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Short Stories Challenge 2017 – Unplugged by Dianne Gray from the collection Manslaughter And Other Tears

Published November 19, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s Unplugged all about?:

With references to The Wizard Of Oz, Unplugged follows a young woman who hears voices in her head which leads to dramatic consequences as she chooses to listen.

What did I think?:

It’s purely coincidence that this story rolled around as part of my Short Stories Challenge quite soon after I had posted a review of a novel also compared to The Wizard Of Oz, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead by Charlie Laidlaw. As a previously bona fide fangirl of The Wizard Of Oz I was delighted to read another piece of contemporary fiction with nods to this classic and brilliant story. Having read a few of the tales in this collection now, I knew to expect the unexpected with Dianne Gray and what I got was yet another powerful piece of writing that remains firmly etched in my memory, for all the best reasons.

Unplugged follows our female protagonist, who was adopted at four years of age and had her name changed from Elmira Gulch to Dorothy Gale. Anyone remember who Elmira Gulch was in The Wizard Of Oz? Go to the top of the class if you said The Wicked Witch Of The West. Dorothy has been struggling her whole life with the voice of a witch in her head telling her incredible things about the world and causing her to lose her job at Toto Cut Price Deli. For example, God doesn’t exist and humans were created by viruses and germs purely as a means of transport. She also tells her that cameras are everywhere, watching her every move, making her paranoid and frustrated. Things only get worse when Hickory at the second hand shop refuses to sell her a pair of ruby slippers that the witch in her brain assures her she has to have if she has a chance of returning home to her birth parents:

“I decided it was time for the truth and told Hickory that my real name was Dorothy. I had a witch flying around in my head, I had been adopted at four years of age and I needed the slippers to find my way home. He told me he was the Tin Man and called the police.”

The rest of the story follows Dorothy as she struggles, in vain with the things the witch is telling her to to leading to a run in with the local police and a life-changing incident. It is filled with the most beautiful, poetical language that at times, took my breath away. For example, she talks about the time she visited her Grandpa Gale in hospital:

“He was a big man who had wasted away to a leaf. Death was building a birdcage out of his ribs.”

Simply gorgeous and so evocative! However, this is nothing compared to the poignancy of the ending. Now I’ve mentioned that I know what to expect from Dianne Gray, so you would think I’d be prepared for the way she tends to end her stories? No. Each time I’m astounded by the way she manages to turn things and pull on your emotions so that you see things from a whole new light and this particular ending was horrid, bitter-sweet and unforgettable. Manslaughter And Other Tears is fast becoming one of my favourite short story collections for sure. There’s only been one story so far that I haven’t found quite as fantastic as the others – that was Still Life (although the bar for her work has been set extraordinarily high I have to say!). The author’s use of fairy-tale imagery and the atmosphere she creates when setting her scenes is second to none and I cannot praise her work highly enough.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

NEXT SHORT STORY: Wisht by Lucy Wood from the collection Diving Belles.

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The Things We Learn When We’re Dead – Charlie Laidlaw

Published November 15, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

With elements of The Wizard of Oz, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Lovely Bones, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead shows how small decisions can have profound and unintended consequences, and how sometimes we can get a second chance.

On the way home from a dinner party, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions. It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident… Or does God have a higher purpose after all?

At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decision to make and that maybe she needs to find a way home.

What did I think?:

First of all, thank you so much to the author Charlie Laidlaw for reaching out to me via email and offering me the chance to read this wonderful novel in return for an honest review. To be perfectly honest, as soon as he mentioned “a modern retelling of The Wizard Of Oz,” I was pretty much sold and when it arrived, I was completely charmed by the cover (yes, that’s a little hamster’s face in a spaceship!) but was even more delighted by the story that I found within.

Set in Edinburgh and North Berwick, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is the story of Lorna Love who steps out in front of a car on the same day of the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005. She wakes up in what she believes to be a hospital bed but she is astounded to discover that she’s actually dead and in heaven, more specifically HVN, aboard a spaceship where they have a serious hamster problem as they continue to breed and nibble through the wiring of the ship (See, the hamsters were relevant!). Lorna has always been an agnostic but this idea of heaven is like something she could never have imagined. All the inhabitants choose to look like a celebrity of their choosing, for example, her nurse looks like Sean Connery and the chain-smoking woman who helps her adjust to life after death Irene, is a dead ringer for Kate Winslet.

