enter and even manipulate the dreams of other people and stands to become the head of her royal house. As she learns, under the cold instruction of her mother, to use her gift to spy upon and even assassinate the enemies of her house she becomes torn between the dark destiny set before her and the dream of a more peaceful way of life.

In general, an enjoyable book. I liked it. It didn’t knock my socks off but it was okay.

Most of the drama in this story focuses on Selene’s own internal conflict. Oh, yes, there’s an apparent threat to the Great Houses from the encroaching Dominia Empire but this never really matures into any direct conflict for any of the main characters. Instead, the main characters are simply squabbling about how best to deal with the threat of invasion, or indeed, if such a threat even exists. That side of things, however, is fairly by-the-by, for which I was immensely grateful as it could have become incredibly boring otherwise. Selene’s internal conflict about her own destiny and whether or not she can (or even should) carry out her mother’s instructions for the sake their house and their people is far more interesting, and the author very wisely focuses on this throughout and it is this particular arc which is concluded by the end of the novel. As part of a series, the conflict with the Dominia Empire and the break-down of relations between the great houses is left very much open and will, I trust, be fulfilled in the following instalments.

The world-building was strong, if not particularly mould breaking. It was easy to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of Rook Castle and the Magyr Mountains and the history of the world is also well developed and feeds directly into the story in a way which seems natural and believable. I did feel like the religions practised by the main players (in particular the followers of the Light and of the Dark Lady) were a little underdeveloped, which seemed like an especially odd thing to leave so half cooked in a Christian fantasy. On the plus side, this prevented the story from feeling obviously preachy. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that the true allegory lies in the inter-house politics and the Dominia threat, where I suspect the different houses possibly represent church denominations and the Dominia represent all the forces of hell or something along those lines. If that is the case, however, it is not delivered in a way which ruins the story or makes the reader feel preached at. The author clearly knows how to incorporate theme effectively.

My only major criticism of this novel is that it was a little predictable, especially the outcome of the relationship between Selene and Damien. Pretty much from the first moment we saw the noble and true Damien, servant of the Light and all round good guy (who certainly wouldn’t ever dream of marrying a lady of Ravenwood!), I knew he was going to end up marrying Selene. I was not remotely surprised by this and I frankly got a little fed up waiting for it to happen, especially given Selene’s obvious attraction to his soul and Damien’s fascination (though certainly not love or desire, no sir-ee!) with her. I will say this however: exactly how the two characters got from ‘stranger’ to ‘husband and wife’ stage wasn’t quite how I expected it to happen and it was, therefore, still worth reading.

Speaking of characters, the main players in this story (specifically: Selene, Damien, Selene’s Mother and, to a lesser extent, her father) are fairly well developed, if a little unremarkable. They are all distinctive enough and driven by clear motives to accomplish specific goals. There are loads of other characters (twenty four if the ‘character list’ at the start of the book is to be believed), each distinctive enough in their own ways, however some of them feel a little superfluous, as if they are only there to make up the numbers at the summit.

All in all, an easy enough read with jut enough excitement and intrigue to keep me going, but a little predictable at points and slow to begin with. If you like Christian fantasy, you’ll probably enjoy it in a ‘no fuss’ sort of way. Even if you’re not particularly interested in religious fiction, you’ll probably still enjoy this book well enough without feeling like its intruding on your beliefs. A nice, safe bit of easy reading fantasy.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: Steelheart

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

There are two things I really like: Brandon Sanderson and superhero stories, so when I heard that Sanderson had written a series of superhero stories, I knew I had found my next book. I was so confident that I would like it that I even bought the first two books at the same time, despite normally being wary of blowing money on serialised novels in case they’re rubbish (I would’ve bought the whole series but my Waterstones vouchers didn’t stretch that far on top of everything else I wanted to buy).

This story is set in a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic dystopia where a mysterious stellar event, known as Calamity, has gifted certain people with super powers. These individuals, known as Epics (Sanderson consistently shies away from the word superheroes/super villains), have taken over the world, oppressing ordinary humans and imposing their own despotic rule on whatever territory they deem to be their own. The main antagonist in this story is one such Epic: Steelheart, a seemingly invulnerable man who kills David’s (the protagonist) father in front of him. However, the boy David also saw something impossible at the same time: he saw Steelheart bleed, and swore he would make it happen again to avenge his father. As an adult, David joins a group of anti-Epic resistance fighters known as Reckoners and together they hatch a daring plan to kill Steelheart and put an end to his ruthless reign over Newcago (formerly Chicago).

