Review #27: The Things We Learn When We’re Dead

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

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Published on 26 January 2017

I was contacted by the author and given a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is about how small decisions can have profound and unintended consequences, but how we can sometimes 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?
Despite that, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is neither sci-fi nor fantasy. It is a book about memory and how, if we could remember things slightly differently, would we also be changed?

In HVN, Lorna can at first remember nothing. But as her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decisions to make and that, maybe, she can find a way back home.

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Some parts of it I really enjoyed and others not so much. The whole Heaven being a spaceship storyline did not really appeal to me, probably because I am not a huge sci-fi fan. It was an interesting concept, but not quite for me. I was also confused by God’s character and what the author’s stance was, as in does he believe in God or not? Not that it matters, but it confused me a little. For example the author would have this God character explain how he created mankind etc, sort of endorsing Creationism but then at other times, God would say that people are free to choose whether to believe in him or not… So I’m not too sure about all this, as an atheist I find it hard to read books that involve God-like characters as it sometimes rubs my beliefs (or lack thereof) the wrong way.

The part I liked the most about the story however, was discovering Lorna’s memories with her as her brain regenerated, and I’m glad most of the book consisted of that, since I wasn’t too fussed on the spaceship narrative. Lorna is such a lovable and relatable character. She is a young adult and not too sure where she’s headed in life. She makes mistakes and sometimes treat people inadequately, but her time in Heaven (or HVN) gives her the opportunity to revisit her memories and reflect on her behaviours. I mean, who wouldn’t like to be able to do that in daily life? Introspection and hindsight are gifts.

I also enjoyed the way this book is written. It’s simple, down-to-earth, ironic and satirical. It doesn’t take life or death too seriously, while still casting the message to enjoy the time you have on earth. It’s very light-hearted and easy to get into. I wasn’t too fussed about the ending, but I guess that’s just my personal opinion. I also felt like if you were reading it for the sci-fi narrative you could be disappointed as this storyline isn’t pushed much. Thankfully this wasn’t the part I was most interested in.

I would recommend it to anyone who enjoy a good introspective, almost philosophical read, and it might make you take a look at your own life and reflect on your own decisions and behaviours, which could be a good thing to try once in a while.

Review #26: Celestia

Celestia by J.D. Evergreen

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Published on 1st February 2018

I was contacted by the author and given a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Celestia has just lost its king to a suspicious illness. The king’s death has thrown the realm into chaos and a dark mage uses their power to influence the citizens, brainwashing them to do his bidding. A war is started, and it is left to Taliah and her friends to restore the rightful heir to the throne and stop the dark powers that fight against them. But to win Taliah will have to risk everything…
An adventure that will force her to: learn something that can’t be taught, fight a creature no one knows exists, and discover an heir no one can find. Every turn she makes unravels an intricate plot designed to corrupt and control the people of her world. And Taliah finds herself surrounded by brainwashed people who are shadows of what they once were. One false step will corrupt her mind forever and destroy the last hope of their quest for freedom. A war, a mystery, a romance, and a journey that will change the fate of a world.

When I first started this book, the world of Celestia reminded me a lot of The Hunger Games. It’s the same sort of dystopian setting where one city governs over all the others and while the residents of Celestia live lavishly, the people in other cities aren’t as fortunate and rely on growing their own food etc. Much like in The Hunger Games, the heroine Taliah comes from a poorer background and rapidly becomes Celestia’s only hope and saviour.

I did enjoy the fantasy aspects of this book and that’s probably what made it stand out in my mind and helped me to stop comparing it to The Hunger Games. Discovering Taliah’s powers and their implications at the same time as her was interesting. The world building is great and I had no problems visualising the story in my mind. However, I do feel like this book is mainly targeted at teens and young adults. I overall liked it but some parts made me cringe and I felt at times like I was just too old for this book.

The last point I will make, and probably the most important one is that the editing is completely non existent and that needs to be remedied. There are typos, grammar mistakes, words missing, double words, missing apostrophes, apostrophes where there shouldn’t be any… and I could go on. The construction of sentences is poor and could be improved and the punctuation is shocking (some sentences don’t have a verb in them, so technically they’re not sentences). And most infuriating of all, and I really wish I could have looked past it but it kept on making my blood boil throughout: the author constantly uses the word ‘then’ instead of ‘than’. Now, call me grammar crazy all you want but it’s something that really grates on me. If you’re an author, you should know the difference between ‘then’ and ‘than’, no excuses.

I am actually shocked that the book was published like that, and while I liked the story enough, bad editing is just disheartening. I would really urge the author to hire a proofreader to look over this text again, and I wouldn’t recommend any of you read it until it has been sorted.