When Lorna comes face to face with Captain God she learns that there is a real purpose to her being there and a reason why he has chosen her out of many people to live in the ship with the lure of being able to eat and drink whatever she wants when she wants, choose from a range of designer clothes that she never would have been able to afford on Earth and be able to transform her face and body to match any celebrity that might take her fancy. (Kate Winslet is quite popular, it turns out). However, until she recovers all her memories of her life, God will not tell her why she is there. We then follow Lorna’s life from childhood and adolescence to adventures with her best friend, the outgoing Suzie, her meaningful (and not so meaningful) relationships with men, how she juggles a menial job that she hates in a supermarket with training to be a solicitor and the struggles she has faced throughout her life. As Lorna looks back over significant events in her life, she begins to appreciate just how wonderful living is after all.

I have to admit, when I started this novel, I wasn’t too sure about whether I was going to enjoy it. I loved the fact it was set in Scotland being a Scots girl myself, and I instantly warmed to Lorna, a fantastic character who makes some bad decisions in her life but is so wonderfully endearing and an all round “good egg” that you can’t help but admire her. However, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead was a whole lot darker and infinitely more humorous than I first gave it credit for and by about one hundred pages in, I was completely hooked. This book was poignant, heart-warming and made me feel quite nostalgic as I look back over my life so far, the paths I’ve chosen to take and the people I’ve met (good and bad) along the way. It’s a quirky look at an alternative life after death and the highly charged emotional parts are perfectly balanced with some fantastic comedy moments. If you’re in the mood for something a bit different that warms the cockles of your heart this is definitely the book for you.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Fairest (The Lunar Chronicles #3.5) – Marissa Meyer

Published November 11, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

In this stunning bridge book between Cress and Winter in the bestselling Lunar Chronicles, Queen Levana’s story is finally told.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?

Fans of the Lunar Chronicles know Queen Levana as a ruler who uses her “glamour” to gain power. But long before she crossed paths with Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress, Levana lived a very different story – a story that has never been told . . . until now.

Marissa Meyer spins yet another unforgettable tale about love and war, deceit and death. This extraordinary book includes full-color art and an excerpt from Winter, the next book in the Lunar Chronicles series.

What did I think?:

The Lunar Chronicles is one of my arguments for giving a series another shot. I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the first book in the series, Cinder but I was persuaded to carry on and after Scarlet and Cress, I became quite the fan. Fairest is another fantastic addition to the world that Marissa Meyer has created and is in fact, a novella that should ideally be read between the third book, Cress and just before the final book in the series, Winter. I don’t think you should feel obligated to read this short tale (I know not everyone loves novellas) and you won’t miss out on anything important but personally, I thought it really brought something special to the series as a whole and if you have the opportunity and the inclination to read it you definitely should!

I say you won’t miss anything if you choose not to read it because in Fairest we actually travel back to the past, more specifically the past of Queen Levana, following her childhood and adolescence with absent, cold parents and the events that precipitated the horrific accident she had which leads her to hide her true self away from others by using glamour. I don’t really want to say too much about what happens in her life but the reader certainly comes to understand why she has become such a wicked, calculating villain in the most recent novels. Levana certainly goes through some harrowing experiences which may even lead to you feeling some sympathy for her as a character but in fact, it is the way that she deals with these issues and wreaks her revenge that leaves you with little hope for her redemption.

This was such a fascinating insight into the heart and mind of the Lunar Chronicles’ most despised villain and even though it is brief, at merely 222 pages, it packs an almighty lot of action, intrigue and emotion into those pages making it feel much “meatier,” as a result. I love to hate Queen Levana in this series but I was so impressed how Marissa Meyer managed to elicit my pity and sympathy at points in the narrative when she faced certain trials in her life. Not for long, mind you. By the end, she was completely back to the mean, nasty and despicable character that we know and appreciate from the full-length novels in the series. I just have to mention the cover art as well for this series which is truly magnificent and was a huge factor in me picking up these books in the first place. The Lunar Chronicles is due to finish with the final novel, Winter which I’m eagerly anticipating but have to admit to feeling a bit sad realising this is soon all going to be over! Until the re-read that is.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Mini Pin It Reviews #15 – The First Four Novels Of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series

Published October 31, 2017 by bibliobeth

Hello everyone and welcome to another mini pin-it reviews post! I have a massive backlog of reviews and this is my way of trying to get on top of things a bit. This isn’t to say I didn’t like some of these books – my star rating is a more accurate reflection of this, but this is a great, snappy way of getting my thoughts across and decreasing my backlog a bit. This time I’ve got the first four novels in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series for you – please see my pin it thoughts below!