There are a lot of things I like about this novel, and I am looking forward to reading the next instalment, but I won’t lie to you: it was a bit of a disappointment compared to Mistborn.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

In a similar way to the The Final Empire, Steelheart features a young protagonist who joins a group of rebels (the other ‘good guys’) with the primary goal of taking down a seemingly indestructible despot who barely appears in the narrative until the story’s climax. The characters all have their own little distinctive quirks and are, for the most part, likeable. My only criticism is that they were, perhaps, a little half-baked by Sanderson’s usual standards. For instance, David, the protagonist, was okay in general but he seemed little too ridiculous to believe insofar as things seemed to fall into place a little too easily for him despite impossible odds, especially in the beginning.

Oh, and while I’m complaining about my least favourite characters, can I mention Megan? Apart from being one of only two major female characters and the only one with a clear personal tie to the protagonist, she doesn’t even come across as a particularly well written character, at least before the last few chapters. She’s beautiful, feisty, with a hidden vulnerability and (you guessed it!), she’s the obvious love interest. David thinks she’s hot but doesn’t know if she likes him or not because she seems to be sending him mixed signals. I will admit that I wasn’t prepared for what happened to her and who she turned out to be, so it’s maybe worth persevering with Megan until the end of the book but it took me quite a lot of chapters to actually like her as a character.

The plot worked, although I felt there was a certain inevitability about it. David wanted to join the Reckoners, so he did. He talked them into killing Steelheart. They planned to do it. Executed plan. Did it. End. It lacked that all important sense of rising action, conflict, tension, greater conflict, greater tension and final climax when it came down to the main story of David’s quest for revenge and the Reckoners’ plan to kill Steelheart. On the plus side, there were a few interesting twists regarding the identities of characters like Megan and Prof. I won’t spoil what they were, but I will only say that I had my suspicions about Prof from fairly early on; I wasn’t ready for what happened with Megan at all, however. That was glorious and her only saving grace.

As usual, Sanderson’s writing style was a joy to read: clear, straight-forward and written in a solid 1st person voice from David’s point of view. In keeping with that character’s tendency to use lousy metaphors in his speech, the narrative itself was also replete with eccentric figurative language which was appropriate (though perhaps not always quite as funny as Sanderson intended it to be).

I did find the profanities used by the characters a little odd. Don’t get me wrong, I tend to have a ‘less is more’ attitude towards profanity in fiction, but it seems that all but the mildest of swear words we use in the real world have been replaced by made up swear words including ‘sparks’ , ‘slontze’ and ‘Calamity’. Depending how far in the future this book is set, I suppose its possible we’ll chuck out all the old curses and invent brand new ones, but I get the impression this book is set in a period relatively close to our own. As much as I dislike bad language, I personally found this stuff a bit jarring.

I know what you’re thinking. I sound like I hated this book. I did not hate this book. In fact, I really liked this book. It’s a great bit of highly enjoyable, action packed, funny-in-places escapism. If I sound like I’ve been hard on it, it’s only because Sanderson has set the bar so high with all his other books that it’s hard not to compare them. This is not my favourite Brandon Sanderson book, not by a long way; but it is a great book. You should definitely read it.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Book Review: Burning Bright

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not read Burning Bright by John Steinbeck is hereby advised that this post contains spoilers.

Well, well, well, believe it or not, I’ve never reviewed a John Steinbeck book before, despite repeatedly implying that he’s one of my all time favourite authors. That changes today with this review of John Steinbeck’s tiny and much maligned little ‘play-novelette’, Burning Bright.

Steinbeck himself described this book as an experiment in writing a play in the form of a novelette, and it becomes immediately obvious what is meant by that when you read it. Unlike most novels which are split into numerous chapters, set in various locations with a wide cast of characters, Burning Bright is split into three acts, each set in a single room (a circus tent, a farmhouse, a ship and a hospital to be precise). There are only four characters and the action is entirely driven by Steinbeck’s masterful use of dialogue and, to a lesser extent, description of setting.