Review #25: The Invisible Investigation

The Invisible Investigation by Lionel Touzellier

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Published on 21 November 2017

I was contacted by the author and given a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Joshua Mandley, a scientist specialised in nanotechnology gets assigned a very important and secret mission: to re-analyse all of the pieces of evidence from Kennedy’s assassination in order to discover, once and for all, who really killed the 35th US President. To aid him in his mission he gets the help of Dr Mei Wang, an academic and expert when it comes to Kennedy’s life and death. As secret as their assignment is, different organisations soon find out about it and Mandley and Wang will have to fight off super agents in order to cling onto their discoveries.

Lionel, the author, actually had to try quite a bit to convince me to read his book. Even though historical fiction is my favourite genre, I’m mostly drawn to the Middle Ages period or really anything before the 20th century, so at first, I didn’t feel drawn to this book at all.

Going into the story, when Joshua Mandley the nanoscientist is introduced I half expected the plot to have everything to do with scientific discoveries and turn into an episode of CSI. And while I really enjoy watching things such as Making a Murderer etc, I felt like in a book format it would bore me to death. Thankfully the investigation took a different route, almost turning into a treasure hunt where Mandley and Wang have to follow a trail of clues in order to discover the truth. I really enjoyed that and I think it served the story well, rather than being confined to the rigidness of science.

The fact that Mandley and Wang are closely watched and followed by different organisations also livens up the plot and it becomes an actual thriller with some very fast-paced scenes, rather than a simple crime novel. The thriller aspect of the book and the writing itself reminded me of French author Guillaume Musso, a master of the genre (and one of my favourites) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lionel was inspired by him.

I didn’t know much at all about the JFK’s assassination beforehand so I actually learned a lot from reading this book AND it picked my curiosity enough that I found myself Googling details of the event after finishing the book so it is fair to say I got into the story a lot more than I originally thought I would.

I was slightly disappointed by the end results of the investigation as I found it all a bit anticlimactic but the ride, for as long as it lasted, was enjoyable.

I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in this part of history, but also to anyone who likes a good thriller and mystery novel.

Review #24: Adventus

Adventus by Andrew Mowere

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Published on 1st September 2018

I was contacted by a friend of the author and given a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

In Grimea, three portals have opened and three species (elves, orcs and dwarves) are now flooding the land in search of a new home. The ambassadors and country leaders of Grimea decide to hold a meeting and discuss the best ways to handle the situation. Their solution? To send one representative of each country on a year-long nearly impossible mission to kill an ifrit on a far away mountain. If they succeed, the country leaders will try to reach an agreement and if they don’t, war could be on the cards.

The one thing that struck me the most about this book is that I felt like I was reading a retelling of The Hobbit. A bunch of strangers, all with different magical powers and abilities, are grouped together against their will in order to serve the greater good. They embark on a year-long journey together of walking to their destination and have to face several battles along the way. Sounds familiar, right?

Despite that, I did let myself get into the story and I rather enjoyed it. The group of eight characters really grew on me through the chapters as each of them started showing more and more of their individual personalities.

The book was a bit hard to get into at first because the reader is faced with a whole new fantasy world that they know nothing about and not many details are given; not enough at least to draw a clear picture of Grimea in your mind. There are also a ton of characters to start with, and this was confusing at the beginning, trying to figure out who was who, what country they came from and what their abilities were. This problem does resolve itself as the book goes on and the story centres in on the eight characters that are sent on a quest. Eight is still a lot of characters to start with but it does get easier to differentiate them chapter after chapter.

I really liked the message of this book and I think it is quite fitting to today’s society. Adventus presents eight characters that are all different species, genders, sexual orientations, skin colours and abilities. They’re all completely different to one another and should they have met in their respective worlds, they would most likely hate each others’ guts (and they do at first) but as the weeks go on and they spend more and more time together, they start to put away their differences and unite in a beautiful friendship. Adventus offers a message of hope that whatever you look like, whatever your upbringing or your past is, you can still be a good person and be accepted in society. Even if you have to form your own society of misfits.

Now, going back on my previous point, while I enjoyed the plot and the story, I felt like the world building was lacking. We’re presented with a new fictional world, similar to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and yet we learn very little about it. The cities/countries and how they connect to each other is barely mentioned and it makes it hard to make a mental map of Grimea and in turn, visualise a proper setting for the story. I also would have liked to know more about each character’s magical abilities as I feel like only a few of them ever used their powers and for example, I’m still not sure what the Priest of Fep’s powers are. There is also a chance that the book is just too fantastic for me (as I’d never heard of Ifrits or Psions before) so maybe my own lack of knowledge made it more confusing for me, who knows?