1.) Storm Front (The Dresden Files #1) – Jim Butcher

What’s it all about?:

HARRY DRESDEN — WIZARD

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.

Harry Dresden is the best at what he does. Well, technically, he’s the only at what he does. So when the Chicago P.D. has a case that transcends mortal creativity or capability, they come to him for answers. For the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most don’t play well with humans. That’s where Harry comes in. Takes a wizard to catch a—well, whatever. There’s just one problem. Business, to put it mildly, stinks.

So when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name. And that’s when things start to get interesting.

Magic – it can get a guy killed.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

2.) Fool Moon (The Dresden Files #2) – Jim Butcher

What’s it all about?:

Business has been slow. Okay, business has been dead. And not even of the undead variety. You would think Chicago would have a little more action for the only professional wizard in the phone book. But lately, Harry Dresden hasn’t been able to dredge up any kind of work–magical or mundane.

But just when it looks like he can’t afford his next meal, a murder comes along that requires his particular brand of supernatural expertise.

A brutally mutilated corpse. Strange-looking paw prints. A full moon. Take three guesses–and the first two don’t count…

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

3.) Grave Peril (The Dresden Files #3) – Jim Butcher

What’s it all about?:

Harry Dresden has faced some pretty terrifying foes during his career. Giant scorpions. Oversexed vampires. Psychotic werewolves. It comes with the territory when you’re the only professional wizard in the Chicago-area phone book.

But in all Harry’s years of supernatural sleuthing, he’s never faced anything like this: The spirit world has gone postal. All over Chicago, ghosts are causing trouble – and not just of the door-slamming, boo-shouting variety. These ghosts are tormented, violent, and deadly. Someone – or something – is purposely stirring them up to wreak unearthly havoc. But why? And why do so many of the victims have ties to Harry? If Harry doesn’t figure it out soon, he could wind up a ghost himself….

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

4.) Summer Knight (The Dresden Files #4) – Jim Butcher

What’s it all about?:

Ever since his girlfriend left town to deal with her newly acquired taste for blood, Harry Dresden has been down and out in Chicago. He can’t pay his rent. He’s alienating his friends. He can’t even recall the last time he took a shower.

The only professional wizard in the phone book has become a desperate man.

And just when it seems things can’t get any worse, in saunters the Winter Queen of Faerie. She has an offer Harry can’t refuse if he wants to free himself of the supernatural hold his faerie godmother has over him–and hopefully end his run of bad luck. All he has to do is find out who murdered the Summer Queen’s right-hand man, the Summer Knight, and clear the Winter Queen’s name.

It seems simple enough, but Harry knows better than to get caught in the middle of faerie politics. Until he finds out that the fate of the entire world rests on his solving this case. No pressure or anything…

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

NEXT UP ON MINI PIN-IT REVIEWS: Four books from NetGalley.

The Next Together (The Next Together #1) – Lauren James

Published October 5, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

How many times can you lose the person you love? 

Katherine and Matthew are destined to be born again and again, century after century. Each time, their presence changes history for the better, and each time, they fall hopelessly in love, only to be tragically separated.

Spanning the Crimean War, the Siege of Carlisle and the near-future of 2019 and 2039 they find themselves sacrificing their lives to save the world. But why do they keep coming back? What else must they achieve before they can be left to live and love in peace?

Maybe the next together will be different…

A powerful and epic debut novel for teenagers about time-travel, fate and the timelessness of first love. The Next Together is told through a mixture of regular prose, diary entries, letters, “original” historical documents, news reports and internet articles.

What did I think?:

I really love having a sister who is also a book blogger. She understands the excitement of review copies and makes some brilliant recommendations that, because she is my sister and obviously knows what I like, I’m certain when she raves about a book that I should expect great things. This was the case with The Next Together, part of a duology and encompassing so many genres that you would think it would feel a bit muddled. Not in the slightest. This novel is part historical fiction, part science fiction, part fantasy and part romance and manages to slot into each of these categories with ease and grace making it such an exciting and rewarding reading experience.