So, did this little ‘experiment’ pay off? Well, if the critics are to be believed, the answer is no. It seems everybody and their granny hates this book. But I’m not everybody’s granny and I do not hate this book! True, it’s not my favourite Steinbeck book and it could certainly stand a little constructive criticism (in fact, it’s just about to do so), but it’s definitely not my least favourite Steinbeck book either. So let’s get down to brass tacks and look at the story in more detail.

Joe Saul is our protagonist in this story: an everyman who desperately wants to have a child but alas, is sterile. He suspects it but refuses to acknowledge it, preferring to wallow in his misery. His younger wife, Mordeen, also suspects his sterility. She is so determined to produce a child for Joe that she is willing even to sleep with a man she frankly doesn’t care for, not because she desires another man but because she is desperate to give Joe a child.

Victor is the other man: an altogether arrogant, unlikable and ignorant little man who works as Joe’s right hand man in each act and who wants Mordeen for himself. Then there’s Friend Ed: supportive, protective and loyal towards Joe even if it means hurting him. None of the above are the deepest or most complex character’s Steinbeck has ever written, but they’re okay. I liked them well enough and it was pretty plain to see what they all needed and what stood in their way.

The plot itself is perfectly good in that it follows a natural and plausible progression, though there is a certain inevitability about it. Almost from the very start, we just know that Mordeen is going to try and get pregnant by Victor and pass it off as Joe’s, and we just know that Victor is going to become attached to Mordeen, and we just know that in his jealousy, Victor will threaten to tell Joe the truth and most inevitably of all, we just know that the story will climax with Joe finding out the child is not his. For most writers, this would be an express ticket to Rubbish Novel Land. Fortunately Steinbeck’s writing style is a joy to read even at the worst of times and beautifully carries this rather plain story along.

The action is heavily dialogue-driven, which is appropriate for a play. It is, however, less appropriate for a novel, and I think this is one key area in which the incompatibility of the play form and prose form is made obvious. The two forms just don’t blend, any more than clay blends with iron. However, while critics are often quick to bemoan Steinbeck’s use of lengthy and the unsuitably flowery language, I personally found that Steinbeck’s trademark artistry with words was sufficient that I still found the dialogue enjoyable (if a little jarring) to read.

There was one other very strange thing about this story, even within the experimental context of the story’s structure, and I’m not sure I liked it: the characters’ backgrounds change from one act to the next, yet the individual characters remain fundamentally the same people. For instance, in Act One, the characters are all circus performers, whereas in Act Two they live on neighbouring farms and in Act Three, they are sailors. They are all the same people, they all relate to each other in the same way and there is continuity with the key events of the plot, but their day-to-day situation is portrayed as variable and irrelevant.

My best guess is that this is an ambitious but uncharacteristically clumsy effort by Steinbeck to highlight the everyman quality of Joe and his fellow characters. By rendering the backdrop variable, and therefore irrelevant, the reader is focused exclusively on the naked humanity of their situation which could happen to any one of us. Be that as it may, it feels like Steinbeck was trying a bit too hard to be clever at the expense of writing a good story. It strikes me that by robbing Joe Saul and the others of their backgrounds, Steinbeck has effectively created shadow characters who exist purely as symbols of the idea he was trying to communicate. They don’t read like real people, as good characters should, because real people are defined, at least in part, by where they come from and what they do.

All in all, the critics are correct about one thing: this is not Steinbeck’s best work. However, in my experience, Steinbeck’s grocery list (probably) makes better reading than the average novel– and I say that as a bona fide bookworm. While not his most adventurous story in terms of plot and characters, its still a perfectly solid bit of fiction, and would perhaps serve as a useful case study for teaching the rudiments of quality story telling to the uninitiated. The experiment of bringing together the play format and the prose format was ambitious but, alas, the two things simply don’t mix. I don’t think this was because Steinbeck did it badly. I’m just not sure it’s possible to  effectively create a true mixture of the two styles, because they’re just too different and necessarily so. I did enjoy this book, but it was, without question, only Steinbeck’s trademark wizardry with language which held it together.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what novelises your play.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]