As a side note, I would also like to mention that they are numerous typos and grammar mistakes in the text (I’ve sometimes counted as many as three per page) so further editing of the text needs to be considered.

Review #23: Purgatorium

Purgatorium by J.H. Carnathan

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Published on 27th May 2018

I was contacted by the author and given a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When his watch resets to zero, his morning starts again. Everyday his time always ends right at 60 minutes, giving him only 5 minutes to stay at one particular place in his normal routine. The empty streets and familiar places are strange facsimiles of his previous life. He keeps reliving these same events over and over, barely able to remember anything and unable to maintain mental order as he stumbles through a strange existence. He soon learns that his physical body is in a coma and his consciousness is currently in a purgatory-like realm. As his body lies in a coma, his mind has been living a lavish lifestyle at a price: his sinful memories and his autonomy. After finding out his life support is coming to an end he must now run the last race for his life to decide if he is a “soul survivor” ready for a second chance at life or a lost soul willing to give it all up. He needs to outrun reapers, outthink the clock, and chase down his inner demons if he is ever going to get free. The race is on, and if he is going to survive, he’ll have to confront the world he’s always been so desperate to escape from.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book reading the synopsis, but Purgatorium wasn’t it. It’s an insanely complex piece of work and hats off to J.H. Carnathan for coming up with this completely original story. The descriptions of places and characters are incredibly vivid and it makes it so easy for the reader to visualise the setting, and it’s a pretty bleak one. The main character is lost in a place where he’s not quite alive but he’s not dead either. He’s in between, and being chased by reapers looking to erase his memories, he never gets a chance to rest. The story is very fast-paced as the main character is constantly on the move. At first, he can’t remember a thing so he has to regain his memories along the way. This was my favourite part of the book, the bits were the reader plunges into the character’s memories with him and reader and character both try to make sense of his life, how he ended up here and what kind of person he was before falling into a coma. Some memories will make you love him, and some will make you hate him.

He is aided in his quest by a group of archangels, all with flamboyant personalities and they give him clues and information on what he needs to do in order to get back to his physical body. But he will soon find out that they can’t all be trusted, and if one thing is sure in this book it’s that no one really is what they seem. We meet a different archangel every day and they all offer different pieces of information that help complete the puzzle.

The book has a lot of Christian content to it (i.e. the archangels and the concept of seeking redemption for one’s sins) and usually this would have bothered me since I am an atheist; but in this case I didn’t mind it. There is no need to be Christian in order to know what’s right and wrong and the concept of seeking repentance for your own bad actions can be applied universally, whether someone is religious or not.

This book is very different to my usual reading but I really enjoyed it. It is full of twists and turns and it constantly keeps the reader on their toes. I got completely lost into the story and just let it take me wherever it was going. The multiple plot twists towards the end left me speechless. The only criticism I would have is that it felt slightly long at times and I would occasionally drift off. But if you’re into sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers and puzzle-like stories, then you’re in luck! This book covers so many genres that you are sure to find something you like about it.

One last touch I really liked was not knowing the main character’s name until he himself could remember it. There are so many instances where he gets close to finding it out, only for something to happen and throw him off, and that frustrated me beyond belief, but in a good way. So, I applaud the author for that, very well played.

*Author & Series Spotlight*

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Sheldon Friedman is the author of The Velvet Prison, The Satin Sash and The Silk Swan. All three books in his historical fiction series follow Travis Kane through his trials and tribulations of growing up in New York during the political implications of World War I, prohibition and rising tensions of World War II. His first instalment in the series was named a fiction award finalist by the Colorado Author’s League. Read more about the series here. Friedman was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, but has been a long-time resident in Denver, Colorado. He is a University of Denver graduate and also taught legal courses at the University of Colorado Law School, University of Denver Law School and Daniels School of Business at the University of Denver. In 2018, Friedman left his law practice and later joined a national mediation and arbitration firm.
In 2016, Friedman retired from law to pursue his passion for writing. Also an accomplished playwright, Friedman has a number of local readings and productions. His play The Long Goodbye was staged at Denver’s Crossroad’s Theatre in 2010.