This is the story of Katherine and Matthew who have lived many lives/reincarnations, from the The Siege of Carlisle and The Crimeon War in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively, to the near futures of 2019 and 2039. Each time they live their lives they encompass different roles i.e. a noble lady and her servant, an ambitious journalist and his eager assistant, two talented scientists who make a breakthrough discovery and finally, two teenagers who are attempting to find out more and clear the names of the scientists who pre-dated them. In each life, they meet each other and fall deeply in love and then are torn apart when something happens in that particular time period to kill one of the pair. The story based in 2039 is critically important and may shed some light on why Katherine and Matthew can’t simply have a “happy ever after,” but we get some wonderful glimpses of those three other past lives that are both poignant and heart-warming.

As I mentioned before, this book has got a bit of everything genre wise, and I loved how the author combined all the elements to make this a fascinating, exciting and at times, nail biting read that I thoroughly enjoyed. As with all romance novels, I’m always worried that the romance could come off as a bit cheesy but I had no need to worry with The Next Together. Katherine’s wonderful and hilarious sense of humour and Matt’s strong, dependable persona made their relationship a delight to read about and wasn’t at all sickly sweet or unbelievable. I adored how Lauren James told the story in a mixture of notes, emails etc between Katherine and Matt which provided a lovely modern contrast between the more historical sections of the narrative and again, for me, made the love between them feel all the more authentic. I’ll be reading the second novel in the duology, The Last Beginning very soon and cannot wait to get started (especially after the gripping ending!) If it is in any way, shape or form as beautiful as The Next Together I’m in for a huge treat.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

imagesCAF9JG4S

 

Deathless (Leningrad Diptych #1) – Catherynne M. Valente

Published October 4, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

A glorious retelling of the Russian folktale Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, set in a mysterious version of St. Petersburg during the first half of the 20th century. A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya’s fate. For years she follows him in love and in war, and bears the scars. But eventually Marya returns to her birthplace – only to discover a starveling city, haunted by death. Deathless is a fierce story of life and death, love and power, old memories, deep myth and dark magic, set against the history of Russia in the twentieth century. It is, quite simply, unforgettable.

What did I think?:

Here’s the thing – I’ve always tried to be completely honest in my reviews over the past few years. No, we’re not all going to like the same things but I do try not to be overly negative just for the sake of it and to find something positive or constructive to say about every book or short story I write about and I hope that comes across. Deathless was recommended to me by one of my favourite bookshops, Mr B’s Emporium Of Reading Delights where I’ve had two reading spas with my sister, Chrissi Reads. As soon as the bookseller mentioned it, I knew I had to have it, it sounded like such a “me” book. Based on Russian folklore and sprinkled with magical realism but intertwined with the horrors of Leningrad in the Second World War….these are pretty much some of my top buzz words to get me interested and excited about a book. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been absolutely dreading writing this review and have put it off for a couple of days now. By and large, I can appreciate what a gorgeous writer Catherynne M. Valente is and some of her prose is truly exquisite BUT I had a few problems with this novel that makes me struggle in my rating of it and I find myself quite torn about whether I liked it or not in the end.

It’s quite hard to describe what Deathless is about but I’ll do my best. Generally, it takes the old Russian folk tale of Marya Morevna and Koschei The Deathless, focusing on their love affair which is set around the time of the Second World War in Russia. Now I’m not familiar with the original tale so don’t profess to being an expert in the slightest but from what I’ve read around the novel, the author has almost developed her own fairy tale around these characters. When Marya becomes a young woman and is living in a house with many other families she sees her older sisters married off one by one as a bird falls from the trees outside and turns into a young man. Eventually, a man of her own comes for her and it is Koschei the Tsar of Life who takes her away, treats her a bit mean and after a while, persuades her to fall in love with him. As well as this story we have a magical quest that Marya has to go on, some interesting magical creatures that she befriends and a young man called Ivan who attempts to take her away and show her that there is a life available to her without Koschei.

I think that’s all I want to really say about the plot as, speaking frankly, there is a lot more that happens in the novel and considerably more content and symbolism connected to the war that makes this a heady mixture between fairy tale, magical realism and historical fiction. There were some parts of the narrative (particularly the fantastical elements) that I adored and I found myself nodding, thinking: “Yes, THIS is why I picked up this book!.” Then there were other things. A horny pestle and mortar (yes, you read that right), disjointed parts of the story that jumped around and just did not make any sense to me and worse of all, the relationship between Marya and Koschei which isn’t your best advertisement for a nice, healthy partnership. Unless you’re into sadomasochism, that is.

I didn’t feel like I connected with any of the characters – in fact, some of the decisions and the actions Marya takes me had me feeling rather disdainful and wondering what exactly her role in the whole novel was meant to be. I love a character with quirkiness, with darkness and with flaws don’t get me wrong, but everything about these characters just fell so flat, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could enjoy reading about them. I’m also not sure how well the author managed to pull off the connections with the atrocities happening in Leningrad in 1942. There is one particular chapter that almost broke my heart and it made such a compelling section of the novel but sadly, I felt like stellar sections like these were few and far between and I would have loved to have seen more passages like these. It did have those beautiful fairy tale qualities at many points and generally, I did enjoy these sections but when it came to the relationship between Marya and Koschei I’m afraid it just became too much for me, I didn’t like the way it was portrayed at all. Dominating her, force-feeding her until she vomits, beating her? Nah, that’s not my kind of fairy tale. Saying all this, Deathless has some stupendous reviews on GoodReads with an average rating of 4.05. If you’re at all intrigued maybe you should check it out for yourself as obviously a lot of people are seeing something I’m not. If you have read it though, I’d love to talk about it with you in the comments!

Would I recommend it?:

Probably not.

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – The Shadow Out Of Time by H.P. Lovecraft from the collection The Definitive H.P. Lovecraft.

Published October 3, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s The Shadow Out Of Time all about?:

The Shadow Out Of Time follows our male protagonist as he struggles with what happened to his mind and body during a five year period of amnesia and hallucinations.

What did I think?:

I always approach the next H.P. Lovecraft story in my Short Stories Challenge with slight trepidation. It’s no secret that I haven’t been a big fan of some of the tales in this collection whilst others I’ve really enjoyed. The Shadow Out Of Time sits quite comfortably somewhere in the middle in that respect. One thing I might never understand though is the lengths H.P. Lovecraft goes to when telling a story. By lengths, I mean literally the sheer length of the story which could almost be an entire novel by itself and is almost epic in its content. Sometimes I feel as if he could have got a much more effective narrative by just trimming things down slightly and then I might not have felt as bored, wondering when exactly it was going to end.

The Shadow Out Of Time (as with many of his short stories) follows a male protagonist as he describes a horrendous and often fantastical event that he has been a part of and that has affected his life enormously. Our narrator for the journey is Professor Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee and he is describing a terrifying period of his recent history in the early 1900’s that he is intending to pass on to his son and other academics, hoping that they might make some sense of it. The period in question is when he was teaching one day and, all of a sudden was subjected to the most horrific headache and hallucinations that led to him losing consciousness for about sixteen hours. When he awakens, he is a completely different person, describing it as a “second personality,” that leads him to undertake long journeys for unknown reasons and to seek out strange and mysterious ancient texts where he scribbles weird hieroglyphics within the pages. He cannot look at himself in mirrors developing an odd loathing of his form and eventually, his wife divorces him taking two of their three children into her custody, adamant that he is a different man. This second person remains with Nathaniel for a period of five years until his true personality appears to return. However, he has almost complete amnesia about that time of his life although he is beginning to have erratic dreams and small flashes of memory that are terrifying him to his core.

Eventually (I say eventually as this story is absurdly and overly long) we find out the reason for Nathaniel’s amnesia and strange dreams and, as expected from a story by H.P. Lovecraft, it’s nothing short of bizarrely imaginative. There are supremely intelligent alien, cone-shaped creatures that are ten feet tall and ten feet across, journeys through billions of years of time and space and other, frightening species that although it’s difficult to picture them, appear very sinister indeed. I’ve got to give a nod to the author for the amazing detail that he puts into his stories, The Shadow Out Of Time is another prime example of a narrative that has been meticulously planned but at times I did feel like it was overly descriptive and, as I mentioned before, way too long to hold my interest. I may have given this a lower star rating purely because my attention wandered quite a while before the end if it were not for the ending. It was almost worth the long slog to the finish line just to read that final paragraph.

Would I recommend it?:

Maybe!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

NEXT SHORT STORY: A Place For Violence by Kevin Wignall from the collection The Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime Volume 7