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The Velvet Prison

Set against the pulsating back drop of New York City in social and economic change, young Travis Kane struggles with his passion to be an artist painter, and the conservative demands of his strict grandfather, Barclay Kane.
His mother, unable to come to terms with tragedy, has taken Travis’ infant sister and abandons him, leaving their house in Gramercy Park, and Travis to be raised by the grandfather he adores. Travis enters a New York speakeasy, with a unique idea that will change his life, leading him on an exciting journey, meeting Manhattan’s privileged and studying art in Paris, later finding his way to Broadway.
Meanwhile, Lindsay Wayne’s seamstress mother has a secret, and a passion. Her daughter will become a famous stage actress.
Lindsay and Travis’s worlds collide, and their lives will never be the same again.

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The Satin Sash

After the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941, American lives change dramatically. The Satin Sash continues the breath-taking lives of Travis Kane, Lindsay Wayne and Jean-Paul Renault with all the inherent dangers of the French Resistance, President Roosevelt’s live or die missions, and death defying action when German spies secretly enter the US through its ports. A wedding reception and the lives of Travis Kane and his family are thrown into chaos as America enters World War II.
The Satin Sash takes readers on journey through New York, France, London and Ireland. Travis Kane becomes President Roosevelt’s tool in bringing one of the world’s most famous paintings to New York. Racial tensions surface. A famous black activist enters politics and an actress makes choices in the face of heart-breaking tragedy. A public enemy serves his country in wartime and a black artist becomes famous. When a baby is born the future shows promise.
With tension, suspense and surprising plot twists, we continue to follow the lives of the people we loved in The Velvet Prison.

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The Silk Swan

The Silk Swan continues the exciting adventures and lifestyles of Travis Kane, his family and friends following World War II. Friedman’s third instalment explores the coming of age issues of their children, heartbreaks, tragedies, passions, joys and what it is was like to live during the later part of The Cold War years.
Filled with romance, suspense, racial tensions, family dynamics, sexual tension and political intrigue, the Kane chronicles will remain in your memory long after you read the final pages.

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Find out more on Sheldon’s website

Review #22: Dark Paradise *Spoilers*

Dark Paradise by Gene Desrochers

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Published on 25 June 2018

I was approached by the author and given a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

After the unexplained death of his wife in Los Angeles, Boise Montague decides to go back to his native Carribean island of St Thomas for a change of scenery and with hope of rekindling some old friendships. Once there, he discovers that his oldest school friend, Roger Black, became a drug dealer and got killed in what the police assumed to be a settling of scores between drug lords. Unconvinced by the police’s explanation, Boise, with the help of reporter Dana Goode, sets off to unravel what really happened to Roger.

To be completely honest with you guys, I’ve got mixed feelings about this book. I liked that it’s set in a struggling Caribbean island so the setting differs to most murder mystery novels, and it does transport you there. The fact that the author used the local dialect also enhances this feeling of authenticity and exoticism. The author very successfully describes an island where poverty has struck and the only sources of income come from tourists and the odd politicians visiting; and even the police system is somewhat corrupt.

Now the part that I struggled with is the believable-ness of the story. Boise has literally just landed on the island, and within a couple of days, manages to convince a complete stranger to take on an investigation with him, even though none of them are qualified for the task. In particular, the part with the pizza shop owners baffled me. Boise and Dana manage to break into a crime scene and all they find is a pizza box, so they decide to go and talk to the pizza shop owners and within an hour or so of talking to them, they convince them to come along and help them rescue a kidnapped victim. This just doesn’t seem realistic to me. There’s also a lot of running around and interviewing random people, most of which are too briefly mentioned to really make a mark on the story. I know this is supposed to be a fast-paced action story, but it felt excessive and unnecessary. None of the characters, apart from Boise, are given enough back story for the reader to relate to them. There is just too much going on at any one time, and it overshadowed the characters development.

Now, when it comes to Boise himself, he is somewhat of a lovable character. Devastated by the death of his wife and prone to chronic health problems, he has become dependent on pain killers and beer. I believe that he set himself the mission of discovering what happened to his old friend as a way to regain some sense of purpose in life and possibly righting some wrongs (since the death of his wife remains a mystery). However, I found his way of going about it problematic. For example, he goes to someone’s house to ask them some questions. When the lady won’t tell him all that she knows because she needs to leave for work, he follows her to her place of work and basically stalks her all day until she finishes her shift and drives home, where he follows her again and as she says she’s leaving for the airport, he books himself tickets on the very same plane and follows her back to St Thomas. Now, this is not diligent detective work, it’s just downright stalkerish and creepy. I don’t know about you, but if a random guy was following me around all day, I would call the police within the hour and get him arrested.

Finally, I wasn’t particularly surprised by the resolution of the crimes and therefore not very impressed. Overall, I liked the exoticity and unusual setting of the book but the plot itself fell a bit short.